It was 1969, the summer of love - a time of freedom, optimism and innocence. Quentin Tarantino's latest film, Once Upon a Time In ... Hollywood, is a homage to that era and to how it ended, writes Des Sampson.
"There really is no story; it's just a day in the life of three people and we kind of hang out with them," surmises Quentin Tarantino, matter-of-factly, when quizzed about his latest film noir, Once Upon A Time In ... Hollywood.
It's a surprising admission, a candid confession from Tarantino. But it's also misleading. That's because there's so much more to Once Upon A Time In ... Hollywood than his glib gambit suggests. Instead, it's a rollicking yarn stitched together with facts and fictions, memories and make-belief, quirks and eccentricities – and gory, gratuitous violence, as you'd expect from Tarantino.
It loosely tells the tales of Rick Dalton, a once-famous but now has-been Hollywood star, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and his trusted sidekick and stunt-double, Cliff Booth, portrayed by Brad Pitt. Margot Robbie co-stars as Hollywood royalty, Sharon Tate.
"I guess these three characters highlight the three circles of Hollywood: the people who are definitely in the circle, like Sharon was, the people who are trying to be in it but are out of it, like Rick and the people, like Cliff, who live in the valley and don't want to be in it but still dedicate their life to the industry," suggests Robbie.
"I love the way Quentin portrayed mine and Brad's characters. We're relics of the past who're trying to fit in and survive a changing industry, changing culture and changing country," adds DiCaprio. "My character's grappling with his own mortality, his insecurities and his self-doubts. He's also having to face up to the reality that the industry may have passed him by. That's an interesting story, an interesting angle and one which I easily connected to."
"Okay, yeah, it's going in a direction - a dramatic direction," concedes Tarantino. "But there really isn't a plot. I thought long and hard about developing a story and in the end I decided I didn't want Rick and Cliff to have to deal with conflict or something melodramatic. Just hanging out with these characters for a few days felt like it was enough."
It is. That's because these are no ordinary days. Instead, they're three tumultuous days set in 1969, in Hollywood, during the height of the "Summer of Love", which culminate in the horrific murders of Tate and her friends by disciples of cult-leader Charles Manson.
"It was a real transitional time for America. The Manson murders were certainly a flagrant loss of innocence for the country, which had been leaning towards this idealised hope of peace and free love," Pitt surmises. "What happened exposed the dark side of human nature; it showed us that we're not safe and how scary a place America could be. After that, people started locking doors and building fences, which was a big change for our country."
There's more to Once Upon A Time In ... Hollywood than just these events though. It's also Tarantino's homage to Hollywood during a more innocent, bygone era, his fascination with Westerns, his encyclopaedic knowledge of cinematography and his childhood memories – he was 6, in 1969, when the film's set.
"I feel like this film, for him, has a tremendous amount of heart," asserts DiCaprio. "In a lot of ways it's like a 'coming home' story for Quentin and the culmination of so many of his films put together. It's a love letter to the industry, to Hollywood.
It's also a real buddy movie, with Rick and Cliff's friendship bordering on a bromance. In fact, their onscreen camaraderie has drawn comparisons with Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
"Oh, I don't bother with comparisons like that," insists Pitt, downplaying the accolade. "I mean, come on, they're the greatest. I remember seeing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at the drive-in theatre when I was in first grade and it was so moving; I was crying at the end and trying to hide it from my parents because I was embarrassed."
Once Upon A Time In ... Hollywood is equally moving at times. It's more reflective and redemptive and much more emotionally-centred than Tarantino's previous offerings. Not that there isn't the odd curve-ball thrown in, like a surreal fight scene between Pitt's character, Cliff and Bruce Lee, played by Mike Moh.
"Yeah, I never saw that one coming," admits Pitt, smiling. "It was really great fun to do that scene, although I had to do lot of training for the fight, to get in shape, because this old man has gotten slow, now."
"If you're going to set-up how indestructible a person is, then having them fight Bruce Lee and do a good job, like Cliff does, is really setting-up that the guy is a badass," adds Tarantino, laughing. "I love that scene, especially as most of that fight scene was done in just one shot! That's the part I'm most proud of."
It's a scene that's a reminder, if needed, that nothing is ever quite as it seems in a Tarantino movie. It's also confirmation that Once Upon A Time In ... Hollywood is just as quirky, beguiling and brilliant as you'd hope and expect it to be, with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing - right to the end.
Who: Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie and Quentin Tarantino
What: Once Upon a Time In ... Hollywood
When: In cinemas next Thursday