Quentin Tarantino for Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, photo by Gennady Avramenko
Quentin Tarantino needs to wake up. It’s early Monday morning at New York’s Langham Hotel, and the Oscar-winning screenwriter and veteran filmmaker is putting together a cup of coffee. He’s also nursing a glass of Coca-Cola. It’s a busy one. Only an hour prior, his ninth film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, nabbed five Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. This isn’t surprising, though. The dreamy drama has been a critical darling since it swept into theaters this past July, and dazzled the box office. If anything, it’s just the beginning.
His competition is stiff. Tarantino is going headfirst into an awards season that includes legendary veterans like Martin Scorsese, foreign visionaries such as Bong Joon-ho, and fellow colleagues in Noah Baumbach and Sam Mendes. Like Tarantino, they’re all campaigning with intensely introspective works, the type of pictures that say more about the filmmaker than the stories on the celluloid. It’s been that kind of year, and should make for an intriguing season as we trudge through the snow in the lead-up to the Oscars, one full of rousing victories, unlikely upsets, and endless chatter.
Right now, though, Tarantino is enjoying the calm amidst the lingering storm. Sure, he’s exhausted — who isn’t at this hour of the week — but he’s hardly fatigued. If we’re being honest, he sounds satisfied. There’s a resolve in his demeanor that’s less Rick Dalton and more Cliff Booth. “It is what it is,” to borrow from Scorsese’s The Irishman, and the “is” ain’t too fucking bad. As he tells me late into our chat, “In a strange way, it seems like this movie, Hollywood, would be my last. So, I’ve kind of taken the pressure off myself to make that last big voilà kind of statement.” He’s not wrong.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood says everything about Quentin Tarantino, be it the fan, the critic, the screenwriter, or the filmmaker. It’s his most relaxed feature to date, a somnambulant stroll through a raucous era of Hollywood, where any anxieties are stomached with a Bloody Mary, purged by a breezy drive on the 405, or shrugged off with a late-night TV party. Lensed by the sunlight that comes from the final afternoon in August, it’s as much about enjoying movies as it is about making them, which couldn’t be a more apt bridge between the filmmakers’ trademark sensibilities.
In our Filmmaker of the Year interview, Tarantino weighs in on his storytelling process, details how he dreamed up his version of Hollywood, and discusses the things we’ve lost in recent years. He also chews on the what-if of growing up in the digital age and explains how he’s preserving film history at the New Beverly in Los Angeles. Somewhere in there, we also take a detour to Haddonfield, Illinois, where he digresses in true Tarantino fashion on what went wrong with the franchise, and his original vision for the sixth entry, long before Daniel Farrands went on to define The Curse of Michael Myers.
So, mix yourself a whiskey sour and enjoy the ride below.
On Creating Hollywood
How do you know you’ve found the right story? Your “a-ha moment”?
You know, normally, I’m kicking around an idea for a while. I keep kicking it around and keep trying to think it out, and think it out, and get more of my bearings, maybe try to think about the character. Then at some point, it’s like, “Okay, now enough kicking this can. It’s time to do something about it.” And then I start just kind of investigating on the page. And one of the reasons that my first scenes are usually significant scenes, you know, is because it’s usually, “Okay, here we go.” The reason the first scenes are like that is because it’s a little bit of a leftover from back when I used to write scripts. I had to get people to read them. So, I only had so long to grab them before they go … ::make throwing noise … “Fuck this.” I used to even tell people, “Just read the first three pages. If you don’t like it, stop reading after that.” So, that was always my little writing modus operandi.
But now I kind of do that for me, rather than for somebody else. So, that first sequence is either going to sell me or not, and I’m not doing that much anymore, where I write the 30 pages, and then I just kind of lose interest. Like when I was writing Django [Unchained], I started writing that in Japan when I was doing the Japanese press for Inglorious Basterds, and I actually found a store that had all these great Spaghetti Western soundtracks. So, I was in my hotel on my day off, playing one great Spaghetti Western soundtrack after the other, and this whole Django thing had been in my head for a long time, and while this music is playing, I’d sit down with the hotel stationery and start writing. And then at some point, that scene where Schultz picks up Django from the chain gang? With the brothers there? By the time I got finished with that scene, even halfway through, I went, “Okay. This is the next movie I’m doing.”
Have you been more particular with choosing stories this far into your career?
No, no. That has happened, but not in the way you’re talking about, not in this strategic, “Oh, I don’t know if this is the right one for now. Yeah, I should do a smaller one for now or a bigger one for now.” Like, in the case of Inglorious Basterds, I kind of worked on that for a while, and then I put it away, then did Kill Bill, and then did Death Proof, and then went back to it again. Probably because I couldn’t quite crack it. Like, if I was trying to do Inglorious Basterds the way I wrote it then, I wouldn’t have done it. I’d just do it as a miniseries because it was just too big.
But like, for instance, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, that was one where it just kind of wasn’t ready, and I wasn’t in any [hurry] about doing it. And so, you know, I more or less started sometime around Death Proof. And then I would just kind of work on it a little bit. And then it became this thing that I did, almost to get ready to do the next thing. The two things that I do is I start writing film stuff just from literature. And that usually leads me; that gets me writing again. “Let’s put that in Hollywood…” I kind of just push the rock up the hill. “Well, okay, enough of that,” and then I move on to the next thing. There was a whole exploratory aspect about Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. I really wanted to know who these characters were. I had to figure certain things out. “Am I going to have a story? Or is it going to be more about these guys having a day in the life?”
For a while I did have a story. I did come up with a story that was going to have them do, kind of more Elmore Leonard-y stuff. You can almost imagine that these guys could almost be Elmore Leonard characters. And then at some point, after I got to know them really well, I think this last go-round, I was like, “Okay, well, you know these guys now well enough. What story do you want to tell? This is your thing; what do you want to tell? And then I thought about it, and it’s like, “I don’t think I need a story with these guys. I think a day in the life is good enough. I think they’re strong enough to hold it. And I think the milieu and the environment is strong enough to hold it.” And, you know, sadly, I already kind of have a story because what we know is going to happen to Sharon [Tate]. So that’s not a story, but that kind of is a dramatic motor. That’s kind of pushing everything forward.
Did you always know the Manson family would factor into the story?
Well, it’s kind of like a ragtime story that I’m telling. Once I knew I was going to have Sharon Tate be the venue, the de facto third lead, I knew Manson would make an appearance. That’s all kind of the fabric going on, you know, and I knew the family would make an appearance.
So, it seems like pop culture really does inform a lot of the choices that you make…
Yeah, for sure. But in this one, it’s part and parcel to it, right? Because it’s in Los Angeles at that time. So, the whole idea was that anybody who lived in Los Angeles County in 1969 could have made an appearance in this piece if it just worked out.
What’s so great about Once… is that it offers you a sandbox to be able to work with actors or actresses that are long gone. Is that something you’ve always dreamed of doing? Have you ever dreamed of characters for actors or talent who have passed?
Oh, no all the time. I’m always like frustrated by stuff like that. I mean, like, you know, I would love to do a movie with Ralph Meeker. Either the ’50s Mike Hammer Ralph Meeker or the fat Ralph Meeker from the ’70s, he’s just one of my favorite actors. I would have fucking loved to work with him. And Ray, I would have loved to work with him. I mean, there’s all kinds of guys like that that I would’ve loved to work with.
There was this aspect of working with Damian [Lewis] where it was like, “Wow, he’s doing a really good Steve McQueen.” I go, “This is about as close as I’m ever going to get to working with Steve McQueen.” I was like, “I wonder if I could talk Damian into doing Steve McQueen in another movie where he’s not Steve McQueen. He’s probably gonna say no, but I would really like to direct him as that guy in something else.”
I wasn’t trying to shoehorn people in; it was like this big party and you just saw who showed up. See, McQueen was easy to show up because he was a friend of Sharon’s and him and Roman [Polanski] had a little bit of an antagonism, so that I enjoyed that. I thought that was a neat thing, so that was easy. And, he was like one of Jay Sebring’s best friends, you know, and he’s a good friend of Bruce Lee. So, he was just part of that fabric. It was also easy for that very reason to throw Mama Cass in there, and the Bruce Lee was set up because he taught Sharon. So, those were kind of easy ones because they were all part of that fabric of their Hollywood friends.
There are people that I wanted to show up, and they just never did. Like, I really wanted Jim Brown to show up at some point. Jamie Foxx could have played him, and he would have been great, but he just never showed up. He just never knocked on the door.
Would you say Once… is more about those who love Hollywood as opposed to those who are contributing to it?
It’s funny. I hadn’t thought about it like that before. But I guess I would. I would imagine that me and you, we watch it and we actually think Rick has it kind of good. He’s had a good career. He had a TV show. He starred in these movies, you know? Now, he’s not at the height of his career but it’s not bad and he’s doing pretty good and he’s going to go to Italy and work with Sergio Corbucci and he doesn’t even fucking appreciate it. Just the very fact that like, you know, I have him have nothing but disrespect for Spaghetti Westerns shows you I’m not exactly on Rick’s side. That was just very true of the xenophobia that those American actors had at that time. That whole “fucking dagos and Westerns?” It was fucking ridiculous.
On the Evolution of Pop Culture
Dalton’s fears of obsolescence are incredibly relatable, and I feel like they extend well beyond Holllywood to what everyone’s kind of feeling today. Nobody has any idea where we’re going, and it’s beyond terrifying. Do you relate to Rick? Or are you more care-free like Cliff?
Yeah, I don’t think … I don’t quite share that with Rick. I think I’m more like Cliff in that regard, but I’m sitting in a weird chair. I have a different perspective than I think a lot of other people. I’m surprised, and I think a lot of us have been caught unaware about how media and things that we love just have gone away, and we didn’t quite see it going away until it’s gone away. Like the idea of the record album and the fact that that’s no more. I mean, we still have DVDs and everything, but the idea of DVD stores and stuff is gone. Even book publishing, you know, having a person be like a literary star, or writing a book. If you sell 10,000 books … that’s a massive success.
So, it’s like, what’s next? What’s the thing that we’ve had all our lives and existed before us that is going to go next, or at least be so marginalized that it’s just dealing with a puny audience? And it looks like movies are the next to go to some degree or another. But then we did this movie, and we sold it, and it was a big hit. So, it’s like, oh, wow, okay, no, this movie was a part of the zeitgeist and was part of the conversation at a time when you’re wondering, can a movie become part of the conversation again. You know, Joker absolutely started a conversation. I actually got into an argument with somebody about it. You know, I hadn’t got into an argument with somebody about a movie in a while.
What I love about Once... is how pop culture unites everyone, particularly Rick and Cliff. Pop culture no doubt still has that currency, but do you feel it’s also tearing people apart now? People tend to personalize these things now.
Yeah. Well, I mean, I think, a case has been made about all this information is breaking people apart. Like when I first got satellite radio, I was like, “Oh my god, this is amazing. This is the promise. This is the promise that radio always made but could never fulfill.” No commercials, and then you get to listen to what you want to listen to: the jazz station, or it’s the oldies station, or the ‘70s on 7, or whatever the deal is. And they’ve got all these kinds of cool shows on there. But yeah, cut to 10 years later, and now everyone’s just kind of listening to their own stuff. I don’t know what the hits today are right now. I don’t know what’s on the 20 on 20. I would need to go to that to know what it is. I guess Kiss FM or something like that? Frankly, the last big pop hit that I knew of was that “Shallow” song from A Star Is Born. That burst through the consciousness where even I knew about it.
There’s just so much out there at any given moment, especially with the streaming wars going down. So, in terms of discovery, yeah, you could find anything out there right now, but, you know, who are the curators?
I don’t know. Like I said, I’m sitting in a different chair. Because even if I don’t make another movie again after this — I’m planning on doing another one. — but even if I don’t make another movie again after this, it’s like, well, I’ve done my movies. The culture can just put out, you know, a “gone for the next 20 years out for lunch sign,” and, well, I’m done. I’m kind of looking forward to writing novels or plays and just actually even dealing with a smaller audience. Consequently, unlike Rick, I’m not stressing about it. A case could be made that I’m getting out while the getting’s good. But I’ve talked about this a couple of times, and it actually is interesting because just mentioning this thing with records and novels shrinking the only thing that I do know is that none of us know what it’s going to look like seven years from now. Forget 10, seven. We do not know. Will this be happening now? Will this be happening seven years from now? I can’t even imagine why this wouldn’t happen, but I don’t effing know.
How do you feel streaming affects future filmmakers? How do you feel it would have affected you growing up?
Well, I can honestly tell you as much as you have access to everything, I actually had access to more at Video Archives. It was actually kind of funny because I don’t have Netflix in America, but I live half my time in Tel Aviv, so I actually started watching it for the first time and I thought, “Hey, this is pretty fun; I kind of like this.” So, when I came back to Los Angeles, I actually asked to have a meeting with Ted Sarandos because he’d been very respectful to me for a long time. So, I just wanted to tell him, “Hey, look, I’ve finally watched your thing,” and I told him what I liked and then he goes, “Okay, any things? Any suggestions you can make?” And I said, “Yes, I do, I have a couple.” So I told him a couple of things I didn’t like, but one of the things I said is, “You could have more ‘70s movies on there.” And he goes, “Yeah.” And I said, “I mean … it’s such a giant hole. I was even surprised that you have so little. I’m gonna put it like this: I looked up Burt Reynolds. You had four Burt Reynolds movies, and two of them were The Longest Yard.” And he actually hid his face in his hands. He’s like, “Oh my god.”
So, let me get back to your question before I derailed. On one hand, I don’t know if I would even be a filmmaker if I was 22 right now. Or, maybe, I made my first movie when I was like 29, and maybe I would have made four movies on an iPhone by the time I’m 29. They might not be any good, but I would have learned my craft, and I definitely wouldn’t have been sweating the idea of going to film school; that’s for damn sure. They’re going to get you nothing but an iPhone, but I’m paying you $50,000? In the ‘70s, there was a reason you went to film school: you got film, you got a camera. So, who knows. Maybe absolutely yes, or maybe who knows.
This actually could have derailed me. It could have stopped me in my tracks because it could have been almost too good — the technology that exists. Okay, say video stores were still in existence, but all the other technology for the last 10 years was going strong. Me and the guys at Video Archives would have absolutely had a podcast. We absolutely would have had a podcast, and it would have been fantastic, and we would have felt great about it, and I’m sure it would have been popular at least from the people in Manhattan Beach, but I actually think it would’ve gotten even more popular than that. But that actually might have satiated me enough to not go forward as a filmmaker because I was .. getting nourished. I was still undernourished, but I would have been nourished enough and like, “How much more can you expect?”
Those first three years at Video Archives kind of put me to sleep. Because I was like, “Oh wow, this is working for a living?” I just talked about movies. I was like the Andrew Sarris of the store, you know? So I was pontificating and being a little critic and talking about movies all day, and getting to watch movies all day. It was like, “Wow, this is amazing.” But you know, I was there for five years. So, the last two years was kind of a drag, because it was time to move on — and thank god.
I still, for the most part, watch cable. So, I’m more about like, you know, Showtime one through six. Showtime. Showtime Extreme, HBO one through six, Cinemax. My thing is like you hit the guide, you see all the little strips down there, and you kind of go, “Oh, well, Django is playing, where’s that at right now?” Boom. Or whatever is playing. “Oh, hey, I wouldn’t mind seeing that. Oh, it’s already on? Okay, let me hit other showings. Oh, they’re showing it again tomorrow? Okay, I’ll watch it then.” Boom.
Click ahead to find out what’s next for Tarantino…