Quentin Tarantino Says He Thinks He Might Have Gone Horseback Riding With the Manson Family

Cannes 2019: The director of “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” discusses why people are fascinated by the 1969 murders, and whether he had qualms about portraying the perpetrator and victims on screen

Brad Pitt Leonardo Di Caprio and Quentin Tarantino Cannes Press Conference Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood
Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Quentin Tarantino at the Cannes press conference/ photo by John Phillips/Getty Images

When Quentin Tarantino was 6 years old and living in Southern California, he remembers his parents taking him horseback riding. He doesn’t remember where it took place — but at a Cannes Film Festival press conference on Wednesday for his new film, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” the director said he had a secret wish for where the excursion took place: the Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

At the time he and his parents would have gone for that ride, the Ranch, a former movie location popular with Western films and television shows, was occupied by a ragtag group of hippies who coalesced around Charles Manson, who would lead them to carry out brutal murders in the summer of 1969.

“Look, they’re creepy — no two, three, four ways about it,” he said of the Manson Family members, who are depicted in a lengthy scene in the movie in which Brad Pitt’s stuntman character goes out to the ranch. “But even though there’s a sinisterness you see in the Spahn Ranch scene, I also wanted to show what their day-to-day life was like.

“So you see [Manson Family members] Lulu and Tex giving horse rides. And it turned out that the family members were really great at that. They were very, very personable, and good at leading rides through the canyon.” He paused. “I actually went horseback riding at 6 years old with my mom and dad. I don’t know if we went to Spahn Ranch. I like to think that we did.” A shrug. “We probably went to Griffith Park, but I like to think that we went to Spahn Ranch.”

“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” which premiered to a standing ovation and rave reviews on Tuesday night in Cannes, focuses on fictional characters played by Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. But Pitt’s Cliff Booth and DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton move through a version of 1969 Hollywood that finds them crossing paths with Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate and with members of the Manson family, who would murder Tate and others in August of that year.

Some directors might balk at the idea of depicting real-life characters who were brutally murdered and other real-life characters who did the murders, particularly when putting them in a fictional context. But when Tarantino was asked at the Cannes press conference on Wednesday if he had any concerns about including Tate and other murder victims in his film, his answer was simple and succinct. “Uh, no,” he said, without elaborating any further.

The normally verbose Tarantino was also close-lipped when asked about Tate’s husband, Roman Polanski. When another reporter asked if he knew Polanski and if he admired the director, who has not returned to the United States since he was convicted of statutory rape in 1978, Tarantino said he had met Polanski a couple of times. “I’m a fan of Roman Polanski’s work, but in particular ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’” he said. “I like that a lot.”

He didn’t elaborate beyond that, and when he was asked if he had spoken to Polanski about the fact that the night Sharon Tate was murdered would factor into his film, his reply was quick and short: “No, I didn’t.”

Tarantino was more talkative when discussing why he thinks people are still fascinated by the Manson Family murders, which took place 50 years ago this summer.

“I think we’re fascinated by it because at the end of the day it almost seems unfathomable,” he said. “How [Manson] was able to get these girls and young boys to submit to him just seems unfathomable .. I studied a lot about it, and the more you learn about it and the more information you get, it doesn’t make it any clearer. I think the unknowingness of it, the impossibility of being able to truly understand it, is what causes this fascination.”