Thursday, December 20, 2007

Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown Austin Premiere (December 20, 1997)

Ten years ago today, on Saturday, December 20, 1997, just five days before Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown opened nationally on Christmas Day, the Austin Film Society hosted a benefit premiere of that film at Austin's Arbor 7 theatre. Special guests present at that event included Tarantino himself, and directors Robert Rodriguez, Rick Linklater and Mike Judge. The event sold out among members of the Film Society before having the general public had an opportunity to purchase tickets. To accommodate as many AFS members as possible, the film was shown on two screens, with one beginning at 7:00 pm, the other fifteen minutes later.

While the 7:15pm audience waited for Tarantino to arrive and introduce the film, Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black made a few brief announcements. He thanked everyone for purchasing the $25 tickets, adding that all proceeds would go to support the Texas Filmmakers Production Board, which annually awards monetary prizes to independent Texas filmmakers. Black also elaborated upon the history of Film Society. To the dismay of many audience members, he noted that AFS was unable to secure a venue for a post-event party, as the bedlam of the Christmas holidays forced their original location to cancel. They couldn't find another place in time, so they arranged for a brief, informal Q&A to be held at the Barnes & Noble next door to the theatre. Black explained that both audiences would have to cram into the store and listen to Tarantino and the other directors, who would address the group from the second store balcony. At this point, Black noticed that Tarantino, who had arrived in Austin that afternoon, was now in the back of the theatre. Black then introduced Linklater, founder of the film society and director of 1991's Slacker and 1993's Dazed and Confused. Then Tarantino, Rodriguez, Linklater and Judge walked down the aisle to the front of the theatre.

They were met with applause.

After thanking everyone for supporting the society, Linklater noted that Tarantino was only personally introducing the film in three cities: Los Angeles, New York and Austin. He also recalled an 1994 interview he conducted with Tarantino, who was then in town promoting Pulp Fiction. While browsing the soundtrack section at the now defunct Sound Exchange, a record store near the University of Texas campus, Tarantino told Linklater that he had considered casting Pam Grier in the part that ultimately went to Rosanna Arquette. The subject arose because Tarantino was looking for the soundtrack to Coffy, a 1970s blaxploitation film direct by Jack Kill and starring Grier. He then told Linklater that he didn't want to cast Grier in such a small part, as it wouldn't really have been a favor to her. Saying that he really wanted to work with Grier, Tarantino told Linklater that she would have to be the lead.

After relating that three year old conversation, Linklater introduced Rodriguez, famed former UT film school drop-out and director of El Mariachi and Desperado. Rodriguez, who also directed Tarantino in 1996's From Dusk Till Dawn and worked with him on 1995's Four Rooms, told the audience that Tarantino was happiest just watching movies at his apartment. He remembered how content Tarantino was just watching a 16mm print of 1973's White Lightning projected onto his apartment wall without a screen. (Note: Tarantino showed this film in Austin at his 1996 Filmfest, although the Wikipedia entry incorrectly notes that that festival did not begin until 1997.) Rodriguez then introduced Austinite Judge, creator of TV's "Beavis and Butthead" and "King of the Hill." Judge received a great deal of applause, more so than Linklater and Rodriguez had before, and more than Tarantino would in just a few minutes. Judge spoke briefly, starting with an impression of Hank Hill. After a few jokes, he said he hadn't yet seen the film, so he would end his remarks to avoid additional delay. (Margaret Moser of the Austin Chronicle would later observe that "while it was fun to schmooze with Quentin Tarantino, Rick Linklater, and Robert Rodriguez at the Austin Film Society's benefit Jackie Brown screening last weekend, it was Mike Judge, using his Hank Hill voice and the word 'sodomy' to introduce Tarantino, that made me almost die laughing.").

Tarantino was his usual self. Everyone laughed at things he said, not necessarily because it was funny, but because it was he that was saying it. He thanked the audience and his fellow directors for their support. He talked about how much he enjoyed staying in Austin. He briefly mentioned his other visits (1994 for a screening Pulp Fiction, early 1996 for the Austin premiere of From Dusk to Dawn, mid 1996 for the Tarantino Filmfest, and early 1997 for the world premiere of Full Tilt Boogie, the documentary about the making of From Dusk Till Dawn.). He also related that when he and Rodriguez were in production of From Dusk Till Dawn, they knew that there would be an Austin premiere, so they peppered the film with in-jokes just for that audience.

(Image courtesy of Laura's "I Met Quentin Tarantino" page from 1996.).

Thus, he had wanted to do a Texas premiere of Jackie Brown but had been too busy to make the necessary arrangements. So when Linklater called him about a benefit premiere, he happily obliged him. (In a mock Linklater voice, Tarantino said something to the effect of: "Quentin, I can't be responsible for the film in Austin if you don't have an Austin premiere!")

Tarantino then began to speak of his new film. He mentioned that fans come up to him and say they've seen all his movies, which surprises him, since he's only made two. He said that Jackie Brown definitely had a 1970s feel to it, although it was not set in the 1970s. (In fact, it is set in 1995, two years prior to the year of its release). He said it is the story of five characters whose lives were full of opportunities in the 1970s, all of which they squandered. The film, he continued, represented their chance their last chance to succeed, although there is only enough fortune for all of the characters. Tarantino's caveat: If the audience is expecting Pulp Fiction, then they'll like the film, but they'll soon realize that it not Pulp Fiction. Indeed, Tarantino had only recently told Entertainment Weekly that "[i]t's definitely not Pulp Fiction II."

In the same EW interview, he continued, saying "I felt I'd gone about as far as I could with my signature shooting style, so this one is at a lower volume than Pulp. It's not an epic, it's not an opera. It's a character study. I knew I didn't want to go bigger than Pulp, so I went underneath it." Before sitting down, he pointed out that there was one member of the cast in the audience. He asked her to stand. He introduced her as the "AK-47 girl," a character who appears in a brief segment called "Chicks Who Love Guns," a TV show that the characters played by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro watch early in the film.

Tarantino then took his seat, as did the other celebrities.

(Aint-It-Cool-News publisher and all-around hack Harry Knowles, in his summary of the event, reported that Sandra Bullock was also in the audience.)

The film begins with a sequence very similar to the opening of The Graduate. Grier, an airline stewardess, is transported by an passenger conveyor belt as the credits appear on the screen. Grier did a respectable job in the title role. Jackson, who plays the standard Samuel L. Jackson character, lays it on a little thick. De Niro's character, as Tarantino would point out later, had little dialogue, relying more on physical gestures and posture. Tarantino would say he wanted this character to be akin to a stack of "dirty laundry." Micheal Keaton received the least screen time of all of the major players, while Bridget Fonda's surfer-girl didn't do much more than watch television and smoke marijuana. Chris Tucker, then famous for his flamboyant role in The Fifth Element and with the Rush Hour films in his future, had a brief cameo as a crook named Beaumont Livingston. The true joy was Robert Forster, who did a splendid job as bail bondsman Max Cherry, the Grier character's love interest. The film was lengthy at almost two and a half hours, and as Tarantino himself noted, it was no Pulp Fiction. Rather, it was a relatively straightforward crime film requiring little post-hoc reconstruction. There was an obvious attempt to make it look like a 1970s, as the camera work, editing and lighting were all throwbacks to that era of heist films. Absent also were the violence and standard Tarantino dialogue staples. (At the post screening Q&A, Tarantino would say that the dialogue was 60 percent his and 40 percent from the Elmore Leonard novel upon which the film is based.) Those expecting the Madonna speech from Reservoir Dogs or Ezekiel 25:17 from Pulp Fiction would later express their disappointment on the Internet in its pre-blog days.

After the film, the audience left for Barnes and Noble, already crowded as the audience from the first screening had just arrived. After twenty minutes, Tarantino and company appeared on the balcony. He and Linklater both had microphones, and Linklater said that he would be recognizing people for questions. The questions were standard fare. When asked when the FDTD documentary would be released nationally, Tarantino replied that Full Tilt Boogie would probably be in theatres around mid-1998. (This would prove true. After appearing at some film festivals in late 1997 and 1998, the film was released nationally in the United States on July 31, 1998.). Tarantino said that soon he would be acting in a Broadway revival of "Wait Until Dark" starring Marisa Tomei (who had appeared in 1995's Four Rooms). (This revival of "Wait Until Dark" would begin with a brief pre-Broadway run at Boston's Wilbur Theatre in February of 1998 before moving to New York's Brooks Atkinson Theatre for a formal April 1998 opening. Of that stage performance, Ben Brantley of The New York Times would observe that although he "brought an exhilarating burst of oxygen to the American crime movie" as "an actor making his Broadway debut in the production . . . he creates an inverse effect, draining the adrenaline from a play that if it isn't scary, isn't anything.").

Rodriguez said that he would begin shooting a horror film in Austin in March. It was written by Kevin Williamson, scriptwriter of Scream and Scream 2. (This would be The Faculty, perhaps the most forgettable film of his oeuvre.). Rodriguez warned those gathered to watch out for him killing teenagers around town. Linklater said that AFS would host an Austin premiere of his latest film, The Newton Boys, sometime in March of 1998. This Texas gangster film stars Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke. Judge, who reminded everyone that he is still working on King of the Hill, confessed that he was then developing a script (and perhaps he was referring to what would become 1999's Office Space.). He is also contemplating sequel to 1996's Beavis and Butt-head Do America, although that project never materialized.

As for Jackie Brown, Tarantino explained that in one scene Bridget Fonda's character watches the 1974 film Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, which features her father, Peter Fonda. Tarantino said that that film was not then available on video, so they had to transfer his 16mm print onto video to use it in the scene. (Tarantino showed this film at his 1996 Filmfest.).

Tarantino also said that he is perhaps the only person in the world who doesn't understand the meaning of the term "Tarantino-esque."

Rodriguez asked him why he used a score, since he was hesitant to do so in the past. Tarantino explained that Harvey Weinstein, one of the producers, suggested the idea. Tarantino balked, saying it was too late in production to bring someone in to do a score. He went on to say that scores should be done before principal photography, so that the scenes can be shot around the score, rather than the other way around. Weinstein then suggested that Tarantino take an existing score and put it in the film. Money wouldn't be a problem, Weinstein said. Tarantino decided to use some of the score from the Grier flick Coffy, which worked well, he said. Rather than having someone attempt to replicate a blaxploitation score, he now had the real thing.

He said De Niro became interested in the project on an airplane. On a flight, they were sitting together talking about upcoming projects. Tarantino told De Niro that he was adapting an Elmore Leonard novel for a film that would star Grier. De Niro rose to call his agent about the project that very moment. Tarantino praised De Niro, saying that he is perhaps the greatest actor alive, so much so that people are beginning to take him for granted. He should have been nominated for 1995's Casino, Tarantino related, but he was not, simply because people aren't surprised when he gives a good performance.

Someone asked if Tarantino, as a former film buff, was intimidated working with all of his former idols. Tarantino said he was not. The only actors that make him nervous are "bad actors," because you can coach them through a scene, but they won't learn from their mistakes. He said the most nerve-wracking part about the film was sending the screenplay to Leonard. Of course, Tarantino wasn't shy about relating Leonard's praise. Leonard told him it was the best adaptation of any of his novels.

Louis Black wrote of the film and its Austin screening in the following week's Austin Chronicle:
Jackie Brown also looks at belief and redemption. A surprisingly contemplative film, it displays the characterization for which Tarantino has been famous without the spectacular cinematic set pieces of which there are so many in Pulp Fiction. The story is astonishing -- imagine a mature and sophisticated look at the characters from a generic blaxploitation film 20 years later. This is a film about who people think they are now in their lives, in the context of who they once thought they were going to be (who they are now in light of who they once thought they would be when they reached this point in their lives). It is about acceptance but not resignation, about dreams, but with ambitions dramatically lowered.

The criticism of the film will focus on its length and on it not being Pulp Fiction 2. The length is a problem; it is long, it drags in places, but this is leisurely storytelling that depends on varying speeds and tones for its success. The "too muchness" is part of the charm of Jackie Brown -- I would have it longer rather than shorter.

It isn't Pulp Fiction 2. Tarantino warned us of that before the film but I didn't realize completely what he meant until the stunning final shot of Pam Grier's face (and this is a movie told in faces). The whole film leads to that one face, Grier's face, and to the world that face has seen.

Shorn of Pulp Fiction's extravagances, what is surprising is how similar the films are, not in narrative or tone, but in moral vision.


Tarantino has made another great movie, exploring the same themes as Pulp Fiction but in an entirely different way with an entirely different tone. This isn't really a review; I'm friendly with Tarantino and have given up film reviewing. But, damn, his work is exciting -- intellectually and cinematically. In Jackie Brown, the performances are amazing, the dialogue brilliant (nobody writes dialogue like Tarantino), Pam Grier's lead drives the film in a way women are rarely allowed to. I can't wait to see Jackie Brown again. In the meantime, I've watched Pulp Fiction twice.
Ken Lieck, also of the Austin Chronicle, wrote of the post screening merriment:
It's been a notable two weeks for cartoonist/directors taking their turns on the stage. Of course you noticed Beavis and Butt-head Do America director Mike Judge at Antone's reprising his on-again, off-again role as bass player for Doyle Bramhall. And last week we covered Robert Rodriguez playing with Tito & Tarantula at Stubb's performing "Angry Cockroaches" from his film From Dusk Till Dawn. The return of Quentin Tarantino this weekend, of course, served to increase the list of celeb sightings tenfold. The Tito show at the Continental on Sunday proved to be the (hardly secret) hangout spot following Saturday's screening of Jackie Brown, where Tarantino, Rodriguez, Judge, and Rick Linklater had been on hand. The above -- minus Judge -- were spotted at Sunday's show, along with Ray Benson and Cindy Cashdollar of Asleep at the Wheel, Mojo Nixon, Sarah Brown, Rodriguez's wife, producer Elizabeth Avellán, band manager Mark Proct, Wammo (sans pig), and "The AK-47 Girl." Too bad Tito didn't know a lounge version of "Stuck in the Middle With You" -- QT coulda joined in wearing his Elvis outfit from The Golden Girls!
Everything comes back to Tarantino's appearance on "The Golden Girls," doesn't it?

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