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Fred Raskin had a big challenge on his hands. The first cut of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was more than four and a half hours long, and he had to cut it down to almost half that length.
Luckily for the film editor, Tarantino joined him in the editing room after principal photography, already knowing what half of the cuts should be.
The rest, Raskin says, “came from watching the movie over and over again [while considering] that if we lose something, do we upset the balance of how much time we are spending with each character and do we need to move things around?”
In the end, Raskin — who also edited Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained — managed to hone down Once Upon a Time to 2 hours and 40 minutes. But the loss of about two hours of footage meant that he really had to kill some darlings.
Some of the scenes left on the cutting room floor centered on Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he’s shooting the Western series Lancer and encounters the precocious child actor Trudi, played by a scene-stealing Julia Butters. “Her two scenes [in the final cut] with Leo are so strong, we realized we didn’t need the other stuff,” says Raskin.
“When she tells him how terrific he was, that really means the world to him … All he wants is the approval of this 8-year-old girl. She has such high standards. The truth is, the additional scenes featuring her were kind of repeat beats.” One sequence that Raskin was disappointed to cut (he says it was one of the best Tarantino had ever written) involved Trudi in a final phone call with Rick.
“[Quentin] just said, ‘You know, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but we’re going to cut that scene because we’ve accomplished it already with the end of the Lancer scene as it stands.”
For Raskin, the trickiest scene to pare was a conversation between Rick and agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) at Musso & Frank Grill. “My [first] assembly was in the realm of 28 minutes. It covered a lot of ground,” he says. To help trim the scene, Raskin used cutaways to clips of Rick’s previous movies.
“Not only did I get to cut this dialogue sequence between arguably the two best actors of their respective generations, but I got to do a war movie, I got to do a Western. Getting to play around with these different genres in the space of what is ultimately a 10-minute scene was a tremendous amount of fun,” Raskin says.
The playful, suave tone set by the friendship between Rick and Brad Pitt’s impossibly cool stuntman, Cliff Booth, quickly flips into a sense of dread when Cliff visits Spahn Ranch and encounters the Manson family. “All of a sudden we’re in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” Raskin explains. “I was very conscious that we needed to play this for the suspense.”
The footage that Tarantino and director of photography Robert Richardson shot for the scene dictated what the style was going to be — “all the creepy Manson kids coming out of doorways and looking through windows.”
Tarantino preferred that Raskin not use music when putting his assembly together. “It became, ‘How can we achieve that level of creepiness without music?’ ” he says. Sound effects were key to the scene in George Spahn’s house when Cliff stares down a dark, ominous corridor.
In the end, Raskin explains, the background music playing on the TV in the house served as the scene’s score. It was a suspenseful cue written by Bernard Herrmann for Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966) but which had never been used.
Says Raskin, “Even though it’s coming from the TV, it’s building up the tension as Cliff is walking down the hallway.”
This story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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