On August 9, 1969, Los Angeles awoke to murders literal and symbolic. Actress Sharon Tate and four others were brutally killed at her Beverly Hills home by members of the Manson Family. It was the crime of the decade and the one that many believe ended the 1960s.
“The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled,” author Joan Didion would recall in her seminal essay “The White Album.” “I remember all the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remembered this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”
In the director’s ninth film, we bum around L.A. with waning star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and driver Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), two fictional characters working in an industry that’s leaving them behind. Flailing as his career treads water, Dalton sees a possible lifeline: Tate (Margot Robbie), a member of the new, cool crowd, has moved in next door.
Leonardo DiCaprio as fading movie star Rick Dalton puts us in contact with many of the shows, movies and genres that became Tarantino’s cinematic education. Credit: Andrew Cooper/CTMG
Tarantino cleaves to history with Kubrickian attention to detail while indulging a flight of revisionist fancy. We’ve been here before. He took on slavery in “Django Unchained” and the Nazis in “Inglourious Basterds,” both impeccably turned out period pieces that fall off the rails.
But “Once Upon A Time” represents something more: an invitation into the director’s memory and a play date with the toys of his childhood. From TV serials to Spaghetti Westerns, police procedurals to chopsocky and swinging 1960s comedies, Tarantino’s playthings find themselves back in their own time and place, many still on the production line. This time, the pastiche is a little more reverent; the fiction less pulp. Everything feels close to home, because it is.
Trusted with recreating the era was production designer Barbara Ling. A fellow Angeleno and veteran of another film set in 1960s L.A., Oliver Stone’s “The Doors,” she was a canny hire. “I’m older than Quentin, so I have more of a teenage memory than his 6-year-old memory (of 1969),” Ling explained in a phone interview from California. “We hit it off right away.”
Westwood Village, Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard recieved a period facelift for “Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood.” Credit: Andrew Cooper/CTMG
Despite the dazzle, Ling said it was a conservative take on history. “The saturation of billboards (in the 1960s) was probably twice as much as (what) we actually did,” she said. “We were afraid there’d be no room for actors.”
Less has been said about “Once Upon A Time’s” treatment of the Spahn Movie Ranch, home to the Manson Family. Built in the late 1940s and used as a set for Westerns, the ranch fell out of use and was inhabited by Hells Angels, and then Manson and his followers (all while owner George Spahn still lived there).
As symbols go, it’s a home run — a bastion of golden–age cinema turned into a squat by countercultural upstarts. No wonder Tarantino sends Booth to poke around the ranch with a frown on his face.
A section of the Spahn Ranch set for “Once Upon A Time,” constructed in the Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park. Credit: Andrew Cooper/CTMG
The real ranch, in what is now the Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park, burned down long ago and was subsequently bulldozed, said Ling. But the movie’s location scout found an area a couple of miles away with the same feel.
“That was a big build,” she recalled. “We went back to what Spahn Ranch looked like before the Mansons, when it was first built — what the Western town looked like. Architecturally, I was building back what was (first) there, then degrading the whole thing down to where it was in 1969.”
Looking at the set “you were weirded out,” Ling said. And she wasn’t the only one. “Some of the more elderly residents who use that area to hike in started noticing about halfway through the build. They went: ‘Wait a minute, this is Spahn Ranch you’re making.’ They were upset.” Local park services stepped in and the situation was resolved, Ling hastened to add.
It was uncanny for certain crew members, too. As depicted in the film, the Manson Family sold horseback tours around the ranch to an unwitting public. “Some of our crew said, ‘Oh my god, I remember as a child being brought out here on a Saturday to take a ride. We rented horses and a guy guided us. I didn’t even realize it was Spahn Ranch!'” Ling recalled with a laugh.
The real Spahn Movie Ranch on the night of August 29, 1969, in the weeks after the murder of Sharon Tate. Credit: Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/The LIFE Picture Collection via
The Manson Family’s appropriation of Western iconography while rejecting its moral code was a clear affront to Tarantino, who spends long stretches of “Once Upon A Time” eulogizing an era when you could tell a man’s character by the color of his Stetson.
“You know, it’s hard to shoot on backlots anymore, because they’re so dense with things actually being done,” she said. For one scene where Booth has a run-in with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), Ling had to transform a 1940s school into a backlot because no studio would give them one for the five days needed.
Dalton, as a moderately successful Western actor, required Ling go back and restore old sets around Hollywood to their former glory. Credit: Andrew Cooper/CTMG
Most prominent are the large posters for films starring Dalton (there’s even, somewhat tragically, a section of a billboard on his driveway). In something of a coup, set decorator Nancy Haigh commissioned octogenarian Renato Casaro, poster artist for Sergio Leone among others, for a couple of original works.
Two posters for fictional Rick Dalton films, “Uccidimi subito Ringo, Disse il Gringo” (“Kill Me Now Ringo, Said the Gringo”) and “Nebraska Jim,” designed by lauded Italian poster artist Renato Casaro for “Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood.” Credit: Sony Pictures
“When I discovered Renato was one of (Tarantino’s) favorite illustrators of the era, we set about trying to locate him and hit the jackpot,” Haigh told CNN via email. “Still working in Italy today he was thrilled to be asked… His work is truly memorable and so evocative.”
Cars on Hollywood Boulevard during the location shoots for “Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood.” Credit: Andrew Cooper/CTMG
“The way that (Tarantino) loves filmmaking is just infectious,” the designer said. “The entire crew, the respect and love of his crew, is very unique. I hope that more people talk about that experience, because it would be great for directors to learn how it is for a crew. It makes (a) crew do anything for you.
“He loves the process and it makes you really love the process. It was a hard film to do, but you don’t really feel it, because it’s so much fun being part of this process with him.”