Today auteur Quentin Tarantino unleashes his latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, on American audiences. To coincide with this release, I would like to take a look back at the filmmaker’s earliest effort, a $5,000 unfinished Howard Hawks-esque screwball comedy titled My Best Friend’s Birthday that was never completed, as well as an even earlier film, Warzone, which involved him.
This Fall my book, My Best Friend’s Birthday: The Making of a Quentin Tarantino Film, will be released by BearManor Media. This is my second book on Tarantino’s work, the first being 2016’s Conversations on Quentin Tarantino. This newest project is an oral history of the making of My Best Friend’s Birthday, which includes original interviews with nearly everyone involved with the film, including Tarantino, co-writer and co-producer Craig Hamann, and producer Roger Avary.
Here I will present two excerpts from the book. For those who aren’t familiar with the format, an oral history is a Rashomon-style history featuring sometimes contradictory accounts from the individuals involved. This is the beauty of the oral history format; no one is lying, but each person’s memories are slightly different, leaving it up to the reader to decide for themselves what is true.
The first excerpt involves an early ’80s project that predates My Best Friend’s Birthday. This was a $2,000 video film titled Warzone that was neither written nor directed by Tarantino, but featured him as actor and utilized a cast and crew filled with people who would later work on My Best Friend’s Birthday. This (also unfinished) film was directed by the late Al Harrell and was co-written by Hamann and Todd Henschell. This project is significant because, if Birthday was Tarantino and company’s film school as Tarantino has so often said, then Warzone was a sort of preparatory school. It provided them the knowledge they needed to make My Best Friend’s Birthday, which would then give them the tools for success. (Three people involved with My Best Friend’s Birthday–Tarantino, Hamann, and Avary–would all go on to direct bigger-budget professional films.)
This excerpt involves the cast and crew attempting to “steal shots,” or shoot without a permit in North Hollywood, and then finding themselves in hot water with the police.
TODD HENSCHELL (co-writer): We made do with what we had. We stole shots. At one point we were shooting a scene with the bad guys in this movie. We were shooting this scene in an alley, and we were stealing it. We didn’t have any lights or anything, and we were just going to do it really quickly. It was a shot with a bunch of people getting out of a van and running into the neighborhood. And apparently some neighbor thought we were breaking into the business we were behind, which we weren’t, and we got stopped at gunpoint by the police. I was behind the camera and I remember hearing “Freeze!” I thought, “Who said that? That’s not in the script.” And then, Jesus, shotguns! Whoa!
CRAIG HAMANN (co-writer): We all had weapons with us, which must have freaked out somebody living close to where we were shooting. All of a sudden, I saw police cars all around us. Because I was with Rick at the far end of the alley, we saw the police after Todd and Al did.
RICHARD “RICK” SQUERI (actor): That really was one of the high points of our adventures together. We were going to go shoot in an alley near where Craig and Todd live. We go back there to shoot. We start to set up but we haven’t done anything yet because we need electricity for the light and to recharge the battery for the camera. I’ve got a screw-in lightbulb socket that I keep because sometimes you can’t get power anyplace. So you find a lightbulb, and you unscrew that, and you use that as an outlet. It’s an outlet socket. We see that there’s a light in the back of this small office building, but we see that there’s a gate. So I scale the gate and jump down on the other side. Whenever it came to that kind of stuff in those days, that was me. That was my job—that was a stunt guy job. I get over, put the outlet in, and am just kind of getting set. I have my shotgun slung over my shoulder, and the rest of the guns are in the saddlebags on my motorcycle.
All of a sudden there’s a cruiser creeping in at one end of the alley. I think they saw me hop down off the fence. Coming from the other side of the alley is another cruiser! There are at least four cops at the start, and the flashlight and the headlights are going. They tell us all to freeze. I’m supposed to drop my weapon. I take the thing off, sit it on the ground, and move away from it. Then they have us kneel down and lay down on the ground, interlacing our hands behind our heads. They’re commanding us this whole time.
QUENTIN TARANTINO (actor) [To the author of this book]: It’s so weird to hear you say “everybody’s talking about this,” like it’s new, like it’s news from the front or something! [Laughs.] You know, a story about something that happened when I was twenty-two! It’s very bizarre! You know, “everybody talks about it…” But yeah, I remember when that happened. The cops showed up, of course, because we were fucking around in North Hollywood with guns and no permit in an alley behind some stores. [Laughs.] Of course, they show up for that!
CRYSTAL SHAW (actress): I remember we were laying out there with all those guns and suddenly someone yelled, “Get down!” And I was lying there, face down, on the gravel in the alley and all these boots were all around us. I started giggling because I thought it was part of the scene! I thought it was a little bit overly dramatic, but I just went along with it. I don’t remember which of them said it. “Please stop giggling! Please stop giggling!” And then Craig put his hand on my head to put my face down in the dirt and I looked at him like, what the…? And he had this extreme look of fear and I realized something was wrong. My face went farther into the ground. He said, not in a mean way, “Please be quiet, Crystal. It’s for real.”
And then these boots walked up next to us, and I remember all of the boots talking, and then Craig and Quentin talking, trying to talk their way out of it. There was some shouting. Al was getting yelled at. I had no idea why.
QUENTIN TARANTINO: The main thing I remember is what a good leader Al was. He says, “Everybody, this is all going to be great! I got you into this, I’ll take care of it! Just hang tight, it’s all gonna be okay! I got you into this, I’ll get you out of it, just let me handle this!” That was cool. I really liked how Al stepped up as the writer/director into the leader position in that situation.
RICHARD “RICK” SQUERI: Al is trying to be in charge because he’s the director. He says, “Don’t worry, people. I got you into this, I’ll get you out of this!” I go, “Hey Al, just simmer down. Be quiet.” So the cops are saying, “Don’t anybody move!” Al then says, “The object next to me on the ground is my glasses. I’m going to reach for my glasses.” One of the cops says, “You do that and it’ll be the last thing you ever do, buddy!”
CRYSTAL SHAW: That is absolutely true. At that point there were tears silently running down my face.
RICHARD “RICK” SQUERI: They came up and they picked up each one of us and we started to explain what the deal was. I said, “We’re not doing anything. We’re in a public alley. We haven’t done anything. But I climbed over that fence.” I think the guy whose office it was was in the cop car with them, because there was a civilian with them. He obviously lived nearby or above the store or something. We started talking about what we were doing. “Here’s the camera. We’ve got these lights here. I was just plugging in so we could use the lights.” There was no reason to hide it, because we were really trying to make art. I remember seeing the guy who must have been the owner of the store turn to the cops and say, “These are just kids. They must have been filming something.” He no longer cared. He was just glad to find out we weren’t cat burglars or whatever.
I said, “I’m sorry. None of these are loaded. I’ve got a plug in the barrel.” They could see what was happening. I said, “To be clear, if you have to look, my saddlebag has other weapons in it.” Then of course they wanted to see all the weapons, so we opened it up. I’m standing here with this cop, and we’re casually appreciating arms together in this alley. I was an actor playing a holocaust biker, so I looked the part. So we’re just talking guns now. The cops are fully appreciating what we have. They said, “Okay, you guys can’t do this anymore.”
CRAIG HAMANN: One officer took Todd to our house, holding a gun to Todd’s head the entire time. It was ridiculous and overly-macho of the police officer. It made me angry, though I didn’t show it.
TODD HENSCHELL: When the officer came inside, he saw the production board and all that stuff, and he knew what was going on. The cop remembered what town this was and says, “They’re just stealing a shot.”
But we did get a ticket for $250. We had looked into getting a permit to do one shot and it was going to cost us about $1,500. We didn’t have that kind of money. We were taking this out of our food money.
CRYSTAL SHAW: When we got back to the house, another actress and I started crying. It was a scary situation. Everybody was scared. Especially Quentin, Al, and Craig who were all kind of macho guys, they were physically shaking. It was probably one of the scariest things I’ve ever encountered.
QUENTIN TARANTINO: We were all cool about it. We weren’t scared. We weren’t scared at all. It was just, we gotta let these cops know what’s going on. A couple of the gals were scared, but none of the guys were scared. We knew it was gonna be fine.
The second excerpt involves the shooting of 1985’s aforementioned My Best Friend’s Birthday, which was Tarantino’s first film as director. It involves a scene featuring veteran actor Allen Garfield (The Stunt Man, Beverly Hills Cop II), who was Tarantino’s acting teacher at the time. In the scene, Garfield is playing a baker named Bill Smith (named after actor William Smith) and is arguing with Tarantino’s character, Clarence, about the merits of Elvis as an actor. Humorously, when the crew was unable to secure a bakery for the scene, Video Archives–the famed video store where Tarantino and Avary worked–was modified to look like a “video/bakery” for the scene.
CRYSTAL SHAW (actress): I kind of remember some mention of an actor named Allen Garfield who would be working on My Best Friend’s Birthday. Before he arrived, there were mixed impressions of him. I remember thinking, “I have no idea who this person is.” I really didn’t know. But I wasn’t a big movie buff back then. I remember thinking, “I wish I knew who this guy was, because everybody’s talking about him.” There was no Google back then. I remember glancing at him before he did his scene. I had a job and I had to leave, so I couldn’t stay, but I remember thinking, “I’ll have to watch this guy’s movies and see who he is.”
BRENDA HILLHOUSE (actress, former Tarantino acting teacher): Allen kind of gave Quentin a hard time on the shoot. I think it was because he’d been Quentin’s teacher, and because there was a lot of improvising that night. I don’t think he liked that. I’m the kind of person that I’ll do anything for anybody, but Allen was different. He had his own way of doing things, and those weren’t necessarily the way Quentin wanted them done. So Allen kind of tried to take over the scene.
ROGER AVARY (producer): I remember seeing Allen Garfield on the set and saying, “Holy crap! That’s Allen Garfield from The Stunt Man!” Allen had some issues with the way we were doing things, but it wasn’t anything personal. He came from a different world. We were just neophytes making a movie, whereas he was a guy who had worked extensively in Hollywood. He was an acting teacher at the time, and he sort of turned into an acting teacher on that film instead of being an actor. It was just his natural instinct.
CRAIG HAMANN (co-writer, co-producer, actor): Despite the fact that he had the experience, and despite the fact that he was a wonderful actor, what Allen Garfield wasn’t getting in step with was the fact this was a no-budget movie. We simply did not have the time for him to be asking someone a question about the character and about why he was doing this stuff. I don’t know why he was doing that. It was almost like he was deliberately giving Quentin a bit of a problem. Maybe he felt like he was teaching Quentin as he was giving him this problem, you know? And if he did feel that way, I don’t know why, because from a directing standpoint, Quentin knew more than he did, even at that time. Allen felt that nobody could direct the way he could, and I don’t agree with that, although he was a great actor. So yeah, that was a tough shoot that night. It was a long night. It was one that could’ve been cut a little shorter if Allen hadn’t gone on and on and on with question after question.
Also, Allen got there late. It wasn’t his fault, though. I’m trying to remember what happened. I think it was Stevo Polyi or somebody—someone picked him up and their car didn’t work. I had to run out to get all of them. And Allen brought his little dog with him, which was fine. The dog didn’t get in the way at all, and it was a really sweet little dog.
QUENTIN TARANTINO (director, co-writer, co-producer, actor): Allen Garfield wasn’t challenging on the set at all. Everybody thinks that because they had never done anything before. They had no idea what working with a terrific actor who was donating his time and working all night for free was supposed to be like. Not only was he working all night for free on this amateur production, but he was actually breaking the SAG rules to do it. He wasn’t demanding, it was just that that night was Allen Garfield night, so everything revolved around him.
I was so excited to have him there because he was one of my favorite character actors of the time. The truth is, he was the best acting teacher I’ve ever had, by far, frankly. [Acting coach] Jack [Lucarelli] did a good job, too, but Allen was in a class of his own. What he did was just amazing. I was very familiar with his work for Coppola and his work with De Palma, and we got along great in acting class. He was really terrific in acting class. I told him I wanted to act, but I wanted to be a director. And he said, “Okay, then I will treat you both as an actor and as a director.” Then when we started the class, he said, “Everybody, this is Quentin Tarantino. He’s in this class, but he wants to be a director. And I have no doubt he’s going to be a fantastic director. So if you do a scene with Quentin, Quentin is the director. It is your job to take direction from Quentin. It’s Quentin’s job to come up with the tone of the scene. You are to listen to what he says. If you do a scene with Quentin, Quentin is the director. That’s what time it is. And I’m holding Quentin responsible for the scene you guys do together.” That was fucking awesome!
But also, to this day, Allen was one of the great improvisational actors of his time. Allen would do improvs that were magnificent. He’s one of the greatest improv actors of all time. And if you want to see it, just watch his movies for De Palma, which were all improvisation. The entire five-minute scene in Greetings with him and Robert DeNiro, all improvisation. So I had a little script for Allen, and then he would just extrapolate from it. That’s what I wanted because that’s what they did in Brian De Palma’s Greetings. One of my favorite things in Greetings are those jump cut scenes. He’s playing the big scene and then you just kind of jump cut to the best parts of it. I kind of liked that ‘60s style anyway, so I thought, “This will be my chance to do that. And I’ll do it with Allen Garfield from Greetings. That’ll be fucking awesome!” To me it was the equivalent of me being De Niro playing opposite Allen Garfield in Hi Mom or in Greetings, so I chopped it up that way. And I was very, very happy with it.
The Allen Garfield thing was incredibly exciting, both acting in a scene with him and also working with a terrific actor. Having him at Video Archives was groovy. — Quentin Tarantino
Allen Garfield was fantastic. He did me a tremendous solid. He was awesome, and it’s the best scene in the movie. I’ll always appreciate what he did. It was the first time I ever worked with someone who was not just a professional actor, but a really great actor.
RUSSELL VOSSLER (Video Archives coworker, brother of cameraman Rand Vossler): I remember coming into the store that day and watching them work on the movie. Part of it was shot there, and the glass counter was decorated to look like a bakery for a scene in the movie.
TODD HENSCHELL (set photographer): Allen Garfield was in the scene and he brought his dog with him. I said, “Hey Quentin, you gotta get the dog in there! Put him up on the counter.” I thought the dog should be in the room during the scene because the dog was cute. So they did some shots of the dog.
QUENTIN TARANTINO: Allen was one of those guys who had a little dog that he carried everywhere with him. He’s one of those dudes, all right?
TODD HENSCHELL: There was this birthday cake on the counter. It was the cake Quentin was going to buy for his best friend. They were doing the scene and they finished one take. I looked down and I said, “You don’t have to eat that cake later, do you?” Quentin said, “Why?” I said, “The dog just ate half of it.” The dog had climbed into the glass cabinet and was eating the cake. Half of it was gone, so it was going to be a continuity problem.
QUENTIN TARANTINO: We looked down and the dog was on this lower counter eating the goddamn cake!
When asked what his favorite experience on the film was, Tarantino doesn’t hesitate to say it was working with Garfield. But then he takes it a step further, explaining why.
QUENTIN TARANTINO: There were only two times when we were working on My Best Friend’s Birthday that it really felt like we were making a movie, as opposed to just getting together and screwing around, since we didn’t know what we were doing. One of those was working with Allen Garfield that night in the video store. That was my favorite memory from the shoot also. The other was the very last scenes we shot, which was the radio station stuff. When I say My Best Friend’s Birthday was like my film school, it really was. I worked on that for three years, and the majority of the stuff that deals with the story itself is the stuff we shot the first week, while I was still learning how to direct a movie. That’s just what that is. But after shooting for two to three years, and I had written a bigger sequence involving the radio station…bigger than what we had done previously… So I had kind of learned how to do it. By that point and time, by the time it came to that silly radio station scene, I knew how to shoot it. I knew what I was doing. And it looked fairly professional. I mean, it’s just a two-shot and this and that, but it flowed. That was the first time I felt I had learned something from the process. So those were the two big moments for me. The Allen Garfield thing was incredibly exciting, both acting in a scene with him and also working with a terrific actor. Having him at Video Archives was groovy.