What Tarantino Owes to ‘Greenberg’

Noah Baumbach told his mother that Quentin was the real deal, and that led to …

Last Updated: March 18, 2010 @ 3:49 PM

All right, this one is too weird even for me — and anyone who has read these posts knows, I can find connections everywhere … at least in Hollywood. (Or, as my friend George says, it’s like being a character in that old game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, though I did make a movie with Kevin and had a deal with him and Gail Ann Hurd, another of Jim Cameron’s ex-wives while I lived near Jim on Point Dume in Malibu … oh, forget it!)

But, honestly, if it weren’t for Noah Baumbach, the director of the cult hit “The Squid and the Whale,” whose “Greenberg,” starring Ben Stiller, comes out this weekend, Quentin would likely still be a relatively unknown actor directing Showtime movies on the side.

And if you don’t believe me, well, as they say, you can look it up!

The story goes like this: In the early ‘90s I was finishing up four years helping Michael Douglas make seven movies for Columbia Pictures. You know those pictures, from “Flatliners” to “Radio Flyer,” etc.

Our deal was ending, not because our pictures weren’t hits (like everyone, we had some hits and misses) but rather because Sony had bought the studio and fired Michael’s friend Dawn Steel for former Universal head Frank Price. (You can look it up!)

Actually, I’m not sure Michael had any feelings about Frank — but it is well known that Frank hated (let’s say “intensely disliked”) Michael for one reason: A half-dozen years earlier, Michael had convinced him to make “Starman,” which Michael produced starring Academy Award winner Jeff Bridges, instead of “E.T.,” which Price passed on. The assumption was that cost Price his career as head of Universal.

Now Price was back — and the last thing he wanted to do was make any more Michael Douglas movies, good, bad or indifferent. (You can look it up in Variety, ‘91!)

So our deal was winding down. However, I’d gotten to know a young executive named Bruce Binkow, former editor of the Hollywood Reporter and one of the two first graduates of the Peter Stark Producing program at USC (you can look it up), and we decided to start our own company, Thunderbird Pictures.

Even before we could get running, Bruce called me urgently one day about a script called “Natural Born Killers.” It was by some weird guy named Quentin who worked at a video store in Huntington Beach. Bruce had gotten it because his friend was Quentin’s William Morris’ agent Morgan Mason, the husband of the Go-Go’s lead singer Belinda Carlyle and son of actor James Mason (you can look it up!)

He had given Bruce the script for one reason: He couldn’t get anyone to take this Quentin guy seriously. Quentin waved his arms when he talked, he was from Kentucky or Tennessee or some hillbilly place like that, you know how Hollywood can be …

Well, of course, I immediately fell in love with the script and, with one meeting, had it set up with legendary “Dumb and Dumber” producer Brad Krevoy (you can look it up — it’s in Jami Bernard’s 1995 book, “The Man and His Movies.”)

Now, that’s not to say Quentin hadn’t been doing anything — frustrated at his inability to set up “Killers” or his other (then) unproduced script, “True Romance,” he’d decided to write a movie he could direct — “Reservoir Dogs.”

He’d met a former dancer named Lawrence Bender who, several years earlier had dislocated my left ring finger trying to demonstrate some kind of martial arts kick. (I still can’t get my wedding ring off without soap!) He and Quentin decided to shoot “Dogs” on video for $35,000. As luck would have it, Bender showed the script to his acting teacher, who worked with Harvey Keitel.

As Bender told me, he got a call one Sunday morning from Keitel, offering to help get the movie made. (You can look it up — the New York Sunday Times Magazine, Dec. 6, 1992.)

The rest is pretty much history — Keitel set the movie at home-video company LIVE for a straight-to-video price of a reported $750,000. It had no theatrical deal, but the then-blooming Sundance Festival accepted it. It was far from a hit, with, according to Bruce, a goodly portion of the audience walking out (due to the violence).

However, it did have one fan — Harvey Weinstein of what was then Miramax.

Unfortunately, despite having distributed hits like “Cinema Paradiso” Miramax was, like many film companies, living hand to mouth. (And. Fanboys, don’t write saying I don’t know what I’m talking about — I’ve worked with many Miramaxers over the years, including my intern at Newsweek, Mark Gill, who later became Miramax president you can look it up!) In fact, there were rumors that Miramax didn’t have the money to open “Dogs” in even a couple of theaters — they were going to let LIVE take it to video.

That’s where Noah Baumbach comes in.

You see, having been screwed out of “Natural Born Killers” (which Oliver Stone later directed), Morgan Mason felt bad enough that he gave us another project, “Killing Zoe,” written by Quentin’s friend, sometime roommate and co-worker at the video store, Roger Avary. We had partnered with a friend, New Line honcho Jeff Schechtman, and taken “Zoe” to the Cannes Film Festival, hoping to piggyback on Quentin’s newfound international acclaim.

Quentin agreed to “executive produce” (i.e. lend his name) to Roger’s project. Schechtman arranged a front-page story in the Hollywood Reporter. Ours was entitled “”Dogs’ Director to Produce Zoe” or something close to that (you can look it up!)

The day, after the “Dogs” premiere, Jeff hosted a party at the Rado Plage beach club in Cannes for Roger, Quentin and what cast of “Dogs” we could round up (I remember Tim Roth was there) — and sold the picture out in a matter of hours.

There was only one problem — it was assuming it got released in the U.S. With the rumors that Miramax didn’t have the money, I had to take matters into my hands. So I cold-called an editor at the New York Times Magazine and convinced her to meet with Quentin and me about a story on “Dogs.”

To my amazement, she agreed. I flew to New York (Roger drove me to the airport) and took them to lunch. Again to my amazement, they hit it off — though I never knew why?

Anyway, the Times ran my magazine feature on Quentin (“All’s Well That Ends Gruesomely,” ibid.) and, as many Miramax insiders have told me, that’s when Harvey and Bob Weinstein decided to roll the dice, releasing the film in a handful of theaters after the article appeared. (Those were the days when newspapers still had clout!)

The movie bombed — it grossed less than $1 million — but it put Quentin on the map.

Two years later “Pulp Fiction” came out and changed everything and I got a strange phone call — from the editor at the Times. Turns out she was retiring — she explained that, after falling on her sword for Quentin, when the movie bombed there were rumblings they wanted to let her go. She refused — until “Pulp” hit. Now, she felt, she could leave with her head held high.

I asked her one question: Given the heat she’d taken to get the story published (launching Quentin’s career), why?

She told me she had a son in Hollywood who’d been working on his first movie for Trimark (another defunct movie company, like LIVE) and he had assured her (not me) that Quentin was the real deal.

His name was Noah Baumbach. And you can look it up.