Quentin Tarantino is not wedded to the Cannes cut of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” He and editor Fred Raskin worked hard to finish it in time to world premiere at his favorite festival on May 21, and Tarantino told me he wouldn’t have shown it if he wasn’t ready. As soon as he was sure he could deliver, festival director Thierry Fremaux alerted the news. But even if Sony struck three wet 35mm prints of the two-hour, 39-minute Cannes version, Tarantino can still go back into the editing room, Sony chairman Tom Rothman confirmed at the premiere. A decade back, Tarantino re-edited “Inglourious Basterds” after Cannes, as well.
“I may make it longer,” said Tarantino at the Hotel Carlton, the day after audiences first saw the movie that proved to be the hottest ticket of this year’s festival by far. Raskin’s first assembly was four hours, 20 minutes. “His job is to put in every single thing I shot, give me everything,” he said. “That’s not unusual, for an epic-y kind of movie.” He and Raskin initially thought it might come in around the two-hour 45-minute mark. “Let’s see if we can get it tighter than that,” he told Raskin. “2:45 seems like an old Quentin movie. Let’s see if we can get past the Quentin cut to a really friendly cut any audience can appreciate.”
Now that he’s seen the $90-million movie play with an audience (aside from some research previews), Tarantino is going to look at it again. “I wouldn’t take anything else out,” he said. “I’m going to explore possibly putting something back in. If anything, I wanted to go to Cannes too short. if I’m going to err, I’m going to err on too tight.”
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As far as Rothman is concerned, Tarantino can do whatever he wants. “It’s his movie. We’re privileged to be along for the ride,” he said. “It’s a Quentin Tarantino film. It’s entirely in his very capable hands.”
Yes, Tarantino admitted, everyone lost scenes, from Leonardo DiCaprio’s western star Rick Dalton starring in an alternate version of “The Great Escape” in the role that made Steve McQueen famous (Damian Lewis turns up as McQueen at one Hollywood party), and Al Pacino as an agent promoting spaghetti westerns at Musso & Frank, to Scoot McNairy. “That was his only scene,” said Tarantino. “That’s the way it goes.”
Finally, the movie centers on Dalton and his loyal sidekick, driver and stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton lives on Cielo Drive, next door to rising star Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her A-list director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), hot off “Rosemary’s Baby.”
The couple represent “what Rick doesn’t have,” Tarantino said. “In Hollywood, there are people with great success and great failure and medium potential — will they ever live up to their potential? — living right next to each other, in this case literally. It’s just right there. Sharon and Roman represent the new Hollywood, and Rick is notably not part of it. He doesn’t understand it. He was taught that the way to be a leading man was the audience had to like you. If he was offered Joe Buck [Jon Voight in ‘Midnight Cowboy’], he would turn it down. He’d walk out of ‘Easy Rider’ in the first 10 minutes! If he was offered ‘Straw Dogs’: ‘I’m not going to play that little wimp!'”
About 10 years ago, Tarantino found the nugget that forms the center of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” (He didn’t mention the film he was making then, but the timeline suggests “Inglorious Basterds.”)
“I worked with an actor who had been in the business for a while, he was a little older now,” said Tarantino. “He had a stunt double who he had worked with for 20 years. We didn’t have anything for the stunt double to do, but there was one little bit. ‘Can you use my guy? It would be nice.’ ‘Yeah, sure.’ This guy showed up; he was an interesting fellow. He wasn’t working for me, he was working for the actor. This was maybe one of the last movies he could do with the guy. They probably once looked so close to each other you could do a close-up on the stuntman, but that was not the case anymore. I thought the relationship was fascinating. I didn’t know that much about them, but I knew I wanted to explore a couple like that toward the end of their careers. I might want to do a movie about Hollywood someday.”
So when the time came to write his Hollywood movie, Tarantino had his way in. “What do I want to do with these characters, and what kind of story do I want to tell? Then I came up with the ending.” (Controversially, Tarantino has requested that writers and audiences keep the ending under wraps.) He decided on a story about the “counterculture change going on in Hollywood, both the entertainment industry and the town itself,” he said. “And I liked the idea of exploring that through a character, Rick, who is not part of that change. It’s hit him like steamroller. In 1966, only a few years earlier, he and George Maharis and Vince Edwards and Edd Byrne, they were living on top of the world. They didn’t know they would be replaced by Michael Sarrazin, Arlo Guthrie, Peter Fonda, Michael Douglas, and Kristoffer Tabori, that the hippie sons of famous people, these skinny, androgynous, shaggy-haired leading men, would be the next big thing.”
DiCaprio’s Dalton, once a huge TV western star, is anxious and worried about staying in the game and getting back into movies. “Dick wishes he was as successful as Burt Reynolds,” said Tarantino. “Rick is not any one person, because we made a conscious effort not to do that. Rick is a little bit of Edd Byrne, Ty Hardin — the man who would be McQueen — a little William Shatner.”
He and Booth go off to Italy to do a Sergio Corbucci movie (the second-best spaghetti western director, per Tarantino, after Sergio Leone). We see Dalton losing his shit when he forgets his lines at work, and in one memorable scene, shares his anxiety with an eight-year-old actress.
Stuntman Booth is not only way more zen than Dalton, but a bit dangerous; he is a war-hero athlete capable of holding his own with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). Tarantino wanted DiCaprio (“Django Unchained”) and Pitt (“Inglourious Basterds”), and he got them. “I’m one of the luckiest directors in the history of Hollywood,” he said. “I got both those guys who I worked with before, they liked me, and responded to the material. An actor and his stunt double, there needs to be a symmetry to them. They have to go together. They have to wear the same clothes, have the same height, they’ve got to suggest each other, you know, and so if one of the two guys couldn’t have done it, then I’d need to find someone who could fill that bill, at least the physicality aspect, or go with a couple other people I could do that with. I got lucky that both guys I wanted have that symmetry and wanted to work together and with me.”
When the movie returns to the night of the Manson attacks on Cielo Drive, Tarantino recreates a row of vintage neon lights on Hollywood Boulevard by having them light up at sunset, accompanied by Jose Feliciano’s cover of “California Dreaming.” It’s a stunning elegy for a lost Hollywood.
“That was a stroke of inspiration, it was written in the script,” he said. “It was my way of counting down that day, getting closer and closer to midnight, to show nightfall on L.A. There were enough places around, some we built. We found an old Taco Bell that is now something else, but we were able to turn it back. We found an old Der Wienerschnitzel that still had the red roof.” Of course, the movie even includes shots of classic Mexican restaurant El Coyote, located across the street from the theater that Tarantino now owns. “It was not the New Beverly then,” he said. “It was called The Eros.”
The movie conjures up a more innocent, pre-#MeToo era, when audiences were drawn to one glorious movie marquee after another, when Westwood was hopping with moviegoers, the Playboy Mansion was cool, and men left their unfettered ids on display. “That culture doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “And even if some wacky billionaire came in and bought all the theaters on Hollywood Boulevard and restored them to their former glory, I don’t think anybody would go to them. If they would, I’d do it. I do my part. It’s a time that’s past.”
In his research, Tarantino was struck by some of what he found, from #MeToo figures to blatant racism in commercials. “I was listening to KHJ radio programs from that year and there was a constant,” he said. “The references to Bill Cosby, John Phillips, almost everybody. All these people who were genuine icons who have run afoul of time.”
Robbie, as the sweetly silent Tate, gets much less screen time than her male costars. At the Cannes press conference, one reporter asked Tarantino why Sharon Tate had so little dialogue. “I just reject your hypothesis,” he said. In the movie, we follow the main characters through two days in February 1969, and return to them six months later on the fateful night of August 8, 1969. In February, we follow Tate to Westwood as she checks out her performance as Freya Carlson in “The Wrecking Crew.”
At the press conference, Robbie said, “The moments that I got onscreen gave an opportunity to honor Sharon and the lightness. The tragedy, ultimately, was the loss of innocence, and to really show those wonderful sides of her, could be adequately done without speaking. I did feel like I got a lot of time to explore the character, even without dialogue specifically. … Rarely do I get an opportunity to spend so much time on my own as a character, going through a day-to-day existence. I actually really appreciated the exercise and felt that I could deliver what I wanted to onscreen.”
Tarantino later told me: “There was a little bit more of her; everybody lost sequences. It’s not her story, it’s Rick’s story. It’s not even Cliff’s. And she is an angelic presence throughout the movie, she’s an angelic ghost on earth, to some degree, she’s not in the movie, she’s in our hearts.”
Tarantino did not approach Polanski, he admitted at the press conference. But Tarantino asked for and received help from Tate’s sister Debra, who is thanked in the credits. “I gave her a script to read early on,” he said. “I went to visit her in Santa Barbara, spent a weekend with her. We talked about it. She came on set when we were doing the Bruin [Theatre in Westwood] sequence.”
One sequence that gets its full due is the Spahn Ranch, which in 1969 had been taken over by the Manson family. It begins with a swooping crane shot over horse riders leaving a western town that has been used in countless movies and television shows. Booth is walking through to check out a girl he’s been flirting with (Margaret Qualley), but he is stopped and heckled by a group of young women. The scene introduces the dark menace that is coming.
While some writers have cited a Leone influence, Tarantino goes with Sam Peckinpah. His editor reacted strongly to this scene, telling him: “Until I got to the Spahn Ranch, I didn’t know we were making a horror movie,” he said. “It’s the fucking ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ when we get there even. Robert Richardson’s cinematography even looks like Dan Pearl’s cinematography on Tobe Hooper’s movie.'”
Tarantino got thrills watching it at the Palais in Cannes. “Once we got to the Spahn Ranch, the theater was dead quiet; you could have heard a pin drop. What’s neat — and I can’t truly take credit for it — is just the mise-en-scene. It’s the production design. One of the best sets I ever had of any of my movies was rebuilding the Spahn Ranch. And we did a wonderful job casting those gals. It’s scary and it is creepy. We’re not doing anything to make anything scary or creepy, it just is. It’s a wonderful alchemy we captured and I didn’t break the mood.”
For his part, Thierry Fremaux was thrilled the movie played his festival. “It’s about the same theme of his work which is cinema,” he said at the afterparty. “He gives us not only his own childhood, where he comes from, but of course we know that’s what built him as a man and a person. The whole Cannes is the comeback of cinema, the revenge of cinema.”
The next frontier as Sony approaches the July 26 release date is trying to book as many 35mm prints as possible. “What he wants is to show it on film in as many places as there are,” said Rothman. “We will do that. The sad thing is there are not so many anymore. Around the world, if they’re operating a good theater — we will not show it in some shithole — if there’s a proper good theater that’s still running film, then we’ll show it on film.”