Hasitha Fernando dives into the story behind Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1 as it turns 20…
Quentin Tarantino is a man that requires no introduction. The talented auteur has churned out multiple critically lauded, awards-worthy flicks over the years and not shown any signs of stopping. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 was the first chapter of a martial arts revenge film duology, which saw the visionary creative making a comeback following a six-year hiatus. And so, as it turns 20, we look back at the movie and the behind-the scenes drama which made Kill Bill: Vol. 1 what it is…
Basic story details were hatched during the making of Pulp Fiction
1992’s Reservoir Dogs introduced the world to a fiercely talented creative named Quentin Tarantino. The low-budget indie made quite the splash when it debuted at that years’ Sundance Film Festival and received praise across the board for its non-linear storytelling, incredible performances and pop-culture-ridden-profanity-laced dialogue.
In the wake of Reservoir Dog’s success came two back-to-back bonafide hits – True Romance and Pulp Fiction. Thought the former – directed by Tony Scott – had Tarantino’s fingerprints all over it, it was the latter that cemented Tarantino as a major creative force in Hollywood and saw the talented creative walk away with the coveted Palme d’Or at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and winning the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
It was on the set of this iconic movie that Tarantino and Pulp Fiction star Uma Thurman conceived the basic idea for Kill Bill, and the two began talking about the different kinds of movies that they’d like to do. Tarantino was all set on doing a 70’s style kung-fu flick, and Thurman came up with the film’s opening shot – of her beaten up and wearing a wedding gown. Hence, the closing title card which reads, “Based on the character of ‘The Bride’ created by Q and U”, which refer to the first initials of Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman.
The bride’s character evolution was a slow one
Although Tarantino and Thurman conceived ‘The Bride’ back in 1994, it took a while for the final version of the character to be realized and brought to the big screen through the Kill Bill movie. Being a close friend of Thurman, whom Tarantino considers his muse, the filmmaker spent a lot of time together with the actress and her newborn daughter and this influenced the way he was writing Thurman’s character.
The writer-director was working on the script for The Inglourious Basterds whilst he was simultaneously writing Kill Bill, and at the beginning some of The Bride’s characteristics and character motivations were written into Shoshanna Dreyfus’ character from Inglorious Basterds, but Tarantino thought they were a better fit for Thurman’s role in Kill Bill. Thurman in turn was inspired by Clint Eastwood’s ‘man-with-no-name’ from Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy who spoke very little but conveyed so much through his nuanced performance.
It took six years for Tarantino to write the script
The journey of Kill Bill from concept to the big screen was a lengthy one. While certain elements of ‘The Bride’s character was conceived back in 1994, the project took a backseat as Tarantino focused on his other efforts. But the gifted creative continued working on the script for six years, fine tuning the story, ultimately churning out a two hundred twenty-page long draft. However, even during production Tarantino wrote new scenes and re-wrote existing ones while shooting, which inadvertently led to the amassing a large amount of footage for the film.
The film is essentially a homage to 70s & 80s-era Chinese movies
Kill Bill is chock full of references that pay homage to the bygone era’s grindhouse cinema, blaxploitation films, spaghetti westerns and particularly martial arts movies. The Shaw Brothers Studio was a production house well-known for bankrolling kung fu actioners back in the day, and Tarantino’s conscious decision to include the Shaw Scope logo in its opening titles and utilize the “crashing zoom effect” – a fast zoom usually ending in a close-up – was his way of tipping the hat to their efforts.
Have you ever wondered why certain portions of the showdown at the House of Blue Leaves were shot in black-and-white? Well, that too was a well thought out move by the legend himself. In the past, the black-and-white colour scheme was used to conceal the blood spewing mayhem of 70s and 80s martial arts flicks, from American television censors when they were being aired.
And when the MPAA demanded that steps be taken to tone down the carnage in the ultra-violent Crazy 88 action set piece, Tarantino used the same technique to fulfil the MPAA’s requirement whilst also delivering a fitting homage to the era. Another great reference to actioners of that particular era was The Bride’s yellow tracksuit, which was made to resemble what martial arts legend Bruce Lee wore during his final film – 1978’s Game of Death.
Warren Beatty was first choice to play the role of Bill
Veteran Hollywood actor Warren Beatty was originally offered the role of Bill, as Tarantino wrote the role with the artist in mind. However, Beatty turned down the tantalizing offer and instead suggested to Tarantino that he take a look at David Carradine. As the script progressed Bill’s character too evolved and became one which required a martial arts background. Therefore, the filmmaker settled on Carradine as the performer had prior experience in martial arts thanks to the 1970s television series Kung Fu where he played the lead.
Tarantino has said in later interviews that had Warren Beatty taken the part of Bill, the character would have been more of a suave, James Bond-esque type. Kevin Costner was also considered for the titular role of but the performer turned it down in favour of directing and starring in 2003’s Open Range. In addition, Jack Nicholson, Kurt Russell, Mickey Rourke, and Burt Reynolds were a few others who passed on the opportunity as well.
Kill Bill features a killer soundtrack
Like Tarantino’s previous films, Kill Bill too features one helluva diverse and eclectic soundtrack. Being a life-long fan of Ennio Morricone a couple of tracks from the maestro’s rich tapestry of spaghetti western scores are included. Instrumental tracks from Japanese guitarist Tomoyasu Hotei are also featured quite prominently, and after Kill Bill’s success these became wildly popular and got frequently used in American TV commercials and sporting events.
Another great inclusion is the brief, 15-second excerpt from the opening of the Ironside theme by Quincy Jones which is used as the Bride’s revenge motif, and flares up as a hellish red flashback whenever she’s in the presence of her next target. Pan flute virtuoso Gheorghe Zamfir also lends a brief but memorable assist with his gorgeous “The Lonely Shepherd” which plays over the end credits.
Japanese rock group the 5,6,7,8’s was a talent that Tarantino happened across quite by accident, whilst location scouting in Japan. Impressed by what he heard, the director immediately signed them on contribute to his latest venture and they did not disappoint. Much of their contribution, which are covers of early 60s surfer songs, is seen in the House of Leaves segment where the bloody showdown between The Bride and the yakuza army takes place. The instantly recognizable Green Hornet theme can also be heard being played over during The Bride’s flight time and arrival in Japan.
The House of Blue Leaves sequence took eight weeks to complete
The House of Blue Leaves sequence, in which The Bride battles dozens of yakuza soldiers, took six weeks to schedule and eight weeks over film – the exact timeframe it took to shoot Pulp Fiction. In essence Tarantino wanted to create “one of the greatest, most exciting sequence in the history of cinema”, something which he set out to do the old-fashioned way. Therefore, at Tarantino’s insistence, the film crew resorted to using similar practical effects that were used in 1970s Chinese cinema, which included the use of fire extinguishers and Chinese condoms to create the spurts and explosions of blood without using professional gags and squibs.
In order to achieve the specific look and aesthetic of a Chinese wuxia films made three decades prior, Tarantino gave cinematographer Robert Richardson an extensive list of genre films – made by the likes of genre pioneers Cheh Chang and the Shaw Brothers – to drive home his requirement. Approximately $60,000 of the movie’s total budget was apparently used on weapons and their accompanying accessories.
Uma Thurman suffered a near fatal car crash
Near the conclusion of filming, Thurman was severely injured in a car crash while filming the scene in which she drives to Bill. Thurman voiced her reluctance with driving the car and requested a stunt driver to do it, but Tarantino gave his assurance that both the car and road were safe. However, in spite of the safety precautions and assurances Thurman lost control of the car and hit a tree, suffering a concussion and injuries to her knees.
Tarantino was devastated by the incident and apologized profusely, but the damage had already been done and his and Thurman’s relationship never were the same afterwards. During an interview later on Thurman confided that after the car crash, she “went from being a creative contributor and performer, to being like a broken tool”.
Harvey Weinstein wanted the film split in two
Although Harvey Weinstein is a name mired in infamy nowadays, back in the 90s and early 2000s he had the whole of Hollywood dancing on his palm. Such was the influence, of this once-powerful showbiz producer. The chap was also notorious for chopping, editing and having his way with whatever film he was producing. Because of this he requested Tarantino to split Kill Bill into a two-parter, when the filmmaker was unhappy to edit out the scenes he’s shot. As a result, Kill Bill became a duology released six months apart.
The flick became a commercial and critical success when it debuted
Kill Bill was made on a production budget of $30 million and went on to rake in $180.9 million at the worldwide box office, making it the most commercially successful Tarantino film up to that point. What’s most impressive was, that this milestone was achieved when Kill Bill was a niche, genre specific, ultra-violent, rated R film which therefore meant its audience was restricted from the get go.
The movie was also a major hit with critics who lauded the film’s bold stylistic choices, Tarantino’s confident direction and Thurman’s compelling performance. In recognition of her contribution, Thurman received BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations the following year during awards season.
What are your thoughts on Kill Bill: Vol 1? How does it stand among Tarantino’s filmography as it turns 20? Let us know on our socials @FlickeringMyth…
Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.