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The Boston Phoenix Independents' Daze

Quentin Tarantino and Gus Van Sant on playing Hollywood's game.

By Peter Keough

JANUARY 5, 1998:  If Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy (1989) helped resurrect independent filmmaking, Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994) made it mainstream. It's the film that made it possible for the directors of such subversive movies as Mala Noche and Reservoir Dogs to get their names on two of this year's major Christmas releases. True, neither Van Sant's Good Will Hunting nor Tarantino's Jackie Brown will be mistaken for As Good As It Gets. But neither could they have been predicted from the works that first distinguished the two directors.

Van Sant, whose second film, Drugstore Cowboy, stirred hopes of a resurgence of American auteurism, has not yet fulfilled the promise of that breakthrough. His baroque and uneven My Own Private Idaho (1991) was critically respected and commercially ignored, and his misconceived adaptation of Tom Robbins's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1994) was an embarrassment. With the studio-produced To Die For, however, Van Sant smoothed out his stylistic rough edges and came up with a conventional black comedy with a dark edge. A boxoffice success and a critical favorite, it seems to have nudged Van Sant more to the middle of the road. Good Will Hunting, written by local heroes Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, is a well-crafted conventional melodrama, and the edge this time is a little fuzzy.

"It was probably the best-written screenplay I had ever read," says Van Sant. "We called it a color-by-numbers script: if you just filled in the scenes as they were written, it would come to life."

Whether Van Sant would be the person to bring this gritty but feel-good shaggy-dog story to life was another matter.

"There were people like [Miramax boss] Harvey Weinstein who weren't sure. I tried to sell myself by saying that Ordinary People was my favorite film, which it is. Ben and Matt, however, had faith. Maybe it was harder for [the studio executives] to make a leap, because Hollywood people put you in a category. Ben and Matt never had those preconceptions."

"As an actor," says Affleck, "you see these great performances he gets. He has his own sensibility. We said, 'You're the Indie Guru. It's yours.' "

At first, though, Affleck and Damon had even less clout in the project than Van Sant did.

"Studio executives can't tell the difference between a beautifully written screenplay and a so-so one," explains Van Sant, "because they're following the fashion of the times. In the case of Good Will Hunting it's a simple human story that has no particular fashion connected to it. Human dramas over the past 10 years have decreased in importance because of the action movie."

When the script was picked up by Miramax, the lack of star status proved to be a snag. "I wanted to do the picture but that didn't make it a 'go,' " says Van Sant. We were lackadaisical about it until all of a sudden Francis Coppola cast Matt in The Rainmaker and then Miramax said we're going. A lot of the film is owed to Francis for casting Matt."

Though the stars/screenwriters and Van Sant insist that the finished product is the director's vision, it's perhaps the least distinct of his films. Indeed, some Van Sant-like elements were rejected during the rewriting process.

"Gus said, 'I want Chuckie [Will Hunting's best friend, played by Affleck] to get flattened on the construction site.' " says Damon about one plot twist that didn't make it to the screen. We said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'Killed. Crushed like a bug.' We went, 'No Gus, that's a terrible idea.' But we wrote this version in which Chuckie got crushed like a bug. Then Gus read it and said, 'Oh God, that's a terrible idea.' "

Perhaps this rejection of shock value indicates stylistic maturing. Thematically, though, this tale of a subculture of outsiders and their struggle to connect with the mainstream recalls all of Van Sant's films, if not his own career as a gay underground filmmaker knocking on Hollywood's door.

"Our lead character learns that we all have reservations about doing something that jeopardizes other things that we have," says Van Sant. "The film is saying don't be afraid to do that. And I think it's something that I run across every day."

Does this mean Van Sant would like to put aside his independent roots and go commercial? Would he do something like a Die Hard 4?

"I probably would if the price is right. No, I probably wouldn't because of Michael Lehman. He made Heathers, which is brilliant. Then he made Hudson Hawk because he was doing that thing of 'I really want to make a bunch of money so that I cannot worry about my future.' And something went wrong. So I would probably be cautious of certain types of movies. But I would make a James Bond movie."

Quentin Tarantino wants to make a James Bond movie, too.

"I'd be really interested in doing Casino Royale, but have it done in the '60s like the novels, not like the Cubby Brocolli formula -- which I'm not against, but it's just not what I want to do."

The difference between Tarantino and Van Sant is that if that's what he wants, that's probably what he'll get. Tarantino has power Van Sant would die for. Not just because his motor-mouth exuberance -- just short of overbearing arrogance -- fills a room, but because after only two features to his credit, his name became an adjective: Taranatino-esque.

"People ask me, 'So how you feel about all these scripts being referred to as 'Tarantino-esque?' And every time I see a movie that people have said could be influenced by my stuff I'm afraid I'm just getting a big head. At the same time, people have said that stuff about my work. That I ripped off my Mexican stand-offs from John Woo. That's not the way it is. These people are taking a bad rap for working in a genre in which I'm popular and have a distinctive voice."

After two years of relative idleness after Pulp Fiction, in which not a few people suggested that he was a one- or two-film wonder, did Tarantino think it was time to reassert that voice?

"I didn't want to follow up Pulp Fiction with another epic. I wanted to do something smaller, something more character-based. A smaller piece."

And an adaptation -- of Elmore Leonard's pulp-fiction Rum Punch. One criticism of Tarantino's work has been that he's been recycling himself. Is he now recycling other people?

"It's an adaptation," he insists. "That's not recycling. Every Kubrick movie is an adaptation of a novel. I also think there are a lot of fans out there who wanted me tackle Elmore Leonard because of our like sensibilities. This piece is me, but it came from a different well, and in its own way it became more personal simply because of the once-removed quality."

One way Tarantino had of making this his own was casting. In the novel, the title heroine is a fortysomething white woman. In the movie, she's played by Pam Grier, superheroine of the blaxploitation movies of the '70s.

"There was nobody you could compare Pam to," says Tarantino. "There had never been a heroine at that time who specialized in doing action movies, that was a hero, didn't try to act like a man, was full-on woman. I've always wanted to work with her. Finally I found a piece of material that just presented itself as perfect."

Unlike Van Sant, though, Tarantino didn't have to wait for his actor to be successful in someone else's movie to get his own made. Having big names like Robert De Niro, Samuel L. Jackson, and Bridget Fonda eager to be in a Tarantino movie didn't hurt. But there might be a marketing strategy at work here as well. Casting Grier in a film with a cool '70s soul soundtrack seems an attempt to reach a crossover audience.

Tarantino agrees that Jackie Brown is aimed at a wider audience, but claims that reflects his maturing as a filmmaker.

"I think from Reservoir Dogs on I showed maturity as a filmmaker. I don't think there's a lot of the hey-mom, watch-me-direct, kind of aspect in my work. The razzle-dazzle came in script form, structure form. Even that wasn't show-offy, it was organic to the piece. But the tone of this movie has a maturity to the characters, to the . . . pain that the characters feel. There's not really a pain to the characters of Pulp Fiction. And Reservoir Dogs is so immediate it can't be very reflective.

"This is a movie built on resonance. It's built for you to like it even more two days later. And that's new ground for me. I'm used to making ass-kickers. And this is not an ass-kicker. It's an ass-kicker when you watch it with a black audience. But for other audiences -- and we're trying to get all audiences in there -- it's much more of a resonant work."

That last observation about black audiences, plus the frequency of film's use of the word "nigger," especially by Samuel L. Jackson's character, Ordell Robbie, has already raised the eyebrows of people like Spike Lee. Tarantino defends the usage in terms of verisimilitude.

"The word 'nigger' is probably the most volatile word in the English language. Should any word have that much power? I think it should be de-powered. But that's not my job. I don't have any political agenda in my work. I'm writing characters. The use of the word 'nigger' is true to Ordell. To not have him say that would be a lie."

Samuel L. Jackson agrees, and offers some insight into Tarantino's connection with black culture.

"That's the language of the world you're visiting when you pay your $7.50," he says. "Quentin sees something cool about the way we live our lives and deal with our problems. Because he grew up watching blaxploitation movies and hung around with these black guys who lived in his building when his mom was on the road. He learned ways of living that most kids don't. Like my daughters, for instance. They listen to rap music and they watch TV and they affect black mannerisms. But Quentin actually lived in a black lifestyle for a while."

Sensitivity over black issues aside, perhaps the most controversial aspect of Tarantino's career is that as a director, it seems that what he really wants to do is act. After appearances in movies including From Dusk to Dawn, which he scripted, Tarantino will be appearing at Boston's Wilbur Theater as the heavy in the pre-Broadway run of Wait Until Dark.

"I'm just as serious about acting as I am about directing. It's going to take maybe another two years for people to realize how serious I am about this and to actually see the work. That's okay. I've got time."

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