We are in the most famous of Cannes’s regally enormous beachfront hotels. A day has passed since the premiere of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood and it seems he has got away with it. There have been a few hitches. The director was short with a journalist who wondered about the smallness of Margot Robbie’s role. One or two critics have scowled at the film’s ending. But the reviews have, for the most part, been breathlessly enthusiastic.
Going among movie professionals in the penumbra of the Manson murders, the film groans with observations about the transitions Hollywood was managing in 1969. It also suggests a few parallels with the present day.
"The Manson murders were a real loss of innocence for our country," Brad Pitt tells me. "We were coming out of this free love thing, this utopia. Then we saw a very dark side of human nature. Fences were being put up and security cameras. That led into the full darkness of Vietnam and Nixon and so forth."
To even say a movie has a surprise ending is to spoil the surprise ending
Brad needs little prompting to draw comparisons with the current era. The world is in a similarly insecure place. We’ve made a mess of the climate. Respectable newspapers now carry columns that speak of Nixon in borderline-nostalgic terms. The current changes in the entertainment industry are less apocalyptic, but they are equally real.
“Our industry in today’s terms is changing so much. It’s moving towards a streaming platform,” Pitt says. “The upside is more interesting directors, writers and actors. What does that mean for the communal experience? That’s a question. I don’t need to say much about America now and how split we are as a country. It is certainly relevant.”
Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood casts Leonardo DiCaprio as a fading western actor and Pitt as the stunt double who cleans up too many of his messes. Margot Robbie has a modest, but significant, role as the doomed Sharon Tate. Traces of the old studio system hang around, but TV is eating away at Hollywood's prestige. We are made aware that looser limbed filmmakers are about to shovel away much of the dead meat rotting on Sunset Boulevard. The picture manages an impressive blend of the fetid and the nostalgic. Hollywood was panicking its way towards an unexpected renaissance.
There have been another two or three revolutions since then. Yet one message from today’s adventures in the Carlton Hotel is that some things remain the same. Never mind the VHS craze. Never mind Marvel. Never mind Netflix. Movie stars and celebrity directors can boss a luxury hotel on the Côte d’Azur in a way nobody off the telly (still less YouTube) can manage. Pitt, DiCaprio and Robbie each enters like any other enormously rich professional – left foot hits the floor before right – but there is a presence that causes involuntary genuflection in waiting knees.
Tarantino may be the only remaining director who generates similar waves of celebrity. Almost as many cinemagoers abhor him as worship the ground beneath his feet. But most know who he is and what he looks like. Not many could pick David Fincher or Alfonso Cuarón out in even a small crowd.
Quentin seems to have lost a bit of weight. Dressed in a denim jacket, his very black hair (?) at sensible length for a balding gentleman, he looks pretty nifty for 56 (not as nifty as 55-year-old Brad Pitt, but come on). Let us assume that his recent marriage to Israeli singer Daniella Pick has agreed with him.
Before boring into larger controversies, I want to pick away at a bone that he flung to the jackals before the premiere of Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood. As we were settling in our seats, an official from the festival emerged to read out a statement from the director (get him?). Some blah-blah about his delight at being here eventually led into: “I only ask that everyone avoids revealing anything that would prevent later audiences from experiencing the film in the same way.” The version in English triggered some sighing. The French translation generated actual booing.
There is now a notion that any piece of information not contained in the trailer constitutes a “spoiler”.
“I am not saying that,” he parries.
I accept that. But he does seem to be dipping a foot in those waters.
"My feeling is . . . Um, does it make a critic's job a little harder? Maybe a little bit," he says. "But that's your job. I could write a review of Taxi Driver and not go into the details of the climax. I could get across what I have to say. I could write a review of Straw Dogs and lead you to where it's going without going into any detail. That's where Roger Ebert came from."
All of this sounds reasonable enough. Every sane critic (and social media user) accepts that there are rules as to what constitutes a spoiler and how one addresses later plot points in a movie. But Quentin is going further.
“To even say a movie has a surprise ending is to spoil the surprise ending,” he continues. “So I am coming from a real simple place. If you saw it without knowing that stuff then the people who read you should be able to enjoy the movie in the same way you did. That’s all I am saying.”
Yeah, all right. Tarantino claims to be blissfully unaware of the online chatter on such subjects. But some things must get through. His very presence at Cannes this year was a subject of controversy. A few years ago, Uma Thurman, in an interview with The New York Times, revealed that she had suffered serious injuries on the set of Kill Bill when a car that she had been reluctant to drive crashed unexpectedly. The director and star argued over details, but both agreed that errors had been made. "As a director, you learn things and sometimes you learn them through horrendous mistakes," Tarantino said. "That was one of my most horrendous mistakes, that I didn't take the time to run the road, one more time, just to see what I would see."
Thurman was ultimately philosophical about the incident and confirmed that the director had helped her get the story out there. "Quentin Tarantino was deeply regretful and remains remorseful about this sorry event, and gave me the footage years later so I could expose it and let it see the light of day," she said. But the scandal continued to bubble on social media. Tarantino also had to apologise for comments supporting Roman Polanski – charged with rape in 1978 – made on the Howard Stern show six years ago. Then there was his long professional relationship with Harvey Weinstein.
Tarantino made a decent effort to address these issues, but, for a festival still trying to process the implications of #MeToo, he didn’t exactly jump out as an ideal poster boy. All this before you consider the fact that his current film concerns the ritualistic murder of Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate.
“Film Twitter” went a bit apoplectic in the weeks before Cannes.
“I don’t engage with social media,” Tarantino says. “I am not on Facebook. I don’t have a Twitter account. I don’t know anything about that. I don’t look up my news online. If some country whose language I didn’t speak hated my shit then I might hear about it. But I am not going to read about it. ‘Twitter is blowing up about you.’ If I don’t read it then it causes me no heartache.”
He can't escape from all the criticism. During the press conference at Cannes, an American journalist asked him why he had "not given many lines" to Robbie. "Well, I just reject your hypotheses," he said (or "snapped" as some commentators had it). Tarantino has a better record of creating strong female protagonists than less-harried directors such as Steven Spielberg or Paul Thomas Anderson. Think of Jackie Brown and (reservations above noted) Kill Bill: Volumes 1 and 2. Some weeks after Cannes, Tarantino announced that Robbie would have a few more lines in the slightly longer theatrical cut of Once Upon a Time . . . In Hollywood. But the underrepresentation of women in mainstream film remains a valid topic for discussion.
“I didn’t really deal with that in this movie,” he says. “I work really hard to not let social critics affect my work. That’s not my job – to worry about social critics or society. It’s actually my job to ignore that – to do what I do. It can meet with acclaim or with ridicule. But it is what it is. All right? This time right now isn’t for all time. But hopefully your work is. It can be viewed one way now. It can be viewed in a different way 20 years from now.”
The discourse has certainly changed since he broke through with Reservoir Dogs in 1992. It has changed since Kill Bill. He was answering different questions when promoting The Hateful Eight in 2015. The Weinstein fallout in 2017 changed everything.
“The time right now is definitely different from the 1990s,” he agrees.
“Well, you know . . .”
For somebody with such a famously big mouth, Tarantino proves to be skilled at the art of evasion. Perhaps he is maturing. Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood, a leisurely drama interrupted by spasms of high-end violence, is much concerned with the challenges and opportunities that aging brings. DiCaprio’s character, increasingly out-of-date in the hippie era, looks towards Europe for a new career. Pitt’s character, with less to lose, is not so intimidated by the advance of the long-haired mob.
Pitt doesn't look like actors used to look in their mid-50s. Tanned and lithe, he has grown comfortably into the fittest imaginable incarnation of a middle-aged geezer (we were born in the same month, so I'm allowed). He isn't an eerie Peter Pan like the slightly older Tom Cruise. But it does set you back to think that he's a few months older than Nigel Farage. Dare I ask if he worries about aging?
"There is certainly a shelf life to what we do," he says. "We are aware of that. It makes us more appreciative of the time we have had. It will transition into something else. Just look at the careers of Tony Hopkins or Gene Hackman. As long as you find meaning in what you do."
Tarantino loves to sit and talk about cinema and television. It's a delight
DiCaprio and Pitt arrive together at the Carlton. They strike an interesting contrast. Pitt is the more amiable and more relatable. Less at home to a quip than his pal, Leo is more prone to falling back on entertainment-industry clichés in his polite, if less than electrifying, replies. It hardly seems possible, but, like any other mortal born in 1974, DiCaprio is now 44.
“It’s always going to be a rollercoaster,” he says. “There will always be ebbs and flows. I always looked on this as a long-distance race. We are from the same generation. We got a break at the same time and we try and make the best of it.”
Like Pitt, he acknowledges that Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood is all about transition. It’s about the transitions that assail all human beings. It’s about the changes that were happening in Hollywood. Critics see the early 1970s as a golden age, but most such eras leave casualties in their wake. Actors who arrived in old-school westerns ended up playing murderers in second-string cop shows.
“I think he’s a bit prophetic with this hitting now,” Pitt says. “Certainly, with the studios changing back then, the writer-director voice was taking over. You had Bonnie and Clyde. You were getting Coppola films, Scorsese. At that time we were transitioning.”
The downsides to the current transitions have been a subject of furious debate at the Cannes Festival over the last few years. Netflix was in the main competition. Then it was out again. Winner of the Palme d’Or with Pulp Fiction 25 years ago – indeed, Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood premiered on the same date as that film – Tarantino returns as a champion of the theatrical experience. It feels as if the industry needs Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood: an event movie that has nothing to do with superheroes, is not a remake, is not a sequel, will not stream simultaneously and is not from any wing of the Walt Disney Company. Are there still such things?
Unlike some other Tarantino films, Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood is also about something. It has to do with what falls away as the years progress.
“We are all human at the end of the day – bar a few megalomaniacs in charge right now,” Pitt muses. “There is that constant trouble dealing with self-doubt. The mistake is looking for meaning in the result of what we do – as opposed to how we spend our day.”
Among the most dire critical clichés are those that promise "a love letter to" something or other. But there is no mistaking the passion for cinema in Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood. If the script mentions a war film you can be sure that the director will stage five or 10 minutes of that production. It tells us about stunt men. Al Pacino appears as the Platonic version of a voracious Hollywood agent. A child at the time of the action, Tarantino, raised largely in Los Angeles, also exhibits unmistakable affection for contemporaneous telly, but it is movies that really matter in this world.
“It’s a fun set. There is no set like a Tarantino set,” Pitt says. “Because of his verve and love for film. Sometimes he’ll say: ‘That was fine, but we are going to do one more take. Why?’ And the whole crew will chant: ‘Because we love making movies!’ Everyone’s in. He leads with that verve and love for the process. But if there’s a good story being told, the story gets told before the take. He loves to sit and talk about cinema and television. It’s a delight.”
That energy is apparent in the upper floors of The Carlton. Tarantino is better at enthusiasm than any filmmaker alive. There are many who refuse to forgive his excesses, but nobody can question his dedication to the medium. That has rubbed off on Pitt and DiCaprio. Robbie, a child when Reservoir Dogs hit, has been a fan throughout her adult life.
“I had written to him and told him how much I admired his work,” she says. “I read the script. There is one script. It has his handwriting on it. It is not to be duplicated or sent out. You sit in his kitchen nook and read it. I am slow reader and I was dying over the fact that I had a Quentin Tarantino original script in my hands.”
There have been all kinds of proposed Tarantino projects over the years. Remember the James Bond film he would make with only Pierce Brosnan? This very week he has again been talking about closing out his career with a Star Trek picture (we'll see). He was once interested in a version of Modesty Blaise or a take on The Man From UNCLE. So, nobody was entirely sure Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood was happening until the cameras rolled.
“Rarely have I come up with something in 20 minutes that was: ‘Boom! There’s an idea. I am going to sit right down and write that,’” he explains. “I usually explore a little bit. I maybe do a little writing to see if it takes. Then it goes back in the incubator. Sometimes the baby dies. Sometimes it gets a little stronger. I go through a process with another movie and then I check on that incubator.”
Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood was inspired by an experience with an older actor. He watched the veteran’s conversations with his stunt double and realised that the relationship transcended the ordinary hierarchies of a film set. The stuntman was working for the actor. “That was his boss. He didn’t give a damn about me or the movie,” he laughs. He pottered away at the thing on his holidays. He tweaked at it on the set of his last picture. Then, one day, it was there.
“I am always surprised when it does present itself,” he says. “Because this is the one I have been working on the most over the last six years. I would work on it a little between projects. What’s the guy? Syphilis? No, not that. Ha ha! Sisyphus? The guy who pushed the rock up the hill. He had a problem with his rocks. Ha ha!”
He’ll be here all week.
“Yeah, tip your waitress.”
The man’s an entertainer.
Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is released on August 14th