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How 'Once Upon A Time In Hollywood' Brought Back 1969's Los Angeles

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Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes place in 1969 Hollywood. It just screened at Cannes to widespread acclaim -- the new trailer is above (the movie comes out in July). In order to turn Hollywood into a temporary time machine, Tarantino enlisted the help of two seasoned Hollywood pros.

I met Rick Schuler and Barbara Ling at a very 2019 Starbucks on the corner of Sunset and Gower. We all hopped in a car together, and they took me on a trip through Tinseltown -- and back in time.

"Hollywood is a destination now," said Schuler, a veteran location manager on films from Se7en to A Star is Born. "We wanted to create more than that. It's like, you get here and you go, 'Where is Hollywood?' Well, it's kind of an idea. And this movie was making it a place, moreso than anything else has done before."

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The modern theater repainted in 2019 to look like its former status as the Aquarius Theatre of 1969. (Tim Greiving for LAist)

We rounded the corner and parked in front of the former site of, most recently, Nickelodeon on Sunset -- originallythe Earl Carroll Theatre in 1938, and, in 1969, the Aquarius Theater. The facade of what's left of that building was still (temporarily) painted a glorious orange with psychedelic artwork.

"This is where Hair premiered," noted Ling, a native Angeleno who's been the production designer on other local films like Falling Down and The Doors. "We had painters doing this, and they told me, 'You know, this has to be the most fun project, because people stop all day along and just scream up: 'Thank you for bringing it back!'"

File: A film premiere in new Cinerama Theater is shown outside the dome of the theater as celebrities and journalists arrived for the premiere of Its a Mad, Mad, Mad World, Nov. 4, 1963, Hollywood. (AP)

We drove a little further down Sunset and stopped in front of the famous Cinerama Dome. It currently has a giant kaiju mouth crashing through the dome to promote Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but for Tarantino's film, Ling recreated the way it looked for the 1969 premiere of Krakatoa, East of Java.

I asked Ling if she was pleasantly surprised at how any of these locations had retained their 50-year-old characteristics. She said no.

"It was a huge to-do to turn back time," she said. "It's unfortunate that in L.A. we tear down as much and as fast as we can of any of the old, iconic pieces. The few that we have left, like the Cinerama Dome -- the very facade, the marquee is still the original, and the golf ball top. But of course, in that timeframe there was nothing but parking lots on either side of it. We could only shoot tight-in, because you had, of course, this whole world around it now that looks nothing like the '60s."

Musso and Frank's mural, 2018, on the Hollywood Boulevard set of Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. (Photo by Alison Martino)

Next, we rolled into the touristy heart of Hollywood on Hollywood Boulevard, tempted to go inside a famous restaurant for a midday martini.

"Musso & Frank's featured in a big way in the movie," Schuler said. "We repainted and did all kinds of things there. The nice thing about that restaurant is that they've preserved pretty much the integrity of everything that's there -- from the leather in the booths, to all of that kind of stuff."

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To the left of Musso's, however -- including the Cabo Cantina -- "all of that got stripped off," he said, "from the straw awning to all the signage and everything. The Vogue Theatre used to extend in front of that, so we put the Vogue back in right there."

Pussycat Theatre, July 2018-- A recreation on the Hollywood Boulevard set of Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. (Photo by Else Duff)

Across the street, what is now the Hologram USA Theater used to be the Pussycat Theater -- an exhibitor of adult films. "We turned that back to the Pussycat, put the whole facade back on there," Schuler said. "People were like, 'Whoa, what is this?'"

Shutting down Hollywood Boulevard wasn't an easy feat. To convince city officials and business owners, Schuler knew he'd need to bring in a big gun: Quentin Tarantino.

"He goes, 'Well Rick, do you think you can shut down nine blocks for two days in a row?' I go, 'I think I can get there 70 percent of the way -- but I think if you come and speak to your enthusiasm about having grown up in Hollywood, owning a theater in Hollywood, doing a movie about Hollywood, that that'll probably be a tipping point.'"

Tarantino paid a surprise visit to Schuler's meeting with the stakeholders who were making the decision, and made his passionate plea.

"Then they had us leave the room," Schuler said, "and a minute later I walked back in and it was a unanimous vote. They were like, 'If he's going to show up, we'll do it.'"

Tarantino not only grew up in Los Angeles, he now owns the historic revival theater, the New Beverly Cinema -- which came in handy when prepping Schuler and Ling for this film.

"He'd invite us to his theater and he'd show us movies from the '70s," said Schuler (who added that the popcorn and soda were complimentary). Movies like Alex in Wonderland, a 1970 film starring Donald Sutherland as a hippie director who stages a film shoot on Hollywood Boulevard that... well, check it out for yourself:

"I got a picture of that and took that to my meeting," Schuler laughed, "and said, 'OK, here's what you've done before. I promise we won't do this kind of carnage.'"

Our last stop on the tour was a few miles south, at El Coyote -- the infamous Mexican restaurant where, in addition to being a hotspot for Hollywood's movers and shakers in the '60s and '70s, was where Sharon Tate ate her last meal. Ling was pleased that it still had a lot of pieces left of the original facade.

"It was a must for Quentin -- who, I might add, still loves going," Ling said. "You know, Musso's gave us the longest shutdown of anyone ever, because he actually, in everyday life, loves going to Musso's. He's a customer that they know well. And El Coyote's, the same thing. This is a go-to restaurant for him, that he still loves after all these years."

I asked Ling and Schuler if there's any attempt to preserve these iconic, historic Hollywood sites. They both shook their heads in dismay.

"There's an L.A. Conservancy that tries to," Schuler said. "There are individuals that very much try to. But there's not a strong force like you would have with the Pasadena Heritage, for instance, that has some weight behind what they ask for. No, there's nothing here that really does much of that."

Which means, if you want to see what Hollywood looked like 50 years ago, you're going to have to do it at the movies. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood comes out July 26.