If you’re still flummoxed as to how an ambitious double-feature release from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez bombed at the box office, Tarantino has some thoughts on why Grindhouse landed with a thud. In the mid-2000s, after taking significant time off following the release of Jackie Brown, Tarantino was on something of a filmmaking tear. He completed and released the two-part epic Kill Bill, he served as a “special guest director” on Rodriguez’s Sin City, and he even directed an episode of the then-massively popular TV series CSI.
So when word arrived that Tarantino and Rodriguez were teaming up to make a pair of exploitation films that would be released as a double feature, fans of the filmmakers were obviously quite interested. Tarantino and Rodriguez even hoped this would become a new tradition. But when Grindhouse hit theaters in 2007, nobody showed up. The double feature of Death Proof and Planet Terror, connected by trailers for fake movies directed by folks like Edgar Wright and Rob Zombie, only managed to gross $25 million, and eventually distributor Dimension Films released Death Proof and Planet Terror separately.
So why did the film bomb so hard, especially when Tarantino and Rodriguez were coming off two massive hits (Kill Bill and Sin City, respectively)? In speaking with Empire as part of the magazine’s 30th anniversary last year—an interview that has only just now been put online (via The Playlist)—Tarantino admits he and Rodriguez overestimated U.S. audiences’ familiarity with the Grindhouse format:
Well, in America they got Grindhouse. In the UK you got Death Proof. With Grindhouse, I think me and Robert just felt that people had a little more of a concept of the history of double features and exploitation movies. No, they didn’t. At all. They had no idea what the fuck they were watching. It meant nothing to them, alright, what we were doing. So that was a case of being a little too cool for school.
Tarantino goes on to tell a bittersweet story about going to see Death Proof opening weekend with Edgar Wright, only for the theater to be nearly empty:
But as far as the movie playing in England as the movie, I think people took it okay. Although there is a story. I’m in London doing press on the film before opening weekend. And I go to Edgar Wright, “Hey, let’s you and me and your friends go see it on Friday night in Piccadilly.” So Nira [Park], his producer, and Joe Cornish and the whole Edgar group, we head into the heart of Piccadilly Circus to go see Death Proof on opening day. And we walk in the theatre and there’s about 13 people in there. On the opening 8.30 show, alright? [Laughs] That was a rather humbling experience. But we sat down and watched it and had a good time. Edgar was like [launches into Edgar Wright impression that sounds more like Jason Statham], “That was very impressive. I think I would have turned around and walked out of there. The fact you said, ‘Fuck it,’ and sat down, I admired that.’”
Grindhouse was a really fun idea that I think just got bungled in the release. Which is a shame, because I do think Death Proof is an underrated film. It’s probably Tarantino’s “worst,” but it’s not a bad movie, and I think too few have seen it because they shrugged it off as a failure. So let this be a reminder to maybe revisit—or watch for the first time—Tarantino’s down-and-dirty twist on a slasher movie.