Quentin Tarantino’s earliest memory of Los Angeles was as a young boy visiting Grauman’s Chinese Theater, standing in the courtyard and looking at the handprints of John Wayne and Roy Rogers. He recollects the Mold-A-Rama machine outside that dispensed a souvenir wax pagoda if you inserted a quarter.
The director had toyed with re-creating that memory as the opening to his Oscar-nominated “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” He went so far as to have Barbara Ling, his production designer, track down the makers of the machine, but the idea never materialized. Instead, the film opens with black-and-white newsreel footage of Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), setting the scene for their coming exploits. But Tarantino has the machine: “It sits in my garage,” he chuckles as he lounges across the table from Ling and the film’s costume designer, Arianne Phillips at the Arclight Café in Hollywood.
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Ling’s earliest memories of LA include going to Grauman’s on New Year’s Eve to watch James Bond movies while her parents went off and partied. Phillips recalls having a babysitter who happened to be a runaway from Spahn Ranch.
When it came time for Tarantino to assemble his team for the movie, he hooked up with his frequent collaborators, editor Fred Raskin, cinematographer Robert Richardson, sound editor Wylie Stateman and makeup head Heba Thorisdottir. And he recruited first-time collaborators Phillips and Ling.
Tarantino had seen Ling’s work on “The Doors”; she was his go-to for recreating the period for “Once Upon a Time.” Richardson coincidentally had worked with Ling on that film, and when he read Tarantino’s script, the first thing he had said was, “We need Barbara.”
“There was no other choice,” Tarantino says when it came to selecting the costume designer. Phillips, who has often collaborated with Tom Ford, James Mangold and Madonna, didn’t disappoint. She showed up to their first meeting in a Hawaiian shirt and armed with an extensively researched look book of ideas. “She was the perfect person,” says Tarantino. “She came in with that book and it was so cool.”
Early in the planning, Tarantino suggested Phillips coordinate the costumes as if he were going to shoot in monochrome. “I was never really going to do this,” he admits, “but there are a lot of ugly colors on period costumes that take you out of movies. I said, “What if we did it in black and white so we can get rid of the colors?”
Phillips gave her team a very specific, color-controlled template and idea. She understood the necessity of authenticity. “I saw every single person. My thing is fit to the face; don’t fit to the body,” she explains. With that in mind, she and her crew created a backstory for the extras. “It helps people to take pride in their work, and by creating a narrative it empowers them to not only exercise their creativity but to really put a fingerprint in helping to tell the story,” she says.
Tarantino points to the payoff. “When Sharon Tate [played by Margot Robbie] is in Westwood and I see the people crossing the street, I love the girl in the suede black boots,” he says. “I was so intrigued. You can live or die by the extras.”
Another extra that piqued Tarantino’s interest was the scene outside Pandora’s Box. “There are some hippies, and then there’s this woman who is dressed like Jackie Kennedy,” says Tarantino. “She’s either a secretary or a wife, and I wanted to follow her story.”
Both Tarantino and Phillips knew they didn’t want just a “hippie section” in the film simply because the movie was set in the ‘60s. The era was one of change that called for a mix of characters. Ling, who was a teenager during the film’s time period, says it would have been “weird” to show everyone as a hippie, because that wasn’t the way things were.
A key objective for Phillips was to make Rick fit into that era. She notes that people in 1969 were still wearing clothes from years earlier, and that helped DiCaprio’s character slip effortlessly into the period. “People were wearing the same things they wore 10 years [prior], and to make Rick work, we had to have people who were a little out of time and a little out of step,” Phillips explains.
Ling was responsible for building that world. She transformed Hollywood Boulevard and worked on the Universal Studios backlot to create the sets for “Lancer,” “The Green Hornet” and Spahn Ranch — the Manson Family’s compound.
“Some of it is really Penn and Teller,” Tarantino says of Ling’s work. “You see what’s important and you don’t see what isn’t important. The best thing she did was take a falafel place right next to the Vogue Theatre and turn it into the Orange Julius.” Adds Tarantino, “Out of everything she created, I wanted to buy that falafel place and turn it into an Orange Julius.”
Tarantino and the crew spent three days shooting at the Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills. It was the perfect backdrop to a key scene with Sharon and Roman Polanski [Rafal Zawierucha]. “I was dreading that scene,” Tarantino admits. The pressure of having tons of extras who had to deliver and doing a party scene — something he doesn’t really like doing — made him nervous. But it turned out to be some of the most fun he’d ever had.
“I was able to find the extras I wanted to feature,” he says. “I was able to talk to them and work it out.” In a moment of spontaneity, the sequence where the Playboy bunnies are dancing was something the director dreamt up on the day of shooting. “[Choreographer] Toni Basil was there,” he recalls. “She just taught them that little dance move.”
For Tarantino, the biggest challenge was how to film the iconic location. Says Ling, “Showing the grotto was a smart move. If you showed the grass, then you could be anywhere.” The authenticity was in presenting the familiar, says Tarantino: “The combination of the floor and the grotto leading to the pool is what makes it the Playboy mansion.”
The scene at the Playboy Mansion was an important moment in the film because “everyone wanted to go there,” Phillips says, “I cried the first time I saw it because Margot embodies that innocence, and the way it was cut to show that joy.”
The scene also features Mama Cass (Rachel Redleaf) and Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), who the costume designer puts in optic white pants. The challenge: White at night is less than ideal for lighting — but not for Richardson, who wanted to keep the character in the quintessential outfit. “God bless Robert Richardson,” Phillips says, simply.
Phillips spent time collaborating with hair and make-up to get the introduction of Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) perfectly right. As he drives up Cielo Drive and we see him for the first time, he exudes that eeriness. “When he gets out for the first time and you know the mythology, you know it’s Charlie,” Tarantino says. He didn’t want to have him in something too cliché looking, but something that we associated him with. “I had the blue shirt and leather jacket in mind.”
Creating the range of costumes for “Once Upon a Time” allowed Phillips to fully experience the Tarantino vernacular. “I got to do Westerns, Nazi outfits, land pirates,” she says. “I had this pu-pu platter of every Tarantino movie.”
Not only did Phillips get to allude to the Tarantino movie universe, she got to honor his fans. “I got to honor those who appreciate your world and those who are obsessive about your filmmaking,” she says.
Ling and Phillips referenced a scene in “Inglourious Basterds” in the movie-within-the-movie that Rick makes when he moves to Italy to star in Spaghetti Westerns — directed by no less than Antonio Margheriti, the “Italian director” pseudonym tossed out by Eli Roth in “Basterds” (and an actual B-movie helmer). In “Once Upon a Time,” Rick appears in “The 14 Fists of McClusky,” in which he torches Nazi soldiers with a flame-thrower in much the same way Daniel Brühl’s Fredrick Zoller shoots up Allies in the movie-movie in “Basterds.”
“I had seen drawings,” Tarantino says of Ling’s sketches of Rick’s rampage. “Talk about taking the streets; she took this room. One minute you’re standing in the middle of it — and then we’re going to burn it down.”
Tarantino, who’s 56, still insists he plans to make just 10 films and then retire. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is his ninth. But his collaborators don’t see him hanging up his clapboard any time soon. “There are new horizons,” Ling teases. “Imagine him in episodic TV.” Adds Phillips: “He could do a musical.”
Or maybe he can remake “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” That was what was playing at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on that first trip to L.A. It’s a scene that still seems fit for the big screen.
As the trio head off, there’s time to ask cinephile one last question about keeping one poster of all, should anything happen to his home. His answer is fast and he laughs, “It’s in my bedroom. I have this beautiful, huge poster of Pam Grier in “Coffy.” It’s Italian and it’s huge.” And his wife approves, “It tells you how amazing it is if she lets it stay in the bedroom,” he chuckles. And with that, Tarantino, Ling and Phillips depart.