Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Interviews

“What was it like to live and work in someone else’s dream” – Pam Grier interviewed

Jackie Brown may not Quentin Tarantino’s best film, but it should be. With grown up, lived-in characters, Tarantino broke through the jacked-up, smart talking pulp adolescents that populate his (admittedly ingenious and inventive) reference-riddled earlier films to tell the stories of a pair of middle-aged survivors. For those key roles, Tarantino cast a couple of middle-aged survivors—70s blaxploitation action queen Pam Grier and exploitation stalwart Robert Forster—and surrounded them with a cast that included Robert DeNiro and Samuel Jackson.

With the Blu-ray debut of Jackie Brown this week, I had the opportunity to speak with both Pam Grier and Robert Forster for my home video column, Videodrone, on MSN. I was able to use just a fraction of my conversation on MSN but I offer the entire interviews on Parallax View. This week, I present Pam Grier.

Twenty minutes was barely enough time to get started on her career, let alone the experience of making Jackie Brown, a film as much inspired by the films of her career as by Leonard’s novel, so we started on the present. “I live in Colorado. People always assume that I live in Los Angeles or New York in a hotel somewhere, but I have horses. I have English and Western, Dutch Warmblood, Quarter Horse, Thoroughbred. Matter of fact, my Thoroughbred is a descendent of Bold Ruler, who was the sire of Secretariat. And he’s a jumper, he’s a fabulous horse, and he’s a little teddy bear. Well, he’s a big teddy bear.”

Sean Axmaker: Quentin Tarantino was a fan of your films. Were you a fan of his when you were cast?

Pam Grier: Very much so. He had established himself as a filmmaker of really raw or true grit when you saw Reservoir Dogs and he paid homage to me in that. Everyone said, “Do you know you’re mentioned in the Quentin Tarantino movie?” And I said, “Yes, and I fell out of my chair.” I love his work. And then when he did Pulp Fiction… I had met with him, we had talked about a role and it wasn’t going to work out, the same way with Robert Forster, so he said, “We’re going to work together.” When I went into his office to meet with him, he had all of my posters on the wall, from the Roger Corman films to the AIP films, you know the progressive films of the women’s movement, and there they were, one after the other. I thought he was a stalker. He saw something in those films in how we were attempting to translate a time and a place in politics and pop culture and chaos and so much. And the music, he loved the music. Every song that was in every film, he knew. He knew the composer. He was this maven who loved film and we would talk. We had the same tasted in films and I just said, “God, I hope I get a chance to work with him. Naaah, I’m not gonna, it’s gonna be all those male shoot ’em up movie, I’m not gonna get to.”

And then I meet him in the streets, in Los Angeles, Hollywood actually. I was with a friend and there he was on the street talking, as I liked to tell him, he was “macking” to a beautiful woman, and my friend says, “Hey, that’s Quentin Tarantino,” and I see this guy in a T-shirt and wild hair. “It is?” And he calls him over and says, “Hey, it’s Pam Grier here, she wanted to say hi to you,” and he says [in a breathless, superfast patter] “HeyPam, howareyou, hey, I’m writingamovieforyou.” And I’m like, yeah right, the genius who wrote Pulp Fiction is writing a movie for me. Sure. And he says, “No, when I finish writing it I’m going to send it to you.” Six months later it shows up. With 44 cents due on the envelope. I’m getting these notices from the post office: “We have a parcel from Los Angeles and it’s due 44 cents and we’re going to send it back soon.” I don’t even know how he found me. So, not even thinking, I pick it up and see the QT in the corner and then I see all these stamps on the other side—he must have put them there himself, there’s no order—and I open it and there is “Jackie Brown,” based on the story “Rum Punch” by Elmore Leonard. I’m a big Elmore Leonard fan. And I said, “Oh no, he did it!” and I literally… My breath stopped. I just had to catch my breath, because it was so overwhelming generous of him to invest two years of his life to write this. I read the note, it says, “Read it and please call me,” written three weeks ago, so I read it and I’m thinking, Okay, it’s the Bridget Fonda role, it can’t be the Jackie Brown, that’s the lead, so I’m thinking, okay, it’s Sam’s pothead girlfriend. And I call him and he says, “Ohhh, didjyalikeit? Whatyathink, whatyathink? I wrote it for you.” Oh yeah, you know, you wrote a little role for me. Great, thank you. “So which role am I looking at?” And he says, “Jackie Brown.” And I go, “Jackie Brown?” And he says, “Yeah, your gonna play Jackie Brown. I wrote it for you…. You don’t like it?” (laughs) I was in shock. It was absolutely remarkable that someone would do that for you. I said, “Okay, I won’t ever have to work again after this. This is it.”

Working with someone who is so broadly intuitive, where you are liberated, you are just free to fill up the scene…. It’s not a controlled situation. You’ve rehearsed with the actors—and, of course, everyone was there to rehearse, DeNiro, Sam, Michael Keaton, Bridget, Robert [Forster]—we rehearsed two weeks to prepare ourselves for his style, prepare ourselves for his craft, and we would collaborate, all of us together, and it was extraordinary. It was the best time to work on the scenes and how he works with you, it makes it so that your heart is beating through your chest. That’s what he does to you when you work with him.

Who did you see when you started playing the role of Jackie Brown. Did he give you a backstory to the character? Did you create your own story of where she came from and how she got to where she was?

I had read “Rum Punch” and as we started to analyze the character, it was all there. He would say, “As you’re reading it, you are going to ask questions.” And he would answer them. And then he would give you an idea of how he’s going to shoot it, because not everything is in the written word with him. Often it’s beats, moods, music, so you have to be on point with him. You’ve explored every mood, every intention, every subtext of the character, so you could go either way and have some flexibility to really breath into the role, so he had prepared, as he was writing, who she was, where she had been, where she was and where she was going, so you could live it and breath it. And he’s so detailed that it just pulls you in, because when he sets up the sets, he sets up to the color of your skin, to the items on your dresser, he asks you how would you hang and fold your clothes, how would they go in the drawer, what kind of perfume do you wear, what do you eat, where did you buy these things that you have in your living room? Everything has a story, some legacy, and that’s what gives you a remarkable sense of ownership, of authenticity, of you will.

Did Quentin Tarantino, between rehearsals or after hours, ever want to talk to you about any of your career and your films, and if so, which films in particular was he most interested in?

Before we started, he had his posters and he would explain why he had the posters, what intrigued him about the work, and that was always before. When we started Jackie Brown, we only spoke of the work. But he wanted Jackie Brown to be his Foxy Brown. In Foxy Brown, a film of the seventies, we didn’t have a lot of post-production money so the scenes were long. So in the scene where Ordell [Sam Jackson] comes to Jackie’s apartment to kill her, Quentin says, “This is going to be a fifteen-minute scene. I want you guys to know your lines and not drop a word because it’s a fifteen minute scene. It’s going be like right out of the seventies.” And I could see his craft, I could see his influence, of how he wanted to make the film. And it does have a feel of some of the seventies movies. It has a sense, a style.

Before I discovered your films on video, I think the first thing I saw you in was the TV series Crime Story.

I love Crime Story. You know, when I began, Michael Mann was a friend a whole group of people who were cutting films for Roger Corman. He had just graduated from USC: Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Kaplan, Jonathan Taplin. I love Crime Story. I love Dennis Farina, we’re dear friends, but I just think the ensemble of that time, and how Michael brought in the elements of the sixties, and politics and crime and substance. He’s a master. He did a great job.

You had a whole story arc with Stephen Lang.

Yes. And to see him years later in Avatar is wonderful.

Of the films you made in the seventies, which are the ones that you are most proud of?

Pretty much all of them. Because I was a student learning the process and with each film, I didn’t know if I would continue because I didn’t know if it would be fulfilling enough. I was in search of what would give me meaning in filmmaking, since I was a transfer student. Do I want to be in front of the camera? Do I want to be a writer, do I want to be a cinematographer? I was working for tuition. And even after Coffy and Foxy Brown, I would say, “Should I go back to college?” Because I don’t want to be redundant, and of course once you do one film, everybody wants you to do that same film ten times. So get ready for Jackie Brown 2, Jackie Brown 3, Jackie Brown 7. (laughs) But the ones that intrigued me were Foxy Brown because it was so heavily influenced by the women’s political movement, the sexual revolution, and how we were equal to the guys, to men posturing, and our being progressive and sexy and strong and being the best women we could be. It was unique and I knew that when I stepped on toes, a lot of conservative men were afraid I was castrating them and taking their jobs away from them. And I said, “No, I just want to stand next to you, that’s all. Not take your job.” Well I’m sorry, but they’re trying to take me away.

I was afraid our time was up, but I thank you for the time you’ve given and for the great memories and stories you’ve shared. I’ve really enjoyed it.

I can tell a story that people won’t hear again and it’s a little part of me, of where I’ve been and where I am now, which people are so fascinated by because I love film, and I joined the ranks of millions who feel as I do and want to know what was it like, to live and work in someone else’s dream.