Everything We Know – And What We Can Piece Together – About Tarantino's 'Once Upon A Time In Hollywood'

Last week, we got our first look at Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in Quentin Tarantino's upcoming film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The project has been steeped in controversy since its announcement, as it will pair the notoriously provocative director with a subject matter undeserving of glorification or gratuity: the Manson Murders.

At least, that was the initial concern. As we've learned in the meantime, and in Tarantino's own words, the film is "not Charles Manson, it's 1969." Indeed, as more information comes out, we can see that the film is the story of a Hollywood – and an America – in a great metamorphosis. Not a Manson story, but a story where those famous murders are one facet of a grander tale, about the abrupt end of a free-loving, free-wheeling decade where every renaissance was tainted by inconceivable retractions.

To drive home the intended perception of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, let's take a look back at all of the confirmed production and casting announcements, and use those confirmations to speculate what kind of movie Tarantino might have in store.

The Cast

In addition to Robbie as Tate, we know Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt will play the leads, Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth. DiCaprio's Dalton is a washed up actor whose transition from TV acting to film has been unsuccessful. Pitt's Booth is Dalton's best friend and stunt double, and the film's plot finds them contemplating a trip to Italy to get into the spaghetti Western film scene. Dalton lives next door to Sharon Tate.

Although the first released photo of Dalton and Booth drew comparisons to Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, their described relationship more closely recalls that of actor Burt Reynolds and his stunt double Hal Needham. That pair collaborated on films like Smokey and the Bandit, Hooper, and Cannonball Run, and were close friends; Needham even lived in Reynolds' guest house for 12 years. Like Dalton, star of the fictional Western TV show Bounty Law, Reynolds starred in his own hit Western series in the 1960s: Gunsmoke.

In one of Tarantino's trademark meta castings, the real Reynolds will also appear in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as George Spahn, a real-life rancher who owned Spahn Movie Ranch, where several Western films and TV shows – like Bonanza, The Long Ranger, and Zorro – were filmed. Spahn Ranch is also where Charles Manson and his "Family" lived at the time of the murders.

Other actors playing real-life people are Dakota Fanning as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (a member of the Manson Family), Damian Lewis as actor Steve McQueen, Emile Hirsch as hairstylist Jay Sebring (Tate's best friend who was murdered alongside her), Nicholas Hammond as actor/director Sam Wanamaker, and Mike Moh as Bruce Lee.

Luke Perry will play Scott Lancer, who may be named after a character actor Wayne Maunder played in the 1968 TV series Lancer. Additionally, Clifton Collins, Jr. will play the fictional Ernesto "The Mexican" Vaquero, Al Pacino will play Dalton's fictional agent Marvin Shwarz, and Scoot McNairy will play someone called Business Bob Gilbert.

There are also a number of actors who have been cast whose roles aren't yet known: Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, James Marsden, Tim Roth, James Remar, Michael Madsen, and Zoë Bell, to name a few. If we had to make an educated guess, none of the above are playing either Manson or anyone in his family, as they're all too old. (The family was comprised of mostly teenagers and 20-somethings, and Manson was 35 when the murders occurred.) According to IMDb, a number of young women were cast in roles called "hippy girl," so they're the best bet for Family members. Also, a young actor named William Pierce has been cast; he looks close enough in age and disposition to play a male Family member like Tex Watson or Clem Grogan.

We heard early rumors that Tarantino was looking for someone to portray Tate's husband, Roman Polanski, but no actor has been formally cast in the part just yet.

The Set

Filming is underway and set photos are starting to make their way online. As we reported back in June, Tarantino gave downtown Los Angeles a late-'60s makeover, adding Krakatoa, East of Java movie posters to the Cinema theater, and decking the streets in vintage cars.

Birth.Movies.Death also acquired set photos from a reader who was on-site, which show a display of magazine covers, more old cars, and even an old-school Oscar Mayer wienermobile.

I tried to decode the date of those magazines on Twitter to see when, exactly, these scenes might take place, but they must be more of an aesthetic choice than a wholly accurate one, as the covers are all from different months and years.

Robbie has also been spotted on set dressed as Tate. In photos published by The Daily Mail, we can see her taking direction from Tarantino while driving a black Porsche. The car is an excellent touch; Jay Sebring owned the same one, which he drove to Tate's house the night of the murders. Crime photos show it parked at her home the next morning.

We've also seen a number of set photos involving DiCaprio and Pitt driving in cars around Los Angeles. Al Pacino pops up in a few, as do other unknown actors. It's hard to ascertain much from any of them, but they do confirm Tarantino's protestations that the film is more about Hollywood in 1969 than Charles Manson or the murders.

One other thing worth pointing out: In all of the photos we've seen of Robbie as Tate, she has a flat stomach. In reality, Tate was almost 9-months pregnant at the time of her murder. Does this mean the film spans more than just the summer of '69, or is Tarantino getting revisionist on us?

The Plot

We don't know have any official confirmation on plot details other than the brief synopsis Tarantino gave when the film was announced; that it is "a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, at the height of hippy Hollywood. The two lead characters are Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), former star of a Western TV series, and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Both are struggling to make it in a Hollywood they don't recognize anymore. But Rick has a very famous next-door neighbor ... Sharon Tate."

But if you're familiar at all with Hollywood in 1969, and with the era of Manson, there's actually a lot of information you can glean from the casting announcements.

For starters, the inclusion of Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen. Both actors were clients of Jay Sebring, a world-renowned hair stylist who was a major fixture in 1960s Los Angeles. Sebring was known for bringing European hair techniques to America, and he established a name for himself when we popularized the feathering and layering of male hair, which was dubbed the "Sebring Look." Other famous clients included Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas, and Warren Beatty, who based his character in Shampoo after Sebring. Sharon Tate dated Sebring prior to her relationship with Roman Polanski; despite their break-up, Tate and Sebring remained close, and she was a fixture in his posh salon. Writer Dominick Dunne once wrote that Tate "would often be sitting in a chair, just to be with Jay as he worked."

That Lee and McQueen will appear in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is even more interesting than that. Sebring was an instrumental figure in Lee's career. An amateur kung fu enthusiast, he saw the tape of an exhibition Lee did in 1964, which he showed to producer William Dozier, a client. This led to Lee getting cast as Kato in the TV series The Green Hornet. After The Green Hornet was canceled, Sebring helped Lee find work teaching kung fu to Hollywood stars, including Steve McQueen and Roman Polanski. When Tate and Sebring were murdered in Tate's Benedict Canyon home on August 9, 1969, Lee was only a short distance away in his own neighboring abode. McQueen, on the other hand, was allegedly invited to dinner with Sebring and Tate on the night of the murders, but skipped when he ran into an attractive woman and spent the night with her instead. McQueen's close call with death spooked him so bad that he went into a state of paranoia. His then-wife Neile Adams recalled that, after the murders, McQueen "became more paranoid and wouldn't let me go anywhere without a gun."

We can assume that Lee and McQueen's inclusion means that Jay Sebring will be a major fixture in Tarantino's film. That could mean that actors like Olyphant and Marsden – whose characters are not-yet announced – could be playing some of his high-profile clients. Olyphant, in particular, recalls a young Warren Beatty. It could also mean that the bulk of Tate's story in the film is in tandem with Sebring; that's why she was seen driving his car.

Another interesting thing: Apart from Squeaky Fromme, no members of the Manson Family have been officially cast. Why Fromme, and not more notorious members, like Susan Atkins or Leslie Van Houten or even Linda Kasabian? Well, if we're looking at the film from the perspective of '60s Hollywood, and not the murders, Fromme makes better sense. When the Family first took residence at Spahn Ranch, Manson assigned Fromme to be George Spahn's "companion." Fromme, a mere teenager at the time, tended to Spahn's home and sexual needs so that the Family could live on his compound rent-free. She even, supposedly, got the nickname "Squeaky" from Spahn himself, who named her after the sound she made when he ran his hand up her thigh.

Since DiCaprio is playing a Western TV star, it would make sense that he's friendly with George Spahn, and therefore familiar with Spahn's lover, Fromme. Other girls trickled in and out of Spahn's main house on the property, but Fromme was his constant companion, and thus the only one important enough to cast with a name actress. It's possible, then, that our only glimpse at the Family will be via DiCaprio's interactions with the two of them. Perhaps the murders and the other main players will all be off-screen. (Fromme did not participate in the Tate murders, but later served prison time for attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford.)

Other Details

We also know that the film was originally meant to come out August 9, 2019 – the 50th anniversary of the Tate murders. After that decision drew ire, Sony moved it up two weeks to July 26. For some, that tasteless decision was further compounded by Sharon Tate's sister, Debra Tate, who publicly denounced the film and its release date.

But Tate has since changed her mind, after Tarantino personally contacted her and told her the plot of the film. In July, she told People: "I'm pleased he reached out. I thought it showed a lot of class and sensitivity to move up the release date. He has done nothing but respect me and be very forthcoming. I have very high hopes for this project."

On August 3, Debra Tate followed up those comments in two tweets, where she confirmed her enthusiasm about the project, adding: "People think they know what this movie is. They don't." She also noted that Tarantino let her read the script.

Tate, who has spent her life since Sharon's death advocating for victim's rights and vehemently protesting the Family's various parole hearings, added that protecting her sister's legacy is her most important role, and that Tarantino shared her commitment.

That enthusiastic support from the victim's only surviving family member should alleviate some of the initial concerns about Tarantino's project. For what it's worth, I have studied and written about Tate's legacy for years, and have always had a positive perception about Tarantino's film. This is, to my recollection, the first major project about the murders to make Sharon Tate a character; not just a body on the floor, not just a statistic, not just a pretty face in the periphery. A character. Seeing her driving that coupe with those sunglasses, or standing firmly in a miniskirt and high boots, the agent of a story that won't just maim her, but will also understand her, has me beside myself.

There's a lot about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that excites me, but knowing it's going to give Sharon – the person – a platform of any kind is too much for words. Let's hope the rest of the film matches that height.