Behind the scenes of Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with Location Manager Rick Schuler
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has widely been described as a love letter to a bygone era. Set in 1969, Quentin Tarantino's ninth feature is somewhat of a walk down memory lane for the director. Period locations featured were plucked from his memories of growing up in the city or draw on his encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood.
Being a story so rooted in LA, it is hard to imagine the film being shot anywhere else, but making a location dependent period film in a rapidly changing city is never going to be easy.
The Location Guide spoke to Location Manager Rick Schuler about finding the LA of 1969, securing night shoots on Hollywood Boulevard during the busiest month of the tourist season, and working with Tarantino.
By all accounts Tarantino was very specific in his vision for the Hollywood that he wanted to depict. How did this translate during the location scouting phase?
Quentin’s vision for the Hollywood he wanted to create was seen through the prism of his experience growing up in Hollywood. It was a walk down memory lane for him. It was a love letter to the Hollywood he knew and loved, but also a farewell to a physical Hollywood that is disappearing at an alarming rate. The present construction boom is swallowing up what was a Hollywood that had managed to somehow survive here and there. A drive down Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard will quickly tell you that the winds of change are here. The title of the movie itself is a nostalgic look at Hollywood. It’s titled Once Upon a Time in Hollywood for a reason.
Driving around Hollywood with Quentin was always an adventure and full of surprises. On one occasion we were driving back from a scout and he asked me to turn right onto Riverside Drive and to head west. I’m like “what is he going to show us down here?” After passing Bob’s Big Boy Restaurant we make a left on Forman and pull over to the curb. He gets out and walks to the southwest corner of the intersection and explains to us what this area was like when he used to come here as a kid. Of course it was also a location in a period TV series he was intimately knowledgeable about. The producer turns to me and said this doesn’t seem like a good location to shoot, I wasn’t so sure. I was learning very quickly that if he shows you something specific you can expect he will absolutely want to consider filming here. And sure enough we did. Not an easy location so close to the studios and located on a major thoroughfare nonetheless, but we stripped the facades and storefronts of their modern touches, and re-stripped the crosswalks, and changed the signs, and brought the block back to circa 1969 just as he remembered it.
How long was the pre-production phase?
Barbara Ling, the production designer, and I started days apart from each other. I think we had nine weeks of prep which, I might add, we felt was wholly inadequate for such a heavily location dependent period movie. As is often the case, however, we pulled it off – and not somehow, but triumphantly!
How did the location and production design department work together to achieve Tarantino’s vision?
I thought both departments worked quite nicely together. For quite some time now, both Barbara and I have worked extensively in Los Angeles and on period movies taking us back to the sixties and seventies – Barbara with The Doors and myself with Zodiac.
For the real locations, the location department worked on getting permissions for the Art Department to come in and transform or bring back what was needed at these iconic locations. There was a lot of construction occurring on Hollywood Boulevard, but also on Riverside Drive as we traveled back to an earlier time at the intersection at Forman Ave. This area had been featured in an old FBI TV series that Quentin liked and there used to be a restaurant here called The Money Tree that he would periodically frequent with his family … more walking down memory lane.
It fell to the location department to find the fictitious locations such as the residence of our said leading actor, Leo DiCaprio, who just happens to live next to Sharon Tate in Hollywood Hills. This location search seemed endless as the requirements for the lay of the land for each house needed to be so precise, from the gates at the mouths of the driveways, to the length of the driveways, to the style of the house, to the position of the pool in relation to the front door of the other house, and so on. In the end a great combination of all of these requirements was found in the Hollywood Hills.
Are any of the studios featured in the film still in operation, and did the film shoot at any of these?
Ironically, we were forced to find a substitute backlot location as the all the studios were overwhelmed with the amount of filming taking place at the time of our search. We settled on the grounds of a high school in Norwalk that perfectly fit what Quentin was looking for. The Art Department had only to add set dressing, paint backlot some signs, and hang large billboard size posters to the walls of various buildings to make the place a perfect stand in.
On account that the main character, Rick Dalton, played by Leo DiCaprio, is a western cowboy actor, we naturally found our way to two western towns in the studio zone (we did travel to New Mexico to check out a few western towns, but the decision was made to stay in California); Melody Ranch in Santa Clarita and Western Street on the backlot of Universal Studios.
Quentin was very familiar with Melody Ranch having shot there before, but Western Street was new to him. At a minimum it required the spreading of dirt on all the asphalt streets and converting cement sidewalks back into wooden ones.
Were there any large scenes that required major preparation and logistics?
Filming up and down Hollywood Boulevard proved to be one of our largest sets and involved months of preparation. Three different scenes were filmed on the famous stretch.
The first involved the interior and exterior of the iconic Musso and Frank’s Grill restaurant (pictured below). The bones of this location were almost intact. Aside from painting the front exterior, dressing some empty storefronts, fixing the old neon sign, and avoiding falling into the large pit off the back parking lot that had been dug out for a major construction project, this location was camera ready. The length of the closure of the restaurant for our filming was met with some initial resistance, but in the end the ownership supported the project and gave us their full support. It was really a pleasure working with them, even putting a couple of their famous waiters on the silver screen. Sadly though, both of them have passed as of the writing of this article. They will be dearly missed.
Leaving the restaurant’s rear parking lot and then driving west down Hollywood Boulevard was the second part of this large undertaking. Quentin wanted to show Hollywood as he remembered it. This personal walk down memory lane takes the viewer past places he knew and loved from the Pussycat Theatre, to Larry Edmund’s Bookshop, to the Sergeant Supply House, to Peaches, to the Vogue Theatre and beyond.
For our third pass on the Boulevard, we filmed at night with Brad Pitt driving east between Cahuenga Blvd. and El Centro. Heading in this direction allowed him to showcase old theatre marquees such as The Vine and The Pantages decorating them with the names of the films that were playing there in the summer of 1969.
Not only did Quentin have the vision for the movie he also had the will and smarts to know what it takes to get something like this done. Getting permission from the council office for that section of Hollywood, the permit office, the fire department, the police department, the department of transportation, the chamber of commerce, and the Business Improvement District, all the shops and tour groups, among others was no small feat. Quentin offered to help in any way he could so I suggested he attend a stakeholders meeting with me where our proposal was either going to be accepted or rejected. I told him I would make the pitch about the closure and speak to the handling of all the details, but if he could make a surprise showing at the end of the meeting to speak about enthusiasm about shooting a movie about Hollywood in Hollywood on Hollywood Boulevard from one of Hollywood’s residents and theatre owners (The New Beverly) then we would have the best of chances of getting the approvals we needed. He waiting patiently for more than 50 minutes in a small room before I came and got him and brought him into the meeting to the surprise and wonderment of the entire group. After his enthusiastic pitch, we left the room, as is customary with these proceedings. Quentin left for a meeting while I waited to be called back in. It was barely five minutes and I walked back in to hear we were granted permission to close the boulevard down for two days on a Monday and Tuesday during the busiest month of the tourist season.
How much of the film shot in the 30-mile studio zone?
If my memory serves me right, the only location we shot outside the studio zone was a Taco Bell. You might wonder why we would venture outside of the 30-mile zone to shoot such a ubiquitous location. Yes, they are everywhere, but not with all the late sixties architectural details, from the façade to the tile roof to the cylinder shaped flowerbed, to the very distinct signs. A picture of the legendary rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival sitting in front of a San Luis Obispo restaurant informed our search. Taco Bell Corporate joined the restoration effort and worked closely with the Art Department in getting the three distinct signs recreated for a one-day shoot. All this work was performed so that Quentin could set the scene for the movie and bring us back in time. There was no scene, no dialogue, just period cars and extras milling about as the camera takes it all in. The same search and attention to detail for another “period setter” focused on finding a Weinerschnitzel restaurant, which we did in the City of Long Beach.
What were some of the other central locations in the film, and where were these found?
Besides Hollywood Boulevard’s central role in the movie, other streets played important roles. We filmed on Burbank Boulevard both in the city of Burbank, but also in North Hollywood. Sunset Boulevard between Gower and Vine was also utilized as we showcased the old Aquarius Theatre mural of Hair and the front of the Cinerama Dome.
Riverside Drive in Toluca Lake was also a key location as was the long row of condominiums on Wilshire Boulevard near Westwood.
Restaurants and Theatres marquees are prevalent in the movie. Old classics like Musso and Frank’s Grill, El Coyote Mexican Restaurant, Casa Vega (pictured above) - where you can now order “The Tarantino” based on his recipe for this margarita - and Tommy’s Original Hamburgers all made their way into the movie.
Just as importantly, theatre marquees were featured almost ubiquitously through the movie from the Bruin (pictured below) and Westwood Theatres in Westwood, to the Vogue, The Pussycat, The Vine, and the Pantages in Hollywood with glimpses of the Egyptian and the El Capitan.
How long was the shoot itself?
I’m not sure what the final tally was, but I’d venture to say something along the lines of 106 days of filming. It was long and grueling, but very much worth all blood, sweat, and tears. I’m proud of the location department’s contribution to this project. Quentin was a gem to work with!
With an estimated California expenditure of USD108 million, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood qualified for the California Tax Credit amounting to USD18 million. The California Film and TV Tax Credit offers fictional features and series a 25 tax credit if 75% of principal photography is shot in the region, or 75% of budget is spent in the state. Non independent films must spend USD100 million to qualify, while independent features must spend USD10 million.
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