How Zoë Bell Staged the Bruce Lee Fight and Other Stunts in 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'

zoe bell
Quentin Tarantino and Zöe Bell | Getty Images/Albert L. Ortega
Quentin Tarantino and Zöe Bell | Getty Images/Albert L. Ortega

Zoë Bell has a Quentin Tarantino "filter." The stunt person and actor, who doubled Uma Thurman on Kill Bill and hung off a speeding, swerving car in Death Proof, knows how to translate the director's wild ideas and make them a reality. That skill came in handy on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where Bell finally assumed the role of stunt coordinator on one of Tarantino's films.

As head of a team on Once Upon a Time, Bell was responsible for overseeing the much-debated sequence in which Brad Pitt's possible wife-killer stunt man Cliff Booth goes head-to-head with Bruce Lee on the set of The Green Hornet, as well as the bloody final moments involving the Manson Family. She also pops up briefly onscreen to give Pitt hell, as Janet, wife of Kurt Russell's old Hollywood stunt coordinator. There are layers there: Not only is she evoking her actual behind-the-scenes position and referencing her (and Russell's) long history in Tarantino's filmography, stunt work is embedded deeply into the fabric of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which largely follows the sweet, bizarre, complicated friendship between TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his double Cliff.

I hopped on the phone with Bell and had her walk me through some of the movie's key moments.

Pitt as Cliff Booth
Brad Pitt | Sony Pictures

Thrillist: This movie is about a relationship between a stuntman and the guy he doubles…
Zoë Bell:
Vaguely familiar.

Exactly. What was it about the relationship between Rick and Cliff that resonated with you? 
I mean, Quentin's always had sort of a deep respect and love for the stunt community and historically the role that we've have played. When I first heard about this part of the premise I was stoked and kind of proud on behalf of everyone within my department. Not just my department obviously, but Hollywood-wide, worldwide. And it's interesting because obviously the relationship between actor and long-term stunt double is a familiar one to me. Mostly I would say it kind of resonates for me with Xena: Warrior Princess] and Lucy [Lawless] and also Uma [Thurman] and myself on Kill Bill because that was such a long shoot. There was that sensation of we were just in it together, start to finish. I've always loved when you get a relationship like that working. It kind of reminds me a little bit also of Tracy Keehn-Dashnaw, who was doubling Tracie Thoms in Death Proof. So she was driving the car that I was on. Slightly different example, but kind of that back-and-forth, unspoken If you need something, I've got it, I'll fill the gap, you don't even have to ask for it [agreement]. There's no resentment, there's no game playing, this kind of unconditional friendship crossed with a professional understanding. There's something really nostalgic for me about it. The other side of it, of course, was that it's set in 1969, and perhaps they're more likely to have the stunt guy that literally follows the career with this person. I mean, you have that happening now with Heidi Moneymaker and Scarlett Johansson. What I didn't relate to as much, but I loved, is these two brawling men, one of whom is representative of the epitome of the strong man, and the other that actually is the strong man. But the strangely codependent relationship they have, it's just sort of inherently sweet.

You've coordinated some other projects, but this is the first major motion picture. What were the conversations with Tarantino like going into taking on that job? What research did you have to do?
Bell: There's endless references within the script itself. So there's sort of a running list of that. He had a list of movies that we could all draw or rent from the video store up the road whenever we wanted. There was a movie screening -- every Thursday he would put on a movie that was of the period. Sometimes it would be sort of more about the wardrobe, sometimes it'd be more about the action. That's all part of his team-building, family-creating kind of process anyway. Really it's just sort of like a constant open communication for me making assumptions and judgements based on how well I know him, but also recognizing that this man has a brain that works in a way that is different to mine. And so figuring out when I needed to check in, and when he wanted to, just to be clear about, in real life, what we were shooting, do you want it to be period? Or are you going to shoot it as if it's real? It's such a multi-layered, multi-dimensional project and story itself, with a film inside a movie, and a TV [show] inside a film, inside a movie. So just keeping all of those, knowing that we are shooting a movie in 2018, but it's set in 1969. A lot of it was really just sort of pulling on the things that excited me and people in my team, and then presenting that to Quentin within the world of what I believed he could see in his head. He's definitely a visual guy. And my take on it is when he's talking to me, he's talking from something he's already seen. And if I'm bringing something new to the table, he needs to be able to see it in his head. So I need to be able to explain it, or act it out, or bring something to it so he can see it. Otherwise it's just talk.

Pitt and DiCaprio in 'Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood'
Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio | Sony Pictures

What excited your team? 
Bell: Sort of all of it. For example, obviously driving the cars of that day. Half the people I hired on my team to drive. Some of the driving was pretty basic with mostly sort of an awareness thing, actor safety, just keeping it so that the actors had freedom to not have to worry about the safety as much. But the guys and girls are all like, "These cars are sick." Even if they were slightly complicated to get working. We all loved rolling around looking gangster in those wagons dressed up. That was pretty cool. If you're honest, you get to be kids again for a minute, if we get to step outside of our professional selves.

Obviously the Bruce Lee situation. And that's an interesting one, because we want to be as respectful as possible. You also want to have the Quentin twist in there. You want to be honest to what we know of Bruce, what we don't know of Bruce, what I know of Quentin. We want Brad to feel really excited and confident about it. Fortunately working with Brad and Mike Moh, who played Bruce, we just had two people that were really engaged and interested, and Mike Moh is a martial artist unto himself and a complete Bruce Lee fan. So watching him nerd out about it was really exciting. 

And then even something as basic: One of the gags that kind of came up during shooting was a balcony fall on one of the westerns. This guy gets shot at the top of the building and he smashes through the balcony and hits the floor. That's just so old school. And doing those things practical, rather than doing it either on a wire, or with some kind of CG, I knew it was really important. That's the kind of stuff that's a shout out to the old school. And if we're not going to do it old school, then he probably doesn't really want it in the movie.

I want to go back to the Bruce Lee scene. It's been one of the most debated scenes since the movie has come out, with people asking whether Cliff really beats Bruce. In the choreography, what is happening there? What were your objectives with that scene?
Obviously Bruce Lee is an icon and amongst most people in the stunt community of any age, there's an element of awe and wonder that surrounds this guy. As there is around Quentin, obviously. You've got Quentin as sort of the god character in the pulling together of the scene and then you've got Bruce Lee who is a god of sorts. And then you've got Cliff who's effectively sort of the hero, the unsung hero that no one really knows about. So there's just empathy on both sides. Rob Alzono is my site coordinator, and my co-coordinator and my right hand man, and just an absolute gem of a human, and a professional, and a total Bruce Lee nerd. We went back and forth. At the end of the day, whatever Quentin chooses to say in his films, that's his prerogative, it's his story. It's our job to authenticate it, or to bring it to life, or to make it as cool or as painful or as scary. We need to get both of these guys looking like they are fierce and badass. It was really fun because depending on what Quentin wanted to say, it depended on the mood. So we choreographed a bunch of different pieces, and styles and we worked a lot with Brad's stance, and how he would be in between the fight beats. If he is kind of guards down and that's how he gets him the first time. And then what is it that gets Bruce kind of on the back foot, because he is as talented and skilled as he is, and is it just that he's never been up against someone like Cliff? Is it that Cliff's hidden sort of weapon of mass destruction is just that he has literally had to defend himself for his life and killed people? So it's exploring all of those different avenues, and at the end of the day making sure that the choreography spoke to the individual characters, and what the interactions between them were emotionally. Then it's authentic regardless. Then it's on the audience to be like, "Screw you guys. Bruce Lee would never." Or "Screw you guys. I love that, because that's totally what I've always thought." And Quentin's not one to take history as it is, and stick to it all the time. But it was really fun for everyone involved in that whole process.

You appear at the end of that scene, as the wife of the stunt coordinator played by Kurt Russell. What was it like doing that cameo? My other question is: Obviously your character believes that Cliff has killed his wife, but did you have any conversations about whether or not that was actually true in the context of the film?
Well, I mean, I know, because I had conversations with Quentin about it early on, and I will not say, and I like that you're not meant to know. And I like that no one actually knows one way or the other, but it divides people. You know what I mean? And then as an audience member you're like, "But this guys so charming and he's kind of hot when he takes his shirt, and I dig him, and he's so relaxed. But did he kill his wife? Could he?" That's the whole point, you know? And I love how absolutely certain Janet is, she's just like, "I don't want to be near this guy." But just everything about it ties in perfectly.

It was spontaneous, that one. "Actually, you know what would work right here would be if his wife came in. Zoë, we need you to get in costume." I'm like, "What?" He's like, "We need you to get in costume. Have you got your cowboy hat?" And I was like, "Well, it's in the car." "Right, away you go." I was like "Okay." But it was sort of perfect. I had been basically selling Quentin on me playing Kurt Russell at one point, in some of the fight scenes that we had put down on DVD to sort of show him some of the ideas, I had stepped in as Kurt Russell, and I had done my best Kurt Russell. So by the time it came around I was like, "Oh yeah, let me in there. I want to do Kurt Russell." Maybe don't print it like I want to "do" Kurt Russell, because that's not what I mean.

It was an interesting thing to me because it was one of our big sequences, as a stunt coordinator it was one of my biggest sequences. So I was definitely in boss-woman mode. Which kind of probably helped with the whole Janet boss-woman mode.  And there was just something really fun about, obviously I have a long working relationship with Kurt now, and Brad and I had been working together for a couple of months at that point with training and everything. And Mike as well, Mike Moh and myself. And that was quite possibly some of the most fun I've had as an actor. You know when people talk about surrounding yourself with people that are better than you, like, be the dumbest one in the room and all that? Being surrounded by those three actors, I just think you've got no choice but to bring whatever A game you've got and all of it. I think we all had a real blast that day. Quentin was laughing his ass off. That always makes me happy too.

Is that your cowboy hat?
That's my cowboy hat, yeah. And I got that cowboy hat because the cowboys basically picked it out for me when I was learning how to drive the six-horse team for Hateful Eight.

I did want to touch on sort of the big final sequence with the Manson family. How were you thinking about staging that and the immense brutality of it?
I've been on Quentin's sets since leaving New Zealand. I've been in the middle of a lot of the brutality and every time we say "cut," I'm cracking up laughing. And I know that the brutality is cinematic, obviously. So I don't have a lot of sort of political responses to violence. Quentin's writing, to me, is just brilliant and genius. And I don't say that just to blow smoke. I just love watching his films. And if you don't love violence, then I have nothing against that. There's things that I don't like in films and I just don't like it, that's fine. But in terms of this sequence, there was one version of it written. Everyone else read scripts without the finale. It remained a secret as much as we possibly could. But we knew it was the apex and we all kind of knew that there was going to be an expectation of people in the audience, that there's something coming that they don't know about, and we want to give it to them. It's difficult to talk about, because I don't want to ruin the surprise for anybody.

It took a long time for us to get clear on exactly how we were going to do it. So we had basically just rehearsed a whole pile of stuff. We'd explored every kind of possibility we could, locked in the things that that I believed would be really important to him at the end of the day. And then basically just trained everybody as much as we could so that we could be flexible, not on the day, but flexible getting closer, and closer, and closer. And as is often the case with Quentin, there came a point where, and I'm not speaking on his behalf, this is how I perceive it happening for him, is there's certain things that he absolutely knows. Then there's other parts that he kind of allows the movie-making process to inform where those pieces are going to tie together, or exactly how are they going to tie together. There's pieces that organically happen based on what's already been shot, and how he's feeling about it, and how the characters have kind of developed, and where the story is, how he's starting to feel the tone of the story is going. And if he wants it to change that or feed into it.

So we were just full prep mode. We prepped all the actors as best we could, with all the different elements that were potentially going to be involved. And then there was just one day where it kind of like, I could see him go, "I got it now." And he kind of kicked everyone out, and sat down with the heads of department that were relevant, and the cast, and kind of just talked us through it. It's in that moment, you hear him talking about it, and you're like, "Oh, fuck. I can see it. I totally get it. What about if we did this and that?" And he's like, "Oh yes. Great." So once we got that kind of clarity, then there's room for the meeting of the minds. And then everyone's feeding off each other and getting excited, and you know.

One of my favorite small moments in the film is that moment when Cliff is about to go onto Rick's roof to fix the antenna, and he jumps between the ledges. How did that come about? 
That's a perfect window into the subtleties of Quentin. I remember him coming to me and being like, "What's something that one of you guys would do, and you'd think it's normal, and everyone else would be like, 'What the hell? How, why, how come you're doing it that way?'" So that was totally coming from his head, because he's had that experience watching me do stuff for example, where he's just been like, "What? Why?" And I'm like "I don't know. You do other weird stuff that I don't understand." But he pulls on that because it's just a tiny fleeting moment, and we nearly didn't do it based on some safety requirements that were going to maybe have to be in place and blah, blah. But I'm so glad we got it because it speaks so succinctly and clearly to who this guy is in the world.

And I don't know if you care to reveal, but who did that jump between the roofs?
I'm going to leave that up to the audience's imagination. It was me -- no, I'm kidding.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.