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“It’s a Movie About LA and Driving in LA — When You Could Actually Drive in LA”: Production Designer Barbara Ling Recreates the Open Streets of 1969 LA for Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood’s production designer Barbara Ling built the lurid worlds of the most perverted Batman movies: Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, where Uma Thurman (as Poison Ivy) strips out of a pink gorilla suit while golden Tarzans in table cloths swing from vines and lay belly down to form a human path for her to walk on. I’d be lying if I told you D.P Stephen Goldblatt’s close ups of Batman and Robin’s rubber derrieres and armor nipples haven’t been secured into an easily accessible shelf at the top of my memories, which I guess is enough for me to say that the films have aged well. And Ling’s rendition of ’80s Beverly Hills debauchery in Less Than Zero sits just as solid: the archway of giant televisions at a rich kid’s christmas party, automaton santas and coked out topers ice skating in their heels in a rink around an electric blue pool.

But for the ninth Tarantino movie, she must resuscitate the old Hollywood of ’69 from a forward-moving city that won’t hold on to its own bones. She recreates the Spahn Movie Ranch, a crumbling ruin of old glory overcome by the Manson family at the time, the final vestiges of operating western sets starring the film’s very own fictional protagonist Rick Dalton (Leonardo Dicaprio) and other falling stars (shot on Universal’s Western Street Set), and the sunnier sides of Los Angeles, full of promise, or wherever Sharon Tate (Margo Robbie) opts to dawdle. But, perhaps most importantly, Ling had to make a ’69 L.A, today, and one that you could actually drive through. Tarantino distills his will to satisfy us here to its rawest element: cruising real fast with the music high, his favorite bit in the movies, and the streets that tie Ling’s worlds altogether in theme and practical space. 

Filmmaker: Production designers seem to come from more diverse backgrounds than other crew. What’s yours, and how’d you come up in the industry?

Ling: I came out of the theater. I was a lighting and set designer, I got into doing avant-garde opera, which is just a thousand different people doing art projects. I guess I met David [Byrne] from True Stories through people who knew art vs theater vs avant garde—he was looking for a designer for True Stories that was not just classically film. We hit it off completely with visuals and references. That was my first film, and I never stopped after that. It was kind of nice to get off proscenium stages and have broader three dimensional worlds to design.

Filmmaker: Do you ever go back to the stage?

Ling: It’s hard to go back and forth with the commitment, particularly in theater. I did a “Rei Momo” tour with David Byrne because I had done some rock ‘n’ roll, loved club work, but it’s a longer process. You’re committed for a year or something to do a concert. I was very lucky that other film directors were asking me to do their films. So I pretty much stayed in film and did a tremendous amount of commercials too. At a certain point in the later ’90s Bob Richardson was actually directing and shooting commercials. You could shoot a movie and go shoot a commercial, and that was fun because they were like miniature movies. You had to tell a story in a minute. And I was lucky enough to work with mostly all film people, [like] Bob or Anthony Minghella, Kathryn Bigelow — feature people who loved running out to tell miniature stories. So that became the in between of films. It’s hard to tell a one-minute story! It’s a whole different set of rules to get across something visually.

Filmmaker: So you like doing commercials? I talk with a lot of people who talk about them carefully.

Ling: I like the storytelling ones, and that’s usually what attracts filmmakers. Alfonso Cuaron isn’t interested in doing a hamburger commercial, but he’s interested in a commercial that tells a story in this format where you have a minute or a minute-and-a-half to tell it.

Filmmaker: How does one get into that side of commercials?

Ling: Some production companies have both commercial directors and film directors, or cinematographers who also love directing. I was lucky enough to start working with Independent Media and Susanne Preissler. Her niche was feature people. So she had Kathryn and Alfonso. With Kathryn we did the Pirelli Tire film, an eight-minute film with Uma Thurman. It does make you think on your feet very quickly because you have a very short prep. It’s fun to mix that with the long film format, and all the time it takes to create a feature film, with the short format. It’s another side of your design brain. It keeps the brain stimulated. There’s always something happening.

Filmmaker: Did you do a movie with Bob [Richardson, DP] before?

Ling: We did The Doors, my first foray into ’60s recreation.

Filmmaker: Can you layout what prep looked like for you on Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood?

Ling: The pre-production process really starts the moment you’re sequestered into an office of Quentin’s home to read the script for the first time. The script is very protected. There’s one copy. You go there, you go back to a room, you read it. When you do that you’re really almost reading a novel because he stops and explains and has such visual reference. It’s a huge script. It stuns you. You walk out reeling [because] it’s so much. He knows the vision and the scale of it. The sensibility of each character is felt the moment you read the script. Once you’re offered the movie you’re on a fast track, so that’s another reason I was glad I had done commercials: Quentin is a fast track. 

He’s very anxious to get things moving, which is great, because there’s so much! You have to get things moving! You have to hire a department quickly, and locations is the first position you start with. There’s so much location work in this. Once they land something it takes them months to negotiate to get that location. All of the things it takes to shoot on Hollywood Boulevard or Westwood, all the store owners, the Chamber of Commerce; to get people to say yes and to build on top of facades. It’s like putting together a Marine corps right off the start, battling it out, getting teams, graphics, visual research going.

It’s all real world and Quentin’s very specific about that. He’s not one to get into CGI or green screen, or cutting in and replacing heads. We did it like Ben Hur, built it all. We want to see real locations. It was quite a feat and incredibly exciting to do. I grew up here, I’m an Angelino, and it was a great period, so for me to recreate ’69 Los Angeles — it was always a delight.

Filmmaker: I think I heard Bob say that you guys only got two takes on some of those Hollywood Boulevard shots, which, naively, I was surprised by. I think “Tarantino” and assume his productions can get away with anything. Is something like this harder to pull off now than it was 20 years ago?

Ling: Oh absolutely. It’s so much harder. The problem is LA’s always been an ever-changing city that doesn’t hold onto the past. They strip down buildings faster than we could ever shoot. Particularly in Hollywood, they’re tearing down and building towers and hotels. We kept coming back to locations and endlessly they’d tell us, “It’s not going to be there. It’s slated for demolition in three weeks.” So yes, it was actually very hard. When I did The Doors in the ’90s there were still whole sections of Sunset that I could just put the original facades on top of. Now there’s like the Whiskey and nothing else around it. So it’s not easy, which is why I love that we did this movie. It’s really a fated task to do this movie. It’s not like we’re working in New York or Chicago where you still have large swaths of streets with original buildings. We had to do Hollywood Boulevard in two sections and it’s a miracle the city even let us. We did one in two blocks on both sides and two months later the other on two blocks just down the street because we couldn’t take the whole thing.

We already created the biggest traffic jam in the history of Los Angeles, but they wanted to have two traffic jams instead of one giant one. When it came to shooting the freeways, that’s what Bob meant: those takes had to be fast. We changed out the freeway, put up lights, and changed the signs to look like ’69. There were a number of things the city wasn’t going to allow us to do for a few days. There were a couple of odd issues. LA all of a sudden has what they call Zebra crosswalks, which are those big fat whitelines, bike lanes, and modern streetlights and traffic lights. Those things had to be changed and changed back fast because they didn’t want people to get confused.

And those things are very crucial, because it’s a movie about LA and driving in LA — when you could actually drive LA. It was much easier than you can drive now. We created more and more traffic jams as the year went on.

Filmmaker: Did that negotiation process used to take less time? Is it a more convoluted process to work around now?

Ling: Yes. It’s much more complicated now. There are so many impacts from different departments, Chamber of Commerces, the people who actually have the storefronts, and then you factor in new building and safety codes, the police department having to be able to lock things up and how many corners they can take up. Rick Schular, our [supervising] location manager was like an orchestra leader of his department. With all of these contracts and negotiations, he was running nonstop. He had an army to make this happen.

Filmmaker: The film goes some off-kilter places after grounding us. Are there any anachronistic elements or tricks at play from your end to usher that along? I know this was also meant to have that “modern” period look.

Ling: Rather than make a “period-looking” movie Quentin wanted it to have an approachable feel. You want to sit there and feel like you are there, you’re in it, not looking at it. It’s not far away from you. I think you start to feel something when you get to that Spahn Ranch section, you start to go, “Oooooo.” This is a strange area with strange creepy people, but doing that in a very quiet way. There’s a whole tribe of people that aren’t a part of the real world. I think it’s a great set up for getting you closer to the end of this movie. I think that’s kind of where the twist starts.

Filmmaker: There’s something happening between these three central spaces of LA that make up the movie: The forgotten and overcome ruins of the Spahn Movie Ranch, the still operating Western backlot with its falling stars, and Sharon Tate’s world of bliss and unperturbed promise. I can’t quite articulate it.

Ling: She’s this lovely innocence, this ray of light that comes in and out of the movie. That’s what everyone said she was, the sweetest, loveliest human being. And there is this sense of the era of westerns falling away, the era of gun smoke and Bonanza is all fading.

Then, ironically, this old movie backlot becoming something dredged out. There were many eras of Spahn Ranch, even before the Manson’s. Right before them it was bikers and chop shops, stolen car parts converted into bikes in the faded glory of what George once owned. It is hard to articulate that swirl of worlds.

With Spahn Ranch I went back and researched to its glory days. Architecturally you’re building that building that was once used for real westerns, then you keep researching and look at the more faded era. So you layer all of that. For George’s house there are pieces that were once new, George Montgomery statues and the things he has collected from westerns, and now those things have been paraded around while people bided their time mooching off of him. 

Filmmaker: Were you building your own story arcs with the production design?

Ling: We had a fabulous researcher, Lance Malbon. He even found this old footage of Spahn Ranch. They used to make [there], at the end of its days, porn movies. The porn movies were in color, so luckily that’s how we found some color reference, because the guys would just shoot all around. In George’s house we found some early reference of what was on his walls and what he collected: the posters, the pictures of him at an old rodeo. Quentin loves the real. He wants as much real as can be within. So we got down quite a bit of George’s history, which had then been degraded by the people who mooched off him. The visible state of the home is what makes Cliff concerned to see George. Quentin wants the actors to see and touch things that are very much a part of that, even things down to the vehicles. We recreated Tex’s car exactly down to the paint job and degradation. They’re very important to Quentin in that way.

Filmmaker: And what was the approach with creating the homes and spaces of these fictional characters? 

Ling: Quentin knew [with Rick Dalton’s house], even in the first rendition of the script, what the end result would be in that house. He understood the choreography before he choreographed it, so we designed it architecturally in a way that all these things would work out. Then when it came to designing who Rick’s character was, the artifacts, the things he took from shows, the bar, all of this Quentin was very involved with. He wanted a man’s Spanish bar, a big ol’ carved wood ’60s bar. He had the saddle from Bounty Law, and that’s Quentin’s saddle. Quentin is an enormous collector, so he always adds a touch of his own pieces, stuff from his own bar that he imagines Rick would have. Poster wise, that’s very much Quentin’s world, and all of those started with him showing me his own collection of incredible Italian posters that he’s been collecting for years. We found a great Italian illustrator who’s still alive that did two of the illustrations, and he would come to us and we’d write out what the words say in Italian.

Filmmaker: Do you like to be on set?

Ling: Well, you can’t really be on set. I always dress, I’m always there when Quentin shows up to see if there’s anything he’d like to add or subtract, and then I’m running to whatever the next set is, because we had so many sets. Almost every few days it was a new set, so I’m always running ahead. I wish I could sit and watch, truly. But that doesn’t happen [laughs]. Too many decisions, too many locations, references, painting, I’m always on the move. You put a lot of miles on your car on this movie. 

Filmmaker: Is there any use of forced perspective, gradually moving furniture or walls closer together in the same scene? Anything like that?

Ling: Not really in this. In some films you would, but in this… Every day there is a shot list that Quentin thinks up that morning. He’s always thinking shots. He’s always thinking, his brain’s always collecting. I’ll alter a set before they shoot, and he’ll go: “You know what, I need one more door.” That sort of thing. He doesn’t pre-think and do it in storyboards, he thinks of it in each section of shooting. So they’re always thinking about angles or whether or not to bring a crane in. Believe me there were things we never even thought of. In the western town they were like, “Can we bring a crane into the saloon?” And I was like “Uhh. Let me see! Let me take that wall out.” People don’t usually think of bringing cranes into the saloon. But Quentin has unique ideas, and people want to make it work.

Filmmaker: Do you adapt your approach for that, make a 360 degree, adaptable space to work in?

Ling: You do and you don’t. The other side of him is that he doesn’t want to overproduce. He doesn’t want to build more world just in case — he works within what his initial thoughts were. You don’t overbuild; he doesn’t like to waste money. He believes in shooting days and trying to make his money stretch. You sit with him with the models and try to pre-think, “Would you ever wanna go into that other room?” “Nope. I’m never going to go into that other room.” So if he tells me no, never, I don’t have to build that, and I don’t. I like that about him. He uses one camera, not a series of cameras. He shoots his vision and he’s thought about it all quite a bit. 

People don’t make movies like this anymore, where you’re building all real worlds. It’s the way it should be, you’re putting everything in, you’re not adding a whole street in a CGI shot that doesn’t exist. Everything that was done was practical. All the extensions of the sets were painted backdrops as they used to be. There’s something thrilling about real world. CGI, believe me, has opened up doors and is wonderful in sci-fi and Marvel and DC comic worlds, because you can do things you could never do. But with our approach, actors can stand right next to everything, touch it and feel it, even on the move. We physically put marquees on Hollywood Boulevard, facades, and store fronts, and it adds an enormous dimension. And, of course, shooting on film brings its own dimension with what it brings to the party.

Filmmaker: The production design here, perhaps more than a lot of films, is directly functional to the story. 

Ling: The idea was not to stand out with the production design. The idea was that you are there. You are now in 1969. This is your background. This is what you drive down the street and how you can drive down the freeway. The stuff that was there… We add cars and period busses so that it all becomes one rather than anything standing out. To me that’s the great satisfaction, that it’s not something flashy. It is just what it looked like. Then there are the neon signs. We bemoan the sadness of neon fading away. It added so much life to the night. So it’s exciting to see it again.

Filmmaker: And you’ve worked on the other end of the spectrum, doing Joel Schumacher’s Batmans. 

Ling: Well, fantasy’s a whole different world. You’re creating new worlds that people haven’t seen before. That’s exciting too in a different way, creating something that never did and never will exist. 

Filmmaker: Working on location vs. a sound stage.

Ling: There were about 150 sets [on Once Upon a Time…], I lost count. All of the great restaurants like Musso’s and El Coyote are restaurants that are still there, which is spectacular, and [ones] that Quentin loves and goes to all of the time. We would have never gotten the permissions to shoot in Musso’s as long as we did if they didn’t adore him as much as he adores them. This is an iconic place. We had to do very little to the inside. All of the waiters Quentin knew by first name and they helped us with the menus and the dishes they used, because they’re different from the ones they use now. It was the same for El Coyote — it’s been family-owned since the ’60s. We moved a wall that wasn’t there and you can see through, and we put glass phone booths that used to be there in the driveway.

Filmmaker: Is there a system of checks and balances on a set this size and that’s so period-intensive?

Ling: Our checks and balances was heavy research. We had an incredible library of information, particularly by the time we ended this movie. Lance found the best of some of the individual photographers who shot in the ’60s, museums, newspapers, libraries, he got into an enormous amount of different archives in Los Angeles, many private collections. Quentin owns a movie theater that was under renovation. All of the seats were out so we put sofas all about and he’d play ’60s movies each week for the whole cast and crew before we even started shooting. So our checks and balances was just research and making sure we didn’t go “over,” unless it was something Quentin wanted a piece of that was from a year or so later and he’d go [in a spot on Tarantino impersonation], “Well, we’re not doing a do-cu-men-tary! We can have that!”  

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