Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood, covers a lot of territory in three acts, all set in the Los Angeles of 1969 just as Charles Manson was working his sicko spell on a group of slavish followers. Once Upon a Time is the story of fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), two guys facing the end of their era with a martini-shaker jumble of anxiety and grace. But the movie really belongs to a character who has less screen time and fewer lines of dialogue than either of the men: Margot Robbie plays fledgling movie star Sharon Tate who, along with three of her friends, was murdered by a group of Manson’s followers on August 8, 1969. Tate, recently married to Roman Polanski, was eight and a half months pregnant at the time. Here, Tarantino discusses his love for the Los Angeles of his childhood, the challenges of giving Tate a new life onscreen, and how reports of his imminent retirement may have been greatly exaggerated—or not.
TIME: Your latest, Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood, like your 1997 movie Jackie Brown, is filled with affection for its characters and for Los Angeles. Do you see any connection between the two films?
Tarantino: I do. In both cases I was creating a Los Angeles of my memory. In this movie, it was the Los Angeles of when I was 6 and 7. It was easy to remember all that stuff. I think of my dad’s Karmann Ghia, which is why Cliff drives a Karmann Ghia. And billboards, and what was on the radio. I remember what shows I was watching, what the cartoons were. The book Jackie Brown was based on [Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch] was set in Florida. I set it in the South Bay, which is where I grew up in the ’80s, and I wanted to reflect that.
But also the fact that you’re dealing with more melancholy people. The characters in both movies are dealing with their own mortality. Things didn’t quite work out the way they wanted. And now there’s more behind them than in front of them.
The film is set in 1969, a great time in Hollywood but also one marked by a truly grim event. Did you have any trepidation about using the Manson murders as a backdrop?
I thought hard about it. You can try it, and maybe you won’t pull it off. Maybe it falls into bad taste, it seems ugly, opportunistic. I was aware of all those things. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to try. I knew that if I was going to do this, I had to earn the right to do it at some point in the material. So I risked going for it. And when I did it on the page, I thought I did pull it off. If I’d tried it and wasn’t able to pull it off, then I wouldn’t have made the movie.
To tell you the truth, I probably could have finished this movie five years ago. I put it aside. I questioned whether I wanted to let the Manson family into my head that much. I came close to abandoning this entire project because I didn’t know if I wanted it in my life.
Would you say you found your way into the story via Sharon Tate?
That literally is what happened. I think the reason I backed off before is, you don’t know everything at the beginning. You don’t know how it’s all going to work. I knew I wanted to tell the Rick and Cliff story, and I knew I wanted to tell the Sharon story. But I needed to do all the research to know how I was going to do it.
How did you cast Margot Robbie as Tate?
I’d seen her in a couple of things and thought, she’s really the only person. Everybody else would be a secondary choice. Then I let some of my friends read the script, and they all said, So you’re casting Margot Robbie, right? And out of the blue I got a letter from her, saying, “I really like your work, and I’d love to work with you sometime.” Literally, I had just finished the script a week and a half earlier.
Tate made only a handful of movies before she died. Most people know her only as a “Manson victim.” Your film gives her a new life on-screen, but there has been some criticism that Robbie doesn’t speak enough. How many lines of dialogue does a character need to haunt a movie?
It would have been easy to come up with some kind of story for Sharon, for this film, where there would be more characters for her to talk to in order to move the story along. And the same for Rick and for Cliff. But I had a situation where I thought, We don’t need a story. They’re the story. Let’s just have a day in the life of these characters.
And so the idea is that you just follow the three of them as they go about their day. In the case of Sharon, I thought there was something kind of wonderful about this person who lived, who has been defined by the tragedy of her death. Just the idea that she’s driving around and doing errands, doing the kinds of things someone might do in Los Angeles. She’s living her life, which is what, in reality, she didn’t get a chance to do.
Was it hard to capture the essence of a person who vanished in such a tragic way?
In the movie, she’s a real person, but she’s also a presence. She’s flesh and blood, but she’s also an idea. A lot of those qualities are things that I learned from talking to people who knew her.
I talked to Warren Beatty. I talked to her sister Debra. I talked to about three actresses who were part of her group and knew her well. I met people who knew her and Roman and [fellow victim] Jay Sebring. Everyone talks about her as this incredibly sweet presence, almost too good for this world.
Filmmaking and filmgoing have changed so much since you started. Do you ever worry that younger viewers won’t get all your pop-culture references?
On one hand, it bums me out that they don’t know more than they do. On the other hand, they’re quick—they’re almost too quick to look up everything. Whenever I give my film writing to, like, a millennial to read, they can never get through it because they want to Google every name I mention.
I mean, you don’t have to know everybody I’m talking about here. Every film book I ever read, I expected the guy to know more than me. And I’m Mr. Look Up Things, constantly, as I’m watching stuff. Like, OK, what exactly was her filmography, and was this movie before that one? But back when I was just using the Ephraim Katz Film Encyclopedia I knew more, because you had to know it. It wasn’t just, OK, bang, got it. The Ephraim Katz guide, that was our IMDb. The thing that was exciting about that—they hadn’t updated it forever, and then they updated it in the late ‘90s. And I’m in it. I’m like, Oh my God, I’m in the Ephraim Katz Film Encyclopedia! It was like seeing my name on Moses’ tablets.
You once said you’d stop at 10 films, and you’ve just made No. 9. But why think about retirement at all?
I might have done it to myself to one degree or another by once saying that I only wanted to do 10 movies. But now, everyone’s asking about it. I answer the question and I get blamed for talking about it too much, when I’m not the one bringing it up.
I don’t have a super-great answer. I guess the idea is nothing lasts forever. I’ve been making movies one way for a while. I’ve built my whole life to do that. I didn’t get married, I didn’t have children. I kind of just set up that this is my time to make movies. I’m very lucky I’ve been able to work at a high level of opportunity that most filmmakers, at least in Hollywood, do not have the luxury of working, and I’ve appreciated it.
And now it’s getting to be the end of it. I want to be able to do other things and not have to live on the line, like I have for the last 28 years. I don’t feel bad about it. Most directors do not have a 30-year career. I’ve given what I’ve got to work at this level. And to work at another level is not interesting to me. Another level would be, OK, well, now I’m not trying to make each movie the masterpiece of all time. It’ll be fun to work with so-and-so, I’ll do a movie with him. Or, oh, this is a good book, that would make a good movie, so I’ll do that. That’s eventually what starts happening in the third act of a lot of directors’ careers and I would rather not do that. I would rather choose my own ending.