There have been many famous acting teams (Laurel & Hardy, Lewis & Martin, Hepburn & Tracy), actor-director teams (De Niro & Scorsese, Keaton & Allen, Cruz & Almodovar), and even actor-cinematographer teams (Garbo & Daniels). But when it comes to director-producer pairings, few have lasted longer or have borne more fruit than that of Quentin Tarantino and Lawrence Bender.
It’s not the likeliest of partnerships. The latter is a Jewish kid from the Bronx with a college degree in civil engineering who tried his hand at ballet before injuries led him into acting and then low-budget producing, while the former is a kid of Irish-Italian descent from Tennessee who dropped out of school during the 9th grade and worked at a video store for a few years. But after the two were introduced in 1989 at a barbeque at the home of director Scott Spiegel (for whom Bender had produced his first movie, “Intruder,” that same year), it quickly became clear to both that they were going to work together. As Bender told me during a phone interview last Thursday, “We got excited with each other. We were both struggling. We were both outsiders. We both were trying to fight our way into the system. And we just starting talking about, “Let’s make a movie together.”
Bender had remembered Tarantino’s name from a script that he’d previously read and found impressive, “True Romance,” and asked him what he was working on at the moment. Tarantino told him he had written another script, too, “Reservoir Dogs,” which, to his great frustration, had also failed to take off at that point. Fed up with waiting, Tarantino said he was ready to self-finance it as a super-low-budget, black-and-white, 16mm film, but Bender asked him to wait just a little longer so that he could read it over. It didnt take him long to get back to Tarantino: “I was just, like, ‘Man, this is too amazing… let’s raise some real money.’”
Tarantino acquiesced, and Bender went to work. “I went to every person I knew, and asked them to go to every person that they knew.” Bender recalls that some interesting offers came up around that time: “At one point, we had one guy who was gonna give us $500,000; at one point, we had someone who was gonna give us $1.5 million if Mr. Black was played by a girl — his girlfriend; and someone else said, ‘We’ll give you a million-five, but the end needs to be like ‘The Sting’ where everyone’s not really dead’ rather than have a movie where everyone dies at the end. But we held to our guns.”
“Eventually,” Bender says, “a friend of mine led me to Monte Hellman; Monte Hellman said, ‘Okay, great’; and he gave it to his friend Richard Gladstein, who was at Live Entertainment.” [Hellman and Gladstein helped finance the film and became executive producers.] Then, Bender adds, my acting teacher gave the script to Harvey Keitel, who liked what he read and signed on to play Mr. White, and whose commitment to participate led to additional financing and interested actors. “That’s how I did it,” Bender laughs.
Bender recalls that “Reservoir Dogs” (1994) was received as “a cool indie movie that people were watching, if not loving.” Two years later, though, “Pulp Fiction” (1994), his second collaboration with Tarantino, became a massive hit at the box-office that “sort of rewrote the way things are” and “became a reference-point in cinema history.” Since then, Bender has continued to produce every film that Tarantino has directed: “Four Rooms” (1995, a segment of which was directed by Tarantino), “Jackie Brown” (1997), “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” (2003), “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” (2004), and, most recently, “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), which has earned eight Oscar nominations including best director and best screenwriter for Tarantino and best picture for Bender.
Bender, who has also produced movies apart from Tarantino like “Good Will Hunting” (1997) and “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006), explains that a producer’s job is different on every movie. “Many times,” he says, “what happens is the producer will option a piece of material, find a writer, meet with studio and financier, bring in a director, and work with the director to hire all the main people.” He adds that during production, “people regress sometimes, and it’s the producer’s job to make sure everyone gets along and everything gets resolved.” Then, a producer helps the director during post-production, works on marketing/distribution, and is essentially the last man off the film.
But, Bender emphasizes, it’s different when he works on a film by Tarantino, who he regards as a true auteur: “He comes up with an idea; he spends time writing it; and maybe, if I’m lucky, he’ll read me pages. When he gets excited about a scene, he’ll include me as one of the people that he reads these scenes to — you come over to his house, and you sit there, and he’ll just read stuff, and it’ll be very exciting. But the day he’s finished, he puts it in my lap; he says ‘What do you think?’; it’s never been anything less than ‘I love it’; and then we sit down together and map out a course of action.”
On a Tarantino film, at least, that’s when Bender’s work really starts — and he says he has never faced more challenging work than on Tarantino’s latest, “Inglourious Basterds.” On July 3, 2008, Tarantino notified Bender that the script was finished. As Bender recalls, “I went to my kitchen, sat in this really hard chair, and figured I was gonna read about 10 pages and then go over to the couch. I never got up off the chair. I read the whole thing. I went to pick up the phone, and then I said, ‘Hell, I gotta read this again.’ I read it again. And then I spoke to Quentin, and I said to him, ‘I thank you as a fan, I thank you as a producing partner, and I thank you as a member of the Jewish tribe for writing this script.’”
Tarantino then presented him Bender some startling news: he wanted to get the done in time for the Cannes Film Festival in May 2009 and asked Bender if he felt it would be possible to do so. Bender pulled out his Blackberry, looked at the calendar, counted the weeks, and then addressed Tarantino: “I said, ‘Look, we have to start shooting 14 weeks from today to give us 13 weeks to shoot and 12 weeks of post. And every one of those markers are almost impossible to pull off. But yeah, we can do it — if you want to do it, we can do it, but you have to really want it and I have to really want it.’ We both agreed we really wanted it.”
Within the next three days, Bender interviewed and hired a line producer, production designer, and three casting directors who had offices in both Los Angeles and Berlin. A day later, his production designer was on the ground in Berlin. And two weeks later, so, too, were Tarantino and Bender, who began meeting with local actors for the parts of German characters. Just twelve weeks after that, the film began shooting at the historic Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam-Babelsberg, Germany. “It was one of the toughest things I ever pulled off,” Bender says. “And I was thrilled to do it.”
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DID YOU KNOW?
There’s a perk to being Tarantino’s producer: cameo appearances in his films. Bender chuckles, “The most famous of my performances is ‘long-haired yuppie scum,’” a part that he was credited as playing not once but twice, in “Pulp Fiction” (1994) and “Four Rooms” (1995, a segment of which Tarantino directed). “On ‘Pulp Fiction’ he gave me a choice of being a ‘Hollywood type’ or a ‘long-haired yuppie scum,” so I took long-haired yuppie scum — the better of the two.”
- “EXCLUSIVE: Harvey Dishes on Life, Work, and Oscars” (2/20/10)
- “INTERVIEW: Tarantino… He’s Still One of a Kind” (2/11/10)
Photo: Quentin Tarantino and Lawrence Bender at a ceremony celebrating the creation of a “Quentin Tarantino Street” on the historic Studio Babelsberg’s backlot in Potsdam-Babelsberg, Germany. Credit: Soeren Stache (EPA).