If you ask most people what Quentin Tarantino’s greatest movie is, the answer will usually be Pulp Fiction. We tend to disagree, however, as whilst it’s clear that Pulp Fiction is one of the greatest movies ever made, there’s something about Tarantino’s very first flick that sets our pulses racing just that little bit more.
Released all the way back in 1992, Reservoir Dogs starred Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Chris Penn, Steve Buscemi, Lawrence Tierney, Michael Madsen, Tarantino himself and Edward Bunker, all playing diamond thieves whose planned jewellery store heist goes horribly wrong. Below are 25 things you might not have realised about this classic of the genre, so without further ado, “let’s go to work.”
25. The film was originally going to be black and white and star Tarantino’s friends
Today, Reservoir Dogs is celebrated as one of the great American crime movies, a tight, disturbing, darkly funny classic of the genre that’s still being quoted almost three decades later. You just have to wonder, though: would the film have become so iconic had Tarantino stuck to the original plan? Before the movie got some Hollywood backing, Tarantino had planned to film Reservoir Dogs in black and white on a budget of just $30,000, with his buddies helping out and playing the main parts.
Luckily, however, one of Tarantino’s friends, the producer Lawrence Bender, who was originally going to star in the film as Nice Guy Eddie, gave the script to his acting teacher. Liking the script, the acting teacher passed the script to his wife, the wife passed the script to a member of acting royalty, and the rest is history. The ‘member of acting royalty’, by the way, was none other than one of the stars of such classics as Mean Streets, The Duellists and Taxi Driver.
24. Harvey Keitel got the film funded himself
It wasn’t just anyone that Lawrence Bender’s acting teacher’s wife passed the Reservoir Dogs script on to. In a fortuitous turn of events, the Dogs script ended up in the hands of none other than Harvey Keitel, an acting icon and one of Tarantino’s own personal favourites.
Keitel, best known for his collaborations with Martin Scorsese including Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, liked what he read so much that he signed on the film as star as well as co-producer. Helping Tarantino to raise a $1.5 million budget, Keitel even paid for auditions in New York, which led to the casting of Steve Buscemi. It’s no surprise that Tarantino would write the part of Pulp Fiction’s ‘fixer’ The Wolf just for Keitel; to Tarantino, Keitel was the one who fixed his entire career.
23. The actors had to wear their own clothes for budget reasons
Even after Reservoir Dogs secured its bigger budget, $1.5 million still wasn’t much in usual Hollywood terms. After fees for cast, crew, location and everything else was doled out, Tarantino was left with just $10,000 for the costume department. This wasn’t enough to buy much, with the result being that, according to Dogs costume designer Betsy Heimann, “only Harvey Keitel and Quentin are wearing suits” in the film.
The rest of the cast were decked out in clobber cobbled from all over the place, with Steve Buscemi and Tim Roth – Mr Pink and Mr Orange – wearing black jeans with their suit jackets and ties. Besides the iconic black suits, meanwhile, the cast had to wear their own clothes as ‘wardrobe’ for the scenes that took place prior to the day of the heist. Most notably, the garish track suit that Chris Penn wears as Nice Guy Eddie was, unfortunately, Penn’s own.
22. Tarantino wrote the script in just three weeks
In the fast-paced world of Hollywood, it’s a rule of thumb that a screenwriter should finish a first draft of a screenplay in three months. This is the minimum time that the WGA, or Writers Guild of America, officially allows for a writer to turn in a draft of a new project.
The fast-talking, fast-thinking Quentin Tarantino didn’t need three months. Instead, he turned his first screenplay in in a little over three weeks. The 100 pages Tarantino wrote in less than a month are still being quoted word-for-word to this day. The Reservoir Dogs screenplay would go on to win and be nominated for numerous awards, with Tarantino taking both Best Director and Best Screenplay at the Sitges International Film Festival.
21. The title was the result of a misunderstanding
There are a few versions of the story behind where the title ‘Reservoir Dogs’ came from, a nonsense name that Tarantino has referred to as a “mood title”. In perhaps the most widely known tale, the name came about as a result of a misunderstanding by Tarantino himself. According to film lore, Tarantino had trouble pronouncing Au Revoir Les Enfants, the classic 1987 Louis Malle film about two French schoolboys living through Nazi occupation.
While working in the LA video store where his film obsession flourished as a young man, Tarantino instead took to recommending to customers ‘that reservoir movie’. Tarantino then combined his love for Les Enfants with his admiration for Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, with ‘Reservoir Dogs’ the result. Et voila – Quentin Tarantino’s first film was born.
20. The film ‘borrows’ its plot from a little-known Hong Kong crime movie
Written and directed by a film magpie, Reservoir Dogs unsurprisingly borrows a number of elements from other films. While the 1966 western Django (itself the inspiration for Tarantino’s 2012 western, Django Unchained) informed the torture scene, the colour-coded characters of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three inspired Dogs’ own. Some have argued, however, that the entire plot of Dogs is lifted straight from the 1987 Hong Kong crime movie City on Fire.
Like Reservoir Dogs, Fire centres on a jewellery heist gone wrong, and the wounded undercover police officer (Chow Yun-fat) who sets off a warehouse-based Mexican stand-off in the last act between his Mr White-esque criminal mentor and suspicious crime bosses. Tarantino calls it homage, though whole scenes from City on Fire are recreated in Dogs, as seen in this video.
19. Tarantino firmly denies Dogs is a rip-off of other movies
Tarantino has been all too happy to admit that Reservoir Dogs is influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1956 noir, The Killing. Still, despite the fact Dogs bears striking similarities to a number of other films, QT has denied all accusations of plagiarism. Tarantino instead claims that Reservoir Dogs simply “pays homage” to the films it ‘borrows’ from.
In a 1992 interview with the Seattle Times, Tarantino said: “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.” In addition to The Killing, Tarantino cites the classic crime movies The Big Combo and Kansas City Confidential as other inspirations.
18. Michael Madsen struggled to complete the ear scene
On its first showings around the festival circuit, Reservoir Dogs certainly brought Tarantino a lot of attention. It wasn’t the director’s now-trademark dialogue that caused such a stir, however, but the film’s violence, in particular the instantly notorious ear scene. It wasn’t just the critics who objected to the violence – Reservoir Dogs was so extreme that even some of the actors had trouble finishing scenes during the shoot.
Michael Madsen, who plays Mr Blonde, the man responsible for the severed ear, for one reportedly struggled to complete Dogs’ most infamous scene. Madsen, at the time of filming Dogs a new father, especially struggled when actor Kirk Baltz ad-libbed the line: “I’ve got a little kid at home.”
17. Madsen improvised the dance
It wasn’t just the ear cutting – Michael Madsen also had a real problem with the dance element of the torture scene, just for a very different reason. According to Madsen himself, speaking at a recent anniversary screening of Dogs, Tarantino’s description of the scene in the script was just too vague to act. Admitting he never practised the scene in rehearsals because he was “so intimidated by it”, Madsen was dumbfounded when it came time to filming it.
“I didn’t know what to do. In the script, it said, ‘Mr. Blonde maniacally dances around.’ And I kept thinking, ‘What the f*** does that mean? Like Mick Jagger, or what?” Thankfully, inspiration hit. “I heard the music, and I said, ‘Oh, f***, I better do something,’ and I started thinking about Jimmy Cagney. I remembered this weird little thing that Jimmy Cagney did in a movie that I saw…He did this crazy little dance…That’s where it came from.” So, we guess it’s not just Tarantino who ‘borrows’.
16. A legendary horror director was so disturbed he walked out of one screening
By modern standards, Reservoir Dogs seems, if not exactly tame, then hardly any different from what passes as popular entertainment on HBO. At the time, however, the film caused something of an uproar, with not to mention a number of walkouts during early festival screenings. Tarantino’s favourite screening came at the Sitges Horror Film Festival, where five people walked out – including legendary horror filmmaker Wes Craven.
“The f***ing guy who did Last House on the Left!” exclaimed Tarantino at the 25th anniversary panel for Dogs. “My movie was too tough for him?” (“I just don’t like watching people get tortured”, Craven later explained.) Makeup effects artist Rick Baker also walked out of the Sitges screening during the torture scene, later describing his departure as “a compliment”.
15. Tarantino enjoyed the controversy, took walkout counts
Tarantino wasn’t just fine with the walkouts and controversy that Reservoir Dogs inspired – he was positively thrilled. After a while, the director started to take a count of the number of people that up and left during the torture scene: “33 was the largest walkout”. The director was quoted at the time as saying: “it happens at every single screening. 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.” There was an upside to all the controversy of course: the film brought so much attention to itself that it made back its money and then some, particularly in the UK, where it grossed big for one simple reason.
14. The film was initially refused a certificate in the UK because of the violence
Despite being released in 1992, Reservoir Dogs wouldn’t get a home video release in the UK until 1995. This was because the British Board of Film Classification initially refused the film a certificate, largely on the basis of the strong violence featured. Following the highly-publicised James Bulger case, Dogs just happened to be submitted to the BBFC at a time of concern regarding violence in the media, and its potential influence.
The film was submitted in 1993, and wouldn’t get a VHS release until two years later, after Pulp Fiction had come and gone in cinemas. Because of the unavailability of the film on home video in Britain, Dogs went on to make double in the UK what it had in the US. In the time that British film fans were waiting to get Reservoir Dogs on VHS, the film actually had a second cinematic release, in 1994. It ended up grossing more than £6 million in the UK alone.
13. James Woods was offered the role of Mr Orange but his agent forgot to tell him
When it comes to the casting for Quentin Tarantino’s films, there have been many tantalising what-ifs that never came to pass. Will Smith as Django? Warren Beatty as Bill? Leonardo DiCaprio as Hans Landa? Or how about James Woods as Mr Orange? Much as Tarantino clearly enjoyed working with Tim Roth – the pair have collaborated on three movies since (Roth was cut out of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) – the Brit actor wasn’t the director’s first choice.
Tarantino actually wrote Mr Orange/Freddy Newandyke with Videodrome and Salvador actor James Woods in mind, but Woods never even bothered to respond when he was offered the role – or so Tarantino thought. Woods was offered Reservoir Dogs’ lead five times, but his agent always said no. When Woods met Tarantino years later and discovered that his agent had turned actually Dogs down without telling the actor, Woods fired the agent.
12. Samuel L Jackson flunked his audition for the film
Quentin Tarantino might like Tim Roth, but anybody who’s followed his career knows that he really likes Samuel L Jackson. Since making Jackson an international star with Pulp Fiction, Tarantino has cast Jackson in five out of seven of his subsequent films. There’s one film from which Jackson is conspicuously absent, however. Tarantino and Jackson’s fruitful creative partnership could have started sooner, had Jackson not flunked his audition for Reservoir Dogs – something which he blames on Tarantino to this day.
In a 2015 interview with Vulture, Jackson explained that he came fully prepared to his Dogs reading, but that Tarantino and producer Lawrence Bender couldn’t help goofing around. “I didn’t realise it was Quentin, the director-writer, and Lawrence Bender…but I knew that the audition was not very good.” Jackson didn’t get the part – he wouldn’t say which part that was, though he would have shared scenes with White and Orange – but Tarantino made it up to Jackson by writing him a part in his follow-up movie.
11. Tom Waits auditioned to play Mr Brown
It wasn’t just James Woods – another huge name in entertainment could have been a member of Reservoir Dogs’ ensemble, but just never made the cut. Though Woods (or Woods’ agent, rather) never returned Tarantino’s calls, the young director actually managed to get iconic musician Tom Waits in the room to audition. According to Tarantino, once the Dogs team had money and “the casting director from LA Law”, numerous “really wild people came in and read the parts”, including Waits.
“I had Tom Waits read the Madonna speech, just so I could hear Tom Waits say those lines”, Tarantino explained, implying that Waits was up for the part of Mr Brown. At the end of the day, Tarantino took the part of Brown for himself, but Waits told the director he greatly admired his script: “he gave me one of the first profound compliments on the script. No one had ever told me my work was poetic before.”
10. Look closer – the ‘warehouse’ is actually a mortuary
Because the Reservoir Dogs team had to cut corners, Mr Orange’s apartment actually happened to be upstairs in the warehouse rendezvous point where most of the film takes place. As for the warehouse itself? Well, it wasn’t a warehouse at all, but a building that used to function as a mortuary. Look again in the scene where Mr Blonde is sitting on a ‘crate’ – Vic’s actually sitting on an old hearse covered in a plastic sheet.
And the cabinet-like objects that can be seen around the warehouse? These are coffins stood upright. The warehouse has since been demolished and turned into a parking lot, where people now leave their cars not realising they’re doing so on a site of profound cinematic importance.
9. Mr Blonde is the brother of John Travolta’s Pulp Fiction character
Michael Madsen’s performance as Mr Blonde/Vic Vega in Reservoir Dogs must have really made an impression on Quentin Tarantino. The director was so enamoured of Madsen that he wrote a part in his follow-up film, Pulp Fiction, especially for him: Vincent Vega, or Vic’s (apparently twin) brother.
Unfortunately for Tarantino, post-Dogs, Madsen had become in-demand – he was offered the role of Virgil Earp in the Kevin Costner western Wyatt Earp, and decided to take that role instead. With Tarantino furious at Madsen – the two didn’t speak for years afterwards – the director set about rewriting the role for another actor altogether: John Travolta. After Pulp Fiction made a killing at the box office, Vincent Vega made Travolta a hot property again, while Wyatt Earp bombed.
8. There was almost a sequel
It wasn’t all bad that Madsen said no to playing Vincent in Pulp Fiction – after his second film wrapped, Tarantino was suitably inspired by John Travolta’s performance to begin writing a whole new movie. With Travolta having knocked it out of the park as Vincent, and with Madsen already having done the same in Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino had the idea to bring both actors together for a separate follow-up film. Once Pulp Fiction was out in the world, Tarantino fully intended to make a sequel (or prequel, considering the characters’ fates) to both Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs all about the Vega brothers, called Double V Vega.
Unfortunately, the film never happened, and the idea is now scrapped – it’s too late for John Travolta and Michael Madsen to be playing younger versions of themselves – though Tarantino has recently been talking up what the film would have entailed. In a departure from the hardboiled crime exploits of Dogs and Pulp, Double V Vega would have documented Vincent and Vic’s misadventures in Amsterdam, where Vic would visit to find Vincent running a nightclub for Marsellus Wallace.
7. Tim Roth was covered in so much fake blood he had to be peeled off the floor
Apart from a few flashback scenes, Tim Roth’s Mr Orange doesn’t have a great time of it in Reservoir Dogs. After the opening credits roll, Orange spends much of the rest of the film dying on the floor of the warehouse, bleeding out “like a stuck pig”. Though Tarantino was surprisingly dedicated to depicting the reality of Orange’s plight – the director kept a paramedic on-set to make sure the amount of blood loss would appear authentic – he forgot to think about Roth’s own ordeal.
For much of the shoot, Roth was required to lie in a giant pool of fake blood, which became a problem after long shooting days when the viscous substance began to congeal. At points, Roth had to be physically peeled off the floor, away from the hardened ‘blood’. This process would take several minutes at a time.
6. The woman who shoots Mr Orange is Tim Roth’s dialect coach
An Englishman in a cast full of true-blue Americans, playing American in a US movie for the very first time, Tim Roth had his work cut out on Reservoir Dogs. To nail Mr Orange’s west coast accent, Roth hired dialect coach Suzanne Celeste to smooth out his natural London twang. Celeste didn’t go easy. After weeks of being harangued by Celeste, Roth decided to get her a role in the film – that of the woman who shoots Orange in the stomach, before he in turn shoots her in the chest.
“We were very pleased about that,” Roth said years later. “They drive you crazy.” Not so crazy, however, that Roth wouldn’t work with Celeste again. Roth and Celeste subsequently worked together on five more projects in which Roth would play American, including Little Odessa and Gridlock’d. Unsurprisingly, considering the criticism of his Dogs accent, Roth tends to play English these days.
5. Tim Roth got the part by getting hammered with Tarantino
The way Tim Roth tells it, it wasn’t exactly hard work bagging what is arguably Reservoir Dogs’ lead role. Whereas Samuel L Jackson never even got a callback after memorising the script, all Roth had to do was to get steaming drunk with Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino, looking for an actor with arthouse cred to play Mr Orange, agreed to meet Roth despite the rising star’s refusal to read for roles.
In his own words, Roth was “so s*** at reading” that he refused to audition even after meeting Tarantino and Harvey Keitel, who attempted to pressure Roth to read to no avail. It was only after Roth and Tarantino “got a tonne of beer and got s***faced” back at Roth’s apartment that Roth finally agreed to audition for the director. Once Roth, now heavily under the influence, had “read every single part” in the script, Tarantino was satisfied and decided to hire the actor for Orange.
4. One of the ‘dogs’ is played by a real life convicted bank robber
Of all the assorted criminals in Reservoir Dogs, the most mysterious might be Mr Blue, who appears in only two scenes and gets just a handful of lines. In actuality, the life of the actor who plays Blue, Eddie Bunker, is well-documented, and arguably more colourful than any of the characters in Tarantino’s film. Bunker, best known as an author of hardboiled crime fiction including 1981’s Little Boy Blue and the screenwriter behind the crime dramas Straight Time and Runaway Train, was a career criminal in his youth.
Beginning at the age of just 5, Bunker spent his younger years in and out of prison for a long list of felonies including forgery, drug dealing and yes, armed robbery. One early claim to fame was that in 1951 Bunker, at 17-years-old, became the youngest ever inmate in California’s notorious San Quentin Prison. By 1975, Bunker – having spent 18 years of his life institutionalised – finally put a life of crime behind him and turned to writing full-time, using his experiences as the basis for his fiction. Bunker died in 2005 aged 71.
3. Dogs wasn’t technically Quentin Tarantino’s first film
If you’ve read any of Quentin Tarantino’s recent interviews, you’ll know he’s obsessed with the idea of making ten movies then getting out of the business for good. As of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin says he’s on nine, with Reservoir Dogs representing the first film in his filmography – that isn’t strictly true, however. Before he got Reservoir Dogs produced, Tarantino sold a couple of scripts that would later become hit films in their own right, albeit realised by other directors: 1993’s True Romance and 1994’s Natural Born Killers.
Before those films, Tarantino worked at the company CineTel on “page-one rewrites” of film scripts. One of those Tarantino worked on was the 1991 Rutger Hauer thriller Past Midnight. Tarantino’s contributions to Past Midnight’s screenplay were so extensive that the film’s producer, Catalaine Knell, shared her associate producer credit with him. QT’s film career began even earlier, however. In 1987, Tarantino directed his first film: a micro-budget, black and white movie called My Best Friend’s Birthday, which has been largely lost to time. Of the 70-minute movie Tarantino directed, only 36 minutes of My Best Friend’s Birthday is still in existence. He still considers Dogs to be his debut.
2. George Clooney failed his audition to be in the film
Samuel L Jackson. James Woods. Tom Waits. Some huge names were sought to star in Reservoir Dogs that just never made the cut. Arguably the biggest name of all, however, is someone Tarantino would go on to work with later in a different capacity in 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn: George Clooney. In a 1996 interview for Dusk, which Tarantino wrote and which he and Clooney starred in as a pair of criminal brothers, Clooney revealed that he like Jackson tried out for the film when he was still an unknown.
In 1994, Clooney got his big break starring as Doug Ross on ER, but Tarantino – ever the cinephile – already knew the actor in 1991 from an obscure 1989 action movie called Red Surf. Tarantino brought Clooney in to audition for a part in Reservoir Dogs, but, in the director’s version of the story, Clooney just didn’t fit in to the ensemble. Clooney’s less diplomatic version is that he gave a bad audition – so something he has in common with Jackson, at least.
1. It was recently voted the greatest indie film of all time
Partly because of the violence, partly just because the filmmaking establishment wasn’t prepared for someone like Quentin Tarantino, the director’s first film didn’t get much awards love at the time. A win for Best Supporting Male for Steve Buscemi at the Independent Spirit Awards aside, Reservoir Dogs went largely un-garlanded on release. Over time, however, the film’s reputation has grown dramatically. On IMDb, Reservoir Dogs currently ranks as the 77th best film of all time, according to users.
In Sight & Sound’s most recent poll of the greatest films ever made, Dogs made the top 200. Empire magazine rated it higher, giving Dogs 97th place in its 2011 500 Greatest Films of all Time poll. In 2005, Dogs received an even greater compliment from Empire, when it was voted The Greatest Independent Film Of All Time. Not bad for a debut movie that was almost shot on cheap black and white with the director’s buddies as the stars.