What's in the Briefcase?
The Secrets of ‘Pulp Fiction’: 20 Things You Didn’t Know About the Movie on Its 20th Anniversary
Today, Quentin Tarantino’s gonzo pastiche Pulp Fiction is a cult classic. We reveal the film’s most closely-guarded mysteries as it turns 20.
It’s arguably the best film of the ‘90s—a postmodern pop culture smorgasbord awash in nihilism and dripping with retro cool. Pulp Fiction, the brainchild of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino (with an assist from Roger Avary) remains one of the most batshit-brilliant movies in modern cinema; a ‘roided-up rollercoaster ride packed with more quotable lines than a half-dozen Shakespeare plays.
After being passed up by TriStar, who reportedly found it “too demented,” it was picked up by Harvey Weinstein and his Miramax Films, and released in theaters on Oct. 14, 1994—the same weekend that another modern classic, The Shawshank Redemption, expanded nationwide. It’s now regarded as a camp (and cult) classic. But the little-known stories behind the making of the film are almost as fascinating as the flick itself. In honor of Pulp Fiction turning 20, here are 20 things you didn’t know about the film:
1. DANIEL DAY-LEWIS IS VINCENT VEGA?
The role of anxiety-ridden hitman Vincent Vega was initially written for Michael Madsen, who delivered a scene-stealing turn as the Stealers Wheel-loving, ear-hacking sociopath Mr. Blonde in Tarantino’s previous film, Reservoir Dogs. However, two weeks before the script was finished, Madsen passed on the project—opting instead to play the role of Virgil Earp in Wyatt Earp. It took years for Tarantino to forgive Madsen.
With Madsen out of the picture, Harvey Weinstein wanted Daniel Day-Lewis for the part of Vega—since the English actor had won an Oscar for Miramax for My Left Foot. The famously picky Day-Lewis, who turned down Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings films and had to be coaxed into starring in Gangs of New York by having Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio visit him in Italy where he was cobbling shoes, was also interested. In fact, it’s the only role ever that Day-Lewis has actively pursued. Sean Penn and William Hurt were also considered, but Tarantino wanted John Travolta, whose star had faded, for the part. Ultimately, of course, Travolta was cast in the role after Tarantino pushed hard for him.
“I remember it was a big deal with Miramax, too, because Daniel Day was hotter than heck and I was colder than Alaska, so the idea that Quentin went for me over Daniel Day-Lewis was a very big deal,” Travolta told The Daily Beast. “But I understand now, in retrospect, why he did. By using Uma, me, and Bruce, he balanced it with pop culture, and that wouldn’t have happened with Daniel Day or anyone else vying for that part.”
2. AMSTERDAM’S WEEDSPIRATION
The genesis of the genius, Oscar winning screenplay to Pulp Fiction began in Amsterdam. Tarantino wrote it there over several months in his hotel, as well as the “coffee shop” Betty Boop. Thus, there are many cultural references to Amsterdam in the screenplay including the hilarious car exchange between Vincent and Jules about Dutch hash laws. Later, while on their date at Jack Rabbit Slims, Mia mentions how she enjoys heading over to Amsterdam every so often to “chill out” for a few months, and Vincent rolls his cigarettes with Drum—a Dutch tobacco. Also, Butch’s nickname for Fabienne is “tulip,” a flower that’s a cultural symbol of the Netherlands.
3. KURT AND COURTNEY?
So, Courtney Love claimed that Quentin Tarantino offered the part of Lance, the drug dealer played by Eric Stoltz, to Kurt Cobain, who then turned it down. If he had accepted, she said she’d have starred as Lance’s uber-pierced girlfriend, Jody (Rosanna Arquette). Tarantino later denied the rumor.
What Tarantino does cop to is that when the project was at TriStar, executives wanted Gary Oldman for the part of Lance based off the strength of his performance as a drug lord in the Tarantino-penned True Romance. When it went over to Miramax, Tarantino mulled playing Lance himself, but ultimately opted to play Jimmy so that he could film the memorable syringe sequence. The role of Jimmy was originally offered to Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs star Steve Buscemi, but he was already committed to other projects, so instead swooped in for a cameo as the Jack Rabbit Slims waiter, Buddy Holly. Pam Grier was also considered (and auditioned) for Jody, but Tarantino didn’t cast her because he felt Grier was too badass to be pushed around by Lance. Based on the strength of her audition, he built his follow-up film, Jackie Brown, around Grier.
4. BOB DOLE NEEDS SOME VIAGRA
In 1996, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole paid a visit to Chaminade High School in West Hills, California. He delivered a staunch anti-drug speech to a crowd of 1,100 students.
“There can be no question that the trendiest trend of our popular culture is the return of drug use,” Dole said. “I have a message to the fashion, music, and film industries: Take your influence seriously. Respect your talent and power. Stop the commercialization of drug abuse. Stop the glorification of slow suicide.” Then, he singled out Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting as “glorifying” drug use.
“If Bob Dole had actually seen Pulp Fiction, he’d see that it does not romanticize heroin use,” Tarantino fired back. “In fact, the most harrowing scene in the film is the one where Uma Thurman’s character almost dies from a heroin overdose. After watching that scene, you could hardly call the use of heroin in Pulp Fiction romanticized or glamorous. The day that Bob Dole actually sees my movie, I’ll expect a public apology.”
5. SEINFELD MEETS TARANTINO
One rumor that’s persisted is that, after Uma Thurman turned down the role of Mia Wallace, Miramax offered the part to Julia Louis-Dreyfuss—this, according to her ex-manager—who had to turn it down because of her Seinfeld commitments. Other actresses interviewed for Mia include Isabella Rossellini, Meg Ryan, Daryl Hannah, Joan Cusack, and Michelle Pfeiffer, with Pfeiffer almost winning Tarantino over. However, he truly had his heart set on Thurman since her audition, and finally convinced her to accept the role after reading her the script over the phone. She was eventually nominated for an Oscar for her performance, which immediately propelled her to the Hollywood A-list.
6. THE SYRINGE SCENE
One of the film’s most memorable (and out-there) sequences is the “syringe scene.” After Mia overdoses on heroin, Vincent brings her to the home of Lance and Jody. Lance hands him an adrenaline shot and black magic marker, and he must stab her hard enough with it to pierce his chest plate and inject it into her heart. The tense scene looks very real on camera, which was accomplished by having Travolta pull the needle out of Thurman’s chest and then running the film backwards.
7. EZEKIEL 25:17
Jules Winnfield’s (Samuel L. Jackson) Biblical kill-speech remains one of the film’s most iconic scenes. After sampling his Big Kahuna burger—as well as some of his “tasty beverage to help wash this down”—Jules delivers it to poor Brett (Frank Whaley) before filling him with holes. Only the last two lines, however, reference the Bible. “And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee,” says Jules.
“And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the LORD, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them,” reads Ezekiel 25:17 in the King James Bible.
Tarantino would later admit that the speech wasn’t inspired by the Bible, but was lifted almost verbatim from the 1976 Sonny Chiba film The Bodyguard. Tarantino would later cast Chiba in a cameo as legendary sword maker Hattori Hanzo in Kill Bill: Vol. 1.
8. A STAR IS BORN
Yes, Samuel L. Jackson almost didn’t star in Pulp Fiction. After a great audition by Paul Calderon, which caused Tarantino to seriously consider him for the role of Jules, Jackson caught wind of it and immediately flew out to L.A. for a last-minute audition. He was hungry, so he brought along a fast food burger and soda to the studio. When he arrived, a line producer on the film came up to him ands aid, “I love your work, Mr. Fishburne,” confusing him with Laurence Fishburne, which made Jackson pissed.
“In comes Sam with a burger in his hand and a drink in the other hand and stinking like fast food,” recalled producer Richard Gladstein. “Me and Quentin and Lawrence [Bender] were sitting on the couch, and he walked in and just started sipping that shake and biting that burger and looking at all of us. I was scared shitless. I thought that this guy was going to shoot a gun right through my head. His eyes were popping out of his head. And he just stole the part.”
Calderon ended up with a small role as Paul, Marsellus Wallace’s assistant.
9. A HAIRDO TO REMEMBER
Originally, Tarantino wanted Jackson’s Jules to sport a big Afro wig as an ode to the Blaxploitation films he grew up loving. However, a production assistant who didn’t know what an Afro was returned with several different types of wigs—including Afros and a jheri curl wig. Tarantino still had his heart set on the Afro, but then Jackson stepped in.
“I was, like, 'No, wait!' You know, N.W.A., Ice Cube, all those guys had Jheri curls,” recalled Jackson. “That was the look of the gangs and all those guys who were over there bangin... So I put it on and we shined it up a bit and we were like, OK, this is how he (Jules) is.”
10. THE RETURN OF JULES?
At the end of Pulp Fiction, Jackson’s Jules says to Vincent that, after their brush with death in the diner, he’s just going to “walk the earth.” When Vincent asks him to expand, he says, “You know, walk the earth, meet people… get into adventures. Like Caine from Kung Fu.” In Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Jackson makes a cameo at The Bride’s wedding as a piano-playing drifter who goes by the name of “Rufus.”
11. THE BOXER
In addition to Daniel Day-Lewis, Bruce Willis was another actor who’d gotten ahold of the Pulp Fiction script and was desperate to play Vincent Vega. But when Tarantino cast Travolta, he thought Willis would make a good Butch Coolidge. The problem? He’d already promised the part to Matt Dillon. So, when Tarantino sent the script to Dillon and Dillon said, “I love it. Let me sleep on it,” Tarantino reportedly called his own agent, Mike Simpson, and said, “He’s out. If he can’t tell me face-to-face that he wants to be in the movie—after he read the script—he’s out.”
So, Willis was cast as Butch the boxer. Despite the fact that his star had faded a bit, Willis still had a lot of international box office pull, so in the eyes of Tarantino, once he was cast it made the film “legit,” he says. “Once I got Bruce Willis, Harvey got his big movie star, and we were all good. Bruce Willis made us legit. Reservoir Dogs did fantastic internationally, so everyone was waiting for my new movie. And then when it was my new movie with Bruce Willis, they went apeshit,” Tarantino said.
On the strength of Willis’s name, Miramax pre-sold the film’s international rights for $11 million, thus guaranteeing it would be profitable (since the film only carried an $8.5 million price tag).
12. BUTCH’S MARQUEE MATCHUP
The boxing marquee from Butch’s match displays a lineup card of two fights: “Coolidge vs. Wilson” and “Vossler vs. Martinez.” Butch’s surname is, of course, Coolidge, but the first matchup is also a reference to U.S. presidents Calvin Coolidge and Woodrow Wilson, whose tenures are often compared with one-another. The second reference, “Vossler vs. Martinez,” is a shout-out to Tarantino’s pals Russell Vossler and Jerry Martinez, both of whom used to work in a video store with the future filmmaker. Tarantino would also name a crucial character Russell Vossler in the Tony Scott film Crimson Tide, after his True Romance director hired him to do uncredited rewrites. Vossler was played by Lillo Brancato (A Bronx Tale).
13. THE WEIRD CAB LADY
“What does it feel like… to kill a man?” The scene between getaway cab driver Esmeralda Villalobos (Angela Jones) and Butch is one of the oddest in Pulp Fiction. Tarantino got the idea for the character after seeing her in a 30-minute short film titled Curdled, where Jones played a young Miami woman who loves her job of cleaning up after murders. Later, Tarantino would help finance the 1996 movie Curdled, a feature-length adaptation of the short.
14. THE DANCE
Rumor has it that Pulp Fiction’s legendary dance sequence between Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace at Jack Rabbit Slim’s was directly copied from the Fellini classic 8 ½. However, Tarantino says it was more heavily inspired by the one in Godard’s Bande a part, which translates to “Band of Outsiders.” Tarantino would name his production company with Lawrence Bender, A Band Apart, after the film.
“My favorite musical sequences have always been in Godard, because they just come out of nowhere,” Tarantino said on Pulp Fiction’s DVD extras. “It's so infectious, so friendly. And the fact that it's not a musical, but he's stopping the movie to have a musical sequence, makes it all the more sweet.”
According to Travolta, quite a good chunk of the dance routine was conceived on the spot.
“That was improvised quite a bit,” Travolta told The Daily Beast. “I’d actually told Quentin about the dances I grew up with. The Twist is what he wanted, but I said, ‘There were other fun dances from that era! The Spin, The Batman, The Hitchhiker. You can expand this, and don’t have to include just The Twist.’ And he said, ‘Okay.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t you film it, and you call it out? We’ll start with The Twist, and then when you get bored with The Twist, throw out something else.’ So he was behind the camera going, ‘The Swim! The Batman!’ He’d mix-and-match. We shot it during the section of the day, and there weren’t that many takes.”
15. THE GIMP’S BRIDE
One of the most notorious, unforgettable scenes in Pulp Fiction involves Butch and Marsellus being held hostage in the basement of a seedy antique store by three psycho hillbillies—the storeowner, a dirty cop, and a Gimp. It’s a clear homage to Deliverance. But believe it or not, the man who played the Gimp, Stephen Hibbert, was married to Julia Sweeney at the time of filming, who played Raquel (the woman in the lumberyard who goes off on a date with The Wolf). Sweeney is best known as a former cast member of Saturday Night Live, where she played the androgynous Pat. Hibbert and Sweeney divorced in 1994.
16. THE WOLF
The character of Winston Wolf, the mustachioed, composed gent played by Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction, was undoubtedly inspired by Keitel’s role as Victor, a.k.a. “The Cleaner”—a government agency specialist who’s brought in after missions go awry to kill everyone and dispose of the bodies. Tarantino wrote the role specifically for Keitel, who was one of his favorite actors growing up. It’s a crying shame that Keitel’s Wolf character wasn’t given his own TV show in which he’s called in to solve a different sticky situation each episode.
17. THE ONE WITH “BAD MOTHER FUCKER” ON IT
Jules’ wallet that says “Bad Mother Fucker” on it actually belonged to Tarantino at the time of filming Pulp Fiction. The inscription on it is a reference to the theme song of the 1971 film Shaft, and interestingly enough, Samuel L. Jackson—who played Jules, of course—would go on to play Shaft in the 2000 film Shaft.
18. SPEAKING OF CURSE WORDS…
The word “fuck” is uttered 265 times in Pulp Fiction.
19. THE MYSTERIOUS BRIEFCASE
There have been several theories as to the contents of Marsellus Wallace’s highly coveted briefcase. The mysterious glowing briefcase, for starters, pays homage to the 1955 film noir Kiss Me Deadly, which also featured a mysterious briefcase whose contents glowed. Although in that film, the briefcase contained an atomic bomb.
Theories have claimed that the briefcase in Pulp Fiction is supposed to contain everything from Elvis’ gold suit—worn by Val Kilmer in True Romance—to a copy of Spider-Man No. 1. The most out-there theory, beloved by online conspiracy nuts, is that it contains Marsellus Wallace’s soul, which was removed from the back of his head (hence the Band-Aid), and sold to the devil (hence the briefcase combination of ‘666’). However, Tarantino has gone on record as saying that the Band-Aid on the back of Ving Rhames’ head was merely due to Rhames accidentally cutting himself while shaving his head. Tarantino thought the Band-Aid was cool because it added an air of mystery to Marsellus.
According to co-writer Roger Avary, the original plan was for the briefcase to be filled with diamonds—referencing the stolen ones from Tarantino’s previous film, Reservoir Dogs. But Tarantino nixed that idea, instead choosing to have the contents be whatever you want it to be.
Of opening the briefcase, Travolta told The Daily Beast, “[Tarantino] just told me, ‘Be completely impressed… like something you’ve never seen before.’”
20. BIG KAHUNA BURGER
“That is a tasty burger!” Big Kahuna Burger is a fictional chain of Hawaiian-themed fast food burger joints out in Los Angeles dreamed up by Tarantino. The burgers first made an appearance in Reservoir Dogs—Mr. Blonde goes and grabs a burger and soda from the joint after their diamond heist, and the logo can later be seen on his soft drink. Then came Pulp Fiction, in which Jules consumes Brett’s burger and soda before shooting him to pieces. Later, the burger chain made an appearance in the Tarantino-penned From Dusk Til Dawn (George Clooney’s Seth Gecko is seen holding a Big Kahuna takeout bag), as well as the Tarantino flicks Four Rooms and Death Proof. That Tarantino never opened a real-life Big Kahuna Burger out in L.A. seems like a huge missed opportunity.