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In his appearance on the show F.B.I., Cliff, wielding a rifle, jumps out of the back of a truck.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.
Sony Pictures

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How Quentin Tarantino put Leonardo DiCaprio in somebody else’s movie

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood features a hypothetical in which DiCaprio’s character replaces Steve McQueen

In Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino drops actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) into a variety of movies and shows — not just the ones Tarantino made up for the film, but famous films and TV programs of the 1960s, including The Great Escape and The FBI. In some cases, the footage is recreated, but in others, DiCaprio is essentially added to the pre-existing footage. To figure out just how it was all pulled off, Polygon spoke with cinematographer Robert Richardson and production designer Barbara Ling.

“When we did The Great Escape, it’s actually The Great Escape material,” Richardson said, speaking of the scene in which we see what it would have looked like if Dalton had ended up being cast instead of Steve McQueen. “You’re shooting [DiCaprio] in costume, and you’re shooting him with a little bit of a [green] screen, and then you’re just wiping out Steve McQueen,” Ling added.

To make the match as seamless as possible, Richardson explained that they worked with the same lens at the same distance that they thought The Great Escape had shot with, also duplicating the lighting. They also attempted to find the original lens that The Great Escape had shot on, but “couldn’t get a lock down on where it was,” resorting to using an older-quality lens instead.

Captain Virgil Hilts walks through a doorway in a barbed wire fence, surrounded by soldiers.
Steve McQueen as Virgil Hilts in The Great Escape.
United Artists

Though putting the pieces together was difficult, the shooting wasn’t as convoluted a process. “What happens is they played [The Great Escape] back, so on one monitor — with those sequences, you have to have monitors — you played back what it is for the film,” Richardson said. “Then you move up and down with the camera, left and right, in and out, to be able to match the size of Steve McQueen with Leo. And then that goes off and then it’s just Leo performing for that shot.”

A similar process was used for the episode of The FBI that Dalton guest stars in, which is a real episode that Tarantino loved. “What they wanted was to get it without doing it digitally, so to speak, putting his face on another actor,” Ling explained. “We took that FBI, found locations that matched cut into that shot. [...] We then recreated Leo’s character as part of that, and then they used the original part; we actually shot it and matched it in.”

In other words, though the footage of the other actors in the episode remains untouched, the footage of DiCaprio unknown is all new, not just in terms of DiCaprio’s performance but for the entire shots. The icing on the cake? “We actually found the army truck that was originally used in that FBI episode,” Ling said. “Steve Butcher, my incredible picture car guy, actually found that truck.”

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is in theaters now.