EXCLUSIVE: Pat Lucas, the former EMI Music executive who was a longtime friend to filmmakers she licensed songs to for their films, has died after a long battle with cancer. She passed away last Monday.
While I wait to get more details from her distraught family, Quentin Tarantino asked to memorialize Lucas and express his forever gratitude to her taking a chance on an unproven filmmaker and granting rights to the Stealers Wheel song “Stuck in the Middle with You“ for use in his directorial debut Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino suggests you cannot hear that song even now and not think of Michael Madsen dancing around a kidnapped police officer trussed to a chair, as Madsen dances around him in menacing fashion, cutting off his ear and planning to set him aflame. It was a shocking, career-launching moment for the filmmaker, who still sounds a bit surprised that fortune smiled on him when Lucas said yes. After all, this was way before Pulp Fiction, when all Lucas had to judge by was his script and the knowledge that Gerry Rafferty’s hit song might be indelibly linked to a brutal torture scene.
“She was a genuine hero of Reservoir Dogs,” Tarantino told Deadline. “This was way before Miramax, when the film was financed by Live Entertainment, the video arm of Carolco Pictures. The film was not guaranteed a theatrical release before I started making the movie; it could have been a straight-to-video movie. EMI owned the rights to the Stealers Wheel song ‘Stuck in the Middle with You,’ but we had no money. Back in the ‘90s, the big cash play for a hit song was to be part of a commercial, where you could get $150,000 or $200,000. Nobody wanted to monkey around and mess that up. When I wrote that script and when I was in preproduction, I wanted ‘Stuck in the Middle with You.‘ At that moment, not only was this a dinky little movie, but who knew if it would be good or if it would even see the light of a projector bulb? We had no money, and were asking for a song that would be played during a torture scene where a guy gets his ear cut off. Nothing about that scenario seemed promising, but I needed that song.”
Tarantino said that an introduction was brokered by Stacey Sher, who most recently produced the upcoming Aretha Franklin film Respect and co-produced the Academy Awards and such films as Erin Brockovich and Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained and was EP on Pulp Fiction. She knew Lucas from clearing songs for The Fisher King.
“Stacey was a great friend of the project, and she wrote Pat a letter, sang my praises, and said, ‘We’ll send you the script.’ She laid it on thick: ‘We think Quentin could be another Kubrick or David Mamet.’ These were her words. She wrote, ‘You don’t have to do this, if the money situation is too much to overcome. However, if you are inclined to give a break to a talented artist coming up, we beseech you, he is the one.’ Pat was bowled over by the letter and respected Stacey enough that she had to consider us. We were shooting the movie by then and still didn’t have the rights to the song and needed those rights before we shot the scene, and it was coming up fast. Pat read the script and came down to the set to visit us. She saw the production, saw Harvey Keitel, observed the esprit de corps on the set, and Michael Madsen as Mr. Blonde, all in these cool black suits. She swallowed heard, and decided to give us the song.”
It came at a fraction of the usual ask.
“She ignored the aspect that a torture scene was going on during that song, and that it might impact further commercial sales,” he recalled. “She said, ‘We’ll give you the song. What’s your music budget.’ I said, ‘$30,000.’ She said, ‘OK, the price is $30,000.’”
Tarantino said if the song was being licensed to a mainstream movie like Adventures in Babysitting, the price would have been at least twice what was paid here. It wasn’t lost on him that the real potential lost revenue came because advertisers might be reticent to use the tune because of the torture scene context, which meant EMI might be stuck with losses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. “The problem was, for the $30,000 they were paying, it was probably going to stop others from using the song,” Tarantino said. “That came true; whenever you hear ‘Stuck in the Middle with You,’ you see Michael Madsen torturing that guy.”
Tarantino said that when he auditioned actors for the role of Vic Vega, aka Mr. Blonde, he told them he didn’t know if he would secure the song, and if they wanted to use another tune for their audition, go ahead. “Four different people said, ‘I tried to come up with another song, but this was just so perfect.’ The first time we actually heard the song play in a room while somebody acted out that scene, it was like we were watching the movie, seeing the first glimpse of what this movie could actually be. In that little office. With Pat, it’s one of those things. You meet a lot of people along the way. Some people just help you out, give you a break, do you a favor that you can never repay. I could never repay Pat for what she did for me. She boarded the train before she knew I was an engineer, before the track was completely finished or that we would get to our destination.”
What might have happened had Lucas hadn’t taken a chance on a newbie director?
“I guess I would put that question to everyone who is a fan of Reservoir Dogs,” Tarantino said. “Imagine that movie without that song, in that scene. It’s not the same movie. It might be the most indelible connection between a scene and a song in my entire filmography. That’s the sequence that really made a mark.”
Tarantino long wondered how Rafferty, who co-wrote the song with bandmate Joe Egan and sang the lead vocals, felt about the use of the tune.
“I always wondered, until about 10 years, a DVD edition of Reservoir Dogs came out,” he said. “They put it in a giant gas can and interviewed Gerry Rafferty, and he talked about how he liked the scene in the movie and thought it worked really good and gave the song a different context. It sounded like he liked the fact his song became a major focal point in an iconic movie scene.
“This is just one of those things,” he said. “I might have bumped into Pat at a party, but I haven’t really seen her since the early ‘90s. But I will never forget what she did and the part she played in my career. So I’m holding up a glass to Pat.”