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Watching Pulp Fiction with Quentin Tarantino

I had always thought I’d first seen Pulp Fiction in the best possible way: just kicking back at the apartment of my friend Jon, tape popped in the VCR, a brewski just under age 21, and — about a third of the way into the movie — a free foot massage. (No Samoans were subsequently tossed from the balcony, for the record.)

That was until Monday night at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. As part of the Academy’s newest 17-week “Great To Be Nominated” series, Pulp Fiction was up on the big screen again. And a couple of rows behind me, sitting in the very back in order to gauge audience reaction 14 years later, was Quentin Tarantino.

L.A. movie lovers should know this is the hottest Monday-night ticket in town. For the price of a Jack Rabbit Slim’s milkshake, you get to see your favorite films that just missed the Best Picture honors in their full glory — and in plush seats free from any popcorn-topping residue. For less than the price of a matinee of a dreck Prom Night remake, you get a red carpet, statues of Oscar beaming down on you, and cast and crew discussing the picture on a panel afterward.

And after years of finding any opportunity to quote Pulp Fiction in columns, using the scrolling screen saver “‘What’ ain’t no country I ever heard of — do they speak English in ‘What’?” and taking enormous pride in the fact that my birthplace of Inglewood is mentioned two times in the script, it was cooler than three little Fonzies to hear Tarantino and company dish about the film once passed on by all major studios. The Academy even brought out The Gimp — also known as Stephen Hibbert, once married to Julia Sweeney, who played Monster Joe’s daughter Raquel and sat on the other side of Tarantino on the post-screening panel.

Most of those on the panel had previously worked with Tarantino on 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, including co-executive producer Richard Gladstein. “I didn’t expect that either film would come near the success they had or the audience they found,” he said.

Tarantino lacked none of the contagious enthusiasm for his work. “It’s still funny,” said Tarantino, who confessed to watching his film just three weeks before with a group of friends. “It always was a comedy.” He said he had to lurk in the back of the theater that night to see if people laughed. “Is it gonna be funny 15 years later in this museum setting?” he mused.

Not only did he get the laughs he craved, but the audience was a mix of longtime fans and those whose reactions — gasps of surprise at Marsellus Wallace strolling the crosswalk in front of Bruce Willis’ car, for example — suggested they’d never seen the film before.

The tidbits offered by the panel were as tantalizing as a Big Kahuna Burger. Miramax kingpin Harvey Weinstein had plans to open a chain of Jack Rabbit Slims in the wake of the movie’s success; Tarantino clarified that the restaurant in the film was goofing on the popular theme restaurants of the early ’90s such as Planet Hollywood. Vincent Vega was supposed to be the brother of Vic Vega (Michael Madsen) in Reservoir Dogs. Butch the boxer (Willis) was written for Matt Dillon. Daniel Day-Lewis was interested in John Travolta’s role. Laurence Fishburne was originally pegged for Samuel L. Jackson’s role, but Fishburne thought he was above “supporting” roles by that point.

Paul Calderon, who had a short scene as the bartender, was Tarantino’s favorite to play Jules Winnfield. “Sam Jackson was great,” Tarantino said, “but Sam thought he had the part so he didn’t ‘kill’ the audition.” They slated one “bloody Sunday” for both men to re-audition for the role of the Jheri-curled hitman who had, arguably, the best lines in the entire film. “Sam not only killed it,” Tarantino said of the do-over, “it was like we were sitting in the theater watching the last scene.”

There was originally a scene of Mia Wallace’s pilot, Fox Force Five, in the script. “I just knew it wouldn’t survive,” Tarantino said. But it’s not like Uma Thurman never got an opportunity to kick butt. “I would argue that Kill Bill is actually Fox Force Five,” Tarantino said.

And about that 162-page final draft of the script? The third story was at one time completely different, bringing in new characters. But the way the story intertwined and jumped around caught even Weinstein off-guard. Gladstein remembered Weinstein periodically calling him while reading the script, being shocked that Travolta’s character got bumped off in the middle, and musing whether Vincent Vega would come back to life — after Gladstein told him to just have faith and keep reading.

Distributors in Singapore and Indonesia, though, didn’t get it, Tarantino said, noting that they cut up the film and made it chronological. “The audiences made the distributors put it back the right way,” he said.

Casting director Ronnie Yeskel marveled at how Tarantino’s gig as a video-store clerk made her job easy: He knew all the bit, obscure roles of everyone who walked in for auditions. Sweeney reflected on her own bit part in Pulp Fiction, which came soon after Harvey Keitel had guest-hosted Saturday Night Live: “That four hours was so grueling!” she quipped, noting that she’d come to the set all glammed up when Tarantino handed her a red plaid shirt he’d worn in high school. Sweeney did, however, get to boogie with Travolta before leaving that day.

Hibbert reflected on The Gimp’s experience: “Long story short,” he said, “I just remember that box as being very small.”

Tarantino acknowledged that the five-dollar milkshake is no longer a joke, but the panel agreed that the film has seamlessly withstood the test of time — and will continue to do so, in both cult-classic and Oscar-nod legacies.

Plus Pulp Fiction, it can safely be said, exceeded the aspirations that a young Tarantino had after seeing a 1992 Damon Wayans flick: “I just wanted the movie to make as much money as Mo’ Money!”

Bridget Johnson is a columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News.