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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to the film industry, and indeed, on the first round of viewing, one might not pick up on the fastidious attention to detail the Oscar nominee for best director and screenplay paid to recreating 1969 50 years later.
When attending a screening of the best picture nominee at Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, immersing oneself in that period is the goal, as broadcasts from the local radio station KHJ in 1969 ring throughout the theater before the film even starts.
Featured in the soundtrack and bleeding from one song to the next in the movie as source music, the radio station is a character in itself, just as much as El Coyote or Spahn Ranch. On the morning of the Oscar nominations, producer Shannon McIntosh recalled to The Hollywood Reporter: “This is Quentin’s memory film. These are Quentin’s memories when he was a child driving around Los Angeles and looking up at the signs, looking at Hollywood Blvd. and listening to what he listened to back then. That’s really reflected in the movie. It’s such a personal journey for him.”
That personal journey led McIntosh to call upon Loren Roberts, a self-professed “half bulldog, half retriever” to track down all manner of media clip clearances for the film — from the KHJ radio air checks of songs and commercials from 1969 to film elements hibernating in Pennsylvania salt mines — in order to forge a treasure trove for Tarantino to pull from.
“No one is better at going down rabbit holes and finding things that are completely hard to find than Loren,” McIntosh says of Roberts, to whom she has called upon to acquire the impossible for the past 17 years. They initially met during the 75th Academy Awards, when Roberts was handling the rights and clearances for the show and retrieving materials from McIntosh’s projects like Gangs of New York and Chicago.
“I fell in love with Shannon immediately, but I think I also made her crazy,” Roberts told THR in a joint phone call with McIntosh, who ended up calling the producer at the time to describe how much of a nuisance Roberts was. “The thing is, I’m wise enough that I knew she was gonna fall in love with me the day she needs to hire me, because she’s gonna say, ‘Oh, I know what he’s like. He’s gonna get this shit done.’”
After working together on bonus materials for films like the Spy Kids (2001) series, The King’s Speech (2010), The Artist (2011), My Week With Marilyn (2011) and The Iron Lady (2011), McIntosh knew exactly who to call when she needed clips for Once Upon a Time. “When I read the script three years ago, I immediately thought of him,” McIntosh remembers. “He also shares the vocabulary with Quentin. Like when we’re in a room together, I just sit and listen, like, ‘I don’t know all those shows.’”
For his part, Roberts was on a high after reading Tarantino’s script, but immediately thought, “Holy shit, how am I going to do this?” The 30-year industry vet stuck it out and felt secure after the first meeting with the filmmkaer, who had created a roadmap for Roberts to follow. “I mean, he pulled out the TV Guide from the weekends in February 1969 and said, “Here are the shows that I want to have playing on the background on the TV set.”
There were only a few occasions where Roberts had to take a left turn in Tarantino’s roadmap because a clearance was not available, but one of the biggest coups was snagging The F.B.I. (1965), which viewers might remember Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) watching in Dalton’s home on Cielo Drive. “In every movie Quentin does, there are references to TV shows or movies and nine out of 10 people have not heard of them. People have heard of F.B.I. and there has been a rebranding of F.B.I. before, but it’s still Quentin with a take on F.B.I.,” McIntosh says of the process to convince Warner Bros. to give permission. “But we were putting Rick Dalton where Burt Reynolds used to be, so it was a little bit different.”
Roberts insists that due to McIntosh and Tarantino’s thorough framework of a soundscape and visual look for the film, “it was very easy for me to understand who to get permission from, how to go about doing that, and what it is we wanted to do.”
The roadmap was also very explicit about KHJ, as Tarantino would drive around listening to the songs and commercials that were popular locally, not necessarily across the country, as a child. “We would listen to the KHJ materials Loren got for us on our location scouting bus, in the production office. I mean, Quentin had copies and would bring them home. He really listened to them all the time,” McIntosh says.
From ads featuring Heaven Sent perfume to promos for a University High School reunion, the list would continually be updated with Tarantino’s notes. “I’d provide him with all of these air checks, and I’d come in in the morning and I’d get a list with him saying, ‘OK, so this is the two-minute-long KHJ segment that we are going to want to drop into the one scene in the film,” Roberts says. “I would sit and listen to that, identify who the DJ was, what the song or jingle or commercial was that was playing. And so many of these brands don’t even exist anymore!”
Roberts initially thought finding the right KHJ broadcasts would be simple, but “no one was actually standing by and recording broadcasts back in 1969.” Instead, DJs and the like would do “air checks,” running a tape while the broadcast was happening. Fast forward to 2019, and those were in a couple dozen different hands. “The smartest move I made on this film was hiring a deep-dive researcher named Tamsin Rawady to help me get every air check from 1969. And I’m prone to hyperbole, but there is not an air check from February or August of 1969 and for other huge chunks of that year that she did not locate and we do now now have.”
Finding those air checks required hunting down the descendants of the famed DJs of the day — and their garages. “Humble Harve” Miller was ill at the time the film was in production and eventually died, and Johnny Williams is now in Hawaii, according to Roberts. But the other three primary DJs were all deceased, so getting in touch with their children was paramount. “Bryan and Daniel Ferguson went into the garage and found all of their dad’s air checks,” Roberts says. “Their dad was Art Ferguson, who we call ‘Charlie Tuna.’”
The air checks of “The Real” Don Steele were also essential, as the DJ features prominently on the Once Upon a Time soundtrack via music cues into songs and commercials. They were provided courtesy of his wife Shaune and daughter Susanna. Additionally, random collectors around the U.S. house these air checks of American history. “You know, we’ve gotten pretty lax in the United States about keeping copies of our cultural heritage,” Roberts bemoans. “This film offered a huge opportunity for us to find film, television and radio broadcasts from the late 1960s that would have just languished in a garage forever.”
Roberts also praises the rarity of Tarantino’s filming style. Rather than opting to shoot on a greenscreen and add a television set background in postproduction, Tarantino wanted the actual playback on set for actors to play against. “There were six months of restless nights for me, but we were all able to coordinate to make sure the material was transferred into a playback format that we could use. Every day on that film was remarkable,” Roberts says.
Even for the TV shows on in the background at Spahn Ranch or Cliff’s trailer — those all had to go through Roberts: “We always had to be prepared because it was a scene actually playing on the television. We didn’t program it in later. It. Was. There.”
An aspect of the job Roberts revels in is “getting to call people and talk to them about a project like this, telling them how we would like to incorporate them into the film.” One of the most joyous phone calls was to Susan Dey to inquire about rights to a CoverGirl commercial they wanted to play on the TV at Spahn Ranch. “I grew up watching The Partridge Family. I felt like a 9-year-old fan again,” he says.
He also relished speaking to Patsy Walker, formerly known as Patsy Clinger of The Clinger Sisters. “We had a clip from American Bandstand of the Clinger Sisters, the amazing band from back in the 1960s. And Patsy told me stories about how she and her sisters were actually going to Spahn Ranch during that summer of 1969,” he says. “At some point, I had to stop calling Shannon every time I got off the phone with somebody going, ‘Oh, my God, I have to tell you about this latest way people are connected to the events of this movie by literally one degree.”
Once the film came out, McIntosh and Roberts were flooded with gratitude from the people who gave them the rights, like the children of the DJs and the advertisers, thanking the production for what it meant to have them as participants in the film. Notes Roberts, “The fabulous people at Heaven Sent in Capri, Italy, actually sent us the entire collection of Heaven Sent perfume.”
McIntosh is happy that by looking back at the prominent media of 1969 in Los Angeles, Once Upon a Time is able to take another glimpse at a time when “Hollywood was in transition. That year remains on people’s mind for some gruesome things and how the world changed after that, but I think it’s really fun to shine a light on the amazing TV, movies, and art that were happening back then.”
Roberts is grateful that even from the early days of preproduction, Tarantino rooted the team firmly in 1969, hosting screenings of vintage ’60s films set in L.A. at the New Bev: “I was in an office most of the time of production, so my ‘holy cow’ moment finally came when I actually sat down to watch the rough cut of the film. It was incredible. How do you find that balance between accurate and artistic recreation of this era that felt so lived in and thoroughly thought out?”
Despite McIntosh and Roberts’ many years of working in tandem, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the first feature film that came to fruition for the pair to collaborate on. Before hanging up the phone, Roberts told THR: “Don’t tell Shannon this — I’m hoping that she’s actually far enough away — but I would have done this movie for free.”
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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