Tinseltown lore became inspiration, and eventually, the foundation for Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, but on Saturday at the filmmaker’s Los Angeles movie theater The New Beverly, he and his cast broke down a few of the myths – and built up a few others – as they discussed the process of making this unique and challenging film. In advance of the film’s November 26 release on digital platforms, and its 4K, Blu-ray and DVD arrival on December 10, Tarantino, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie assembled for a screening and Q&A moderated by Jim Hemphill, who coaxed insights and information out of the four of them in a meaty 40-minute conversation.
Tarantino predictably dominated much of the chat; not only was he the architect of this extraordinary film, he’s a well-known and passionate storyteller full of anecdotes and trivia – especially about his own work. At Hemphill’s prompting, he touched on the personal experience that inspired just one of the ideas that led him to Hollywood. “I was making a film and I was dealing with an older actor, and working with them for a while on the film, and he had a guy that he’d been working with for years,” the writer-director revealed.
“I’m sitting there watching them on the set, dressed in the identical outfits. It always really means something to me when I see a relationship between people in a movie that seems like it legitimately goes beyond the context of this movie. And you saw the nine years of them working together and I thought, wow, that’s a really interesting relationship. If someday it happens, I ever make a movie about Hollywood, a relationship like that would be a really interesting way inside.”
The film that evolved from that kernel of an idea not only explores these onscreen-offscreen relationships, but a particular era of Hollywood history, seeded with details from the lives of actors and filmmakers that Tarantino worships, such as Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham, Reynolds’ stunt double who turned to directing with projects like Smokey And the Bandit. For Rick Dalton, the film’s would-be leading man, Tarantino said he put Leonardo DiCaprio through considerable paces, as much as anything because he was playing a certain type of actor rather than a proxy for a single performer.
“Leo was the one that I put through school, because I didn’t base Rick Dalton off of one actor,” he said. “I based him off about five different actors. So it was the idea of showing him who some of those actors were. And then I would even give him a movie that was like, ‘this would have been a good movie Rick could have been in.’”
“For instance, Rick would never be offered the Steve McQueen role in The Magnificent Seven,” he continued. “That’s never going to happen. However, two sequels down the line, The Guns of the Magnificent Seven where George Kennedy is playing the Yul Brynner role, Rick could have absolutely been cast in that. So I sent him the movie to watch it. [And] it was more me and Leo watching a ton of stuff to just get the history.”
DiCaprio said that keying in one on actor in particular helped him prepare to play Rick Dalton, but it also helped inspire one of film’s pivotal scenes. “Once we honed in on Ralph Meeker‘s work, I started obsessively watching his work, because there was a vulnerability and a pathos that he had in his work that I felt Rick had the potential to emulate in his own career. I didn’t quite understand what kind of actor Rick could be, and that that led to dramatically where Rick winds up on that day on set getting emotional about himself thinking about the fact that he has to do spaghetti westerns and his life is over. And it culminated in that sequence that’s the ultimate nightmare for an actor, which is forgetting all your lines in front of the entire cast and crew and that sort of mental breakdown.”
Though DiCaprio made a lot of discoveries with Tarantino’s help, Tarantino indicated that he and Brad Pitt bonded unexpectedly early over the same influences they saw for his character Cliff Booth. “We had a really interesting, copacetic moment where he came over to the house to talk about the character,” he recalled. “Brad shows up and goes, ‘so here’s what I’m thinking about for Cliff’ and he pulled out a DVD of Billy Jack. Not so much that Cliff was Billy Jack, but more like the idea Tom Loughlin would be a good guy to play Cliff, or you can imagine Tom Loughlin playing Cliff in 1971. And I go, dude, I have reel one of Billy Jack cued up on my 35 millimeter projector in the screening room. And then we watched it and had a fantastic time.
Pitt said that Billy Jack was less a direct influence than a point of inspiration for Cliff. “It was more the way he carried himself,” he said. “I’m more instinctual. I always feel like I’m groping my way through until I find a wall and find my way in, and that was just the starting point. I can’t explain it any more than just by the way he carried himself. There was a groundedness, a strength in standing still.” The actor also indicated that he looked at Cliff as a character who keyed in on some simple but essential truths about dealing with what the world deals you. “I think we’re all searching for that peace in our lives,” he observed.
“Quentin had written this guy who seemed to be going through everything that he’s gone through with full acceptance, and knew that he was capable of handling whatever the day brought – ‘I’m just going to be all right’.”
“So I kind of looked at it as he was looking for the best in people, but he expected the worst, and was surprised by neither.”
Margot Robbie, who played the late Sharon Tate, explained that she knew very little about her character’s namesake, but thrilled at the chance to embody a second chance at the life Tate never had. “Like lot of people around my age, I knew of her death, but I didn’t know about her life and I hadn’t seen her films,” she said. “And it was such a joy to go on that journey because her life was quite magnificent. She was by all accounts just an angel on this earth.”
Robbie also said that she loved how Tarantino reconceived the tragic events of her life in order to capture a specific kind of feeling about 1960s Hollywood, not to mention to give Tate a postscript that isn’t marred by violence. I think part of the tragedy and the shock is that something so innocent and pure could be taken. And I so appreciated Quentin’s approach in portraying Sharon’s life and watching her just live her life.”
“It was beautiful in its simplicity,” she observed. “And I really appreciated that her presence in this script was to emulate or personify the wonderful things about Hollywood in the 60s – the opportunity, the fun. And the ‘60s itself, just being that free love, open-door time before it came to a tragic halt.”
Unlike Rick Dalton, Tarantino’s Sharon Tate didn’t have to wrestle with her inner demons. But Robbie admitted that she found it more challenging to tap into her character’s angelic energy than if she’d explored Tate’s darker side. “I find it a lot easier to yell and scream and cry and do all of that on screen – I can get there a lot quicker,” she said. “But to be truly light all the time was actually weirdly hard. But a joy as well, kind of like being on like this beautiful vacation all the time.”
Her technique, she revealed, was to find things in her own life that fed positive energy and then surround herself with those experiences. “I made a list of all the things that make me really happy and then I would try and do all those things on the day that I was going to work or the day before,” she said. “And all the things that gave me any of that downward pull in life, any of the stress and angst, I would kind of cut that out.”
Tarantino and his cast touched upon a number of subjects, including Tarantino’s relationship with the real Burt Reynolds, who he said he’d call frequently throughout his career to verify details about stories he’d heard. (Tarantino also cast Reynolds in the film as ranch owner George Spahn, but he passed away before they could film his scenes.) But all three actors oozed with admiration for the filmmaker’s commitment to creating a tangible environment on screen. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so transported as I did on Quentin’s set, because everything’s practical,” Robbie said.
“It’s not there’s not just the foreground props and the setting, and then the rest is going to be blue screen or green screen for later. It’s all 1969 around you. As far as you can see down the street, there’s a row of cars from the ‘60s. You could touch everything, everyone around you, and there’s no cell phones on set. So everyone’s either talking to each other or just doing work. And it was just honestly like I felt like I was there. It just honestly felt like I was there. It was incredible.”
Pitt interjected an anecdote to drive home Tarantino’s commitment to keeping his sets cell phone free. “Can I tell the story of when the cell phone went off on Inglourious Basterds?” he asked to his director’s consent. “You have to check your phones in there. This is sacred ground. But when one went off in between takes, you would’ve thought someone walked into the Sistine chapel and took a shit,” he revealed to huge laughs. “Not only did production come to a grinding halt, no one would cop to it – although we knew the general area. But Quentin sent us home for the rest of the day. So we had the afternoon off to go to think about what we did.”
DiCaprio said that it gave them a tremendously unique experience as actors in an era where technology has enabled filmmakers to cut corners and take shortcuts to achieve what Tarantino does on screen, but sometimes less convincingly, especially for the people acting in his films. “In a lot of ways it’s kind of nostalgia within nostalgia because we’re doing a film about Hollywood in 1969 and we’re also doing a film that is done the way they did it in 1969,” he said.
“So everyone around you has this excitement about doing it on film. The amount of effort that they put into that set decoration was absolutely astounding [and] there was no CGI green screen of anything.”
“It was like doing a film the way we used to do film in ’69, so it was really an unforgettable and unique experience that I don’t know if any of us will ever get to have again – especially nowadays.”
Photos courtesy Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.