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From video clerk to box office icon

He's immersed himself in film fantasy since he was a kid. His own name was inspired by TV. But there's nothing make-believe about the success of Quentin Tarantino.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

He works the rope line like a rock star, hangs out with Hollywood's most beautiful women, and as the writer-director of the critically acclaimed film "Pulp Fiction," has been hailed as a cinematic genius. His name is Quentin Tarantino, and actors, like Daryl Hannah, who've made movies with him, say the process is like riding a runaway train.

Daryl Hannah: “He's just this hyperactive, genius, film-loving child, you know.”

That’s understandable, given that Tarantino dropped out of school after junior high and spent most of his life watching videos and soaking up movie minutia.

Quentin Tarantino: “The only thing I ever cared about when I was a kid was movies.”

And from the very beginning, Quentin Tarantino seemed destined for the world of make believe. When he was born in March 1963, his teenage mother decided she wanted his name to have a ring to it. The name Quentin she took from a character played by Burt Reynolds in the old TV western, “Gunsmoke.”

As a teenager growing up near Los Angeles, Tarantino dropped out of school, hoping to become an actor. But at age 22, the closest he'd gotten to show biz was a job as a video store clerk.

Tarantino: “I was just looking for like, you know, a minimum wage job. You know I could have worked at Video Archives. I could have worked at Pioneer Chicken. But luckily I got in at Video Archives, and it was real fun.”

Hoda Kotb: “What did you know about movies at that point, other than just [being] a guy who watched a lot of them?”

Tarantino: “I was a movie expert. I got the job because I was a movie expert.”

Kotb: “How did you become a movie expert?”

Tarantino: “Well, when you kind of clear out everything in your life and focus on one thing, you better know a lot about it.”

That was it. No certificate, no diploma, just a lot of long hours on the couch watching movies. But in the mind of Quentin Tarantino, all those flickering images were catalogued and filed away for future reference. Kung Fu films. Crime capers. Horror flicks. Every scene, every plot twist was memorized. Every obscure actor and director given tenure at Tarantino U.

It was while working at the video store that Quentin Tarantino decided that he knew enough about movies to make one himself, with the help of a few friends.

Tarantino: “Whenever I had a little bit of money, we'd get together for the weekend and shoot, you know, all weekend long. And then we'd be done again until I came up, you know, with a couple hundred more dollars. I did that for a period of a couple of years.”

Kotb: “That's a lot of work. How did it turn out.”

Tarantino: “Not very good. It was pretty amateurish. I didn't know what I was doing. I learned how to do — I learned what I was doing.”

Kotb: “Did that take the wind out of your sails? Or did it motivate you to keep doing some more?

Tarantino: “No, It did take the wind out of my sails. But I’ve got to say it's probably the thing I'm most proudest  of… in my whole life, is the fact that I didn't quit. Because everybody else I knew would've quit.”

For 24-year-old Quentin Tarantino, failure was not an option. So, in the late 80s, Tarantino focused on scriptwriting, turning out “True Romance” and “Natural Born Killers.” The success of those screenplays allowed Tarantino to quit the video store, and provided him with the kind of connections necessary to finance his 1992 directorial debut film, "Reservoir Dogs.”

It was a violent, bloody crime story, but it got him noticed. Then in 1994, Tarantino followed up with "Pulp Fiction,” a quirky violent-crime-comedy that revived the career of John Travolta and won Tarantino an Oscar for best original screenplay.

Kotb: “How many of the details of that movie are yours. Like you know, there's that dancing scene with Uma.”

Tarantino: “Yeah, yeah — no, I choreographed a lot of that dance stuff. And John was like, ‘You know, Quentin, you know, the twist starts getting kind of boring.’ So we started coming up with these other dances from the 60s alright? It was like the gunslinger and the Batman and everything.”

Sot: “Right, and the swim.”

Tarantino: “And the swim. And I would just shout out these different dances as they would dance.”

Only five years after scrounging for enough money to shoot a movie with friends on the weekends, Quentin Tarantino was the toast of Hollywood and one of it's most eligible bachelors. Because of the phenomenal success of “Pulp Fiction,” TV talkers wanted to interview him, A-list actors wanted to work with him, and video clerks all over world imagined they could be him.

Tarantino: “I never have to look for a job, or try to get a job or pay the rent or anything like that you know. It completely enabled me to live the life of an artist.”

All of that has given the 41-year-old Tarantino the freedom to use other people's money to make the kinds of violent, genre-bending movies he'd like to see himself. His latest project, "Kill Bill," is a two-volume tribute to the bloody martial arts films and Western shoot-em-ups he loved as a kid.

Kotb: “Do you think that sometimes there's gratuitous violence, there's arms being chopped off and heads being lopped off?”

Tarantino: ”In my movies?”

Kotb: ”Yeah.”

Tarantino: “I don't think there is any gratuitous violence. To me something like ‘Kill Bill,’ especially volume one, which is the big Japanese Samurai.”

Kotb: “Right.”

Kotb: “Who do you think the audience for ‘Kill Bill’ volumes one and two is?”

Tarantino: “Me and people like me, alright? I'm making it for me and just betting there are other people like me out there of that lineage and that's what I was evoking. Saying that's gratuitous is like saying there would be gratuitous sex in a porno movie. Alright. It is what it is.”

Kotb: “Do you ever want to do just a sweethearts and flowers, a lovely dovey?”

Tarantino: “I think Kill Bill Volume two is pretty sweet.”

Kotb: “Come on!”

Tarantino: “I do. I'm not accountable for your taste. Alright? I think ‘Kill Bill Vol. 2’ is very sweet, and is — I think it's quite emotional and moving.”

"Sleepless in Seattle," it's not. But if box office receipts are any measure, there are plenty of movie goers out there who love Tarantino's style. ‘Kill Bill Vol. 1,’ starring Uma Thurman, Daryl Hannah and Lucy Lieu raked in $70 million. ‘Kill Bill Vol. 2,” starring Thurman, David Carradine and Michael Madsen opened number one at the box office. Movie critic Leonard Maltin says Tarantino's fans are nothing if not devoted

Leonard Maltin: “He's an original. He's an original who's fueled by a variety of existing sources, from television from pop culture from movies. But he funnels it into a unique mixture that no one else quite has, and every film he makes has his stamp on it.

Not bad for a guy who not so long ago was renting movies for a living instead of making them. But, as a former video clerk Tarantino knows, the truest test of his talent will be how his movies fare with audiences that haven't been born yet.

Kotb: “So, 40 years from now, what are they going to be saying about Quentin Tarantino?”

Tarantino: “Well, that's the fun alright? We’ve got to find out.