Sundance Forever: How Sundance Taught Quentin Tarantino How To Make ‘Reservoir Dogs’

Cultural Critic
01.24.17 4 Comments

As the 2017 Sundance Film Festival rolls on, all this week we’ll be looking at the films that defined Sundance, why they still matter, and where their influence can still be felt.

In 2008, Quentin Tarantino returned to Park City, Utah to serve on the Dramatic Competition jury at the Sundance Film Festival. Before awarding the jury’s top prize to the snowbound thriller Frozen River, Tarantino took a moment to address those filmmakers who wouldn’t be winning an award that evening.

Tarantino could relate: Back in 1992, his debut feature, Reservoir Dogs, created a sensation at the festival but little in the way of formal recognition. While Reservoir Dogs would go down among the most storied films to debut at Sundance, and Tarantino recognized as one of the festival’s defining success stories, Tarantino’s twisty-turny neo-noir about a robbery gone wrong was shut out of the awards that year.

“It hurt my feelings,” Tarantino later admitted to author Peter Biskind. “I was sad, I was mad. When it was over, I did a slightly less drastic version of storming out [saying] ‘F*ck all you!’”

Back at Sundance 16 years later, this time as one of the most famous and admired filmmakers in the world, the pain of that slight hadn’t worn completely off for Tarantino. Perhaps that’s why he took a moment to preemptively console the losers that night. After all, being shut out at Sundance clearly hadn’t hurt Tarantino’s career. (As Tarantino himself put it, with typical color, “I got f*ck all” at Sundance.) Maybe, the implicit message to other filmmakers seemed to be, you can follow my example.

Looking back on Reservoir Dogs’ controversial run at Sundance — the film left without a distributor, but the publicity carried Tarantino to Cannes, where he hooked up with Miramax’s Harvey and Bob Weinstein, more or less officially minting his rising stardom — it’s been widely theorized that Reservoir Dogs lost because the film didn’t square with the festival’s arthouse-approved political correctness. This is the view forwarded by Tarantino himself, who accused the jury of being “liberal in the worst sense” in his interview with Biskind.

For the record, the big winners that year at Sundance included Grand Jury prize winner In The Soup, directed by Tarantino pal Alexandre Rockwell, who was later corralled into the misbegotten anthology, Four Rooms; director Tony Drazan, who won the Filmmaker Trophy for the socially conscious Zebrahead; and The Waterdance, winner of the Audience Award and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for Neal Jimenez.

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