How 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Production Design Explored a Bygone Era

James Dean mural - Publicity - Split - H 2019
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

Barbara Ling walks through how she brought 1969 Hollywood to life with vinyl-wrapped buildings and large-scale miniatures for Quentin? Tarantino's love letter to Tinseltown.

When Quentin Tarantino embarked on the ambitious feat to re-create 1969 Los Angeles for Sony's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he turned to veteran production designer Barbara Ling, whose credits include Batman Forever, Fried Green Tomatoes and another '60s-set drama, The Doors. A Los Angeles native and a teenager at the time of the events depicted in the film, Ling cared less about making an exact replica of the city's locations, focusing more on creating a nostalgic world that represented the vibe of the era. "Quentin always said, 'We're not making a documentary,' " Ling says. "We wanted to capture what the city felt like at the time."

Ling spoke with THR about the challenges of showing historical locations in a rapidly changing city, bringing back to life a long-lost Los Angeles for Tarantino's most sentimental film yet.


"Pandora's Box used to be on The Strip, on the corner of Crescent Heights and Sunset. The Sunset Strip now — they've torn down everything. The Whisky is still there, but across the street and around it — [all the old buildings have] been torn down. It's all big glass and steel high-rises. So we knew we couldn't put it back on Sunset, but I love that Quentin wanted Pandora's Box because it was a strange location, but iconic at the same time, especially because of the [1966] riots that happened when it was [forced to] close. It is a great piece of L.A. history that was torn down, unfortunately, at the end of the '60s, because it was too much of a hangout for hippies.

So we found a building, a restaurant in Hollywood, that was willing to let us alter it, build onto the front and let me make this entire building the striped Pandora's Box. It was not in the right location, but it didn't really matter because I don't think most people would even know the real location of Pandora's Box. They just knew it was on the Sunset Strip. We had a few snags in that once we built out the front, one of the owners was like, 'I don't think I want paint on the building.' So I ended up having to do it as a gigantic wallpaper. So that building's actually wrapped in vinyl."


"We made [this original mural in Glassell Park] as an ode to the many murals dotted around Los Angeles in the '60s that had movie figures, that have long been built or painted over. That particular mural was very close to Quentin's heart. It's just how murals were in the '60s. They just were right there on the side of a building. The muralists would go up and ask somebody, 'Can we paint this mural here?' And they'd say yes, and it'd stay until the building was torn down. It was an ode to that artistry, particularly in neighborhoods around Hollywood where there used to be murals all over the place on the side streets. Kent Twitchell was quite big, as were a lot of muralists at that time who were doing iconic film pieces. There used to be so many more murals. This is the problem with overbuilding; it's amazing how few murals are left."


"That was just so much fun, because Hullabaloo [a musical variety show that aired on NBC in the mid-'60s] was such an iconic thing. It's funny when you grow up with something and you remember thinking how cool it was, and then you have to actually design it. Like those letters — they just look like big foam letters, but they were actually steel-encased so the dancers could dance on them. There's this whole, interesting other world when you're actually doing the fantasy version of a show that you grew up on, trying to make these letters so that they didn't fall over. But it was kind of a lovely, simple set that said a lot. Quentin very much wanted to capture a few of the great, iconic shows, and that was the one that everyone kind of agreed would be just in a flash, kind of a fabulous one to capture. Even just the name, Hullabaloo — it's just so 1969."


"As much as we would have loved to have built the mural-front screen, those are massive — almost 250 feet tall by 400 feet wide. That was the one thing we ended up doing in larger-scale miniature; I built the front of the drive-in and the whole drive-in you see, the marquee and all that.

When you do a 24-scale miniature, the screen is about 10 feet high. It's big — it's not really miniature. But to me, it's a great beauty, that fabulous marquee. I knew I had to build it in three-dimension because we wanted the car right next to it.

So when the camera comes up over the mural in Van Nuys, that's actually a miniature. And then the camera moves and we [are in] another location, behind the old drive-in, this kind of dilapidated factory [where Cliff's trailer sits]. That was one of the few pieces that used VFX, because it just would have been a monumental build. Financially, it just would have been prohibitive.

We wanted to put Cliff in the realm of a drive-in. I love that whole environment for Cliff, putting him in such a different world from the [glamorous one] in which he serves as a stuntman."


"You couldn't find an old Taco Bell anywhere! We found a closed location, which still had the old shape of the building. It was dilapidated, so we went in and unboarded it and reshaped it and then went to Taco Bell to get permission. And luckily their signage people were very nice and were willing to let us remake one, as long as their museum could keep it. Which is interesting, because they themselves were trying to run around the country, finding old sites to buy up for their museums. And then the other little hard guy was that little taco man. Again, we did it under their grace, and it's now in the Taco Bell museum. But people have said to me, 'I can't believe you did that for one short shot.' And I said, 'You know what? That's how you make a movie. It's just a lot of small things that make up one long movie.' "


"[Construction on] that building — what was once known as the Earl Carroll Theatre [on Sunset Boulevard] — was moving faster than [we could work on it]. They had already gutted the interior, and you could no longer see the side of the building weeks before we started going into this. [The locations department] tried to see if they could slow them down and they said no, but we did get the front mural on. We just couldn't get the side mural on because the building was under construction. And it was supposed to be a preserved building. They said, 'Well, we did preserve it. We just didn't preserve the giant area next to it where we're actually building a giant tower.' So in other words, they didn't preserve the building at all.

But the owner was cool, and when we said, 'Can we do this?' he was willing to keep it up too, he loved it. As long as he can, he'll try to keep a piece of that mural up. It is a shame that the facade you can't really see in all its glory anymore with the building that's going into the middle of it. But that's very L.A."


"What's great is that they've never torn that building down. The biggest difference is there used to be parking lots on all sides. [Visual effects supervisor] John Dykstra took away some buildings, because it's so encased now within office buildings and parking garages. We wanted to have it standing on its own again.

You still had, of course, that great shape, the marquee. The bigger problem with any marquee is that they're now LED, so you had to get it backlit, but it was fun just to get their colors back. They were very keen on helping: 'Oh no problem, we'll go back to just the red, white and blue.' They were excited. It's what's neat."

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.