Sunday, 1 March 2020

Natural Born Killers by Quentin Tarantino

Like True Romance, Natural Born Killers (1994) was a script by Quentin Tarantino which he sold before he rose to fame with Reservoir Dogs, and which ended up being directed by someone else.

But unlike True Romance, Tarantino has disowned the movie that resulted.

In the case of True Romance, Tony Scott was a gifted director who was willing to serve the vision of the writer, without particularly imposing his own vision on the material.

Natural Born Killers, however, was directed by Oliver Stone — in my view, an even more interesting and talented filmmaker — who took a very different approach.

Tarantino's script was initially acquired by two young producers looking to break into the movie business, Jane Hamsher and Don Murray.

They then struck a deal with Oliver Stone, and became a small part of the juggernaut of a production that ensued.

The wild ride they embarked on, and the making of Natural Born Killers, is vividly and engagingly detailed in Jane Hamsher's book about the experience, one of the best about Hollywood in recent decades.

It describes how they rapidly fell out with Tarantino, who seemed not to want this early effort of his to end up on the screen. When Oliver Stone came on board, he took pains to try and make peace with Tarantino.

But soon Stone and Tarantino had fallen out, too. Because Tarantino didn't like the changes Stone was making to his screenplay.

"I've talked to actors who've read both your script and mine," Tarantino told him, "and they say mine is better."

"Quite diplomatically, Oliver responded that he'd led a different life than Quentin, and his moviemaking was an attempt to come to terms with the real violence he'd experienced... Of course he was going to make a different movie than Quentin."

The real violence in Stone's life came during his military service in Vietnam, which formed the basis for his early hit Platoon (an excellent film).

The fantasy violence in Tarantino's script comes from the killing spree embarked on by his protagonists, the outlaw couple Mickey and Mallory Knox, who would be played by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis.

Mickey and Mallory are hardly likeable, but the media circus that surrounds them in the story isn't much better, personified as it is by the obnoxious reality TV host Wayne Gale, rather wonderfully portrayed by Robert Downey Jr sporting an Australian accent.

Stone should get full credit for cannily casting Downey, who was still far from being a major star in those days.

But not as much credit as he deserves for choosing his lead actors. It's hard to remember now, but at the time Woody Harrelson was famous for being in the sitcom Cheers, and precious little else (he'd done one other movie).

And Juliette Lewis was known only as the daughter in Scorsese's Cape Fear.

Both are superbly cast, and are perfect for their roles. Whatever Quentin Tarantino might think, Natural Born Killers is a powerful and memorable film and genuinely both experimental and transgressive.

Among the changes to his script that Tarantino objected to were the new scenes written by Dave Veloz, which portrayed Mallory's abusive childhood as a nightmarish sort of sitcom, which seems to be beamed in from the Twilight Zone.

These sequences are wildly original and highly effective.

Less successful are the scenes Stone introduced featuring what Shane Black might have called "a wise old Indian."

As Stone himself quipped, "I always have to have an Indian scene in my movies." But this detour into Native American mysticism doesn't really work.

What does work, and quite brilliantly, is the music in the film — much of it chosen by Jane Hamsher herself, including the Cowboy Junkie's version of 'Sweet Jane' — and the cinematography.

The film was photographed by Oliver Stone's regular collaborator, the great Robert Richardson — who didn't like the script. and had to be lured into working on it by Stone's promise of creative freedom:

"Oliver agreed to let Bob go wild, and use whatever film stocks, rear-screen projections, video, and other visual damage that he wanted to inflict."

And the photography in Natural Born Killers, with its deliberately phoney back projection and extraordinary coloured lighting, is often awe-inspiring, one of the great strengths of the film.

And whatever else Tarantino might have thought of Natural Born Killers, he was clearly impressed by the photography.

Because he soon hired Richardson as his regular cinematographer (starting with Kill Bill), which he remains to this day.

(Image credits: Only two official posters at Imp Awards. The one with the devil's head is from Aliexpress. The nice one of the road turning into two snakes is by Maxime Archambault and is from Curioos. The one with the splattery red sunglasses on a black background is by A Deniz Akerman and is from Society 6. The one with the red Japanese style background is from Image Abyss. The superb high angle illustration where the swirling headscarf forms a skull is from Cute Streak Designs

The director's cut one by Pop Culture Graphics is from Amazon UK. The grey one with the heart and the shotgun is from Vincent Van Doodle. The blueish-grey comic book style one by Darin Shock is from Inside the Rock Poster Frame. The wonderful expressionist cartoony one in green and white and red is by Jakub Hrdlicka, is from Terry Posters. The black and white (actually brown and white) image by Jack Applegate is from Dead Slow. The one with cigarette-and-gun smoke turning into art nouveau lettering is from Pinterest.)

1 comment:

  1. Great article! I was thinking of NBK and wondered if Tarantino wrote it or was influenced by it. Judging by the credits no, but with your story - yes! I liked Natural Born Killers more... Stone made it well stoned as he got more stoned in all his films after Platoon, Wallstreet, etc - JFK was an editing acid trip.