The first time Quentin Tarantino and I connect, he offers me an apology. “I’m not trying to be flaky,” he insists, in a tenor that’s instantly recognizable—a disarming blend of politeness and pushiness that he’s patented over the course of his nearly three decades in the public eye.
He’s caught me on my homeward-bound drive from the MovieMaker office during West L.A.’s golden hour, not long after I’d asked his team for some reassurance that our fourth scheduled attempt to share a conversation would at last be successful. And reassurance I got: Here he was committing to a time to talk of my choosing, his vow via speakerphone hijacking my car stereo airwaves that had, just a few fitting moments ago, been bumping the surf-inflected jams of a Japanese psychedelic band that might’ve been cut from one of his films’ signature soundtracks.
Twenty-seven years after unleashing Reservoir Dogs, his audacious 1992 debut, Tarantino maintains a foothold in an ever-shrinking class of auteurs who can still comfortably be called “marquee” in this modern moviemaking era. While the so-called possessory credit—top billing of a director’s authorship with those booming words, “A Film By”—has fallen in and out of fashion over the years since D.W. Griffith first used it to promote The Birth of a Nation in 1915, studio heads understand that of those select behind-the-camera stars’ names that warrant its usage, Tarantino’s is an unquestionably bankable brand.
It’s a brand ubiquitous enough to spawn untold imitators, polarizing enough to ignite opponents’ “love it or hate it” debate du jour, and distinct enough that it inspires fierce consumer commitment. His 1994 sophomore feature, Pulp Fiction, is a masterclass in non-linear narrative, mad dialogue, stylized violence and world-building whose influences on modern art are redundant when recited. His third feature, 1997’s Jackie Brown, refined those aesthetic trademarks with a matured approach to characterization. From there, a new branding exercise emerged: Starting with Kill Bill, his action epic released in two parts in 2003 and 2004, Tarantino began numbering each new addition to his canon: “The 4th Film By Quentin Tarantino,” followed by “The 5th,” his manic, muscle car exploitation homage, Death Proof, in 2007; “The 6th,” his historical revisionist World War II tale, Inglourious Basterds, in 2009; “The 7th,” his slavery-set spaghetti western, Django Unchained, in 2012; and “The 8th,” his snowbound whodunit The Hateful Eight, in 2015. Sure, the gimmick exposes his inner-marketer, but it’s also a measure of how confident he is that fellow moviemakers, critics, and audiences care enough to keep count with him.
And that is why, in the wake of Tarantino’s break from The Weinstein Company in 2017, Sony Pictures chairman Tom Rothman and co. threw the farm at him, promising a $90 million production budget and final cut to make “The 9th Film From Quentin Tarantino”: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. A source from The Hollywood Reporter suggested it may have to earn four times that budget internationally to break even. But in this age of living room streaming, Rothman recently told The New York Times, “young people don’t go to ‘the’ movies, they go to ‘a’ movie”—making the QT seal of quality that elevates “a movie” to “an event” well worth the dig into Sony’s bidding war chest.
Ironically enough, what ends up moving those generations increasingly distanced from “the movies” off of the couch to see Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood might be that it’s a movie about movies. Indeed, the tale of Tarantino’s early ’90s entry into the filmmaking fray has been etched into American mythology as if it were its own movie about movies: high school drop-out turns his self-education as a full-time video store clerk into a game-changing, life-changing Hollywood career. In the same way that the sampling and remixing of hip-hop’s pioneer producers opened fans’ fresh ears to their jazz, funk, and soul ancestry, so have Tarantino’s post-modernist pastiches served as gateway drugs that lead viewers to discover the director’s heaviest influences: American exploitation, Asian extremity, French New Wave, Italian neorealism and surrealism, and quite literally everything in between. His new film isn’t the first set in the turbulent time of 1969, but its story—of a television star, his stunt double, and their struggles to find footing in a radically changing Hollywood—might be the only one that could bring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt together to shepherd stubborn stay-at-home Netflix bingers to summer theaters. At 56, Tarantino is the guy who’s so persuasively inserted himself into pop culture as its resident movie guru that even the most casual of film-goers will pay attention (and admission) when he has something cool to show.
When we speak the following day, I wonder if he must be tired of hearing all this. This age-old angle—that Tarantino makes “movies about movies”—is “true, to a degree,” I begin. He lets out a knowing laugh: “You’re saying it well. That is true… to a degree. But it seems like it’s being said in a way to dismiss my work. To marginalize it, or, I don’t know… put it into some kind of box and then talk about the box.” Talking about “the box” can qualify a case for his broad appeal, but he’s right: It doesn’t quite get at the work itself, which so often weaves his referential style with lasting life experience.
“Part of my thing is telling my own personal story and burying it inside genre,” Tarantino says. He stops short of calling Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood his “most personal movie.” After all, “Kill Bill, and a lot of my other movies, were just as personal,” he says, stressing that the quote recently attributed to him is “a slight misnomer. That whole thing was something my producer David Heyman said and people are kind of running with it.”
He breathes deeply—relieved that he’s “put that caveat on top”—before conceding that his relationship to the material does make this project altogether different. “Since this is a memory piece, it’s based on my perceptions from when I was six and seven. I’m not just making it all up off the top of my head. I had to put myself in that point of view: remembering how people acted, what their living rooms looked like, what their offices looked like… what you saw when you looked out the window of a car.”
What Tarantino says most struck him about L.A., especially at such an impressionable age, was how “the industry is always being reflected back on you—from the buses, to the theater marquees, to the billboards that hang over the streets. As a little kid, certain advertisements appealed to me: an interesting pitch for a ketchup bottle, or a bus bench plugging reruns of old shows that were playing on local television. I remember noticing that they were all over town. It’s not that I saw it as Michelangelo Antonioni’s billboard montage in Zabriskie Point, which is there to show the crass commercialism of America. But it’s an industry town, so in my movie, we pile Los Angeles high with stuff like that.”
Though it can be grouped with films that pull back the curtains on the studio system—think Singin’ in the Rain and The Bad and the Beautiful—Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood “isn’t really a genre movie,” Tarantino says. “You’re just following the characters’ lives.” In order to make that work, his characters first had to pass the test of time: He spent about six years with actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), stuntman Cliff Booth (Pitt), and a world of supporting characters—fleshing them out on the page and hanging out with them in his head before deciding they were interesting enough to make the Hollywood in which they existed come alive. This marinating stage, he says, began by imagining Rick’s career credits: breakout guest appearances on Tombstone Territory and Lux Video Theatre in ’57; a multi-season lead role on Bounty Law in ’58; star turns in the made-for-TV movies Tanner and The 14 Fists of McCluskey (a cult hit) in ’65 and ’66; and a four-picture deal with Universal that ultimately lacks the oomph needed to land a leap from TV to film.
Each new fact of Rick’s fictional filmography was born of a creative drill Tarantino describes as “a series of ‘What happened then?’ After his first few credits, what happened then? And then? And then?” It’s the kind of choose-your- own-adventure game you could imagine his childhood self inventing: a playful way for a seven-year-old to control the destinies of stars he’d see on his living room TV screen, or on those billboards down Sunset Boulevard.
He asked himself, “Now that I know these characters, what kind of story do I want to tell? Do I want to come up with an Elmore Leonard-y type plot that ties all of them together? Do I want something even more plot-driven than that, so that they’re working one way or another toward telling this big story? Or, do I like the characters enough that I don’t really have to deal with a story?”
“Moving that rock up the hill little by little, investing in making Rick’s backstory seem real to me, was a lot of fun,” he says—so much so that he could justify tracking the jaded western thesp, along with everyone else in his orbit, for three “days in the life” worth of screen-time. “At one point I thought, ‘Except for my third act, can I just reduce this all to one day? I tried plotting it out that way and said, ‘No, no, no, that’s just too gimmicky. And it’s too much like American Graffiti, which this is already too much like. Don’t do that. Let it breathe!’ ” February 8, February 9, and August 8 of ’69—the three dates he assigned to each of the film’s three acts—would be all the breathing room he’d need.