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Being one of the best performances of his career, Leonardo DiCaprio’s turn as Rick Dalton in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is filled with wonderfully memorable moments – but unquestionably one of the best is the character’s rage-fueled trailer freak out. The veteran actor has a bad day while filming the pilot for the new western television show Lancer, forgetting his lines and embarrassing himself, and he performs a nice bit of self-flagellation during a break from set.
It winds up being a crucial moment in Rick Dalton’s arc, as it turns out to be a really turning point for him – but that just makes it all the more shocking to learn that it was a sequence that wasn’t originally in the script, and was both created during production and totally improvised on the day.
Quentin Tarantino shared the story this weekend during a special event held at his Los Angeles theater, the New Beverly Cinema, where he was joined in a post-screen Q&A session with Once Upon A Time In Hollywood stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie. The writer/director was asked specifically how the trailer freak out scene came together, and Tarantino explained that it really originated as a note from DiCaprio:
Well, it wasn't in the script, actually, so we never rehearsed it or anything. It wasn't in the script. It was something that just somewhere along the way of shooting I think I came up with the idea. Here is the thing, though. That whole section kind of evolved as we were shooting the movie, because there was a whole thing. Leo had a whole thing. At some point it was like, 'Look, I need to fuck up during the Lancer sequence, alright? And when I fuck up during the Lancer sequence, I need to have a real crisis of [confidence] about it, and I have to come back from that to some length.'
Anyone who has seen and enjoyed the finished version of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood will recognize that this was a great notion from the actor – which makes it even more interesting to note that it was something at which Quentin Tarantino initially bridled.
The filmmaker admitted that the inclusion of the Lancer scenes was partially because he wanted to basically smash two genres in one: make a tiny western inside of his bigger movie about Hollywood. The idea of Rick Dalton messing things up meant messing up Tarantino’s western. Once the concept was executed during production, though, the director realized that Leonardo DiCaprio was right:
My immediate response is, 'What, you're going to fuck up my western sequence? That's my western, alright? I get two for one with this movie! I'm trying to sneak a western in here when nobody's fucking looking. Don't fuck it up!' And so almost like we did with him fucking up his hand in Django where it was like, 'Well, I don't know if I want to do that.' So we did the Lancer scene without the fuck up, and then we did it with the fuck up. And then once we did it with the fuck up it was just so amazing, alright, that of course we're going to use it.
This, however, caused a change in plans. While Quentin Tarantino didn’t go into what would have happened had Rick Dalton performed his Lancer scenes perfectly, he recognized after the implementation of Leonardo DiCaprio’s input that another sequence was necessary. Taking inspiration from the work of another one of DiCaprio’s frequent director collaborators, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, a plan started to come together. Said Tarantino,
Then it was like, 'Well, now we need a little bit more than that, if we're going to really build up... you're having your gunfight at the OK Corral, but it's with yourself as you walked back to the Lancer set.' I think I described it exactly this way. I think we shot it exactly this way. It was like, 'It's gotta be like Travis Bickle when he's in his apartment by himself.' And that was literally our stop and start with the whole damn thing.
The setup was simple. The sequence would be filmed with a single angle – a medium shot with the camera on the far side of Rick Dalton’s trailer – and everything would be unscripted. Quentin Tarantino planned for three takes, each one running out the reel, and with the plan going in to edit everything together as jump cuts in post-production.
It was clearly a change of pace from the rest of the Once Upon A Time In Hollywood production, and caused Leonardo DiCaprio a touch of anxiety. He wasn’t quite sure about improvising, but at the same time had the support of Tarantino standing off screen calling out prompts for him to scream about. Said the writer/director,
He's like, 'Well, what should I say?' I go, 'Well, you should improvise. I want you to improvise it, but I'll come up with things to be flipped out about.' So I came up with about four or five or six things that he could obsess on and go nuts over. But then it was going to be him doing it. So if ever he runs out of... 'Get pissed off about Jim Stacy.' [As Rick Dalton] 'Oh that fucking Jim Stacy just sitting up there watching me, and thinking he's so fucking hot. He couldn't be a fucking wrangler on my fucking TV show!' [As himself] 'Talk about the little girl.' [As Rick Dalton] 'And that fucking little girl! She's sitting there…!'
Clearly the scene came together well, but Quentin Tarantino expressed legitimate surprise about how it came together – specifically the apprehension that Leonardo DiCaprio felt towards doing it. DiCaprio is a seasoned veteran and Academy Award winner, but seriously shocked the filmmaker with his very real nervousness about improvisation.
To me, as great as the scene is, the cutest part of the scene was how nervous he was to do it! I mean, I've never seen him so nervous as the day, alright, knowing that in three hours we're going to do it.
In retrospect, it will hopefully go down as a learning experience for Leonardo DiCaprio – particularly because of how successful things turned out. Maybe he shouldn’t leap directly into a Judd Apatow comedy, but it might be fun to see DiCaprio spread his wings a bit and try a bit more freeform material.
Following its incredibly successful theatrical run this summer, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood will soon be hitting the home video market – and with plenty of special features that will provide even more awesome stories and behind-the-scenes insight from the making of the movie. You’ll be able to purchase digital copies starting later this month on November 26th, and 4K, Blu-ray and DVD copies will be hitting store shelves just a couple weeks later on December 10th.