The Making of ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ Was a Throwback to Studios’ Pre-Franchise Glory Days

“This is the work of a mature director,” said producer David Heyman. Its production recalls when Hollywood made movies for adults.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" premiere

After the premiere, Quentin Tarantino is sweating on a balmy night under the stars at the sprawling “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” afterparty at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The elegiac 1969 showbiz bromance about DiCaprio’s stressed-out aging western star and his zen stuntman/driver (Brad Pitt) opens at an anxious time for Hollywood.

Certainly, Sony chief Tom Rothman is worrying about his opening weekend numbers against holdover “The Lion King.” That’s partly because this is Tarantino’s widest release — 3,659 theaters, including 35 and 70mm —  and his first in summer primetime. Experts predict an opening of anywhere from $25 million-$50 million, but what really matters is how long an original movie anchored by two global movie stars can sustain itself.

In his first film made without the patronage of Harvey Weinstein, Tarantino’s producers were longtime lieutenant Shannon McIntosh and David Heyman. He’d wanted to work with the “Harry Potter” producer on “The Hateful Eight,” but he wasn’t available. This time, Heyman flew from London to Los Angeles and drove straight to Tarantino’s Hollywood Hills home to read the script. “It was long,” Heyman said. (After about two hours, when Tarantino eagerly popped his head into the kitchen, Heyman barked, “Get out!”) The next day, he read the script again.

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio'Once Upon A Time in Hollywood' photocall, 72nd Cannes Film Festival, France - 22 May 2019
Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprioDavid Fisher/REX/Shutterstock

“It was a long, full meal, like the film,” said Heyman. “It was a fuller meal. A lot was cut out to make two and half hours.”

They next met in London, where Tarantino asked Heyman, “Let’s stop dating. Are we getting married or not?” Heyman replied, “Yes, please.”

Heyman said Tarantino began to consider making “Once Upon A Time” without Weinstein long before the executive’s financial issues and sexual assault accusations became public knowledge. “He had reached a place where he wanted to have a different experience,” said Heyman. “He wanted someone who wasn’t part of his inner circle.”

After a round of pitch meetings in November 2017, Sony’s Tom Rothman won the then-untitled Manson Family Project. All studios offered Tarantino final cut and eventual copyright ownership (after 30 years), but in Rothman Tarantino saw a fellow theatrical believer — the man who made “Moulin Rouge” and “Master and Commander” who would understand how to take over Sunset billboards with period ads.

“We read the script and loved it and we have a big team of QT admirers many of whom had worked on ‘Django’ and all of whom were jazzed,” wrote Rothman in an email. “Basically we are, because we have to be, a studio with the rebel spirit of an indie and the power of a major. That’s how we think we can compete.”

Among the first to read the script were DiCaprio and Pitt, who worked with Tarantino on “Django Unchained” and “Inglourious Basterds,” respectively; in order to meet the $90-million budget, they negotiated deals for less than their usual upfront fees. The producers also had to cut some days. “Quentin is responsible,” Heyman said. “He was intent on making the film on budget.”

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Margot Robbie and DP Robert Richardson.Sony Pictures

After the stars, the movie’s biggest expense was shutting down and refurbishing two sections of Hollywood Boulevard, twice, so Pitt could drive through the city. “Some of it looks like 1969,” said Heyman. “An awful lot doesn’t. We had to dress it like the era — four blocks the first time, two the second time.”

While Pitt loved zooming down Cielo Drive in a battered Kharmann Ghia, the actor faced endless retakes with Brandy the pit bull. (Brandy took home the movie’s only Cannes prize, the coveted Palme Dog.) “It’s hard,” said McIntosh. “You can only feed a dog so much, and [then] it goes out the window.”

Said Tarantino, “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.” The movie even includes 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.”

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Leonardo DiCaprio and Quentin Tarantino.Sony Pictures

When it came to editing, Tarantino was ruthless. Among those who saw their roles whittled were “Sound of Music” actor Nicholas Hammond as director Sam Wanamaker; Damon Herriman as Manson; Olyphant, Scoot McNairy, Michael Madsen, and Luke Perry as western actors; Emile Hirsch as hairdresser Jay Sebring; Al Pacino as a manager; Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, Mike Moh as Bruce Lee, and Kurt Russell as a stunt coordinator and narrator.

Ditto the many characters at the Manson family’s Spahn Ranch, including cranky Bruce Dern (replacing the late Burt Reynolds, who did participate in a read-through), creepy Dakota Fanning, hippie Lena Dunham, horse-rider Austin Butler (now cast as Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Presley) and leggy seductress Margaret Qualley. It could be worse: Many listed in the cast don’t appear in the movie at all, including Danny Strong, James Marsden (as Reynolds), James Remar, and Tim Roth.

“This is the work of a mature director,” said Heyman. “Ultimately, what the film is about is having gratitude and acceptance. If you do, doors will open, literally and figuratively.”

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