Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

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2nd Qtr, 2019

Any new Quentin Tarantino film is an event, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has the added spice of touching on the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969. The Sony Pictures release is set at the height of the counterculture, a period the director has frequently exploited for its music and genre references, and with a story further steeped in TV and film-industry lore.

What’s more it features the ‘Butch and Sundance’ pairing of two of the most charismatic actors of their generation in Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, who are just the tip of an all-star cast.

Having had scripts of previous projects leaked before filming, Tarantino’s script was under lock and key. The director invited trusted collaborators including cinematographer Robert Richardson, ASC, and editor Fred Raskin, ACE, to his home on separate occasions to read drafts of the script. They weren’t allowed to take it away with them.

“He called me out of the blue while I was in Israel speaking at a film festival in the summer of 2017,” recalls Raskin, who edited Tarantino’s previous opuses, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. “As soon as I got home, I headed over to Quentin’s house to read the screenplay. He gave me a lot of backstory about the history of the era in which the film is set and the situation in Hollywood at the time, and he even showed me a TV Guide from the period, but I sat down to read the script not really knowing anything more about the story than that.

I’m not the world’s fastest reader, and it took me a full five hours to make it to the end. Quentin popped his head in the door every hour or so to see where I was and where I thought it was heading. As you can imagine, I felt an incredible amount of pressure. And, of course, I felt privileged to be asked to give my feedback.”

Raskin says he was “blown away” by what he read. “It’s equal parts funny, scary and emotional. It’s all in there. You get bursts of extreme violence contrasted with comedy – frequently in the same moment. Although I’d say it’s not really like anything he’s done previously, there are elements of Pulp Fiction – with the intersecting Los Angeles-based storylines, and Kill Bill – with the picture journeying through different genres of film.

He has an incredible mastery of tone that makes it all come together. It’s always a thrill to get to work on Quentin’s movies, but this one in particular has really been exciting.”

The action takes place over the course of three days in 1969 and involves Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), an actor who failed at making the TV-to-movies transition and is now struggling with his fading stardom, and his longtime friend and stunt double, Cliff Booth (Pitt), a man who’s spent the majority of his adult life working in the film industry and has nothing to show for it.

Early on in the film Rick learns that his new next-door neighbors are the beautiful, fast rising star Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband, director Roman Polanski, fresh off the success of Rosemary’s Baby. Also in the ensemble are the late Luke Perry, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Damian Lewis, Emile Hirsch and Timothy Olyphant.

“The story is basically showcasing a day in the life of these characters,” explains Raskin. “You see them go about their days but at the back of the audience’s mind there’s this ticking clock hanging over the characters because you know that at some point in the future the Manson family is going to show up at Cielo Drive [the fateful Tate/Polanski residence].”

In one of the film’s storylines, DiCaprio’s character is playing the villain on the pilot for TV Western Lancer (which aired on CBS from 1968-1970). “While you might expect that would be shot in the 4×3 format, Quentin was very clear that Lancer is his third Western [after Django and Hateful Eight], and as a result, it was shot on 35 anamorphic, like the rest of the film.”

During principal photography, which took place at about 80 locations across L.A. between June and November 2018, Raskin was set up in an office on Sunset Blvd. once used by Saul Bass. For editorial, the production rented a house in Hollywood where he and Tarantino converted the master bedroom into a full editing suite.

“The way Quentin works is that during principal photography he focuses all of his energy on shooting and rarely, if ever, enters the cutting room. Generally, on his films, for the first half of the shoot he watches film dailies [printed at FotoKem] every day but that will gradually fall off as he feels more and more confident about what he’s getting. There was one scene in Hollywood he shot early on that needed to play on a TV screen later during the shoot. We needed to edit that scene up front but that was the only thing he came into the cutting room for prior to post.”

Tarantino may have auteured the movie but still allows his editor considerable freedom to shape the material from his own instinct. “I’ll take notes about anything he says during the dailies screenings, where he laughs, what he likes or doesn’t and I’ll put locators on the material in the Avid to notate those areas,” Raskin explains. “That information, along with the notes from Quentin’s longtime script supervisor, Marty Kitrosser, guides me as I work my way through the assembly.”

One scene within the world of Lancer has actor James Stacy (Olyphant) ride into town, dismount from his horse and approach a gunman whose hand and gunbelt fill the foreground. Tarantino thought it would work best to play out the entire scene as one single shot but he also wanted to see an assembly that incorporated all of the coverage.

“To do it exactly as Quentin wanted would have been easy, so he asked me to put together the cut version so that he could see a different perspective. “I think I have a pretty good understanding of how Quentin intends the material to be put together, but he’ll always want to double-check the performances to make sure the ones I used are his favorites.”

A particularly-complex sequence depicts Sharon Tate during an afternoon in which she decides to take in a movie matinee at the Bruin Theatre in Westwood. The film in question is The Wrecking Crew, the 1969 action-comedy made as a vehicle for Dean Martin in which Tate co-starred. “In our film she decides to see the movie with a regular paying audience and we see her watching a scene in which her character has a karate fight with actress Nancy Kwan. So we see Sharon sitting in the theatre watching herself act on screen intercut with flashbacks of her training for the scene with Bruce Lee (who choreographed the fights in the movie).

Finding the balance between when we are with Sharon watching from the auditorium, to when we see her on screen in The Wrecking Crew to when we’re seeing her training was very tricky.” That said, Raskin says his and Tarantino’s biggest challenge on the film “honestly, was finding the movie and getting it down to a reasonable length.” The shooting draft of the screenplay was “not short,” Raskin jokes, and Tarantino came up with additional scenes during production which added to the initial cut length.

“He always writes and shoots more scenes than he necessarily intends to include in the theatrical release,” explains Raskin.
“He heads into post knowing that certain scenes, certain characters even, are not going to end up in the final cut. So we put together all of the material he intends to have in the finished movie, and then we determine what of that material is not actually essential to the story and characters and see what we’re left with.”

Raskin feels that, over the course of three films with the director, “Quentin has gained more confidence in my abilities as an editor, while I have gained more confidence in my willingness to suggest things to him.

“On Django, when Quentin asked to see my assembly of a sequence, I had a sense of trepidation purely because our working relationship was just beginning. ‘What if this isn’t what he intended? Is he going to think I don’t understand his movie?’ And how is he going to respond if I’m critical of something in the picture?

On this film, I didn’t hold back. I put pretty much anything and everything on the table because, ultimately, we all want to make the film the best it can be.” The editorial team included first assistant editor, Chris Tonick, with whom Raskin had worked on both Guardians of the Galaxy and The House with a Clock in its Walls.

In addition to the Avid assistant duties, Tonick was also tasked with the role of VFX editor. Film assistants Bill Fletcher and Andrew Blustain took charge of syncing the 35mm film dailies during production and conforming the print in post. Avid second assistant Brit DeLillo, who joined as the production was ending, “was a huge help in terms of assisting Chris with turnovers and temp VFX.”

Post-production supervisor Tina Anderson “steered the ship throughout an accelerated post schedule, staying on top of all of the VFX vendors along with our sound department and DI facility.” And post PA Alana Feldman “made sure we had everything we needed to get through our day.”

The whole crew also had to serve as the first audience whenever Raskin and Tarantino completed a sequence. “Being an engaged viewer and offering your thoughts after a screening is a key part of this job.” At the time of this interview, Raskin has yet to watch a test screening with an audience. “You live in a bit of a vacuum when you edit a movie. I can’t wait to see how an audience responds.