The big interview: Quentin Tarantino & Leonardo DiCaprio on Once Upon a Time... in the run-up to Oscars 2020
Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood has received a whopping 10 Oscar nominations this year, with the director receiving three nods for Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Director.
The movie marks the third nomination for Best Director in his career. With the movie predicted to win Best Picture, it will be Tarantino’s first award for Best Picture after being in the industry for 30 years. We will soon know whether his movie will steal the show at the 92nd Academy Awards.
Leonardo DiCaprio, meanwhile, is in the running to win his second Oscar for Best Actor, after an outstanding performance in Once Upon A Time... Leo, who plays struggling actor Rick Dalton, says that he feels ‘incredibly fortunate’.
“This film in many ways is a tribute to all those who were a part of this industry," he said.
We got to have a quick chat with both Tarantino and DiCaprio, in the run-up to Hollywood's biggest night. Excerpts from the interactions:
Can you give us the elevator pitch for this movie, just because it's about so many different things?
Quentin Tarantino: I knew I wanted to make, at some point in my life, a movie about Hollywood… the behind-the-scenes. And um… I’d worked on these characters, of Rick and Cliff and Sharon for a long time, who they were and creating them, and figuring out their careers.
And then with Sharon, it was about learning and studying about who Sharon was, diving into her film work and interviews, and then when I figured out who they were, I had to figure out what story I want to tell with them, and I realised that at different points, I’ve had more melodramatic ideas.
You know, more like, an Elmore Leonard kind of story that would involve all these characters. But after I figured out who these guys where, I figured I don’t think I need a story. I think they are interesting enough characters, let me just do a day in the life.
What has been most gratifying about your journey with Once Upon A Time…?
Tarantino: What is most gratifying is that, frankly, the movie survived because of the faith Tom Rothman (chairman of Sony Pictures) put into it, and us. One of the things he said when we were having our very first conversation about the movie was, this is that certain kind of movie that we need to champion.
An adult movie not based on anything else. If this movie is a hit, we will show people they need to go to the movie theatre to see it. There will be an interest in it, and it’s going to come out, and people are going to leave their houses to see it. That’s how the industry will judge whether or not it’s a success.
He said, and when it comes to Sony, man, that is where we live. If we don’t make it a hit at the box office, we failed. I still had to make the movie though. There were so many ways along the line we could have F’d up. But we made the film, and he made the theatrical run a success.
Leo, congratulations on your nomination for Best Actor in Once Upon A Time...
Leonardo DiCaprio: Thank you! I’ve been incredibly fortunate with this film, to have partnered with brilliant collaborators in Quentin Tarantino, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie.
This film is an homage to the city of Los Angeles, and I had the opportunity to portray an actor facing his own obsolescence, at a time when our culture was going through massive change. This film in many ways is a tribute to all those who were a part of this industry.
Cinema is and continues to be a powerful form of free artistic expression. This film, along with so many others this year, was truly original and impactful. I hope, as we progress, we continue to see even more of them. I feel honoured to be a part of it all.
How enjoyable was this for you, as an actor?
Leo: I’ve been fortunate enough to get to work with some pretty great filmmakers. That’s always been the driving force with me.
First, of course, the story and character, from an actor’s perspective. I feel like we see films through the eyes of the director. The director’s medium. I’ve been able to work with some amazing directors.
Quentin is in the lineage of one of the best of our times. It’s amazing to be a part of this film that’s a celebration of our actors and a celebration of the countless people behind the scenes.
How do you think Rick Dalton would react to being nominated for an Oscar?
Leo: I think Rick Dalton would be ecstatic. This film, in a lot of ways, was Quentin’s love letter to Los Angeles and this entire industry — so many of the actors before me who built the foundation of this entire town. Rick was becoming obsolete and embodied that major cultural transition in the industry. It was a great joy to do the research of that time period with Quentin.
Quentin, what surprised you most about the chemistry between Brad Pitt and Leo DiCaprio, and how their characters meshed? You’ve worked with both of them before...
Tarantino: On the page, the guys were very different from each other. You saw them almost as doubles, down to wearing the same costumes, as Cliff wears his ‘Rick wig,’ this pompadour thing. You saw them as part of a team and their differences just aren’t as in your face on the page.
From the moment where Leo and Brad step out of the Cadillac, Rick Dalton with his cool ’60s brown leather boots and Cliff Booth with his moccasins, and you see them enter Musso & Frank with these two completely different energies emanating from them, it becomes really apparent how different these two guys are, even though it looks like they go together. That’s one of the things that was so surprising.
It’s there in the script, but exactly how uneasy Rick is in his skin, and how easy Cliff was in his, was really radiated by these two guys.
You mentioned before how DiCaprio effectively made Rick Dalton marinate in anxiety. Was that something you and he honed together on the set?
Tarantino: He plumbed Rick Dalton’s depths. Was there more to Rick Dalton as a character, beyond his career situation? By being open to doing that, and doing it with the material at hand, it was in here though maybe we hadn’t found it yet. Finding that and exploring it was really great.
Leo, how much did you enjoy playing Rick Dalton in Once Upon A Time...?
Leo: Well, it was interesting to play this sort of guy who has, in a way, reached this expiration date culturally, and the ’60s have come along and as Quentin eloquently puts it in the movie, he’s an actor who has spent his career combing his hair and creating a pompadour his whole life, that’s what he knows, and he’s not making the transition into the new era of Hollywood, and he’s also feeling sorry for himself.
He’s a working actor who kind of missed out on that op, that television to film transition, where actors like Steve McQueen were able to make that jump, and have these sort of amazing careers. He’s stuck in this rut.
Did you grow fond of Rick Dalton?
Leo: You know what was so interesting from just initially reading the movie, was the perspective that Quentin took on Hollywood. It’s once upon a time in Hollywood, but it’s these working-class guys, and it’s a very voyeuristic view on a world that they don’t belong to, and that sort of passes them by. And Rick, in a way, is a relic of that.
I think Rick would have had the potential to move from TV to movies, if he applied himself, but he just didn’t have that training, and this movie is so interesting, because it’s a very transitional period in Rick’s life as in that he not only had the culture pass him by, but the industry is sort of washing over him like a wave, and he has to adapt.
And, was there any trepidation in playing Rick’s character, along with Brad’s Cliff Booth?
Leo: I don’t think either of us thought about it in that context, it's what’s best for the film. I’ve admired the choices that Brad has taken in his career, and if you start thinking in that realm of a big actor, and what’s the dynamic… you’re trying to create a piece of art here, and I think Quentin saw this matchup of two sides of the same coin. And Rick, this struggling actor and Cliff, his stunt double — but they are also family. It creates an authentic piece of art.
Tell us what a privilege it is to be in a Quentin Tarantino movie?
Leo: I think we all feel that, and especially this one, ’cause it’s in a lot of ways... it’s his love letter to the industry. I just love the approach of all these different characters.
Instead of being on the inside of Hollywood rising up, we’re on the outskirts looking in. And 1969 is his favourite transitional era into the ’70s, so it’s a very special film to be a part of, especially in his legacy.
Quentin, you grew up with Martin Scorsese’s work a touchstone. What does it mean to be nominated in a category with him — both in Best Picture and Best Director, in a year that he’s also in the running for the same, for The Irishman?
Tarantino: It was one of the cool things at the National Board of Review. We’d talked before I saw The Irishman, and before he’d seen my film. And I saw him at another event, and we were trapped on opposite sides of the room, and talked to each other in pantomime, and he pantomimed how much he liked my movie.
It was like getting a review from (late French filmmaker) Abel Gance, a complete pantomime review. At the National Board of Review, I could actually go to his table and squat between him and his daughter, and really tell him about much I enjoyed his film, and how much it meant to me.
Are you really only going to make one more movie after this?
Tarantino: Yes, that is the plan for right now.
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