If it seems almost criminal that two of Hollywood’s finest actors had never worked together during their 30-year careers then Quentin Tarantino has rectified that in his 9th film, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.
Set in 1969 Los Angeles, during the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a faded TV actor with Brad Pitt as his stunt double.
While Tarantino tells us he has long wanted to make a movie about making movies, the idea of the faded actor and his stuntman came when he worked with a real-life version of the duo.
“I was working with this older action guy who asked if it would be OK to bring along his stunt double, so I met the guy and you could tell that a long time ago you probably could have shot close-ups with the stunt guy and they would have looked alike. But 15 years later they had both aged and this is probably the last time they were going to work together. And they had an interesting dynamic, because the stunt guy was not working for me, he was working for the actor. And it didn’t bother me, I didn’t care, but I thought it was fascinating, just watching them on the set after 15 years together just talking to each other in their little director chairs, dressed in the exact same outfit. I went, ‘Wow, if someday I do that Hollywood movie, that’s the relationship I want to deal with; that’s a good way into the story,” says the director whose vision today has grown far more complex, casting Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, Damon Herriman as Charles Manson and Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen.
With both leading men having previously worked with Tarantino (DiCaprio on Django Unchained and Pitt on Inglourious Basterds), DiCaprio was keen to revisit the experience. “I am a huge fan of films about Hollywood and Tarantino’s take on that was very unique,” he tells STACK. “I loved the outsider’s perspective; this voyeuristic look at two working class guys where the industry has sort of passed them by. My Rick Dalton is a product of the ‘50s, with his pompadour and chiseled leading man looks. But now the director’s era is coming in, and there’s androgynous hippie types and experimentation, and he doesn’t know how to fit in, which also affects his best friend and stunt double Cliff.
“I also loved the aspect of them looking at this sort of castle next door where Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate live; this Hollywood where they don’t belong but are trying to fit into. It’s also a slice of life set over two days where you learn so much about these characters within a limited time frame. I thought it was a beautiful mechanism to tell a story like that.”
Pitt is equally enthusiastic. “Quentin has carved out his own vernacular in his contribution to cinema, and it’s such fun for us ‘cause it’s some of the best dialogue you’ll ever get to chew on.”
In describing his film as an ‘Elmore Leonard-style situation’, Tarantino adds, “I thought I didn’t need a story, I can just do a day in the life; these guys and their milieu was strong enough that I could let it be a day in the life. Unfortunately we kind of know where we’re all going and that is the forward momentum, this kind of a ticking clock that goes on in the movie. Naturally, I could spend an hour showing every movie Rick ever did with ‘Bounty Law’ and I would have been the happiest man on planet earth,” he laughs. “But then I would kill myself pairing it down to fit it into the movie.”
DiCaprio echoes Tarantino’s obsession with period cinema. “In the research for Rick Dalton I learned so much about these sub-genres and these actors that were the inspiration for Rick Dalton, be it Eddie Burns, Ty Harden or Ralph Meeker – careers that I think in a lot of ways, as a cinephile, Quentin has really celebrated. An actor like Ralph Meeker, who I had never previously heard of, is literally one of Quentin’s favourite actors of all time. We went into his film and television resume and you start to say, ‘Wow, this guy sort of disappeared historically,’ but the impact you feel emotionally from watching his work in that genre of television and films, was an amazing learning history process. With Quentin’s love of this town and the industry, he makes a real connection with all those who may not have had those careers we all remember, but still made their own significant contribution.”
Robbie was equally enchanted by the dwindling years of the Golden Age. “I think it’s easy to look back at different time periods and go, ‘Oh life was so much more simple then,’ but I’m sure it wasn’t when you were living through it,” she muses. “But it did feel that everyone wasn’t multitasking quite as much; you are making a movie and that’s it. I feel that back in the ‘60s, maybe two movies were out at a time and everyone would go to the cinema and see them. Today there’s such an influx of content and information which is wonderful but, in other ways, I feel it’s distracting and it would have been a truly wonderful thing to build the anticipation for one movie and everyone go see that at the cinema and it’s for everyone. It’s a beautiful notion.
“I really appreciated playing a person who is looking around Hollywood and seeing it for all the opportunity and wonderfulness it has to offer,” she adds.
“I remember having that feeling myself and being like, ‘This is so exciting, I’m doing what I love and I am so lucky and this is so fun and everything’s amazing’. So I feel like I got to do that with Sharon but also with Rafal [Zawierucha], who plays Roman Polanski. It was his first time in Hollywood, his first time in America. He is a Polish actor and suddenly he is doing a Tarantino film, and I got to be with him while he had that moment that I had when I did Wolf of Wall Street where I was like, ‘I just got to America and I am doing this movie?’ It’s this beautiful thing that we got to experience together, with just a better appreciation for our job and Hollywood.”
As stunning as Robbie is on-screen, she relishes the behind-the-scenes art of filmmaking, already ushering in several films under her LuckyChap Entertainment company, as well as producing next year’s comic-book movie Birds of Prey.
“I just wanted to see Quentin work and would happily have worked at craft service and watched. I just wanted to see one of these sets and see how it ran. I got to see a lot and it was beyond anything I ever could have imagined,” she says.