Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is packed with car-fueled nostalgia
Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood is a “love letter to Los Angeles”—an homage to 1960s Hollywood. It’s a bittersweet story about the friendship between fading star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his steadfast stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a pairing not unlike Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham. It’s both a spaghetti western and an elegiac to the classic American western, with Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton like two cowboys roaming the city. Just imagine a Coupe de Ville in lieu of a horse. Cliff and Rick spend plenty of screen time together on the road, and it’s a pleasure to watch them traverse Los Angeles as it once was, in a nostalgic film full of countless beautiful classic cars.
In Once Upon a Time, Tarantino convincingly recreates 1969 Los Angeles. Characters visit iconic Los Angeles locales, including but not limited to Musso & Frank, Casa Vega, and El Coyote. In an unexpectedly moving montage, the neon signs of Los Angeles landmarks turn on at dusk. Tarantino’s commitment to authenticity was extensive, and expensive—none of it is CGI. Production turned back the clock on four blocks of Hollywood Boulevard, transforming storefronts and lining the streets with old cars.
They even closed down nearly a mile of the Marina del Rey freeway for a scene where Cliff drives home to his trailer behind a drive-in theater. Altogether, they used about 2000 cars—much higher than the average for a film, which is somewhere between 300 and 500 cars.
Rick Dalton’s creamy yellow ’66 Cadillac Coupe de Ville is the film’s hero car, but it’s not just any car: it’s the same Coupe de Ville that Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blonde drives in Reservoir Dogs. Madsen had been keeping the car in storage, and picture car coordinator Steven Butcher got it out, spruced it up, even created a double. Cliff Booth becomes a completely different driver without his best friend in the passenger seat—in Rick’s Coupe de Ville, Cliff is steady and attentive. In his own ’64 Karmann Ghia, he’s fast and reckless.
Though the choice seems like a reference to Kill Bill Vol. 2, the Karmann Ghia became Cliff’s car because it was the car Tarantino’s father drove. The Karmann Ghia wasn’t the most powerful car, but gaffer Ian Kincaid told American Cinematographer that Booth’s car is “stuffed with a pumped-up Subaru engine.” (A second Karmann Ghia was outfitted with a Volkswagen flat-four engine.)
In a scene that demonstrates their easy friendship, Cliff and Rick get together to watch Rick’s guest spot on The F.B.I. Tarantino seamlessly replaced Burt Reynolds with Leonardo DiCaprio in this very real episode of the old show. Not only did they have to insert new footage into the episode, they had to figure out how to replicate the weather, the location, and a rare GMC military truck. The truck would have been a nightmare to reproduce, but Butcher managed to find the exact same truck in someone’s collection at a movie ranch.
At the start of the film, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is a promising new star and her husband Roman Polanski has just returned from Europe after the success of Rosemary’s Baby. So their ride is a little more posh than Rick’s or Cliff’s, reflecting their place in the Hollywood hierarchy. Butcher chose a 1962 MG TD for the couple, a car with a cinematic history. Tarantino showed Butcher the Jacques Demy film Model Shop, one of his many inspirations for Once Upon a Time…, which features an MG TD. Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe drove an MG TD in Monkey Business, a car later purchased by Debbie Reynolds in a 1971 memorabilia auction, which Carrie Fisher learned to drive in (until she nearly crashed it). And it was the car driven by Ryan O’Neal in Arthur Hiller’s tragic film Love Story. In an interview with The Wrap, Steven Butcher recalled Tarantino saying that, “It’s like an omen to have that car.”
The film also replicates Charles Manson’s 1952 Continental Bakery Hostess Twinkie truck, here an International Harvester Metro Mite, and infamous Manson Family follower Tex Watson’s ride: an Inca Gold 1959 Ford Galaxie. Butcher told The Wrap, “That’s an actual replica of the real car they used to do the actual murders. I found the real car in a guy’s private collection. The guy wanted to rent it to us to use in the film. But I had a meeting with Quentin, and we talked about it and thought that would be creepy to have the real car on set.”
Tarantino’s and Butcher’s decision not to use the car that Watson really drove, even though it would have been more “authentic,” just affirms Tarantino’s reverence for the film’s subject matter. What could have been a ghoulish exploitation of Sharon Tate (like every other movie about her) ultimately ends up being a respectful, wistful remembrance of her and the time period. Quentin Tarantino explained to Sight & Sound:
“We can get actual photos of what Sunset Boulevard looked like in 1969 or what Riverside Drive looked like, or Magnolia, we can do that. And we did it. But the jumping-off point was going to be my memory—as a six-year-old sitting in the passenger seat of my stepfather’s Karmann Ghia. And even that shot, that kind of looks up at Cliff as he drives by the Earl Scheib [car paint and body shop], and all those signs, that’s pretty much my perspective, being a little kid.”
Once Upon a Time is authentic, but it never tries to be a documentary. Instead, it’s a personal story, history not as it was, but as it should have been. The film views the past through the melancholic lens of memory, perfectly tapping into the nostalgia-tinged emotions evoked by the movies, the cityscape, and, of course, the cars of the era.