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Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) dances at the Playboy Mansion in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.
Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) dances at the Playboy Mansion.
Sony Pictures

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What it took to get the Playboy Mansion for Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

On recreating 1960s Hollywood for Quentin Tarantino’s new movie

The cast of Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, real and fictional, travel all over the Hollywood of the 1960s, which meant recreating as much of it as possible, as Quentin Tarantino wasn’t going to settle for second best. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) are seen everywhere from Hollywood Boulevard to Spahn Ranch, not to mention the sets of productions that range from contemporary thrillers to old Westerns.

Getting it all done was no mean feat, especially when some of the locations no longer exist. Polygon spoke with production designer Barbara Ling to find out just how Tarantino’s vision of Hollywood came to life, as well as what it took to shoot in the Playboy Mansion.

Cliff and Rick pose against a wall.
Cliff (Brad Pitt) and Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) face the camera.
Sony Pictures

Polygon: What went into creating all those set-within-a-sets?

Barbara Ling: Bounty Law and Lancer and all those, I did two different Western sets. I saw an enormous amounts of episodes of Lancer, and that was interesting because it was a unique Western in that it mixed the border towns of Texas at the time when that show was about, and it was about a wealthy cattle town. So it was building a Western town that had adobe buildings in it, also. So I built adobes and a Western town, and did this more established-looking, cattle money, two-story town. Two-story towns were money towns in those days. That was a fun one to build, and worked, I think, beautifully for that combination.

And then Bounty Law was done in a different set, a different Western town, and that was more of that dusty, dirty, early Deadwood look. That was not part of the moneyed Lancer world.

Did you have much of Tarantino’s personal memorabilia on set?

Quentin has, as you could probably imagine, an unbelievable memorabilia collection, period. But he has one of the greatest poster collections you’ve ever seen, because he’s been collecting particularly early Italian posters for, I’m sure, the last two decades, because most of these would be unattainable now.

In doing Rick’s posters, Quentin had very, very specific ideas of the kind of artists with which he wanted those posters to be done with. We found, to Quentin’s delight, one of the last of the great living Italian artists, who’s in his eighties now, who’s still alive and drawing. So he did two posters for us. We sent photographs to Italy, Quentin staged a photograph to be the kind of body language of Rick, and then Quentin did all the titling. He wrote out how he wanted those to be titled, and each of those sections we sent him had the imagery done, then it came back, and then I did a rough, then that went to the graphics people to come back and make the titles out of it, who was directing, and all that was Quentin. He was giving me the titles of everything. And then Quentin would look at the approval of that, and then we’d go to print on it. So those were all movies that [Rick] had done in Italy, and some, of course, that were done in America.

A poster for a thriller called Operation Dyn-o-mite, starring Rick Dalton, pictured driving a car.
A poster for Rick’s (DiCaprio) Operation Dyn-o-mite!
Sony Pictures

The other posters were Quentin’s amazing collection. He wanted to use a fabulous Hopalong Cassidy original that he had, that’s on one of the walls. Everyone was created, but it was all created out of Quentin’s head, and how he was thinking of them. There was a saddle that he loved, and wanted to use. He had a lot of memorabilia. The steins on the bar are from Quentin’s collection. He loves this bar that [set decorator] Nancy [Haigh] and I built, my decorator and I found it, we wanted that Spanish man’s bar, you know, that was kind of classic of the ’50s. He had very specific little things.

Quentin always loves that, that’s his favorite part of set, is dressing the set. There’s always an icon or two that he wants to put in of his pieces, which I love. There’s nothing he doesn’t touch on the movie, from camera to sound to visual, each continent. Everything about the film, he has his hands on, which is great.

Were there any sets that were particularly difficult to put together?

Hollywood Boulevard, on its scale, was quite difficult, because you were building facades first to cover a building or put marquees back, and then you were building facades for stores, and then you had very small amount of time for Nancy Haigh, my decorator, and her crew to come in and change that souvenir shop into a poster shop in the 10 hours before we started shooting because we couldn’t really close down all these people. We had to keep their stores open even as we built facades over them. That was a very difficult, and a process that was done in great, as Nancy says, “military precision.” Carpenters first, painters next, then her team would come in and it was armies of people and cranes.

Spahn Ranch was also huge, because that was an empty lot where you’re building an entire world. You’re building all the buildings back, and then you have to build the buildings back and then make them easily degraded to look like they did by the end of that period of time. That was a long process, a very difficult process. You want it to look real; it’s something that you built brand new, and then degrade it to what it is by the time the Mansons were living there.

Where did you actually end up building the Spahn Ranch set?

We found an area, it’s actually a park. When I say park, it’s in the Santa Susanna Pass area, which was very close to where the original Spahn Ranch was, which has been long burned down. They actually pretty much took bulldozers and created a hillside out of it, it’s just gone, and it’s overgrown. So this was probably a couple of miles away, but in that same dust bowl, rocky area, and it was called Corrigan Ranch. It was once, in the ‘20s, had a little Western set there, that was long gone, and they had done 1930s Zorro. I found I had great trails so can have that section of Tex [riding a horse], and had this wonderful entrance in rocky terrain and had a little hill where I could put George [Spahn]’s house.

I brought Quentin out, who loved it and thought this could work, too, and then started designing on top of that. We tried to build with as much old wood, so to speak, so that we had history built into this. We built the stables and corrals and the old Western town and George’s house. That was probably done over a two and a half, three month period before we started shooting.

How did you recreate the Playboy Mansion?

Well, we actually did shoot the Playboy Mansion. That took a long time, because the Playboy Mansion now is owed by someone else, and it’s empty and being renovated by the new owner, who was totally uninterested. Locations worked through a series of people to find him. Really, the only way he would do it is, he said, “I would have to meet with Quentin.” So Quentin went out, and I went up and met him. Quentin talked about the sequences he wanted to do, which was the party in the backyard, to drive up in the frnot. After long negotiations of time, because he was in the middle of trying to renovate, he eventually agreed.

So we went in and put as much as we could back of what was Hef, you know, pieces of that time period, and then recreated some of the party using the idea of the parties that he had, recreated that with the theater lighting and all the ways that Hef had done it. So we did get the real Playboy Mansion.

Quentin couldn’t even conceive of not being able to have that. He’s not someone who wants to fake an entire movie that’s about a city he grew up in and wants to emulate what this city looks like. So we did get it. We got the bones of it, it’s still a beautiful building, and then we just dressed back into it and we created the backyard.

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

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