Twenty years ago today, moviegoers had their first opportunity to take in Natural Born Killers, Oliver Stone’s bloody, grim, and broadly satiric take on serial killers, celebrity culture, and tabloid media. But those who sought out the film on more obscure grounds were in for a disappointment. Quentin Tarantino was not yet a household name; he was still an acquired taste, thanks to the less-than-stellar box office of his 1992’s Reservoir Dogs (which he wrote and directed) and 1993’s True Romance (writer only). His small (yet rapidly expanding) cult following was thrilled at the prospect of a new Tarantino movie—but by the time Natural Born Killers reached the screen, it was no longer the movie Tarantino had penned. His screenplay had been so drastically rewritten, we were told, that he had elected only to take a “story by” credit. And that, presumably, was the last we’d hear about Mr. Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers.
But as is so often the case, they found a way — when there was money to be made. After Pulp Fiction became a worldwide indie movie sensation (and is this a good time to mention that there’s a very fine book about that subject, now available online or at your local bookseller?), its published screenplay became a surprise bestseller. And then Grove Press paired the scripts for Reservoir Dogs and True Romance, published that, and had a hit as well. Buoyed by that success, they went one step further: publishing a Tarantino script that hadn’t actually been made. And thus, with the 1995 publication of Natural Born Killers: The Original Screenplay, we were able to get a taste of what QT’s version of the 1994 hit might have been.
But first, some background. Natural Born Killers grew out of Tarantino’s original, massive script for True Romance (itself a rewrite of a script called The Open Road, by Tarantino’s occasional collaborator and video store co-worker Roger Avary). It was originally, oddly enough, a film-within-a-film; True Romance’s character Clarence (played by Christian Slater in Tony Scott’s eventual film version) was writing a screenplay while traveling across the country with Alabama (Patricia Arquette), and that ultra-violet road movie in his mind was what became Natural Born Killers.
Tarantino wrote these scripts during his fabled period at Video Archives, jockeying the video store counter all day, watching movies all night, and translating those images into his own scripts at every opportunity. His goal, of course, was to direct the films himself. When he was unable to put together the funds to make True Romance, he decided that his next attempt would have to be a smaller movie, easier to make on a low budget.
And those parameters go a long way to explain the approach — and key difference from Stone’s eventual version — of Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers. While Woody Harrelson’s Mickey and Juliette Lewis’s Mallory are unquestionably the protagonists of Stone’s NBK, they are decidedly supporting players in Quentin’s take. His main character is Wayne Gale, “a young, energetic commando journalist à la Geraldo Rivera,” eventually played (with an Australian accent unmentioned in the Tarantino script) by Robert Downey Jr. And a good chunk of Tarantino’s script is spent with Gale and his production team: a cameraman, a soundman, and an assistant, whom Tarantino named (respectively) Scott, Roger, and Julie, all after his co-workers at Video Archives.
Their first appearance is indicative of the differences between the two scripts. Gale and his team are seen in a restaurant “adorned with the standard Denny’s décor,” in a scene that is “to be played at a rapid fire His Girl Friday pace.” Sound familiar? The opening scene of Pulp Fiction is set at basically the same location; Tarantino’s stage directions in that script note that the dialogue “is to be said in a rapid-pace ‘HIS GIRL FRIDAY’ fashion.” In other words, this looser, funkier Natural Born Killers is a Quentin Tarantino movie, and Quentin Tarantino (at least at this early point) makes hanging-out movies. Oliver Stone, to put it mildly, does not making hanging-out movies.
But there was another, more practical explanation for the focus on the production team in Tarantino’s script. In the early 1990s, before digital video and HD photography became the norm, you couldn’t get away with shooting on video (because video looked like shit) — unless the story called for it. Tarantino’s script carefully notes how much of the movie (especially the lengthy scenes of Gale’s TV reports, filling in the backstory) can be shot on tape, while giving Gale several lines explaining why the centerpiece interview with Mickey will be shot on “high contrast sixteen millimeter black and white, and I mean black and white, where the black’s black and the white’s white.”
In other words, Tarantino was writing for the low budget that he was certain would limit his production, so Stone’s revision (written with David Veloz and Richard Rutowski) jettisoned much of that element, while amping up the social commentary (and, this being a Stone film, the Native American presence and drug-related content and imagery). But that said, the mixed-media element of Tarantino’s script may be part of what drew Stone to it; he had already experimented with the mosaic style that would become his trademark in JFK, though it would reach its peak in NBK (appropriately, considering the media-obsessed flavor of his take).
And thought Stone’s film and Tarantino’s script have some sharp divergences, they’re not quite as dissimilar as legend would have it. Both open with the memorable diner massacre, for example, and spend much of the running time on Mickey and Mallory’s escape from prison during a riot. Several key scenes make the transition, and much of Tarantino’s distinctive dialogue remains intact: Mallory’s “Eanie, meanie, minie, moe” bit in the opening scene, Warden McCluskey’s ranting description of the duo (“without a doubt the most twisted, depraved group of fucks it’s ever been my displeasure to lay my eyes on”), Wayne and Mickey discussing the ratings of their episode (“Manson beat you.” “Yeah, it’s pretty hard to beat the king”), a fan’s insistence that “We respect human life and all,” Mickey’s promise to “the fans” that “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” and the speech culminating with title line, “I’m a natural born killer” (a line that Tarantino also ended up working into one of his early script jobs, an uncredited rewrite of the direct-to-video thriller Past Midnight). Stone and his co-writers mostly beef up the second act, which is admittedly thin in Tarantino’s script; the rewrite has much more of the “lovers on the run” element, which Tarantino had perhaps gotten out of his system with True Romance.
There was no love lost between Tarantino and Stone during production (hence his request to have his screenplay credit downgraded to story). “I wish [Stone] had just fucking ripped it off,” he said at the time, and proceeded to disown the final product, proclaiming that Stone’s “biggest problem is that his obviousness cancels out his energy and his energy pumps up his obviousness. He’s Stanley Kramer with style.” (SICK MOVIE-GEEK BURN.) Stone responded, in particularly Stone-like fashion, “To be honest, it’s just not done, a writer who becomes famous and then trashes his own movie. I feel like it’s a code, it’s a samurai code that you live with.”
Whatever his objections to the final product — and he would claim for years thereafter that he hadn’t even been able to make it through the film — Tarantino did make a few bucks on the film (his deal included a healthy back-end cut). And it provided the means for a noteworthy purchase: with the ten grand he made for selling the screenplay option, he bought a cherry-red Malibu that, a few years later, John Travolta drove in Pulp Fiction. And, well, that is a whole other story.