It would seem counterintuitive for a period film to revel in the very accuracy that creates it, only to discard it – but it works. This is a motif we might see again this season, with writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, a paean to 1969 the cusp between two worlds, two eras. Though in many ways it’s a re-write of the sixties’ own implosion – shown as films within a film as we follow the life of Rick Dalton a fading star that finds himself starring in Spaghetti Westerns as a result of the changing tides at the box office. Tarantino has both a habit to retrofit history, with Inglorious Basterds (2009) – itself a restorative work of fiction dealing with the Third Reich’s occupation of Paris, with a Fheurer-ending finale to a symphony of explosions – again, a nod to an Inglorious Barstards which came before in 1978. That’s, for the most part, where the similarities between this and his cinematic back-catalogue end. From the establishing shots we’re thrown into the lives of the main subjects that sets the film up with multiple anticlimaxes to antidote a plot of numerous preambles, vignettes and literal dirt-road detours.
Unconcerned with convention, we roll through vignette and dialogue that are never for their own affect or purpose, if for the sole reason that they can’t be appreciated without the settings in which they all take place. Though the screenplay isn’t unremarkable, the set, art direction and production design, as a whole, take the cake. The inherent challenges in undertaking a period film are many – limitations like time and locale, costume and set – practically everything needs to be accounted for. To grant scale to photography or moving image is to put into focus a technical history of the ersatz, and fabricated imagery from matte-painting to digital compositing – but, actually, what makes Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood remarkable is its dedication to and admiration of the not-too-distant time in which it takes place, its insistence on reconstructing an at once factual, fictitious, and potentially misremembered part of history.
The ‘period’ look is quite straight forward in chateaus or on rolling pastures, but how does one represent bustling metropolitan areas in a period setting? By buying the areas, and building entire sets and architectural facades. “Hollywood Boulevard was a problem to be able to shut down – for the aforementioned reasons – having had the Location Manager go down to the city and ask “can we do this?”. Quentin himself had to make appearances in front of the City Council, Chamber of Commerce and pitched the case” recalls Production Designer Barbara Ling. “The success of those boardroom negotiations allotted two main timeframes to get all of the street shots done.” An impossible feat all at once, as it would have irreversibly disrupted the city. Two blocks of both sides, on one area, and another two blocks a few months later which granted a loop of built facades and exteriors. Most facades had to be pre-built as much as possible offsite, so as to not disrupt the streets any longer than necessary. Quick shooting on the freeway, scenes where Cliff shows up for the first time in his car, were only shot once. Freeway 90 and freeway 101 were completely shut down, filled with period cars as far as the eye could see, from 12-2pm in the height lunchtime traffic.
Other sets had the same treatment applied, namely the Playboy Mansion which is used in a scene to introduce Tate and Polanski’s lifestyle of being the toast of Hollywood, depicting Steve McQueen, Mama Cass and Jay Sebring all in attendance. The real Playboy Mansion was used, despite having changed ownership since Hugh Hefner’s death and undergoing extensive construction. A montage of signs from the sixties food chains of Hamburger Hamlet, Tacobell, Stan’s Donuts and der Wienrshnietzel were also recreated, rather than reimagined. Today’s establishments favour LED marquees, rather than using back-lit plexiglass with adhesive letters. The exception for this series, was a Taco Bell that was close to its demolition date, of which the original architecture and signage stood in Tusten, New York.
Another instance of era-specific grandeur happens when Sharon Tate, depicted by Margot Robbie, decides to see a film starring herself – bargaining her way past the toll-booth and using the lobby posters as reference. We get a close-up on the array lobby-cards from the The Wrecking Crew, in which the real Sharon Tate starred in. Graphic and printed material is used extensively as points of reference, in fact – theatrical posters, however played a significant part in the restoration of the time, with many being entirely fabricated for the movie itself, although hard to tell. One of the artists called upon to create the posters that furnished Rick Dalton’s bachelor pad was Steven Chorney, and better yet were the designs of Italian Renato Casaro, born 1935, a long-retired one-sheet illustrator. Coming out of retirement to contribute these artworks, it’s hard see this as a nostalgic gesture, rather than the actual thing itself – with Leonardo DiCaprio painted as the leading anti-hero of fictional Italian-Western blockbusters such as Uccidimi subito Ringo, Disse il Gringo (Kill Me Now Ringo, Said the Gringo) and Nebraska Jim. In the film, these posters were never allowed to be forgotten, being one of the first scenes as Rick and Cliff make their way up Cielo Drive and into his parking spot (the fictional star’s narcissism for his glory days cemented by a repurposed poster of himself in his own driveway), and one of the last interior shots we get when the blood-soaked finale comes to a head – the shattered frame of a Kill Me Now… poster being illuminated red and blue police lights stationed nearby.
The end result is amplified by the entire saturation of the film, soaked in colour-negative film wherein – when watched in 35mm – whites flare into a redolent semi-sepia grain. Shot entirely on film, technical in-camera skill becomes more obvious and camera movements, though silent, deliberate. In the opening ten minutes a crane shot ferries us from Rick Dalton reclining in a pool inflatable, to land us on the front porch of Tate and Polanski beginning their night out. Not a fan of using multiple camera angles to ‘get the right shot’, one-takes make a permanent impression in the retinas of the mind, with a seamless choreographed fight between Bruce Lee and Cliff Booth that mentally lingers for many scenes later.