Once Upon an Epic Panel at the New Beverly: Tarantino, DiCaprio, Pitt and Robbie Reunite to Talk ‘Hollywood’

A Q&A offered revelations on everything from Leonardo DiCaprio's trailer-smashing improv to how Margot Robbie worked to make Sharon Tate literally lighter than air — and what Billy Jack's got to do with it.

Quentin Tarantino Once Upon a Time New Beverly Cinema
Eric Charbonneau

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is such a rabbit hole of references, themes and moods that 40 minutes is hardly sufficient to scramble down it. But a small audience in a Hollywood theater was happy to have that much time Saturday with the rare reassembling of Quentin Tarantino, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie for a post-screening discussion about the year’s most rewardingly episodic epic. (The chat was also live-streamed to 18 other screens around North America.)

The Q&A had Tarantino holding the home-field advantage as a conversationalist, taking place at his own beloved repertory house, the New Beverly. Invited guild members were on hand along with 50 members of Tarantino’s public, who were recognizable as the ones asleep under coats and blankets before the screening started, some having waited outside much of the night for the early a.m. dispersal of free tickets. They were rewarded with a discussion that packed a lot into those 40 minutes, like the legacy of Luke Perry; the influences on the movie of “Billy Jack,” Travis Bickle, Edd “Kookie” Byrnes and cumulus clouds; and what horrors might have transpired if a smartphone had dared interrupt the director’s 1969 fever dream.

What we learned from the panel:

Robbie was initially flummoxed by, then intoxicated by, the bearable lightness of being Sharon Tate. “I think like a lot of people around my age, I’d heard of her death, but I didn’t know about her life, and I hadn’t seen her films,” Robbie said. “She was by all accounts just an angel on this earth, and I think that was part of the tragedy and the shock, that something so innocent and pure could be taken. … (The role) was beautiful in its simplicity, and I really appreciated that and recognized that perhaps her presence in this script was to emulate or personify the wonderful things about Hollywood in the ‘60s — the opportunity and the fun, and the ‘60s itself just being that free-love, open-door kind of time before it came to a tragic halt… and provide the film with that lightness that I think she was there to portray.”

Being of good cheer was harder than it looks. “I find it a lot easier to go dark, a lot easier to yell and scream and cry and do all that on screen. I feel like I can get there a lot quicker,” Robbie said. “But to be truly light all the time was actually hard — weirdly hard. But a joy as well, kind of like being on this beautiful vacation all the time. And I worked with a movement coach a lot and did a lot of weird stuff: Run around and pretend to be a cloud! … I looked like a lunatic. But that stuff was fun and really helpful. And then, as silly as it might sound, I made a list of all the things that make me really happy, and then I would try and do all those things on the day that I was going to work or the day before. And all the things that gave me that downward pull in life, the stress and angst, I would kind of cut that out — like, I couldn’t look at emails within 24 hours of going to set.”

Great minds think alike, when it comes to Tom Laughlin. Tarantino: “When it came to Brad, we had a really interesting, copacetic moment where he came over to the house. … I had an idea for something, so I had a projectionist at the house and I had a film cued up. Brad shows up and he has a DVD with him: ‘So here’s what I’m thinking about for Cliff.’ And he pulled out the DVD of ‘Billy Jack.’ And not so much that Cliff was Billy Jack, but more like the idea that … you could imagine Tom Laughlin playing Cliff in 1971 — simply a jumping off point. So he shows me the ‘Billy Jack; DVD, and I go, “Dude, I have reel 1 of “Billy Jack” cued up on my 35mm projector in the screening room! I was all prepared to watch it with you tonight.’”

Added Pitt: “I can’t explain it any more than the way he carried himself. There was a groundedness — a strength in standing still.” Ultimately, Pitt said of his character, “I kind of looked at it as like, he was looking for the best in people, but he expected the worst, and was surprised by neither.”

Tarantino had a very exact chart in his head of how big a star Rick Dalton was in the ‘60s and what he could or could not have been cast in. “Rick would never be offered the Steve McQueen role in ‘The Magnificent Seven.’ That’s never gonna happen. However, two sequels down the line, ‘The Guns of the Magnificent Seven,’ where George Kennedy is playing the Yul Brynner role, now, the Steve McQueen role in that played by Monte Markham, yes, now Rick could have absolutely been cast in that.”

DiCaprio honed in on several actors in particular — and, eventually, one more specifically — as models for his character. Tarantino: “I didn’t base Rick Dalton off of one actor. I based him off about five different actors. … A lot of this stuff I was showing Leo, he was really seeing it for the first time and didn’t know who these people were per se, so it was really interesting to get his honest reaction to them. I mean, if you talk to me about Ed ‘Kookie’ Burns, I come with a whole lineage of who Edd ‘Cookie’ Byrnes is. He doesn’t know who the f— he is! So he watches ‘Secret Invasion,’ and I go, wow, Leonardo DiCaprio really liked Edd Burns in ‘Secret Invasion,’ that’s really groovy. That was an honest reaction without any baggage.”

DiCaprio: “I kind of keyed in on three guys: Ty Hardin, Edd Byrnes and Ralph Meeker. And once we honed in on Ralph Meeker, I started obsessively watching his work, because there was a vulnerability and sensitivity to him, and a sort of pathos in his work, that I felt Rick had the potential to emulate in his own career. … What kind of actor he could become was the biggest question for me. And I think we both mutually decided that yeah, there is a depth to Rick’s work, and applying himself and digging deep, he can give a great performance.”

Tarantino: “When you see Ty Hardin, you see Eddie Byrnes, I like both of those guys… but there’s a surface level, a good surface level, to who those guys are. Ralph Meeker runs really, really deep. He’s just an amazing actor. And he was doing bad guy episodic work by that point in time, or playing in exploitation movies as the corrupt sheriff. And so when one of them actually put a hook in (DiCaprio) — ‘Oh, I (playing Rick) could actually be as good as this guy, except I’m not as aware as this guy is’ — that became something.”

DiCaprio spent so much time shooting scenes apart from Pitt’s and Robbie’s characters that he was surprised seeing them in the finished film. “We were almost all going to do our separate little independent movies,” said DiCaprio. “Like, I went off to the sort of ‘Lancer’ set for a few months, and Margot and Brad would go do their thing. … I just love the tapestry of what Quentin created with all three of these characters and how they intersected.” But, he admitted, “I had no idea (Pitt’s Cliff) was going to be this incredibly charismatic, Alain Delon type of character.”

Rick Dalton’s on-set breakdown was something DiCaprio asked for and Tarantino resisted — but once it was introduced, the director wanted him to go full “Taxi Driver” in his freak-out. Tarantino: “It wasn’t in the script, actually. … Leo was like, ‘Look, I need to f— up during the ‘Lancer’ sequence, and when I f— up, I need to have a real crisis of conscience about it, and I have to come back from that, in some way.’ My response is, ‘What, you’re gonna f— up my “Lancer” sequence? That’s my Western, all right? I get two-for-one on this movie! I get to sneak a Western in here when nobody’s f—ing looking, all right? You want to f— it up?’ Almost like we did with him f—ing up his hand in ‘Django (Unchained),’ where it was like ‘Well, I don’t know if I want to do that.’ So we did the ‘Lancer’ scene without the f—up and then we did it with the f—up. And then once we did it with the f—up, it was so amazing that of course we’re going to use it.

“Then it was like, well, now we need a little bit more than that. If we’re going to build up that you’re having your gunfight at the OK Coral, but it’s with yourself … I think I described it exactly this way; ‘Well, it’s gonna be like Travis Bickle when he’s in his apartment by himself.’ … That means I’m going to do it all in jump cuts. We’re not going to have any other angles. … We’ll do three takes and we’ll run the camera out on all three takes and I’ll just jump cut to the best stuff. … I said, I want you to improvise it, but I’ll come up with things you need to be flipped out about. So I came up with about four, five or six things that he could obsess on and go nuts over. ‘Oh, that f—ing Jim Stacy, just sitting up there watching me, thinking he’s so f—ing hot! He wouldn’t be a f—ing wrangler on my f—ing TV show! And that f—ing little girl!’… The cutest part of the sequence was how nervous he was. I mean, I’ve never seen him so nervous on the day, knowing that in three hours we’re gonna do it.”

DiCaprio added that he believes the added moments of flagrant, angry insecurity “became a very universal thing, not only for actors, (but others, too) who’ve been in that position and have those voices of doubt within all of us.”

The shots can wait on a Tarantino set, when Hollywood lore is being shared. Pitt: “We’re gonna finish the story first, we’re gonna have a good laugh, and then we’ll get to the scene and the scene’s gonna be great — but we’re gonna finish the story.” Tarantino recounted how it might go: “’We’re waiting for you guys.’ ‘Hold on, hold on, hold on! So, anyway: Tom Laughlin tells Delores Taylor that…’”

Any sense of relaxation ends when a cell phone is brought onto the set. Robbie: “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so transported as I did on Quentin’s set. Because number one, everything’s practical (in the visuals). There’s not just the foreground of props and setting, and then ‘the rest is gonna be blue screen, we’ll do it later.’ As far as you can see down the street, there’s a row of cars from the ‘60s; it’s not like three and that’s where the blockade finishes. He’s playing music from the ‘60s. you can touch (the elaborate production design), and there’s no cell phones on the set. I know, it’s crazy.”

Pitt: “Can I tell the story of when the cell phone went off on ‘Inglorious Basterds?’ Epic! You have to check your phones in. There are no phones. This is sacred ground. And one went off in between takes. And you would have thought someone walked into the Sistine Chapel and took a shit. The production came to a grinding halt. And no one would cop to it, although we knew the general area. Quentin sent us home for the rest of the day. We had the afternoon off to think about what we’d done.” Added Tarantino: “I ask you for one thing. And if you have no more respect for me than that, then go home.” (Someone’s cell phone did go off in about the fifth row midway through the New Beverly Q&A, a big no-no during even a regular screening there — and Tarantino showed remarkable restraint.)

With all the legends on the set, DiCaprio was maybe most in awe of… Luke Perry. Moderator Jim Hemphill mentioned that DiCaprio had worked with everyone from Al Pacino to Perry on the film. And guess which one of those two the actor leaped to talk about? “Honestly, as soon as I saw Luke on the set ,I was brought back to my teenage past and felt starstruck,” DiCaprio said. “I remember being a young actor and he was television’s James Dean figure, the guy that everyone was crazy about. It was honestly this feeling of anxiety before I got to talk with him. Even my friend who’s named Vinnie who was on the set that day said: ‘Holy shit, it’s Luke Perry!’ I got to finally sit down and talk with him, and man, he couldn’t have been a gentler soul. He was so giving, and there was a purity and an honesty to him in talking about the industry and where his career was at and a gratefulness to be on that set working with Quentin. … It was a fantastic moment getting to spend the day with him and getting to know him, and it was obviously tragic and sad news when we heard what happened.”

DiCaprio did come around to that Pacino guy, eventually. When Hemphill asked about the Musso & Frank’s scene, DiCaprio indicated that there was a lot more to it than seen in the final cut, and that he hopes the outtakes emerge someday. He and Pacino actually spend months bonding. “There was a lot more in that sequence, because really Al sets up my entire career, and gives people an entire tapestry of what happened to me and what my destiny is. The essence of it is still there… I got to rehearse with Al at my house and his place for months beforehand, because we had these long sequences together. And then it was just a magical moment (on the set) — one on one with Al Pacino, almost three weeks that we were there doing these monologues. Someday we’ll see them see the light of day, because there was some great stuff there.”

Burt Reynolds died before he could shoot his role in the movie (which Bruce Dern ended up filling), but at least Tarantino had a chance to argue with him about his filmography before he passed. Said Pitt, “We got to spend two glorious, fun filled days with Burt, and I’m pretty grateful for the experience. … I found him really generous and really kind, even humble, which I didn’t expect, because of the characters he would play on screen.”

Tarantino is known for his love of the early Reynolds film “Navajo Joe” (a poster for which sometimes adorns a wall of the New Beverly), directed by Sergio Cobucci, described in “Once Upon a Time” as the second greatest director of spaghetti Westerns ever. Asked by moderator Hemphill if he brought it up with Reynolds, the director said, “You bet I did! … …” After we were having our very first conversation, I said ‘Hey look, I’ve got a bone to pick with you. I take incredible exception to the fact that you have made of “Navajo Joe” on talk shows ever since I was a kid, and you’re wrong. “Navajo Joe” is f—ing great. How dare you!’ And he’s like, ‘What movie?… Oh. God, come on!’… I grew up listening  to Burt Reynolds tells Burt Reynolds stories on talk shows. So we would get together and he would tell Burt Reynolds stories, and then I would tell Burt Reynolds stories.”

The first spark for the film came with Tarantino watching an older, legendary actor and his stuntman on-set. The director didn’t name the elder actor in question, but said, “He had a guy that he had been working with for nine, 15 years, something like that. And he came to me and goes, ‘I know you don’t really have anything for him in this, so I haven’t busted your balls about trying to hire the guy. However, there is that thing coming up on Thursday. Well, that could be my guy. So would you mind if we gave him that thing on Thursday?’ I said sure, no worries. … And this is probably going to be the last or second-to-last thing they ever do together. They’d kind of grown in different directions, getting older. But you could tell there was a time he would’ve been an amazing double. … And when I watched that stunt guy and the actor sitting in those directors’ chairs in the identical outfits talking to each other, I thought… if someday it happened that I ever make a movie about Hollywood, a relationship like that would be a really interesting way inside. … It always means something to me when I see a relationship in a movie where it seems like it legitimately goes on beyond the context of this movie (and) you could see the friendship that had developed between people in the years before the story started.”