Quentin Tarantino, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt on the set of ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.

Labor and Love

If we’re to take him at his word that he’ll be retiring after his 10th, then that makes Tarantino’s ninth film also his penultimate. He’s always had a “healthy ego,” he says, which comes as no shock to his admirers and detractors. But as long as he’s working with the best craftspeople in the business, the proverbial old dog is going to keep sniffing for what new tricks he can pick up.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood gave him his best crash course in locations and production design to date. Over time, the L.A. of 50 years ago has changed along with Tarantino, and the challenge set before him and production designer Barbara Ling, he says, was “to find where we can go today that could be changed back to 1969. Physically—not by erasing in post, but by taking shit down and putting shit up, on a block we control, with enough of the right buildings to build a nice mosaic.”

Through all of production, nothing was harder for Tarantino than pinpointing areas that fit that bill. “And however hard it was to find them now, it’s gonna be twice as hard three years from now. It’s like crossing a bridge with the bridge burning behind you,” he laughs. “We’d have something, and then, literally right across the street, ‘No, no, they’re tearing that down! They’re gonna build a huge hotel right next door to a little café!’”

“Assume we can do everything” became a mantra that spread among the production team, he says: “If we can’t, let them tell us no. ‘Can we take the traffic lights down and put our own up?’ ‘Can we do this?’ ‘Can we do that?’” More often than not, when they started a dialogue with local officials, they’d let them run wild.

Raising the Steaks: Tarantino (L) and Pitt (R) bring ’60s flavor to Musso & Frank Grill, the iconic L.A. steakhouse that served as one of Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood‘s authentic sets. Photograph by Andrew Cooper

The crew was justifiably proud as it resurrected each old locale, but not every spot survived final cut. “One thing we cut out killed me,” Tarantino groans. “Using an episode of The F.B.I. with Burt Reynolds in it as a reference, we watched a scene where he drives down Riverside Drive in Burbank. It’s a perfect shot down the street—not all the way down to the Bob’s Big Boy, but pretty fuckin’ far. And when he parks, that shot shows Riverside Drive exactly how I remembered it. And, it was right up the street from my house. I drove up there, parked right where we put the camera, and thought, ‘If you changed this, changed that, put that old sign back up, and turned that place into a liquor store again… this could be exactly like Riverside Drive in 1969!’ And then we totally did it! But I cut it out, because it wasn’t a big dramatic scene. It was just Brad Pitt walking to his car.”

Even as he mourns the loss of a killed darling, Tarantino’s deleted scene yarn is too charmed to be tragic. He turned an entire city into his cinematic sandbox, with Brad Pitt playing dress-up within earshot of his backyard. “If you talked to all my crewmembers who worked with me for the last 10 years, I think they’d tell you I’ve always been very happy on set. And I made Los Angeles into the Los Angeles of my childhood, so of course I was gonna be happy,” he says.

Except now, for the first time in his life, he’s married, and that made this shoot feel new. “There was an inner-happiness, an inner-peace from being in love and finding the girl I want to live with for the rest of my life,” Tarantino says. “I’d get up in the morning before she got up, have my coffee and breakfast, and then go off to make the movie. We shot the movie in town, so I wasn’t living in a hotel or a condo I’d rented. So, for the first time, I’d come back at the end of the day around six, seven, eight ’o clock, and there was this happy home waiting for me. We had dinner together, I would tell her what happened during my day, she’d tell me what happened during hers. Maybe we’d just chill or sit on the couch and watch TV together, and kind of quietly unwind… a peaceful existence.”

Tarantino initiated his wife, Israeli actor and pop singer Daniella Pick, into his film family “completely,” he says: “She saw different cuts. I showed her audition tapes. She’d come by and visit as we made the movie. Everybody on set knew who she was, and she had a good time hanging out. It was wonderful to share such a joyous thing that I’ve been doing for the past 30 years with a loved one.” For a moment, he sounds in disbelief of what he’s saying: “It’s something I’ve never really done before. This was the first time I ever really shared a movie with another person.”

Time for Contemplation

Trends don’t occupy much real estate in Tarantino’s head, but as ever, he keeps a healthy appetite for the next exciting offering from a young moviemaker. “If I ran a podcast, watching a bunch of movies and doing current reviews of them, I’d be into that,” he says. He thought David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows was really clever, and wasn’t disappointed by the director’s follow-up, Under the Silver Lake: “It didn’t 100 percent work, but it had a haunting quality and a cuckoo sense of ambition. It was the first movie of the past year that stayed with me for a long time.”

Tarantino (R) and crew took on an “assume we can do everything” attitude while recreating the ’60s Los Angeles atmosphere of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Photograph by Andrew Cooper

He wrote a script for a Star Trek movie and there’s talk that he’ll make it. “Like a good lawyer, I could make a case not to do it and a case that would make you excited about me directing it,” Tarantino says, weighing whether or not this project would be a satisfying swan song. “The reason not to do it: After Jackie Brown, I made a decision to only do original material, so why would I change that? On the other hand, there’s, ‘His last movie’s a Star Trek movie? What the fuck?!’ The ‘What the fuck?!’ quality is… kinda great! Since I’ve been numbering my movies, there’s also something kinda cool about me getting over myself: ‘No, this last movie doesn’t have to be straight from the soul. This is the career I could’ve had.’ If I do that, then I’m actually putting Star Trek in front of me.”

Wouldn’t a franchise gig make him feel too much like a gun-for-hire? “Not quite. I don’t own the Star Trek franchise… but actually, J.J. Abrams kind of does! And he’s inviting me to do whatever I want.”

Hot takes abound on whether Tarantino’s talk of retirement is one big bluff. But I find it telling that when he prefaces his next thought with, “Now that I’m getting to the end of my career…,” it’s utterly unsolicited. He doesn’t seem like he’s waiting to be asked about “the end” just so he can hit me with some soundbite-ready statement. He’s sitting well with the feeling that he’s left most of what he has on the field.

“Looking back, I could’ve done things differently,” he considers. “There are critics who can legitimately say that the number one thing they don’t like about me as a director is that I’m always directing my own writing.” He didn’t want to be the guy who only rested on his dialogue, he says, but what he feared even more was that he’d end up like other moviemakers he watched break out in the ’90s—the ones who found success making films with personality, but drifted further away from whatever special thing those first few films had to offer.

“I went a certain way that I’m happy with,” he says. “I made a decision that I wasn’t going to do that—that my voice was what I had. And I’ve only been contemplating it because now’s the time for contemplation.” MM

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood opened in theaters July 26, 2019, courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2019 issue. Featured image photograph by Andrew Cooper. All images from Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

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