Quentin Tarantino: ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ (the novel)

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Elvis Mitchell and Quentin Tarantino. Photo Courtesy of Elvis Mitchell.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes back longtime friend of the show, Oscar-winning writer and director Quentin Tarantino, whose newest project is a novelization of his film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Tarantino talks about how many of the characters in his films and his novel are coming to the end of their prime and are grappling with what comes next. He says the novel gave him a chance to take the characters deeper and get to know them better. Tarantino talks about why Brad Pitt was a subversive choice for the role of Cliff in “Hollywood,” and he explains why Elvis was one of the first readers of his book.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment.  For the first time in 15 months, I'm actually sitting across from another human being, instead of being in my lonely attic in my house. I'm across from the director and now novelist of "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," Quentin Tarantino. We get to learn a lot more about Sharon Tate and a lot more about Cliff in the novel. 

Quentin Tarantino:  I started working on this sometime after "Death Proof," but I wasn't in any hurry to write it, and my way of discovering things was to write them out as scenes. So if ever I wanted to learn anything about Rick's career, I just put him in another scene with Marvin, and then Marvin would ask him questions, and Rick would have to explain it, then Marvin would extrapolate on his answers. And that would teach me everything I needed to know. And also, I was just trying to create the way that these characters of this era in this industry talk to each other. 

Just to give you an example, one of the chapters in the book is when the "Lancer" episode is over, and so James, Stacy and Rick go to a bar, and then have a couple drinks after work. Now I wrote that scene because I was actually really curious to see what they would talk about and what would happen. But when I wrote it, I didn't even type it up. I just stayed in handwritten form because I'm never gonna put that in the movie. I'm like, I can't in the climax have 40 minutes for these guys to just go to a bar and shoot the s--t. Yeah, that's not a movie, and I was writing a movie, but it was a really cool piece that I thought was wonderful edification when I talked to the actors about it.

KCRW: What's so much fun about the book is what I've imagined, and something you probably lived through, which is: if you're a famous person, you get asked the same question a lot of times. And a lot of this is Rick trying to figure out how he wants to have to answer the question of how he wasn't cast in this movie or get this part.

Tarantino: Yeah, when it comes to the Steve McQueen, "Great Escape" question, it's like he has a bigger answer. He has a smaller answer. He has like the least little bit he can possibly say without being rude.

KCRW: There's a scene where the piano player talks about his son, who's a big fan of "The 14 Fists of McKlusky." 

Tarantino: The piano player is named Curtis Zastoupil, and he's my stepfather. Curtis was a piano bar musician in East LA around that time, and he actually did work in a bar called “The Drinkers Hall of Fame," which is described in the book because I actually remember ‘The Drinkers Hall of Fame.” He took me to bars at night when he was playing. Mom would take me to the bars every once in a while when he was playing at night, just so I could hear him play. And then one time he brought me on stage, “oh, come on up here, Quentin,” and he put me on his lap. Okay, let's sing the Mickey Mouse song or something, and the whole bar thought I was sweet. And the story goes that when he said, Okay, that's enough, and it came time for my mom to pull me away from the microphone and pull me away from the stage, I started crying. I didn't want to go. Okay, the kid's a ham.

KCRW: This book has a sense of intimacy, that it feels like you were striving for to really separate it from the movie. We're really aware of how close these characters get to each other physically, and how it changes the room and how you let us know for example, when Cliff gets close to somebody, what that does to them. 

Tarantino: He's aware of the effect he has on people: both good and bad.

KCRW: That and your ear for the way people talk in intimate situations, to me seems to stem from somebody spending a lot of time at bars and watching people talk or being around your stepdad's friends and hearing that kind of conversation. 

Tarantino: I definitely think so because I already did the movie. So the movie is the movie; I had my big action scenes, and I did all my movie stuff. I figured that most people reading the book will probably have seen the movie, so I don't need to do that again. And now I can go into it in a more intimate way, and hopefully, with an equal amount of fun, but it's just a different beast.

KCRW: The thing I was reminded most about from reading the book was "Jackie Brown," which is very much about a series of intimate scenes and also about the way somebody deals with loneliness. I mean, that's kind of the subtext of "Jackie Brown." And it's also the subtext for Cliff's life. Cliff has made his agreement with it, and Rick is fighting it.

Tarantino: Well, I hadn't thought about it before, but that's a good point because both stories are people who are starting to get the beginnings of long in the tooth in their lives and then actually just realizing the limited options that are available to them and how they react to that predicament. 

KCRW: In both of these things, actually, it's that recognition that the sun is setting on you, and are you okay with it? We get a lot of Cliff by himself in this, and he's at peace with himself in a way that Rick never is.

Tarantino: Yeah, well, that actually makes sense because when you go through Cliff's war record, Cliff was sure he was going to die in Sicily, in the war. And then when he was sent to the Philippines, to fight with the Filipino resistance fighters against the Japanese, he was positive he was gonna die. And then when he was put in a Japanese prison camp, he was triple positive he was gonna die. In fact, if he didn't think he was going to die, he probably wouldn't have pulled the daring escape that he did. And so when he lived through the war, it actually proved to be a touch inconvenient for him because he hadn't thought about what he was going to do with the rest of his life. 

Then there's the idea that he's done a couple of things that could have put him in jail for the rest of his life. So the idea that he didn't die in the Filipino jungle to be eaten by wild animals, but no one knows whatever happened to him, be missing in action, and the fact that he's not serving 10 to 25 in San Quentin, well, every day is a pretty good day. Things could be a lot worse.

KCRW: There's almost a melancholy in that division between the way Rick leads his life as kind of an infant and demanding attention and not knowing what to do with himself. Even though he doesn't like having to answer questions, he'd rather answer questions he doesn't like than to be alone.

Tarantino: Because you're able to be a little bit more interior with Rick, you realize that he has moments of interesting clarity, where he kind of gets out of his own way. I actually think a really neat thing is when he's doing the "Lancer" episode, the director goes, Hey, I want you to have a hippie look. And Rick's first response was: you want me to look like a damn hippie? Obviously, he doesn't like that. 

At first when he sees it, he just sees that when he's looking at it with the costume person and the makeup person and the director. But then when he gets out of the trailer, and he's walking along the 20 Century Fox backlot on the western side, he starts looking at himself in a mirror, and he sees himself surrounded by the western accoutrement of a phony town and with the longer hair and the big mustache, and he starts actually realizing what Marvin Schwartz was saying to him the other day that he's been wearing the pompadour so long that the pompadour became him. But looking at this look, this doesn't look like an Eisenhower actor. This guy could be in a Peckinpah movie. This guy looks like a "with it" actor. And that's what he doesn't think of himself as, and so he actually sees almost maybe an opening for himself. 

KCRW: The thing that made me think about the difference in the way that Cliff deals with loneliness versus Rick, is that when Rick gets married, Cliff completely understands what the motivation was. It's Rick's inability to be alone, so he grabs just the first thing he can.

Tarantino: I like Cliff's description of it: what do I think? I think these two idiots made a life changing decision without thinking about it. That's what I think.

KCRW: There's a section in the book that may be my favorite: the "Hollywood or Bust" section, in terms of all the things we're talking about: intimacy and self awareness, and loneliness, and this idea of how much information you want to let out about yourself. All these things that are thematic throughout the book all come to play in that section. That chapter could almost be its own movie.

Tarantino: The scenes that work that are tied to the narrative but aren't necessarily a bone connected to the narrative, those are probably some of the more interesting chapters in the book because they play like little short story chapters, but with characters you know, and it's going in the same direction of the movie. 

We haven't talked about it, but Elvis was one of the first people to read the book because the thing about it was: I was writing and I was about maybe four or five chapters into it, but I wasn't telling anybody except for my wife what I was doing. I was just kind of writing by myself; no one was waiting for it. I didn't tell anybody, oh, I'm turning it into a book. And then I finally decided, so this doesn't stay a weird morbid hobby, let me start sending a couple chapters out to my friends and have them read a couple, and that would get me excited about what they're reading, and that would get me excited about writing more chapters for them to read more. And so I sent it out to my two agents, my film agent and my literary agent, and I started sending chapters out to you. And I sent chapters out to David Heyman, the producer, and Roger Avery, my co-writer on "Pulp Fiction," and you guys were the first people to read the book. And as I was writing it,  I would send you three chapters at a time. 

KCRW: I think a part of this, too, is: when you're not working the exercise of writing is something you do just to sort of keep yourself in shape, but it's also because you're always thinking about characters. People extrapolate what it is you're doing and what your next project is gonna be like. They have no idea what he's gonna really do because I know what he's doing. You realize how outrageous the speculation usually is compared to what the reality is.

Tarantino: I'm curious if you don't mind me putting you on the spot because we haven't talked about it. What did you think of the Aldo Ray chapter?

KCRW: Oh, my God, that's heartbreaking. Again, that's another chapter that's about intimacy, and about self-awareness, and about loneliness. Cliff really wants to talk to this guy because they've shared this thing, but also it's Cliff's constant analysis of everything that's going on around him. People think that you were much more generous to Cliff as a character that you are. I think people thought because Brad Pitt was playing him, he's supposed to be this guy that we like, but no, he's this guy who we should be conflicted about.

Tarantino: Oh, he's a sketchy f--ing dude. I think you still like him, but I'm not making that easy. I think the way Aldo comes across as a character, I think there's dignity in his patheticness if that makes any sense. 

KCRW: He understands who he is. It's the difference, in some ways between, Aldo Ray and Rick, but he's also one of these guys who's two minutes past midnight now in his life.

Tarantino: When I wrote it as a scene to possibly do in the movie, it's like, I'm gonna shoot it and it'll never make the movie. I didn't think it added to the book, but in the scene version, the dubbed in Spanish version of "Nightfall" is playing on the TV that's chained to the radiator in Cliff's room. He's watching Ann Bancroft and Aldo Ray do their scenes in Spanish, and you can't look at a young Aldo Ray sitting next to a young, beautiful Ann Bancroft and not think of how truly separate their careers went from that point on.

KCRW: All these things you're talking about are great scenes in the abstract, and on their own in this, wouldn't play. It would have just been too discordant.

Tarantino: One of the things I try to do in all my movies is where I give you a big long dialogue scene and people reacting and talking. You don't realize you're being told exposition that's going to be important later in the story because it's just surrounded by a bunch of other things, but then you get to later in the story: Oh, okay. I get it now. In the movie, for instance, you think you're just watching Cliff in his apartment feeding his dog, and that's good enough, all right, because you get a real sense of his apartment, especially his dwelling compared to Rick's dwelling and how he seems to be cool with things where Rick is kvetching about everything, and just seeing all his junk all over the floor, his comic books and his paperbacks and his trophies from motorcycle motocross races, tells you who he is. But later you also see how well trained his dog is. And now that plays into the end. You're like, Well, wait a minute: why would that dog? No, no, you know. You didn't realize you were being taught that, but you were taught that and now it makes sense.

KCRW: One of the more fun things about the book is that we get a novelization of the "Lancer" pilot with much saltier language than we would ever have had an episode of television in 1969.

Tarantino: I'm actually expecting to give Robert Rodriguez the book to read, and I think he's gonna read it and go, I want to do "Lancer" the movie now. I’ll go, Well, I own it. You can do it. 

KCRW: You've got Rick who thinks that he's better than certain things, and so much of this book and this movie is about this understanding that there's no point in turning your nose up for things because it's like, if you taste it, you're gonna like it.

Tarantino: Somebody once asked me, Wow, so these guys are obsessed with movies? I go, No, they're not obsessed with movies. You're a cinephile, you are obsessed with stuff, okay. I can be a cinephile. I'm obsessed with stuff. They're not obsessed that way. They're working professionals. They work all the time. It's their life. They know all the actors they work with, all the actors they've lost jobs to. And they know each other from hanging out at this bar or that bar. It's their job to know every episodic TV director they ever worked with, because that's how they're gonna get more work. 

But the downside is, they're also crazy class conscious, and they were afraid of appearing lesser than. They worked really hard to bring their rate up from scale plus 10. They worked really, really hard. And that was like a thing in the 90s, where you're an independent filmmaker, and you're making a movie for like a million and a half or 2 million or whatever the deal is. And you want to cast one of these older actors, and in those things, unless you were the lead that was getting the movie made, everybody got scale plus 10 in these independent movies. When you tried to get one of these cool old salty dogs, an older person, and you would offer them scale plus 10, not only did they say no, they were mad at you. They were offended, like, how dare this piece of crap movie come to me with scale plus 10? You know what I've done in my career? Because they didn't understand the realities of the business have changed. 

KCRW: Finally, your movies are about time, either the way you play time in terms of the texture of the movie, or the way time affects the characters, and at some point, people are aware of the clock running out.  And Rick, interestingly, is the most human of all those people because eventually his life is at stake. You have these characters who are afraid of tomorrow coming because it's going to end their way of life and these people who are embracing tomorrow. I've always wanted to ask you about that.

Tarantino: I don't know. Frankly, I hadn't thought about it before. It would just be super dependent on the given characters you happen to be talking about. However, in this case, with the idea of Rick and Cliff, the dichotomy is just so clear.

KCRW: Even in "Death Proof," the Kurt Russell character realizes that his way of life is over, and he's trying to basically kill off the future. I wonder if you feel like these two people are you. Is some part of you at war with wanting things to stay the same versus wanting to see what tomorrow has to bring? 

Tarantino: I don't think it's really me. I think it's just the nature of the characters. I've always been ridiculously excited by the future. And by the way, I've had a really magnificent career, so if I wasn't excited about the future, I have no excuse for it. I've just been ridiculously fortunate to be able to do what I wanted to do and work on the canvas in a way that I've been able to work. I don't really have a good answer, but I do agree that there is an aspect of couples in my story, and the couples usually are coming from a different place. 




Rebecca Mooney