Released 15 years ago today, Tarantino's biggest flop remains his most interesting film
The director refers to the movie as 'the worst movie I ever made'.
If you ask a group of people what their favourite Quentin Tarantino movie is, chances are pretty high that no two people in that group will give you the same answer. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood... there are arguments to be made that each and every one of them is his best movie.
However, on 6 April, 2007, Tarantino released a movie in cinemas and it quickly became the biggest flop of his career. It is far from his best work, but it is arguably his most interesting.
Death Proof was one part of the Grindhouse project that Tarantino worked on with his filmmaking buddy Robert Rodriguez.
In cinemas in America, it was an old-school double-bill screening, with Tarantino's movie paired with Rodriguez's zombie adventure Planet Terror. Released together, they made just $25 million at the box office, so the plan was then to separate them for the worldwide cinematic releases, in order to double the takings.
Death Proof cost $30 million to produce (without the additional costs of promotion and advertising), and it made... $30.7 million at the global box office. Outside of Reservoir Dogs, it is Tarantino's lowest-grossing movie to date, and it represented another big gap between movie-lovers online and movie-lovers in real life.
The idea for the movie came about during a night out with Sean Penn, during which Tarantino learned about stuntmen who "death-proofed" their cars. This inspired Tarantino to want to make a slasher film about a deranged stuntman, telling Rolling Stone the following:
"I realised I couldn't do a straight slasher film, because with the exception of women-in-prison films, there is no other genre quite as rigid. And if you break that up, you aren't really doing it anymore. It's inorganic, so I realised - let me take the structure of a slasher film and just do what I do. My version is going to be fucked up and disjointed, but it seemingly uses the structure of a slasher film, hopefully against you."
Tarantino first attempted to re-team with his Pulp Fiction star John Travolta for the project, but he was unable to take the role of Stuntman Mike as he was filming Hairspray at the time. He then asked Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich and Mickey Rourke among others, but they were all tied up with other filming commitments.
He eventually cast Kurt Russell in the lead role, telling Entertainment Weekly that "for people of my generation, he's a true hero…but now, there's a whole audience out there that doesn't know what Kurt Russell can do. When I open the newspaper and see an ad that says 'Kurt Russell in Dreamer,' or 'Kurt Russell in Miracle,' I'm not disparaging these movies, but I'm thinking: when is Kurt Russell going to be a badass again?"
Russell would be at the centre of a movie that definitely feels like an outlier in Tarantino's CV, which usually involves people in the world of organised crime, and more often than not has revenge as the core motivator. Instead, Death Proof sees Russell murder one group of innocent victims, and then, Psycho-style, resets the cast of character mid-way through to begin another protracted stalk 'n' kill sequence.
Those incredibly tense sequences saw Tarantino utilising amazing stunt performers, and he mentions two specific (perhaps unexpected) car chase scenes as what he considers to be some of the best in the genre:
"CGI for car stunts doesn't make any sense to me - how is that supposed to be impressive? [...] I don't think there have been any good car chases since I started making films in '92 - to me, the last terrific car chase was in Terminator 2. And Final Destination 2 had a magnificent car action piece. In between that, not a lot. Every time a stunt happens, there's twelve cameras and they use every angle for Avid editing, but I don't feel it in my stomach. It's just action."
Decking out the rest of his cast with an impressive line-up (including Rosario Dawson, Rose McGowan, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Zoë Bell), accompanied by another killer soundtrack ('Down In Mexico' by The Coasters being an obvious highlight), the end product was both a Tarantino Slasher Movie and a Tarantino Car Chase Movie AND a Tarantino Girls' Road Trip Movie.
It remains his most intriguing project, because it is so very different to everything else in his C.V. However, while the online support for the movie was feverish, the regular cinema-goer didn't have the love for old-school trashy double-bill horror in the same way that Tarantino and Rodriguez did.
Critics didn't either, as Death Proof landed with 64% on Rotten Tomatoes, a full 10% behind the second-lowest reviewed entry on his filmography; The Hateful Eight. In fact, years later during a director's roundtable while he was promoting The Hateful Eight (which, in fairness, is actually his worst movie. Don't @ me.), Tarantino told Collider:
"Death Proof has got to be the worst movie I ever made. And for a left-handed movie, that wasn’t so bad, all right? So, if that’s the worst I ever get, I'm good."
And he's right. Tarantino on his worst day is still better than 99% of directors on their best.
Death Proof is available to rent on Google Play, Apple TV and the Sky Store right now.