In 1969, America found itself at the crossroads between the carefree love movement and the gripping, gruesome Manson murders; in Hollywood, cowboy films fell from dominance, giving way to the height of hippie culture and the era’s musical volley between psychedelia and introspection. It all makes for incredibly rich storytelling fodder in Quentin Tarantino’s new Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, which focuses on the fictional actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and the real-life Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and exists as a love letter to a unique time in both the city of Los Angeles and the entertainment industry at large.
For his ninth film in a nearly three-decade career, Tarantino once again turned to his longtime music supervisor Mary Ramos to set the musical stage. Ramos, who first met Tarantino at a party and has worked in some capacity with the director since his 1992 breakout Reservoir Dogs, has collaborated with the famously hands-on auteur on the soundtracks for everything from Pulp Fiction to Kill Bill. Her job is a crucial, wide-ranging one: she’s tasked with every on-screen musical moment, from obtaining the rights for obscure tracks to helping an actor feel comfortable holding a guitar. With both the film and soundtrack out today (it’ll also get the vinyl treatment soon), Ramos spoke to GQ about the music of 1969, turning down Lana Del Rey, and what it’s like helping Tarantino achieve his singular vision. (Light spoilers ahead.)
GQ: What’s the process of finding songs for this movie? Does Quentin give you his script and then you’re digging through crates?
Mary Ramos: The genesis of this whole thing is that when Quentin writes a screenplay, he’ll go into his record room for inspiration. I’ve worked with him on all of his movies in various capacities and it’s always been the same process. I’ll come over during pre-production and he’ll play music and talk about scenes, he’ll put the needle down on the record player and describe the scene as the music is playing.
Tarantino is one of the most talked about, acclaimed, thoughtful, micromanaging film directors of our time and you have this unique view into his process. What is it like being in a room with him as he’s creating this story before your eyes?
First of all, sitting on his couch and being in the record room and having him stop to play a piece of music as he describes a scene is freaking spellbinding. Secondly, I don’t think anybody on the planet talks faster than him, so in lieu of tape recording him, I have to write stuff down because he’s going to have this meeting with me and then he’s going to move onto something else. So I have to get as much detail as possible when we’re together. That’s another thing, reading my handwriting after those kinds of meetings. I think everyone who works with him has a very similar experience, in that he is very hands-on in every aspect of movies. They all come from his imagination, so he’s the one who’s going to say, “This is why he’s wearing this,” because it comes from his imagination. He’s not only going to play you a song, but he’s going to tell you why the song is important. He has this passion for filmmaking.
How do you two collaborate as a team?
All directors tell stories their own way, and for him, it’s the details that are important. Having worked with him for 27 years now, I can’t anticipate what he’s going to want and I’ve always made it my goal to never have to let him down because of red tape. There’s been many times throughout the years when things have been turned down, but rather than having to say, “Sorry, you can’t have it,” I’ve tried to been able to really pursue it and make a case for getting him what he wants. Also in situations where good, solid intelligence wasn’t available about who owned a specific song, I would do a ton of detective research, using things like mothers’ maiden names to track people down. I’ve approached the job is to be his…. I don’t know what you’d call it? His Girl Friday? His ninja? His musical Kato? I’m his musical Kato.
In 1969, popular songs really ranged the gamut, from the No. 1 hit at the time of the Manson murders (the novelty track “In the Year 2525”) to the instrumental love theme to the movie version of Romeo and Juliet. At the same time, you had hippie music, rock, and the very beginning of the introspective singer-songwriter genre that later flourished in the 70s. Immersing yourself in the era, what did you learn?
It was that dichotomy of the psychedelia and pop, especially rooted in the things the radio and [stations like] KHJ was playing. There was no one flavor, or corporate-sounding radio where you hear the same thing over and over again. It was definitely a really great and truly eclectic mix and radio had the power to break artists. DJs were reverential, they praise the songs and all had their own personalities. Even some of the advertisements were hilarious. I think we captured that in the movie by not using just one particular style. You’re not going to get the Billboard top-charting songs from 1969 on this soundtrack, but what’s more important is the time machine aspect of it, with songs like Roy Head and the Traits’ “Treat Her Right.” I’ve had the chance to listen to the soundtrack in the car and it is such a transporting experience. [Quentin] also didn’t want to go anachronistic with this, because we were approached by people who wanted to do original or new songs. Like Lana Del Rey is amazing and she has such a Quentin vibe to her and had a few songs she wanted to submit, but Quentin wanted to stay rooted in the period and utilize his memory of KHJ Boss Radio in Los Angeles. The radio stations and the DJs are stars in the movie as well and every character is listening to them.
You’re involved with every aspect of on-screen music, from the song placements to when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character sings a song on the ‘60s TV show, Hullabaloo. What was it like working with DiCaprio, an actor who obviously isn’t known for singing?
Some things are inspiration and happen kind of quickly and last minute. It was in the script that he wanted to show Rick Dalton on Hullabaloo show uncomfortably singing a pop tune and smoking a cigarette, so we had to figure out what Leo would want to sing. There was a day to prepare the track for Leo to practice with because the two of them had different ideas about what they wanted to do. He had one song he wanted to do and Quentin wanted him to sing this ‘50s-era song “The Green Door,” which he wound up doing. So it was a last minute decision, but he rocked it though. He jumped in and did it beautifully.
I know you said that Quentin is the biggest fan of music that you know. What makes him such a music aficionado?
He’s specific in his love of music. He’s a big fan of movies and he’s a big fan of movie music. A lot of times, the music he’s going to want to use is referential to other things; like the reason why he fell in love with it is because he heard it wherever else. Working with him, you realize that it’s a very personal experience. The movies are coming out of his imagination; the playlists you’re building with him are things that meant something very visceral to him, none more so than with this movie, because it’s certainly one of the most personal for him while growing up in Los Angeles and listening to the radio when he was a little kid.
How did you initially begin your creative relationship with him?
He’s the reason I’m a music supervisor. When Tim Roth first came to the States, he was this new actor and Quentin hired him for Reservoir Dogs. Tim lived in this little apartment on Gardner in Hollywood and a group of my friends became Tim’s surrogate family, basically. At the time I wanted to be a writer or director or actor. I met Quentin at a party when he was this new, young director no one had heard of. We got to talking and bonded about music. Tim and Quentin later introduced me to the woman who was doing Reservoir Dogs, because she needed an assistant and I started working for her and became her coordinator. I’ve always approached things from an actor’s and storyteller’s perspective and I have a pretty eclectic music collection—I like dynamic music no matter the genre. So what I bring to it is a few personality pieces, and that’s the only justification I can give for my lengthy filmography since.
What’s it like seeing it all come together now that the movie is out??
Watching this thing that came from Quentin’s brand that I helped make happen is an incredible experience. I’ve seen the movie a bunch, but seeing it in a theater with an audience and seeing all the songs calibrated perfectly and the sound effects and our amazing sound team, with an audience that’s digging it... it is transcendent.
Originally Appeared on GQ