Quentin Tarantino was born on March 27, 1963, in Knoxville, Tennessee. He is the only child of Connie McHugh, who is part Cherokee and part Irish, and actor Tony Tarantino, who left the family before Quentin was born.
Moving to California at the age of 4, Tarantino developed his love for movies at an early age. One of his earliest memories is of his grandmother taking him to see a John Wayne movie. Tarantino also loved storytelling, but he showed his creativity in unusual ways. “He wrote me sad Mother’s Day stories. He’d always kill me and tell me how bad he felt about it,” his mother Connie Zastoupil once told Entertainment Weekly. “It was enough to bring a tear to a mother’s eye.”
Tarantino loathed school, choosing to spend his time watching movies or reading comics rather than studying. The only subject that appealed to him was history. “History was cool and I did well there, because it was kind of like the movies,” he told Entertainment Weekly. After dropping out of high school, Tarantino worked as an usher at a adult film theater for a time. He also took acting classes. Tarantino eventually landed a job at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, California. There he worked with Roger Avary who shared his passion for film. The two even worked on some script ideas together.
During his time at Video Archives, Tarantino worked on several screenplays, including True Romance and Natural Born Killers. He also landed a guest spot on the popular sitcom The Golden Girls, playing an Elvis impersonator. In 1990, Tarantino left Video Archives to work for Cinetel, a production company. Through one of the producers there, he was able to get his script for True Romance in the hands of director Tony Scott. Scott liked Tarantino’s script, and bought the rights to it.
Working with producer Lawrence Bender, Tarantino was able to secure funding for his directorial debut Reservoir Dogs (1992), for which he had also written the screenplay. Actor Harvey Keitel was impressed when he read the script, saying “I haven’t seen characters like these in years.” He signed on as an actor and a producer for the project. Other cast members included Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Chris Penn, Steve Buscemi, and Tarantino himself.
In 1992, audiences at the Sundance Film Festival were entranced by Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s ultraviolent crime caper gone wrong. He drew inspiration for the project from such classic heist films as Rififi and City on Fire. The independent film helped to make Tarantino one of the most talked-about figures in Hollywood. While not a big hit in the United States, it became a popular title on video and did well overseas.
With Pulp Fiction (1994), Tarantino created an unpredictable thrill ride filled with violence and pop culture references. In one story in the film, John Travolta played Vincent Vega, a hit man assigned to look after his boss’ girlfriend (Uma Thurman)—a role that helped resuscitate his then-flagging career. Another part examined Vega’s partnership with fellow hit man Jules Winnfield (played by Samuel L. Jackson). And yet another storyline involved Bruce Willis as a boxer. Tarantino managed to successfully interweave all these different stories to make a fascinating film. “His mind works like the Tasmanian Devil on a bullet train. It’s so fast that very few people can keep up with his references,” actor Eric Stoltz, who played a drug dealer in the film, explained to Los Angeles magazine.
Pulp Fiction was both a commercial and critical success. In the United States, it earned over $108 million at the box office, becoming the first independent film to do so. Pulp Fiction won the prestigious Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994 and received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. For his work on the film, Tarantino took home the award for Best Original Screenplay, an honor he had to share with former collaborator Roger Avary. The two had a falling out over the writing credits for the film.
Criticism and Success
Known for his temper, Tarantino got into a public disagreement with director Oliver Stone. Stone directed Natural Born Killers (1994) and rewrote parts of Tarantino’s script. Enraged by the rewrites, Tarantino fought to have his name taken off the film. Stone told the press that the changes were an improvement over the original, which had poor character development. In a related incident, Tarantino slapped one of the producers of Natural Born Killers when he ran into him at Los Angeles restaurant.
In 1995, Tarantino wrote and directed one of the four stories featured in Four Rooms. The other three were handled by other rising independent filmmakers Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, and Robert Rodriguez. After the release of Four Rooms, Tarantino and Rodriguez collaborated on From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). Tarantino wrote the screenplay for the film and starred opposite George Clooney, playing criminals who end up battling vampires. Rodriguez directed the film, which received negative reviews from critics.
Tarantino soon tackled Jackie Brown (1997), a crime thriller starring Pam Grier as a stewardess who gets caught smuggling money for an arms dealer (played by Samuel L. Jackson). A tribute to the blaxploitation films of the 1970s, the film was adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel.
Grier herself had appeared in many blaxploitation classics, including Foxy Brown (1974). The film was well received, with many calling it a more mature work for Tarantino. Critic Leonard Matlin commented that there were “dynamite performances all around” for a cast that also included Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro, and Robert Forster. Not everyone loved the film, however. Fellow filmmaker Spike Lee objected to Tarantino’s overuse of a derogatory term for African-Americans in Jackie Brown, publicly complaining in Army Archerd’s column in Variety.
After Jackie Brown, Tarantino took a break from filmmaking. He starred on Broadway in 1998 in a revival of Wait Until Dark with Marisa Tomei. It was a bold move for him, as he had never done professional stage work before. Tarantino played a thug who terrorizes a blind woman (played by Tomei), and the critics were less than impressed. The reviews for the production were brutally harsh, and Tarantino was devastated. He felt people on the street were recognizing him as “the one whose acting sucks. I tried not to take it personally, but it was personal. It was not about the play—it was about me, and at a certain point I started getting too thin a skin about the constant criticism.”
Tarantino worked on a World War II script on-and-off during this period. The screenplay “became big and sprawling. It was some of the best stuff I’ve ever written, but at a certain point, I thought, ‘Am I writing a script or am I writing a novel?’ I basically ended up writing three World War II scripts. None of them had an ending,” he later explained to Vanity Fair.
Instead of tackling his war epic, Tarantino jumped into the world of martial arts films. The idea for Kill Bill was formed by Tarantino and Thurman in a bar during the filming of Pulp Fiction. In 2000, Thurman ran into Tarantino at an Oscar party and asked about whether he had made any progress on developing that idea. He promised her that he would write the script as a birthday present for her. Initially he said that he would get it done two weeks, but it actually took over a year. For this film, Tarantino learned on the fly how to make a kung fu film, working and reworking the sequences as he went along.
Tarantino originally wanted Warren Beatty for the titular “Bill,” but he then moved on to David Carradine from the television series Kung Fu. The plot focused on revenge, as a female assassin known as the Bride (played by Uma Thurman) seeks to kill those involved in the savage attack on her and her wedding party. Running over budget and over schedule, Tarantino persevered with the project, shooting so much that he eventually had to create two films. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 was released in fall of 2003 with Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004) following a few months later.
After Kill Bill, Tarantino dabbled in television. He wrote and directed an episode of the drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in 2005, for which he received an Emmy Award nomination.
Tarantino then worked with Robert Rodriguez again. The two filmmakers each made their own gory and graphic ode to the B-movies, which were shown together as a double-feature known as Grindhouse (2007). Critics and movie-goers alike were not quite certain what to make of this collaboration, and it flopped at the box office.
Tarantino finally returned to work on his World War II script. In 2009, he released the long-awaited Inglorious Basterds, which focused on a group of Jewish-American soldiers out to destroy as many Nazis as possible. He had wooed Brad Pitt to play the leader of the “Basterds.” Some of the reviews were mixed, but Tarantino seemed unfazed by any negative comments. “I respect criticism. But I know more about film than most of the people writing about me. Not only that, I’m a better writer than most of the people writing about me,” he explained to GQ magazine. He clearly may have known best in this case, as the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including two for Tarantino (for best director and best original screenplay).
Tarantino went on to meet with both commercial and critical success with his action western Django Unchained, released in late 2013. In the film, Jamie Foxx starred as Django, a freed slave who teams up with a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) to search for his wife, played by Kerry Washington. Django then has to face off against his wife’s plantation owner, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film. Other cast members include Samuel L. Jackson and Jonah Hill. At the 85th Academy Awards in 2013, Tarantino won an Academy Award for best original screenplay for Django Unchained. The film received several other Oscar nominations, including for best picture, cinematography and sound editing.
For Tarantino, film is an all-consuming passion. Although he had a long-term relationship with actress Mira Sorvino, he chose to focus on his career over his personal life—at least for the time being. “When I’m doing a movie, I’m not doing anything else. It’s all about the movie. I don’t have a wife. I don’t have a kid. Nothing can get in my way … I’ve made a choice, so far, to go on this road alone. Because this is my time. This is my time to make movies,” he explained to GQ.
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