While today's Oscars have a reputation for highlighting independent films like Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea, honoring indie darlings is a relatively new thing for the institution. Twenty-five years ago the awards went to Hollywood blockbusters with obscene budgets and major industry backing: The Silence of the Lambs won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress. (The previous two years, Warner Bros.'s Driving Miss Daisy and Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves, which grossed $424.2 million, took the top prize.)
But Quentin Tarantino's 1992 crime film Reservoir Dogs was essential in expanding Hollywood's scope to include independent films. Tarantino's directorial debut told the story of a diamond heist committed by suit-wearing thieves; along with 1989's Sex, Lies, and Videotape and a slew of independent films distributed by Miramax, it disrupted Hollywood, as American independent films in its wake continued to break boundaries, gain praise, and win awards. In the 90s, they accomplished what studio films like The Godfather and The Exorcist achieved in the 70s; sure, big budget films like Titanic and Forrest Gump continued to dominate awards season, but numerous indie films broke out into the mainstream, such as Kevin Smith's Clerks and Wes Anderson's Rushmore.
Reservoir Dogs was produced by Lawrence Bender, a 34-year-old who had previously produced Tale of Two Sisters (a drama narrated by Charlie Sheen) and the Sam Raimi horror flick Intruder. He went on to produce many of Tarantino's films, excepting Death Proof, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight. In addition, he's also served as the executive producer of an eclectic mix of movies, from the global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth to the Emma Roberts-led live-action reboot of Nancy Drew.
On the eve of Reservoir Dogs's 25th anniversary this October, Bender spoke to VICE about the night he met Tarantino, why superhero movies changed independent filmmaking, and how Trump might affect the film industry.
VICE: What do you see as the film's legacy?
Lawrence Bender: Wow—we're gonna talk like that, are we? We made that movie right at the beginning of what became a wave of independent filmmaking that hadn't existed before. The studios had been making great movies in the 70s, and in the 80s the independent movies tended to be Cannon action movies [like Chuck Norris's Missing in Action]. Reservoir Dogs happened right toward the very beginning of the surge of being able to make independent [films] that weren't just exploitation movies. They were movies that broke the mold in a different kind of way.
How did you meet Quentin Tarantino?
We met through a mutual friend [Scott Spiegel], who directed Intruder and also co-wrote Evil Dead II. He was saying, "Hey man, you gotta meet my friend Quentin. He's got all these great ideas." He had some summer party where I was talking to Quentin, and I was like, "Tarantino? That name sounds familiar. I feel like I read a script by a guy with a similar name. It was called True Romance." He was like, "That's my script!" I was like, "No, no, I don't think it was Tarantino. I think it was another name." And he says, "No, that was my script!" I either met him for the first time there—or at a midnight screening of the 3D House of Wax. It was one of those places.
Were you and Tarantino both heavily influenced by the Hollywood films that came out during the 70s?
Quentin's like a professor that has multiple PhDs in the world of film. He's not just a brilliant filmmaker—he's studied film his entire life. I grew up in the 70s, so I'm personally influenced by the 70s because that's the era where I was seeing movies all the time—from Dirty Harry, to The Godfather, to The Conversation.
What were your expectations for Reservoir Dogs ?
Quentin and I are very different. He studied film his whole life, and I didn't, so I had no idea what to expect from him. I just knew we were making a movie. We had a dream that we'd get picked up at Sundance and Cannes, and Miramax would see it, buy it, and release it. All those things happened—our dream came true.
The other amazing thing that happened was that before we started making the movie, Sundance called Quentin and said, "We'd love for you to come to Sundance and be part of the Sundance Film Lab." We'd just finished casting and were gonna go into prep, and he said, "You hold down the fort. I'm gonna go to Sundance and do this film lab." That's why Sundance means so much to us—Quentin got to go and have this amazing experience there.
Did Hollywood underestimate Tarantino at the time?
It was very hard to get Reservoir Dogs financed—but it's always hard for a first-time filmmaker. The reaction at Sundance was pretty amazing, but at the [same time], people were saying, "Is this too violent?" Then some nay-sayer said, "Well, can he direct women?" Which we laughed at. He made Pulp Fiction next—clearly, he can direct women.
It sounds like making Reservoir Dogs was a positive experience. Was the rest of your work in Hollywood like this?
Times have changed. The 90s felt like a second golden era of movies. Quentin and I got to make a bunch of amazing movies one after another: Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Dusk Till Dawn, Four Rooms, Kill Bill. I did Good Will Hunting, too. I'm not a pundit, so it's not easy for me to say, "Hollywood's this, Hollywood's that." But it's clearly a place that's run by the major studios. They're all publicly traded and owned by big conglomerates with vertical integration. Big tentpole movies are what drives the business.
It's a hard time for new filmmakers to come into the business, because the business is so driven by these big tentpole movies. On the other hand—and there is another hand—there's been such an enormous amount of wealth creation in the world, which has created many new financiers. People come and say, "Well, I wanna make movies!" For whatever reason, there's an enormous amount of men, women, and companies out there who are financing independent movies like Moonlight. A lot of the movies that are nominated weren't made by studios—they were bought by studios.
Are there any young filmmakers who excite you?
I just saw a short film called Code 8 by Jeff Chan. You should watch it. It's got a great mixture of exactly what's going on today, and you can feel the characters—but there's this sci-fi, near-future world that we're living in too.
How do you think Trump will affect film culture?
I was on a panel when we did Inglorious Bastards, and a lot of the movies that were on the panel were movies that had a kind of social relevance. When it came around to me, I said, "Look, you know, honestly, as a filmmaker, you don't have to make a movie that has a kind of social relevance. We're making movies to be entertaining also, and if they happen to do something [that has social relevance], that's great, but you can also make a movie that has nothing to do with what's going on today."
Movies that have social impact are gonna be more and more important. Every once in a while you do have a movie that can affect things. When we did An Inconvenient Truth, it did have an effect. Everything is so upside down right now. There's so many things going on in the world right now, it's so hard to know. Clearly with climate change, every one of the things [Trump's] done has been really upsetting and has a negative impact, so I think there will be a lot of filmmakers motivated by that—but it takes time to come up with great stories, great writing, and great movies.
Follow Mitchell Sunderland on Twitter.