On the trail of Tarantino: How Amsterdam played a part in creating Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was released 28 years ago on Friday, so what better time to take a look at the part Amsterdam played in the blockbuster crime flick’s creation.
Pulp Fiction was first released in American cinemas in October of 1994 and quickly became the first ‘indie’ film to earn over $100 million at the US box office. Despite its shocking violence and offensive dialogue, it became a cultural juggernaut that later inspired countless knockoffs and parodies.
Everyone who has spent time in Amsterdam remembers the scene early on in the movie where Samuel L Jackson listens with bemused scepticism as John Travolta tells him about a recent trip to Europe and his experiences in various hash bars and fast food restaurants.
But did the Dutch really ‘drown’ their fries in mayonnaise? Was it actually semi-legal to smoke marijuana in Amsterdam? Was a Big Mac really called ‘Royale With Cheese’ in France?
This scene was actually inspired by the time Tarantino spent tinkering with the script for Pulp Fiction in the Netherlands, in between stints promoting his first effort, Reservoir Dogs, at film festivals across Europe in 1992.
‘’[In Pulp Fiction], Tarantino wasn’t riffing on American crime movies so much as French riffs on American crime movies,’ the British film writer Ian Nathan recalled in his retrospective onthe director’s filmography. ‘That he reworked most of the screenplay while on a three-month sabbatical in Amsterdam only added to the feeling of a seedy Los Angeles infused with European sophistication.’
According to oft-told tales that you’ll find scattered across the Internet, Tarantino supposedly spent much of his time in Amsterdam at one or both of the now shuttered Betty Boop coffeeshops/hash bars when he wasn’t watching obscure arthouse movies he rented from the now also closed Cultvideotheek. He allegedly skipped town without paying his fees for returning them late.
Where did he stay during this sojourn? Some claim it was a room at the Hotel Winston on the edge of the red light District. The director himself recalled things differently in a 2013 oral history about the making of Pulp Fiction from Vanity Fair.
‘I just had this cool writing existence,’ Tarantino said. ‘I didn’t have to worry about money. Through luck and happenstance, I found an apartment to rent right off a canal. I would get up and walk around Amsterdam, and then drink like 12 cups of coffee, spending my entire morning writing.’
When he wasn’t writing in coffee shops named after American cartoon characters or binge-watching video cassettes in his one-room apartment, Tarantino was hitting the local cinemas. According to Nathan, one cinema hosted a Howard Hawks film festival while he was in town, which he ‘imbibed like a drug.’
Eventually, Roger Avary joined Tarantino in Amsterdam and broke out a screenplay he’d written for an unmade film titled Pandemonium Reigns. Its story was chopped up and converted into ‘The Gold Watch’ segment in Pulp Fiction that would eventually star Bruce Willis.
The duo spent a few weeks pulling the best scenes out of the script and scattering them around the floor of Tarantino’s apartment. They gradually hammered together a story about a boxer running afoul of a mob boss and their now notorious confrontation when he goes in search of a family heirloom.
Exactly how much Avary contributed to the final script for Pulp Fiction is still up for debate. Regardless, the plan they agreed on in Amsterdam is that they would share credit and Avary would get a cut of the film’s ‘back end’ earnings.
Avary departed to direct Killing Zoe, a bank heist film starring Eric Stoltz and Julie Delphy, that perhaps not coincidentally also featured a character named Zed. Tarantino continued working on the Pulp Fiction script in various hotel rooms after he left Amsterdam and resumed promoting Reservoir Dogs across the continent.
‘Our man in Amsterdam’
Fans of Ernest Hemingway still make pilgrimages to Harry’s New York Bar, the writer’s old drinking hole in Paris that occasionally doubled as his boxing ring. San Francisco’s Caffe Trieste was where director Francis Ford Coppola cobbled together much of the script for The Godfather. But where did Tarantino really hang out?
The Winston Hotel in the red light district has smartened up a little since then, with a tavern called Belushi’s and a neon sign in the bathroom upstairs that read ‘No Coke in the Powder Room.’
Is this a not-so-subtle reference to Thurman’s near fatal drug habit in the film? More likely, it’s a cautionary tribute to the bar’s namesake, the comedian John Belushi who died from an overdose in 1982. The walls of the tavern are lined with paintings and photos of entertainers like Motörhead frontman Lemmy.
But there is no sign of Tarantino in all of the tavern’s various tributes to pop culture.
‘I am familiar with the accounts you are mentioning, but sadly the people who would be able to shed a more definitive light on the subject have unfortunately passed away,’ said the Winston’s marketing manager Keith Wallace. ‘It is true that the Winston was a hangout for many well known faces from the art world in that period.’
The video store where Tarantino perused the classics is now a restaurant called Morena aan de Amstel and one of the two former Betty Boop coffee shops is now a women’s clothing shop.
The second Betty Boop on the Reguliersdwarsstraat is still a coffee shop, but it’s now called Easy Times. And the sales team’s eyes light up when people come in asking about Tarantino.
They assure visitors it is, indeed, the coffee shop he frequented back in the ‘90s and recommend they go upstairs to find out more. The upper floors revealed two toilets and not much else, but sending Tarantino fans upstairs is what they always do to anyone who comes in with questions. And the director, they said, apparently spent much of his time there camped up there.
Up in smoke
Is there a link to the film? Every time Travolta enters a bathroom in Pulp Fiction, something terrible is waiting for him when he comes back out, culminating with Willis executing him with his own machine gun. Perhaps a few bad cases of indigestion caused by eating too many fries drowning in mayonnaise forced Tarantino to spend a bunch of time in those toilets. Who knows?
It’s been about three decades since Tarantino spent those months in the Netherlands, so it’s understandable that many of the details have gone up in smoke – in more ways than one. Pulp Fiction, meanwhile, remains one of the most pivotal films of the ‘90s. Its influence and legacy still linger everywhere from the realm of cinema to the streets of Amsterdam.
Pulp Fiction still regularly pops up on Dutch television and at retrospective film festivals, most recently at LAB111 back in August. The staff added two types of Big Kahuna Burgers to the menu in its cafe, one meat and the other vegan. A few years ago, Paradiso also hosted a screening complete with a Mia Wallace (Thurman’s character) lookalike contest.
Tarantino was apparently so taken with Amsterdam that he planned a prequel to both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction titled The Vega Brothers that would have been filmed there.
The film was set to zero in on Travolta’s character and his brother, the sadistic, ear-chopping Mr. Blonde played by Michael Madsen. The two would have run a nightclub together in the Red Light District. The film was eventually cancelled after Tarantino got caught up in other projects and the two actors aged out of their roles.
A revised premise for the film is supposedly still kicking around, but Tarantino has repeatedly said he plans to only direct one more movie before he retires and it’s probably not going to be The Vega Brothers.
It’s also likely that Tarantino’s visited Amsterdam more than a few times. He’s made no apologies for smoking marijuana and until several states in America began legalising it ten years ago, the Netherlands was one of the few places where he could have (semi) legally enjoyed it up until then.
Journalist and podcaster Jonathan Groubert is a longtime resident of Amsterdam and bumped into Tarantino during those heady days, after Pulp Fiction had been released.
‘I was walking along the Elandsgracht, and it was around nine in the evening. I’m walking towards him and he’s walking towards me, and he has a pretty unmistakable face. I’m so surprised that I blurt out ‘Quentin Tarantino?!!’
Then he says to me, ‘No, man, I’m not Quentin Tarantino.’ He didn’t stop walking, but he started muttering to himself: ‘Quentin Tarantino? Me? I’m not Quentin Tarantino. No way. Unh-unh.’
‘He’s well past me at this point, but he keeps doing this as he continues down the street, just repeating that over and over again. I don’t know what was going on, but it was weird.’
Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary currently co host a podcast
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