Quentin Tarantino's ninth film is a film nerd's dream. Like one of Stefon's clubs, this movie has everything: Revisionist history, excellent performances, a shirtless Brad Pitt, and Bruce Lee. The latter two are the centerpiece of an impressive (and subtly executed) fight scene that's done all in one-take, one that features Pitt's veteran stuntman, Cliff Booth, battle Lee (the great Mike Moh) to see who is the better fighter while on a break from shooting the late martial arts legend's Green Hornet TV show.
Moh recently revealed to BirthMoviesDeath how Tarantino and his long-time cinematographer Robert Richardson (Kill Bill, Django Unchained) pulled it off.
"I remember the final fight rehearsal that I had with Brad, on a Sunday. [Tarantino] was coming in just to see where we're at and give his input, and at the end of it, he was very happy with the fight but he pulled me aside," Moh recalled. It was then that the Tarantino surprised his actor with his vision for the set piece.
"He says, 'The way I have this, it's going to be one continuous take.' This was my first time hearing that it would be a [oner]. He said, 'it’s going to be very intricate. We're going to have to give it a bunch of times and there's going to be a lot of juggling and timing, and things have to work out. But it all rides on you. If you don't get it, I don't get the shot that I want. So I just want to let you know I believe in you and I wouldn't have hired you if you couldn't do this, but it's all on your shoulders.'"
So, no pressure, clearly. But Moh, a consummate professional, gave a surprising response: "I think I might've just paused for a second, and then I just confidently looked him in the eyes. I said, 'Quentin, you made the right choice. I'm the guy for this and I'll be ready.' And off he went, and then two days later I was on set and we got that one shot."
Moh went onto say that the production blocked the whole day for shooting this fight, given the intricate nature of pulling off such sequence in one continuous shot. But Moh and Pitt pulled off the fight on either the third or fourth take, all before lunch -- a testament to the type of planning Tarantino and his crew (and yours) have and should have when attempting to execute such an ambitious endeavor.
"Throughout the scene," Moh said, "you can sense the whole set just getting excited, like 'we're going to get this, we're going to get this right.' And Quentin said: 'Look, I'm going to cut if you don't do this perfectly. There's no sense in wasting film, and there's no sense in wasting your energy. So don't worry if I cut, we're just waiting for the right ingredients and the right timing.' So on the third or fourth time, it's going great, I'm feeling it, and we're flowing. Even the extras, I feel like they helped me so much; they were also invested in it. And then he says, 'cut!' Everybody's frozen. And then Quentin jumps up and down and he’s screaming, and as soon as we saw that reaction, everybody explodes into applause."
But Moh made sure he and his costar were not injured during the fight first.
"Me and Brad run over to each other and we’re checking each other, because I had just kicked him and he took a fall straight to the concrete. He's all good. We're hugging. That was definitely a Hollywood moment."
This Hollywood moment is a teaching opportunity, as well. Directors, whether seasoned vets or relative newcomers, will likely try to shoot a oner at least once during their career. And, we get it: They are impressive AF to watch and all the planning and effort are worth it for the audience's reaction – "How did they do that?!" At the same time, the lesson here is to not take the lightly. To make sure content follows form and that the choice to shoot it as a oner make narrative sense, in that it serves the story as opposed to ego or the need to pull off "a cool shot."
Another lesson to be learned here is how Tarantino as the director was mindful and sensitive to the needs and efforts of his crew and his cast, namely Moh. Pulling off a fight as intricately choreographed as Once Upon a Time's requires intense concentration and effective communication across all department heads and stakeholders. The way Tarantino approached Moh, by saying "don't worry if I cut," that's the director approaching his actor in a way that says "If I cut, that's not a reflection on your talents or work. It's an acknowledgement of the reality of this demanding sequence." That type of mindfulness is priceless in any professional sphere; it shows that you care about helping those supporting and enabling your vision feel seen and heard. That you're all rowing the boat together.
That aspect was not lost on Moh, a first-timer working with Tarantino, who also discovered how his director's attention to detail and respect for his production members is only exceeded seemingly by his passion for filmmaking itself. As Moh recalled, after he and Pitt got a satisfactory take, Tarantino said:
“'Okay, that's the one that's going to be in the movie, but we're going to do it one more time.' And then he says, 'why?' And everybody says, 'because we love making movies!' I'm the only one that didn't know that that [was a] thing, so I'm just like, 'what is happening?' So we did it again and we got another great take."
Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is playing in theaters everywhere.
What did you think of the film's instant classic of a oner? What's your favorite oner in movie history? Sound off in the comments below!