How Quentin Tarantino’s Fake-Yet-True Take on the Manson Murders Raised the Bar (and the Hype)
We’ve now gotten two separate trailers for the ninth film from the dialogue-loving, soundtrack-obsessing, and nonlinear-storytelling director. Tej Narayanan writes on what to expect in ‘Once Upon a Time In Hollwood’
We’ve all seen the “based on a true story” tagline on a movie. Normally, it means one of two things: one, the movie is SO accurate that I could just read a Wikipedia article and save myself $15; or two, the movie deviates so far from the truth that it’s almost laughable, like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Yep, apparently the latter was based on something that actually happened.
In either case, it’s pretty easy to tell what kind of movie I’m in for. If there’s meticulously crafted sets and attention to detail, it’s the first kind. If people are talking about YouTube in a movie set in the ‘90s, it’s the second kind.
And then I saw the second trailer for Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, which blends the fictional story of two actors in Hollywood with the true story of the Manson murders. And I was stumped. I can’t tell how this story will play out. At all.
Based on the marketing, the true aspects of the story look meticulously realistic, like Margot Robbie’s spot-on Sharon Tate, yet there’s obviously fake elements such as Leonardo DiCaprio’s fictional character.
Let’s go back to 2017. Tarantino announces a movie based on the real-life Manson murders of 1969. The grisly murder of rising actress Sharon Tate by deranged cult leader Charles Manson. Cool. It’s a story ripe for a Tarantino treatment: colorful characters, expensive LA setting, and the potential for over-the-top violence.
Then DiCaprio is announced to star, and we all assume he’s playing Manson. Nope. He’s playing an entirely fictional character: a failed actor. Brad Pitt follows suit, announced as a stuntman. Tarantino is known for adding a few fake characters to his real life stories, but something seemed off here.
The Manson murders happened in a relatively short period of time, so it makes sense to fill out the story with some fictional characters. However, why would those fictional characters, who would supposedly play third banana to Sharon Tate and Charles Manson, be played by two of the biggest box office draws of 2019? Both Pitt and DiCaprio have enough audience clout to lead an entire movie on their own, so why would they be stuck in supporting roles? It makes no sense…
Unless…DiCaprio and Pitt are playing the leads! What if the movie was about them the whole time? What if it’s not a biopic at all? The story of a failed actor and his stunt double in 1969 Hollywood? Again, this also seemed ripe for the Tarantino treatment: a period picture, expansive LA settings, and classic TV show nostalgia.
After DiCaprio and Pitt’s announcement, the internet began to believe that OUAITH would be a fictional story in the backdrop of the Manson murders, similar to how Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds was a fictional espionage thriller in the backdrop of WWII. What other colorful characters would Tarantino create to fill around DiCaprio and Pitt? If your subject is Hollywood, the sky’s the limit when it comes to creating kooks.
After months of anticipation, Tarantino announces the movie will co-star Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate and Rafal Zawierucha as Charles Manson. Again, two stars that have clout to carry an entire movie and — might I add — dead ringers for the real people.
So Tarantino is still focusing on this real-life story. And he’s definitely making sure it looks like the real thing? So, maybe this is a biopic?
Wait wait wait, back up. Hit the brakes. At this point, I was completely bamboozled. Right now we have two stories: one true, and one fake. Both could function as great movies on their own, both with some of the most famous movie stars on the planet. But something has to be the main focus, right?
It can’t be both. Even the first trailer, which released soon after, seemed to focus mostly on DiCaprio and Pitt…and yet, it still hinted that it would ultimately be the real-life Manson plot driving the story forward.
Therein lies Tarantino’s genius. By mixing the fake elements in with the real ones, he keeps us guessing. One moment there’s Bruce Lee in period-accurate costume doing karate; the next moment, he’s throwing down with Brad Pitt. And, as badass as that would be, it didn’t really happen.
“If your subject is Hollywood, the sky’s the limit when it comes to creating kooks.”
Fans like me are waiting for opening night, even more so than for other Tarantino movies, simply due to the sheer unpredictability of the plot. In the hands of another filmmaker, all these storyline confusions could be a turn-off. However, it works for Tarantino, and here’s why: everything sounds awesome.
For a movie like Avengers: Endgame, when you promise something badass in a trailer or a casting announcement, fans get hyped. And then, if that “something” doesn’t actually happen, fans often get disappointed. Because they always have a want, a certain expectation of their experience at a theater. If fans expect action from a trailer, and there’s not much action, they’ll walk out let down (even if the movie itself is awesome).
Ever seen the Ryan Gosling movie Drive? Go read those reviews. You’ll see what I mean.
But with Tarantino, the audience’s expectation is that they’ll experience a Tarantino film. One with snappy dialogue, slow builds of tension, colorful characters, and a sh*t-ton of violence. And OUATIH, despite everything else, will definitely give us that. The movie’s about a set of real-life murders. There’s going to be blood. And with DiCaprio, Pitt, and Robbie leading the pack, there’s going to be some incredible performances.
Where does that leave us as fans? Well, Tarantino made sure to give us what we want, but tease us as to how exactly how he’s going to do so. It’s like going into Endgame knowing that Stark’s going to die. You’re assured you won’t be disappointed by the ending; all that’s left is to fantasize about how awesome everything else will be.
And the marketing, the casting, everything, really — it worked. I’ll be there opening night.
Like all film students, Tej is a huge fan of Tarantino who’s counting down the days until the director’s next movie finally drops. You can follow him on Twitter here.