Jackie Brown (1997)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino, based on the novel Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard
Produced by Lawrence Bender
Whether by freak accident or intelligent design, few movies manage to evoke the lives of their characters with the depth of Jackie Brown. Not only does the third film directed by Quentin Tarantino not pick up where Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction left off, it seems to have been dipped in the inkwell of another writer, perhaps one 20 years down the road, weather beaten and worn down, who ponders whether he’s got enough left for one more run. Part of that creative dissonance is due to the fact that Tarantino adapted a novel by Elmore Leonard, one of his literary heroes, using the Blaxploitation genre of the 1970s as a touchstone as well. But the filmmaker refuses to populate the movie with pimps, prostitutes or private dicks and instead, composes a modern love story as subtle, mature and self-assured as any director twice his age. Of the first five he directed — including Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds — Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s best picture.
The picture is not without flaws. Samuel L. Jackson is allowed to do too much and draws a spotlight on how pleased some of Tarantino’s dialogue is with itself. And at a notch above 2 ½ hours, the film does feel long. While some of his other films mandated epic running times, here, the story barely seems to warrant the excess. But the film’s perfections are diverse. Plot and style are almost invisible; it’s character and performance that take center stage and on that count, the film is a master class on directing. Pam Grier’s moments with Robert Forster soar. Bridget Fonda gives the performance of a lifetime as one of the goofiest vixens ever seen in a caper. Tarantino also demonstrates remarkable taste by recognizing what makes an Elmore Leonard novel special: human beings articulating fears and desires, while plotting to get away with lots of money. Jackie Brown is the finest compliment the author has ever been paid on film.
In the city of Hermosa Beach, Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) entertains dim-witted prison buddy Louis Gara (Robert DeNiro) with his knowledge of the firearms trade. Ordell’s girlfriend — an insolent, bong loving beach bunny named Melanie (Bridget Fonda) — is hardly impressed. Ordell receives a phone call from Beaumont, an associate who’s been arrested for drunk driving with a pistol. Ordell hires steady bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) to bail Beaumont out, then uses the promise of Roscoe’s Chicken ‘n Waffles to lure Beaumont out of his apartment and silence him permanently. LAPD detective Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen) and a high charged ATF Special Agent named Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) intercept stewardess Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) returning from Mexico. Caught with $50,000 and a bag of cocaine, Jackie remains mum on who the contraband belongs to. Hired by Ordell to bail the stewardess out of jail, Max falls for Jackie at first sight.
Getting the jump on Ordell before he can put a bullet in her, Jackie offers her employer to buy her silence with $100,000 for each year of prison she’s sentenced to prison. In return, she offers to help Ordell retrieve half a million dollars he has stashed in an airport locker in Mexico. Confiding to Max that what she really intends to do is cooperate with the ATF and set Ordell up, Jackie reveals her biggest fear isn’t getting shot, but starting life over with nothing to show for it. Max realizes that he’s tired of the bail bond business and agrees to help Jackie scam not only Ordell, but steal his half million dollars under the nose of the ATF. Louis and Melanie are employed to help, a decision Ordell ends up regretting. To stay out of jail, Jackie has to convince Nicolette that she’s on his side. To stay alive, Max has to convince Ordell that Jackie was protecting him, and that she has just cause for not handing his money over to him.
Elmore Leonard was born in New Orleans, but his father’s work as a site locator for General Motors eventually settled his family in Detroit. Joining the Navy as soon as he graduated high school in 1943, Leonard would enroll at the University of Detroit after the war and ply a degree in English and philosophy into work as a copywriter at an advertising agency. Writing on the side, Leonard would have five novels and thirty short stories published between 1951 and 1961 — mostly westerns — with two being adapted into movies in 1957, The Tall T and 3:10 To Yuma. Transitioning away from westerns once the genre fell out of fashion, Leonard turned his focus to crime fiction. With Glitz in 1985, Leonard vaulted from genre author to bestselling author. Without exception, the movies either scripted by Leonard or adapted from his novels — Hombre, Mr. Majestyk, Stick – were critical and commercial duds.
Leonard’s twenty-ninth novel — Rum Punch — was published in 1992. Among those who read a copy while it was in galleys were producer Lawrence Bender and writer-director Quentin Tarantino, who’d been an Elmore Leonard fan almost since he could read. Following the mega success of Pulp Fiction in 1994. Miramax Films optioned four of the author’s books for Tarantino to possibly adapt to film, including Rum Punch. Leonard’s dialogue soaked tale of an airline stewardess, a gunrunner and a bail bondsman in Miami floated to the top of the projects Tarantino was considering as his follow-up to Pulp Fiction. Relocating the story to Los Angeles, Jackie Brown would also shift away from the sensational violence and comedy Tarantino had become celebrated for. Despite revitalizing the careers of Pam Grier and Robert Forster, it drew a blank among critics and was overlooked by audiences in December 1997.
In an interview with The Book Reporter in January 1998, Elmore Leonard revealed the genesis of the novel that inspired Jackie Brown. “Rum Punch, I thought of a character of Max Cherry, the bail bondsman. I decided I wanted to do a book about a bail bondsman because of the kind of people he’s involved with every day. A story has to come out of that situation. My researcher found a bail bondsman for me who understood what we wanted to do. He was very willing to cooperate. So I learned about his business and started to write the book about a bondsman doing his job. I realized not too far into the book that he wasn’t my main character. The woman, Jackie, was the main character. The plot was happening to her. And then the other characters fall right into place on opposite sides of her. She’s caught in the middle and how does she get out? And I never know how they get out. I never know how my books are going to end.”
According to legend, when Quentin Tarantino was fifteen years old he became so engrossed reading a copy of Elmore Leonard’s The Switch that he strolled out of K-Mart without paying for it. Arrested and almost taken to jail, he was let go, only to return to the store to pull off the heist successfully. Appearing on The Charlie Rose Show in October 1994, Tarantino enthused, “I love Elmore Leonard. In fact, to me True Romance is basically like an Elmore Leonard movie that he didn’t write, you know. And like, actually, I actually owe a big debt to like, kind of figuring out my style from Elmore Leonard because, you know, he was the first writer I’d ever read — and, but also like Charles Willeford did it as well — but he was one of the first writers I had ever read that just let mundane conversations actually inform the characters, you know, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boof!,’ you know, you’re into whatever story you’re telling.”
Tarantino met his producing partner Lawrence Bender in 1989 at a barbecue in L.A. A ballet dancer turned actor turned aspiring producer, Bender would get the struggling video store clerk’s script for Reservoir Dogs into the hands of people who ended up financing it. While in pre-production on Pulp Fiction, the duo then came across Rum Punch in manuscript form. Reading the novel and immediately seeing it as a movie, Tarantino and Bender made overtures to option the film rights. In the liner notes for the 2-Disc DVD release of Jackie Brown, Leonard wrote, “Originally, my faith in Quentin was based on Reservoir Dogs. Right after it came out Quentin approached my agent, Michael Siegel, with the idea of acquiring the rights to Rum Punch. The fact that he wasn’t in a position to buy the book wasn’t a concern. We wanted Quentin to have it. So we promised to save it for him — hold off any offers that might be made — until he had a studio behind him and could buy the book. This came about shortly after Pulp Fiction was released and Quentin became the hot kid in town. We offered him five novels with film rights available. Miramax stepped up and optioned four of them for him.”
Bandits, Freaky Deaky, Killshot and Rum Punch were the Elmore Leonard titles Miramax optioned for its favorite son. At one point, Tarantino envisioned adapting, producing and co-starring in Killshot opposite Robert DeNiro for director Tony Scott. He was preparing to pass Rum Punch to another director when he reread it and once again, became enamored with its big screen potential. His adaptation would make key alterations. The action shifted from South Florida to the South Bay of Los Angeles — Hermosa Beach, Carson, Torrance — where Tarantino grew up. In the film’s production notes, Tarantino explained, “I don’t know Miami at all, but I know South Bay like the back of my hand. This was a way for me to make this movie personal to myself and to be confident that I could keep it real. In a South Bay context I knew exactly where each of these people would live, how they would dress, what their apartments would look like. Shooting in Miami I would not have come to those things as naturally.”
Tarantino spent a year working on and off on an adaptation. In a January 1998 interview with The Guardian, he revealed, “I remember something Stephen King said once a long time ago when he was going to direct the movie Maximum Overdrive when they asked him, ‘Do you hope to bring an adaptation to your stuff that may be other filmmakers have not?’ He used Elmore Leonard as an example. He saw the Burt Reynolds movie, Stick. He said, ‘I saw Stick, and it is a story. Everything that happens in the novel happens in the movie, but I don’t have that feeling that I have when I read an Elmore Leonard novel.’ That was sticking in my head because I like Elmore Leonard novels. I wanted the movie to have that feeling, and I felt the way to have that feeling was to truly invest in the characters so they are not just movie characters doing movie plots. The first hour of the movie is pretty well hanging out and getting to know these people. That was my track into getting it.”
Tarantino changed Leonard’s white airline stewardess Jackie Burke into a black stewardess named Jackie Brown. He had Pam Grier in mind for the part. “It was one of those things that I knew a good idea when I saw it. I thought Pam is perfect for the role. She is the exact right age. She looks younger, and she looks like she can handle anything. By doing that, it turned it into a Pam Grier movie. Nothing wrong with that. That sounds good; another Pam Grier movie I would like to see. Then it became very easy. The fact that she is black ended up giving the piece even more depth; not in a cheesy way or a cheap way.” He added, “At 44 she is probably going to have to go to jail for a year and start all over again. The cops are fucking with her. It made the dilemma more crystal clear, having to be a black woman in that situation. It just gave it more depth.”
After Samuel L. Jackson and Bridget Fonda joined the cast, Tarantino was still trying to settle on who would play Max Cherry, the bail bondsman. “I had about four guys in there. I will name the guys. I had Paul Newman in mind; I had Gene Hackman in mind; I had John Saxon in mind; and I had Robert Forster in mind. I was always leaning more towards Robert Forster than the other guys. I didn’t have to cast him right away. I had my options open. You know what I mean, why pin yourself in a corner? I was always leaning more towards Robert Forster, and I walked into a restaurant and he was there, and I knew he was the guy. I walked into a restaurant with the book, with my notebook to do some writing, and he was in the restaurant, and I thought, ‘That’s Max Cherry, he’s right there.’ C’est la vie to the three! All terrific actors. All would have done a wonderful job but they are not Max Cherry; Robert is.”
In a November 1997 interview with The New York Times, Tarantino revealed, “The hardest part to give up in Jackie Brown was Ordell, who is played by Samuel L. Jackson. I was Ordell. It was so easy to write Ordell. I was Ordell for the year I was writing the script. I had to really work hard in letting go of Ordell and letting Sam play him and not being a jerk about stuff. Sam was him for 10 weeks; I was Ordell for 52 weeks. Ordell was all my mentors as a young man growing up. Ordell was who I could have been. It was interesting writing the film because that all kind of came back to me, and that persona of who I could have been at 17 if I didn’t have artistic ambitions. That was it. If I hadn’t wanted to make movies, I would have ended up as Ordell. I wouldn’t have been a postman or worked at the phone company or been a salesman or a guy selling gold by the inch. I would have been involved with one scam after another.”
With Miramax Films financing a budget of $12 million and Guillermo Navarro serving as director of photography, Tarantino’s third film commenced shooting May 1997 in Los Angeles. Tarantino cited several movies as inspirations in style. “During Jackie Brown, I would watch one side of the laserdisc for Carlito’s Way. My cinematographer and I watched two movies: Hickey and Boggs, which was directed by Robert Culp and was shot in the 70’s — it’s a really good movie. And then we watched They All Laughed, by Peter Bogdanovich. Both were perfect for Jackie Brown. They All Laughed is a masterpiece, I think. It captures a fairy-tale New York. It makes New York look like Paris in the 20’s. It makes you want to live there. And we kind of used it. And then we watched Straight Time, one of the best L.A. crime movies ever. But I wanted Jackie Brown to look more like a movie than that. Straight Time is too gritty.”
To get Jackie Brown into theaters for year’s end awards consideration, Tarantino and editor Sally Menke were cutting all the way up to December 4. The film snuck into theaters Christmas Day 1997. Critics responded coolly. David Denby, New York Magazine: “The movie doesn’t so much dramatize the characters as tail them. They come; they go; they meet and talk; they talk again; and finally someone gets shot.” Todd McCarthy, Variety: “Unquestionably too long, and lacking the snap and audaciousness of the pictures that made him the talk of the town, this … nonetheless offers an abundance of pleasures, especially in the realm of characterization and atmosphere.” Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly: “Each scene is staged methodically, overdeliberately, as if it concealed some payoff zinger. But the zingers don’t arrive. All we see is a reasonably clever Elmore Leonard caper that needed to be treated as fast, trashy fun. It doesn’t help that Leonard isn’t nearly the artist Tarantino is. He’s strictly a genre man, with paper-thin characters and an amiable low-life spark to his busy, lurching plots.”
Taking in $39.6 million at the U.S. box office, Jackie Brown was regarded by many as a failure coming off the $213 million Pulp Fiction had grossed worldwide. But in an interview with IGN in October 2003, Tarantino maintained, “You have to remember, movies are not about the weekend that they’re released, and in the grand scheme of things, that’s probably the most unimportant time of a film’s life, but the thing is, I wasn’t trying to top Pulp Fiction with Jackie Brown. I wanted to go underneath it and make a more modest character study movie. So, if you were waiting for Pulp Fiction part two, you were going to be disappointed.” He added, “I made Jackie Brown like the way that I always felt about Rio Bravo, which is a movie that I can watch every couple of years. It’s just like, ‘I know those people now.’ Once I saw it once, I got the story line out of the way and I just hang out with them. Then, it’s like, hopefully, if you liked Jackie Brown, every three years or so, you can put it in and you’re having screwdrivers with Ordell and you’re taking bong hits with Melanie and you’re drinking white wine with Jackie and it’s all good.”
“The Two Hollywoods; The Man Who Changed Everything” By Lynn Hirschberg. The New York Times, 16 November 1997
“Quentin Tarantino interview with Pam Grier, Robert Forster and Lawrence Bender” By Adrian Wootton. The Guardian. 5 January 1998
“Interview with Elmore Leonard” By Jennifer Levitsky. The Book Report, 13 January 1998
“An Interview with Quentin Tarantino” By Jeff Otto. IGN, 10 October 2003
“Lawrence Bender Looks Back On 20 Years with QT” By Scott Feinberg. And The Winner Is … 27 February 2010