by Nancy Mills
All photos by Andrew Cooper © 2019 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Sony Pictures
It takes a team to turn back time. Just ask supervising location manager Rick Schuler, LMGI and his three LMGI core team members—LM Steve Mapel, KALM Scott Fitzgerald and KALM Kirk Worley. These men have worked together for more than a decade on such films as Savages, Her, Gone Girl, CHiPs and A Star Is Born.
For Quentin Tarantino’s very personal film, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, opening later this month, they transformed Hollywood 2018 into Hollywood 1969. A memory piece by the acclaimed 56-year-old writer/director, the film offers a time capsule of his childhood growing up in Hollywood. The neighborhood’s wide boulevards, colorful restaurants, memorable movie theaters and hipster stores inspired his love of cinema. Unfortunately, many of his favorite haunts are gone—or at least, we thought they were—because of the city’s penchant for bulldozing its history. But thanks to Tarantino’s demand for authenticity, Schuler and his team brought them vividly back to life—at least on film.
Before principal photography commenced on June 18, 2018, Tarantino spent five years working on Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood as a book before turning it into a screenplay. He told Esquire earlier this year, “I let it become what it wanted to become. For a long time, I didn’t want to accept it. Then I did.”
The film, his ninth, focuses on the adventures of a fading movie star (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double (Brad Pitt) as they go about their business. Crossing their paths are actress Sharon Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanski, as well as cult leader Charles Manson and members of his “family.”
“The first time I met Quentin, I interviewed with him for The Hateful Eight,” production designer Barbara Ling says. “We had a good connection at that meeting, and when he finished the script for Once Upon a Time, he had me in to read the script. The script was just breathtaking and after meeting with me he asked, ‘Would you do this movie?’ I’m an Angeleno-born and raised here. The things that were so important to Quentin about Los Angeles were just as important to me. I related to everything. We had the same stomping ground. We were about 10 years apart in age. In 1969, Quentin was 6, and I was still in high school. I was wildly zooming all around L.A. I was from the Westside and everyone there was getting fake Vermont IDs to be able to get into clubs in Hollywood.
“Quentin and I talked endlessly. When the subject of drive-in theaters came up (Pitt’s character lives next door to a drive-in), we both said, ‘Van Nuys Drive-In.’ It had the most beautiful mural of a Western horse with a rider. If we could have, we’d have rebuilt the whole drive-in. Instead, we built the front of it and installed the marquee.”
Ling, Rick Schuler and his team spent nearly a year hunting down and preparing about 100 locations. “Rick is an extremely talented location manager,” Ling says. “It was so easy to give him a visual, and he’d say, ‘We’ll find something.’ He digs deep and tries to work ahead of the problems. On a film like this in Los Angeles, it’s not easy to shut down and completely change an entire section of a street to film it and then be able to turn it back. Time is the enemy because of traffic. This was like building a pyramid.
“For me, the most wonderful part job-wise was collaborating with other people and departments. When you get a team that’s very tight, it becomes creatively a big payoff. You can find the perfect street, but everyone on that street has to say YES. If one person says NO, that’s the end of it. That’s where Rick shines. He’ll walk up to people and talk and say, ‘Would you mind having our film crew here for many weeks?’ That’s a talent—to be able to make people feel comfortable and calm. That can have a giant impact on a neighborhood.”
SWEET-TALKING AN ACTOR
Schuler’s most surprising encounter while hunting locations for Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood came from an actor. “As I stood there viewing the gate of this house, one of the owners drove up, lowered his window and gave me that look of ‘what are you up to in this neighborhood?’” Schuler says. “The short version of what transpired is that he was an actor and swore that he would NEVER allow someone to film inside his house.
“After numerous friendly meetings over beers at first and then red wine and pasta afterward (he cooked pasta like he was an Italian and come to find out he had lived and worked in Italy some years before), he said to me, ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I trust you guys.’
“So without a signed contract in place but based solely on a handshake, he handed us his house keys before he and his wife left for Wisconsin to visit his kids. Although the filming is a bit of a distant memory, our friendship with him and his wife endures. What an amazing couple! The owner of the companion house, as well as the rest of the neighborhood proved friendly and accommodating, although it took the expertise of veteran Scott Fitzgerald to pull it all together. And as is always the case with Scott in any neighborhood that he makes his own, we could roll back in and be greeted with a friendly welcome.”
Schuler’s vocal support of his core team has built up a strong bond among them. “I work a lot with Rick,” Fitzgerald says. “He’s a great guy. He’s not just a boss. He’s a friend. That’s what makes our team effective. We’ll work really hard for each other and help each other out. Steve Mapel took the Hollywood Boulevard locations under his wing. That was his thing, and he got it up and running. But we helped out as a team to support him. It’s about trust.”
Worley adds, “I started working with Rick, Steve and Scott in 2004 and have done everything together with them since. Working as a team is not the norm. The norm is getting who’s available. There are a few teams that work together, but it’s usually people who do bigger movies. They want a core of people they trust.
“The first movie I worked on with them was Mr. & Mrs. Smith. After that, I did almost every movie with them. I am in the Navy Reserve and was recalled to active duty for a year in 2007 and again in 2009, so I missed G-Force and The Social Network. I do know that when Rick calls, I make myself available. He is smart, he knows the business of making movies and he is a great person to work for.”
Every film has a few locations that seem impossible to find, and Once Upon a Time is no exception. Closing portions of Hollywood Boulevard twice for a total of four days was “probably the most difficult challenge,” Ling says, “but the real albatross was finding Rick Dalton’s house. We wanted to try to capture the Benedict Canyon of that time. The house needed to be very close to another house. Quentin is so visual as a director. He had this shot written into the script. ‘We’ve got to have Rick in the swimming pool, and we’ve got to be able to have a camera that moves over so you can see the other house. We looked everywhere. It was such a tricky combo of driveways and was very specific to the shot he needed.’’’
Schuler agrees. “The toughest to find proved to be a combination of two houses that were nestled next to each other,” he says, “each one accessed through gates and up long driveways. That specific configuration was just the beginning of a long list of requirements required to make this most crucial location work for a pivotal scene in the movie.
“The house that anchored this combination of houses was that of the late murdered actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). We began our search by scouting for similar-styled homes designed by the architect Robert Byrd. We scouted the hilly areas of the studio zone, spending considerable time driving up and down streets, peeking through gates and fences and viewing countless aerial images on Google Earth. We were pleased with what we found in the Covina area. Although the style of the houses was spot-on, the configuration of the pool of one house to the front door of the adjacent house was not ideal.”
FINDING HOLLYWOOD 1969
“Trying to find the late ’60s in Hollywood and the Hollywood Hills to do period films is getting harder and harder,” Fitzgerald adds. “But hunting for all that stuff was kind of fun. A lot of people jumped on board because of Quentin. Property owners and building owners were willing to listen when he would say, ‘Here’s what we want to do.’ Out of all the people I’ve worked with in the past 20 years, he was unique in that he just went out and talked to people. I’d take him to houses, and there would be an 80-year-old lady sitting there with her husband, and they had never had filming done. I’d introduce Quentin. He knew how to talk to people and present himself and be very genuine.”
Fitzgerald spent several months looking for the two neighboring houses. “The whole idea was that Rick Dalton and Sharon Tate lived in the same neighborhood,” he said. “So we had to find two houses that would work. Quentin had these little pieces in his mind. Rick was a movie star, so his house had to be the house of a movie star. But movie star homes back then were not weird and wild like they are today. Some were modest ranch houses in a nice neighborhood. It was a sign of wealth. We found a few that hadn’t been remodeled. Sometimes to find the right location, you stumble around in a neighborhood until you feel like you have a groove. You drive around and leave letters. We looked all over the place.”
In the middle of the two-house hunt, Schuler brought on veteran location scout Lori Balton, LMGI to help. “She delved into scouting areas we had previously thought too problematic considering our scheduling requirement of 14 nights of filming,” he says.
“Tarantino was super specific about his needs,” Balton says. “The exact geography was important. For instance, the camera is on Rick’s pool, then cranes up and over the hedges to Sharon and Roman in their car leaving the driveway.”
During preproduction, Tarantino’s reputation was crucial time and again. “People strongly related to his name and stories of Hollywood in the ’60s,” Balton says. “I got many more callbacks than usual for cold scouting—Angelenos wanting to share their houses, as well as their own stories of those times. And many were celebrities. Beverly D’Angelo called me back. She lives in a house that Mama Cass used to own. It was really fascinating.
“But my favorite was leaving a letter at a house that had me trespassing up a long winding driveway so I could see if the house would work … just my luck, a guy was pulling down the driveway wondering what I was up to. After I explained myself, he got a funny look on his face at the mention of Quentin Tarantino. He explained it was Lee Van Cleef’s home—a ’60s time capsule—and filled to the brim with Hollywood memorabilia that he thought would interest Quentin. Quentin is a rabid Sergio Leone fan; Van Cleef was in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and For a Few Dollars More. Van Cleef died in 1989, but his wife still lives there with her brother. We ended up shooting in their backyard.”
“It stood in for the backyard of the Tate/Polanski home,” Worley explains. “Quentin was very specific about what he was looking for. It was great that he was very specific, but he was so specific about what he wanted that it was sometimes hard to find. Occasionally, he would be ambivalent about a location, but he’d stand there in the actual place and look around. You could see him trying to figure out, ‘If I had to shoot here, how would I make it work?’ Other directors might look at it, say it was wrong and just walk away.”
FINALLY, THE EUREKA MOMENT!
“While we were director scouting a number of houses Lori had found, the AD and the DP stumbled upon a nearby cul de sac that to them fit the logistical needs of the scene,” Schuler says. “The configuration would work, but the style of the houses was a bit of a disappointment to the Location Department.
“Could it work with the help of the production designer and the director of photography? Sure—and it did. And this kind of choice is very much a part of the Quentin Tarantino way of doing things when it comes to locations.”
The team eventually found the houses in Studio City.
WORKING ON HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD
Steve Mapel focused his energies on the Hollywood Boulevard sequences. “In our minds, there are three huge stars in the movie,” Mapel says, “Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Hollywood. A few months before we started shooting, Quentin and Leo went to CinemaCon (an exhibitors’ convention) in Las Vegas to start generating some buzz for the movie. Quentin proclaimed in front of all these theater owners: ‘The film takes place in 1969 at the height of the counterculture hippie revolution and New Hollywood. Street by street, block by block, we will transform Los Angeles into the Hollywood of 1969.’
“At that point, we knew we had our work cut out for us.” Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is a very realistic portrayal of Hollywood in the late 1960s. The art department did extensive research and had a great deal of historical reference. In many instances, Quentin knew where he wanted to shoot, and it was a matter of taking these locations back in time to the way they looked in 1969.”
“Hollywood Boulevard is a tourist attraction 24-7, 12 months a year,” Ling says. “It’s nonstop people. It was a big deal to get all the shop owners to agree to let us put facades over their windows or put full marquees back on a building that no longer had a marquee. That was one of the biggest feats of what Rick and his team had to achieve. We had a very short prep because we couldn’t impact the stores and restaurants.”
IMAGINE A HOT NIGHT IN LATE JULY 2018
DiCaprio and Pitt are driving down Hollywood Boulevard. They pass the Pussycat Theatre, the Vogue Theatre, Larry Edmunds Bookshop and Musso & Frank. The panorama looks almost exactly like 1969—except for one element. Standing on a five-block stretch of sidewalks behind bicycle barricades are masses of locals and tourists.
Recalling the excitement and chaos, Mapel says, “It was one of the busiest tourist weeks of the year in Los Angeles. We closed about five blocks of Hollywood Boulevard down to vehicle traffic for two days but had to leave “off-camera” sidewalks on the Walk of Fame open to pedestrians. Within a couple hours of our call time on our first shooting day, word got out and hundreds (if not thousands) of people showed up to watch what we were doing. They were just a couple car-lengths away from two of the biggest movie stars in the world. All of the tourists from overseas got a rare close-up look at Hollywood moviemaking on those nights.”
To get to that point, Mapel delved deep into the nitty-gritty. “We took a T-shirt store and turned it back into Larry Edmunds Bookshop, where it used to be on the boulevard,” he says. “We took a tourist gift shop and turned it into a record store from the outside. We removed huge awnings and signs from a Mexican cantina that was part of the Vogue Theatre and installed a full marquee set piece to make it look exactly like it did in 1969. In today’s world of filmmaking, a lot of this would frequently be achieved through visual effects. That was not the case on this film. We used the in-camera approach. What you shoot on location is what you see on the screen. We even worked out deals with billboard companies so we could skin over their billboards with movie posters from 1969.”
Schuler says, “Actually, we did the closure twice for two different sections of the boulevard. The first time from Highland to Cahuenga and the second time from Cahuenga to El Centro.”
It didn’t hurt that Schuler took Tarantino to meet with the local business stakeholders, LADOT, the City Council office & FilmLA—the people who would be giving permission to shut down the street. He advised the director to talk about growing up in Hollywood, owning a theater in Hollywood (the New Beverly Cinema) and making a movie about Hollywood. Permission was quickly granted.
“The dates were carefully chosen,” Schuler says, “landing on a Monday and Tuesday and avoiding any large Hollywood Bowl event, even though the month of July was the worst month to be doing this kind of thing because of the tourist season. I gently pitched the tourist season might prove to be the best time if one were to think of the bigger picture of selling Hollywood as a destination to a worldwide audience.”
Once Upon a Time line producer Georgia Kacandes describes the Hollywood Boulevard sequences as “the big black hole in our production plan—we had no idea what it would cost. Quentin’s love for Hollywood and specifically his love for Hollywood history went a long way to getting what we needed. Rick took Quentin to meet the decision-makers in person, and it was great for them to see a filmmaker who cared about their investments, a guy who eats at Musso & Frank once a week. It was the perfect marriage. We weren’t killing people. We weren’t apocalyptic. We were just portraying two guys coming out of Musso & Frank and driving down Hollywood Boulevard in 1969. It was positive exposure. We asked, ‘Can you help us?’ And they said, ‘Yes.’ Luckily, Rick had done some work with the Hollywood Boulevard Association before so they trusted him. He also had the philosophy of paying top dollar, so we pretty much greased our way in there.”
Kacandes, who served as executive producer and UPM on Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, knew what to expect when he invited her back for the new film. “Quentin is a true leader,” she says. “He knows what he wants, so he can guide his cast and crew to give him what he wants. He was exacting in his study and recollection of what Hollywood in 1969 looked like when he was a boy. He had a factual and visceral understanding of what he wanted to portray. In the scout van, QT and Barbara Ling would go back-and-forth … Remember that store that sold records on that corner? … Oh yes, it was called … This was the constant conversation that went on week after week in a small van with recordings from 1969 KTLA radio shows inspiring us on our journey.”
Although filming was mostly on location, Kacandes says, “We did go into Raleigh Studios. Netflix generously let us rent some of their stage space. We did a song-and-dance sequence with Leo plus the epilogue of the movie. We were in and out.”
One big financial decision, in terms of location work, revolved around the plan to build the Pix Theatre, a movie theater on Hollywood Boulevard that closed in 1977. “It was later in the schedule and wiggle room in our budget had diminished,” Kacandes explains. “Barbara had done multiple passes to make it more affordable, but the estimate remained in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. I said to Quentin, ‘If we do this, it will limit other options as we get to the end of the shoot.’ Ten minutes later he said, ‘We don’t need it. Let’s drop that one.’ Quentin is a true auteur director who is not afraid to get into the bigger conversation about spending money where it will have the most impact for the film.”
RETURN TO THE AGE OF AQUARIUS
Under Mapel’s guidance, the old Aquarius Theater on Sunset Boulevard came back to life. “This is where Hair was performed back in the 1960s,” he says. “In conjunction with that show, they did a mural that covered the entire facade of the building—a psychedelic depiction of the Age of Aquarius. The art department recreated it for the film. We had Hollywood sign painters going up on lifts for 2-3 weeks to paint this huge mural. We did all that for what is essentially a drive-by. It takes up three or four seconds of screen time, but shots like this really help establish the period and the world in which the story takes place.”
Mapel (along with assistants Jacob Torres and Christina Beaumont) was also responsible for making sure the production could film in and around Westwood Village. “The focus was on historic movie theaters,” he says, “but we changed several of the storefronts to a ’60s look … including a Starbucks and Taco Bell. We did similar work in a few areas of the San Fernando Valley, as well as in Orange County and Long Beach. Geographically, we were all over the place.”
Schuler credits Mapel “with landing some very key locations that helped set the movie’s timeframe,” he says. “For example, Taqueria Los Primos in Long Beach was brought back as a Wienerschnitzel with the old classic sign and yellow-colored roof, and an original Taco Bell in the City of Tustin was also taken back in time. It was restored to look as it would have done at that time (with the help of Taco Bell Corporate) before it was subsequently torn down to make way for newer development.”
Another of Mapel’s finds was an alternative to the Manson family compound on Spahn Ranch in Simi Valley. “The church that now owns the property rightly did not want to be associated with anything that even mentioned the Manson murders,” Schuler says. “Steve discovered Corriganville Park. Located near the real ranch site, it offered the same topography, rock outcroppings and vegetation. We ended up recreating the old Spahn Ranch buildings. Additionally, the topography of the park allowed for the placement of George Spahn’s house to be slightly elevated over the rest of the set, perfectly situated for Quentin’s vision.
“We built Spahn Ranch from the ground up. After checking out a few ranches in New Mexico, Quentin decided to make things work in Los Angeles. He returned to Melody Ranch for some cowboy scenes, and we did a huge renovation in Western Town on the Universal back lot by covering the asphalt streets with sand and restoring all the cement sidewalks to wood planks. A few of the facades were also changed. The Cameron Nature Preserve in Malibu was the perfect double for several Leo DiCaprio scenes that were inserted into a period movie to establish him as the character Rick Dalton.”
Although Manson and his followers play a role in the film, Mapel stresses, “This is not a film about Manson.” The actual Spahn Ranch, a 55-acre movie ranch, burned to the ground in 1970. “The original ranch was by the 118 Freeway in Chatsworth. We found another area just on the other side of Santa Susana Pass in Simi Valley with a similar look and spent several weeks constructing a replica of the Manson compound.”
GETTING INTO THE RIGHT MINDSET
Kacandes, who has now moved on to work on Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, says she really enjoyed driving around the city she’s spent “the last 22 years in, but seeing it through Quentin’s eyes—and through the eyes of his amazing characters. Working with Quentin is an honor. To be part of his process is what makes all those years of hard work gaining experience worthwhile.”
Tarantino helped get the crew in the right frame of mind by screening 1960s movies for them in his theater on Sundays. Worley managed to get to just one, Alex in Wonderland, and found it helpful. “It actually showed some of the places we were going to be shooting on Hollywood Boulevard,” he says.
One of Fitzgerald’s key location finds was a school in Norwalk. His brief was to nail down a back lot where Tarantino could film a fight sequence between Pitt’s character and the Bruce Lee character. “You’d think it would be easy to go to Universal or Paramount,” Fitzgerald says. “The problem was that the timeframe was 1969. Studio back lots are busy every day, with contemporary equipment from overlapping shooting companies all over, and it’s hard to get people to move it.
“We needed four days to shoot, so I started thinking about other places that looked like a back lot. You throw out ideas and see what sticks. We found a location at Excelsior High School in Norwalk. It had closed down and was being used as a center for adult education. School was out, so there weren’t a lot of people around. The campus had tall, older-looking buildings that were pretty believable as a back lot. One building was an old auto shop, and there was a big auditorium that looked like a stage.”
“As far as locations go, Quentin had specific needs he wrote into the script, from Casa Vega, to El Coyote, to the Bruin and Westwood Theatres,” Schuler says. “With other locations, he was very open to what we had in mind. He did not feel the need to shoot at the real locations. Quentin always insisted on authenticity to the period but not always to the specifics of date and time. When it came to posters, billboards and theater marquees, he was absolutely bent on authenticity—even to the point of pulling items from his own private collection.
“Peaches Record Store on Hollywood Boulevard is a case in point. Was it located on Hollywood Boulevard? Yes. Was it located on the south side just east of Las Palmas? Yes. Did we recreate the storefront as it was originally? Yes. Did the store exist in 1969? Not quite. I believe it opened its doors in 1974. For Quentin, that didn’t matter. It was a place he knew well and liked and it was true to the vibe of the era. It’s his way of making the movie a very personal walk down memory lane that plays with space and time.
“For my part,” Schuler continues, “delivering very difficult real locations is what I am most proud of. Emile Hirsch plays Jay Sebring, one of the Manson murders’ victims. I found his real house and was introduced to the owner with the assistance of the creator and guide for Dearly Departed Tours. I wanted the real house because it was the real house. It was architecturally interesting and it had never been featured in a movie.
“Once Quentin showed interest, the other departments worked diligently to make it happen. I think the art department was skeptical at first, but after the Location Department fixed the pool pump, drained the green slime and cleared the property of years of accumulated debris, the sparkling blue water of the pool reflecting the Bavarian architecture of the modest house proved we could do it.
“With the assistance of the neighborhood and our hired police officers, our transportation department beautifully navigated a long one-lane road. Was it worth all the work? To me it was, and I think to Quentin as well. Having worked in Los Angeles for some 30 years, I guess I’m not beholden to locations that have great access and nearby parking lots. It’s the ‘almost impossible’ locations that bring incredible value to the project that interest me. This house, having been purchased by the present owner directly from the victim’s estate some 50 years ago, has never graced the silver screen and most probably never will again. There is something about that scenario that I cherish very much.”
Schuler’s Location Team:
LM Steve Mapel, LMGI
KALM Scott Fitzgerald, LMGI
KALM Jake Torres
KALM Kirk Worley, LMGI
KALM Scott Kradolfer
KALM Christina Beaumont
KALM Daniel Alvarez
ALM Suzanne Shugarman
Location Scout Lori Balton, LMGI
SLM Rick Schuler, LMGI