Interview. Quentin Tarantino takes us back to the summer of 1969 in Los Angeles County, a coming-of-age moment for himself, for Hollywood and for America. ‘It was a special time and place.’

‘Hollywood’ blends Tarantino’s childhood and the era that revolutionized cinema

At the New Beverly movie theater in Los Angeles, the poster looks a bit faded by the scorching heat of California in September, but the title still stands proud: “Tarantino Presents: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” More than two months have passed since the official Chinese Theater premiere, but the little theater on Beverly Boulevard is still showing Tarantino’s latest oeuvre. Not a huge surprise—since the theater’s owner is Quentin Tarantino.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has now earned an eye-popping $329 million worldwide, surpassing Inglorious Basterds and gunning for Django Unchained, the director’s most successful film to date ($425 million). Hollywood is sure to pass that mark. 

Many of Tarantino’s films are set in LA and have strong ties to their location, but in this one the city becomes a character in its own right. In fact, Angelenos got to watch it in some of the locations used in the film, like the Cinerama Dome. For weeks a billboard for the film hovered over the El Coyote Mexican restaurant, the very place Sharon Tate dined for the last time on that fateful evening of Aug. 8, 1969, in the summer of Manson.

That sultry summer seemed airless, with a blanket of smog concealing the sunset of an age—two of them, in fact. The old system of making movies was in the process of being blown away by the advent of the New Hollywood. And the carefree and sunny season of counterculture was coming to an end, which, after the Summer of Love a couple of years before, would now be forever marred—at least in the official account—by the Manson Family’s bloody Helter Skelter.

Tarantino develops his story against this backdrop, offering us an image of America and its avatar—Hollywood—in its essential elements: glamor, narcissism, naivety and violence. He imbues it with wistfulness and what can only be called a deep affection for an industry, a place and a state of mind which served as his metaphorical “childhood home.” Here we have an unusually romantic Tarantino, who created an ingenious device which allows him to re-shoot the beloved B-movies and TV shows of his artistic formation, inventing an imaginary filmography for his middling protagonist and saving a few matinee idols of his own.

So is this the love letter to Hollywood that everyone says it is?

Yeah, a little bit actually. It’s funny because when you said the Hollywood of my childhood, most people use the word Hollywood, they mean it more euphemistically as far as like the filmmaking industry and that is part of this movie. But I am also dealing with it as a town, as like Los Angeles County. And I was in Los Angeles in 1969, I was about 6 or 7, but I remember it really, really well. I remember what was on TV and I remember what was on the local stations, I remember the kids shows and I remember the cartoons on Saturday morning and I remember the “Horror House.” And I remember the music and I remember the radio station. Back then the big radio station was 93KHJ and we would play it throughout the entire film and the deep disc jockeys are like period narrators almost. 

Is it a historical document or fiction?

You could definitely say fairytale, but I would say fable, as opposed to a historic place. There’s a fable quality. John Milius wrote a really great script called “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” and it had a famous tagline which I thought was great: “if it’s not how it was, it’s how it should have been.” And I think there is just an aspect of that. 

Is there nostalgia involved?

I don’t think, I think it’s a really interesting period. I don’t think I am nostalgic about it, like oh, I want this time to come back, because I just don’t feel that way about it. It was a special time and place. And what makes it even more … interesting to examine, is it’s a time and a place that was only for a couple of years, because what was big about 1969, it was the explosion of hippie Hollywood. So one of the things about Mark Harris’ book “Pictures of the Revolution,” which is about 1967, is that at the end of that Oscar ceremony with The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde was the idea that New Hollywood didn’t know that it had won and Old Hollywood didn’t know that it had lost at the end of that year. But by 1968, it was clear, by 1969, that New Hollywood, that hippie Hollywood, was the Hollywood. Now that was only going to be for a couple of years as well. Like, for instance any movie, by mid-1969, any movie that was made with a thought process of 1965 or 1966, looked hopelessly dated by 1969. Consequently, any movie that was 1969 influenced, by the end of 1970, seemed hopelessly dated. So we are literally talking about a window, a little window into an interesting subculture. So I am looking at it more anthropologically I would say than nostalgic.

So a version of that moment?

Well, here’s the thing. It’s like, one of the things about the film is I’m mixing, I am taking fictional characters and I am taking real characters and I am kind of mixing them together, for me in a way, not too dissimilar from say what E.L. Doctrow did with Ragtime. And Sharon Tate is the one I am spending the most time with, so I don’t get to go chapter and verse on everybody. But, with a lot of the different characters, McQueen, Bruce Lee, the killers in the car, I tried to take something that I learned about them, something that they said in interviews or statements that they made. And I didn’t want to use them verbatim, but extrapolate on my own that same kind of idea that they had expressed in real life. And so when Bruce Lee talks about martial arts tournaments being patty cake and how Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston are real warriors, well he said things like that. And he said them in the same arrogant kind of way that my Bruce says it.

It’s also one of the memorable films about Los Angeles.

Well, I think one of the things that I really brought to the movie is I lived in Los Angeles County in 1969. I don’t know if it would have the same resonance if I hadn’t personally listened to KHJ radio back then as every kid in school and everybody in my family did, and everybody I knew did frankly. If I hadn’t spent so much time sitting in a Karmann Ghia, looking at, driving around Los Angeles, seeing the city pass by, looking at the billboards and the bus stops and all the ads and remembering what was on TV at that time and remembering the songs that were on the radio, just remembering the town. And I think this fits into that fable thing I was talking about. I have made a few references to that some way or another. This is sort of my Roma, and what I mean by that, is that it’s a memory piece made up from my memory. Now, part of the thing in a memory piece is that it’s not entirely factual. Three years can be reduced to one year when you are thinking about a childhood memory. And maybe you don’t have it quite right in your head but you don’t know that. And that’s where I kind of wanted to live as far as my memory, as far as putting it together. … So less important than looking at a photo of what Riverside Drive looked like at that time, it was more my memory of what I thought it looked like.  

It’s your movie about movies. Are you talking to cinephiles? 

I mean look, it’s one of those things where, yes, OK, if you are Todd McCarthy, you are going to get all the references that I am making and you are going to remember every single actor that I talk about and you are going to remember their shows and do chapter and verse and he could tell me about what happened to them. … But I’m not expecting everyone to be like that. That movie has to work even if it’s just a completely made up universe and you are just interested in the characters. However, if you are interested, if this world seems intriguing to you, there are some wonderful Carroll-esque rabbit holes for you to go down and start exploring things. Just to give you a couple of little things, like I said, certain films in Rick’s career are jumping off from certain movies in other actors’ careers. So like for instance, The Fourteenth Fist of McCluskey is vaguely similar and just a little bit—no flame throwers or anything—but very similar to a bigger budget Roger Corman. A bunch of guys on a mission that they called The Secret Invasion. And Edd Byrnes played the part that Rick played. The fact that Rick kind of helps sabotage his series so he could go off and have a movie career that ultimately ended up not working out, well that’s a little based on the actor George Maharis, how he extricated himself from Route 66 to have a movie career that didn’t quite work out for him. The film that he does, you see that big poster for it, Tanner. Tanner is kind of based a little bit on the movie Gunman’s Walk, where Rick is kind of playing the Tab Hunter character in that. 

You also have a personal collection of 35mm prints I believe, right?

I started with 16mm prints and eventually graduated to 35, but even when I was collecting 16mm prints, maybe I would get a Japanese monster movie or something and then all of a sudden, whoa, that’s a really great print. And then I would ask myself, I mean it’s just a 16 print, but this might be the best print in the world of this for all I know, cause it’s that good looking.  And so there comes a responsibility, when you collect prints, because you might very well have the best print of something and you might not have the best print of something, you might have the only print of something. And it’s your job and you are saving it. But it’s not just enough to hold it in a vault or a storage facility, you also need to show it, it needs to see the light of a projector and entertain people and not just sit on a shelf. So I take that responsibility, I take it very seriously. That’s one of the things that I love doing at my theater, The New Beverly. Now I have a venue so I can show these prints. And from time to time I will show something, a double feature or something and go, I don’t know if anybody is going to go see this, but that’s OK, it’s getting shown, I can handle it, it’s getting an LA screening for the first time in maybe 40 years and I’m happy about that. 

Your protagonist, Rick Dalton, at one point emigrates to revive his career.

Rick could go to the Philippines and be the American guy that leads the Filipinos fighting against the Japanese, which a lot of actors did back then. That was a foreign route you could go. Or you could go to Japan and star in a giant monster movie like Nick Adams did or Russ Tamblyn did. But the lucrative place to go was Italy to make Spaghetti Westerns, especially if you were coming off of a TV show that was a Western show, cause that had syndication, the show got played in Italy. That is actually just a rite of passage for a lot of actors at that time. So do you need to know who Sergio Corbucci is? I think it’s a lot of fun if you do, but you don’t have to.  But just to give you an idea about that a little bit, I don’t always agree with Rick, so there were a whole lot of actors of that time period who, one, they were just xenophobic, but also it’s like, they couldn’t comprehend the idea of a Spaghetti Western. I mean it was just ridiculous: “Oh, a bunch of Italians making Westerns, what the fuck is that about? I mean, I thought television was bad, that’s even worse.” I think they’re fucking wrong, but they don’t know they’re wrong. It’s a generational thing, it literally is a generational thing, they just didn’t get it, they didn’t understand. So Rick goes over, he doesn’t know he’s working with one of the greatest Western directors in the world when he does Nebraska Jim. And one of the points about that, just my gene splicing as far as that was concerned, OK, so when we showed the clip from Operazione Dynamite, well that’s actually from a Sergio Corbucci movie, it’s a movie in America called Moving Target. But I didn’t have it to be Corbucci, I had it to be Antonio Margheriti, who directed that, and the reason for that is this: because Rick is not lucky enough to do two movies for Sergio Corbucci. He goes over and he is like the luckiest guy in the world, he works with one of the best directors in Italy on his first movie, obviously he was a prick, he doesn’t understand what he’s doing, he doesn’t get it, he thinks it’s like OK, whatever, this is beneath me, so naturally Corbucci is not going to hire him again. But [Sergio’s wife] Nori Corbucci was saying like, “Why are you saying Margheriti is directing Sergio’s movie?” Because Rick is not good enough to work with Sergio Corbucci twice!

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