True Romance: 15 Years Later
More than a decade after it tanked at the box office, Tarantino, Gandolfini, and others dish the behind-the-scenes dirt on the making of a true cult classic.
ACT I: WRITER MEETS DIRECTOR | ACT II: ACTORS MEET MORE ACTORS
ACT III: MOVIE MEETS MULTIPLEX
On September 10, 1993, a major motion Picture—penned by future hotshot Quentin Tarantino, directed by action pro Tony Scott, and starring Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette—hit theaters with a brash fusion of stylized violence and whip-smart dialogue. It bombed. But True Romance was born again when it was released on video, achieving cult status among film geeks, rock stars, and regular Joes who got hip to Tarantino after 1994’s Pulp Fiction. Now, on the iconic flick’s 15th anniversary, you’d never guess the saga of an Elvis-obsessed loner who marries a hooker and flees to California with her pimp’s cocaine, was anything but a Hollywood hit. A few of its scenes—cue the Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper face-off—are held in mythic esteem. We corralled the stars and creators to reconstruct the secret historyof True Romance—the production screwups, the on-set madness, and the sex and violence that reverberate so strongly to this day.
[ACT I: BOY SCREENWRITER MEETS HOLLYWOOD]
Tony Scott (director): When I was directing The Last Boy Scout, my assistant was hanging out with this quirky guy named Quentin Tarantino, and he’d be around the set. She said, “You gotta read his script.” I said, “Yeah, right.”
Quentin Tarantino (screenwriter): When you’re a nobody, it’s murder to get anyone to read your scripts. So my thing was making the first page fantastic, with dialogue that grabbed you right away. The original True Romance script started with a long discussion about cunnilingus. Most people said the script was racist and that the grotesque violence would make people sick. I told Tony, “Read the first three pages. If you don’t like it, throw it away.”
Scott: He gave me two scripts: True Romance, which was his first script, and Reservoir Dogs. I’m a terrible reader, but I read them both on a flight to Europe. By the time I landed, I wanted to make both of them into movies. When I told Quentin, he said, “You can only do one.”
Life Beyond Romance
We all know about Gandolifini and Pitt, but where’s everyone else? A lot can happen in 15 years—just ask Tom Sizemore.
Quentin Tarantino Directorial efforts include Pulp Fiction (1994) Jackie Brown (1997), Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 (2003, 2004), and the “Death Proof” part of Grindhouse (2007). Remains an indie icon despite that last credit.
Tony Scott Filming a remake of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, which, like Reservoir Dogs, features crooks named Mr. Blue and Mr. Brown.
Christian Slater Legal trouble stalled his momentum in the ’90s. Was reportedly Tasered off Paris Hilton’s roof by the LAPD during a 2005 party. Memo to Hollywood: Rewatch Heathers and give him another shot.
Patricia Arquette Starring in NBC’s Medium, the best of the crazy lady with crime-related visions series.
Val Kilmer Continued to portray pop-culture icons with roles as Batman and John Holmes. Voicing KITT in the remake of NBC’s Knight Rider series.
Gary Oldman Perfected playing crazed miscreants through 2001’s Hannibal. Has since mellowed into “good guy” role in Batman Begins.
Dennis Hopper Turn on your TV. Wait 30 seconds. He will materialize, dressed in black, shilling for Ameriprise. Not Blue Velvet scary, but…
Christopher Walken Parlayed turns in True Romance and Pulp Fiction into lesser appearances in every faux-Tarantino film, lately complemented with comedic flair.
Bronson Pinchot Agitated Janice Dickinson on The Surreal Life. And, um… Memo to Hollywood, No. 2: Rewatch Beverly Hills Cop.
Michael Rapaport Appeared as Phoebe’s slow-witted boyfriend on Friends. And as slow-witted husband in sitcom The War at Home. Is actually quick-witted in Maxim interviews.
Chris Penn RIP, 1965–2006
Saul Rubinek Played Larry David’s dentist, Dr. Funkhouser, on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Do not give him the finger—he’ll have you killed.
Tom Sizemore Appeared in Heat (1995) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). Then went to hell and back. At press time: still back.
Scott got True Romance. Given his blockbuster track record (Top Gun, Days of Thunder) Harvey and Bob Weinstein, whose Miramax Films would also distribute Reservoir Dogs, came aboard as executive producers. Now Scott needed to find the right cast.
Christian Slater (Clarence Worley): I was making Unchained Heart in Minnesota when I got the script. Clarence, the lead character, was an oddball. Not your typical film hero. He obviously spent a lot of time alone, talking to his imaginary Elvis. His brain wasn’t all there.
Tarantino: For most first-time writers, the lead character is your stand-in. Clarence was me. If you’d asked me then if Christian Slater was right for the part, I’d have said no— he was too handsome. I was thinking of Robert Carradine.
Slater: I met Quentin during rehearsal and remember thinking that Clarence was a version of who he wanted to be. I had visions of guys like Quentin who worked in video stores and are energetic about movies, but could never really be Charles Bronson. Tony had a different take. He thought of Clarence as much cooler.
Scott: Christian and I watched Taxi Driver. Before that I think he saw Clarence as softer. I was chasing black fucking comedy, and Christian was looking at it as more of a comedy.
Int. Rae’s Restaurant—night
Patricia Arquette (Alabama Whitman): My agent told me about this script for a Tony Scott movie. There was a lot I liked about it, but I didn’t like when Alabama was sort of racist. By now we’ve all gotten used to Quentin’s tone, but at the time I was somewhat shocked by it. I was asking myself, “What is this? Whoa!” I don’t know if the line about being turned off by Persians was in the script. Actually, every time we shot that scene, I would say a different ethnic group—I wanted to be equally offensive to all people.
Tarantino: When I wrote it, my ideal Alabama was Joan Cusack.
Arquette: Tony really wanted Drew Barrymore as Alabama. He was obsessed with her. He had pictures of her wearing little outfits. But I think she was unavailable.
Scott: We met with Patricia, and Christian had a woody from the first time he saw her. That made my life a lot easier. The viewer believing they’re in love comes from their chemistry. Patricia fell in love with Christian, and he with her. They had a true romance.
Arquette: The material led to this incredibly romantic, magnetized relationship. Christian is charming and funny, and there was a sexual attraction between us.
Slater: It was love at first sight. But working with Patricia was tricky, because I was in a relationship. We both made attempts to be professional, but at that age it was difficult.
Gary Oldman (Drexl Spivey, pimp): I hadn’t read the script, and knew nothing about it. Tony and I had tea at the Four Seasons and he said, “Look, I can’t really explain the plot. But Drexl’s a pimp who’s white but thinks he’s black.” That was all I needed to hear. I said, “I’ll do it.”
Scott: Gary called me out of the blue and said, “I’ve got it. I know exactly who this guy is: He’s my drug dealer.”
Oldman: My drug dealer? Tony would fucking get me arrested, wouldn’t he? I’ve never had a drug dealer! I organized Drexl’s dreadlocks under my own steam. Then I went to a dentist who made the teeth. Then I thought about giving him a weird eye. I’m only in the film for about 10 minutes—I wanted to make my mark. I heard this gang of black kids outside my trailer and thought, That’s Drexl. I showed this kid my lines and said, “Does this seem authentic?” He changed some words. He said, “That don’t fly. Drexl wouldn’t say ‘titties’; he’d say ‘breasteses.’¿”
Tarantino: Those kids were clowning him, and he believed them because he didn’t know any better. Because he’s British.
Int. Dingy Hotel Room—night
BIG DON:I eat the pussy. I eat the butt. I eat every motherfuckin’ thang.
Bronson Pinchot (Elliot Blitzer, drug connection): I got the script during the last days of Perfect Strangers. I read the entire pussy-eating monologue in my character Balki’s accent. People on set were scandalized.
Scott: Meanwhile, Quentin became a sensation around Hollywood. He was making his
indie movie with Reservoir Dogs, and I was doing the big movie. Everybody wanted to be a part of it. Brad Pitt, who had recently done Thelma & Louise, called and said, “Why don’t you let me play the roommate?” I said, “Are you serious? Fucking yes!” because he was on the bloom of stardom. Val Kilmer wanted to play Clarence. I had a different vision, so Val said, “Then let me play Elvis.” For six months before we started shooting, he would sing Elvis songs on my answering machine.
Slater: I watched as many Elvis movies as I could, doing my best to fall in love with him like Clarence does. Elvis the imaginary friend was real to Clarence.
Tarantino: Is Elvis really visiting Clarence, or is it his imagination? I can give you the answer, but I’m not going to. It’s for you to decide.
When filming began, the combination of veteran actors and breakout talent fostered a spirit of collaboration. Together they’d tackle racially sensitive monologues, a vicious fight between a hulking mobster and a petite hooker, and a bullet-riddled climax. Improvisation would be embraced. Tears would be shed. And if the director had to slap someone around, so be it.
Tom Sizemore (Cody Nicholson, LAPD detective): Tony started every take like this: “Rock’n’roll, motherfuckers! Action!”
Scott: Gary would bring his 70-year-old mum to the set. After a take he’d go, “Mum, what do you think?” She’d say, “It’s good,” and he’d go, “What the fuck do you know? It’s terrible.”
Oldman: Yeah, my mother was on the set. She’s seen it all. God bless her, she’s still running around at 88 years old.
Scott: His mum was also there for the scene where Drexl’s dick gets blown off. She said, “Yeah, I thought that was really good.”
Oldman: The gun fired blanks, but there was still a flare and powder coming out of the barrel. I wore a metal cup. I’ve died in a lot of movies, but to have my dick blown off and then get shot in the face with my eyes open, that’s up there. That beats a stake through the heart.
Arquette: I had a hard time with the scene where Clarence tells me he’s killed Drexl and I say, “What you did was so romantic.” I couldn’t jump to that reaction. My acting coach and I came up with the idea that here’s a man I barely know, who killed someone and is eating a burger. He could kill me next. As a female, the way to stay safe is to be in a love bubble. Part of her does think it’s romantic, like, kill all the mistakes I ever made.
The classic standoff between a Mob boss (Walken) and Clarence’s protective father (Hopper) is among the movie’s most memorable scenes. Due to its racially charged language, it’s also the most controversial.
Arquette: I’d worked with Dennis on The Indian Runner and had a little crush on him, but never expressed it. We had this scene where I kiss him, and he goes, “She does taste like a peach.” I had someone go buy this lip gloss from when I was a kid. I wanted him to lick his lips and go, “Wow, she actually does taste like peach.”
Int. Trailer Home—day
CLIFF:Way back then, Sicilians were like wops in Northern Italy. They all had blond hair and blue eyes. But then the Moors moved in there, and they changed the whole country.
Dennis Hopper (Clifford Worley, Clarence’s father): The only lines Christopher Walken and I
improvised in our big scene were my line “You’re part eggplant,” and his line “You’re a cantaloupe.” The rest was written by Quentin. Was I worried about the racial overtones? Not really. Because it’s factual. The Moors did invade Sicily, and they did breed. Quentin writes like people speak. He doesn’t have to be PC.
James Gandolfini (Virgil, Mob henchman): I was glad to just be observing Hopper and Walken. We were crowded into this little trailer when Hopper gets shot, so everyone was offered earplugs. I remember Walken didn’t ask for any, so, being very cool, I didn’t ask for any either. I couldn’t hear for three goddamn days.
Hopper: Tony has this special gun that you fire and flames come out the side. I said, “Tony, you’re not putting that gun right to my head.” He said, “It’s fine, do it to me.” So a crew guy shot him, and he started bleeding. He said, “OK, that won’t work.”
Clarence and Alabama’s plan to sell the stolen cocaine in L.A. allowed Tarantino to add a layer of Hollywood satire to the story. And Scott, whose Last Boy Scout was coproduced by fast-talking über-producer Joel Silver, was ready to inject his own observations.
Slater: I think the movie captured what L.A. is pretty much about. There are lots of shady characters and wacky producers.
Tarantino: I didn’t write the part of the producer who buys the coke to be Joel Silver. Tony turned him into Joel Silver.
Saul Rubinek (Lee Donowitz, Hollywood producer): I was auditioning and Tony said, “You got him exactly right. That’s Joel. You nailed him.” And I said, “Sorry, I’m confused—Joel?” “Joel Silver,” he said. I had no idea who that was.
Scott: The Hollywood satire is affectionate. But Joel didn’t talk to me for a while after that.
The original script set a preliminary drug deal involving Clarence and two wannabe actors at a zoo. But Scott, wanting more action, switched the locale to an amusement park.
Scott: The roller-coaster scene was difficult. Pinchot was shitting himself, and Rapaport was so scared that he dropped a bunch of Quaaludes and couldn’t say his lines.
Michael Rapaport (Dick Ritchie, wannabe actor): I don’t like roller coasters. They had to convince me to ride it, and I threw up, so we had to reshoot it a week later. The second time, they sedated me. Some shots show me smiling because I’m drugged out of my mind, and some show me crying because I honestly thought I was going to crap.
Gandolfini: Everybody was young and nuts. Brad Pitt was around, too. I don’t think he was “Brad Pitt” then, but he was great. I just had to watch him and say, “What a fuckin’ flake.” He improvised a lot.
Int. Dick’s Apartment—day
FLOYD (Dick’s stoner roommate):Don’t condescend me, man. I’ll fucking kill you.
Scott: “Don’t condescend me.” That’s not in the script. That was Pitt.
Tarantino: Not only is Brad good, but his scene with the gangsters got the audience laughing so hard. It was one of the best reactions I’ve ever seen in a piece of my work.
Romance’s most shocking scene may be Gandolfini’s brutal interrogation and beating of Arquette, in which both actors bravely push the movie’s trademark blend of eloquence and violence to the limit—and wind up with the bruises to show for it.
Tarantino: At that point in the movie, if Clarence is getting the shit kicked out of him, you know he isn’t going to die because he’s the star and there are 20 minutes to go. But dramatically speaking, Alabama could have died. She was expendable.
Scott: Gandolfini exudes both childlike innocence and enormous fucking danger. The fight scene between him and Patricia builds slowly, like a volcano. There’s small talk at the beginning: “You’re so cute—spin around for me.” Then he pops her.
Arquette: First it’s about a girl waiting for her boyfriend to rescue her, and she’s working through her natural bag of tricks: flirting, being dumb. Then Virgil tells her about the transition he made to being a killer. And really, he’s telling her what’s going to happen to her in a moment. She’s going to make this transition, and she’s never going to be the same person.
Gandolfini: Patricia was totally down with it—she was very strong and tough. I’d do something to her character, and her stunt woman would call me a pussy.
Arquette: My mind wasn’t where I wanted to be, so Tony said, “Do you want me to help you?” I said yes, and he smacked me in the face. I was shocked. I started crying.
Scott: When she couldn’t get herself there emotionally, Patricia used to call my right hand “the Persuader.” She’d say, “Bring on the Persuader,” and I’d have to slap her. She’d say, “Hit me harder!” I’d stand there on the set giving Patricia right-handers. That does not happen a lot with me and actors.
Gandolfini: It was a little rough. There was a lot of throwing. You didn’t see that often with a man and woman. I ended up doing it a lot on The Sopranos for some reason.
Pinchot: I can’t watch the scene where Patricia’s being beat up. It’s so good it makes me sick. Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore were also amazing as the cops who make me wear a wire to the drug deal. We did takes where Chris slapped me across the face with the bag of coke, then grabbed me in a stranglehold and smashed my head on the table. There’s some woman talking about her boobs, and all of a sudden Chris Penn is strangling me.
Sizemore: It was tough keeping a straight face during the scenes with Bronson. It was very funny when he had the listening device in his crotch. My laughs in that scene are authentic.
Back to: Elevator
With the .38 up against Elliot’s head, Clarence puts his palm over the top of the gun to shield himself from the splatter. Alabama and Dick can’t believe what he’s gonna do.
Pinchot: When Clarence pulls the gun in the elevator, my character fucking loses it. If you’re going to do a scene like that, you have to stay up all night. I said to myself, there’s nothing else in my head but reality. Nobody on set is eating a Snickers bar right now. There is only me, and I’m gonna die.
Sizemore: The scene where we’re listening to what’s going on in the elevator was all improvised. We didn’t work on anything. God rest his soul, Chris Penn was a wonderful, underrated actor—a real pro. He also was the brother of Sean Penn, one of the greater actors of all time. So he had a tough road.
Int. Lee’s Suite, the Beverly Ambassador Hotel
This is a Mexican standoff if there ever was one. Gangsters on one end with shotguns. Bodyguards with machine guns on the other. And cops with handguns in the middle. Alabama’s so scared she pees on herself.
Arquette: We filmed the hotel drug deal at the abandoned Ambassador Hotel, where Robert Kennedy was shot. We just called that scene the clusterfuck.
Sizemore: It was a clusterfuck. And the fucking feathers from the exploding pillows were there for four days, man. I got killed in take one, and I had to lay there the whole time with feathers in my mouth.
Scott: In Quentin’s original script, Christian dies and Patricia takes off with the money. All the cynical people die. Rapaport is spared because he’s innocent, and everybody else gets their comeuppance.
Tarantino: I tried like hell to convince Tony to let Clarence die, because that’s what I wrote and it wasn’t open for conjecture. I made this big dramatic plea: “You’re losing your balls. You’re trying to make it Hollywood shit. Why are you doing this?” He listened to the whole thing and then convinced me 100 percent that he wasn’t doing it for commercial reasons.
Scott: I just fell in love with these two characters and didn’t want to see them die. I wanted them together.
Tarantino: When I watched the movie, I realized that Tony was right. He always saw it as a fairy tale love story, and in that capacity it works magnificently. But in my world Clarence is dead and Alabama is on her own. If she ever shows up in another one of my scripts, Clarence will still be dead.
ACT I: WRITER MEETS DIRECTOR | ACT II: ACTORS MEET MORE ACTORS
ACT III: MOVIE MEETS MULTIPLEX
[ACT III: MOVIE MEETS MULTIPLEX, LOSES MONEY, EARNS FANS]
When the movie wrapped, the actors wiped off the fake blood and went their separate ways, while Scott dived into editing and working with Warner Bros. to market his movie. All concerned had high hopes.
Scott: We had test screenings in Orange County. Christian was a date-movie star at the time, so our focus group was a little miscast. Two thirds of the theater emptied when Gary blew away Sam Jackson, and the rest left when Christian blew away Gary.
Hopper: Every time they showed it to an audience, they’d get standing ovations.
Tarantino: Warner Bros. was going to change the title to Reckless Hearts. I called Patricia, Christian, and Tony and said, “Let’s go to the press junket and talk about how bad that title is and how good the real title is. We’ll name the head of the marketing department in every interview so he’s on the fucking hook.”
Rubinek: The movie bombed. I don’t think the studio knew how to market this kind of movie. If they released it today, it would be a hit.
Int. Lee’s Suite, the Beverly Ambassador Hotel
LEE:You know what I’d like to do right now? I’d like to see Dr. Zhivago.
Hopper: I was surprised. The movie had no theatrical life—it came and went in a week. Were people expecting a traditional love story?
Indeed, True Romance made a miserable $11.5 million at the box office. It did receive some good reviews, but not from Senator Bob Dole, who, as a presidential candidate in 1995, lambasted it as an example of movies that “revel in mindless violence and loveless sex.”
Arquette: Senators talked about True Romance because they were advocating more censorship. Bob Dole said our movie was “disgusting”—or maybe that I was disgusting.
Tarantino: I knew Dole hadn’t seen True Romance or Natural Born Killers. I couldn’t believe that a guy running for president of the United States, the land of the free and the home of the brave, was condemning art he hadn’t even seen. You fucking asshole, you’d say anything to get elected.
Sizemore: I was in True Romance and Natural Born Killers. That’s why I went to prison.
[Editors’ note: Using a prosthetic penis to fake a court-ordered drug test didn’t help.]
Hopper: I don’t know anyone in the industry who hasn’t seen it now. It’s a wonderful movie, and not just because I have a great scene.
Rapaport: People still call me Dick Ritchie. I’ve had people come up and start quoting Christopher Walken, and it scares the shit out of me, because I don’t realize they’re movie lines.
Oldman: My most quoted line is, “I know I’m pretty, but I ain’t as pretty as a pair of titties.”
Tarantino: People have told me that they put the “You’re so cool” line in their wedding vows. I even met a couple with matching your so cool tattoos. True Romance and Reservoir Dogs were the growing pains for Pulp Fiction’s success. Audiences were seeing something they hadn’t seen before—comedy and violence switching on a dime. They’d be horrified one second and laughing the next.
Int. The Beverly Ambassador—day
ELVIS:I gotta hand it to ya, Clarence. That was cool. Man, you were cooler than cool.ACT I: WRITER MEETS DIRECTOR | ACT II: ACTORS MEET MORE ACTORS
ACT III: MOVIE MEETS MULTIPLEX