“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” production designer Barbara Ling and costume designer Arianne Phillips were the new kids on the block. It was the first time the two had worked with Quentin Tarantino, and “we had to really fit in,” says Ling. “There was a lot we had to learn,” Phillips says of working on the period movie.
They quickly discovered how much camaraderie there is on a Tarantino movie set. “It’s the first time I’ve really gotten close with crew members like grips, gaffers and people I don’t usually have a dialogue with because I’m always off set,” Phillips says.
To create the looks for the 1969-set film, Phillips built most of the principal costumes for Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). “The first thing I do, knowing we have hundreds of people to dress in the background is that I amass as many vintage pieces as possible. They serve as stock for my background. Often, special pieces I find in that process, whether it’s a costume house, vintage dealer or thrift store, those pieces can act as inspiration for costumes.”
One of the pieces she found was Booth’s denim jacket. “Having a vintage Wrangler jacket that Cliff Booth wears, I couldn’t re-create that. It is what it is.”
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Tarantino’s eye for detail meant he wasn’t going to use CGI, green screen or any effects to re-create Hollywood 1969. “He wanted to be in 1969 in front of that TV store, the movie theater or on that street. He didn’t want any green screen,” Ling says.
Instead, she scouted Hollywood for locations that her team could put facades on. Many of the buildings were found on Hollywood Boulevard.
While Tarantino had an eye for meticulous detail right down to the flyers in store windows. He did make a few exceptions. Ling says, “Everyone knew about Peaches Record Store, but he had to have it. It didn’t have to be a documentary. It was a year early.” She points out.
The detail included posters. Ling sourced original blacklight posters on eBay. “The great thing about this film is that there are so many of the people we brought back to life with this movie. Particularly the poster artists who got ripped off. They’d sign away the right to their posters back then. We did get to pay some people who were still alive some royalties to use their work. Quentin appreciated and loved those stories. That’s what is also unique, he would love to hear those stories,” Ling says.
“It’s so amazing to have a director with a vernacular for design and one who loves the texture,” says her costume designer counterpart.
Such was the detail that Phillips, who lives in Hollywood, would question the film sets. “A lot of these sets made you question how much Ling had done. The facades were all re-created. All those layers are reflective of how [meticulous] Quentin’s attention to detail is.”
“[Tarantino] said, ‘I wrote a Hawaiian shirt in the script. I didn’t write what color or what it looks like, if you have a better idea, bring it.’ As a costume designer, to have a director that has a point of view and is open, it’s an invitation,” Phillips says.
Since Sharon Tate was a real person, unlike the fictional Dalton and Booth, and well documented, Phillips cherry-picked what outfits made sense for the film. The white boots that Tate wears were very similar to the boots worn by the women in the “Hullaballoo” scene with Dalton. Phillips didn’t think they were right for Tate’s movie theater scene, and didn’t think Tate would wear those boots in 1969, but Tarantino liked them too much. “I made them a bit taller and we went with it.”
Ling notes that the Playboy Mansion scene is a moment in which the “costumes become a true set piece. You see the hip 1969 going into 1970 with Sharon, Mama Cass and Steve McQueen. In contrast, you have Leo’s world, but he doesn’t even have sideburns.”
Both Ling and Phillips thrived from Tarantino’s attention to detail and building a world within a world within a world. Ling says, “He knows what he absolutely loves and what he absolutely hates.” And what was the atmosphere like for the new ladies on the Tarantino block? Aside from loving the experience and working with someone who had such knowledge and passion for all he did? They loved the set camaraderie. Tarantino had cocktails for every 100 roles. “We’d have to do one more take and Quentin would turn and say, ‘Why are we doing one more take?’ and the entire crew would yell, ‘Because we love making movies!’”