Set in 1969, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, centers on faded cowboy star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who face the demise of the Hollywood’s Golden Age. In a parallel storyline, Margot Robbie portrays the actress Sharon Tate—Dalton’s Cielo Drive neighbor—who violently meets her fate at the hands of the Manson family.
“It’s Quentin’s love letter to the city he grew up in,” says the film’s production designer, Barbara Ling. No stranger to Los Angeles in the 1960s (she recreated the period's Sunset Strip and Laurel Canyon environs in the 1991 film The Doors), the designer found a wealth of material from the auteur himself. (Among the key visual influences for Tarantino: the Cinerama Dome; Panorama City, CA; the Hullabaloo TV series; and Westerns.) “Being an absolute movie encyclopedia, Quentin ran films from the ’60s”—such as The Wrecking Crew, Valley of the Dolls, and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice—”at his movie theater once a week for us,” she says. “1969 was such a vivid period of color, particularly in Los Angeles, and there was a feel of neon and Op Art everywhere” that provided a point of reference for the color scheme.
Viewers have a front row seat on a Tarantino time travel machine via the 150 sets that include an array of television and film backlots, the Dalton and Tate houses, the Playboy Mansion, and even an original Taco Bell. Forgoing the use of computer-generated imagery or sets built on the backlot, Los Angeles storefronts, billboards, streets, and exteriors received a meticulously detailed facelift at their actual locations, an authentic touch that adds to the nostalgia. Some locations did not weather the winds of time— such as the Spahn Movie Ranch, a location used to shoot low-budget Westerns in the 1950s that eventually became the home of the Manson family—so they were created from scratch. “The sets were completely burned down in 1970, so all that was left was scrub and rock,” says Ling.
For Rick Dalton’s house, the design crew searched for the perfect ranch house only to encounter one obstacle after another. The goal of a one-story ranch-style midcentury with a sloped ceiling, soffits, and a pool with a great view meant shooting three separate locations instead of one. “It was hard to find something that was not a mega-mansion,” comments Ling. Looking to the character’s story arc, she says, “Rick is somebody who bought a house at the height of his career and hasn’t renovated since he was a bachelor. He was not into the pop culture of the moment. The development of the character was about a TV star in his era, and everything was given to him from a [studio] set, such as the saddle of a horse from a TV show or a movie poster.”
Many of the items were sourced from Tarantino’s vast film collection. “Quentin has this very rare magnificent film poster collection, which we used for the decor,” Ling says. “He had very specific pieces and put out his own personal decorations, such as a Hopalong Cassidy cup.” A collaboration with set decorator Nancy Haigh, the often-kitschy midcentury designs also include a bar that was influenced by the decor from Spanish Westerns.
Hollywood’s oldest eatery, Musso and Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard, was another key set. “We got permission to film there, as Quentin is a big customer and has been going forever. They love him there and closed the restaurant down for five days for filming,” says Ling. “The interiors are almost exactly the same [since the grill’s inception in 1919], and the headwaiters gave us the dishes used in the ’60s, which was a miracle.”
Hullabaloo, a ’60s variety show that rivaled American Bandstand, was another set of particular interest. “This set was so much fun—from the moment they started dancing, I thought we were in Hullabaloo,” the Angeleno-native designer says of its simple-yet-stylish mod set designs. “It’s unbelievable how visual and how involved he is,” Ling says of the director. “He really loves everything about filmmaking.”
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest