How ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ Turned Back the Clock on L.A.’s Streets

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Quentin Tarantino and production designer Barbara Ling shut down Los Angeles’ busiest streets to restore them to their ’60s neon glory

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Sony Pictures

“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” as its name suggests, is a fantasy rooted not in a faraway land in time, but in a city millions live in at a time still within living memory. It depicts a piece of Hollywood history as Quentin Tarantino would have liked it to be. All the good stuff from the real ’60s is there — KHJ radio, 75-cent movie theaters, margaritas at Casa Vega — and all the ugly realities are pushed to the background or erased entirely, replaced with more good stuff forged from nostalgia. That fond, almost elegiac depiction of a time gone by extends to how Tarantino and his production designer, Barbara Ling, went about portraying the 1969 Los Angeles that Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) inhabit. There’s no smog, you’re more likely to see a pretty girl in denim shorts than a homeless man, and all the movie theaters along Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards crackle with neon signs promising pleasures from artistic elegance to grindhouse grit. And Tarantino, true to his roots, wanted to bring it all back without any computer effects. “That sense of tangibility is so important to him,” Ling told TheWrap. “He wants to be able to touch those signs and those light posts, because if it’s real to him and the actors in the scene, he knows it will feel real to the audience.” To do that, the film’s production crew had to shut down several sections of Hollywood and West L.A. that are major thoroughfares. One such location was the Bruin Theatre in Westwood, where Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate picks up a book and impulsively decides to go see one of her films, “The Wrecking Crew.” Aside from placing an old, neon-lit marquee over the current LED screens hanging above the entrance, not many adjustments had to be made to the theater itself. But the surrounding area was another story. Ling and her team combed through hundreds of photographs of 1969 Los Angeles to make sure every detail was right, and even used the help of photographers who had taken advertising pictures for businesses in Westwood that have long since been replaced by franchises. “There was an Italian cafe where there’s now a Starbucks, and the famous Hamburger Hamlet is now a Taco Bell,” Ling said. “And the Taco Bell wouldn’t let us close the restaurant to replace everything with stuff from the Hamlet, so we had to cover up all the furniture.” But the hardest part came when Ling discovered that the intersection in front of the Bruin was now a “zebra crosswalk,” as in recent years Los Angeles has switched major intersections to four-way crosswalks to ensure pedestrian safety. These didn’t exist in 1969, and since the film’s shooting script called for a low shot of Robbie crossing the street to the theater, Ling’s team would need to do a lightning-quick paint job. “We had to paint over the crosswalk, put in the old crosswalk, and then paint back the zebra crosswalk when we were done,” she said. “Filming in Westwood is a real challenge because you have to get everything OK’d with UCLA, the police, the city, and the businesses who don’t want to be closed for too long.” But that’s nothing compared to the challenge of filming on Hollywood Boulevard, which has changed even more in the last 50 years than Westwood. Aside from a handful of landmarks like Miceli’s, The Egyptian and Chinese Theatres, and Musso & Frank’s, most of the businesses on the street have been replaced by newer restaurants and souvenir shops. And thanks to an increase in apartment development, the traffic is busier than ever. “With the Bruin Theatre we still had the marquee, but across the street from Musso’s in 1969 was the Pussycat Theatre which isn’t there anymore,” said Ling. We had to rebuild the facades for many of the buildings almost entirely, and that meant working with construction crews to make sure that the buildings could support the weight of what we were setting up.” But Ling’s work paid off not only for the film, but for the tourists who were lucky enough to show up in Hollywood while she and the rest of Tarantino’s team were filming. The Hollywood Boulevard segments were filmed in two parts, since shutting down all the parts of the street needed for filming would have brought L.A. traffic to a complete standstill. Both times, the shooting areas were quickly filled with tourists taking pictures of a retro Hollywood that had been built like Tarantino’s answer to Walt Disney’s Main Street U.S.A. The Vine Theatre, now completely blacked out and used by Dolby for private screenings, glowed with a marquee that read “Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet.” The Pussycat, for a brief moment, shined over the streets of Hollywood. And among it all was Tarantino ready to roll the camera on Brad Pitt driving a classic car. “I was amazed by how many people are walking through Hollywood every day, even families with kids who should be in school,” Ling said. “But they were so excited to see an actual movie being filmed, and with Brad and Leo no less. They were very cooperative with Quentin and remained quiet when we were rolling, and as soon as he yelled ‘cut’ everyone was cheering.” Ling thinks there are few filmmakers aside from Tarantino who could make this happen. Prior to filming on Hollywood Boulevard, the team had spent five days filming inside Musso & Frank’s, a century-old restaurant that has entertained countless Hollywood titans since the film industry’s inception. The restaurant has been so lovingly preserved by its owners that aside from removing modern cash registers, there was little that Ling’s team had to do to restore its 1969 look. But getting in there was a miracle in itself. “Musso’s relies on reservations for its business, so they’ve never closed it for filming for more than a day or two until now. But Quentin is such a regular there that they know him and were willing to close for a week.” Ling continued, “And to close the streets of Hollywood for as long as we did, our location manager, Rick Schuler, came to Quentin and said ‘I think you should be there for the city council hearings.’ And he showed up and gave a passionate speech about why he was making this movie and how it came out of this deep love for the city. It really is a love letter to Hollywood.”