A non-linear narrative, a heist that's never shown on screen, a rookie filmmaker with an inclination to break every cinematic rule in the book, and graphic use of cruelty juxtaposed with sugary pop hits: Reservoir Dogs could have easily turned into a total debacle. The public might have brushed it off as yet another small-budget film that placed style over substance, destined to ultimately disappear into the endless abyss of movies that failed to leave a lasting impression. Even famed film critic Roger Ebert thought it was so-so.
But a change was brewing in the early '90s, an independent film movement that knocked down postmodern sensibilities - one that didn't cater to traditional storytelling or its restrictions. This evolution was led in large part by a video store clerk with neither a film school degree nor much experience behind a movie camera.
In 1994, Quentin Tarantino forever changed the landscape of cinema and independent film with Pulp Fiction; however, he only received money and big stars for that movie because of the artistic merit of Reservoir Dogs. Nothing about Reservoir Dogs is traditional, from the script and production to the dozens of disgusted people who left the theater during what has become one of the most recognized and parodied scenes in cinema history. Here is a behind-the-scenes look at the cult classic, a film many consider to be one of the best movies ever made.
Veteran character actor Lawrence Tierney, who played his fair share of goons on the big screen, was cast to play caper organizer and leader Joe Cabot. Unfortunately for Quentin Tarantino, this casting decision almost ruined his directing career in its first week. He said of the actor:
Tierney was a complete lunatic by that time - he just needed to be sedated. We had decided to [film] his scenes first, so my first week of directing was talking with this f*cking [guy]... By the end of the week, everybody on set hated Tierney - it wasn't just me. And in the last 20 minutes of the first week, we had a blowout and got into a [fight]. I fired him, and the whole crew burst into applause.
Tarantino has Harvey Keitel to thank for possibly saving his career. The actor stepped up and talked to the studio in defense of the director.
In a true act of kismet, the wife of producer Lawrence Bender's acting coach was acquainted with actor Harvey Keitel. The legendary actor was handed the script for Reservoir Dogs and loved it. Quentin Tarantino describes the first time he spoke with Keitel, "He just called us up three days later and said, 'Look, consider me in. Not only do I want to do it, I want to be one of the producers. I want to help get it made. Whatever I can do, let me know.'"
Tarantino was a fan of Keitel, and he was more than willing to cast him in his directorial debut. The film's budget went from $30,000 to around $1.5 million because of Keitel's commitment to the movie. He also contributed some of his personal funds to help finance the picture, even flying the production crew to New York to find more actors. This trip secured Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth, and Michael Madsen.
Most of the film takes place in an abandoned warehouse, which serves as the meeting point for the boys following the score. The events in the warehouse unfold in real time. Unfortunately for the film's entire cast and crew, the production filmed during summertime in Los Angeles.
The warehouse had almost no ventilation. Michael Madsen's ear-cutting scene was especially difficult to film because the excessive heat had caused the prosthetic ear to melt.
Michael Madsen didn't rehearse the ear-cutting scene and felt intimidated by it: "In the script it said, 'Mr. Blonde maniacally dances around,' and I kept thinking, 'What the f*ck does that mean? Mick Jagger?'" Madsen stated he also felt uncomfortable acting out the intense scene because he had a small child at the time.
What's more, the young cop in the film begs Mr. Blonde for his life by telling him he's a father with young kids. Madsen was finally able to push aside his issues and draw his dance inspiration from an unlikely source: "I started thinking about this weird little thing Jimmy Cagney did in a movie that I saw, that's where it came from."