Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’

Article | Issue: Jun 2021

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the first novel by acclaimed auteur film director and screenwriter QUENTIN TARANTINO, a novelisation of his 2019 film that harks back to the era of pulp film novelisations that dominated the ’70s.

Join HEATHER LEWIS as she dives into the history of Tarantino’s writing, and the bygone era of movie novelisations, and how it all ties into the director’s fresh new take on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Say what you will about Quentin Tarantino, there’s no writer and director quite like him. Ask anyone and they’ll likely have a ‘Tarantino Moment’ that will never leave their brain. Perhaps it’s the gratuitous ‘ear scene’ from his debut Reservoir Dogs, the disturbing pawnshop scene in Pulp Fiction, or the edge-of-your-seat opening scene of Inglourious Basterds. Love or hate those scenes, you can’t deny their staying power.

His penchant for nonlinear storytelling, believably flawed characters, snappy dialogue, gratuitous violence and distillation of countless classic film genres into a cohesive whole make each of his films a wholly unique piece of work. There’s no better example than his ninth film, 2019’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, described by Tarantino as a ‘fairytale’ set in the evolving world of Hollywood in 1969, and focusing on the infamous murder of Sharon Tate by the Manson Family.

Combining comedy, drama and thriller with a send-up of Spaghetti Westerns, the film uses multiple storylines to follow actor Rick Dalton (portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double/best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they struggle with fading careers. Booth picks up a young girl named Pussycat who is hitchhiking, and takes her to her home at Spahn Ranch, where he meets a commune of hippies living there – the ‘Manson Family,’ unbeknown to him. Meanwhile, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband, film director Roman Polanski move in next to Rick Dalton, and Dalton plans to befriend them as a way to revitalise his career. In typical Tarantino fashion, these plot threads all weave together into a fiery and violent climax.

Tarantino’s novelisation of his own film isn’t just a means to expand the characters and stories covered in the film. It also harks back to the seemingly bygone era of movie novelisations. Upon announcing the novelisation, Tarantino said, ‘In the ’70s, movie novelisations were the first adult books I grew up reading. And to this day I have a tremendous amount of affection for the genre.’

Once Upon a Time in HollywoodHe added that he sees the novelisation of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as his contribution to an ‘often marginalised, yet beloved sub-genre in literature’. Marginalised, indeed. Film novelisations began earlier than you’d think – some of the earliest ones were the silent films Les Vampires (1915) and London After Midnight (1927). When talkies came into fashion, King Kong (1933) was one of the first to be adapted. Novelisations particularly boomed in the 1970s, where the lack of home video meant that once a film was done in cinemas, often the only way to experience it was the paperback adaptation. As VHS, Laserdisc and eventually DVD became mainstays, movie novelisations were often seen as tie-in schlock, a cash-in only hardcore fans of a film would want to read. As time went on, more established authors began trying their hands at movie tie-ins, which reinstated the medium as a small but worthwhile (and profitable) venture. Today, novelisations of popular franchise instalments like ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Godzilla’ wind up on The New York Times bestseller lists.

As with Tarantino’s other historical films, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is heavily visual in its representation of Hollywood in 1969. It’s also awash with cultural references; there’s fictional portrayals of figures like Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee, Spaghetti Westerns like Lancer, and scenes from films like The Wrecking Crew and Lady in Cement digitally altered to include Leonardo Di Caprio’s character. How could such a visual director portray such a visually evocative film using only words?

Tarantino has often said he considers himself a writer first and a director second. In an interview with The Talks, he stated, ‘I am a writer. That’s what I do. It’s a writer’s job not just to write about himself but to look at the rest of humanity and explore it – other people’s way of talking, the phrases they use. And my head is a sponge.’

The filmmaker is well known for writing all of his scripts by hand, and later typing them up himself on a Smith-Corona, an ’80s-era typewriter-computer hybrid. In a 2019 episode of the podcast The Q&A, hosted by Jeff Goldsmith, Tarantino gave a unique insight into his process of plotting and character development, which appeared a lot closer to that of a novelist rather than a screenwriter.

He also revealed that he doesn’t like to plan ahead, and instead lets his characters and setting guide what happens. ‘I’ll do a little, like, “This thing goes into this thing goes into this thing,” maybe for, like, the first half or something, just to get a sense of how I’m starting, and I have an idea where I’m going to go with it,’ he told The Q&A. ‘I’m trying to get to that place where now the characters are exciting me … It’s the characters who really write the piece.

‘I’ve just learned that by the time I actually get to the middle of the story it’s become something so completely different than what I could have imagined before I actually started writing. Things have dropped away, and bad ideas have come and gone. Now you’re here. Now it’s this.’

Tarantino also writes a large amount of extra material, such as monologues, purely for the love of the story. ‘Scripts are meant to be read. Movies are meant to be shot,’ he said.

Although Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is his first published book, Tarantino is no stranger to writing novels. Several of his films, such as Inglourious Basterds, Kill Bill and The Hateful Eight began as hybrids of novels and scripts. In fact, after the script for The Hateful Eight was leaked online before production started, Tarantino even considered dropping the project and releasing it as a novel.

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood also began in such a way, making its subsequent novelisation a logical progression for Tarantino. In fact, the project was tackled as though it were a novel for over five years, where Tarantino wrote ‘at least a couple of chapters’ in an ‘exploratory way’, he said in an interview with film critic Peter Travers. ‘I wasn’t in a hurry to sit down and write a movie script,’ he said. During this time, he also tried other approaches, including writing what is now the opening scene of the film as a one-act play.

The project began when Tarantino was thinking of telling a ‘fairytale’ set in 1960s Hollywood, an era where the medium of film was changing rapidly. The main drive of the story came while filming a movie with an older actor, who asked Tarantino to film a scene with his own stunt double, whom he’d been working with for almost a decade, for the sake of giving him something to do. During the shoot, Tarantino observed the pair. He could see ‘the whole nine years of their relationship,’ and that their working relationship was nearing its natural end; ‘You could tell that there was a time where this guy was a perfect double for the actor. This time was not that time. This was maybe the last or second-to-last thing they’d be doing together.’

As the work evolved, Tarantino also became interested in the murder of Sharon Tate in her home by the Manson Family in 1969. Tarantino says that he feels Tate has been ‘reduced to an extra in her own story’, thanks in part to the cultural impact of her murder and its perpetrators, in particular Charles Manson. In the film and book, Sharon Tate’s legacy outside of her tragic death is brought back to life.

Tarantino has long said that he plans to retire after his 10th film, which has yet to be announced. Recently he’s also indicated that he wants to focus on writing, telling Peter Travers in 2019 that he’d like to ‘lean a little more into the literary’. Nobody’s really sure exactly what form that will take, less so Tarantino himself, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a step into a new realm for the acclaimed writer and director, showing that even if he steps away from the big screen, he won’t be putting down the pen for a long, long time.

Author: Quentin Tarantino

Category: Fiction-related items

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: W&N

ISBN: 9781398706132

RRP: $19.99

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