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“I didn’t go to film school—I went to films.”
Quentin Tarantino

Note: I’ll start The Unofficial Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood Film School with a list of 10, and then add and update this post from time to time. There will be spoilers.

It’s unusual for me to write much about movies while they are still in theaters because there hasn’t been enough time to reflect on them. It’s not in the general collective consciousness yet.

But I think Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is an instant classic. And while I don’t know how many $90 million original stories are going to be made in the future, I think there are things to take away from Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film that can help a filmmaker of any budget.

Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) once commented that anyone wanting to be a film director should watch the George Stevens classic A Place in the Sun 50 times. The thing about watching a single film 50 times—verses say, 50 films—is you get a deep understanding of how the film was made.

I have seen Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood seven times in theaters in the first seven weeks of its release. (Apparently, I’m on the once a week as needed plan.) Here are some things I’ve observed. Please feel free to comment on or send me an email so I can continue to make this a valuable resource for others.

  1. Embrace Your Limitations
    Though Once Upon a Time runs two hours and 41 minutes it centers around just three characters: Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).  While there is a great supporting cast those are the three characters whose point of views Tarantino focused on. And along with those three characters there are three stories lines. A) Rick’s career and buddy relationship with Cliff. B) Cliff’s dog and excursion to Spahn Ranch where the Mason cult lives. C) A few days in the life of actress Sharon Tate. These three stories are connected in the climax and resolution at the end of the story.  Essentially the movie takes place over just three days in 1969, and is limited to a few locations. Rick’s western film set, Rick’s house and Sharon’s house (just one crane shot away), Spahn Ranch (an run down exterior movie set used on old westerns), and the streets of L.A. Cliff’s trailer, three restaurants, LAX airport and insert shots are sprinkled in, but the main story takes place on just a handful of locations. (Not that it matters as much on a $90 million budget, but using limited characters for limited days cuts down on wardrobe costs. I imagine they could have dressed Cliff for under $1,000 for the entire shoot—including rental of that 1960s era scuba outfit.)
  2. Ticking clock/Bomb Under the Table 
    “As you explore some of the great classics of stage and screen, you will see that most have a ‘bomb under the table.’”
    —Director Alexander Mackendrick (Sweet Smell of Success)
    On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director
    Hitchcock explained that if the audience saw a bomb under the table as two characters talk that the most mundane conversation is riveting because there is built in suspense because of the danger involved. At some point we expect that bomb to go off. Tarantino doesn’t even show the bomb under the table—because of the horrific events of August 9, 1969 you’re expected to know that going in to the theaters. The clock is ticking before the movie starts.
  3. Major Dramatic Question
    The the first major dramatic question was set up in the second scene when Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) lays out Rick’s career options. Keep doing bad guy guest appearances on TV and watch his career die, or go to Italy and star in spaghetti westerns. After that meeting Rick sees Sharon and her director husband Roman Polanski in passing and says to Cliff that he’s, “One pool party away from staring in a Polanski movie.” The other major question is just how is this film going to end? How do Sharon Tate, Cliff, Rick, and the Mason cult collide at Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon?
  4. Characters/Casting
    Tarantino said he could do five movies just on Cliff Booth’s time in World War II. That’s indicative of the layers of reserves that Tarantino had for the characters he was writing. So he wrote some fascinating characters you want to hang out with and in doing so attracted an incredible cast of actors working at the highest level of craft.
  5. Conflict
    The story is full of conflict on every level. Rick with his career. Rick and his alcohol. Rick and his lines of dialogue. Cliff and the gang at Spahn Ranch. Cliff getting kicked off a movie lot. Cliff underemployed as a stuntman. Cliff confronted by someone with a gun telling him, “I’m the devil and I’m here to do the devil’s work.” Even Sharon Tate as a ray of sunshine has a cloud of conflict over her as we the audience know what happened to her in real life.
  6. Theme
    Rick tells the 8-year-old Trudi that he’s reading a book about a character named Easy Breezy, and she asks him, “Where are you in it?” It’s a line of double meaning. He’s technically on page so and so, but where he’s really in it is the main character Easy Breezy who as Rick explains, “He’s not the best anymore. Far from it. Coming to terms with being slightly more useless everyday.” It’s an echo of that other cowboy named Woody who is coming to the end of the line at the start of Toy Story 3.
  7. Restraint 
    Tarantino is a fan of the exploitation films—the low budget ones that played on double bills at drive in theaters. Films that often centered around prisons, bikers, stock car races, and teenagers. They came with titles like Switchblade Sisters, Caged Heat, Werewolves on Wheels, and Revenge of the Cheerleaders. They usually had a mix of gratuitous sex and violence.  Knowing that Spahn Ranch was a place where Charlie Mason attracted teenage girls (as young as 15) for sex and drugs (along with his racist rants), Tarantino could have easily exploited a situation where young girls were dropping acid and running around naked. He could have shown the charismatic side of Manson that allowed him to befriend record producer Terry Melcher and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson—both who visited Manson and the girls at Spahn Ranch. But he didn’t. And by Cliff simply turning down Pussycat’s sexual offer sure seemed like a post-Harvey Weinstein era touch.
  8. Setups and payoffs
    The three big payoffs are A) Brad Pitt is a likable who is also dangerous. He’s a war hero who is rumored to have killed his wife and can hold his own with Bruce Lee, and doesn’t like people messing with his bosses car. B) Brady is a pit bull who eats “Good food for mean dogs” and is under Cliff’s control. C) Rick learned how to use a flamethrower on the set of The 14 Fists of McClusky. Cliff, Brandy, Rick (and his flame thrower) are all set up early in the story and paid off when the impact would be most felt.
  9. Climax—What can I say? There was a pit bull, a can of dog food, and a flamethrower all set in action to stop evil (all to the tune of Vanilla Fudge’s version of You Keep Me Hangin’ On”).
  10. Catharsis -—For those that thought the climax was excessively brutal perhaps didn’t carry around four decades of memories of knowing that six people were shot, strangled, stabbed, and mutilated—including Sharon Tate who was 8 1/2 months pregnant when the Manson cult killed her. There have been worst murders before and since then, but for whatever reason the Tate/Labianca murders went down as some of the most shocking of the 20th century. (Polish filmmaker Wojciech Frykowski was stabbed 51 times at the Tate home.) Tarantino’s reworking of history was a cleansing of sorts. I thought he earned his ending.
  11. Resolution
    In the final scene Rick gets invited up to Sharon’s house to meet her and her friends and while it took an unusual “pool party” it is a nice bookend to what was setup early in the movie. Who knows, maybe Rick will land Jack Nicholson’s role in Chinatown and have a career in movies that mirrors the transition that Clint Eastwood and Burt Renyolds made going from TV cowboy actors to movie stars.
  12. Selling the shot
    One of the challenges of shooting Once Upon a Time was making Los Angeles look like it did in 1969. Old western movie sets and midcentury modern houses helped do some of the heavy lifting. The exterior driving shots in L.A. had to be a challenge. In interviews Tarantino said the key was to find two or three blocks that are somewhat generic and then you dress (or in some cases build facades) to help sell the shots as 1969. Often times these changes are done digitally, but Tarantino likes to do it old school. One simple thing the design team did was rent a large Greyhound bus. It’s in at least two shots. I imagine those are not hard to rent and because they are long can block a lot of modern signs and buildings.  Sometimes low tech is the easy fix.
  13. Two characters talking
    Tarantino, like Aaron Sorkin, is a verbal writer. So it’s no surprise that he leans into dialogue quite a bit in Once Upon a Time. But one of the secrets of writing great dialogue scenes is they are often reduced to two people talking. The simplicity of it just makes it easier to follow. So in Once Upon a Time you these scenes:
    Rick taking to Cliff
    Cliff talking to Marvin
    Cliff talking to his dog Brandy
    Sharon talking to Jay
    Rick talking to Sam Wannamaker
    Rick talking to Jim Stacy
    Cliff talking to Pussycat
    Cliff talking to Squeaky
    Cliff talking to George Spahn
    Rick talking to Trudi
    Rick talking to Johnny Madrid (the perfect old west cowboy name)
    Cliff talking (and fighting) to Bruce Lee
    Cliff talking (and beating up) Clem
    Rick talking to Randy
    Cliff talking to Randy
    While there are some great visuals throughout Once Upon a Time (and Sharon’s persona is largely communicated non-verbally),  I’d estimate 90% of the movie is essentially two characters talking.

More to come…

Related posts:
The Major or Central Dramatic Question 
The Bomb Under the Table
Ticking Clock (Tip #103)
Conflict-Conflict-Conflict

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I would say 99% of your effort should go to writing a good script.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt

Tomorrow I’ll try to get my post on The Unofficial Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood Film School published.  Concepts based on Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film that I’ve now seen seven times in theaters. But today, I found this nugget from Tarantino from a “lost” interview he did with Adam Goldsmith back in 2009. Here Tarantino talks about going from an unpaid screenwriter to a paid screenwriter.

“No one was interested in my stuff at all. What actually got me going as far as a writing career was concerned—I’d never had any success ever and finally I met a really good buddy of mine, his named Scotty Spiegel —he wrote Evil Dead 2. He’d just sold a big script. It was a big deal. He was involved in low budget horror films and stuff, so all his friends started calling up say, hey, would you do a re-write on my stuff? And he was like, well I can’t, I’m busy. But I have a friend of mine named Quentin maybe you should give him a call. So then all the sudden I was getting paid like $4,000 to do a little dialogue polish on somebody’s thing, and I got paid $6,000, and then I got paid $10,000 to do something. Well F—! I’d gotten paid $10,000 a year working for minimum wage. So for the first time I was actually making a living as a writer. It was unfathomable to me. I can tell you, from going from even that low amount of money, to actually directing a movie—which happened in about a year later, well that was kind of  a big leap—but there was no leap bigger than working at a video store and actually being able to exist from writing. That was the hugest leap. That was the Evel Knievel Snake River Canyon leap. Everything else was small by comparison to that leap. When I actually didn’t have to do a day job again that was a big deal.”
Writer/director Quentin Tarantino
The Q&A with Adam Goldsmith

Of course, buried in that answer is Tarantino was writing stuff that was solid enough that made a produced and working screenwriter recommend him to others. Talent mixed with the The 99% Focus Rule.

Related posts:
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter—John Logan
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter —Michael Arndt
Once Upon a Time …. in Hollywood— in 1987 (How Robert Townsend’s ‘Hollywood Shuffle’ Inspired Quentin Tarantino)

Scott W. Smith

“Convincingly creepy while also slightly thought-provoking, it warns about deceiving facades, because what hides underneath masks is possibly much worse.”
Carlos Aguilar review of HAUNT
Los Angeles Times 

Filmmakers Scott Beck & Bryan Woods were working on the screenplay for their new movie Haunt at the same time they were working on the script for A Quiet Place. Last year A Quiet Place found a worldwide audience and made $340 million at the box office. Yesterday Haunt opened in select theaters with a wider release next week.

It’s not playing in Orlando yet, so I’ll round out my extended run of posts on Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood in the next few days. Then I’ll turn my attention toward Beck and Woods’ recent film.

But if you happen to be in Davenport, Iowa tonight Beck and Woods will be returning to their hometown Quad Cities area for a screenwriting at the Putnam followed by a Q&A session. Next week Haunt opens in Iowa City where Beck and Woods went to college and they’ll also be on hand for a Q&A there as well— September 21 at FilmScene as part of the theater’s grand opening of their Chauncey location.

“To come back to meet some of the founders of FilmScene who just have a love for film as much as people in California is incredible. We couldn’t be more excited to come back to Iowa.”
Bryan Woods
Isaac Hamlet, Iowa City Press-Citizen

The next project for Beck and Woods is adapting Stephen King’s short story The Boogeyman. They’re not doing too bad for a couple of guys who started out screenwriting from Iowa.

Congrats both of them. May they be a major inspiration to you—especially to those of you working on screenplays and making movies outside of Los Angeles.

P.S. Haunt is also currently available On Demand and digitally. 

Related posts:

A 20 Year Journey to ‘A Quiet Place’
Writing an Unorthodox Script (‘A Quiet Place’)
Scott Beck and Bryan Woods on Theme
‘A Quiet Place’ Meets ‘Screenwriting from Iowa’

Scott W. Smith

I learned all the rules of a modern day drifter
Don’t you hold on to nothin’ too long
My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys
Written by Sharon Vaughn
(Recorded by Willie Nelson for The Electric Horseman sound track)

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The Van Nuys Drive-In Theatre opened in 1948 and was demolished in the 1990s—but it found a new life in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. It’s where Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) lives in an Airstream trailer with his pit bull.

Actress Jane Russell began working in theater at Van Nuys High School on her way to becoming a Hollywood star working along side Marilyn Monroe, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, and Clark Gable. Natalie Wood (Rebel Without a Cause) graduated from Van Nuys High School in 1956.

Screen Shot 2019-09-12 at 8.27.58 PM.png

Jane Russell in “The Outlaw” (1943)

Another Van Nuys High School student who was more interested in sports than theater also went on to become a Hollywood star. Actor/director Robert Redford graduated in 1954 while Russell was still in her prime. Six years later Redford began his rise in the western Maverick— a show where Once Upon a Time’s Rick Dalton could have been a guest star.

Redford teamed up with Paul Newman on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), had an incredible run throughout the 70s, won an Oscar for directing Ordinary People (1980), started the Sundance Institute in 1981,  and got to use his athletic skills in The Natural (1984).

It’s near impossible to see Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood circa 1969—in Aviator sunglasses and a denim jacket no less— and not think of Redford circa 1970.

 

Redford directed Pitt in A River Runs Through It (1992) and they co-starred in Spy Game (2001).

Screen Shot 2019-09-12 at 9.07.59 PM.png

I did watch Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood for a seventh time today and it still holds up. It’s turning into the ultimate hangout movie for me as the two hour and 41 minutes flew by as I admired the craftsmanship on so many levels. And each time I see it I pull back a few more layers. Today was actually the first time I noticed that the movie rating at the Van Nuys rating was GP which was a pre-1972 PG and meant the film was intended for general audiences but parental guidance was suggested.

And since Redford came up in this post, one of his films I’d consider a spiritual cousin to Once Upon a Time… is The Electric Horseman. Redford plays a Rick Dalton/Easy Breezy-like character who is a past his prime rodeo star who drinks too much and—to pull a line from Tarantino’s movie— is “coming to terms with what it means to be slightly more useless each day.”

 

P.S. New Beverly Cinema double feature suggestion:

The Natural starring a 47-year-old Robert Redford and Moneyball starring a 48-year-old Brad Pitt. Two of my favorite films.

P.P.S. Van Nuys, California also had a small part in the classic Casablanca as the Van Nuys Airport doubled for an airport in Morocco. 

Screen Shot 2019-08-16 at 11.46.26 AM

Scott W. Smith

“I saw the beginning of the sixties as a real transition in the culture, because of the Vietnam war and the things we were going through, and I wanted to make a movie about it.”
Director George Lucas on American Graffiti

“References to Modesto abound in American Graffiti, right down to the Ramona Avenue address where Carol lives and where Lucas grew up. The cruising loop, Mel’s Drive-In, Burger City  … the radio station—all have real-life antecedents in the crowded nighttime streets of Modesto in the late 1950s and early ’60s.”
Dale Pollack
Skywalking:The Life and Films of George Lucas
(American Graffiti was shot primarily in San Rafael north of San Francisco)

“I wasn’t thinking about [American Graffiti] when I was writing [Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood] but when I made the decision that I can use these [1960s KHJ] commercials—I can use this DJ stuff, we created a really interesting thing in the movie and I can kind of duplicate big chunks of that on the sound track album. And then that brought to mind American Graffiti— we can definitely do this. And then upon realizing that I realized how much the film had actually been influenced by American Graffiti between like characters in cars driving around all day seemingly aimlessly. Right down to the fact that Margaret Qualley’s Mason character Pussycat could be Suszanne Summers in the T-Bird. The girl [Richard Dreyfuss’ character] keeps seeing all over town. …But the thing is that ended up being a seminal album for me when I got it because I had just really started listening to oldies radio—that was during the 50s revival in the 70s—so I’m only like 13. I hadn’t even seen the movie. So  I’m loving the American Graffiti soundtrack on its own. I didn’t see the movie until it was re-released after Star Wars which was like ‘78.
Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino
Soundtracking, Episode 155, podcast interview with Edith Bowman 

You could also argue that the Margaret Qualley character in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is closer Mackenzie Phillips’ character in American Graffiti. The underage girl  that ends up driving the Modesto, California strip in cool guy Paul Le Mat’s hot rod.

P.S. The layers of Once Upon a Time go on and on. Mackenzie Phillips is the daughter of John Phillips  who wrote the songs on the  Once Upon a Time … soundtrack.Twelve Thirty recorded by the Mama’s and the Papa’s which he was a part of, and California Dreamin’ with Michelle Phillips (the Jose Feliciano version was used in the movie).

This isn’t the place to dive deep into the connections between John Phillips, Terry Melcher, Roman Polanski and Charles Manson, but let’s just say there’s no prince in shining armour in that group. I prefer Tarantino’s “fable”—as he calls his movie.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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Yesterday I went to see Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood for the sixth time.

That’s more than twice the number of times I’ve ever seen any movie while it’s still in theaters. But I must put an asterisk by it. In August I signed up for the new Regal Unlimited Movie Pass Subscription allowing me unlimited viewing of movies at specific Regal cinemas for just $22 a month.

While I think Once Upon a Time ... is an extremely well made and enjoyable film, I’m not sure it would have broken my personal record without the unlimited card.  I never signed up for MoviePass as it looked like one of those too good to be true offers (and it was), but they did start the “Netflix for theaters” concept back in 2012 and paved the way for a new price structure for going to movie theaters.

On this sixth (and probably not my final viewing) of Once Upon a Time … I really took in the roles of the supporting cast. (Because I’ve mentioned Julia Butters,  Bruce Dern, Margaret Qualley in pervious posts I won’t repeat myself.)

Nicholas Hammond as the director Sam Wanamaker could be the center of a whole  Tarantino film. His credits are as a varied as General Hospital,  Eight is Enough, The Love Boat, and back to the classic The Sound of Music. I’m sure Hammond has many personal stories of the changes in Hollywood he’s seen over the years. Partly because I was not familiar with his face, he’s the one person in the entire film who truly felt like he was transported from 1969 to be in this film.

Dakota Fanning plays Squeaky Fromme so effectively in her Spahn Ranch sequence with Brad Pitt that even if you didn’t know that real life character’s background, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she would  one day try to kill the president of the United States.

Zoë Bell and Kurt Russell play a husband and wife team that are so dynamic together that if the story would have followed them for 10 or 15 minutes I would have been game for the ride.

Timothy Olyphant as James Stacy and Luke Perry  as Wayne Maunder bring their star persona to two brief cameo roles. Both understated performances that you appreciate on multiple viewings.

Mike Moh as Bruce Lee. Since this story is a fable I have one fantasy that I would like to see in this film and that is somehow Moh and his martial arts skills were utilized in the climatic ending. Moh is grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota and spent a decade in LA. pursing an acting career before moving to Madison, Wisconsin to open a martial arts school. It’s not a stretch to bet that someday he’ll star in a film about Bruce Lee.

Al Pacino has been such a great actor in so many fine movies it’s easy to overlook is role as the agent Marvin Schwartz. He really only has one key scene, and it’s a hard one to pull off. It’s a long exposition scene in which he has to explain to Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) that his career has been on a downward trajectory. There are so many layers to Once Upon a Time that I didn’t fully appreciate Pacino’s performance until the fourth or fifth viewing.

Quentin Tarantino? —There is a brief clip (just a second or two) of the film The 14 Fists of McCluskey that shows a person (solider?) is a beret that sure looks like it could be Tarantino. It’s a quick shot and I can’t be sure. But if so it would be a brilliant Alfred Hitchcock-style way of sneaking the writer/director into the film. He is uncredited as the voice of the director of Red Apples’ cigarette commercial in the end credits. So regardless, he did make the final cut.

The Dogs. Brad Pitt’s pit bull and the dogs wandering around Spahn Ranch add a dimension to the movie that looking back you can’t imagine the movie without them.

And even after writing over a month of posts about this film, I still have a week of posts to go. Look for Once Upon a Time … Film School and Once Upon a Time … Spahn Ranch next week.

P.S. If the New Beverly Cinema ever has a double-double feature with Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and Sunset Blvd. at night and La La Land and The Player in the afternoon matinee please let me know).

Scott W. Smith

“[T]here is much here that represents a film-maker at the top of his game. The delight he takes in the details that anchor the story in time and place: who else but Tarantino would include entire montages dedicated to vintage fonts? The heart-tugging music choices; the limber camerawork and tawny nostalgic warmth of Robert Richardson’s cinematography.”
Wendy Ide reviewing Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood
The Guardian 

Over the weekend Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood was the top movie in the UK—for the third week in a row. Screen Daily stated it was “Tarantino’s biggest UK box office release.” According to Box Office Mojo the film has now made $283 million worldwide.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is one of those rare original movies that’s done extremely well at the box office as well as having solid reviews. But not everyone is enthralled with the movie. I read one comment where the writer said it was “boring and meandering.”

I’ve seen the movie five times so far and even if I didn’t care for the 2 hour and 40 minute movie I would still dig the meandering just to listen to the music. And a large part of the outstanding soundtrack was the British tracks.

Here’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood … with a touch of England:

Hush, Kentucky Woman / Deep Purple (England)

Paxton Quigley’s Had the Course/ Chad and Jeremy  (England)

The Letter/Joe Cocker (England)

Out of Time/ The Rolling Stones (England)

Funky Fanfare/ Keith Mansfield (England)

Scott W. Smith

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