Robert Kurtzman is probably best known for his special effects makeup. He was formerly the “K” in the now-legendary KNB Efx team. He also directed the cult favorite Wishmaster. Sadly, although he received a story credit for his work on From Dusk Till Dawn, many fans still have no idea the film wasn’t actually conceived by Quentin Tarantino. Before Tarantino entered the picture, From Dusk Till Dawn was just an idea floating around in the special effects wizard’s head. Then it took shape in the form of a twenty-page treatment penned by Kurtzman. He then enlisted Tarantino to write the screenplay, which he intended for his own directorial debut. Things didn’t quite work out the way Kurtzman envisioned them, and the rest is history.
This interview was conducted in the early 2000’s and is an excerpt from the book, Conversations on Quentin Tarantino (Bear Manor Media, 2016).
How did you come up with the concept for From Dusk Till Dawn?
My inspiration for Dusk came from my love of low-budget features like Assault on Precinct 13 and Race with the Devil. Dusk was always intended to be a drive-in movie. In fact, when I was younger I spent almost every weekend at the drive-in. They would run all night “from dusk till dawn” horror films like Night of the Living Dead, Zombie, Dawn of the Dead, etc. I wanted to make a gritty, contained vampire tale—isolate the characters in a setting like Assault and do battle with the undead. I conceived Dusk as a low-budget indie film, which later ballooned into something much bigger.
How did you hook up with Quentin Tarantino?
My partner on Dusk, John Esposito, was originally going to write the screenplay based on my treatment. But he had to leave for six months to go to Maine, where they were shooting his film, Stephen King’s Graveyard Shift. So we both decided to look for another writer to do the first draft. We started getting script samples from writers, and through Scott Spiegel and David Goodman, both Sam Raimi alumni, we heard about Quentin. We called him up and he sent over several scripts he’d already completed. The scripts were Natural Born Killers, True Romance, and Reservoir Dogs. Well, obviously, we had never read anything quite like them before. What balls! What dialogue! He was perfect for our tale of criminals on the lam who walk right into the den of Hell! Shortly after receiving the scripts, we hooked up together and soon found we were into the same movies—John Woo, Jackie Chan, Lucio Fulci, etc. Quentin told me we were the first people who ever hired him to write anything. It wasn’t much. Only fifteen hundred dollars. But, at that point in both of our careers, it was a lot of money. This was around 1990 or so.
You originally intended for From Dusk Till Dawn to be your own directorial debut. Obviously things didn’t work out that way. What happened?
Yes, Dusk was conceived to be my directorial debut. From 1990 to 1995 we shopped the script around town. People just thought the script was too hardcore. Lots of people passed on it even after Reservoir Dogs came out and was an indie hit. Then Pulp Fiction came out, and suddenly things started to change. The same people who told us the script was shit were now telling us it was a masterpiece. Standard Hollywood bullshit, right? Well, after several deals that almost happened and had us pulling out our hair over negotiations that went south, we finally made a deal with producers Mier Teper and Gianni Nunnari. Then Robert Rodriguez became interested in the project after Quentin showed him a copy of the script. At this point, we knew the project was going to become much bigger than we’d ever intended. Robert was hot, and we were just exhausted after five years of beating the pavement. We wanted to see this picture get made. So I stepped aside as director.
Had you directed the film when you wanted to, what differences would we see between your version and the film Robert Rodriguez made?
It would have been a much smaller picture. Several million dollars. Not the seventeen million dollars it ended up at. A lot of the effects work was true to what I had envisioned. In fact, a lot of the design work I’d done for the film was kind of rolled over when Robert came aboard. Robert had never handled an effects picture like this before, so he trusted me and KNB to work out a lot of stuff. Myself and storyboard artist John Bisson spent a lot of time with Robert working out all the action effects sequences. Robert brought the whole Aztec theme to the picture—the look of The Titty Twister, which I thought was great. Robert is also an incredible editor, and that brought a whole different kind of energy to the picture.
How much different was Quentin’s initial draft of the script from your original treatment?
The biggest difference would be that the hotel was never in the treatment. After the Geckos rip off Benny’s World of Liquor, they encounter the family on the road after their car breaks down. Then it’s off to the border. After that, it’s pretty faithful to the treatment. Everything at The Titty Twister is faithful.
I understand that the Ezekiel 25:17 monologue that Samuel L. Jackson uses in Pulp Fiction originally appeared in Quentin’s first draft of From Dusk Till Dawn.
Yes, Ezekiel was in the early draft, but Quentin called me and asked if he could use it in his new script, Pulp Fiction. I had no problem as long as he wrote something new for Dusk.
Did you ever consider directing one of the From Dusk Till Dawn sequels?
Wishmaster came along about the time they were looking for directors on the Dusk sequels, and I was more interested in doing something original that didn’t have a two or a three after its title. Plus, Wishmaster was going theatrical and the Dusk sequels were going straight to tape.