A love letter to cinema, Tarantino’s latest is a work of fiction, memory, and real life, blurred into a masterpiece that demands to be seen on the big screen.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
July 26, 2019
Quentin Tarantino is in a great mood.
“Oh, god, I feel fantastic. We’ve been floating on air all day,” says the 56-year-old director on the line from France where his ninth film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, received a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival.
Expectations are high, as they always are when a Tarantino film is released, but there is something special about this film, beginning with the cast — the first ever pairing of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. The setting is equally enticing, Hollywood in 1969, the then epicentre of counterculture in America and the site of the Manson murder spree that shocked the world.
It’s a time and place encased in Tarantino’s memory; he grew up in Los Angeles county and was six years old at the time of the murders, which is why he calls his latest work “a memory piece,” and says it’s his most personal film to date.
Tarantino's twisted reality
The movie finds washed-up TV Western star Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) starring in B-movies and playing guest roles on TV shows while desperately trying to get cast in quality films, just like rival Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis). His spirits are buoyed by his former stuntman and best friend Cliff Booth (Pitt), who remains loyal to Rick despite his neediness. In the background of the story are Rick's neighbours, actress-of-the-moment Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband, the sought-after director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha).
The film unfolds over three days — February 8th, February 9th and finally August 8th — the day members of Charles Manson’s (Damon Herriman) cult brutally murdered Tate and four of her friends.
It's DiCaprio’s show
While it’s an ensemble piece, the film truly revolves around DiCaprio, whose character is both infuriatingly self-centered and emotionally vulnerable.
“Rick goes through many trials and tribulations through his few days in this movie, and they’re all of his own making,” explains Tarantino in his excitedly staccato way of speaking. Even at age 56 the filmmaker can sound like a brainy, film-obsessed teenager who wants to both educate and entertain his listener.
“Leo laughs about the fact that everyone’s like, ‘Oh, poor Rick, poor Rick.’ I’m very unsympathetic to Rick’s trials and tribulations [laughs]. I think he has a pretty good life. He’s doing better than a whole lot of other people and he actually has a good career to show for it. Now is he a giant movie star? No, he’s not. Boohoo [laughs]. I’ll cry him a river, all right. I think he definitely has problems of entitlement.
“Cliff represents a whole class of people who work in Hollywood or who have worked in the entertainment industry their whole life and have absolutely nothing to show for it,” continues Tarantino. “They lived hand to mouth their whole life and they’re okay with it, you know? So, Sharon, Rick, and Cliff represent those three different social strata that kind of coexist in this town.”
The unexpected inspiration
The idea for the film has been ruminating in Tarantino’s head for a decade. It began when he hired an older actor for one of his films, and the actor asked if Tarantino would cast his stunt double for a small role, to give the guy some work.
“But one of the things that was funny is this stunt double guy,” remembers Tarantino, “he wasn’t working for me, he was working for the actor [laughing]. He kind of made it clear that that was the deal. So, I just kinda watched them sit in their director chairs talking to each other and I go, ‘That is an interesting relationship,’ and one of these days, if I ever do a movie about Hollywood, that could be the way into it.”
“I kind of consider myself a conductor and the audience is my orchestra,” he says. “I’m trying to get the audience to respond, audibly respond, to move in their seat, whether they’re like bopping their head to a groovy song, or they’re recoiling in horror"
It's Tarantino's world, we're just living in it
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood really is a movie, in that it was filmed in glorious 35mm. Tarantino refuses to make the switch to digital filmmaking. He wants audiences to immerse themselves in the film experience.
“It looks really magnificent on the screen, and listening to the music and the songs with a good stereo sound system in your theatre is terrific,” he says.
However, seeing a Tarantino movie on the big screen is not just about the visuals and sound. As Tarantino explains, he wants to guide your experience, curate your reactions to his storytelling, and that works best in a theatre.
“I kind of consider myself a conductor and the audience is my orchestra,” he says. “I’m trying to get the audience to respond, audibly respond, to move in their seat, whether they’re like bopping their head to a groovy song, or they’re recoiling in horror, or they’re leaning forward in their seat because it’s suspenseful and they wanna know what’s going to happen next.
“I’m playing on the audience reaction that goes in waves, that feeling where you’re laughing, and you laugh again, and then you laugh again, and then I, as director, I say, ‘Stop laughing!’ I think I deliver that, and I think the only way you truly get that experience is in a communal situation reacting with other cinemagoers.”
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is for film lovers.
There are few filmmakers who truly love movies as much as director Tarantino does, and it shows in the way his films consume the screen and demand viewers’ attention. See this movie with a fellow movie buff so you can dissect the movie long after the end credits roll.