The number of killings in Quentin Tarantino's prize-winning "Reservoir Dogs" can't begin to compete with the hefty body count in Steven Seagal's "Under Siege," which is now the No. 1 box-office hit in the country.
Yet everywhere "Reservoir Dogs" has been shown, people head for the exits during an extended torture scene in which an ex-convict (Michael Madsen) dances to a 1970s rock song while tormenting a young policeman.
"It happens at every single screening," said Tarantino by phone from Los Angeles, just before taking off for a Brazilian film festival. "For some people the violence, or the rudeness of the language, is a mountain they can't climb. That's OK. It's not their cup of tea. But I am affecting them. I wanted that scene to be disturbing."
As with the shower murder in Hitchcock's "Psycho," which resulted in numerous walkouts 32 years ago, the scene is not as graphic as it seems. Tarantino's movie even got by with an R rating, unlike such recent shockers as "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover." It's the ex-convict's breezy attitude, his brutally amoral contempt for the cop's feelings, that makes the scene so horrifying.
"I'm not an infant," said the 29-year-old Tarantino, whose enthusiasm suggests the gee-whiz manner of David Lynch, another director known for his macabre work. "I knew I was going to get that kind of response. The scene is what it is.
"I wanted it to be happening in `real time,' with the audience being stuck there along with the characters, as the radio goes on all day playing hits from the 1970s. The sugary bubblegum-rock songs take the edge off some scenes, but in that scene the music actually makes it worse. It's the mixture of comedy and music and brutality that upsets people."
Since its debut last January at the Sundance Film Festival, "Reservoir Dogs" (which opens tomorrow at the Varsity) has been winning rave reviews and awards, including a Toronto festival prize for best first film and Sitges festival awards for best script and director. After Brazil, Tarantino will take it to the London Film Festival next month, although he says he's "festivaled out" at this point.
The story of a botched jewelry heist and the blackly comic consequences, the movie stars Lawrence Tierney as the organizer of the heist and Tarantino, Madsen, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Chris Penn and Steve Buscemi as the crooks who do the bungling. Like Stanley Kubrick in his 1956 heist movie, "The Killing," Tarantino uses flashbacks to show how these self-described professionals make a bloody mess of the attempt.
"I didn't go out of my way to do a rip-off of `The Killing,' but I did think of it as my `Killing,' my take on that kind of heist movie," said Tarantino. One big difference is that he never shows the heist. He originally planned the film as his $30,000 directing debut, but once Keitel became enthusiastic about the script and offered to produce the picture, it jumped to a final budget of $1.5 million.
"At one point the reason for not showing the heist might have been budgetary," said Tarantino. "But I always liked the idea of never seeing it, and I kept that. Although it's not exactly `Rashomon,' you do get a sense of the characters' different perspectives when they talk about what happened. For the first half, you wonder if you'll ever see the heist. In the second half, you realize the movie is about other things."
Because of its all-male cast, gutter language and black-comedy touches, "Reservoir Dogs" has also been compared to James Foley's film of David Mamet's play, "Glengarry Glen Ross." At first, Tarantino wasn't sure what to make of the comparisons, but a Toronto festival official came up with an explanation that satisfies him.
"He told me that `Glengarry' is a stylized theatrical piece that Foley shoots like an action movie, whereas `Reservoir Dogs' is an action movie with elements of theater. It's really a big talkfest."
Indeed, the action scenes are far outnumbered by the character-establishing episodes, including the Buscemi character's memorable monologue about why he doesn't like to tip. Tarantino had originally written the role for himself, and it represents his own philosophy - or his philosophy before he started making more than minimum wage. He says his friends are always bored by the scene because they've heard him deliver this tirade before.
While Tarantino is winning most of his acclaim as a director, he is best known within the industry for his screenplays. Even before he'd written "Reservoir Dogs," he had sold the script for "True Romance," a $23 million production which Tony Scott is filming with a cast that includes Brad Pitt, Dennis Hopper, Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Gary Oldman and Val Kilmer.
Oliver Stone's company has purchased "Natural Born Killers" and Stone may direct it. "Past Midnight" has been filmed with Rutger Hauer and Natasha Richardson. "Dusk Till Dawn," which Tarantino describes as "The Desperate Hours" with vampires, will star Robert Englund, who played Freddy Krueger in the "Nightmare on Elm Street" series.
Tarantino is writing another script, "Pulp Fiction," which he plans to direct next summer. It's an anthology of crime stories - "three movies for the price of one" - and he hopes to recruit some of his "Reservoir Dogs" ensemble to appear.