20 Things You Didn’t Know About The Classic Film True Romance
One of the best films of the 1990s, True Romance tells the story of ex-call girl Alabama (Patricia Arquette) and her new husband Clarence (Christian Slater), both of whom find themselves on the run from the Mafia after they steal a shipment of drugs.
As well as being a truly great film, True Romance has one of the greatest ensembles of all time, with the cast including Brad Pitt, Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, the late James Gandolfini and a certain former Batman actor who plays the ghost of Elvis Presley (we’ll come to him later).
Below are some things that you probably didn’t know about this brilliant 1993 crime romance, which Janet Maslin of The New York Times described as a “vibrant, grisly, gleefully amoral road movie,” and which Empire magazine ranked as the 83rd greatest film of all time in 2017.
20. It was written by Quentin Tarantino before he was famous
True Romance was one of Quentin Tarantino’s first screenplays, written before he wrote and directed his breakout hit Reservoir Dogs.
The indie film icon had spent some time working his way up before making a sensation with his 1992 breakthrough.
In the late 80s, Tarantino worked on an ultra-low budget movie called My Best Friend’s Birthday, which he wrote, directed and starred in.
However, there were problems behind the scenes and the film that would have been his directorial debut was never completed.
Afterwards, Tarantino reworked elements of My Best Friend’s Birthday into a new script, which he entitled True Romance.
The fledgling writer-director initially intended to make True Romance himself, but soon had a change of heart…
19. Tarantino used the money he made from selling the True Romance script to make Reservoir Dogs
By some good fortune, Tarantino managed to get a couple of his unproduced screenplays read by famed director Tony Scott.
Scott read the scripts for both True Romance and Reservoir Dogs, and was so impressed with the young writer’s work that he wanted to direct both.
However, the pragmatic Tarantino – still keen to start directing himself – instead told Scott that the director had to pick just one.
After mulling it over, Scott chose True Romance – and the rest is 90s cinema history.
Tarantino took his salary for the True Romance screenplay and put that into the budget for Reservoir Dogs, on which he made his directorial debut.
Reservoir Dogs ultimately hit screens first, premiering to huge acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1992, whilst True Romance didn’t go on release until September 1993.
18. Tarantino wrote Alabama for Joan Cusack to play
As True Romance’s female lead Alabama Whitman, Patricia Arquette gives one of the best performances of her career.
Originally though, both screenwriter Quentin Tarantino and director Tony Scott had other casting ideas.
Tarantino had written the role with a specific actress in mind: Joan Cusack, who enjoyed mainstream success in 1993 thanks to Addams Family Values.
As for Tony Scott, Arquette says he was obsessed with casting Drew Barrymore as Alabama.
E.T. star Barrymore was still in her late teens at the time, and notorious for having survived a troubled adolescence.
Arquette says that Scott “had pictures of (Barrymore) wearing little outfits, but I think she was unavailable.”
17. Natural Born Killers was originally a film-within-a-film that would have featured in True Romance
It’s hard not to notice that two of the early films written (but not directed) by Quentin Tarantino – True Romance and Natural Born Killers – have a great deal in common.
Both films centre on whirlwind love stories between troubled characters who run amok on the wrong side of the law.
This similarity may in part be because Tarantino initially came up with both stories as part of one expansive screenplay.
In the original True Romance script, Natural Born Killers served as a film-within-a-film, itself a script that Christian Slater’s Clarence was writing during his misadventures with Alabama.
This soon resulted in an excessively overlong screenplay of around 500 pages, so Tarantino ultimately realised Natural Born Killers would work better as its own thing.
Natural Born Killers hit screens in 1994, directed by Oliver Stone with Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis in the lead roles. Tarantino infamously disowned the film after his script was heavily rewritten.
16. Tony Scott would slap Patricia Arquette to ‘prepare her’ for some scenes
As we’ve long since learned is the norm with films written by Quentin Tarantino, True Romance gets pretty gruelling at times.
This makes the film an intense viewing experience – but surely not as intense as things got for the actors themselves.
So she could get into character for some of her more challenging scenes, Patricia Arquette gave director Tony Scott permission to slap her.
This rather old-fashioned approach to directing (which one suspects wouldn’t fly today) was referred to as a “persuader” by Scott.
It seems that Arquette came to find the method useful, as the director recalled that his leading lady would specifically come to him for a “persuader” before particularly trying scenes.
The late director perhaps felt guilty, however, because at the end of the shoot he gifted Arquette the gorgeous pink Cadillac that can be seen in the film.
15. Jack Black was cut out of the film
There are a lot of illustrious names on the cast list of True Romance, but one actor who would go on to bigger things didn’t make the final cut.
That actor is Jack Black, then an unknown young up-and-comer who shot a brief cameo role that wound up being deleted.
Black would have appeared early on in the movie, as an usher at the movie theatre where Clarence and Alabama first meet.
By the late 90s, scene-stealing supporting roles in The Cable Guy, Mars Attacks! and High Fidelity would help elevate Black to fame.
Today, off the back of such hits as School of Rock, the Kung Fu Panda movies and two recent Jumanji sequels, Black is a huge star.
14. Bronson Pinchot and Michael Rapaport were genuinely terrified shooting the rollercoaster scene
One unique and memorable sequence in True Romance sees Christian Slater’s Clarence discussing his nefarious business with Bronson Pinchot’s Elliot on a rollercoaster.
Elliot looks absolutely terrified throughout the entire ride, and that wasn’t simply down to Pinchot’s acting.
Pinchot (otherwise best known for his roles in Beverly Hills Cop and TV’s Perfect Strangers) suffered vertigo, and was genuinely scared out of his mind filming this scene.
The actor recalls that even though he’d told the director the scene would be a problem for him, “there’s no biological way to say no to Tony Scott.” Pinchot ultimately had to ride the rollercoaster five times.
Still, Pinchot was at least allowed to look as aghast as he really was; things were even worse for co-star Michael Rapaport.
Rapaport, who plays Clarence’s old friend Dick in True Romance, is equally afraid of rollercoasters and suffers terrible motion sickness, but still had to look as though he was enjoying himself while shooting the scene.
13. Clarence died in Tarantino’s original screenplay
In Quentin Tarantino’s original screenplay, True Romance didn’t have quite the happily-ever-after ending that the film wound up with.
Originally, Clarence was going to die from the gunshot wound he suffers in the climactic shoot-out.
Then, following her beau’s death, Alabama was poised to flee with the money and raise her baby son Elvis alone.
Director Tony Scott decided to instead let Clarence live, saying “I just fell in love with these two characters and didn’t want to see them die.”
Tarantino was initially against his ending being changed, and some of the writer’s more ardent supporters criticised Scott for the move.
However, after viewing the finished film, Tarantino changed his mind and agreed that Scott’s ending was better.
12. Tom Sizemore was originally cast as Virgil but he couldn’t stomach the violent death scene
True Romance features Tom Sizemore in a small supporting role as cop Cody alongside Chris Penn’s Nicky, but this wasn’t always the plan.
Sizemore – who would later appear in that other Tarantino-scripted movie, Natural Born Killers – was initially cast as mafia heavy Virgil.
Virgil’s ‘star moment’ is actually one of True Romance’s most disturbing scenes: one in which he brutalises Alabama, ultimately leading to a fight to the death.
Sizemore was uncomfortable with this scene specifically, and requested he be given a different role in the film.
This cleared the way for the part of Virgil to instead by taken by James Gandolfini.
Gandolfini’s chilling, scene-stealing performance helped put the actor on the map, and later had a role to play in his casting in iconic TV series The Sopranos.
11. Val Kilmer plays the apparition of Elvis Presley
We suspect you’ll remember the apparition of Elvis Presley that appears to Christian Slater’s obsessive Elvis fan Clarence.
However, did you know who takes on the role of the legendary King of Rock’n’Roll in the film?
True Romance’s Elvis is actually Val Kilmer, who previously played Iceman in Tony Scott’s 1986 smash Top Gun. The actor was initially keen to take on the role of Clarence, ultimately taken by Christian Slater.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers were not granted permission to use Elvis’ name or music as they had hoped.
It’s for this reason that Kilmer’s face is hidden from view in all of his scenes, and why his character is only referred to as ‘Mentor’ in the credits.
This of course was not the first time Kilmer portrayed a departed rock legend, as he also played Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s 1991 biopic The Doors.
10. The film exists in a shared universe with Tarantino’s other movies
Years before cinematic universes became the ‘in’ thing thanks to Marvel Studios, Quentin Tarantino was already at it.
There are indications that all Tarantino’s early films, True Romance included, exist within the same story world.
Watch Reservoir Dogs, and you may notice a scene in which Joe (Lawrence Tierney) asks Larry/Mr White (Harvey Keitel) about his colleague Alabama.
The implication is that, following True Romance’s originally scripted ending in which Clarence died, Alabama went on to pursue a life of crime, and wound up working with Larry.
Other hints at a Tarantino shared universe include the mention of a Seymour Scagnetti in Reservoir Dogs, thought to be the brother of the similarly-named Jack Scagnetti (played by True Romance actor Tom Sizemore) in Natural Born Killers.
Most famously, Reservoir Dogs’ Mr Blonde/Vic Vega (Michael Madsen) is also said to be the brother of Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega (John Travolta).
9. The famous ‘Sicilian scene’ was based on a story that Tarantino heard in real life
One of the most celebrated – and, at the same time, infamous – scenes in True Romance is the ‘Sicilian’ story.
It’s one of Dennis Hopper’s few scenes in the movie as Clarence’s father Clifford, and the only scene to feature Christopher Walken as Sicilian mobster Vincenzo Coccotti.
The tense, dialogue-driven scene sees Coccotti attempt to get Clifford to give up Clarence’s location – but Clifford, knowing he faces death regardless, chooses to insult Coccotti with a story about Sicily’s racial heritage.
The scene’s use of offensive racial slurs has always been controversial, but the scene has still been hailed as a masterpiece of tête-à-tête acting.
Tarantino (who has been widely criticised since for the use of racial slurs in his films) has revealed that he based the whole scene on a story he had been told by a friend years earlier.
The writer recalled that he “heard that whole speech about the Sicilians a long time ago, from a black guy living in my house… and I thought: ‘Wow, that is a great scene, I gotta remember that’.”
8. Gary Oldman wears one of his Dracula eyes as Drexl
Yet another great actor who makes a brief but intensely memorable performance in True Romance is Gary Oldman.
The British actor came to the film shortly after taking the title role in 1992 horror Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
It turns out Oldman actually brought a little of the Count with him to his True Romance character Drexl Spivey.
For one, Oldman used the same wig-maker who created his hair on Bram Stoker’s Dracula to craft Drexl’s dreadlocks.
In addition, Oldman also sported one of the very same contact lenses that he had previously worn as Dracula.
Otherwise, Oldman modelled the supremely sleazy character largely on a real person he had met on the set of an earlier movie.
7. The boorish, egotistical Lee Donowitz is based on a real Hollywood exec
At one point True Romance sees hapless criminals Clarence and Alabama cross paths with a highly strung movie producer named Lee Donowitz, portrayed by actor Saul Rubinek.
Donowitz comes off as every inch the boorish, egotistical stereotype of a Hollywood producer – and it turns out there’s a very pointed reason for this.
Scott is believed to have directed Rubinek to play the role as a barbed parody of real-life producer Joel Silver (even though Rubinek himself has denied this).
Scott had worked with Silver on his last film before True Romance, The Last Boy Scout, and by all accounts the two men had not gotten along at all.
There’s also another Tarantino universe connection here: Lee Donowitz is a descendant of Sgt. Donny ‘The Bear Jew’ Donowitz, played by Eli Roth in Inglourious Basterds.
6. Brad Pitt’s character was the inspiration behind 2008’s Pineapple Express
True Romance sees Brad Pitt playing layabout Floyd, one of the more oddball roles that the Hollywood legend has taken during his long career.
While the actor wasn’t quite a superstar leading man yet, he was very much on the rise following his big break in 1991’s Thelma & Louise (directed by Tony Scott’s brother Ridley).
Pitt specifically requested the small part of Floyd in True Romance, and by all accounts he ad-libbed much of his dialogue.
This of course wouldn’t be the last time Pitt worked with Tarantino, as he later starred in the writer-director’s films Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, the latter of which won Pitt a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Moreover, Judd Apatow has also revealed that Pitt’s performance as Floyd was the main inspiration for the producer’s 2008 film Pineapple Express.
Apatow remarked, “I thought it would be funny to make a movie in which you follow that character out of his apartment and watch him get chased by bad guys.”
5. Uma Thurman wears Clarence’s sunglasses in Kill Bill
The characters in True Romance are notable for their distinctive and somewhat quirky dress sense.
In the case of Christian Slater’s Clarence, this usually means Hawaiian shirts, white T-shirts and blue jeans, and a big pair of Elvis-esque sunglasses.
Quentin Tarantino clearly had a particular fondness for that particular set of eyewear, as he used them again in a later movie.
Uma Thurman dons those very same glasses at one point in 2004’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1.
Thurman’s ‘Bride’ (as she is known in the first half of Kill Bill) puts them on whilst escaping the hospital early on.
There’s no shortage of online outlets claiming to have these screen-worn glasses for sale, but we’d advise scepticism approaching these.
4. Patricia Arquette’s own son played little Elvis
In True Romance’s happily-ever-after fairytale ending, Clarence and Alabama ride off into the sunset with their first child, Elvis.
It’s a sweet moment, made all the sweeter by the fact that the little boy in the scene is Patricia Arquette’s real son.
Little Elvis is portrayed by Enzo Rossi – aged 3 at the time – Arquette’s first child fathered by musician Paul Rossi.
Enzo Rossi would go on to take more small roles alongside his mother in 1995’s Beyond Rangoon and a 2009 episode of TV series Medium.
Arquette would later have a second child, Harlow Jane-Arquette, in 2003 with her then-husband and fellow actor Thomas Jane.
Harlow Jane-Arquette appeared alongside her father in the 2015 TV mini-series Texas Rising.
3. Margot Robbie thinks the phone booth scene is “the best sex scene ever”
True Romance has no shortage of fans – and among these is one of the biggest rising stars in Hollywood today, Margot Robbie.
The Australian actress has spoken of her admiration for the film, with special mention of the scene featuring Christian Slater’s Clarence and Patricia Arquette’s Alabama that takes place in a roadside phone booth.
Speaking to W Magazine in 2016, The Wolf of Wall Street and Suicide Squad actress declared this to be the “best sex scene ever.”
This is not the only sex scene in the movie, arriving as it does after a more tender and sentimental encounter between Clarence and Alabama earlier on.
Interestingly, True Romance and Natural Born Killers are the only films written by Quentin Tarantino to feature sex scenes (and as Natural Born Killers was extensively rewritten, it’s unclear how much of that was the original writer’s work).
Robbie would go on to work with Tarantino, portraying tragic real-life figure Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.
2. Tarantino would reunite with Tony Scott on Crimson Tide
Tony Scott was such an admirer of Quentin Tarantino’s work that he would enlist the young screenwriter’s skills again later.
Scott hired Tarantino to do some rewrites on the script of his next film after True Romance, 1995’s Crimson Tide.
Tarantino did not receive screen credit for his contributions to the screenplay of the tense submarine thriller starring Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington.
However, you don’t need to be a film scholar to spot the bits that the notoriously pop culture-obsessed Tarantino added.
Some unmistakably Tarantino moments include an argument about Marvel comic book The Silver Surfer, and references to TV series Star Trek.
There’s also a moment where the gruff naval men – one of them played by returning True Romance actor James Gandolfini – quiz one another on classic military movies.
1. It was a box office bomb
True Romance arrived in the wake of Tarantino’s rise to fame post-Reservoir Dogs, so hopes were high for a hit.
Unfortunately, True Romance didn’t wind up attracting a particularly large audience on its initial cinema release.
The film only made $12.3 million at the box office, or roughly $200,000 less than it cost to make.
Still, even if it wasn’t a commercial success, True Romance went down very well with critics, scoring largely positive reviews.
In any case, True Romance went on to build a strong cult following after being released on VHS, and is now considered by many, including us, to be one of the best films of the 1990s.