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“When I’m doing a movie, I’m not doing anything else. It’s all about the movie. I don’t have a wife. I don’t have a kid. Nothing can get in my way.”
Quentin Tarantino in 2009
GQ article Triumph of His Will

It’s offical—Once Upon a Time …. in Hollywood became the first movie I’ve ever seen in theaters more than three times. I saw it for the fourth time yesterday, and if I’d had the time I would have watched it again right way.

For me it’s just been a rare movie going experience and one that I’m not sure will come again any time soon.

And this from someone who wouldn’t consider himself a Quentin Tarantino fanboy. I went to Hateful Eight in 70mm and left disappointed. I appreciate his talent for remixing influences, but don’t enjoy his casual use of violence. I didn’t see any of his prior films in the theater more than once, many of his movies I didn’t even go to while they were in theaters, and I skipped Death Proof all together.

Which makes me wonder why Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood resonated with me so much. I think part of it was being alive in 1969 (albeit I was 8 and 9 years old then),  having spent five years in LA on the fringes of the film industry, being aware of the Charles Manson cult, and having a lifelong love of movies.

After seeing Once Upon with an almost full audience on the opening night the first comment I heard was from a 20-something girl who “What did I just watch?” My guess is she had little or no idea who Charles Manson was or what he and his cult did back in 1969.

Tarantino doesn’t spoon feed you that information with any expositional dumps. If any thing he downplays things. What he does brilliantly is play on expectations. Somewhere early in my first viewing I remember thinking “How is he going to land this plane.”

It was like Hitchcock’s bomb under the table. Screenwriting 101. As long as the audience sees the bomb under the table you can have actors at the table discuss anything and it will be riveting. Some do that for a scene or two. But here Tarantino does it for almost entire film. All but the last scene of the two hour and 40 minute film is a ticking bomb.

Tarantino and cast and crew layer the film with character studies wonderfully acted, a zillion culture reference, beautiful cinematography, and spellbinding sound tack. In a world crowded with content, it stands out as exceptional and emotional storytelling. It’s also one that rewards audiences with repeat viewings. (Well, at least the ones that don’t hate this film.)

For the dozen or so movies I’ve seen three times in theaters, I’ve found that three times is the maximum amount of viewings before I determine that the next time I see it will be on DVD or streaming. But what made this fourth viewing better that the others was I bought the movie sound track on CD (a first in the last decade or so) and listened to it repeatedly over the past week. It’s a joy all by itself. Then I also listened to Karina Longworth’s 12 part You Must Remember This podcast on “Charles Manson’s Hollywood.”

That podcast gave many wonderful insights into the times and people involved in the surrounding story. That podcast was released in 2015 and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was part of Tarantino’s inspiration with wanting wrap a story around that faithful hot August night in 1969.

On this fourth viewing I really appreciated the range of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance. On the first viewing of the film I really wanted to see Matt Dillion in that roll of an aging actor. An actor that is closer to Brad Pitt’s age, and one who had some great leading roles 15-20+ years ago. (And one who as the same namesake as the sheriff on Gunsmoke.) But on a $90 million budget I understand needing someone who attract a wide audience so I wanted to see Tom Cruise as the aging actor. On the third viewing I was good with DiCaprio, but still wished he was 10 years older—or at least looked a little more worn. On this viewing, I was good with DiCaprio as is.

Though this is Tarantino’s ninth film this is his first film to complete while married. Perhaps that altered his sensibilities for the better. There is something intellectual (even mystical learning toward spiritual) in this film that I did experience in his pervious films.

Perhaps after the fifth viewing in theater (which their no doubt will be) I will be able to articulate what it is about this movie that’s made be respond the way I have. But in the meantime here are a few dots that were connected and memory doors that the movie opened for me and warranted my record breaking viewing.

  1. When I was in film school in Los Angeles in the early 80s I briefly worked at Frank’s Camera in Highland Park (not far from Dodger Stadium) and I sold a camera to a fellow who worked in the film industry and I asked him if he had any advice for someone starting out. He looked at me dead serious and said “Don’t get married.” It was such unexpected advice that it hit me hard. In many ways working in film and television is like joining the circus and not exactly conducive to a normal family life. Tarantino has spoken openly about the sacrifices he made to become the great filmmaker he is. In my early 20s I met several people in L.A. who were in their 40s and 50s who had some success in Hollywood, yet were still waiting for their big break and I knew I didn’t want to be one of those people. I got married when I was 24-years-old and carved out a niche working in production and having a family life.  Tarantino says he didn’t even have a girlfriend until he was 25 (though he pointed out in a interview that he was “the king of first dates). He got married last year at age 56.
  2. When I moved to L.A. in 1981 I rented a studio apartment on Riverside Dr. in Burbank next to some horse stables connected to what is now called the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. I met my wife at that apartment complex. We once rented horses and went on a trail ride there. This week I read that’s where Tarantino’s parent met. In Once Upon a tourist from Tennessee named Connie goes on a horse back ride at Spahn Ranch. Tarantino’s mother is from Tennessee and named Connie.
  3. When Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) says “Okay Kato” to Bruce Lee it snaped a memory to me that The Green Hornet (1966-67) was a favorite TV show of mine as a kid. I couldn’t tell you what a single episode was about, but I remember wearing a Green Hornet ring. This was a very distant memory and one that I wasn’t even sure was a real memory. So last night I googled “Green Hornet ring” and sure enough that was a real thing and I even found a commercial for it.
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  5. When I saw that Tarantino married 35-year-old Daniella Pick I wondered if Tarantino wasn’t getting into position to start a family. Yesterday I read that Daniella is pregnant. Tarantino has said that he wanted to make 10 films and then retire from feature filmmaking at age 60. It’s possible that that could happen. But it’s also probable that he’ll be creating long form streaming content, writing plays and books. And like Steven Soderbergh and Michael Jordan it’s possible that he’ll un-retire down the road. I hope he doesn’t stop creating because I kinda dig this (relatively) kinder, gentler Tarantino.
  6. I grew up on Burt Reynold’s movies as did Tarantino and while I haven’t heard anyone make this connection, but I wonder if The 14 Fists of McClusky wasn’t a nod to Reynold’s character Gator McKlusky in White Lighting (1973) and Gator (1976). Reynold’s  was cast to play the George Spahn character in Once Upon but unfortunately died before his parts were shot. (But Tarantino points out he did do table reads and rehearsals so it was his last role). Back in 1969, Reynolds started in the western Sam Whiskey.  Actress Tracey Roberts has a part in that film and is who I studied acting with in the early 80s. Laura Dern also studied with Roberts, and her father Bruce Dern is the one who replaced Reynolds as George Spahn. Screen Shot 2019-07-30 at 3.08.59 AM
  7. Like a lot of kids I grew up watching old westerns on TV, but I had the benefit of having a Western theme park not far from where I grew up. Six Gun Territory was a place in Ocala, Florida that had an old west town, gun fights and can-can girls. I not only visited a couple of times as a kid but shot part of my first 16mm film there. One of the times I visited my father drove my sister and I up in his Karmann Ghia. The same car that Pitt’s character drives around in Once Upon. 
  8. When Smokey and the Bandit starring Burt Reynolds hit theaters I was 16 years old and I remember well how exhilarating it was after the movie was over and getting in my car to drive away. Tarantino has said that Smokey and the Bandit is a movie that holds up well with repeated viewings. Tarantino is a writer/director who thinks of the audience from the early idea stages through post production. It’s how this movie takes me back to film school when I rode a motorcycle up and down Hollywood Blvd. at night.
  9. Even though Once Upon is a centered on a bromance, Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley, and Julia Butter shine in their scenes. I would have been fine with Tarantino expanding any of their roles, but it would have pushed the movie over the 3 hour mark.
  10. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is still a full sensory experience even if you weren’t alive in the 1960s, if you never visited Six Gun Territory, if your dad didn’t have a Karmann Ghia, and even if you never even visited Los Angeles —but you may not see it four+ times.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“The Hollywood we were driving to that fall of ‘63 was in limbo. The Old Hollywood was finished and the New Hollywood hadn’t started yet.”
Andy Warhol
Popism

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is a strange mixtape (with alternative tracks) of the ups and downs of the movie industry. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino could have picked any era in the past 100 years and told a different version of the same story. Only the names change. He chose 1969 which was a memorable year in so many ways.

The movies True Grit and The Wild Bunch were the old guard and Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy were the new guard and they well represented the changes going on in Hollywood. And in the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid the famous old west bank robbers are told,It’s over don’t you get that? Your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody, and all you can do is chose where.”

Tarantino wraps his fictitious story around the true events of the Manson cult killings in Los Angeles in the summer of ’69 that for many signaled the end of the peace and love hippy movement.

“Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969.”
Joan Didion

But Tarantino actually made a buddy love story of sorts between fading actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) that is full of his high brow, low brow approach to filmmaking. Some of Tarantino’s favorite movies are male bonding stories (Big Wednesday, Fandango, Rio Bravo).

Burt Reynolds would have loved this movie as his influence on Tarantino is unmistakable. (Reynolds was originally cast in the movie but unfortunately died before the movie was shot.)

Reynolds was one of those actors that did what movies and television shows he could in the ’50s and ’60s until he was able to become a movie star  with release of Deliverance in 1972. (After becoming the biggest box office star in Hollywood for several years he would eventually have his own Rick Dalton moment of falling off the Hollywood radar. But he was able to bounce back an earn his sole Oscar nomination for his role in Boogie Nights.)

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“Navajo Joe” (1966) starring Burt Reynolds and directed by Sergio Corbucci

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Quentin Tarantino was named after the character Quint (Burt Renyolds on the right) from the classic Tv show Gunsmoke. Hal Needham performed the stunts for Reynolds on Gunsmoke.

“I’ll tell you one of the greatest moments I’ve had in these however many years we’ve been at it in this town: getting to spend two days with Burt Reynolds on this film.”
Brad Pitt (on doing table reads and spending time with Reynolds)
Esquire interview with Michael Hainey

Watch the 2016 documentary The Bandit centered around Reynolds and his stuntman (turned Smokey and the Bandit director) Hal Needham either before or after watching Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and it will only enhance your appreciation of Tarantino’s creative gift of making old things new.

“Needham, if ever I’m in a fight, I want you on my side.”
John Wayne to the former Army paratrooper turned stuntman Hal Needham
Stuntman! by Hal Needham

And while the Reynolds/Needham close actor/stuntman relationship may have shaded Once Upon a Time… , Tarantino says it was a lesser known (and less successful)  actor/stuntman combo that was his way into starting the develop the story.

“Cliff (Brad Pitt) is based on two things – it’s when I worked with an actor, I can’t say his name, who had once had a long-time stunt double. And we really didn’t have anything for that stunt double to do. But there was one thing he could do and so the actor would ask, ‘Can my guy do that? I haven’t bugged you about him because there haven’t been many things for him to do, but that’s something he could do, and if I could throw my guy that thing, that would be really great.’ [I say,] ‘Yeah, sure, OK, bring your guy in.’ And so, this guy shows up and it’s like they’ve been working together for a long, long, long, long time. But you could tell, OK, this is the end. Because everyone’s gotten older.”
Quentin Tarantino
Interview with Kim Morgan

And the second part was another stuntman who Tarantino said “scared everybody. Men who pride themselves on not being intimidated by other men were intimidated by this guy because he was just dangerous. If he wanted to kill you, he could have, and he was just a little off enough.”

This post isn’t a review of the movie but more what the movie stirred in me with the hopes that it will help provide you a roadmap wherever you are on your filmmaking journey.

Tarantino is two years younger than me and I imagine we have many of the same cultural references growing up; watching Batman, Kung Fu, The Lone Ranger, Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet reruns and old westerns and war movies on TV, and Billy Jack and Willard in theaters. Before learning to drive a whole generation was exposed to its share of fist fights and gun battles. As it’s been said—movies reflect the culture they help produce. Heck, that could be the theme of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood as one of the Manson family cult members says as much.

Inspired by many great films of the ’70s I found my way to Hollywood, California in 1981. If Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood captures the glorious fading light of old Hollywood, I found a decade later that the glory had all but departed. Seedy would be the best way to describe Hollywood at that time. I quickly landed a studio apartment in safe and quiet Burbank.

I finished film school at Columbia College Hollywood which at that time was on North La Brea which meant everyday I drove past Disney Studios, The Burbank Studios, and the back of Universal Studios as I made my way over the hill from the San Fernando Valley on Barham Blvd in Burbank to Cahuenga into Hollywood and usually down Sunset Blvd. or Hollywood Blvd., and past the studio that Charlie Chaplin built all in a 20 minute drive to school.

My first job while in school there was as a driver for BERC (Broadcast Equipment Rental Company) in Hollywood and that was my ticket to getting into NBC, CBS, and ABC studios delivering equipment. Other jobs led getting on the Paramount lot in Hollywood and Twentieth Century Fox in Culver City.

Back in the ’80s I bought books and scripts at Larry Edmonds Cinema and Theatre Bookshop, ate at The Musso & Frank Grill and the Formosa Cafe, saw movies at the Egyptian Theatre, the Cinerama Dome, and the Chinese Theatre, and went to concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, drove through Beverly Hills, rented equipment from Birns and Sawyer, and of course, walked many times down the Hollywood Walk of Fame. All things that you can still do today if you want to experience old Hollywood.

And if you really want to be trippy go see Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood at the Bruin Theatre in Westwood Village which is featured in the movie when Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) goes to see the movie she’s in (The Wrecking Crew).  And if you want to go full Tarantino you can go watch Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood again at the New Beverly Cinema owned by Tarantino.  (Which is just one block off La Brea and around the corner from Pink’s Hot Dogs and where I went to film school—because all things are connected in Tarantino’s universe.)

Here’s another odd connection. When I was a fresh out of film school 16mm camera operator/editor for Motivational Media I once shot an interview with Kirk Cameron at the lesser known Warner Bros. Ranch in Burbank which is 32 acres full of Hollywood history dating back to the 1930s. That shoot was in 1987 when Cameron was a teenager and one of the stars of the TV show Growing Pains. Also appearing in episodes of Growing Pains was not only an up and coming actor named Leonardo DiCaprio, but a then unknown actor named Brad Pitt.

While living in Burbank director Paul Mazursky (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) once walked in front of my car and at crosswalk by the Warner Bros. lot, I walked on the set on The Johnny Carson Show (thanks to a security guard on one of my deliveries), and I saw director John Huston (The Searchers) in a wheelchair outside of FotoKem a few months before he died in 1987. (Actually the same facility where some of the post-production work was done on Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.)

And one final touch of Hollywood history I experienced in Burbank was meeting Richard Farnsworth standing in line at a movie concession stand in the mid-’80s. He was best known then as an actor in The Grey Fox and The Natural, but he first spent 30 years as a Hollywood stuntman working on films like Red River, Gunga Din, Spartacus, Ben Hur and a whole bunch of TV westerns. (Farnsworth’s Oscar nomination for The Straight Story at age 79 and 167 days is still the record for the oldest Oscar nominee for Best Actor.)

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Because all things are connected in Quentin Tarantino’s world, notice that  the character Farnsworth plays just got released from San Quentin.

I think Farnsworth would have gotten a kick out of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. When I asked him if he was Richard Farnsworth he genuinely seemed pleased that I recognized him. I’m sure he saw plenty of Rick Dalton’s in his days—and probably felt like Rick Dalton when he was no longer needed to fall off a horse or drive a chariot.

P.S. Just last week I was watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid again and did a couple of screen grabs because I thought I could use them on a post about lighting. But Robert Redford and Paul Newman seem to fit in right here along side Pitt and DiCaprio.

“The theme [of  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid] is times are changing, and you have to change with them—if you want to survive.”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade

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Related posts:
Tarantino Gumbo Soup Film School
Star Wars Vs. Smokey and the Bandit (Remembering Burt Reynolds)
Sacred Land, Moving Pictures (post ends with a clip from Billy Jack) 
Writing ‘Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid’
‘The way I wrote…’ —Tarantino

 

Scott W. Smith

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When The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien premieres tonight it marks the end of one era and the beginning of another one.

The show will no longer be taped at the NBC studios in Burbank, but across the way at Universal Studios. Though The Tonight Show began in New York in 1954, since 1972 the show had come from Burbank, California. Hosted by Johnny Carson from 1962 to 1992 I grew up listening to his references to “Beautiful downtown Burbank.” 

It was meant as a put down because Burbank was a rather bland area (some would say that bland would describe the entire San Fernando Valley). But Carson’s jab helped put Burbank on the map for millions of viewers and it is still a catch phrase today. 

These days Downtown Burbank is actually a nice area with a good mix of restaurants and a couple hundred shops. But when I moved there in 1982 it was a different story. Though Burbank is home to Disney Studios and The Burbank Studios (as well as NBC) back then there wasn’t even a single movie theater in the city. Just one drive-in theater near my Riverside Drive apartment. Today the drive-in theater is gone but there are over 30 movie screens in Burbank.

Once the theaters were built I remember going one night and standing in line for popcorn and there was an older gentleman in front of me who looked familiar. I asked him if he was Richard Farnsworth and he said he was. In those days I would have only known him as the actor in The Grey Fox (1982) and The Natural (1984). Little did I know that he was a full-fledged Hollywood legend having been a stunt man first and received his first film credit way back  in 1937.

It wasn’t until the Internet and IMDB that I learned he was in Gone with the Wind, A Day at the Races, Red River, The Ten Commandments, and The Wild One. Which meant he was connected in film history to Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, the Marx Brothers, John Wayne, Marlon Brando and Cecil B. DeMille. He turned to acting after 30 years as a stuntman and received two Oscar nominations as Best Actor. 

His last film was The Straight Story (1999) which was directed by David Lynch and for which Farnsworth’s nomination made him the oldest actor to be nominated for an Academy Award. The Straight Story was filmed right here in Iowa. You knew there had to be an Iowa angle, right?

And just for the record Johnny Carson was born Corning, Iowa and lived in southwest Iowa until he was 8 when his family moved to Nebraska.

Like many young people who moved to L.A. in the eighties I dreamed of getting on The Tonight Show and meeting Johnny Carson. Back in the day, that was seen as the pinacle of success. That never happened and I never even went to a single taping all the time I lived out there. But while going to film school I did work as a driver for a video equipment rental company and one day made a delivery to NBC.

I made a comment to the security guard about The Tonight Show and he asked if I wanted to see the set. Of course I did. So while not making it on the show, I did make it to the set. Almost famous.

And like a lot of things in life The Tonight Show set  seemed a lot smaller in real life. But thanks to Carson and Jay Leno for all the memories and humor they kept flowing from Burbank the last 37 years.

And best wishes to Conan in his new venture.

 

Scott W. Smith

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