Quentin Tarantino knew just what he wanted when he sought a fake TV Guide cover to feature in his movie “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.” His art direction read: “Smirking Jake Cahill (sitting) on a horse, who is also smirking. There is a mule in tow ... eyes are bulging and legs are buckling under the weight.”
Tarantino, ever exacting about period detail, wanted a custom cover that looked as if it were nearly six decades old – as mid-century vintage as Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Rick Dalton, in his TV-Western heyday, when he played Cahill on the fictional show-within-the-movie, “Bounty Law.”
Tarantino, like DiCaprio, is passionate about mementos that reflect his hyper-curated taste in past pop culture. The director is fond of filling the frame with tokens from his personal collection, from a rare European poster to a Hopalong Cassidy cup. Yet if the perfect symbol of yesteryear doesn’t exist, he’ll do what he’s so good at: creating a fresh visual fiction that ripples with verisimilitude.
With Tarantino’s wishes in hand, the property master for “Once Upon a Time” reached out to a Mad veteran to do the job: Tom Richmond, a Minnesota-based caricature artist extraordinaire. Richmond was also hired to create the film’s fake MAD magazine cover, incorporating another of Tarantino’s written directives, which the artist posted on his blog: “The image on the wanted poster is Alfred E. Neuman deeply picking his nose. Finger should be up to the second knuckle!”
In quick cinematic shorthand, Tarantino wanted to signal to the viewer that Dalton had once been a big deal – an actor worthy of being featured on magazine covers and film posters – before seeing his star fade by 1969, when “Once Upon a Time” is set.
Both fake covers are caricatures in the style of Jack Davis, the great cartoonist and illustrator – and former colleague of Richmond – who died in 2016.
“He’s a legend not just (among) cinephiles, but anyone who appreciated visual humor at its finest revered Jack’s work,” Richmond said of Davis. “Movie posters, MAD, comic books, animation, advertising, magazine covers – Jack Davis’ work pervaded pop culture from the ’50s through the ’90s and beyond. He was an American treasure.”
Richmond weighed whether to work loosely in another artist’s style and decided it would be an homage to his old friend.
“Creatively, it was a real pleasure to channel Jack,” he said. “Of course, no one can fill his shoes – those amazingly long, pointy, oversized shoes – but I did my best.”
Davis, like Tarantino, was known for having a certain flair when focusing on feet. The art also nods to Davis’ smooth watercolor brushwork.
Richmond consulted Davis’ real TV Guide covers and dozens of stills of DiCaprio in character from the film’s “Bounty Law” footage.
“One of the big visual signatures of that era, for both MAD and TV Guide, was a vignetted image with a simple white background, so I incorporated that look in the art,” he said.
The artist was familiar with drawing DiCaprio.
“Leo has a small nose and small eyes, and big, arching eyebrows with a pronounced brow,” said Richmond, author of “The Mad Art of Caricature!” “The widest part of his face is the forehead above his eyebrows. He’s got a bit of a baby face.”
On the TV Guide cover, DiCaprio smirks with a confident air, but “Quentin specifically wanted a wider-eyed, shocked look for DiCaprio for the MAD cover, so I had to depart from type there,” said Richmond, noting that he received about as much art direction for the prop as he would for a typical MAD assignment.
Richmond wasn’t the only artist to create mock illustrations for the movie. Veteran Hollywood artist Steven Chorney and Italian artist Renato Casaro provided fake posters mimicking such era-appropriate genres as spaghetti Westerns.
Chorney, who works largely in acrylics and pencil, said his secret is to “make the stars of the film look as good as possible, maybe better. And if we can add a bit of excitement to it, even better yet.”
The illustrators never know how much of their prop-art work will appear in a film, if at all.
“I was totally blown away by how much screen time (the art got) and how big it was displayed,” Richmond said. “I was expecting it to be blurry in the background of some scene at Rick’s place.”
Richmond, who lists “Jackie Brown” and “Pulp Fiction” as his favorite Tarantino works, saw two more perks. He delivered his art in person to Tarantino while the director was on set – which in turn led to a real MAD magazine spoof.
“He was exuberant about his love of MAD, and we chatted about some of his favorite issues and how much he loved seeing ‘Pulp Fiction’ spoofed in the magazine,” Richmond said.
In that meeting, Tarantino had an idea: MAD should do a whole section parodying “Bounty Law,” the show that only exists within his movie. That five-page parody is now part of the “Special Tarantino Time Warp Issue,” arriving in mailboxes and comic shops this week, as MAD winds down its publication of issues featuring entirely new content. The “Bounty Law” spoof is illustrated by Richmond and scripted by Andrew Secunda, the artist writes on his blog – and the issue’s cover is the same art that Richmond created for the film.