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On August 9, 1969, Los Angeles awoke to murders literal and symbolic. Actress Sharon Tate and four others were brutally killed at her Beverly Hills home by members of the Manson Family. It was the crime of the decade and the one that many believe ended the 1960s.
“The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled,” author Joan Didion would recall in her seminal essay “The White Album.” “I remember all the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remembered this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”
Shocking but inevitable – a paradox many thought Quentin Tarantino would echo in “Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood,” his shaggy, baggy elegy to the decade and the grisly crime that drew it to a close. How wrong they were. Because this is not Hollywood as history remembers it, but Hollywood in Tarantino’s own image. And the director’s career has demonstrated, if nothing else, a refusal to let go of the things he loves.
In the director’s ninth film, we bum around L.A. with waning star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and driver Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), two fictional characters working in an industry that’s leaving them behind. Flailing as his career treads water, Dalton sees a possible lifeline: Tate (Margot Robbie), a member of the new, cool crowd, has moved in next door.
Tarantino cleaves to history with Kubrickian attention to detail while indulging a flight of revisionist fancy. We’ve been here before. He took on slavery in “Django Unchained” and the Nazis in “Inglourious Basterds,” both impeccably turned out period pieces that fall off the rails.
But “Once Upon A Time” represents something more: an invitation into the director’s memory and a play date with the toys of his childhood. From TV serials to Spaghetti Westerns, police procedurals to chopsocky and swinging 1960s comedies, Tarantino’s playthings find themselves back in their own time and place, many still on the production line. This time, the pastiche is a little more reverent; the fiction less pulp. Everything feels close to home, because it is.
Trusted with recreating the era was production designer Barbara Ling. A fellow Angeleno and veteran of another film set in 1960s L.A., Oliver Stone’s “The Doors,” she was a canny hire. “I’m older than Quentin, so I have more of a teenage memory than his 6-year-old memory (of 1969),” Ling explained in a phone interview from California. “We hit it off right away.”
Ling went to Tarantino’s house to read the movie’s only script, a precaution taken by the director after his script for “The Hateful Eight” leaked back in 2014. The whole vision was laid out before her. “It’s like no other script you’ve ever read,” she said. “He doesn’t just write a script. He stops and explains who that character is and the feeling of what you’re doing when you’re seeing him for the first time and what he’s drawn to. You have this novel, in a way.”
As is his way, Tarantino wanted as much as possible to be real. Much has been written about the retrofitting of Hollywood Boulevard – an enormous operation that had the city in thrall during location shoots back in 2018. On screen, the neon-drenched environs thrum and billboards jostle for attention. A poster of Malcolm X defiantly faces away from the Pussycat porno theater. Names and film titles – some recognizable, others lost in time – scream out from the roadside.
Despite the dazzle, Ling said it was a conservative take on history. “The saturation of billboards (in the 1960s) was probably twice as much as (what) we actually did,” she said. “We were afraid there’d be no room for actors.”
Less has been said about “Once Upon A Time’s” treatment of the Spahn Movie Ranch, home to the Manson Family. Built in the late 1940s and used as a set for Westerns, the ranch fell out of use and was inhabited by Hells Angels, and then Manson and his followers (all while owner George Spahn still lived there).
As symbols go, it’s a home run – a bastion of golden-age cinema turned into a squat by countercultural upstarts. No wonder Tarantino sends Booth to poke around the ranch with a frown on his face.
The real ranch, in what is now the Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park, burned down long ago and was subsequently bulldozed, said Ling. But the movie’s location scout found an area a couple of miles away with the same feel.
“That was a big build,” she recalled. “We went back to what Spahn Ranch looked like before the Mansons, when it was first built – what the Western town looked like. Architecturally, I was building back what was (first) there, then degrading the whole thing down to where it was in 1969.”
Looking at the set “you were weirded out,” Ling said. And she wasn’t the only one. “Some of the more elderly residents who use that area to hike in started noticing about halfway through the build. They went: ‘Wait a minute, this is Spahn Ranch you’re making.’ They were upset.” Local park services stepped in and the situation was resolved, Ling hastened to add.
It was uncanny for certain crew members, too. As depicted in the film, the Manson Family sold horseback tours around the ranch to an unwitting public. “Some of our crew said, ‘Oh my god, I remember as a child being brought out here on a Saturday to take a ride. We rented horses and a guy guided us. I didn’t even realize it was Spahn Ranch!’” Ling recalled with a laugh.
The Manson Family’s appropriation of Western iconography while rejecting its moral code was a clear affront to Tarantino, who spends long stretches of “Once Upon A Time” eulogizing an era when you could tell a man’s character by the color of his Stetson.
For Rick Dalton’s appearance in TV serials, Ling restored sets at Universal Studios used for CBS series Lancer, and Melody Ranch in Santa Clarita for “Bounty Law,” the fictional series that made DiCaprio’s Dalton a star. But access wasn’t always simple.
“You know, it’s hard to shoot on backlots anymore, because they’re so dense with things actually being done,” she said. For one scene where Booth has a run-in with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), Ling had to transform a 1940s school into a backlot because no studio would give them one for the five days needed.
Tarantino’s fetishes (no, not that fetish) find another outlet inside Dalton’s home, where the actor has hoarded totems of his own career. Blurring the line between set dressing and fanboy wish fulfillment, some items were installed from Tarantino’s personal collection. Blink and you’ll miss it, but Rick’s saddle in the corner of living room is the director’s own, said Ling.
Most prominent are the large posters for films starring Dalton (there’s even, somewhat tragically, a section of a billboard on his driveway). In something of a coup, set decorator Nancy Haigh commissioned octogenarian Renato Casaro, poster artist for Sergio Leone among others, for a couple of original works.
“When I discovered Renato was one of (Tarantino’s) favorite illustrators of the era, we set about trying to locate him and hit the jackpot,” Haigh told CNN via email. “Still working in Italy today he was thrilled to be asked… His work is truly memorable and so evocative.”
From rolling back the clock on L.A. to rebuilding entire studio backlots, the $90 million budget for “Once Upon A Time” is a far cry from “Reservoir Dogs” and Tarantino’s thrifty origins. Actors like Pitt and DiCaprio don’t come cheap (although the latter reportedly took a $5 million cut to his regular fee), and neither does this amount of design work. It’s a dream gig, and Ling would do it all again with the director.
“The way that (Tarantino) loves filmmaking is just infectious,” the designer said. “The entire crew, the respect and love of his crew, is very unique. I hope that more people talk about that experience, because it would be great for directors to learn how it is for a crew. It makes (a) crew do anything for you.
“He loves the process and it makes you really love the process. It was a hard film to do, but you don’t really feel it, because it’s so much fun being part of this process with him.”