With Reservoir Dogs, Part of Quentin’s and my dream was to get our film into Sundance. Suddenly, we also got invited to Cannes. It was around the time of the LA riots, and it was intense. Even as I went to meet Quentin in Amsterdam, you could see the city burning from the TVs in the airport. This was the first time either of us had really been outside of the country. As we headed out to grab dinner, there was suddenly a loud noise and I started running. I thought it was a riot. Turns out it was a load of college kids having fun, but the tension of the riots followed me to Europe. Anyway, we flew down to Cannes, got off the bus, and we carried our luggage down the Croisette. Suddenly, someone shouted my name. I turned around to see a person from back home. “Bender, you’re in Cannes!” he said, “you’ve made it. You’re not supposed to be carrying your suitcases anymore.” I always found that funny. It was a strange time. The energy of the LA riots contrasted with the excitement of being at Cannes, in Europe, with these big hotels and yachts. It was a huge culture shock. Two in the morning, we do a soundcheck at the Grand Palais. The next day, we’re walking the red carpet at midnight with Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth. Neither of us could believe it.
Quentin and I were walking around Paris. It was after Cannes, and we went to see Reservoir Dogs playing on the Champs-Élysée. He had this cassette player, and he’s listening to 70s’ surf music while writing Pulp Fiction. As we’re walking around Paris, he said to me, “Check this out… it’s the music we’re going to use in the movie.” In Paris, he got really inspired. Of course, remember the scene with “Le Big Mac”? That’s where that came from, him hanging around in Paris.
I have this good friend Boaz Yakin. He’s a director and screenwriter. He introduced me to Scott Spiegel, who helped me make my first movie Intruder, for like $100,000. Sam Raimi is in it. He gets killed by a meat hook, and that’s how I met Quentin. He and Scott were good friends. Anyway, Boaz was in Paris writing a novel, taking some time off from Hollywood. As we’re prepping Reservoir Dogs, I called him and suggested we do something together. So he flew back home and pitched me the idea of Fresh – which made it into the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. It was a story in the early 90s, about a young black kid from New York, and at the time, it was difficult to get foreign financing for stories centred on black people. But I still thought he should go ahead, and Boaz was passionate about his story. Ironically, we got a French company, Lumiere, to fund the movie and we were invited to Cannes. For the first few days, they put us in a hotel in the old part of the town, doing press and having a great time. But then, everyone from Pulp Fiction shows up. Suddenly, the Croisette was lit on fire, as though the Wild Bunch had arrived. Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman, John Travolta, Sam Jackson, Harvey Keitel…I went from this small hotel to someone doing my laundry for me. One day, I’ll never forget, we’re hanging out with Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz. She’s a real cinema lover, too. Sitting next to me at lunch at the du Cap, she whispers in my ear: “I love Pulp Fiction. But you know, I really loved Fresh.” That was nice to hear.
When Pulp Fiction won the Palme d’Or, there was uproar. The last few days of the festival, Quentin was thinking of leaving. Harvey went to get information and was told that it was better he stayed. No one thought an American movie was going to win that year, so we thought they might do something special, like an ensemble cast prize. People were also loving Krzystof Kieslowski’s Red. At the theatre, when they called out our name for the award, we just stood up, screamed and started high-fiving each other. We were standing on stage, and as Quentin was about to speak, a woman from the balcony screamed, “Kieslowski! Kieslowski!” at the top of her lungs. It causes a boo, a stir. So Quentin says, something to the effect of “I’m very surprised to be here. Because in order to win an award, there has to be consensus. And my movies tend to create controversy.” And then he went on to thank people. We had a crazy after-party at the du Cap hotel. No-one dances there. It’s supposed to be quiet… But Bruce Willis heads up to his room and grabs a boombox. Out of nowhere he starts DJing into the early hours, in this old, grand hotel. It was quite the night. Twenty years later, we were able to screen Pulp Fiction on the beach. That was a special moment – a sort of reminder how far we had come.
I won a prestigious award in 2001. It is the Chopard Prize for producing, and no American had won it before me. Pretty big deal. Thing is, I was in Mexico shooting my picture The Mexican, and had no way of getting out there. I got a call saying Cannes were honouring me at an event, but the rough news was that it was the next day. I felt so bad. It was a 500 person dinner in my honour, and I wasn’t even there. So the next year, they had a little afternoon celebration for me, and Thierry Fremaux presented the award to me, and Quentin made a little speech, and there were a bunch of people together in a beautiful room in the Grand Palais overlooking the water. But I never made it to the actual ceremony.
Quentin and I had somewhat of a falling out. But we came together again for Inglourious Basterds. He gave me the script, and the first question he asked was, “Do you think we can make Cannes?” and from that moment, we were literally shooting 14 weeks later. As we were casting, Quentin had a moment where he thought we would never find an actor to play Hans Landa. He thought it was the best character he had ever written, and he spoke four languages. I suggested we take one week and just focus on finding our actor. If we didn’t succeed, we would pack up and go home, and he could publish the screenplay. That very morning, in walks Christoph Waltz to the audition room. As he’s reading, we’re kicking each other under the table. We had found our Hans Landa. There was no second choice. If he turned the role down, Inglourious Basterds would never have been made. So when Christoph won at Cannes, and also the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, it was as if the movie had won, too. It was karmically perfect.
I got turned away from the door at Cannes once. It was when we made Kill Bill, and Quentin was on the jury. I was in line at the screening for Fahrenheit 9/11, and you know, it was fashionable to wear Converse with your tuxedo at the time. Giorgio Armani gave me this suit, and at the entrance to the screening, there were these huge bodyguards waiting. I don’t speak French and they turned me away because of the sneakers! Rather than arguing, I decided to just head home. They didn’t really give a shit and I would never have been able to get back to the hotel, change, and get back on time. There’s also a thousand people in the crowd. But as I’m walking away, I see the producer getting out of his car. He yells at me to come over, and fits me into his entourage and I get in. It helps to know people sometimes, haha.
I once went with Al Gore to Cannes. We made An Inconvenient Truth, and it was a huge deal at the festival – an Official Selection out of competition. Me, Al, the other producers, the director, Diane Wireman, and Jeff Skoll, who financed the movie, all walked the red carpet together. It was an amazing moment for the documentary, which ended up having such an effect in the world. At the special Vanity Fair party, I was lucky enough to introduce Al Gore to Paul Allen. It was surreal. Cannes became its launch pad – and maybe helped the film’s influence get a larger reach. It was the same with Countdown to Zero in 2010, except this time with Meg Ryan. She’s a friend, and I asked her if she would come with me to Cannes to support the movie. That’s where all those pictures of us on the red carpet came from. Countdown made a big impression, got the crowd talking…Apparently, Hillary Clinton even screened it on Air Force Two!
Cannes is like the Olympics of film festivals. It’s an amazing place, where you see great films, meet great filmmakers, and catch up with old friends from around the world. This is where so many great movies are financed – all in an incredible setting by the sea, with delicious food. I mean, what could be better?