John Travolta gazes into the light in ‘Pulp Fiction’ (Miramax)
Everyone agrees that Quentin Tarantino’s gamechanging 1994 crime epic Pulp Fiction is one of the all-time great movies. But in the two decades since the film’s release, few people can find common ground on the film’s most provocative riddle: What’s inside the glowing briefcase that Jules and Vincent (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta) have been tasked with recovering for their boss, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames)?
The idea that the illuminated object is Marsellus’s soul is one enduring theory, with advocates pointing to the briefcase’s hellishly easy combination (“666”) and the Band-Aid that adorns the back of Wallace’s head, covering the place from where his soul was supposedly stolen. Continuing that line of thinking, a Reddit user has put forth the proposal that Marsellus isn’t a victim of the devil… he is the devil. Other theories as to what’s in the briefcase include diamonds, a nuclear device, Elvis’s gold suit and the thing that Indiana Jones once out-raced the Nazis to find: the Holy Grail.
Well, you can stop your speculating, folks: We have the definitive answer at last. On the Aug. 19 episode of the essential WolfPop podcast, I Was There Too, host Matt Gourley had a lengthy, insightful conversation with actor Phil LaMarr, who played Marvin — one of the doomed wanna-be criminals that feel the wrath of Jules’s furious anger for daring to steal something from Wallace. LaMarr was in the room when Travolta’s Vincent cracked the case open, gazed into its glowing interior and reported “We happy.” So what was the actor looking at? “A light. A low-wattage yellow bulb,” LaMarr reports, puncturing everyone’s dream that Tarantino had somehow managed to convince Satan himself to lend him someone’s soul for the day to use as a prop.
Okay, obviously the real-world answer was always going to be something simple like a lightbulb. What Gourley and everyone else wants to know is: What did Tarantino want us to think was in that briefcase? LaMarr says that he asked the director point-blank on set and received this response: “It’s whatever you want it to be.” In the moment, that satisfied his curiosity, but over the years the actor admits that he’s thought more and more about the implications of Tarantino’s non-answer. “Is it what I want it to be or what whoever opens it wants it to be? There’s a difference,” he explains to Gourley. “If Vincent opens it and sees whatever he wants to see, then it’s a magical briefcase. But if the concept is that it’s just the most precious thing ever, than it’s whatever precious thing the audience wants it to be.”
Watch the first scene with the briefcase:
LaMarr goes on to say that he subscribes to the latter theory of it being a precious object, rather than a magical briefcase. But he shoots down the notion that the precious object is Wallace’s soul, as evidenced by the Band-Aid. “Ving shaves his own head, and he showed up at rehearsal with a Band-Aid on the back of his head,” he remembers. “That made Quentin go, ‘Ooo, that would be interesting visually! Why don’t I just not show your face?’ The Band-Aid is there because of Ving.” Just think…if Rhames had gone to a professional barber the day before rehearsal, we might have avoided this whole debate.
Ving Rhames’ Band-Aid in ‘Pulp Fiction’ (Miramax)
Here are some of the other Pulp Fiction-related tidbits LaMarr dropped in his sit-down with Gourley. Find this episode and past installments of I Was There Too at the WolfPop website.
*In the original script, Marvin’s death was a drawn-out affair, with him taking a bullet in the throat and living awhile longer until Vincent and Jules decided to mercifully deliver the finishing blow. In the finished film, of course, Vincent accidentally (and memorably) shoots Marvin in the face. According to LaMarr, Travolta himself suggested the change, arguing that audiences would react badly to seeing the Saturday Night Fever star execute somebody in cold blood. “We had sort of forgotten how famous [John] was,” Lamarr says. “He had a real sense of his persona, and he knew that accidentally killing a poor little innocent kid is one thing, but choosing to do it is another.”
Watch the scene where Marvin meets his bloody end:
*While the backstory that explains how Marvin and his pals (played by Frank Whaley, Burr Steers and Alexis Arquette) came into possession of the briefcase wasn’t written into the film, LaMarr says the quartet invented a history among themselves. “We were basically these Long Beach college kids who thought we were gangsters. We thought it would be simple. And the idea was that Jules knew somebody who knew somebody who knew Marvin, and Marvin being dumb probably mentioned [the plan] to a buddy. So Jules got in touch with him and said ‘At 7:45, all you gotta do is unlock the door, and I’ll handle everything else.’”
*Another popular question among Pulp Fiction fanatics is why there are visible bullet holes in the wall before Arquette’s shooter bursts out of the bathroom, gun blazing. LaMarr chalks it up to a deliberate continuity error on Tarantino’s part. “Quentin’s not dumb. It’s not that he didn’t notice. My guess is that the take with the bullet holes was just so much better than the take with the clean wall that he said, ‘F— it.’”
*That look of fear on Marvin’s face when Jules is interrogating the group is genuine. During rehearsal, Jackson’s eyes didn’t linger on LaMarr after he quiets him by saying, “I don’t remember asking you a goddamn thing.” But Jackson changed it up on set, staring daggers at LaMarr, causing his scene partner to break character. “I was like ‘Is he mad at me?’” LaMarr tells Gourley, laughing. “There is real fear coming up in my body. Thankfully, I didn’t have any lines to f— up.” A gifted impressionist in addition to a good actor, LaMarr admits later on in the podcast that he can only impersonate Jackson when he’s yelling. Maybe that’s just residual shock from his Pulp experience.
Phil LaMarr last year (Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images)