One of the great surprises of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was that Quentin Tarantino got to make his third western (following “Django Unchained” and “The Hateful Eight”) with his retro-contemporary redo of the actual ’60s TV series “Lancer.” Only he originally had something much more subversive in mind for Leonardo DiCaprio’s has-been actor, Rick Dalton, doing a guest shot as a hippie-looking gunslinger.
“It’s shot like a movie and Quentin was very cognizant of that,” said editor Fred Raskin. “Because early on in the screenplay and the design of the movie, when you’re introduced to ‘Lancer,’ you weren’t aware as to what you were watching. At a certain point, we cut to this western world and there was this disorientation of, ‘Wait a minute, where are we now?’ And as we were editing the movie and shaping and refining it, that was one element that ended up having to go away.”
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But while the concept remained the same of going behind the scenes of an actual shoot, when Dalton suddenly forgets his line during the first scene, the spell is broken with the intrusion of the off-camera world. “The sound editorial and mixing department did something really neat,” added Raskin, “which is you’re fully in the world of this scene as it’s playing out. Everything from, there’s a shadow of fan blades on the floor, and you’re hearing the fan and hearing the western air outside with the horses and all of that.”
“And then when the music stops, and Rick, says, ‘Line?,’ all of the air drops out the scene. Then it goes back to being on a set in a Hollywood backlot. And that’s all of the sound that comes in with the line being given to him off-camera. Then we’re back doing the scene again and the sound effects from the show, the western world, all come back in again.”
For cinematographer Robert Richardson, shooting “Lancer” in Kodak 35mm with Panavision cameras and lenses (including the new T Series for getting close-up focus within two feet) was an opportunity to fulfill Tarantino’s sophisticated, retro/contemporary vision: colorful, dusty, and sharp. The camera moves adroitly around the saloon, establishing the swagger of Rick’s character, Caleb, with gorgeous shafts of light coming through the saloon. And when Caleb sits down to have a drink with Johnny Madrid (portrayed by Timothy Olyphant as “Lancer” co-star James Stacy), we realize that Rick’s a damn good actor.
“Certainly in respect to film-making [‘Lancer’] was a highlight,” Richardson said. “The concept of seeing behind the curtain — the magic, the true makings of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ — was special for this film. And the simplicity and grace that Quentin achieved was both surprising and unique.”
But equally fun for Richardson was shooting Rick freaking out in his trailer after forgetting his lines because of his alcohol addiction. “To me, that was one of the great scenes in the movie because that speaks volumes to the new and the old. And then, when he goes back to shooting ‘Lancer,’ he performs brilliantly and looks fantastic,” he said.
For production designer Barbara Ling, “Lancer” was an opportunity to remake the old Western Street backlot of Universal. “‘Lancer’ was unique in that it had a mix of Western/Spanish design with pieces of adobe buildings and then the wood western buildings within it,” she said. “What I did was bring that back in. I added adobe to the storefronts that worked in between the wood storefronts.
“The same inside the bar. You had this Spanish blurring within the Western. You had some iron coils on the staircase that gave it a little bit of that Spanish feel, rather than just a western in Arizona or Nevada with straight pegs. And it has money. This was a [rich] cattle town and the buildings are two and three stories. It’s not ‘Deadwood.'”
With “Lancer,” it’s the odd opportunity to see Rick perform after spending 40 minutes with the character consumed by insecurity and narcissism. “And it is a testament to Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance that he’s playing Rick and he’s playing Rick playing Caleb,” said Raskin. “One of the things I really love about this movie is you actually get to see it play out.”
This culminates with the strange, touching, approval that Rick gets from his precocious, eight-year-old “Lancer” co-star, Trudi (Julia Butters), whispering in his ear that he gave the best performance she’s ever seen. “I think that she represents, to a degree, Quentin’s voice,” Raskin said. “She talks about actors and acting the way Quentin [thinks] about it and how seriously you should take it. And I think the audience, as well, comes to be impressed with Rick. We’re proud of him.”