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The Untold Truth Of Pulp Fiction

It's no exaggeration to say Pulp Fiction changed American movies and culture. The film distilled the zeitgeist of Generation X into its most potent form, making an encyclopedic knowledge of media trash a benefit instead of a detriment to coolness. The decade after its release was full of wannabe Pulp Fictions, featuring underworld ultraviolence, fractured timelines, interlinked stories, ironic distance, and pop culture references. But nothing else could recapture the feeling of writer/director Quentin Tarantino's unique smash film. Pulp Fiction's story, or stories, of two hitmen (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta), a boxer on the run (Bruce Willis), a mobster (Ving Rhames), and his mistress (Uma Thurman) remains a true original. Accept no substitutions.

Pulp Fiction is an uncompromised vision from a creator who went through a long, strange trip to bring it to the screen. This deeply personal, densely referential movie is almost like an inside joke between Tarantino and his viewers, and some of those references are so "inside" only a lucky few are in on them. Fortunately, we dug up the stories of that process and the meanings behind those references for you, along with even more untold truths behind Pulp Fiction.

John Travolta describes a strange first meeting with Tarantino

John Travolta came to Pulp Fiction at a low point in his career. He started out strong in the '70s, parlaying his success in the TV smash hit Welcome Back, Kotter into even bigger roles in films like Grease, Saturday Night Fever, and Blow Out, the last of which Quentin Tarantino has put on his top three movies ever made. But he hadn't made a movie like that in a long while by the time he got the call from Tarantino in the early '90s. After the success of his debut feature, Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino had the clout to live out his dream and make his idol a star again.

That's a very kind gesture, but a story Travolta tells makes it sound almost creepy. The New Zealand Herald quotes his tale of being invited to Tarantino's house and discovering his collection of Travolta-themed board games. "He just had this fantasy of being with his favorite actor and playing the board games from that actor's movies," Travolta says. Fortunately, Travolta found this odd behavior thoughtful and charming — maybe because he'd never seen Misery.

The Simpsons joked about John Travolta's career right when he made his comeback

If you want to know how low John Travolta's showbiz prospects had sunk by the time he clawed his way back, just tune into his cameo (as played by Harry Shearer) on The Simpsons. In the Season 6 episode "Itchy and Scratchy Land," Marge and Homer enjoy themselves on Parents' Island while the kids run around the theme park devoted to their favorite ultraviolent cartoon critters. One of the attractions there is Itchy's '70s disco, where Marge is thrilled to see a bartender who looks just like John Travolta, all dressed up in his iconic Saturday Night Fever leisure suit. "Yeah," Travolta says nervously, "Looks like."

Given that his most notable roles at the time were in the three Look Who's Talking movies, it must have seemed probable enough that Travolta would have to tend bar to make ends meet. Fortunately for the Simpsons writers, this joke reached TV screens the exact last time it could be funny — "Itchy and Scratchy Land" aired on October 2, 1994, not even two weeks before Pulp Fiction premiered at Cannes. And there's even more eerie coincidences — doesn't the '70s disco where the staff all dress like the stars of a past era feel an awful lot like Jackrabbit Slim's, the '50s-themed diner that plays a major role in Pulp Fiction itself?

Jules' Bible passage isn't really biblical — but it does come from a martial arts movie

Pulp Fiction is one of the most quotable movies ever made, but few lines have stuck in viewers' heads quite like the monologue that Samuel L. Jackson's character Jules delivers to his victims and that later inspires him to leave crime behind. He claims to be quoting scripture, specifically Ezekiel 25:17. Of course, if you know how biblical citation works, you'll notice it goes on a lot longer than one verse, and in fact, only the ending of the speech comes from the source Jules claims for it. The rest is a mishmash of Old and New Testament, from Genesis ("his brother's keeper") to the 23rd Psalm ("the valley of darkness"). It seems like a classic example of Quentin Tarantino's irreverent mix-and-match approach to writing — and it is, — but as it turns out, he didn't actually write this monologue at all.

Jules' speech actually comes from Bodigaado Kiba, a movie that would be right up Tarantino's alley — a low-budget comic book adaptation full of crime and violence, starring legendary martial artist Sonny Chiba. For its American release, retitled The Bodyguard (even though Whitney Houston has exactly nothing to do with it), Aquarius Releasing added a new narrated text prologue. Right down to the bogus citation, it's almost word-for-word identical to Jules' big speech, though Tarantino naturally had to take out the reference to Chiba's character ("And you will know my name is Chiba the Bodyguard when I lay my vengeance upon them.")

The briefcase was originally a Reservoir Dogs crossover

For over 25 years, Pulp Fiction fans have wanted to know just one thing: What's in that briefcase? We meet Jules and Vince as they're on a mission to ice some poor slobs who've stolen it from their boss, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). Jules and Vince open it multiple times, but we never see inside it or get any hint as to what it might be other than an unearthly glow.

That mystery is an essential part of Pulp Fiction's lasting appeal, but Tarantino started out with a much more concrete answer. His early drafts with Roger Avary revealed the briefcase contained the same diamonds that the hapless heisters from Reservoir Dogs had been fighting to get their hands on, according to an interview between Avary and famed film critic Roger Ebert (via Lifehacker). But apparently it was decided that was "too predictable," and instead of racking their brains for a better option, the writers left that job up to the audience.

It's an idea that proves he steals from only the best — the film noir classic Kiss Me Deadly from 1955 also revolves around a mysterious case, and we never see anything but a glow coming from inside that one either, but we still get to see the damage the possibly radioactive cargo can do. And we know that film was on Tarantino's mind from his description of Bruce Willis's character Butch to Sight and Sound: "I wanted him to be basically like Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer in Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly."

Lance's cereal is one of Tarantino's most prized possessions

Actor Eric Stoltz appears in Pulp Fiction as Lance, the local drug dealer who supplies Vince with the junk that almost kills Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) and has to walk him through the process of reviving her. We meet Lance lounging on the sofa in front of TV reruns with a bowl of cereal. 

The specific brand is the kind of detail most directors wouldn't think twice about, but it was serious business to Quentin Tarantino. That's Fruit Brute, the long-discontinued monster cereal that used to adorn grocery-store shelves around Halloween along with its more famous counterparts Count Chocula and Frankenberry. The brand went out of regular circulation eight Halloweens after its debut and was soon forgotten by just about everyone — except for Tarantino, apparently. (General Mills did eventually bring Fruit Brute back to store shelves in 2013 to haunt your breakfast table with the rest of the Monster cereal gang.)

This isn't even the first time the director snuck it into one of his movies — you can see it in Mr. Orange's apartment in Reservoir Dogs, underneath the Silver Surfer poster. It's a seemingly insignificant detail, but it goes a long way to establishing Pulp Fiction's weird, timeless world, where Vince may carry a '90s-tastic cell phone and the Vietnam War may be long ago in Butch's childhood, but the '70s still never really ended.

Vince's car belonged to Quentin Tarantino...for a while

Pulp Fiction restored John Travolta's cool when he was cast as the character Vincent Vega. The man has cool clothes, cool dialogue, and, of course, a cool car. And Tarantino would know — that's his own red Chevy Vince is driving. 

According to Hot Cars, the director bought the'64 Chevy Malibu Super Sport five years earlier with the money he made selling the script for True Romance. The model was part of the Chevelle series, Chevrolet's first muscle cars, and a favorite for classic car fans. 

That must have made it a tempting target for carjackers, and maybe seeing it onscreen got one thief's attention, since the Malibu went missing from Tarantino's LA home the year Pulp Fiction premiered. Tarantino probably assumed he'd never get it back, but believe it or not, he did — over 15 years later. In 2013, TMZ reported that the Malibu was found, and that its owner at the time wasn't charged, which only seems fair — over all those years, the car probably changed hands many times since the original thief got ahold of it.

Quentin Tarantino went to high and low culture for the dance contest scene

There's nothing Quentin Tarantino loves more than dropping references to other movies into his own, and the twist contest in Jackrabbit Slim's is a doozy. On the blu-ray release's "Chit Chat" documentary extra, John Travolta recalls Tarantino screened him Bande á Part to show him the vibe he was looking for. This classic comes from director Jean-Luc Godard, one of the founders of the French New Wave of the '60s. Pulp Fiction references one of its most famous scenes, where the trio dance to the jukebox in a coffee shop while Godard removes the sound of the music and inserts narration describing their inner thoughts. Bande á Part obviously made a big impression on Tarantino — he named his own production company "A Band Apart." (Godard said he'd rather Tarantino had just cut him a check.)

Film fans may also recognize some of Thurman and Travolta's moves from an even more important classic of European cinema. Federico Fellini's classic 8 ½ combines fantasy and autobiography for a story of a filmmaker battling creative frustration and existential despair. He turns that dour setup into a whole lot of fun, including a dance sequence that could have come straight out of Jackrabbit Slim's.

That's all heady stuff, but Tarantino hasn't forgotten his love of disposable pop-culture trash. At one point, Travolta waves two fingers in front of his eyes, the signature move in "the Batusi," a dance from the classic '60s Batman series starring Adam West.

Quentin Tarantino snuck a crossover with a classic war movie into the watch monologue

If anyone in Pulp Fiction gets a monologue as memorable as Jules', it's one-scene wonder Christopher Walken as Captain Koons. He arrives in a flashback to Butch Coolidge's childhood to deliver the boy's heirloom watch, along with its history, including an inappropriately graphic description of just how Koons and Butch's father hid it from their captors in a POW camp. Another of the watch's previous owners, Dane Coolidge, died in World War II at the battle of Wake Island, but not before entrusting the watch to an Air Force gunner named Winocky.

The man's name seems like an odd detail to include, and Quentin Tarantino doesn't do it arbitrarily. It's a tribute to Howard Hawks, the multitalented Old Hollywood master behind every kind of film: romantic comedies like His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby, gangster dramas like the original Scarface, film noir like The Big Sleep, musicals like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and westerns like Red River, to name just a few. And that same unique vision connected them all, especially his pioneering use of witty, overlapping dialogue that paved the way for Tarantino. The younger director paid his debt by placing the events of former pilot Hawks' 1943 war flick Air Force in the Pulp Fiction world, inserting John Garfield's character Sergeant Joe Winocki into Captain Koons' story.

Quentin Tarantino hid inside jokes in the fight marquee

Pulp Fiction is so dense you can't afford to blink for a minute, or you might miss something. Chapter Two, "The Gold Watch," shows the fallout from a fight where Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) bribes boxer Butch Coolidge to throw a fight. Instead, Butch doesn't just win — he beats his opponent literally to death and runs off with the money. With all that action, you might not notice the names on the marquee advertising the fight: "Coolidge vs. Wilson." There's a sly historical in-joke here, referencing two early-20th-century US presidents: Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge. 

And if that's not inside enough for you, Tarantino throws in another reference on that marquee just for himself and a few close friends. In smaller letters above Coolidge and Wilson, the venue also advertises a bout between Vossler and Martinez. Who the heck is that? In My Best Friend's Birthday: The Making of a Quentin Tarantino Film, Andrew J. Rausch chronicles Tarantino's early days as a lowly video store clerk working alongside Russel Vossler and Jerry Martinez. Obviously, the rising superstar never forgot where he came from, and he threw a tribute to his friends into the movie that made him a major Hollywood player.

Quentin Tarantino dropped in a reference to a long-developing project

Vincent Vega has a bad habit of going to the john at the worst times. When Butch runs home to pick up his watch, he discovers Vince is waiting for him when he finds his gun on the counter and shoots Vince as he leaves the toilet. Later in the film — but chronologically before his death — Vince takes another powder and misses Jules' confrontation with the stick-up artists in the diner. Both times, he's carrying a copy of Modesty Blaise, one of a series of spy thrillers starring writer Peter O'Donnell comic strip heroine. Modesty was a former war orphan and international criminal who does freelance work for the British secret service. 

Quentin Tarantino's obviously a fan, and he nearly put his own stamp on the character. At some point, Miramax bought the rights to the Modesty Blaise series, apparently in the hopes that Tarantino would make a big screen adaptation. Nothing ever came of it, and in order to keep from losing the rights, the studio turned out a quickie direct-to-video movie called My Name Is Modesty. And we do mean quick — Variety reports the whole thing was thrown together in 18 days with a director who'd only been on the job for a week before filming started. Tarantino still hasn't shown any indication of making his own Modesty movie, but he did get a credit on My Name Is Modesty as producer.

Samuel L. Jackson's mother asked him why they didn't put Pulp Fiction together right

Pulp Fiction's nonlinear storytelling was revolutionary in 1994, thanks in no small part to editor Sally Menke's Oscar-nominated work. Opening with a prologue with two characters whose relevance to the main story doesn't become apparent until the end and showing the deadly results of Vince's decision to continue his violent occupation before we see the decision itself, Pulp Fiction blew audiences' minds. Quentin Tarantino didn't invent this style of storytelling — you can see it in novels like James Joyce's Ulysses or Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and movies like Citizen Kane — but he turned it from an intellectual exercise to a crowd-pleasing gimmick. In the process, he inspired hundreds of imitators, from Christopher Nolan's backwards breakout hit Memento to the intersecting plotlines of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia to Tarantino's own future films.

But not everyone was such a big fan. In the documentary extra included in one of Pulp Fiction's DVD releases, "Not the Usual Mindless Boring Getting to Know You Chit Chat," Samuel L. Jackson recalls, "I remember my mom saying, 'Why didn't they put the movie together right? ... It was jumping all over the place, back and forth, you're dead, you're alive, you're back you're here!' I said, 'Ma, that's just how the movie works. ... Everybody can't watch it, apparently you can't.'"

Tarantino has a script for a Pulp Fiction/Reservoir Dogs crossover

Vincent Vega's name may sound familiar to fans of Tarantino's first film, Reservoir Dogs, where the only named member of the color-coded crew is Michael Madsen's psychotic Mr. Blonde, AKA Vic Vega. That's more than just a coincidence — Tarantino envisioned the two characters as brothers and wrote a whole script exploring their relationship. Madsen recently revealed some of the details to The Hollywood Reporter: Vince and Vic would have met after being released from prison in different states and started a club in Amsterdam, neatly tying into Vince's legendary discussion of the city in Pulp Fiction

Unfortunately, other projects kept getting in the way, and by now both Madsen and Travolta are far too old to convincingly play their own younger selves. The idea still resurfaced, moving the timeframe from before the characters' deaths to after, instead focusing on two other Vega brothers who meet at their siblings' funeral. But for now, it looks like either version will only exist in fans' imaginations.