UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING:  Where Were You in ’69?

In the latest edition of Understanding Screenwriting, Tom Stempel analyzes Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood and The Good Fight.
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In the latest edition of Understanding Screenwriting, Tom Stempel analyzes Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood and The Good Fight.

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Well, where were you in August of 1969?

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood [or Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood; or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; take your pick; the formatting of the title varies, depending on where you come across it; falling in the tradition of Leonard Maltin’s late, lamented Movie Guide, I use the on-screen title. [I think] (2019. Written by Quentin Tarantino. 161 minutes)

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Pop Quiz: Why does Alfred Hitchcock start Psycho (1960) with titles over shots of the city that read: “Phoenix, Arizona” “Friday. December the eleventh,” “Two Forty Three P.M.” ? The answer will appear later on in the column.

Quentin Tarantino’s films have never been particularly tightly structured. He seems to be more interested in a collection of often wonderful scenes that ramble on. And on. Think of the various interconnected storylines in Pulp Fiction (1994), or the multiple episodes of Inglorius Basterds (2009). In Django Unchained (2012), we get scenes that go on well after a big finish in which the plantation is destroyed.

That kind of rambling structure appears in this script, but in general Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood has a much more subtle and nuanced structure. Some of the scenes do go on longer than they need to, as we would expect in any Tarantino movie, but the overall structure works better at making you feel a connection to the rest of the movie.

We meet the two main characters in a neat bit of exposition. It is an interview shot, supposedly in the fifties, with Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who was at the time a star in one of the many TV westerns. His is called Bounty Law and bears more than a few similarities to Steve McQueen’s Wanted Dead or Alive (1958-1961). Sitting in on the interview is his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), not a usual detail in a fifties interview, but it helps establish that Rick and Cliff are friends.

We then jump ahead to February, 1969; don’t worry, we will eventually, get around to August of '69. Rick’s show has been cancelled, and he is not getting the work he used to. In the earlier TV interview we mostly just get that Rick and Cliff are buddies. We now begin to see the differences. As usual, Tarantino is great at writing characters. Rick is depressed but trying to put up a good front. Cliff seems a lot more relaxed than Rick (which is why Pitt is playing that role and DiCaprio is playing Rick; both are good actors, but they are better in these parts than if they had switched). Cliff is now mostly Rick’s driver, which gives us a chance to see them hang out together.

[Can the Protagonist Be the Antagonist]

They go to Musso & Frank, the legendary Hollywood restaurant. It opened in 1919, the décor is still the same, and some of the waiters are old enough to have maybe been there when it opened. If the walls could talk, they would have a lot to say, since it was a favorite watering hole of screenwriters. Whenever I have a film historian, researching screenwriting, visiting L.A., I take them to Musso & Frank. The food is not great, but the atmosphere is pure Old Hollywood. You can see why Taratino sets a scene there.

Rick is there to meet an agent, Marvin Schwarzs (sic; yes, that is the way the character spells it). Schwrazs lays out in very blunt terms the status of Rick’s career. On the surface that appears to be exposition, but it is done in such a compelling way that it does not hit you over the head. It helps that Schwarzs is played, in the only two scenes he has, by Al Pacino. Pacino had read the script and knows he only has a small amount of screen time, so he gives his all, especially telling Rick how he loves the action scenes in his movies. He mentions one, and we see Rick in a World War II movie in which his character takes a flame thrower to a bunch of Nazi officers, saying he is going to turn them in “fried sauerkraut.” We may just dismiss this as a cute reference to Inglorious Basterds, but it comes back in a later scene.

Two more setups come out of this scene with the agent: Schwarzs tells Rick what is going to happen to him: since the studios do not want him for leading roles, they are going to cast him as the villain, whom the hero defeats. After several of those parts the studios are not going to think of him as a leading man anymore. We see Rick later in a long sequence acting in a TV western playing the villain, and because of the Schwarzs scene, we know what it means to him.

The second setup is the agent’s suggestion that Rick go to Italy to appear in Italian westerns. I am surprised that neither Tarantino nor Schwarzs mentions the success that Clint Eastwood had had in Italian westerns by this time. Rick turns down the offer, saying he hates Italian films. Later in the film he does go to Italy and makes four films, but there is no indication they were as successful as Eastwood’s were.

Cliff drives Rick home, then goes home to his much less glamorous apartment. We spend more time than you think you might need with Cliff and his dog, but the scene sets up some details with the dog and cans of dog food that we will see again.

Several reviewers have complained that the role of Sharon Tate is not that large. Although Tarantino made the point in talking about the film that she was not going to be a conventional lead, people just assumed that if Tate and the people connected with her murder were in the film, they were going to be a major part of the film. They are not. We only get a few shots of Tate’s husband, Roman Polanski, and her murderer, Charles Manson. They are not who the movie is about.

I can see why reviewers wanted to see more of Margot Robbie as Tate. She is almost as gorgeous as the real Tate was, and she also captures Tate’s sweetness, a quality all who knew her remember.

That is certainly what I remember from the one time I met her. Here is what I wrote about that meeting in this column back in 2012:

It was the fall of 1967, and I had just started graduate school at UCLA. I would take our 2-½-year-old daughter out on Sundays so my wife could clean the house. One Sunday we were on the beach just north of the Santa Monica Pier. I was carrying my daughter on my shoulders, and a beautiful woman came up to gush about how pretty my daughter was. As we were talking, I noticed off to her right was a little guy who was drawing a large dragon in the sand. What was so interesting was that he was drawing it with great loops right near the water’s edge. As the waves came in, they would cut the dragon into pieces. When he was satisfied with that, he turned to the beautiful woman. I realized then he was Roman Polanski and she was Sharon Tate. Of course Polanski would draw a dragon that the ocean would dismember, and of course Tate would be interested in kids. She got pregnant a year or so later, but as we all know, that ended badly.

[Endings: The Happy, The Sad and The Ambiguous]

Robbie does get a wonderful scene where she talks her way into the theatre where her film, The Wrecking Crew (1968, but which did not open in the US until February 1969, when this part of Once is set), is playing. Listen to the ticket taker trying to figure out who she is. Then watch Robbie watching the real Tate in the film on the screen. It is a charming scene, and we think it is a one-scene throwaway, but it is mirrored by a later scene of Rick and Cliff watching Rick in an episode of The FBI. Look at how their reactions are different from hers.

So, we learned that Rick will be unhappy if he has to play villains, and he now has to play one. One of the other actors is an eight-year-old girl Trudi (beautifully played by Julia Butters, whom I did not recognize from her role on the series American Housewife; as much as I liked that show, the writers there are not a patch on Tarantino) who sits down to talk to Rick between takes. It is a very simple scene, just these two interesting characters talking, not what you might expect from Tarantino. And it sets up the great payoff between them when Rick finishes his scene in the show.

The show Rick is appearing in the real sixties television western Lancer, and the actors are named after the real actors who appeared in the show. The late Luke Perry has what amounts to a walkon, or since he is on a horse, a ride-on, as Wayne Maunder. The director of the show is Sam Wanamaker, also a real person. Wanamaker was known more as a serious actor, as in the 1965 film The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and the 1978 mini-series Holocaust. He was also the American who got the replica of the Globe Theatre built on the South Bank in London, although he died before it was completed. In the sixties, he directed a few films and several episodes of television shows, including one, in 1968, of Lancer. Knowing about the rest of his career, I am not convinced he was quite the buffoon he is portrayed here.

Meanwhile, Cliff is driving around town and he keeps seeing barefoot hippie girls trying to hitch a ride with him. (As an item in the IMDb points out, Tarantino has a weakness for barefoot women in his films.) He finally picks up one, Pussycat, beautifully played by Margaret Qualley. She is the daughter of Andie MacDowell and her husband Paul Qualley. She studied ballet, which lets her move more gracefully than anybody else in the film. She wants to go to the Spahn Movie Ranch. Cliff knows where it is, since he had been in movies shot on the ranch’s western sets.

The owner of the ranch, George Spahn, let the Manson “family” stay on the ranch rent-free, in exchange for doing manual labor on the ranch. The actual ranch burned down in a wildfire in 1969, so Tarantino’s crew has recreated it on another movie ranch site, Corriganville. I don’t know what the original looked like, but the recreation is very convincing.

As Cliff drives onto the ranch, he realizes it is rather weird. He and Pussycat are surrounded by the girls of the family (all of them barefoot, of course), and the tension begins to rise. We know from history what these girls, and the few guys we see, are capable of. Tate and her friends were not the first people they had killed. Cliff is not particularly scared or intimidated. After all, he’s a stunt man who can handle himself, as in an earlier scene where he gets the better of Bruce Lee (a scene Lee’s family is not fond of, for understandable reasons).

The Spahn Ranch scene is one of those Tarantinoesque scenes that goes on longer than it needs to, but it is so brilliantly written and directed, we don’t mind. Cliff eventually talks his way into meeting George Spahn, whom he met once while making a movie there. Spahn’s “protector,” Squeaky Fromme, does not want Cliff to see him, but Cliff talks his way in.

And so we get another great scene, this time with Pitt and Bruce Dern as an almost senile George Spahn. By this time Cliff has worn out his welcome with the family. One of them slashes one of Cliff’s tires and Cliff has to resort to his physical skills to convince the guy to change it for him.

By now we are at August 8,1969, the date of the actual Manson family murders.

So let’s pause a minute and go back to the pop quiz at the beginning of the column. Why does Hitchcock have such precise titles (e.g.”Two Forty Three P.M.”)? Charles Bennett’s Fat Little English friend knows that if you are telling a shaggy dog story, it helps to have a lot of convincing realistic detail to make it believable. Once… is more than just a shaggy dog story, but for it to work, it has to use as much realistic detail as possible. Go back and skim this item for all the details that Tarantino has put in, and I have not mentioned even half of them.

As we all discovered in Inglorius Basterds, Tarantino is not above obviously rewriting history. He’s not alone in that: movies have been doing since the beginning. Tarantino is just more flamboyant about it, and what he does here is more complex than what he did in Basterds. And our reactions are complex as well, because we have certain feelings not only about the characters in the film but those in real life as well.

Now you may ask of me the question I asked at the beginning of this column. Where was I in the summer of 1969? In August, 1969, my wife and I were housesitting at the home of a professor of UCLA Only after the Manson family was caught did we realize that the house was in a straight line between the Spahn Movie Ranch and the homes of Sharon Tate and the LaBiancas. It could have been us.

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Guess What’s Back Where We Can See It?

The Good Fight (2017--- , Written by multiple writers. 60 minute episodes)

In 2017, CBS decided to do a sequel to their great show The Good Wife. They took the character of Diane Lockhart, one of the partners in the firm, and put here in a less rich and fancy firm. You can see my review of the pilot here.

Then they did a stupid thing. Instead of running it on the network, where it would be more likely to be seen by adult audience that would be perfect for it, they ran it on their new streaming service. I liked the show, but not enough to lay out additional bucks.

Well, this summer, CBS decided to run the first season as a summer replacement on the regular network. It is good and worth the price (having commercials you can mute, and putting up with the few bleeped swear words).

Here’s hoping they run season two next summer.

More articles by Tom Stempel

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