Culture

Film

Quentin Tarantino’s Sisyphean task

By Andy Hazel
The polarising director and actor Margot Robbie on making ‘Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood’

Quentin Tarantino and Margot Robbie. Photograph by Eric Charbonneau

“I don’t really engage in social media,” Quentin Tarantino tells me, his pointed face clouded with a flash of disdain. “I’m not on Facebook. I’ve never had a Twitter account, Snapchat or any of that crap. I don’t know anything about it,” he continues, staring angrily at a bottle of mineral water gently effervescing in front of him, as a fresh-faced Margot Robbie smiles by his side.

“I don’t look at my news online or anything like that. If you just don’t engage in it then it doesn’t mean anything to you,” he says, before adopting a mock-pompous voice: “‘Oh, Twitter’s blowing up about you!’” he says with an empty laugh. “So what? If I don’t read it or engage in it, it causes me no heartache.”

As we speak, the film that has brought him to the Cannes Film Festival, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, is making global headlines and trending across those social media platforms he spurns. Not for its warm depiction of male friendship, as portrayed by its stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, or its rich evocation of Los Angeles in 1969, or Robbie’s turn as Manson Family murder victim Sharon Tate, but for an exchange at yesterday’s press conference, the morning after its world premiere. The New York Times’ Farah Nayeri listed Robbie’s talents and credits before asking Tarantino why “we don’t hear her actually speaking very much” onscreen. He replied, “Well, I just reject your hypothesis,” and refused to comment any further.

“I think the moments that I got on screen gave an opportunity to honour Sharon,” Robbie said at the press conference, jumping in to fill the silence. “I did feel like I got a lot of time to explore the character.”

In the film, when she’s not being watched or spoken about, we see Tate walking through Los Angeles and visiting a cinema to watch herself in the film The Wrecking Crew, and there are several scenes of her at home with her partner, Roman Polanski. She delivers few lines of dialogue, though thoroughly earns her third billing.

“I often look to interactions with other characters to inform me on the character,” she continued. “Rarely do I get the opportunity to spend so much time on my own as a character through a day-to-day existence.”

Regardless of Robbie’s answer, Tarantino’s response played into the hands of critics keen to paint him as an out-of-touch film bro. He is the director most closely associated with disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein, and he’s a man with a hugely influential body of work who has been accused of being a cocky cineliterate thief as often as he’s been praised for being a serious director with artistic ambitions. After these screenings at Cannes, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood received a spate of five-star reviews and declarations that it is his most elegiac, confident, relaxed, personal and well-crafted film to date.

These early reviews emphasised the film’s focus on DiCaprio’s and Pitt’s characters, and Tarantino’s skill at evoking the era. More than one critic was reminded of the video game Grand Theft Auto by the number of sequences involving driving through Los Angeles with era-appropriate rock music and commercials playing on the radio.

More in-depth reviews teased out Robbie’s role and Tarantino’s treatment of the young women and girls of the Manson Family. Rather than seeing them as victims of Charles Manson’s charismatic authoritarianism, he depicts them scrounging food from dumpsters, swapping sexual favours for rides and, morally, occupying the same plane as Nazis and slave owners in his previous films. Throughout our interview he describes them as “creepy”.

When asked how women are represented in his films, Tarantino pauses for a moment, as if inviting Robbie to field the question.

“I didn’t really deal with that in this movie,” he sighs. “I’ve worked really hard to not let social critics affect my work. It’s just not my job. It’s just not my job to worry about critics or society,” he says, seemingly to himself. “It’s actually my job to ignore that, to do what I do.”

“And it can meet with acclaim, it can meet with ridicule but it is what it is,” he says, his profile contorting to a Z-shape. “And, by the way, this time right now isn’t for all time, but hopefully your work is. So this work can be read one way today, but it could be viewed in a different way 20 years from now.”

This observation certainly holds true for the film that first brought him to Cannes. Arriving as a 31-year-old disrupter with Pulp Fiction in 1994, Tarantino is now the crowning jewel at a festival that would have struggled to make waves without his presence. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was a last-minute addition to the line-up, and festival director Thierry Fremaux made his affection for Tarantino clear. “He is one of the greatest filmmakers in the world,” Fremaux told The Hollywood Reporter. “He is part of the Cannes family, part of the Cannes history. He is as important as Orson Welles was, or as important as Martin Scorsese.”

I ask Tarantino how he thinks the world has changed since Pulp Fiction.

“Ahhh…” he trails off. “This is definitely different. The time right now is definitely different.”

“How?”

“You know.” He smiles in a way that is disconcertingly out of kilter with the arch tone of his voice. A suggestion that I do indeed know, and that this line of questioning ends here.

As the moment hangs, Robbie sits holding a coffee cup up near her neck. Seemingly at ease, she welcomes a question about the process of becoming Sharon Tate, a question the director interrupts.

“I asked her to do it! All right?” he laughs, eager to break the tension. “And thankfully she said yes or I’d be shit out of fucking luck!”

“And all my dreams came true because I got to make a Tarantino movie,” says Robbie, joining his laughter. “Quentin and I met early on. I had written to him just explaining how much I admired his work,” she turns to him. “And I think I offered to do craft service if you ever needed it one day,” she smiles before turning back to me. “And fortunately when we spoke he’d finished this script and we started talking about it.”

“It was the same with Brad and Leo,” she says leaning forward to let her heavy gold Chanel necklace knock against the table. “There’s one script. It’s got his handwriting on it and stuff like, ‘This is not to be duplicated’ on it. You have to go to Quentin’s house and sit at his kitchen nook and read it. And so I came over and sat there. I’m a slow reader and also I was just dying over the fact that I was holding a Quentin Tarantino original script in my hand. So I read it for probably four and a half hours.”

Tarantino picks up the story, “I’d check in every 45 minutes, and be like,” he adopts a high-pitched effeminate voice, “‘can I get you a drink? Maybe a little salami and cheese?’”

“I had some lunch, he gave me a VB,” Robbie says.

“Hang on,” I ask, to check I didn’t mishear her. “A VB?”

“Victoria Bitter, mate,” says Tarantino, with a smiling hint of ocker in his voice.

“Yeah, he had a bottle hiding in his fridge. I was literally like, ‘I can’t wait to tell my friends back home he drinks VB.’ This is amazing!” she laughs before continuing. “And then the research and preparing for the role started from there. I have my general process, which is slightly tailored for every character, of course. I’d done a show [Pan Am] that was set in 1963, so I’ve kind of done my homework on the early ’60s, but exploring this time was pretty new to me, it was fascinating. I read and watched everything I could, but at the same time as an actor I wanted to understand what purpose Sharon served. So, more important than the research, I wanted to know why is this character in the story?”

Why Tate is part of this film is a question critics have been trying to answer since it was announced that Tarantino had been given a US$90 million budget and total creative control to make Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. DiCaprio’s fading TV actor, Rick Dalton, and Pitt’s stuntman, Cliff Booth, are inventions, as is Al Pacino’s turn as Dalton’s agent Marvin Schwarz, and some members of the Manson Family. But Australian actor Damon Herriman plays Charles Manson, Damian Lewis has a scene as Steve McQueen and Mike Moh appears as Bruce Lee. This combination of real and fictitious is one that gives the film a quality of rewriting history, of being enveloped in a version of Hollywood that Joan Didion once wrote “sometimes presents the appearance of the last extant stable society”. Tarantino has done this before, in Inglorious Basterds, when he reimagined the ending of World War Two. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is far more personal, not just to people still living in Los Angeles who were affected by the Manson Family killings, but because Tarantino himself was born and raised in the area.

Asked about the film’s origins, his entire demeanour shifts to one of enthusiasm. “If I was going to chronicle the first creative spark that ultimately leads us to today, then I have to go back about nine years ago,” Tarantino says, his eyes flashing.

“I was making a movie with an older movie star in it, and he had a stunt double who he’d worked with for a long, long time. Now we didn’t really have anything for that stunt double to do, so I never really dealt with him. But there was one thing that he could have done, and so [the star] said, ‘I got this guy and I haven’t pressured you to use him because it’s not really appropriate, but it would be a good thing if I could give him a little bit on it.’ I said, ‘Sure,’ so he came down and it was a very interesting dynamic. You could tell that there was a time that they looked exactly like each other. I mean you could have shot close-ups of the stunt guy, no worries. This wasn’t that time anymore. The stunt guy was a little older, a little chubbier, and I’m sure this was one of the last things that they ever did together.”

“The other thing that was interesting was that it was pretty obvious he wasn’t working for me,” he says quickly, as if on the verge of losing his breath. “He was working for the actor. That was his boss. He didn’t give a damn about me or the movie or anything. I’d ask, ‘Are you happy?’ and he’d go, ‘Well, if blah blah’s happy, I’m happy.’ I remember seeing them sitting in the director’s chairs talking to each other and I thought, ‘That’s an interesting relationship. Maybe if I ever do a movie about Hollywood that might be an interesting way into the story.’”

The actual writing of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood began in 2013, in fits and starts between other projects. Rather than write and deliver on a pitch to a producer, Tarantino has a relationship with his work that is more one of listening to the project itself.

“Writing this was almost a thing for me to do in between the last four movies. And then all of a sudden, ‘Holy shit, I’m gonna finish this!’ And so then it was ‘okay, batten down the hatches. Here we go.’ For a long time, it was like I was pushing this rock up the hill, a little further, a little further, and I thought that would be the case this time too, like... what’s the guy, syphilis? Not syphilis, Sillyphus, who pushes the rock up the hill?”

“Sisyphus?” I suggest.

“Oh yeah,” he laughs. “Well, he had a problem with his rocks. I’m here all week, tip your waitresses.”

Andy Hazel

Andy Hazel is a Melbourne-based writer and The Saturday Paper’s editorial assistant.

Quentin Tarantino and Margot Robbie. Photograph by Eric Charbonneau

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