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'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood': Inside the controversial Bruce Lee scene from Quentin Tarantino's new movie

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Mike Moh as Bruce Lee in a controversial scene from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. (Photo: Sony Pictures/YouTube)

Once upon a time in Hollywood, a young martial artist and aspiring actor named Bruce Lee experienced his first taste of fame and fortune after landing the role of Kato on the short-lived, but fondly-remembered 1966 TV series, The Green Hornet. Five decades later, Lee’s Green Hornet days provide the basis for one of the most memorable, and controversial, sequences in Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, the latest conversation-starter from writer/director Quentin Tarantino. As with the filmmaker’s other trips back to the past — think Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained — this one deliberately mixes fact and fiction in its evocation of late ‘60s-era Los Angeles. In Tarantino’s Hollywood, real celebrities like Lee and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) cross paths with manufactured personalities like fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

It’s Cliff who has a close encounter of the Tarantino kind with Lee, played in the film by Mike Moh. Coming midway through the movie, the extended sequence features Cliff challenging the actor to a not-so-friendly fight in between takes on an episode of The Green Hornet. Because the scene is introduced as Cliff’s flashback, we’re seeing Bruce Lee — who died in 1973 — through his eyes, and it’s not a flattering portrayal. This Lee comes across as a comically arrogant diva in need of a public humbling, which Cliff is all too happy to provide.

Brad Pitt battles Moh in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. (Photo: Sony Pictures/YouTube)

It goes without saying that Lee’s family is considerably less than happy with the movie. The actor’s daughter, Shannon, publicly expressed her anger about Tarantino’s depiction of her father, and Lee’s protégé, Dan Inosanto, has spoken out against the movie as well. The debate has also moved into the Twitter-sphere with a steady stream of commentary about whether the film mocks Bruce Lee or celebrates him.

When Yahoo Entertainment spoke with Once Upon a Time’s director of photography, Robert Richardson, ahead of the movie’s July 26 release, he didn’t discuss the specifics of Lee’s depiction, but he did offer a fly-on-the-wall account of how that sequence was filmed. As Tarantino’s go-to cinematographer since Kill Bill, Richardson told us about how Bruce Lee’s fighting style differs from Uma Thurman’s the Bride, and how he and the director plugged Leonardo DiCaprio into scenes from The Great Escape.

Yahoo Entertainment: The Bruce Lee scene begins with an extended long take, which led me to think it was going to take place entirely in one shot. Was that the original plan?

Robert Richardson: Yes, that is a oner; Quentin knew he wanted to make it as a oner shot, and hoped he could do the whole fight that way. It wasn't originally conceived in the manner in which you see in the movie. We didn't have Kurt Russell’s wife [played by Zoë Bell] coming into the sequence and all that. He altered that as we went along. But he knew he wanted to hold on the fight between Mike and Brad. We did a rehearsal with the crew on an off-day at the exact location where we were going to shoot it, and walked through the fight together to find a rhythm.

Quentin kept refining it piece by piece as we went along, until we found a piece of equipment that would work and figuring out that we’d ride the crane instead of having to get a remote-head crane. When we shot it, we shot exactly up until the point when Cliff throws Bruce Lee into the car, and that was the cut. I wanted to keep going! In the rehearsals, I would say, “Let’s put a wire on [Mike] and drag him into the car.” Then they could swing the camera and just keep the shot going. But, of course, I lost that battle and you saw what you saw. In my mind, as the camera operator, I wanted to keep it going.

How many takes did it require to nail the scene as we see it in the movie?

There weren’t that many takes, because we’d rehearsed it ahead of time. The errors that did take place happened if the crane didn’t move properly or if I didn’t make the swish pan at the right time. It was more about me and my crew than it was about the acting. The acting was always absolutely on point. Periodically, I’d get so involved with the action that I’d forget where I was. I’d be looking into the camera, staring at Mike and thinking, “I really like this performance. Oh wait, I’ve got to get back over here to Brad!” And then I’d go back to Brad and wouldn’t want to go back. Part of me was always locked into a performance and not being a dancer [with the camera]. The number of moves that was required by all of us was substantial, and I have a limited mind.

Lucy Liu in Kill Bill: Vol. 1. (Photo: Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)

Having made the Kill Bill movies where the fighting was very stylized, what was it like to be part of a scene that’s more grounded in reality?

The entire film is like that. It’s not about something as operatic or complex as the visual lexicon used in Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds or Django. We’re walking a different path here: It’s softer, and more realistic. It wasn’t a great stretch for me in terms of accomplishing this kind of movement with Quentin. In fact, it was a joy to be able to work it out with him. It’s one of the greatest pleasure you find as a director of photography, working with someone to find the logical rhythm [of a scene]. Quentin was always working towards that goal: “Pan here, pan there, put this in the foreground.” Just working out those kinds of shots is an extreme high.

Is there more to the Bruce Lee fight that we didn’t see?

No, that was it. What you see is what there was. There’s very little not within that particular sequence; it’s pretty exact.

Did you go back and look at any of Bruce Lee’s movies to get a sense of how to frame him or follow his movements?

Position in the frame is something Quentin and I talked about in terms of center-framing and center-punching. We’re dealing with anamorphic [format], and those films weren’t shot as anamorphic. He wanted Bruce Lee in a certain position in the frame. I attempted to keep him there as much as possible. When you’re doing a shot like that you’ve got multiple people working simultaneously to achieve the same goal and that goal is not always perfection. I have two or three guys on a crane, and they’re moving it back and forth and someone’s moving it up and down. I’m operating and the actors are moving.

Placement is not always exact, nor is the camera always in the perfect position every time. So there is an intuitive level that has to be involved and there has to be a certain level of acceptance that you’ll be off this or off that. But those situations are what keeps it in the timeframe of when we’re shooting, meaning 1969. It’s a 1969 movie. So it isn’t perfect, but if feels human, not mechanical. And I think that’s a vast improvement for this particular film over the place you could have gone if we were making, say, The Matrix, which is on the money all the time in exactly the right place.

Yeah, you can feel the human element behind the camera here.

We want to feel the retro aspects. For example, in the Bounty Law scenes in the beginning of the movie, there’s a camera push-in on a shot with Michael Madsen and Leo, there’s a flaw in there. That flaw is deliberately placed so it’s not perfect. We tried very hard to create something that felt human and would be more natural to what would be accomplished at the time they were shooting a television series. Whether it was a zoom or whatever, it needed a heartbeat. This film has a heartbeat.

Quentin Tarantino directs Brad Pitt and Elise Nygaard Olson on the set of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. (Photo: Andrew Cooper / © Columbia Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection)

I wanted to touch on the treatment of the Manson family in the film, and specifically in the scene where Cliff visits Spahn Ranch. What was your overarching visual conceit behind that sequence?

I initially entered that sequence in a way that I didn’t actually achieve. I’m a very strong proponent of good light in a sequence. And that light generally moves behind an actor rather than in front of an actor, particularly when the light is not conducive to something that is attractive. But I found that the location that was chosen for Spahn Ranch required me to look towards front light and I succumbed to that and altered what I felt inside. I realized what’s taking place in front of you is what needs to take place in front of you. Let the harsh light and the shadows in, because it’s Manson: There’s nothing beautiful about Manson.

That’s what we did with the exteriors mostly. When Cliff enters into the house, I tried to shift [the light] with a direction in mind that it would move towards something closer to a horror film. Quentin was so behind it; it was almost accidental the way we found it. Brad embraced it, and found the light. Everything fell into place; it’s all a bit creepy and severe about what the future might hold for Cliff Booth.

Steven McQueen in The Great Escape. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

I loved seeing DiCaprio inserted into scenes from The Great Escape. How did you accomplish that?

What happened was that John Dykstra, the visual effects supervisor, went through the film with Quentin. We knew the scene we wanted to recreate. Then we evaluated what the the lens was, and we couldn’t find the exact lens they used, but I said the closest we could find was a 50-millimeter. Essentially what we did was determine the height, and then we did playback, which is a very rare thing on a Quentin movie. We played back the scene for each shot we were duplicating with Leo in order to determine if we were too far, too close, too high, too low, if the focus was too shallow or too deep and if the lighting was accurate. And then Quentin would direct the take. I will ask you: How many people do you think remember The Great Escape?

Oh, I love The Great Escape!

Of course you do. But otherwise very few people. [Laughs]

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is playing in theaters now.

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