Quentin Tarantino talks craft (non-spoiler)

August 23, 2019 Jeff Goldsmith

For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from our long interview with Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood writer-director Quentin Tarantino from Issue 38 of Backstory.

This is one of two Tarantino long-reads about his latest film, herein there are no spoilers – we also did a spoiler piece as well. Heck, we even interviewed the film’s cinematographer Robert Richardson, editor Fred Raskin and music supervisor Mary Ramos!

For a limited time you can use code: RICKDALTON @ check-out to save $5 off a one-year subscription.

If you like what you’ve read – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by buying a single issue or subscribing!


When you walk into Quentin Tarantino’s personal screening room, the first thing you notice isn’t the screen but rather the full size vintage Galaga videogame standing in the corner to the left of it. The weathered arcade cabinent isn’t present simply because the writer-director nostalgically loves to game out. It’s here because it represents the machine of his youth. “That used to be in the lobby of the Carson Twin Cinema—my grindhouse,” he recalls fondly. Honoring his past passions also fuels the engine of his new film, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, which re-creates the Los Angeles of his youth, filled with the sights and sounds he grew up around while examining the life of a fading movie star who gets another chance at being a hero.

One of the biggest changes to Tarantino’s creative habits came during the scripting of 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, wherein he transitioned from writing at night to writing during the daytime. This meant his nights were able to become meditative, as he enjoys unwinding by floating around his pool and reflecting both on what he’d just put to paper and where his characters might take him the next day. In a case of life imitating art in Once Upon a Time, movie star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is seen floating in a chaise around his pool at night with a tape recorder rehearsing lines for the next day’s scenes—making Rick a stand-in for Tarantino, who would rehearse with a recorder back in his days in front-of-the-camera, an idea that morphed into how he now ends a day of writing. “That became my modus operandi,” he says. “Even when I was an actor, that’s how I learned my lines—saying them into a tape recorder, then leaving a space for you to recite the lines back—and, yeah, Rick in the pool is completely taken from my writing style. I thought it would be nice to lend those things to Rick as real rituals. It feels like there’s a history to it, that he does this a lot.” And while he now has Rick’s actual pool chair from the film, Tarantino still prefers to bob in the water sans chaise.

Freeing one’s mind is a great habit for any writer, the only danger being the need to race to to write down one’s thoughts, something Tarantino says he doesn’t bother doing. “My whole attitude is if I can’t remember it, it wasn’t worth remembering. Every once in a while, I’ll be thinking about a scene and all of a sudden the characters start talking to each other, and I’m like, ‘Holy shit, I’m not gonna be able to remember this! I didn’t even want them to start talking to each other, but they did.’ So I may grab a piece of paper and just have a little vomit conversation between the characters and put it aside. But when it comes to a story idea, I just figure if I can’t remember it, it wasn’t worth remembering.” Stories grow on Tarantino over time, and as they do the scribe grabs a pen and handwrites on lined paper in spiral Mead notebooks. For Once Upon a Time, he filled 12 binders. “Part of my busy work while I’m gearing myself up to write is figuring out the scenes. This scene leads to that scene, leads to the next scene.” And he prefers to start his process by jumping straight into writing whatever scene speaks to him first, with no order in mind because he feels it allows him to get to know his characters.

He began toying with the idea for Once Upon a Time right after 2007’s Death Proof and added to his notebooks here and there over the years, but he got serious about it after completing 2015’s The Hateful Eight. And he what he began with was the concept of his characters intersecting with Manson family members in August 1969 (the time their grim murder spree took place). “That was actually the first thing I came up with, and so then I had to come with a scenario that could get me there,” Tarantino says. “But I did a little bit of research on the Manson family, and it was getting time for me to do more and start writing the character of Charlie (Damon Herriman) and figure out his speech patterns—which doesn’t really exist in the movie, but I did do it. So, I was getting ready to write my Manson stuff and was just like, ‘Whoa, hold on for a second. Do you want to let these guys in your psyche? Do you want to let these guys in your head? I think I know about as much about them as I really want to know.’ And so I put it away for a year and a half—that was about four years ago.” Even after stepping away, the story continued to percolate, and for as much as he hated Manson, the thought of creating rich characters in 1969 Los Angeles just couldn’t be abandoned. “I got over that—it was too good.”

Tarantino notes there were at least five or six real-life actors who inspired Rick’s character of a 1950s or early ’60s TV star who unsuccessfully tried migrating to the big screen after his signature TV series ended. “Then I thought about the relationship with his stunt double [Cliff Booth played by Brad Pitt],” he says. “I also liked the idea of dealing with 1969 and the whole hippie/Hollywood counterculture but through the eyes of two guys who are not part of that culture, who are on the outside looking in.” Initially, he experimented with penning a film that was more plot driven and then he decided to veer off and subvert narrative for character. “I worked on an idea of a bit more of a story, with a little bit more melodramatic stuff for them to do. They’re both almost like Elmore Leonard characters, and by the time I got to know who these guys really were, I was just like, ‘Stop the presses here for a second. What story do I want to tell?’ And I realized I didn’t really want to come up with some clever, tight, Elmore Leonard-y kind of tale. I think these characters are strong enough that they don’t need a choreographed dance in order to get through their day. It’s about the time and the milieu and who these people are—basically it’s just a day in the life—and I felt just by having enough faith in the characters, that would be enough. It’s one of the reasons this [film] took me five or six years. It wasn’t because I couldn’t conquer a scene. It was back during the time I was thinking I still might try to involve the characters in more of a noir-y kind of narrative. But if you think movies from 1969, 1970…I mean, what’s the story of Model Shop? You just drive around with fucking Gary Lockwood all fucking day!”

Like what you’ve read? Join us for the rest of the article in Backstory Magazine Issue 38 which includes not only the rest of this article – but also a huge spoiler-specific Tarantino interview plus 3 other Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood articles and even an in-depth Inglourious Basterds interview with Tarantino to celebrate the film’s 10th anniversary!

For a limited time you can use code: RICKDALTON @ check-out to save $5 off a one-year subscription.

To read the full article and tons more in the latest issue of Backstory, click HERE to subscribe or buy it as a single issue.

For more info about all the other articles in the issue, view the Table of Contents.