Whether he’s speeding down Cielo Drive, skipping across lanes on the 101, or rambling along Hollywood Boulevard in a sun-kissed haze, Brad Pitt’s irresistible, gold aviator-glasses-wearing stuntman serves many roles in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” But perhaps his most unexpected is his turn as guide to Los Angeles.
Much has been written about how the director Quentin Tarantino’s latest nostalgia-drenched film is a love letter to movies — spotting all the cinematic references requires multiple viewings. But “Once Upon a Time” is also a love letter to the city itself.
El Coyote Mexican Cafe, the Regency Bruin Theater in Westwood, the Spahn Movie Ranch and Playboy Mansion are just a few of the real-life spots that surface in the movie. Taken together, the landmarks and locations help bring to life the pop-infused heady days of the late ’60s and the culture that defined California’s special role in that moment in American history — recalling the historian Kevin Starr’s line that “Los Angeles was the ‘Great Gatsby’ of American cities.”
“Once Upon a Time” may be Tarantino’s most overt homage to Los Angeles, but it’s hardly his first. Though he was born in Tennessee, the director grew up in Torrance, Calif., a sleepy middle-class suburb known more for skateboarders than red-carpet goers, and cultivated his encyclopedic knowledge of films while working at a video store in nearby Manhattan Beach. The influences of those South Bay cities and many other parts of the region are apparent throughout his films. In fact, if you were to get in your car and drive the streets and highways of “Pulp Fiction,” “Reservoir Dogs,” “Jackie Brown” and “Kill Bill,” you’d get a pretty decent sense of Los Angeles, the glamour but also the grit that make it so unlike anywhere else.
Here are a few locations that help define Tarantino’s Los Angeles.
Johnie’s, Wilshire Boulevard, Miracle Mile, and other coffee shops
Midcentury coffee shops, a particularly beloved Southern California phenomenon, make repeat appearances in Tarantino films. In “Pulp Fiction,” Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer decide to hold up the Hawthorne Grill, south of the airport, where you could once get a milkshake for 35 cents, and “Reservoir Dogs” kicks off with Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Tarantino and others debating tipping at Pat and Lorraine’s in Eagle Rock. But the most recognizable diner to appear in a Tarantino film — and many others — is Johnie’s.
The blue-and-white striped Johnie’s was a mainstay on the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard for years. With its red neon sign, it’s considered one of the signature examples of midcentury space age or Googie design. It opened in 1956 under another name and has appeared in many films, including “Miracle Mile,” “The Big Lebowski” and “American History X.” It operated as a restaurant until 2000, but now serves mostly as a filming location and was declared a historical landmark in 2013. Most recently it’s been a gathering place for Bernie Sanders supporters. In “Reservoir Dogs,” it’s where Tim Roth’s character, Mr. Orange, a.k.a. Freddy, a young undercover cop, consults with his superior.
The Crown Pawn Shop, Canoga Park.
Tarantino’s most popular film was shot all over the region, from Beverly Hills to Hollywood, Pasadena to the San Fernando Valley, Culver City to Glendale. The Hawthorne Grill makes a cameo. But most emblematic of a certain Southern California seediness that dots so many streets and that Tarantino seems to relish is the Crown Pawn Shop in Canoga Park.
It’s here that Butch (played by Bruce Willis), and Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), awake in the pawnshop’s basement, bound and gagged, and one of Tarantino’s most medieval violent scenes ensues. The shop is housed in a barely noticeable shopping center that could be one of so many in Los Angeles. A place where nefarious characters can come and go and horrific things happen unseen. It’s emblematic of a certain shady side of Los Angeles, hidden just beneath the surface but always there.
Del Amo Fashion Center, Torrance
It’s in “Jackie Brown” that Tarantino’s South Bay roots can be seen most clearly. Here in the beach cities south of Los Angeles Airport is where Pam Grier plays a down-on-her-luck flight attendant busted for smuggling money for her gun-dealer boss (played by Samuel L. Jackson). Plenty of locations familiar to South Bay natives make an appearance in the film, like the Cockatoo Inn in Hawthorne, an apartment complex in Hermosa Beach and Cherry’s Bail Bonds in Carson. But it’s the Del Amo mall that is probably most memorable. The shopping center, which covers a long stretch of Hawthorne Boulevard in Torrance, ranked as one of the biggest malls in the country for most of the ’80s and early ’90s. Bland and boxy, it represents the opposite of the luminous city showcased in “Once Upon a Time.” It’s in the Del Amo Fashion Center that Jackie tries on a pantsuit and has a moment of reckoning before supposedly delivering $500,000. And its endless parking lot is where Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda needles Robert De Niro until he can’t take it anymore.
‘Kill Bill: Vols. 1 and 2’
The Sanctuary Adventist Church, Lancaster, and Sam’s Hofbrau, Downtown Los Angeles
Tarantino liked Sam’s Hofbrau — home to topless dancers — so much he used it in two films. It serves as the strip club in “Jackie Brown,” where De Niro picks up Jackson after the money drop. And it also makes an appearance in “Kill Bill: Vol. 2.” It embodies the kitschy design that recurs in so many of Tarantino’s films.
But perhaps the best-known Tarantino Southern California location isn’t actually meant to be in the area. The Sanctuary Adventist Church, which dubs itself the Kill Bill Church on its website, is in El Paso in the movie, but in real life it’s in Lancaster, a little more than an hour north of Los Angeles. It’s a reminder that even if a Tarantino picture is set elsewhere — “Kill Bill” ranges from Texas to Tokyo to China — a lot of the scenes are still filmed in the Southland and maintain its aesthetic. The surroundings of the whitewashed Spanish-style church with a lone Joshua tree out front — the perfect spot for the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad to try to kill the Bride (Uma Thurman) — evoke a feeling of desolation, and the empty highways and endless space can still be found in Southern California.
‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’
Musso & Frank Grill, Hollywood
It’s the setting for one of the earliest scenes in the film and where we first start to understand the dynamic between Cliff, the stuntman played by Pitt, and the actor he doubles for, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). They are at the bar drinking when Marvin Schwarzs, played by Al Pacino, arrives to pitch Rick on spaghetti westerns to revive his spiraling career. The restaurant is one of Hollywood’s most iconic spots and has been pretty much since it opened a century ago. Industry insiders have flocked to it for decades, but so have writers like Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Parker and Charles Bukowski. “Ed Wood” “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Swingers” and other movies have all featured it. But unlike many other spots in “Once Upon a Time” that had to be retrofitted to match the 1969 setting, little had to be done to the grill. It still maintains its leather booths, long bar and dark lighting, and of course its steaks and martinis. All that’s missing is the heavy cigarette smoke.
It represents the old school Hollywood glamour and sense of elegance and order that Tarantino seems to mourn the loss of in much of the film. The director treats it with such reverence he even had its longtime bartender, Kenneth “Sonny” Donato, play himself in the film.