Los Angeles may be popularly thought of as a city with relatively little regard for the history of its built environment in favor of a ceaseless self-transformation, yet countless examples of the buildings completed during the movie industry’s Golden Era of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, as well as a few fortunate survivors from before that era, remain intact to this day. The production team behind Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, set in 1969, made ample use of what was available while developing innovative techniques for what was not.
Following the friendship of actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they narrowly come into contact with the sordid details of the Manson Family murders, Once Upon a Time takes its viewers through grand, unobstructed views of the city as it appeared half a century ago. A period piece with this much exposure, of course, required a detail-oriented crew to revert the city to its former glory without the extensive aid of digital set extensions. Barbara Ling, the lead production designer of Once Upon a Time, claims to have placed over 170 sets and facades in between preexisting structures to convincingly frame the film in the late 1960s.
Lengthy stretches of Hollywood Boulevard, for example, were shut down for production to allow for long sweeping shots of the street as high up as a bird’s eye view. During the street closures, the elements completed off-site were brought in with cranes and quickly set into place. During several close-up shots, the posters and other period-accurate materials in the background were borrowed from Tarantino’s own collection of vintage memorabilia (including the same advertisement for Tanya suntan lotion advertisement famously displayed on the cover of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s book Learning from Las Vegas from 1972).
But the film also takes advantage of what the city would never dare destroy. Once Upon a Time begins with Rick, Cliff and Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) inside Musso and Frank Grill, the “Oldest in Hollywood,” which is celebrating its centennial this year. Because its interior has been virtually unchanged since it first opened on Hollywood Boulevard, it is only in the transition from interior to the exterior that movie magic is employed, in which the production team skillfully recreated the restaurant’s original parking lot entrance based on old photographs. According to Variety, the restaurant staff even pulled out the original plateware from their storage room. The same creative mixture of reality and fabrication is most brilliantly applied near the end of the film, in which a gorgeous series of sunset shots seamlessly combines the city’s existing neon signage, such as that for the 1963 Cinerama Dome, with those that have been lost to time.
But perhaps the greatest challenge met by Once Upon a Time is persuading its audience that Los Angeles is a beautiful city.
“Los Angeles may be the most photographed city in the world,” Thom Anderson argued in his 2003 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, “but it’s one of the least photogenic. It’s not Paris or New York. In New York, everything is sharp and in-focus, as if seen through a wide-angle lens. In smoggy cities like Los Angeles, everything dissolves into the distance, and even stuff that’s close-up seems far off.” While Tarantino’s three previous movies set in the city—Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), and Jackie Brown (1997)—succumbed to the global stereotypes by depicting it as a gritty hellscape befitting the crime and corruption taking place under his direction, Once Upon a Time portrays Los Angeles with an unapologetic charm rivaled only by Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
Attention to detail and historical accuracy will likely make Once Upon a Time an essential reference for film and architecture buffs alike. As Tarantino contemplates his next and possibly last film (which will, no doubt, be another period piece), one can only hope that his focus on the built environment will somehow be even sharper.