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."
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.
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.
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!