In Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, costume designer Arianne Phillips saw the opportunity to cross a Quentin Tarantino collaboration off her bucket list, first having to convince the auteur that she was the right designer for his most personal film to date.
When Phillips first heard about Tarantino’s latest, she was three weeks into prep on another LA-based period film. “The producer of that film said, ‘You know, Quentin Tarantino’s doing a movie set in the same time period. You probably need to go to the costume houses and get as much stock of ’60s, ’70s vintage clothes, for the movie before Quentin’s movie does,’” the costume designer recalls. “So, that was a motivator.”
Quickly, though, Phillips’ film fell apart, which led her to reach out to her agent about Once Upon a Time. “Quentin Tarantino’s in my top five directors, and honestly, I didn’t dare dream that I’d get the opportunity to work with Quentin,” she admits. “The truth is, I probably would’ve done anything with Quentin, just because in my opinion, he’s never made a bad movie. For me, there’s maybe one or two other directors who I would work with, script unseen, which is highly unusual for me because I’m so story-oriented.”
Although Phillips heard that Tarantino was only going to meet with two costume designers for the film, she ended up being one of them, heading then to the director’s office to read his script, knowing that she’d need to put together a stand-out presentation based on the material, in order to land the job.
When the costume designer arrived to read the script, she was told that she couldn’t bring her cell phone into the room, or even a pen and paper to take notes. “[That] completely freaked me out, because for me, it takes at least two times of reading a script, usually three or four times, before I really absorb the characters and the story,” Phillips explains. “So, I literally was in a panic.”
The designer was also warned that with Once Upon a Time, she was in for a long read. “I heard that it would probably be cut down, but I was reading the full-fat version, if you will. I was ushered into Quentin’s office, and it was beautifully art directed, in that I sat in his chair to read the script. There’s a window directly across his office, and the view was exactly of the Hollywood Sign,” Phillips recalls. “So, it was really fantastic, from the moment of sitting in that chair.”
While the costume designer entered Tarantino’s office in a bit of a panic, two and a half hours later, her fears were assuaged. “Lo and behold, reading Quentin’s script was really unlike any experience I’d ever had, in terms of my ability to absorb the story, and to really understand who these characters were, from the first read,” she says. “I was so enveloped and immersed in the story as I was reading it, a ‘page-turner’ would be an understatement. Quentin offers so much texture, emotional context and character development in his script, it reads like a novel.”
After Tarantino’s assistant pulled the final 30 pages of the script out of a safe for the designer to read, Phillips immediately ran to her car to jot down notes from memory, which she could use in her presentation. She then devoted two weeks to putting together her pitch. “It was the most elaborate presentation I’ve ever made,” she shares, “in that I made him two books—one visual flip book for the meat of the story, and then a separate book for the ending.”
But these two books were just the beginning, when it came to Phillips’ presentation. “In a box, I had gathered items that I thought were really cool. I put a vintage Hawaiian shirt in there, because it had been written that Cliff [Booth] had a Hawaiian shirt; I went to the Rose Bowl Flea Market and bought a Hawaiian shirt in what I thought would be Quentin’s size. Then, I got a really cool pair of vintage sunglasses from the late ’60s. I put that in the box, and I put in some brylcreem. I went on eBay and found an original, dead stock of the original packaging of brylcreem, which Quentin used to describe what Rick Dalton’s pompadour was like during Bounty Law,” the designer says. “Then, a good friend of mine helped me put together a mix CD of the top songs from the summer of 1969. We put some station queues in that mixed DVD with KHJ, which is a prominent part of the story. The idea was for it to be like a full-bodied, sensory experience for him.”
After going above and beyond in her presentation, Phillips landed the job, stepping with gratitude and a sense of responsibility into the legacy of brilliant costume designers who have worked with Tarantino.
Nominated for five Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood centers on fading television actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his loyal stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a pair of memorable, fictional characters who rub elbows with real icons like Bruce Lee and Sharon Tate, in the final days of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Bringing a deep knowledge of period research and design to the project—with biopics like Walk the Line and The People vs. Larry Flynt on her resume—Phillips found Once Upon a Time to be “one of his most reportage films, meaning least stylized,” she says. “We’re really showing the way Hollywood was.”
While capturing the essence of Los Angeles, circa 1969, was Tarantino’s primary objective, the film was a challenge for Phillips, in that it was a unique amalgamation of reality, fantasy and memory. Ultimately, the designer found that much of her job on Once Upon a Time came down to balancing all the elements of the director’s tapestry, making Rick and Cliff feel every bit as real as the stars of ’69 whose looks she was recreating, and the backdrop all these characters were set against.
In creating a stylistic foundation for Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Phillips found herself looking at “a lot of pictures of people on the streets in Los Angeles at that time,” she says. “If you look at people on the street, anywhere—a lot of our film takes place on Hollywood Boulevard and different public places—you should be able to see a cross section of people reflected in the way they dress.”
Marking a moment of cultural change, 1969 immediately presented a number of different ‘tribes’ the designer sought to reflect through dress. “If you were growing your hair long and wore jean cut-offs, that represented the youth culture at that time. It represented a certain set of values and ideals. It was an act of rebellion and freedom at that time to grow your hair,” Phillips states. “You see Cliff Booth, who’s wearing jeans. Well, he’s wearing jeans because he’s a stuntman, and jeans are like workwear. You couldn’t wear jeans into a restaurant, but young people took workwear and ethnic clothes…At that time, we’re talking about the Vietnam War, post-Civil Rights [Movement], kind of showing what tribe you belong to. How the culture was changing is reflected in how we dress ourselves, and how we see ourselves, and our identity.”
Inevitably, much of the design palette for Once Upon a Time was informed by Phillips’ conversations with Tarantino, whose childhood memories of Los Angeles, and its film culture, inspired much of the film. “I asked a lot of questions about how this story came to be, what it means to him, and the personal side of this. His relationship with Hollywood and culture at that time, I really related to. I grew up in the Bay Area, but both sides of my family lived down here, so I would come down here. And Quentin actually was raised on the periphery of Los Angeles, so we kind of had similar experiences,” the designer says. “We’re literally a month apart in age, so we really had a lot in common, in terms of our relationship to Los Angeles, as a young kid.”
While designing for the film’s characters, whether real or fictional, Phillips always came back to the director’s script. “Quentin goes in great detail about costume in his script, and one of the things he told me in that first interview, which really kind of had me at hello, was, ‘One of the things that’s important to me, in my relationship with a costume designer, is that if I write something in the script, I really mean it,’” she says.
90% of the time, Phillips notes, directors say just the opposite, which made the task of designing for Tarantino refreshing. “Quentin said, ‘I do mean it when I describe the costume. But if you have another idea that you think is as good or better, bring it, and let’s figure out what makes the most sense.’ To me, that was the best-case scenario,” the costume designer says. “First, you have a director who has a point of view, who understands the vernacular of clothing, identity and costume, so much so that the choices he makes in the script really matter to him. Then, he says, ‘Look, I invite you to use your creative muscle and come back with something.’”
“That is real collaboration,” Phillips adds. “That’s what filmmaking is all about.”
Of course, to capture the essence of the historical characters featured in Once Upon a Time, Phillips dove once again into deep research. “When it comes to Sharon Tate and Mama Cass, and Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee, everything was game, whether it was newsreels or periodicals, or looking at photos,” she says. “I spent a lot of time amassing visuals. I also did a lot of reading about all these characters that existed, and created very deep files. I watched Sharon Tate’s movies, some of Roman Polanski’s movies—not only images of who they were, but reading about them.”
With fallen icons like Tate and Jay Sebring—two victims of the Manson murders—represented in the film’s ensemble, Phillips “had a lot of reverence,” she says. “I felt a lot of responsibility to represent Sharon and Jay, who are no longer here with us, and to humanize them through who they were.” While that task was intimidating, the costume designer was fortunately able to meet with Tate’s sister, Debra, to gain deeper insight into who the starlet was, apart from the tragedy with which she’s now forever linked.
While approaching these particular characters with great care, Tarantino was never “handicapped by what was,” Phillips says. “We’re making a movie here, to entertain. It’s a fictional interpretation of the time, so he allowed us to take license to make it right for our film.”
Striving to bring a clear, overarching aesthetic to Once Upon a Time, Phillips grappled with 125 characters on the film, designing between 1500 and 200 costumes, when all was said and done. For the designer—who recently earned her eighth nomination from the Costume Designers Guild, for Excellence in Period Film—the experience of working alongside Tarantino and his close collaborators on Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood proved life changing. “I feel like having had the experience, I have found my film family,” Phillips reflects. “It’s a film experience that I’d never had, that ironically, I thought I was supposed to have on my first movie.”
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