CINEMA: How Pulp Fiction Got Made

VANITY FAIR: John Travolta was at that time as cold as they get,” says Mike Simpson, Tarantino’s agent at William Morris Endeavor. “He was less than zero.” Marred by a series of commercially successful but creatively stifling movies, culminating in the talking-baby series, Look Who’s Talking, Travolta’s career seemed past saving. So, when he was told that Tarantino wanted to meet with him, he went to the director’s address, on Crescent Heights Boulevard.

Tarantino recalls, “I open the door, and he says, ‘O.K., let me describe your apartment to you. Your bathroom has this kind of tile, and da-da-da-da. The reason I know this is, this is the apartment that I lived in when I first moved to Hollywood. This is the apartment I got Welcome Back, Kotter in [the TV series that made him a star].’ ”

They talked until sunrise. Tarantino told him he had two films in mind for him. “A vampire movie called From Dusk Till Dawn and Pulp Fiction,” says Travolta, who replied, “I’m not a vampire person.”

Tarantino had planned on casting Michael Madsen, who played the ex-con sadist Victor Vega in Reservoir Dogs, in the role of the hit man Vincent Vega. But Madsen had already accepted a part in Wyatt Earp, so Tarantino called Travolta and said the part was his.

“Three times I had set trends,” Travolta tells me, referring to his early roles in Saturday Night Fever, Urban Cowboy, and Grease, which helped launch disco, cowboy chic, and greasers. Would his playing of Vincent Vega spawn a battalion of heroin-addicted hit men? He told Tarantino, “I’ve never played a drug addict on-screen. Do I really want to shoot up and kill people?”

“No, no, I’m cutting away a lot of that stuff,” Tarantino told him. Next, Travolta consulted his agent, his friends, and his wife, Kelly Preston. “All were pushing for me to do it,” he says.

Everyone except Harvey Weinstein, who wanted anyone but Travolta. Mike Simpson had given Weinstein a “term sheet” of Tarantino’s demands, which included final cut, a two-and-a-half-hour running time, and final choice of actors. “One of the actors I had on the list was John Travolta,” says Tarantino. “And it came back: ‘The entire list is approved … except for John Travolta.’ So I got together with Harvey, and he’s like, ‘I can get Daniel Day-Lewis, Sean Penn, William Hurt.’ ” By then, according to Simpson, “Daniel Day-Lewis and Bruce Willis, who was the biggest star in Hollywood, had both gotten their hands on the script and wanted to play Vincent Vega.”

During a late-night telephone call with Simpson, the Weinsteins accepted all of Tarantino’s deal points except one—the casting of Travolta. “At midnight our time, three in the morning in New York, Harvey said, ‘Let’s just close the deal, and we’ll address that tomorrow in good faith,’ ” Simpson recalls.

Simpson told him, “You’re going to agree to it right now, or there’s no deal.” Harvey erupted, but Simpson held firm. “We’ve got two other buyers waiting outside to get this,” he said. (Ronna Wallace, of Live Entertainment, which had produced Reservoir Dogs, had actually stormed William Morris security that night in an attempt to disrupt Simpson’s call with the Weinsteins.) “You’ve got 15 seconds to agree to it. If I hang up, it’s over,” said Simpson. “Harvey kept talking, arguing, and I said, ‘O.K., 15, 14.’ When I got to eight, Bob goes, ‘Harvey, we have to say yes.’ Harvey says, ‘O.K., fuck it.’ ” MORE

PHAWKER: What do you remember about the first time you saw Pulp Fiction?  I assume that’s the first time you saw how your music was being used in the film?

DICK DALE: Well, my music is what created Pulp Fiction.  A lot of people don’t know the whole story.  When I was on tour, Quentin Tarantino came up to my bass player and gave him a note that said ‘I would like to talk to Dick Dale,’ and my bass player at the time didn’t know who he was so he threw the note away.  But Quentin found me in my dressing room and he said, ‘Dick Dale, I’ve been listening to your music umpteen years it’s so powerful it gives me energy.’ He said most people, when they make a movie, they make the movie first and then they put music to it while they’re watching the rushes and they say ‘OK, there’s a character doing this so let’s put some music to that.’  He said ‘I don’t do that.  Usually what I do is I hear a song and it just nails me and I play it over and over and over and over, and I see the movie [in my head], and what I want to do is I want to create a masterpiece of a movie to complement the masterpiece of your song.’  And he asked ‘Can I use your song to create this movie?’  And because he was so earnest, so sincere, I said ‘Do it.’  So he did it and when I asked him how he was doing with the movie and he told me John Travolta was in the movie. When it was done, I got a message that said ‘I’ll send you a limo to pick you up and I want you to come to Universal Studio and I want you to tell me what you think of the movie.’  So they picked me up and took me down there and I was blown away. I was just blown away and look what it did for him. Look what it did for John Travolta.  It was one of those things.  That’s how it happened. MORE