How Reservoir Dogs Gave Quentin Tarantino the Happiest Moment of His Life

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Reservoir Dogs. Photo: Dog Eat Dog Productions

“’You’re not Mr. Pink,’” Michael Madsen recalled Quentin Tarantino saying to him during his audition for Reservoir Dogs. “He said, ‘You’re Mr. Blonde, or you’re not in the movie.’” Sitting onstage after the Tribeca Film Festival’s retrospective screening of Tarantino’s own 35 mm print, Madsen, Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, and Tim Roth remembered making Tarantino’s first feature. During his audition, Madsen had briefly read for Mr. Pink, but he wasn’t the only one interested in switching up his casting; during the cast’s post-screening chat with writer Lynn Hirschberg, both Roth and Buscemi said they had initially imagined taking on different roles than the ones they would make famous. Only Keitel, an executive producer on the movie, knew he’d be Mr. White from the beginning.

Keitel — whose last name Tarantino still laughs about constantly mispronouncing — was the linchpin for Reservoir Dogs, before it was a ferocious, zeitgeisty touchstone, and was just a first feature from a little-known director. On a gamble like this, other big names were attached and unattached to what everyone agreed was a terrific script. Tom Waits read for a role at one point, Tarantino told Hirschberg and the crowd. “He actually gave me one of the first profound compliments, other than Harvey,” Tarantino remembered. “He said, ‘Script’s great … it’s poetry.’”

Tarantino described the movie’s press tour, where he counted how many people walked out of each screening. (The most during a single screening was 33). Only five people walked out of the movie’s screening during the Sitges Film Festival, but the director said there was one he’d never forget. “Wes Craven walked out of my movie,” Tarantino said, getting laughs from the crowd. “The guy who did Last House on the Left walked out of my movie! I guess it was too tough for him.”

For a while, Keitel remembered, Tarantino had floated the idea of doing the movie as a play, too, if only to give the men more time to rehearse. (They rehearsed for two weeks, with five weeks for filming.) The speed of the production meant one of the film’s most iconic moments went unrehearsed. The first time Michael Madsen danced to Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” was on the day they filmed the infamous torture scene, which sees his character groove around a cop before slicing his ear off. “I heard that music and I thought, Oh fuck, I better do something,” Madsen growled. “I was so intimidated by it. I didn’t know if I could do it. In the script, it just said, ‘Mr. Blonde dances maniacally around the cop.’ What does that mean? Then I suddenly recalled a dance that I saw James Cagney do in a movie — I can’t remember which one. It just popped into my head, and that’s what I decided to do.”

Reservoir Dogs also gave Tarantino the happiest moment of his life, he told the Tribeca crowd. One night, he drove from his mom’s house in Glendale to join the cast for dinner at Keitel’s home in Malibu. During that dinner, he saw how well the actors took to the material; his only job would be to keep the camera in focus. “I got in my car to drive from Malibu to Glendale down Sunset Boulevard, and that was the happiest moment in my life,” he said. “I knew this was going to work out — making movies in general, not just Reservoir Dogs.”

Reservoir Dogs Was the Moment Tarantino Knew He Could Direct