Tarantino and LA: A love story

James Luxford

Los Angeles is almost inseparable from Tarantino's cult works such as Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction. Here, we take a closer look at the director's special affinity with the City of Angels... 

Quentin Tarantino returns to The City of Angels this summer for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Leonardo DiCaprio plays an ageing star struggling to find a way to get back to the big time alongside his stunt man and drinking buddy Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). It’s been over a decade since the director last filmed in Los Angeles (in 2007’s Grindhouse side project Death Proof), however, those familiar with his work will know that the city has played a major part in establishing his career, becoming a character in its own right in some of his most famous films.

Having grown up largely in LA, it made sense that the filmmaker’s breakthrough film, Reservoir Dogs (1992) would make use of various nooks and crannies within his home town. While that film focused on the characters more than the locale (much of the action was shot in a warehouse), it established the world that Tarantino would build on in his second feature, Pulp Fiction (1994). The characters who dwell the streets of Tarantino’s LA are charismatic lowlifes, subliminally influenced by the show business culture they live adjacent to. Dressing like characters from a Fifties Noir, these misfits are walking anachronisms, visually representing a culture that moved too fast and left them behind to fall into darkness.

"It’s a city where old trends never die, but simply peek through the cracks, like bill posters pasted over each other"

We wander through themed restaurants where you’re served by faces from Hollywood’s past, and witness the trailing dreams of those around you. We see characters like Pulp Fiction’s Mia Wallace, a former TV star turned gangsters’ moll, and hardened criminals more concerned with the meaning of Madonna’s Like a Virgin (the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs). Even religious conversions come with a pop culture tag. By the end (or, timeline wise, middle) of Pulp Fiction, Samuel L Jackson’s Jules Winfield sees the light and resolves to leave his wicked profession in order to walk the Earth—“you know, like Caine in Kung Fu”. It’s a city where old trends never die, but simply peek through the cracks, like bill posters pasted over each other.

With his first three films, Quentin Tarantino established Los Angeles as a den of fascinating reprobates like Jackie Brown’s (1997) excitable gun runner Ordell (Jackson, again!), or Butch (Bruce Willis), Pulp Fiction’s faded boxer who keeps getting underestimated. With the next few films, the director would move further afield, but still never far from home. A church just outside of LA Lancaster, California stood in for Texas in Kill Bill, a state also portrayed by Californian desert in Django Unchained. All the indoor scenes in The Hateful Eight were also filmed in a Hollywood studio. It’s in this period that Los Angeles switches from star to character actor. A keen movie historian, the director would be well aware of the city’s near limitless potential for standing in for other parts of the world, taking an old school approach at a time where a Hollywood film is rarely made in Hollywood. Even when away from home, Los Angeles’ influence stayed with him—the pivotal cinema in Inglorious Basterds was built in a German studio, and inspired by LA’s Vista Cinema featured in the Tarantino-penned True Romance.

"Los Angeles is a city of dreams, but also a city that leaves even its most celebrated citizens behind eventually"

For his ninth and penultimate film (if past assertions are to be believed), Tarantino puts the city back at the top of the cinema poster. DiCaprio’s character Rick Dalton moves through Hollywood in 1969, lamenting the very real shift that was happening in the industry. To the former black-and-white western star, the city was not the same as the one he made his name in. In an interview with Esquire, he described it as “my memory piece. Alfonso (Cuarón) had Roma and Mexico City, 1970. I had LA and 1969. This is me. This is the year that formed me. I was six years old then. This is my world. And this is my love letter to LA”


Tarantino with Once Upon A Time In Hollywood star, Margot Robbie at Cannes 2019

It’s arguable that the film’s lead character also parallels Tarantino’s own frustrations with the modern film industry. A traditionalist in the middle of an ever-evolving world, the director passionately argues the virtues of shooting and exhibiting movies on film (as opposed to digital), and is a stern of the growing trend of binge-able cinema services such as Netflix. His purchase of LA cinema The New Beverly hinged on the condition that it continued to play double bills on film, never digital. In 2015 book I Lost It at the Video Store, Tarantino revealed he still watches movies at home on VHS (many of which are from Video Archives, the rental store where he famously worked before his big break).

Given this position, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood could be both a celebration of the last days of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and a meditation on the industry as he sees it today. Los Angeles is a city of dreams, but also a city that leaves even its most celebrated citizens behind eventually. Through 27 years and nine films, the filmmaker has seen himself move from Enfant Terrible to member of The Establishment, a position that has seen his relationship with The City of Angels change from deeply connected to nostalgic. In this sense, perhaps this portrayal of La La Land’s colourful, but troubled past, is as much a eulogy as it is a celebration.