Who Needs Film School? How Tarantino Conquered Hollywood

A dancing switchblade. A Pussy Wagon. A tasty burger. Quentin Tarantino, with the grace of a blood-flecked katana, has stained so many images into our minds. It helps that his ninth film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is one of his best. The man can still toss pop culture into a blender, switch it to overdrive, and capture the innards that leave a sticky visual poetry on the wall.

But before he was an icon of American cinema, he was a dude at a video store. Movies weren’t just fun – they were his source of guidance, as clear as Ezekiel 25:17. Which is why we wanted to find out more about Tarantino’s journey. He could’ve been any of us…

Head in the clouds, eyes on the screen

 As a teenager in the 70s, young Quentin wasn’t into school. He’d rather catch reruns of new films or classics at his local multiplex. “My mom took me to the movies all the time,” he recalled to The Telegraph in 2010. “It was cheaper than getting a babysitter.” He never knew his father, so had to make do with other heroes – John Wayne and Bruce Lee, and the tight-jawed cool of Clint Eastwood in the Dollars trilogy. At 16, he quit high school and knew he wanted to be a filmmaker.

Despite living in Hollywood, this wasn’t easy. Quentin took several jobs that brought him closer to actors and film fans, but none of them were glamorous. For a time, he worked as an usher for the Pussycat Theatre – a porn cinema that Once Upon a Time pays homage to in one brief scene.

After that, he did a stint in recruitment for an aerospace company, before finding employment at Video Archives on Manhattan Beach. It was (at that point) the job of a lifetime.

A reel education

Tarantino was surrounded by film every single day. He could indulge his addiction, alphabetise it, and recommend back-of-the-shelf grindhouse or French arthouse if anyone wanted something new.

As Uproxx has reported, he’s said of his experience that “[the customer] made a choice, and maybe you talked to the guy behind the counter, and maybe he pointed you toward something. And he didn’t just put something in your hand, he gave you a little bit of a sales pitch […] so the point being is, you were kind of invested.”

Throughout, he invested in acting too. Made connections. Wrote constantly. It began to pay off as the 1980s brought him into the orbit of some amazing people…

Key connections to celluloid

Tarantino made two friends at the VHS store – Roger Avary and Craig Hamann. Avary would eventually be a close collaborator on Pulp Fiction, but it was Hamann who gave the wannabe director an ‘in’ to the business.

He began to work as an assistant for Cathryn Jaymes, a Hollywood manager, who was charmed by Tarantino when he was invited into her office. She chose to represent him. That was strike one.

Strike two was when Tarantino joined Roger Avary as a production assistant on a Dolph Lundgren exercise video. Shortly after, he was offered the chance to write a horror movie on commission, for the sum of $1,500. That film was From Dusk till Dawn.  

Thirdly, he had a chance meeting with Lawrence Bender at a BBQ. The producer remembered a script that Tarantino had been shopping around – True Romance. When they sat down together, they talked about a new idea: a bunch of characters in a warehouse, and a heist film in which you never see the heist. Bender wanted to finance it. And the name? Something cool, as ever – Reservoir Dogs.

Still breaking the mould

When Dogs had its premiere at Sundance Film Festival in 1992, critics were astounded. The dialogue sizzled. The pacing was lean but had room to breathe. Harvey Keitel’s involvement had made the film backable, yet most of the buzz swirled around Steve Buscemi, Michael Madsen and Tim Roth, who all gave breakout performances. It was a crime story that few people had ever seen before. 

When the movie proved a hit, the media asked whether he could do it again. Then Pulp Fiction happened. Quentin was the toast of the Academy Awards. Along with Paul Thomas Anderson and Kevin Smith, he represented a dynamite class of young American filmmakers. The 1990s were theirs.

In the decades since, we’ve had Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and other genre experiments. When you sit down to watch a Tarantino movie, you’re in for the unexpected. And for any creative personality, that’s such a good standard to look up to. As the man himself says, “It was the complete utter payoff of perseverance.”

If he hadn’t grafted and made connections, none of this would be true. So what story do you want to be in? Make it happen. 

Image via IMDb (Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs)