By DONALD PORTER
PARK CITY -- Lawrence Bender sits at a table in the hospitality suite of Z Place, where press and filmmakers come to mingle, do business and escape the crush of humanity on Main Street during the Sundance Film Festival. Bender has a broad smile fixed on his face, conveying his feelings of wonder and excitement to all who see him.
He's been that way for a couple of days, since "Reservoir Dogs," a gritty crime film he produced, began getting most of the ink and much-coveted buzz at the 1992 edition of the premiere festival for American independent filmmakers.
"This is a really great time for me," Bender says ,with barely contained enthusiasm. "I'm like a kid in a candy shop. I've made a couple of other movies, but I was a production assistant on a TV commercial two months before we went into production on 'Reservoir Dogs' because I had no money."
Then Bender, formerly an actor, had the good fortune to pass along a script by his friend and former video store clerk, Quentin Tarantino, to his acting teacher. The teacher, in turn, gave the script to actor Harvey Keitel ("Mean Streets," "Bugsy"), who read it, loved it and helped Bender and Tarantino get the movie made.
"Harvey Keitel is one of mine and Quentin's all-time favorite actors," Bender explains. "And when I got a message on my answering machine from Harvey Keitel that he loved the script, it was the dream of my life come true."
But Keitel became so involved -- financing early casting sessions in New York that landed Steve Buscemi ("Barton Fink," "In the Soup") as one of the lead actors -- that Bender asked Keitel, over supper one evening at the Russian Tea Room, if he would become a co-producer on the film. To which Keitel replied: "Lawrence, I've been waiting for you to say this. What took you so long?"
Inspired by Stanley Kubrick's "The Killing," "Reservoir Dogs" is a film about the aftermath of a botched diamond heist; as the tough guys who took part meet afterward in a warehouse to sort out what went wrong, why and, most important, who's to blame.
"But what's different about this film is that you never actually see the robbery," Bender explains with the kind of verve he might have used when scrounging for money to make the $1.1 million production. "And when they come back to this warehouse where they're supposed to meet, it's like 'Rashomon' -- everyone comes back with a different story.
"And as an audience member, you really don't know what actually happened. ... And then at a certain point in the movie, you start to understand a little bit more than they know. The movie's sort of structured in chapters, and it's very intriguing. In most movies, you get the questions and then you get the answers. But in this movie, sometimes you get the answers and then the questions."
And you get something else: unvarnished violence. Point-blank shoot-outs, sadistic torture and bleeding wounds are included in the price of admission -- which, Bender asserts, is precisely the point.
"The script is a very visceral, brutal depiction of a group of guys," he says, looking like he's answered this question more than a couple of times this week. "And the movie is really about loyalty -- not among robbers, but amongst men. And loyalty taken to an extreme -- such an extreme that extreme things happen because of loyalty. And you start questioning, 'What is loyalty all about, anyway?'
"And as far as the violence, Quentin actually feels that film is a place where violence should be shown, because violence and action are very cinematic, and that kind of material can really be shown in a very cinematic way."
In this regard, Tarantino's film recalls the more violent and machismo-infused films of Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah and John Woo -- influences Bender eagerly acknowledges. (In fact, Tarantino is currently at work on a project with Woo.)
"We actually shot certain scenes that could have been cut to be more graphically violent, but we didn't do it because it didn't work the way we wanted it to," Bender explains. "And, actually, most of the violence happens offscreen.
"So, to me, I'm really glad that people come out with that reaction; because when you see a picture and you don't see a lot of graphic violence but you get a feeling of brutality, we feel like we've done our job."