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Tarantino on how he prepared Leonardo DiCaprio for his role (Rick Dalton) in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’

This is a summary of an interesting interview with Quentin Tarantino about Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. In Quentin Tarantino’s film, we are watching Los Angeles: a Los Angeles of 1969 that actually happened, a Los Angeles of 1969 that could have happened, and a mythical Los Angeles – a vision of the city and of Hollywood that we might dream about, or a part of our memory that is real.

Here, it’s Hollywood, 1969, where ageing, ex-Bounty Law star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), insecure about his future, worrying he’s a wash-up (“It’s official, old buddy, I’m a has-been.”), and wondering about the emerging, younger talents and wunderkinds of the film world – like the neighbors he discovers living next door to him on Cielo Drive: Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). Rick is a heavy drinker, an alcoholic, with enough drunk-driving offenses that his closest friend and confidant, his stunt double, tough but charming Cliff Booth – a man with a mysterious past, shrouded in darkness – has to drive him everywhere. That can be a big deal in Los Angeles – when someone else has to drive you everywhere.

And so here we follow Rick and Cliff and Sharon. We follow them as they talk, drive, work, run errands and, by the end, a hell of a lot more. They are living their lives. There’s Sharon, driving around, seeing friends and watching one of her movies, in one of the picture’s most beautiful and charming scenes. As Tarantino said, “When Sharon’s on screen we need to slow everything the fuck down. Just slow the whole damn thing down and just hang out with her… it’s about behavior; it’s about what people in Los Angeles do.”

This is a movie you can’t stop thinking about. This is a movie that you want to see over and over.

Kim Morgan : So, who is Rick Dalton based on?

Quentin Tarantino : I like talking about these guys. George Maharis, Ty Hardin, Vince Edwards, Edd Byrnes, and Fabian a little bit, and Tab Hunter a little bit too… So that sets [Rick Dalton] up, he’s not of this generation, he’s not a New Hollywood type of actor – you don’t see him fitting in with Peter Fonda or Jack Nicholson or Donald Sutherland or Elliott Gould or any of these guys. Those are the actors of the time.

KM: Which directors do you think Rick Dalton would have worked with?

QT: He would have worked with guys like Paul Wendkos… If he was lucky, he would have worked with Phil Karlson, Leslie Martinson, people like that. One of the things about the actors of that era [and Rick Dalton], like I said, they were status conscious, so they would love to be in a Burt Kennedy western. Not because they think Burt Kennedy is the greatest director in the world, but because he makes movies for Warner Brothers. And 20th Century Fox… If Rick were offered an AIP [American International Pictures] movie, [he] wouldn’t do it: “Well, of course I’m not going to work for AIP. That’s where the losers work. That’s for fucking Ray Milland. That’s for fading stars like Milland and slumming stars, like Bette Davis, and phony non stars like Vincent Price and Fabian.”

KM: And his career could have been different had he worked with AIP or something like that…

QT: In that chapter I wrote on [the book about] Rick’s career, “The Man Who Would Be McQueen”, I actually have that in that version, and I did it in a scene with Marvin. OK, Rick’s contract is over with Universal and now he’s a free agent and having to fend for himself. In that prose I’d written that he did get one offer for a movie after the Universal contract was over. The movie offered was John Cassavetes’ role in Devil’s Angels, which was Roger Corman’s follow-up to The Wild Angels. And he turned it down: “I’m not gonna work with Corman. I’m not gonna work with AIP. That’s junk.” These TV guys were taught: if you’re gonna be a TV star, you have to be likeable. But so, he’s using old world rules. So those are all reasons that Rick would have said no, but the reality is, that that would have given Rick everything he wanted if he had done it. It would have been his one, along with “The 14 Fists of McCluskey” – his one genuine hit. This wouldn’t have been a movie that is stuck with the other movies in the early part of the 60s. It was zeitgeisty. This was a movie that actually young people would have went to see.

KM: Yeah. And he would meet people like Jack Nicholson, he would have met Bruce Dern [who plays ranch owner George Spahn in the film] …

QT: Absolutely! And, I had it, that actually AIP was really into the idea. So, if he had done Devil’s Angels, they probably would have plugged him into like, three other biker movies that they had on deck… He would have been a young people’s actor. But through his class consciousness, he threw it all away and wonders why he’s standing on the outside of a cultural shift.

KM: And … Rick Dalton is in his late 30s in 1969, he’s getting older, but even Nicholson and Bruce Dern, though younger than Rick, and a different generation, they were in their early thirties by 1969…they had already worked for a while, and on TV, and worked in AIP films…

QT: No, but you’re right though – Nicholson – Bruce told me that he and Jack killed themselves trying to get on western shows. And I mean, guesting on them… The Virginian is on for nine years – Doug McClure and James Drury stayed there, but then the rest of the cast like rotates every four years…. They wanted to get on a series… Like Nicholson would have loved to have been on The Virginian in its sixth season. Bruce said, at that time, we wanted Robert Fuller’s career (laughs): “We wanted to be on our version of Laramie we wanted to join Wagon Train in their color years.” (laughs) Bruce Dern actually did get on a show – he and Warren Oates were Jack Lord’s sidekick on the show, Stoney Burke … and Bruce Dern said “Oh, it’s one of the worst jobs I have had!” And I asked, “Why?” and he said, “Well, I’m on it for like two fucking years and every week it just boils down to a reaction shot of me watching Jack Lord – the biggest prick in the business – riding a bucking bronco and yelling “You got it Stoney! Ride ’em Stoney!” (laughs) “That was like, my part!”

KM : What else did you discuss with DiCaprio for preparation?

QT: The thing is, Leo’s around ten years younger than me or Brad. Me and Brad are around the same age. Leo didn’t grow up watching The Rifleman or anything like that, so those kinds of shows were all brand new to him. So, I watched a bunch of Wanted: Dead or Alive [starring Steve McQueen] so I could cherry-pick the episodes [for Leo] because it was the closest to Rick Dalton’s Bounty Law. I sent them over to him, and he watched all six or seven of them, and he likes Steve McQueen more on Wanted: Dead or Alive than some of the movies he’s done. But the guy and the episode he went nuts over – and you’re gonna get a kick out of this – is the Wanted: Dead or Alive with Ralph Meeker and James Coburn. So, we’re talking about it, and literally, his eyes light up and he’s like, “Who the fuck was that guy?” And I go, “That’s Ralph Meeker.” [DiCaprio says,] “He was fucking amazing! Can I play that guy?” [I say,] Well, it’s not exactly the right idea but I love Ralph Meeker, so feel free. If you think you’re Ralph Meeker, then be Ralph Meeker.” It’s actually one of the proudest things of this entire movie that I have made Leonardo DiCaprio this huge Ralph Meeker fan. He’d already seen Paths of Glory, so he watches it again, and then he watches The Naked Spur and Kiss Me Deadly and I think I gave him Glory Alley and I sent him The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. And then he comes back to me and he goes, “I’ve been studying Meeker in these movies.”

KM: Oh my god, I love this!

QT: I was just as tickled as you are; I didn’t expect this to happen. And he goes, “I realized one of the things that Meeker does that makes him so powerful and he does it in all of his scenes in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre…” and I’m like, “Well, what are you talking about?” Leo says, “He doesn’t blink. When he’s having a confrontation, which is almost every scene that he has in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, he just doesn’t blink. And there’s really only one way to do that. You just have to work on the muscles of your eyes and everything and it takes control and it’s a hard thing to do. But he’s learned how to do it – Meeker. And people aren’t going to notice it, but it has this power to it. So, we go do the movie and then I go to Leo and say, “Guess who does a full-on Meeker in this movie?” He goes, “Who?” [I say,] “Dakota Fanning [as Manson Family member Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme].” In the scene behind the screen she doesn’t blink. It’s a full-on Meeker. And, she knows: “If I blink, I lose the scene.” And over the years she’s worked on it so she can control her eyes and she can lock it in for the course of a scene. And it has the same power it has with Meeker in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. And she’s the most formidable character Cliff comes across. She’s like a concrete pillar on the other side of that screen door (laughs). And when she acquiesces, it’s kind of sinister, because she had won the stare-off.

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