How 'Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood' Fits Into the Quentin Tarantino Universe

once upon a time in hollywood
Andrew Cooper/Sony Pictures

This story contains spoilers for Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood.

For all its reverence for 1960s movies and TV shows, Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is perhaps most enamored with the work of one filmmaker: Tarantino himself. As Leonardo DiCaprio's washed-up Western heavy Rick Dalton, Brad Pitt's sun-baked stuntman Cliff Booth, and Margot Robbie's ill-fated star Sharon Tate wade through the crowded backlots and surprisingly traffic-free freeways of Los Angeles, the film peppers in occasional callbacks and allusions to the controversial director's previous eight films, including a Nazi-killing flamethrower gag that plays like an Inglourious Basterds deleted scene and appearances from Tarantino-verse favorites like Zoë Bell, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, and Michael Madsen. Plus, you know, the many feet shots.  

But Tarantino, ever the showman, saves one last flourish for the end of the movie. As the credits roll, viewers are treated to a black-and-white advertisement featuring DiCaprio's Dalton, in which he praises Red Apple Cigarettes, the fictional brand of smokes enjoyed by characters throughout the film. (In the ad, Dalton stands next to life-size poster of Jake Cahill, his character from his fictional Western TV hit Bounty Law.) After delivering cheesy copy like "take a bite and feel all right," Dalton hears "cut" and immediately veers from the script. "This cigarette tastes like fucking shit," he says, tossing it to the ground and stomping it with his boot. 

On one level, it's a crowd-pleasing punchline to send the audience home laughing after the more shocking, achingly melancholy finale. (Tarantino reportedly added the credits scene after the movie screened at the Cannes Film Festival.) But it's also yet another reference to a brand that's as essential to Tarantino lore as chic retro soundtracks, chronologically jumbled narratives, and historically fraught bloodshed. 

once upon a time in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino directing on the set of 'Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood' | Sony Pictures

Distinguishable by their yellow box and red logo, Red Apple Cigarettes first appeared in 1994's Pulp Fiction, Tarantino's Oscar-winning crime epic starring John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, and Uma Thurman, who smokes them in the film's show-stopping diner sequence. Throughout the '90s, the brand popped up in Tarantino-related projects like the short film collection Four Rooms, where they were enjoyed by Tim Roth's bellhop, and in From Dusk Till Dawn, the vampire thriller written by Tarantino and featuring the filmmaker in a rare main role. (Oddly enough, as this Entertainment Weekly article points out, the brand was also featured in the 1997 comedy Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, which starred Mia Sorvino, who was dating Tarantino at the time.)

Later in his career, Red Apple also made appearances in Kill Bill, Grindhouse, and The Hateful Eight, suggesting that the company has a long, dark history that dates back to the Civil War. Often the cigarettes just pop up in a character's hand or in the background, like when a Red Apple billboard appears in Kill Bill, but Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood finds the brand taking center-stage for a change. It's fitting that a movie so obsessed with the passed-down, romanticized rituals of drinking and smoking -- think of all those close-ups of ice trays breaking, lighters flicking, and cocktails getting poured -- would end with an in-joke about the preferred tobacco product of the Tarantino-verse. It's even possible to interpret the alternate history shenanigans of the finale as a hallucinatory side effect of the acid-soaked cigarette Pitt smokes right before things go violently off the rails. 

Tarantino's genre-splicing, pop-culture-referencing style of filmmaking has always lent itself to self-mythology. It makes sense that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, a film that melds the free-wheeling hang-out vibe of '90s classics like Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown with the more outwardly ambitious historical approach of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, would nostalgically shine a light on Red Apple one more time. When you wander bleary-eyed out of the theater, you might even go looking to buy a pack. As Dalton says in the ad, tell 'em Jake sent you.

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.