Since her early days designing stage shows for Pee-wee Herman and David Byrne, production designer Barbara Ling has specialized in creating heightened fantasy worlds. You can see it in her work on Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies, including the over-the-top sets for the infamous Batman & Robin. And, in a way, you can see it in her latest project, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood. Yes, the film is set in a real place—Hollywood—at a real time—February (and August) 1969. But the Los Angeles of Quentin Tarantino’s film is also a fantasia in its own way, a wistful look back at an idealized version of a city that’s barely recognizable 50 years later.
Like Tarantino, Ling is a Los Angeles native, and she put her own memories of 1969 into the film alongside the director’s. (Turns out those memories involve a lot of hitchhiking.) It was a massive undertaking that took years to complete: As Ling told us over the phone, months of planning went into sequences as simple as Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio driving down Hollywood Boulevard. The massive, sprawling production also spanned the length of the city, requiring a lot of back and forth on freeways that Ling says were much less congested in 1969.
Ling is nominated for her first-ever Oscar for Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, and the passion and dedication that went into her work on the film was evident in her interview with The A.V. Club.
The A.V. Club: I went down a bit of a rabbit hole with this movie, and one thing that I noticed was that you recreated 1969 faithfully, but not literally—for example, setting a scene at the Playboy Mansion, which Hugh Hefner purchased in 1971. What was your approach to the period, if it wasn’t to create an exact replica of L.A. on those exact dates?
Barbara Ling: When we sat down with this project, there were a couple things [that were slightly off]. But Quentin said, “what’s important here is that we’re not making a documentary.” Instead, it was all about, how do we encapsulate the feeling of all the different genres of people in that era? And, of course, for us, the Playboy Mansion was where the stars went to party.
We didn’t worry about being a little off; we would never be a decade off, but we wanted very much to encapsulate this thing that was very much part of Roman Polanski’s and Sharon Tate’s life. They were always either in London at the Playboy Club, or Chicago at the original Playboy Mansion there. We fudged it a little bit to be able to have the flavor of that era. And when you see them going to that party, it gives you a whole different set of people, the celebrities of the time rather than [has-beens like Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth]. We did that everywhere. We may have been four months early on Peaches Records’ opening, but Peaches Records is so iconic to the late ’60s and early ’70s that we had to have it. It felt more important to give [viewers] a feeling of that time within a one-year period than it did to be specific in a documentary style.
We kept very close with any kind of signage. The movies [on marquees], the graphics we put up—those were closer to being within the exact time period. And at some points, if you listen carefully to the radio station, Quentin actually got all the master tapes of [L.A. radio station] KHJ from the exact time period of the movie. We would listen to them while we were scouting locations. You’d hear cool DJs and stuff, and then all of a sudden you’d hear “Sirhan Sirhan just entered the courtroom,” and you’d realize, “oh, this is coverage of the [Robert F.] Kennedy murder.” You’d hear flashes of the news from exactly that time period.
Quentin loves to immerse everyone in the time period, so we did. He has a theater here, the New Beverly, which was under construction [while we were in pre-production]. He put sofas in there where the seats were ripped out, and every Friday night for the crew he screened 1969 movies that were shot in L.A. It was a great way to keep looking at ’69 in LA—the different areas, the people—so we saw a movie every Friday in pre-production before we started shooting.
AVC: You also grew up in L.A. How did your memories of that time factor into your work on this movie?
BL: Oh, a lot. What’s good is that I’m older than Quentin, so when he’d say, “Remember this?…” I’d go, “No, that wasn’t on that street, that was over in Westwood,” and he’d go, “Oh yeah, yeah.” I had a much better memory, because he was like, 8 or something, and I was 17. [Tarantino was born in 1963.—Ed.] And to be a teenager in ’69 was very exciting. I mean, your parents would be horrified to find out what you were really doing every weekend, because in those days you hitchhiked everywhere. That was safe. And everybody had fake IDs, so you’d zoom over to the Strip, and even though you looked like you were 12 they let you in.
But what I wanted very much in terms of memory was to show the contrast in the way people moved around. Now you would not jump around L.A.—people live in Silver Lake or they live in Santa Monica and they stay within their area because of traffic. But at that time, you could jump in the car with your mom, go up to the Miracle Mile and go shopping there, swing around to Hollywood and see a movie, and then come back to Santa Monica. That’s how L.A. was built, to be able to move around all these areas. And now it’s a completely different city. So that’s one of the big things that we wanted to show, is that the freeways really were freeways then. There was a lot of smog [Laughs.], but we didn’t have the traffic jams we have now.
And of course, movie theaters were very important, because that’s where Quentin really became a movie maker. And it was the same with me; as a young kid, going to Grauman’s was a big deal. You’d see a four-hour movie and have an intermission and buy souvenirs at the souvenir shop and go to C.C. Brown’s and have a chocolate sundae. It was an event. And I think Quentin wanted to recapture that sense of it being an event, especially when you came out of the theater and it was dusk and you’re just going, “Oh my god,” at all the neon. It was very glamorous, particularly to children. So that was a big deal, to bring back that sense of moviedom, of what Hollywood was.
And then we wanted also to tell these stories about a changing time period. Rick is an icon of the ’50s, going, “These damn hippies.” And Cliff is half embracing it, half not. You kind of get that sense in the film of how in ’69, going into the ’70s, “peace, love, and music” were all changing. Bringing the Manson Family into it was actually very important, because it really was the end of an era after those murders. Everything changed. People didn’t dress like hippies anymore. It started becoming a very different reality than peace and love and “everyone’s lovely who looks like this.” What I love is that he did a revenge movie instead of telling the true story [of the murders].
AVC: I’ve heard that before—that the Manson murders really did have a chilling effect in Los Angeles in particular.
BL: Oh yeah, totally. Everything changed. People locked their doors for the first time. Somebody once said—and I forget who it was—“All of Laurel Canyon now locks their doors.” Because before that, people would leave their front doors open and the neighbors kind of walked in and out. It was like that in Topanga Canyon [too]. Everybody was so trusting, and [the Tate-LaBianca murders] just changed the whole attitude of the city.
AVC: It’s funny you mentioned the neon, because there’s a sequence towards the end of the film where we see the neon signs flickering on at all these iconic L.A. establishments. I find that sequence very moving, because it reminds me of how random and specific memory can be—you can have this perfect recall of a sunset over the Taco Bell. Did you have to rebuild any of that?
BL: All of it. Taco Bell changed all their logos years ago. We wanted to go back to the original, and we couldn’t. In my brain, I kept saying, “oh wait, I think there’s still kind of an old Taco Bell-looking thing in the Valley.” And the location guys would go, “Nope, it’s totally different now.” We found one—not close either, down in Tustin [in Orange County]—that still had the adobe building. But now it was a falafel place or something like that. And it was closing, so they had boarded up the front so you couldn’t walk in and out. But they were very sweet about us completely putting the building back to its original state.
And then we went to Taco Bell and said, “Do you have any of the original signs?” And to our shock, they said, “No, we don’t. We’ve been looking. We found one in Texas and then a storm destroyed it.” So then we said to them, “If we wanted to rebuild this, could you help us with the specs?” And they said “Yes, we’ve got all the original drawings, but the only thing we ask is that we can have it for our museum.” So we rebuilt all the signage back with the little man on the side, and [after we were done] we gave it to them. So they now have our mock-up of what the original sign looked like.
All the signs were built, except for Musso & Frank; Musso’s still had its neon, we just had to fix it because it was broken. And El Coyote still had its neon, and we fixed that. But the rest of the signs were built in full scale, because we did very much want to do an ode to the past, and the things that have disappeared. But we still have the memories of these places. People said, “I can’t believe you invested [all this time and money in this]. And I said, “Each one of those things created a beautiful sequence.” The beauty was in the effort to build it back. I felt the same way you did the first time I saw the first cut of the scene, with the music under it and everything else.
AVC: Since you were working with all these different iconic locations, which location did you have to do the least work to restore to 1969, and which one took the most work?
BL: Musso & Frank was the least work, for sure. They have really just stayed so iconic through the decades. They adore Quentin there, because it’s a restaurant he goes to all the time. And they keep getting rediscovered, which is great. For the exterior, we put up some of their original stuff, but the interior was just window dressing and a few little tidbits. They did bring out the plates—they still had their china from ’69, and the waiters brought that out for us.
The hardest was Hollywood Boulevard. It does not look anything like that [anymore]. That was besides having the city be just unbelievable and saying “yes” to getting us permits. At first they said, “No, no, no, this’ll be a traffic jam. Think of all those vendors. How are we ever going to do this?” So then the location department went back again with a plan, and Quentin went and talked to the chamber of commerce and said, “I want to bring a moment in time back to this boulevard, a moment that’s so important in our history.” And they got it. So they said, “Yes, but you can’t do all that you want to do at the same time.”
So we broke it up into four blocks, changing one and then shooting that for four nights. And then three months later we went to the other blocks, changed those, and shot those, rather than do it all at the same time. But the people were great. Even all the storefronts—souvenir vendors were saying, “You’re going to ruin my business.” And we’d go, “No, no, no. We’re just going to put the façade up, you can leave your doors open.” Then the tourists started becoming interested in what we were doing, as we were actually putting a gigantic movie marquee back onto a building, or putting the Pussycat Theatre facade back on. The vendors had people coming in buying stuff and asking, “What’s going on?” So it was a win-win for everybody. We didn’t close their stores until about four days before we started shooting, when I had to have the dressers come in and redress everything.
But it was a big project. It took months of work and engineering to make sure that the things that we were putting back up didn’t tear down the building. That was one of the hardest things, but it was well worth it. On the first night of shooting, with thousands of extras and the cars coming out and all the neon turning on, it was just like, “Wow. It’s 1969,” you know? That’s what you live for as a designer, that moment where all of a sudden it just becomes 1969. But that was a hard one, just because of the impact of tourism and people and not being able to close the streets until we were actually shooting. We were very careful about how to do it, and by some miracle nobody complained.
AVC: I remember that day, because half of my Twitter feed was people posting pictures of this set.
BL: Quentin was very generous. He said, “I won’t make people stand blocks away. We’ll put them all on one side of the street when we’re shooting in this direction, and then we’ll move them over.” We probably had a few hundred people gathered around, and then all of a sudden you hear a voice go, “Is that Leonardo DiCaprio, or is that a lookalike?” And I’m telling you, within hours that couple of hundred people turned into 800 people.
By the next night, there were people hanging out on Hollywood Boulevard who showed up because they heard they were about to see two of the biggest movie stars in the world and Quentin Tarantino walking around. But they were great. Quentin was very good at addressing them and saying, “Okay, when I say ‘Action,’ everyone has to be quiet, and you have to turn your phones off. And then you can talk when I say ‘Cut.’” And they did! These massive crowds would just go quiet, and then they’d all be noisy again when he said “Cut.” It was fun, but it was a little scary. I will say it shows the power of the internet, how fast people started arriving at 2 in the morning. It was almost like live theater, you had this huge audience watching. [Laughs.]
AVC: So by the time the shooting starts, is your job mostly done?
BL: No, because this film was about 175 sets. And with every set that’s being shot, you’re racing to prepare the next set. We shot a new set almost every two or three days, and they were spread out vastly everywhere—Spahn Ranch was out in the Susana Pass, an hour and a half from L.A. We were always running ahead because there were always sets to be built, right up to the end of the movie.
AVC: How big of a crew did you have? Set builders, dressers, people like that?
BL: Well, the construction crew is around a hundred people; that’s carpenters and painters, working at the same time. And then you have a dressing crew of 20, 25 people dressing sets, or they’re addressing other things, all at the same time. And then I have art directors, each running one set so that you have somebody who’s there [all the time]. Building Spahn Ranch, for example—that was built from scratch. So somebody was out there for two months, being able to answer the carpenters’ questions or calling me and asking me questions.
It’s a mob of people trying to move very quickly through Los Angeles, where you can’t move very quickly. The crew building Spahn Ranch would just stay out there, because you can’t drive back and forth all day long. You drive out and you leave 14 hours later. We were very spread out, because we were all over the city: from Westwood, to the valleys, to the deep valleys, to the Hollywood Hills, to Hollywood sound stages. We built Rick’s interior house, and then the two exteriors were done someplace else. So we had a lot of things happening every single day—on a very tight schedule, actually, for a film of this scale. We had a late start, and Quentin very much hoped to make Cannes with this film, so we had to be definitive and to get things finished. So we jumped in and just ran with it.
AVC: And you built everything from the ground up? No digital effects?
BL: No CGI, no digital. The only thing that you could call a slight special effect is that we really wanted a drive-in, and all the beautiful murals at the L.A. drive-ins are gone. Now they’re just a giant parking lot with five screens. And we really wanted to do the Van Nuys Drive-In, because it had one of the greatest murals.
So I said to Quentin, I can do the marquee and the drive-in itself [full sized], but to build that mural—they’re like 350 feet long by 250 feet high! So for that one shot, I said we could do it in miniature, which means 1:24 scale. And that’s not a teeny thing, it’s about 20 feet by 40 feet. So we built it practically, but as a practical miniature, to be shot and then mixed in with the real shot. That was the one thing that just wouldn’t have worked full size, and we got a more beautiful scene by having it miniaturized. But that was still a set. It was just a smaller set.
AVC: Was there anything you weren’t expecting to build from the ground up that you ended up having to re-do?
BL: The thing that was kind of surprising and sad is that, at one time, L.A. was one of the great cities for Western sound stages and Western ranches. Paramount Ranch out in the Valley used to have a great big Western town. All of those are gone. There’s just nothing left—except for Melody Ranch in Santa Clarita, which still has a good piece of an old Western town, but it’s more of a mining, funky Western town. We used a section of that for the black-and-white sequences, rebuilt some of the façades and put balconies on. But for our main Lancer set, we went to Universal. Gunsmoke and everything used to be done there, but over the years that Western set had changed to look like Baltimore in the 1800s. And it was pretty much just being used for driving through on tours.
So we went to them and I said, “could I rebuild the Western town back to a wooden Western town, with the big saloon and everything?” And they said yes. So we spent months rebuilding that Western set and adding on sections to it. And of course they’re going to keep it, because now it looks like a great Western town.
AVC: Now they have something new they can show off on their tours.
BL: Exactly! But yes, it’s unfortunate that we’re losing so much of moviedom in L.A., ironically enough. And it was also very funny—there’s a lot of TV now, which is great, but we couldn’t get a backlot for the sequence with Bruce Lee. I had to build the backlot!
I said, we have to find something that’s industrial, or a school that was of the era when the studios were built [in the ’20s]. And they found a school down almost in Orange County that had closed, and become an adult school. And I thought, “Okay, if I drive in here and I put this billboard up, and gate numbers and sound stage numbers, this could be Warner Brothers. So that was unexpected.”
AVC: Yeah, I wouldn’t expect that at all.
BL: We’re in a town full of them, but turns out you can’t just take over the exterior of a backlot. There’s too much going on.
AVC: Well, now all these lost places stand on film forever.
BL: Quentin’s love of the city is incredible. And the minute I read his script—it reads like a novel, it doesn’t read like a script—I just thought, “Wow.” I love this city, and it’s amazing to have somebody who so captured the pieces of what those eras were, and all these TV and movie-star actors and the icons of the time. Things were being torn down even before we could shoot them; locations endlessly called me and said, “We can’t shoot here anymore. They’ve already dug up the street.” And I’m like, “Whaaat?”
We’re now in a big development phase, and we’ve never really been a preservation city. L.A. always been a reinvention city. But boy, it’s fast now. These glass and steel buildings—you can see them coming down Hollywood Boulevard. We’re hoping this film makes people realize that it’d be nice to save some of these original façades. The buildings themselves are beautiful, and it would be a shame if everything becomes glass towers.
AVC: Every city ends up looking the same, you know?
BL: The fast development, nobody cares about the architecture of it. They want to get it up and get it rented.
AVC: Well, like you said, hopefully the movie helps people realize the things that are worth preserving.
BL: What’s so cool to me is doing Q&As, and you have 18- and 20-year-olds going, “Why can’t it still look like that?” It’s the youth that feels cheated, that they live in this city and they tore everything down. That’s who’s going to be the change, this generation now, helping to try to stop that, or at least put things back. But you saw the times changing—at least, I did—when they pulled the front of Grauman’s Chinese off, when they took down those two fabulous pagodas and built that big tower behind it. That was one of the most spectacular exterior theaters, so you kind of knew that was the beginning. And then taking away the neon—everything is LED screens now.
AVC: The neon in this movie—oh my god, it’s so good.
BL: Neon added warmth to the night sky. It was such a beautiful look. There’s just not that sense of sparkly warmth with LED screens. They’re like giant TV’s always telling you something, rather than that beautiful light that neon gave. Hopefully it will come back. Everything comes back around.