July 19, 2019

'What is This?': Polanski to Tarantino on 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'

Roman Polanski recently reached out to Quentin Tarantino to ask about "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" and Sharon Tate's role in the story. 

Quentin Tarantino has had a lot of heat on him after announcing his 9th film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, especially since Sony planned to release it on August 9th, 2019, the 50th anniversary of Sharon Tate's murder. Sony has since moved the release date to July, but there's a large contingent of people wondering how Tarantino treats this sensitive subject. 

One of those people is Roman Polanski, who was married to Tate at the time of her death.

To understand this story, you have to understand just the impact that Sharon Tate's murder had in the late 1960s. 

Sharon Tate's murder 

In August of 1969, the Manson Family cult left their ranch and went on a two day killing spree in Los Angeles. It was an intense time in the city, and when the dust had settled seven people were dead. Among them was 26-year-old actress Sharon Tate. Tate was pregnant at the time and lost the baby as well. They were buried together. 

Her killers went free for over a month until they were arrested on unrelated charges. 

In an interview with Greg King for his book, Sharon Tate and the Manson Murders, Joan Didion said,

"Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled."

The Aftermath

Many celebrities at the time saw this as a wake-up call and installed heavy security systems around their homes. Some even left Los Angeles. Manson and his cult were arrested. Sharon's sister, Debra Tate, went on to be a victims' rights advocate heralded by many human rights groups. 

As you probably know, Polanski continued his directing career, going on to receive several awards. He fled to Europe in 1977 after being charged with the rape of a 13-year-old girl in Los Angeles. And won an Academy Award for Best Director for The Pianst in 2003. He was removed from the Academy in 2018. 

Where does Tarantino come in? 

As you know, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood features Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, and the trailer offers a depiction of her knife-wielding assassins approaching her Cielo Drive home. While Tarantino has been known for his alternative histories, like the one presented in Inglorious Basterds, you'd have to think that some of Tate's friends and relatives got chills down their spine when they saw the coming attractions. 

One of those people was Roman Polanski, who reached out to Tarantino via a mutual friend and said "What is this?" in reference to the trailer. 

In a new interview with Deadline, Tarantino expanded on he didn't reach out to Polanski while creating the film: 

“Look, when it comes to Roman Polanski, we’re talking about a tragedy that would be unfathomable for most human beings,” Tarantino said. “I mean, there’s Sharon, there’s his unborn son that literally lived without ever being born. That’s just a crazy sentence even to say. I felt that the story of her death and the Manson tragedy had moved into legit history. So it actually is of historical importance beyond just his own personal tragedy. So, I felt I was on OK grounds there. I didn’t want to call him and talk to him while I was writing it because I’m not going to ask him permission. I’m going to do it, all right? I don’t think he needed any anxiety and I didn’t need any anxiety as far as that was concerned.”

Tarantino goes on to say that Polanski was not irate, only inquisitive. 

To quell Polanski, Tarantino had their mutual friend come over the house, read the script, and report back to Polanski that he had nothing to worry about. 

Credit: Variety

What's the lesson here? 

I think it's important to point out that in 2003, Tarantino went on record on the Howard Stern Show defending Polanski. So I don't think there is any ill-will between the two. But one of the biggest lessons I think the rest of us can take away from this situation is the ethics behind writing movies and television ideas that surround real-life events. 

Despite my personal abhorrence of Polanski, he did suffer a great tragedy losing his wife and child. Tarantino is a well-connected person, a peer, and I think totally should have reached out to him before writing this screenplay and subsequently making the movie. 

Research is required when you're writing about something that happened, and if you want things to feel real and true, it behooves you as a writer to seek out first-person accounts. It's what makes Chernobyl such an important mini-series, what made Rocketman such a great film, and what makes writing these kinds of tales authentic to the human experience. 

Dramatizing trauma

As I mentioned earlier, Tarantino has really been questioned for his treatment of Uma Thurman on Kill Bill, his defense of Weinstein, and his defense of Polanski. He does not have the best track record when it comes to dealing with women and violence upon women in Hollywood. 

Without seeing the movie, it's hard to analyze how Tarantino handles Tate's legacy. He describes her murder as the backdrop of the film. A way to paint Los Angeles in 1969. While I think that's interesting narratively, you have to wonder if it works ethically. I'm not saying you can't write or direct grisly movies, but I do wonder where you all think sensitivity comes into play. 

Especially when you're creating a work of fiction around an actual historical event.

I think the real question here is why Tarantino didn't contact the Tate family when putting these ideas to film. Did he not want to learn who Sharon was? Did he want her to just be his version of who she'd be on film? 

Or was he okay only being a tourist in her trauma? 

For me, I'd want the story to both honor Tate's memory, but also refrain from using the violence against her and her extended family as something trivial. The smaller it gets within the story, the more I have to ask the reasoning behind showing it at all. 

Again, I haven't seen the film, but it's a question I'll be thinking about and I'm excited to hear your thoughts too.  

What's next? Read about Taratino's TV vision

Quentin Tarantino is programming ten nights of movies that inspired "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood". Click the link to learn more!      

Your Comment

17 Comments

I don't intend to defend or condone Polanski's sex crime, but the guy had a lot of tragedy in his life prior to his wife's murder. The first few chapters of his autobiography Roman by Polanski, detail his childhood as the nazis were taking over. Death was all around this guy since the beginning. He may have one of the most interesting, disturbing and deeply complex lives out of anyone in modern time.

July 19, 2019 at 3:51PM

3
Reply
avatar
Sean Pettis
Director/DP
475

Sean, definitely good stuff to point out - you would hope that made his movies and life more sensitive, but in reading other articles about him, it does seem it made him more callous. While I know he won his libel suit for some of the stories, it's hard not to look at how he stole the youth of someone else as vindictive, even if someone else stole his youth.

July 19, 2019 at 6:15PM

0
Reply
avatar
Jason Hellerman
Copywriter
Writer

Agreed. I always like to think about how people get to where they are psychologically and how much validity there is with the whole "product of one's society" theory. Manson himself has such a fascinating life which can almost be broken up into chapters leading to his deviously charismatic control over others and his loss of basic sanity. I think ultimately people just try and get by, whether they're mostly battling what's around them or what's inside of them. Some succeed, some don't.

July 20, 2019 at 2:13PM

5
Reply
avatar
Sean Pettis
Director/DP
475

Hey Sean, if you dig in to the autobiography, though, and find the part where he talks about his sex crime... his defence is that the child he molested "knew what she was getting into".

There's no notion of an age of consent, not to mention the drugs and champagne he admits plying her with.

This isn't a third party account. Read his book. He doesn't put forward a defence: he puts forward a justification.

July 22, 2019 at 9:02AM, Edited July 22, 9:02AM

0
Reply

This is an interesting subject to think about, particularly in regards to Tarantino's work. It's not altogether surprising that he didn't want to talk to Polanski about his unimaginably tragic experience as Tarantino just doesn't come across as that kind of director or writer. I actually can't think of a single moment in Tarantino's films that deals with loss, grief or any kind of down or sad emotion in anything but a fleeting, reactionary way, which is really unusual in Hollywood, almost singular.

I don't see this lack of negative emotional exploration as any kind of creative negative by the way, in fact it's what makes his films something more than the B-movies he's inspired by. He's an entertainer but somewhere I think there is more to all his films and he knows it.

Wether entirely by design or not, he makes you feel something by showing troubling events - hit men, murdering teenagers, the holocaust, slavery, coma patients being raped and not allowing you access to their thoughts or what it means to them. I think a lot of the time he deliberately plays with our complicity as an audience. Wether it's 12 years a slave or Django I think he knows somehow that we go to watch these films to be "entertained" in the broadest sense of the word. The act of watching is never clearcut. Gruesome events sell papers, wether we are horrified by them or not. But in a way perhaps Tarantino doesn't let us off the hook for wanting to rubberneck by saying, look how terrible this is.

While I enjoy his movies they have also all made me slightly uncomfortable and this is a very good thing because it leads to thought about what entertainment actually is. I do hesitate as it sounds like you do also, at the thought of someone who has been mostly known to play at the cartoon like surface of the human condition, dealing with something that feels more raw and real somehow but I'm sure, as always, whatever type of film he's made, it will be more complex and layered than it seems on first viewing and we will be complicit wether we like it or not because we will, of course, still be watching.

July 19, 2019 at 4:13PM

9
Reply
Paul fern
Film maker
261

Great answer!

I think the thing that bugs me the most is that we see the world so matter-of-fact through his eyes. Sure, he's making us look, sure he finds entertainment, but I always wish there was a nuanced layer behind the scenes. At times, it feels juvenile to point at something and say "look" without having a secondary way to say "this is what I want you to understand."

July 19, 2019 at 6:17PM

0
Reply
avatar
Jason Hellerman
Copywriter
Writer

wow

July 20, 2019 at 6:07AM

3
Reply

He won the Academy Award for The Pianist. Not "The Piano"

Great job.

July 20, 2019 at 11:53AM, Edited July 20, 11:53AM

0
Reply

That's on me - sorry about that.

July 20, 2019 at 5:49PM

1
Reply
avatar
Jason Hellerman
Copywriter
Writer

I know to some this may seem a travesty, but Tarantino is over rated. That’s not to undermine his films or talent by any means, I love both. But, I often times wonder how many Tarantinos we’ve missed out on because they didn’t get lucky like him. I saw a homeless man once, that looked just like him, and entertained the idea that maybe it was him in a parallel universe. As for contacting Polanski, screw him, there’s no excuse for what he did, everyone has varying levels of trauma. It should be a question of contacting the Tate family for approval, not Polanski.

July 20, 2019 at 1:34PM

0
Reply
avatar
Jennifer Canhos
Writer
87

Totally agree about contacting the Tate family.

July 20, 2019 at 2:15PM

1
Reply
avatar
Sean Pettis
Director/DP
475

I hear this kind of trash frequently and it worries me that anyone who likes movies would question the greatness of what Tarantino has done. It is obvious and not up for debate. Tarantino forced his way into Hollywood on his own merit selling the script for True Romance for $50,000 so he could direct Reservoir Dogs. There was absolutely no luck involved. You may not like his movies, but movies like his would not exist if he didn't make them. Every single one of his movies has a bunch to offer. No modern director is remotely close to the breadth of work Tarantino will leave behind. He shits out masterpieces. This new one is going to be another gem and I cannot wait to see it multiple times.

July 20, 2019 at 4:37PM

1
Reply
Jake
558

This ^

July 20, 2019 at 11:00PM

2
Reply

Totally agree – what does Polanski alone have to do with Sharon Tate's memory? To suggest that he was the one Tarantino should have talked to – the suggestion by NFS, by Tarantino himself and by Polanski – is to totally miss the point in terms of the wider circle around Tate. It's headline politics.

July 22, 2019 at 9:04AM

0
Reply

Hey - that's not my intention at all - I am posing the question. I've mentioned the Tate family in the article and Tarantino's ambivalence to them - all I wanted to do was cover Polanski reaching out to Tarantino because that's what happened.

July 22, 2019 at 12:24PM

3
Reply
avatar
Jason Hellerman
Copywriter
Writer

While I understand Tarantino's loyalty to Miramax for their early support, he gave a pass to Harvey W. after knowing that his girlfriend at the time, Mira Sorvino, was harassed (and likely black-balled from features). Once you understand how gutless this behavior was, the rest of his callous actions start to make more sense. He's an obviously talented, seasoned, and skilled filmmaker trapped inside of a self-indulgent adolescent with a pattern of taking the easy way out.

July 22, 2019 at 1:49PM, Edited July 22, 1:55PM

0
Reply
Marc B
Shooter & Editor
623

While outrage is a hot fad right now, Brad Pitt confronted and threatened to kill Harvey Weinstein over Gweneth Paltrow back in the mid 90's. Beyond being a monstrous star power couple, Gweneth Paltrow is legacy Hollywood royalty. I don't think there could be a single person working in Hollywood from that point forward that didn't know how Weinstein liked to do business. Basically they would have to shut all of Hollywood down if you are that outraged at people knowing about Weinstein.

July 22, 2019 at 7:58PM, Edited July 22, 8:00PM

0
Reply
Jake
558