In an industry dominated by superhero movies, it says a great deal that maverick director Quentin Tarantino’s wildly entertaining ninth film was considered something of a risk for backers Sony Pictures.
A sprawling love-letter to late-Sixties Hollywood, starring Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in what might be the best on-screen bromance in years, it seems the gamble paid off. The first three days in the US grossed $41 million, Tarantino’s best-ever opening weekend.
In the current climate, Tarantino is all too aware of how difficult a sell his film is. “It’s not even a concept movie; there really is no story,” he shrugs, when he meets FilmInk in Cannes. “It’s a day in a life of these people and we just hang out with them. It’s going in a dramatic direction, but I had to think about it…do I want to come up with a movie plot to have Rick and Cliff deal with? Something melodramatic. And I said, ‘No, I like the characters. Just us hanging out with them for a couple of days will be enough’.”
Played by DiCaprio, ‘Rick’ is Rick Dalton, a one-time star of the TV western Bounty Law, who is now facing the very real possibility that his career is on the wane. Pitt’s character ‘Cliff’ is ‘Cliff Booth’, Dalton’s stuntman, gofer and good friend. Set in 1969, across three days, the film begins as Rick is told in no uncertain terms by showbiz manager Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) that he may have to consider working in Spaghetti westerns in Italy.
“I really love how Quentin approached both of these characters,” says DiCaprio. “They’re guys who are relics of the past – certainly my character. The Sixties androgynous types are now coming into play, it’s the era of the director and I’m part of the old guard. They don’t know their own future. They don’t know if they’re going to survive. I loved his approach to what he regards as the great renaissance of cinema and this time period and the changing of our cultures and the country.”
Casting Pitt and DiCaprio was nothing short of a dream pairing for Tarantino. “I instantly thought Leo would be really good as Rick,” says the director. “He was the right age. And I think there is actually something touching about the fact that Rick is a young man, but he’s considered a has-been, a figure of former glory. And also, the other reason [I cast him] is Leo does not think of himself as a comedy actor, because he’s so actor-first, but I know how funny he can be.”
Yet there is something also hugely touching about the friendship between these two slightly over-the-hill middle-aged men. But Pitt, who last worked with Tarantino on his WW2 movie Inglourious Basterds, won’t hear of any comparisons to Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and their chemistry in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. “I don’t bother with that. C’mon – they’re the greatest! I remember seeing Butch and Sundance at the drive-in theatre when I was in first grade…and crying at the end. And not wanting my parents to see I was crying!”
The third spoke in this very alluring wheel is Margot Robbie. The Australian Oscar-nominated star of I, Tonya is given the intriguing task of playing Sharon Tate, the real-life actress who was brutally murdered by acolytes of Charles Manson – the so-called ‘Manson Family’ – back in 1969. Heavily-pregnant when she was killed, the young starlet was married to Roman Polanski, then the hottest director in town after making Rosemary’s Baby. In Tarantino’s world, Tate and Dalton are neighbours in Ceilo Drive in L.A.’s Benedict Canyon.
Did Robbie relate at all to Tate, who when the film starts is starring alongside Dean Martin in The Wrecking Crew? “As she appeared on the page, she was this entirely ethereal presence throughout the piece, an angelic figure that I don’t see myself relating to, because she is just the picture of perfection,” says the actress, modestly.” I think that’s the role she was to serve, to highlight what it would look like to be in the inner circle, and how Rick doesn’t have [access to] that.”
If anything, Robbie related more to Dalton, and his frequent meltdowns. “I would imagine every actor who is not a complete narcissist has those moments of self-doubt – maybe not expressed in the same way that Rick does, which is both weirdly endearing but entirely comical. I know I’ve definitely replayed moments on set where I’ve gone, ‘Ah, I did it wrong, I would’ve done it different.’ Whatever – you beat yourself up. I think it’s a very human thing to have the voice of self-doubt in your head.”
DiCaprio, who previously worked with Tarantino on Django Unchained, concurs. “There’s an aspect of that we can all connect with. That voice is our head of self-doubt that is constantly prevalent that you need to battle with. And Rick, with a lot of help from Whiskey Sours, has succumbed to it. But look, Quentin offered us these characters and what can you do other than embody them with the most truth that you possibly can? Sometimes that may lead to some extreme circumstances and that’s what I try to do as an actor.”
With an all-star cast backing up DiCaprio, Pitt and Robbie, including Damian Lewis (as Steve McQueen), Emile Hirsch (as celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring) and Timothy Olyphant and the late Luke Perry (as James Stacy and Wayne Maunder, actors from western series Lancer), it marks a clever melding of reality and fiction. “I know that era really well,” says Tarantino. “There are little references about this show versus that show; I didn’t have to do any research – it just comes from me.”
The way DiCaprio sees it, the film is a nod by Tarantino to the fringe players in Hollywood who may have “evaporated historically” and fallen through the cracks. “Guys like Eddie Burns, Tye Hardin, Ralph Meeker…to me, it’s his homage to those who contributed to our industry that maybe don’t get the recognition and what psychologically they may have gone through – and that journey and that quest for that one shot to ultimate stardom.”
Despite his encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, Tarantino revisited westerns from the era for his research. “I was just blown away by how good the stories were – how much genuine story they crammed in,” he says. Referencing shows like Riflemen or Wanted Dead or Alive, “they would tell literally whole stories from beginning to end in a half-hour, which was basically 24, 25 minutes [plus commercials]. The writer in me is pretty blown away by that craftsmanship.”
Moreover, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is set in a period when the ageing movie studio system was on the verge of imploding. “Certainly, at that time, there was a change in cinema,” says Pitt. “The studios had hit the wall and there were these new auteurs that were coming to the surface, they were going to point the way to Coppola and Scorsese – which is where we find ourselves, on the sidelines of that particular movement.”
He calls the film “prophetic” given that Tarantino wrote the script a couple of years ago, and now Hollywood is facing similar upheaval, with the arrival of streaming companies like Netflix. “We see how our industry is changing,” the actor adds. “The plus side of that is we’re seeing this wealth of really interesting creative stories and amazing actors that have been sitting on the sidelines all this time and now are getting an opportunity.”
While Sony wisely turned their marketing campaign away from the Manson Family murders which terrorised L.A. in 1969, it’s undeniably sewn into the backdrop of the movie. Australian actor Damon Herriman, briefly, plays the hypnotic Manson in the film (as he does, ironically, in the upcoming season of the Netflix series Mindhunter). “How he was able to get these girls and young boys to submit to him, it seems unfathomable,” comments Tarantino about Manson.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood also arrives just at the same time as Charlie Says, Mary Harron’s new film that casts British actor Matt Smith as Manson. “I’m really curious to see it,” admits Tarantino. “Literally it opened two days before I left [Los Angeles for the Cannes Film Festival] so I didn’t want to run out and see it then, but I do want to see it. I like Mary – we were on the Sundance jury together. I like her. I respect her work.”
According to Pitt, another aspect of the film is its portrayal of Los Angeles – a city Tarantino so brilliantly depicted in 1994’s Pulp Fiction. “We love L.A., we wrestle with L.A. It’s just this creative hub full of interesting, curious, really intelligent people,” he says. “There is this underbelly that’s dangerous, it’s a little dark. Underneath, on the periphery…there’s a danger, there is a danger. It’s an ugly city really.” That may be so, but as Tarantino shows, there’s hope, dreams and even innocence in those Hollywood Hills too.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood opens in cinemas on August 15, 2019