When Pulp Fiction was released 30 years ago, it wasn’t long before the wardrobe worn by Uma Thurman’s gangster wife Mia Wallace influenced a generation of designers: 1995’s catwalks from Miu Miu to Alexander McQueen boasted a multitude of over-sized white shirts fit for a twist-dancing, milkshake-sipping bad girl. The movie even prompted sell-outs of Chanel’s iconic nail colour, Rouge Noir (Vamp in the US). Here, Arianne Phillips sits down with Betsy Heimann to explore the road to creating such an iconic moment on celluloid.

‘On the eve of Pulp Fiction’s 30th anniversary, I had the good fortune to discuss the film’s iconic and culture-shifting costume design with one of our most respected and revered costume designers, Betsy Heimann. Her stellar body of work underscores generational filmmaking at its finest, with her designs featured in Reservoir Dogs, Get Shorty, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky, Lady in the Water, Green Book and many other memorable films. Betsy’s costume design for Pulp Fiction  remains as relevant today as when the film premiered in 1994.

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Betsy is an artist; a truly remarkable and talented costume designer whose brilliant work with Quentin Tarantino significantly contributed to the enduring success of his first two films. It also benefitted me 26 years later when I was invited to design Quentin’s Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood. I was so excited to speak to Betsy about the early days with Quentin, their process creating the visual language that we have come to know unmistakably as a “Tarantino film”, and designing and imagining the world of Pulp Fiction.’

AP: Watching Pulp Fiction again this week I thought about you so much, and what we have in common. I worked with Quentin on his last film, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, and I really have to hand it to you that you really are a part of the visual language that Quentin is so known for – whether it’s the Hawaiian shirt on Tim Roth in Pulp Fiction (a look that re-surfaces on Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood) or Quentin’s love of a leather jacket and a T-shirt, or a black-and-white motif… this is the Tarantino language that you both created together. I’m curious to learn from you what your process was like with the young Quentin when you worked together on Reservoir Dogs. How did that happen?

BH: I met [producer] Lawrence Bender at a New Year’s Eve party and we just got chatting and he invited me to a screening of a small indie film that he had worked on, and then it evolved into him sending me scripts and asking what did I think it would cost to do the costumes for them. And I would help out with the budgets. And then, one day, he sent me this script for Reservoir Dogs. It was fascinating. I had a costume career before Reservoir Dogs – I worked my way up from seamstress – but I had never read anything like this. I said to myself, you know, they’re gonna get good actors for this because there are pages of dialogue. So when Lawrence called me up and asked, ‘So what do you think?’ I said, ‘Err, who’s doing the costumes for this movie?’ He said, ‘I don’t know yet.’ And I said, ‘I’ll do it. I wanna do it.’ He told me they didn’t have any money. And I told him I didn’t care. That’s how it happened. 

AP: And what was your impression of Quentin when you first met him?

BH: Oh, his enthusiasm was so contagious. And he was very organised. I remember being very impressed that he was so prepared. He was very grateful. And I just thought, I like this kid and I like being with him, and I love his enthusiasm. And then I went over to his apartment and we started watching movies together. Quentin was always visual. We’d go through the whole script visually. And our language was the language of film. I remember one conversation most vividly about Pulp Fiction. It was about Butch, about Bruce Willis’ costume. I said I think he should wear a leather jacket. He said, yes, I want a leather jacket like Nick Nolte’s in Who’ll Stop the Rain; so I sourced a similar old brown pigskin suede one, put it in the car, and Quentin and I drove out to Malibu where we had a meeting with Bruce. Demi [Moore] was there and Bruce brought all of these 1980s and 1990s leather jackets he liked – he must have had 10, but they were all oversized – and mine looked quite skimpy in comparison. But Quentin liked it, so Bruce tried it on. He put it on and said to me, ‘Well, are you gonna drag it behind a truck?’ And I said, ‘Oh, you mean age it? Yes, and with you in it.’

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AP: I love it. Another of the things that I was really noticing when rewatching it was the day players and all the ancillary characters are wonderful characters whether it’s Christopher Walken, Harvey Keitel, Amanda Plummer, Eric Stoltz or Kathy Griffin. You did such a beautiful job of letting us know who these characters were in such a quick, short time period, the costumes really allowed us to just get there immediately. You infused so much storytelling into your costumes, it’s so impressive. 

BH: Well, thank you very much. Yes, it was a big cast. As with Reservoir Dogs. We had a very big warehouse that we prepped and shot in. When I would get the things together for the fitting, I would call Quentin and he’d come in and he’d peek his head in and he would say ‘great’. But we had discussed it all before. One of the things that he and I did is watch anime cartoons. And one of them was Speed Racer. And I remembered that when we were prepping Pulp Fiction

AP: And you put Eric Stoltz in that T-shirt, right? 

BH: Yes. I said to Quentin, I think Speed Racer is the way to go. For me, I always tell a story about the character to get inspiration. And he said that he had one in his closet and so he went and got the T-shirt. There was a lot of spontaneous back and forth.

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wardrobe, brad pitt, once upon a time in…hollywood, tarantino, hollywood authentic

AP: These graphic T-shirts are a part of Quentin’s language. In my experience with him, he had a lot of graphic T-shirt ideas for Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood

BH: He has the same respect for the graphic T-shirt that I do. It’s not just, let’s put this guy in a graphic T-shirt, it has to mean something. It’s the same on all the films I’ve worked on. On Jerry Maguire, for example, when he is writing his mission statement, I figured he went to Notre Dame College. And so I called the Student Union and asked where do you guys all hang out? And I found the Little Bar, and I got hold of a T-shirt from them, and that’s the one Maguire is wearing when he writes his mission statement – his college t-shirt, the one he wore when he was full of ideals and full of how he was going to change the world… So every T-shirt for me has meaning. 

AP: That’s so great because it gives us little Easter eggs of reality. For me, watching Pulp Fiction, and seeing the Santa Cruz Banana Slugs college T-shirt that Vincent [John Travolta] wears was, like, nobody knows about that T-shirt unless they’ve been there. But Quentin wanted to get across that Jimmy had some connection with Santa Cruz. And so you see how costume can give a character an instant backstory – it really adds another layer and a texture. It’s the same with other clues you used in Reservoir Dogs. Tell us how the black suits came about in that film?

BH: Well, for Reservoir Dogs, my budget was $10,000. So I said, ‘Guys, I can give you four suits with this budget for the film. And I need to keep one clean’. 

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AP: Four suits for all? 

BH: Right. But, you know, we were shooting multiple action scenes with them. So the fact of the matter is that only Harvey Keitel and, briefly, Quentin, wore actual suits. We couldn’t afford them. So I found this stash of 10 black Beatle jackets at American Rag – which is now very hip, but it was a thrift store at the time – and I thought these would work on the younger guys, like Tim Roth and Steve Buscemi. They were great jackets. And then I teamed them with Beatle boots and black jeans. And Quentin was, like, ‘What?’ And I said, ‘Trust me, nobody’s gonna know the difference. It’s gonna be fabulous’. 

AP: That was amazing foresight to know that it would work so well on screen and not show. 

BH: Well, that’s what we do. That’s what we know as costume designers. The other thing I will tell you is that not all of the jackets people were wearing were black. Some of them were navy, some of them were dark grey. I spent a little bit of time with our cinematographer, Andrzej Sekula, and I would say, ‘Okay, look at this grey suit jacket and look at this black suit jacket. How are you lighting this picture? Are they gonna photograph the same?’ And he would say, yes, and I would trust him. 

AP: I think that was ingenious. And it actually gave it a modernity that a regular suit might not have. And a black jean was probably great for all those action scenes because they could put pads under them and you wouldn’t see anything. And back to Pulp Fiction, and they’re also wearing black suits, what was your budget like then?

BH: $36,000. I remember sitting with Quentin at Barney’s Beanery, and I said to him, ‘I really think that Vincent and Jules are Reservoir Dogs.’ And he thought about it. He goes, ‘You know, I like that. I like that’. This time I could do actual suits because now these guys have a little more money. I could do a linen suit with Vincent so that he always looked kind of a mess; and with Jules [Samuel L Jackson] I wanted a very slim-fitting narrow lapel, which was not that popular back then. So I went downtown and I found this Perry Ellis suit that I could get at a discount. And the collars of the shirts were very important to me, too. With Reservoir Dogs, each one of those guys had a different shirt with a different collar and a different width of tie in proportion to the width of their chest. This is all very technical, but it gives them a difference. So in Pulp Fiction, I did that again. 

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AP: And so Jules had a very narrow collared shirt because he’s the preacher?

BH: Right. And then there’s a bit of a cowboy theme in Pulp Fiction, too. Amanda Plummer has the cowboy boot dialogue, and Jules calls Tim Roth ‘Ringo’ – Gregory Peck played Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter. They’re all gunfighters. And so for me there was this kind of a Western influence in the costume. And we all used to shop at King’s Western Wear in the Valley and that’s where I got the idea for the bolo tie. I thought, well, here’s Vincent thinking he’s cool. He’s got his bolo tie on. And Mia [Wallace, played by Uma Thurman] says to him, ‘How are you doing, cowboy?’ And he refers back to her as a cowgirl. So these are all messages to me. So I came up with that idea and Quentin liked it. 

AP: A lot of those choices influenced the way people dress then and now. Let’s talk a little bit about Mia. I really was taken by her proportions and how you used them. How did it come to be that her trousers were short, like pedal pushers?  The proportions of her outfit work so beautifully, especially in the twist-dancing scene… the way that you tailored that shirt, and it had the French cuff with the cufflink, and the black-and-white motif. I really love the beautiful symmetry of design in that scene. They’re dancing and they look like cake toppers. That scene is burned in our minds forever. It really kicked off a trend. 

BH: Well I thought that Mia was really a Reservoir Dog, but she couldn’t express that because she was married to the boss and she had to be chic and glamorous; the eye candy. But on her date with Vincent she wanted to show him that she was one of the guys. And so I said, I wanted her to wear the black and white. But Uma is very tall, and we didn’t have any money, and all the pants weren’t long enough for her, and so I said, ‘What the heck, let’s just cut ‘em off’. I called Chanel and I said the magic words, Uma Thurman – they are magic words, things fall from the heavens – and I told them I needed these gold ballet slippers I had seen in a magazine and they lent us them. And then the shirt had to give her some shape and I wanted it to be oversized because I wanted it to say ‘I’ve got money but I’m also one of you; I’m a bad girl’. And then we added the bandana underneath. So it was another cowboy reference. 

AP: And then Mia’s bob. It all works in tandem: the short pants and the oversized shirt, and then that black bob, it’s just so successful. 

BH: The bob is all Quentin. It’s based on the old film star Louise Brooks and that’s what he wanted. And so knowing that, you start with that, instead of hoping that it’ll work with what you’re doing, you start with that. That’s the reality. And the reality is the inspiration. 

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AP: Something else I love, which you do beautifully, is using a costume piece more than once to tell the story; when it starts on one character, then another character wears it. So, for example, we have Vincent wearing his black suit and that wonderful trench coat. And then we have Mia coming back from dinner with him and she has the trench coat on. That’s just beautiful. It says so much. It still looks so great today. 

BH: I love that you noticed the raincoat, because that was something I was really, really adamant about. And Quentin liked the idea. I knew that I wanted her dancing around in that big coat and then she could find the drugs in the pocket. I wanted to make it more of a natural thing and so I had to get that coat on him in order to later get it on her. And so I searched everywhere for one of those old gabardine raincoats from the 1950s and found it at Palace Costume.

AP: It worked so well. And I love the colour… it would be easy for it to be a black raincoat but then we would really not see the detail. Also when she puts it on, it’s clearly not her coat. And what’s amazing, again, is the way these characters dressed in Pulp Fiction still inspires the way people dress today. It’s the marriage of your trueness to the characters, but also the fact that you and Quentin really tapped into a fantasy of larger-than-life characters that a part of us would like to be. And elements of the way they looked are attainable: you both turned regular items into iconic ones by the way you used them on the characters.

BH: Yes, I suppose it is the connection that the public makes with the characters. There’s a poignancy to Mia Wallace. I mean, she has to wear the trench coat as she has to find the drugs in the pocket. So therefore she could just ruffle through his coat that’s left on the couch, or she can have it on and reach in the pocket. And these are motions and actions that the audience can relate to. 

wardrobe, pulp fiction, uma thurman, hollywood authentic

AP: That’s because these are the choices you made in respect to how you saw these characters. The reason for its influence on fashion is that this film is such a great reflection of what was happening in our culture, and it just resonated with people. These characters are unattainable, but people can create their own versions and make it accessible because the design is so uncluttered, it’s so specific. 

This film also is indelibly a part of ‘the film language’ with other costume designers and directors. I’m sure you’ve seen that your work is often referenced or recreated. In the 1990s I was doing a lot of music videos, and I know that this was cited as the pinnacle of cool for so many directors; we’ve seen iterations of it in music videos and fashion magazines. Just this last Halloween, I was in New York and I was invited to a party where everyone was supposed to come dressed as a character from Pulp Fiction. There were 500 people dressed as these characters you helped create…

BH: Who knew that 30 years later we would all still want to dress like the baddies in Pulp Fiction [laughs]. But I’m only as good as my director. I’m inspired by my director. I get all my ideas from the energy that’s coming out of my director. And Quentin was on fire. He was on fire with these two movies, and they were original, and they were different from anything I ever read.

All images © 2000 Block 2 Pictures Inc. © 2019 Jet Tone Contents Inc.
Reservoir Dogs / Pulp Fiction / Once Upon A Time in…Hollywood

Our fifth issue of Hollywood Authentic marks a full-circle moment and point of change. We first created a simple rag of a magazine – 32 pages, no staples – and took it to Cannes two years ago. This year, we’re bringing our bigger, more beautiful evolution of the magazine back to the festival, now with an expanded team and content.

This issue, we welcome our new contributors shining a unique light on cinema – both the making of it and the enjoyment of it. Gary Oldman and his wife Gisele Schmidt join us to talk through their shared passion for film photography and the shot that sparked their romance. Abbie Cornish parlays her foodie passion into reviewing must-visit restaurants. Legendary costume designer Arianne Phillips provides insight into iconic on-screen wardrobes – having worked with Tarantino on Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood, she interviews Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction costumier, Betsy Heimann. And Esquire’s UK editor-in-chief Alex Bilmes sings the praises of his favourite movie, In The Mood For Love. We’ve also expanded our editorial team and I’m proud to welcome film journalist Jane Crowther as editor-in-chief. Plus architectural photographer (and my college classmate) Mark Read brings his cinematic use of light to the bricks-and-mortar gem of a golden-era picture palace, the United Theater, in downtown LA. 

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Greg Williams and Zoë Saldaña

With more pages we’ve been able to tell more stories of the craft, dreams and drive that inspire practitioners in the movie industry. Zoë Saldaña, who graces our cover, invited me to the beach to talk mortality, process and feeling like a diamond. Her ballerina training was evident as she danced across the sand. Also in California, Adria Arjona took me on a DIY journey round LA that provided insight into her acting process. I also hung out with Jack O’Connell in his local London neighbourhood, discussed inspiration with Julia Roberts in her trailer, followed the making of Mothers’ Instinct on set with Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain in New Jersey, and talked ‘A Little Nonsense’ with Stephen Merchant. 

I would like to say a big thanks to our advertisers for their support in making Hollywood Authentic a reality – I even shot the L’Oréal one you will see in the print edition ;). It’s all quite the glow-up from a garage enterprise to the fully fledged periodical you’re holding in your hands. We made this magazine for those obsessed with cinema and aim to provide an insider’s perspective of the dream factory.

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Greg Williams, Founder, Hollywood Authentic

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Photograph by GREG WILLIAMS

How important is a little bit of nonsense now and then to you?
It’s the most important thing. I once had a school report card that criticised me for ‘always finding the joke in everything’. I’ve tried my damnedest to do that ever since.

What, if anything, makes you believe in magic?
Derren Brown, the mentalist and illusionist. I know everything he does is misdirection and stagecraft but his mind reading is mind-blowing – and he’s performed tricks on me that defy explanation. I’m angry that I’ll go to my grave not knowing how they’re done.

What was your last act of true cowardice?
I told a restaurant chef his food was ‘absolutely friggin’ incredible’ when it was really bland. 

What single thing do you miss most when you’re away from home?
The basement room I turned into a movie theatre. 

Do you have any odd habits or rituals?
In my movie theatre, no one is allowed to talk. Or eat. And they have to drink from sippy cups. Not a joke.

What is your party trick?
I eat anything. Nowadays everyone has a lactose intolerance or wheat allergy, but you can serve me whatever and I’ll clear my plate.

What is your mantra?
‘Everyone’s guessing.’ No one has life figured out, despite what they may tell you. Everybody is just stumbling along, trying to make their way. Once I realised that, a great burden was lifted from
my shoulders.

What is your favourite smell?
Napalm in the morning.

What do you always carry with you?
The ability to laugh at myself. I don’t trust people who refuse to be the butt of the joke. 

What is your guilty pleasure?
I kind of enjoyed the lockdown. 

Who is the silliest person you know?
My partner, Mircea. She can make me laugh so hard with a silly dance.

What would be your least favourite way to die?
Without featuring in the Oscars’ ‘In Memoriam’ section.

Stephen Merchant transitioned from stand-up to the screen when he collaborated with Ricky Gervais on writing The Office. It became zeitgeist TV, spawning two series, a Christmas special and the US version. Merchant co-starred in his and Gervais’ follow-up show, Extras. While juggling award-winning stand-up, radio shows, podcasts, producing, directing and screenwriting, Merchant has also acted in numerous films including Hall Pass, Logan and JoJo Rabbit. He is the co-creator, executive producer and writer of The Outlaws, which he also stars in. The third season will be released this summer on BBC and Amazon Prime.

Photograph by GREG WILLIAMS

*Arguably one of the most memorable (and quotable) scenes in 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is when Mr Salt mumbles, ‘It’s a lot of nonsense,’ to which Wonka replies, in a sing-song voice, ‘A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.’

May 11, 2024

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Photographs and interview by GREG WILLIAMS

I’m an island girl. I need to always be close to the water,’ says Zoë Saldaña. ‘As a kid in New York and the Dominican Republic we always went to the water. We always walked on the beach.’ I’ve come to meet Zoë a couple of hours up the coast from LA. She loves the area, promising me that the place ‘compels you to relax’. Downtime is something she takes seriously as she juggles her career and home life with three lively kids, a dog, a cat and two goldfish. We meet at the picturesque El Encanto Hotel in Santa Barbara and her husband of 11 years, artist and filmmaker Marco Perego Saldaña, and her goldendoodle, Dolce, are also waiting with Zoë when I arrive. ‘I feel that this is a part of California that if you never get to go to Portofino in Italy but you come here – then it’s OK, you’re not missing much,’ she says as she welcomes me. ‘This bay area is so beautiful. Everything slows down. And you hear the wind in the trees, and the water. You smell different smells of life. It compels you to choose different thoughts.’

zoe sladana, cover story, hollywood authentic, issue 5, greg williams

Born in New Jersey to a Dominican dad and Puerto Rican mom and growing up in both New York and the D.R., she now calls California home. ‘In New York I had the metropolis sounds of a city, the culture and access to the world just block by block. You can taste the world and hear the world,’ she says over coffee as we sit on a sunny terrace overlooking lush vegetation. ‘And then in the Caribbean, there was just sun, salt water, family and music – it was great.’ We take a walk with Dolce (full name: Dolce Vita Perego Saldaña), who Zoë soothes with whispered affection. ‘Beso, beso,’ she murmurs, kissing the pooch.

zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams

You reach a point in your life that time comes knocking, and says, ‘Hey, you’ve got to pay attention to this. You can’t miss any more moments with these people that are special to you’

Ballet was, she says, initially a way to cope with the move from New York to the Dominican Republic at the age of 10. ‘I was having a hard time making and keeping friends, finding my place, and feeling seen and understood. Even though it’s where our family is from, it was a big culture shock for us. Change is always new and scary at first. And my mom just took me to a ballet class…’ Zoë tells me she found the almost militant nature of training both a comfort and a challenge. ‘There was something about ballet and the bar – my teachers were so rigid and strict. And yet they were like true champions of the progress, effort, determination and sacrifice that I had to make and it became an obsession. It became my cave for 10 years of my life. I never felt that I really mastered it because I never got to be a part of a company, or be the prima ballerina, and I never got to dance in Romeo and Juliet or The Nutcracker. So I always felt like I had failed. After reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, I realised that I did put in 10,000 hours in the span of 10 years. So I did become a master at ballet. Whether I was recognised for it or not, it doesn’t take away the fact that I did it.’

zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams
zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams

The ballet might not have become a vocation but it did lead to acting after the family returned to NY, with the then 22-year-old getting cast as a dancer for her first screen role in Center Stage in 2000. ‘I never had any formal training when it came to acting. But ballet gave me this connection to my body that I was able to use in those roles I was more qualified for.’ That led to acting opposite Britney Spears in Crossroads, having her first taste of a franchise with Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl, inhabiting an icon in Uhura on JJ Abrams’ Star Trek series, bending the limits of CG with Avatar, kicking ass in Colombiana and joining the Marvel stable as green-skinned Gamora in the Guardians Of The Galaxy and Avengers films. Her work on both Avatar movies (with three more incoming) plus Infinity War and Endgame have made her the industry’s highest-grossing actress, and a sci-fi fan favourite. ‘I love science-fiction. I love action. And I love being able to incorporate what I can do [as a ballerina] into that.’

She is currently reading Nicole Avant’s book Think You’ll Be Happy: Moving Through Grief with Grit, Grace, and Gratitude and we discuss the idea of being present and embracing who we are now. ‘My folks are getting older, which hints of time passing and being this invaluable luxury,’ she says. ‘We spend a portion of our lives taking that for granted, we think it’s always going to be there and we’re always going to have time. And then you reach a point in your life that time comes knocking, and says, ‘Hey, you’ve got to pay attention to this. You can’t miss any more birthdays. You can’t miss any more moments with these people that are special to you.’ You’re born a daughter. You’re born a sister. And then as time goes by, you’re a wife, a mother, a professional. You acquire all these titles in your life. And then throughout life there’s this shift where you lose these titles over time. Nothing will ever change the fact that I’m a daughter, but the nearness of death becomes really present when you become older. So vacillating with that conversation is what I want to do. I don’t want to be afraid of it. I want to normalise it in my life, because I want to accept it.’

zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams
zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams
zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams

I feel like a diamond now for the first time in my life. When I was being called a diamond, I felt so insecure. I was so unhappy. Now I feel a different strength, beauty, and curiosity

I ask about her fears. As an actor, as a parent, as a daughter. She pauses. ‘We describe children as fearless. They bang themselves up, fall – then they’ll just get up and try it again. And that’s one thing that we lose when we become older. We become so self-aware of our vulnerability and fragility. And all of a sudden, that fearlessness becomes just fear. I’m learning to make peace with that so that I don’t become this rigid person who becomes so afraid that I stop doing things. There’s so much more I have to do. But I just have to let go of the things that I did, that maybe I won’t be able to do at the magnitude that I was doing them. Tapping into the fact that that’s OK – it’s bliss.’ She laughs. ‘But it comes and goes. There are days in which I wake up, and I’m just like, “fuck, I’m old!” And then there are days in which I’m like, “This is great!”’

zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams
zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams

Maturing in Hollywood requires a certain fortitude, particularly for women. Halle Berry and Sarah Jessica Parker have recently been unapologetic about ageing and Zoë is cognizant of the tightrope women in the public eye have to walk. ‘I picked a medium in art that relies a lot on the visual – how young you feel, how young you look,’ she says. ‘You get so used to it and it becomes a bad habit where you sometimes spend all of your time thinking about how you look, and not enough time thinking about how you feel. I think we have to talk about that more. There’s so much more to women than their looks and youth. I find women beautiful when they’re five, and when they’re 95. In Hollywood, women are viewed like diamonds when they’re super-new and super-fresh. I feel like a diamond now for the first time in my life. When I was being called a diamond, I felt so insecure. And now I feel a different strength, a different beauty, a different curiosity. I’m ignited by other qualities besides my looks. And those people who see that in me now become so much more meaningful to me.’

zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams

I dig into memories to help me transport. I write all over the script, give the role an animal and substitute the characters for somebody I know

We jump in her car and head for the beach. I want to go back to Zoë’s declaration that she has so much more to do. Her future projects include three more Avatar movies with James Cameron and more Star Trek. But first up is a project with Jacques Audiard that taps into her heritage and her dancing background, Emilia Perez. Billed as a musical crime drama, the picture follows a female lawyer in Mexico as she helps a cartel boss evade his enemies and become the woman he’s always wanted to be. Though Zoë has sung on a film before (most recently in animation Maya And The Three) she has never sung in Spanish or on screen. ‘I’m going back to my roots. I’m singing, and I’m dancing, and I’m doing a role in my native tongue,’ she enthuses, admitting that working with Audiard has been something of a dream since she saw The Beat That My Heart Skipped in a movie theatre in NYC in 2005. ‘I remember thinking, “I want to work with this director.” And the fact that I manifested it and then met Jacques Audiard and got to know the whole premise behind Emilia Perez, and the challenge that he was proposing of whether I was going to sing and dance… I was like, “OK!”’

zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams
zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams

Audiard’s method of working with the same crews is also something Zoë embraces. ‘I like directors that are known in their field for being super-loyal to their people, because I love the crew. They become family to me. They’re the ones that I truly look up to. They’re so unconditional. They’re wonderful people. And whether I’m working out of the UK, New York, Los Angeles or Paris there’s a universality to crew people. They’re decent and they’re hard working.’

Part of the crew on Emilia Perez was famed choreographer Damien Jalet, who put the actress through her paces on a big dance number. ‘If Damien would tell me, “It’ll take you seven hours to learn this,”  I would double it. I’d need 14. I’m also dyslexic, I have ADD and I suffer from anxiety. I like to take my time with things. That way it becomes a muscle memory and I force myself to be out of my head. But it was an experience, and I loved it. When you’re a child that has a lot of trauma, and you grow up, and you’re constantly in conflict – as an artist, you’re made to believe that in order for you to be great, you have to be chaotic, and you have to live in conflict. It just becomes so exhausting.’

Zoë lost her father in a car accident when she was nine, the tragic catalyst for her and her two sisters’ move to the Dominican Republic. ‘When you learn to deal with grief at a very early age, it lives with you. It doesn’t go away, you manage it. And every now and then it comes up. If I hear the song Gravity by Sara Bareilles I always think about my mom and dad, because when he passed away they were not in a good place in their marriage. We didn’t have proper closure. I spent so many years thinking of what could and should have been. I never got to see them mature together. And that’s why the Dominican Republic was this bittersweet place, because it is paradise. The food, the people, the culture, the history – I love being Dominican. It’s just so powerful. And yet the reason why, and how, we got there was sad.’

zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams
zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams

I hear my grandmother’s voice every time I see my children sleep, and I pray over their little, sleepy heads, just like she did, just like she taught my mom to do. That’s a legacy I want to be. That’s immortality

As her now-single mom picked up the pieces of their shattered lives, Zoë recalls the impact her maternal grandmother made on her life. ‘My grandmother was always there. It was always us five – my sisters, myself, my mom, my grandma. It was great! It’s funny, my grandmother prayed a lot, and when she died [in 2019], the prayers stopped.’ Now, she says, she finds herself doing all the things her grandmother used to. ‘Everything that she told me to do my whole life that I would roll my eyes at! I hear her voice every time I see my children sleep, and I pray over their little, sleepy heads, just like she did. That’s a legacy I want to be. That’s immortality.’ 

We get out of the car and head to the beach below. An invigorating wind blows off the ocean, whipping Zoë’s hair as she leaps along the sea wall. This is a cinch for an actress who did months of parkour, archery and combat training for Avatar – and breath-holding for underwater worlds in Avatar: The Way Of Water. The physical discipline of it tapped into her balletic sensibilities. ‘I’m addicted to seeing myself do things that are unimaginable. For example, in theory, someone will tell me, “You’re going to follow these exercises, and you’re going to hold your breath for five minutes if you want.” I’m like, “Get the fuck out of here!” she says. ‘And all of a sudden, every time you do it, it’s three minutes, four minutes, five minutes… And then you find yourself doing it on your own time and teaching your kids to do it. They are dolphins, marine animals. And it’s particularly important to me because being an island girl, we all had to learn how to swim. You come out of the water, and you go back into it.’

As she dances on the sand, her coat billowing behind her and pelicans flying across the water, I ask what she next sees herself doing that is unimaginable?  “I would love to do a comedy – I only just did my first romantic series From Scratch in 2022. Before that I’d never been in a romance besides one that’s between two worlds when aliens are coming for you!’ I ask her about the fact that she is now, according to Wikipedia, the highest-grossing actress in the world. ‘I can’t grasp it,’ she says. ‘I can’t conceive of it. So all I keep doing is repeating what I’ve been told my whole life: be grateful. I know what it’s going to mean to so many young girls or boys out there who feel like they don’t belong, and they’re trying to find their place. Somebody did before you did, so that means you can, too.’ 

zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams

That doesn’t mean she’s invincible. Later, as we return to the warmth of indoors and a rehearsal studio, Zoë applies an ice pack to her knee. ‘This is the acceptance of my physical limitations,’ she smiles. ‘And learning to love my body as it is now. It’s a crazy, beautiful time.’ We return to the subject of gravity – something she seems to defy in her roles but that she’s now feeling and welcoming into her life. ‘I now feel the floor. When I used to dance, I didn’t feel it. My teachers would say, “Use the floor.” And I couldn’t because I was always jumping higher. You would do your grand jeté across the room, and then I would run back, because I couldn’t wait to do it again.’ That rigour is still a part of her acting practice. She’s worked with the same acting coach for over 20 years and breaks down roles in the same way she did when starting out. ‘I dig into whatever memories I have that may be similar that help me transport. I write all over the script, and I give the role an animal, I substitute the characters for somebody that I may know. Other times, it’s just endless conversations with the director, creating a very vivid backstory for the character – so much so I’m getting air in her lungs. For instance, the film that I did with my husband, The Absence of Eden, I play this woman who is undocumented. She feels like she has no choice but to flee her situation in Mexico and cross the US border. I didn’t want to do this technical research on the politics of how we feel about immigration. I felt the character is not right or wrong. She’s just scared, hungry and lonely. She is loyal. She’s the things that felt familiar to me. For Rita, the character I play in Emilia Perez, she’s so invisible. And that invisibility has turned into resentment. We’ve all experienced events in our lives where we have felt really strong, strong feelings and I channel that. It was incredibly enriching to play someone like her.’

zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams

‘One time, a really good friend gave me a critique that I wasn’t ready to hear, but I’m so grateful that she said it. She said, “I can’t wait for you to lower this guard down. You’re such a guarded actor,” And when I heard that I was taken aback, but she was right. I can’t watch myself. There’s nothing I do that I like. I like the movies. I love what everybody else does. I love the choices the director has made. I don’t like the way I carry out things. When I sit through a premiere and watch myself I’m cringing. I’m sick to my stomach. I think it’s because I just don’t want to deal with the fact that deep, deep down there’s always going to be that dancer in me that doesn’t think I’m good enough. That I just got here by chance.’

Zoë sits for a beat and processes this self-criticism. ‘There is a simple compromise though,’ she says. ‘Just do what you want. There are so many projects that I should do right now, but there are so many more I want to do. I’m going to see if by following that desire versus duty, that one day I will be able to sit through a whole thing that I’ve done, and enjoy it along with everybody else.’ 

Photographs, words and video by GREG WILLIAMS
Zöe Saldaña stars in Emilia Perez which opens in Cannes. By Saint Laurent Productions, Why Not Productions, Page 114 and Pimentia Films

hollywood authentic, greg williams, hollywood authentic magazine

Photographs by GREG WILLIAMS

We join Chopard’s global ambassador Julia Roberts on the set of the luxury jewellers’ TV commercial directed by James Gray. While filming in Julia’s adopted hometown of San Francisco, Greg asked her what inspired her when she first set out on her creative path.

‘I never thought of acting as a kid. I was surrounded by creative people but I was always the audience to it. 

‘The first film that really made me take note of acting and how powerful it can be was Becket, starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. I was in high school and I do not know why exactly, but it just stayed with me. I think it was the beginning of wanting to be connected to that form of expression.

julia roberts, chopard, hollywood authentic, greg williams

‘I am inspired by so many people in this industry and not in this industry, too. I have a deep appreciation for all types of creative efforts.

‘I am as excited today going into a project as I was 30 years ago. Partly because it is all new every time. A new universe to puzzle out and explore.’ 

Photographs by GREG WILLIAMS


Some films haunt us, obsess us, change our lives for having experienced them… This issue, the editor-in-chief of British Esquire extols the spellbinding virtues of Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 bittersweet modern classic.

Through the lens of a lesser director than the Hong Kong Chinese auteur Wong Kar-wai, In the Mood for Love might have been somewhat slight, and more than a little contrived. A newspaper journalist, Mr Chow, and a travel agent’s secretary, Mrs Chan, take separate rooms on the same floor of a cramped apartment block. They move in on the same day. Coincidence! Or, coincidence? Both are married to people who are often absent: Mrs Chan’s husband travels frequently to Japan on business; Mr Chow’s wife does shift work, so they are rarely at home at the same time. (Everyone in the film is defined – though, crucially, not everyone is confined – by their marital status.) Both Mr and Mrs are reticent, contained, solitary. They’re also both off-the-charts attractive, but we’ll come to that later.

in the mood for love, wong kar-wai, tony leung chiu wai, maggie cheung man-yuk, alex bilmes, hollywood authentic
in the mood for love, wong kar-wai, tony leung chiu wai, maggie cheung man-yuk, alex bilmes, hollywood authentic

Slowly, tentatively, first with glances and smiles, then halting, stiffly polite snatches of conversation, they come to know each other – and soon to discover something surprising. Mrs Chan’s husband is cheating on her, with Mr Chow’s wife.

‘By the way, haven’t seen your husband lately.’

‘Haven’t seen your wife lately, either.’

Not a terrible set-up for a movie. But hardly, you might think, the raw material for the most luscious unconsummated romance ever depicted on screen, a film as chaste as Brief Encounter, and yet also a gorgeous swoon of a work, one that has become regarded by critics and discerning audiences as perhaps the most hauntingly affecting love story ever made. 

When Sight & Sound announced the results of its most recent poll, in 2022, asking movie insiders to nominate the greatest films of all time (the list, published once a decade, is not definitive, but it is highly influential and hotly debated – and has been since its debut in 1952), In the Mood for Love placed at number five. It came below Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) – and above every other film ever made anywhere or at any time. Quite good, then. Akerman’s victory was unexpected, but few cineastes were especially surprised that Wong’s masterpiece ranked so high. The film is by now an established classic, one of the wonders of world cinema. 

in the mood for love, wong kar-wai, tony leung chiu wai, maggie cheung man-yuk, alex bilmes, hollywood authentic
in the mood for love, wong kar-wai, tony leung chiu wai, maggie cheung man-yuk, alex bilmes, hollywood authentic

I rewatch it every year and it loses none of its erotic charge. It is a film that takes nostalgia as one of its themes, and it is impossible to think of it without succumbing to an indulgent melancholy, a yearning for times past. When it ends, you want to go back to the start and relive it, like an old, unresolved love affair. 

The film opens, mysteriously, with an epigraph:
He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.

A second title card informs us we are in Hong Kong, in 1962. ‘A restless moment.’ Then we’re inside the cluttered apartment of Mrs Suen, a good-natured busybody, where a slender figure in a tight floral-print dress with a pinched waist and high cowl collar – which clashes appealingly with the floral-print curtains and the floral-print lamp shade – is being shown around, with a view to renting a room. This is Mrs Chan. It is evening. She has come straight from work. The building has seen better days. It is dimly lit, the walls are stained, the wallpaper is peeling. All this in stark contrast to the appearance of Mrs Chan herself. 

Where to start? As embodied by the actress Maggie Cheung, she is dazzlingly, heart-meltingly beautiful. A delicate, willowy young woman with supremely expressive, intelligent eyes and a face that catches the light from any angle. And Wong knows how to shoot her: tight, close, his roving camera placed at knee-height, hip-height, the better to follow her as she moves, to appreciate the contours of her shape. 

‘You notice things if you pay attention,’ Mrs Chan says at one point. Wong’s camera notices everything: steam from a kettle, a spoon stirring a cup of tea, a billowing red curtain, the way plumes of cigarette smoke hang in the air, rain-slicked streets, the fogged windows of a taxi cab at night, the particular shade of lime on a dress. He shoots interiors like a spy, lingering briefly on a detail, moving on. We in the audience feel ourselves to be inside the frame. Not merely voyeurs – although certainly that, too – but silent participants in the action. We, too, are falling in love.

in the mood for love, wong kar-wai, 2000, alex bilmes, hollywood authentic

Next shot: seen from behind, in shadow, a man climbs a shabby staircase. He arrives into a corridor and steps into the light. Get a load of this guy: matinee-idol handsome, hair slicked back, immaculate silk shantung suit, crisp white shirt, tie. But there’s something mournful about him, something wounded, a vulnerability. It’s intriguing, and it’s sexy. Mr Chow is played by the great Tony Leung, that most understated of leading men, and perhaps only he could have the magnetism to share a screen with the exquisite Maggie Cheung and not vaporise under her flashbulb glare. 

OK, so now we’re sold. Spellbound. Who cares about the script or the plot when we can spend the next 90 minutes in the company of these two heavenly creatures? When we can stare at Tony Leung smoking in the rain, or Maggie Cheung sauntering in slow motion through the soupy humidity of a crumbling, crepuscular city. When we can listen to the composer Michael Galasso’s aching score for cello, and to the languorous, enveloping sound of Nat King Cole singing ‘Quizas, Quizas, Quizas’. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…

in the mood for love, wong kar-wai, tony leung chiu wai, maggie cheung man-yuk, alex bilmes, hollywood authentic
in the mood for love, wong kar-wai, tony leung chiu wai, maggie cheung man-yuk, alex bilmes, hollywood authentic

But In the Mood for Love, for all the aesthetic bliss it offers, is more than a superficial exercise in atmospheric filmmaking. It is a study in longing and desire and a meditation on time, loss and regret. In its surface is its depth. 

As the plot thickens, the film becomes more dreamlike, impressionistic. It gets stranger and stranger. Mrs Chan and Mr Chow begin to roleplay their spouses’ infidelity. At a restaurant, he orders what her husband might have had, she wonders what his wife would eat. He takes her hand and asks if they should stay out all night. But her husband would never say that, so they play the scene again. This time she makes the first move, simpering a little. It’s a dangerous game. 

‘I didn’t think you’d fall in love with me.’

‘I didn’t either.’

He’s moving to Singapore. They rehearse a final farewell. She cries on his shoulder. Who knew it would hurt so much?

Will she go with him? Is it too late? Have they missed their chance? Will their affair, if that’s what this is, ever be consummated?

in the mood for love, wong kar-wai, tony leung chiu wai, maggie cheung man-yuk, alex bilmes, hollywood authentic
in the mood for love, wong kar-wai, tony leung chiu wai, maggie cheung man-yuk, alex bilmes, hollywood authentic

I won’t tell you that part in case you haven’t seen it. Enough to say that the film’s final, peripatetic, time-skipping sequences are gripping, tender and devastating.

In the Mood for Love is, loosely, the second part of a trilogy, beginning with Days of Being Wild (1990) and ending with 2046 (2004). Both those films have much to recommend them but neither comes close to the power and potency of Wong’s masterpiece. But then nothing does, and none of the cast or crew – cinematographers Christopher Doyle, Pun-Leung Kwan and Ping Bin Lee; production designer/costume designer/film editor William Chang; composer Galasso – for all their many decorations and achievements, would ever work again on a movie so enduring and beloved.

‘That era has passed,’ reads a title at the end. ‘Nothing that belonged to it exists anymore.’ 

A special 20th anniversary 4K restoration is available exclusively on MUBI

May 11, 2024

meteoria, restaurant, los angeles, hollywood authentic


Jordan Kahn’s Meteora is nothing short of spectacular. There’s a reason why Kahn has two Michelin stars at such a young age, and Meteora is just one of them. Hailed by the late Jonathan Gold, the legendary LA Times food critic, Kahn is not a stop short of perfection. There is no real foodie, wine connoisseur, critic, ratings person, dog, cat, or alien that wouldn’t have a good time here. Leave it at the door, and relax into one of the best dining experiences you’ll have right now in Los Angeles.

First, about the space… 6703 Melrose Avenue has a past. And yep, I was around for it. I’ve lived in this neighbourhood for nearly 19 years. I’ve watched it change and grow, and I’ve had eyes on that address – both as a restaurant lover and a real estate junkie. Here’s the download. After the long-standing and popular Hatfields moved on, 6703 Melrose was never fully reinvented or realised – that is, until Kahn came along. In collaboration with Roth Architecture and OV&CO, the space was transformed. Meteora is warm, open, beautifully lit, botanical, comfortable, otherwordly yet earthly; most certainly unique. Kahn, along with his collaborators, has crafted an exceptional dining experience. He has a way of doing that. Kahn himself has described it as: ‘Looking to our ancient past as inspiration for our future. Primal live-fire cooking, ingredients of rich bio-diversity and creativity define our New California cuisine.’ 

meteoria, restaurant, los angeles, hollywood authentic

So get ready to nestle in. Whether you are with your bestie, your significant other, family or friends, you will be taken care of in every way by the kind-spirited staff, an exceptional kitchen, a one-of-a -kind director of service, Cody Nason, a knowledgeable and smooth sommelier, James Saidy, and by Khan himself.

At 16, Jordan Khan left Savannah for Charleston, wrote a nine-page letter to French Laundry’s Thomas Keller, and kickstarted his somewhat destined journey to Meteora. Kahn earned his stars at his progressive and interstellar restaurant, Verspertine, located in Culver City. I’ve been there a few times and it is something else. Talk about levels: Vespertine is all the way up. It temporarily paused in-house dining in 2020 but – so a little birdy told me – it may (off books) reopen later this year. But there is no doubt that Kahn’s style, work ethic, attention to detail, love of the craft, open mind and humble genius all fuelled his swift rise to the top. Gratitude and good energy emanates from him, his co-workers, the food and beverages themselves, and from the entire restaurant.

Let’s talk about the food. My bestie Jacqueline King Schiller and I went all out on the chef omakase menu… and added wine pairings. Gotta say, I was impressed. How do I even explain it? Perhaps I’ll let Kahn do so instead… ‘Our cuisine is centred around live-fire cooking. Guests can expect elemental and inventive compositions that highlight sustainably sourced wild and organic vegetables, grains, seafood  and meats.’

meteoria, restaurant, los angeles, hollywood authentic

This live-fire cooking transforms ingredients, especially produce, in unexpected ways: charred pineapple takes on a meaty flavour and texture, adding hits of smoke and acid to delicate slivers of scallops neatly arranged in their shells. Burnt yam, caramelised yet savoury, balances plump rounds of briny trout roe paired with hazelnuts. And one of the most unique dishes is a creamy smoked almond mousse, light as a feather – and wonderfully complex when served with luscious chunks of embered persimmon and crunchy grilled peanuts.

‘We work directly with farmers, fisherman, ranchers, and foragers to create hyper-seasonal menus of exceptional quality with a commitment to sustainability and environmental impact,’ say the show notes. This pays off in not only the quality of the ingredients, but the menu as a whole. This is a dining experience filled with flavour pairings that are creative yet cohesive; deeply evocative of the place and the season. Take something as simple as the fourth dish, avocado and caviar, for example. Only two ingredients, and yet so much more. The avocado, drizzled with pressed oil from the seed, imparted with the subtle flavour of the leaves, cradles a large spoon-full of top-notch caviar. Yummy. What surprised me about this is not only the dish itself, but the story behind it (another reason why I love Jordan Kahn, and I love Meteora). Check this: the avocado was farmed by a local osteopath who farms avocados on his land as a hobby. Wait. I just ate one of the best things in my life, made from only two ingredients, one of which was farmed by an osteopath?

meteoria, restaurant, los angeles, hollywood authentic

Jordan Kahn loves a journey. A transformative space. Almost like a retreat or a teleportation. If energy cannot be created or destroyed, but can only transform from one form to another, then Kahn has found a way to transform it all into awesomeness. Moving on – because I could go on – this is truly an experience that I hope you will have someday soon. 

Dinner is Wednesday to Sunday night. The bar is walk-ins or reservations. A la carte at the bar and surrounding nooks. One of the most underused bars in LA in my opinion! Beverages are extensive: cocktails are amazing, the non-alcoholic drinks are delightful and the wine list is impeccable. Peace. Til the next review… 


Photograph by RICHARD C. MILLER
Courtesy of GETTY IMAGES

When asked how we got together, we always answer: ‘Liz Taylor and James Dean.’ But we really owe it all to Richard Miller, the freelance entertainment and stills photographer, who captured the image of them relaxing on a sofa in Houston, Texas in 1955.

In truth, saying ‘Richard C. Miller’ doesn’t carry the weight and humour of saying ‘Taylor and Dean’, but it should. We have all heard the adage, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, and we don’t disagree – but what of the person who took it, or the people in it, what we take from it, or what happens because of it? We feel that those stories are equally as captivating, should be shared, and well… at times, they may take a thousand words to tell. 

So, we thank Hollywood Authentic and our dear friend, Greg Williams, for indulging us with this opportunity in the forthcoming issues to share the stories of how some of the most iconic images were taken, pay homage to the extraordinary photographers behind them, and take you on the journey of how the love of photography changed our lives forever.

Over the course of his career, Miller took photographs of celebrities and stills on more than 70 movie sets, with his work appearing in The Saturday Evening Post, American Weekly, Colliers, Time and LIFE. He was one of the first photographers who took pictures of Norma Jean for the Blue Book Modeling Agency long before her transformation into Marilyn Monroe, and he covered the set photographs of what would be Dean’s third and final film, Giant. Which brings us to this photograph.  

leica, q3, hollywood authentic

Miller studied to be a cinematographer and was an actor prior to establishing himself as a photographer. Dean aspired to be a film director and shared a passion for photography – among his closest friends were notable photographers Phil Stern, Dennis Stock and Roy Schatt (the latter being Dean’s photography instructor who had also given Dean his Rolleiflex). Hence why when Miller met Dean, they became fast friends who bonded over their love of Porsches, cameras and the filmmaking process, and Miller told his wife, ‘This is a guy who will be a best friend for life.’

A great image is typically generated by knowing when to click the shutter, but it also needs the right elements of composition. Between the photographer and the subject, cooperation and collaboration, magic can happen. Miller recounted that when Dean saw him about to take the photograph, he would do something to make it better; a look, a stance, a gesture, and in this case, simply grabbing the LOOK magazine featuring Taylor on the cover as Mother of the Year, while she napped beside him.    

This very photograph is what brought Gary into the gallery where I worked and now hangs proudly in our home. It’s the image that we bonded over, and began our conversations on cameras, film and photography; it is what started us on the path to becoming best friends and partners for life. And come to think of it, Gary did drive over in his Porsche.

Photograph by RICHARD C. MILLER
Courtesy of GETTY IMAGES

Photographs by MARK READ

Standing on Broadway, between W Olympic and W 9th, the rosy-hued United Theater soars 13 floors over the historic Broadway Theater District of Downtown LA, a physical manifestation of the dream of independence by Hollywood artists. As dusk falls and the grand dame’s neon flickers on, the building seems like a time capsule – an opulent cathedral to movies from a bygone age and now one of the last remaining atmospheric auditoriums from an era pioneering the so-called ‘seventh art’. Though it was not the first picturehouse to stand in this neighbourhood, the United was a trailblazer in representing a new wave of indie movie stars in Chaplin and his fellow renegades – artists who wanted out of the studio system in order to control their own creative output. In 1919, the group broke away from the studios and formed United Artists, giving themselves agency over the creation, production and distribution of their work – a  standard ambition for any actor working in Hollywood today, but an entirely maverick concept then. Eight years later, they formed the United Artists Theatre Circuit to showcase UA productions, and the United Artists Theatre was conceived as the flagship. Downtown LA was the growing hub for movie life, a mecca for film fans that evolved to become the world’s largest concentrated area of movie houses by 1931. 

At the height of movie mania, Downtown could seat a staggering 15,000 audience members over 12 cinemas. Entertainment began in the district in 1870 when William Abbot started the first permanent theatre in the spot that is now El Pueblo de Los Angeles historic park, welcoming a merry-go-round of theatrical troupes as they travelled the show circuit through then-fledging towns. By the turn of the century Abbot’s business was joined by nickelodeons and vaudeville venues, with promoter Sid Grauman opening a theatre where the Million Dollar now sits on Broadway in 1918. 

united on broadway, united theater, space odyssey, architecture, mark read, hollywood authentic, greg williams
united on broadway, united theater, space odyssey, architecture, mark read, hollywood authentic, greg williams, charlie chaplin, mary pickford, douglas fairbanks, dw griffith

On opening night, 100,000 fans crowded the streets to listen to the event via loudspeakers, the national guard called in to keep order

By 1922, Grauman had opened the ‘atmospheric’ Egyptian theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, following it in 1927 with the Chinese down the road. The United began construction in the same year, with crowds in their thousands jostling to see Mary Pickford break ground perched in a steam-driven shovel. Designed by architect C Howard Crane in a gothic design that was a departure from the in-vogue classic revival architecture of the day, the vibe of the venue was thought to have been inspired by Pickford and Fairbanks’ honeymoon to Spain, the soaring vaulted ceilings and intricate plasterwork recalling the lines of the cathedral in Segovia. 

united on broadway, united theater, space odyssey, architecture, mark read, hollywood authentic, greg williams, charlie chaplin, mary pickford, douglas fairbanks, dw griffith
united on broadway, united theater, space odyssey, architecture, mark read, hollywood authentic, greg williams, charlie chaplin, mary pickford, douglas fairbanks, dw griffith
united on broadway, united theater, space odyssey, architecture, mark read, hollywood authentic, greg williams, charlie chaplin, mary pickford, douglas fairbanks, dw griffith
united on broadway, united theater, space odyssey, architecture, mark read, hollywood authentic, greg williams, charlie chaplin, mary pickford, douglas fairbanks, dw griffith
united on broadway, united theater, space odyssey, architecture, mark read, hollywood authentic, greg williams, charlie chaplin, mary pickford, douglas fairbanks, dw griffith

The interiors were decorated with cheeky Anthony Heinsbergen-created murals that showed Chaplin and gang as heroic deities fighting demonic oppressors painted to resemble their former bosses, the controlling studio heads

The bankrolling film stars built the place with wonder in mind – their aim being to transport 2,214 punters to another world the minute they stepped through the door. So the height of the building transcended the highest in the city at the time at 13 storeys (the tallest in LA until the 1950s) and the interiors were decorated with cheeky Anthony Heinsbergen-created murals that showed Chaplin and gang as heroic deities fighting demonic oppressors painted to resemble their former bosses, the controlling studio heads. 

united on broadway, united theater, space odyssey, architecture, mark read, hollywood authentic, greg williams, charlie chaplin, mary pickford, douglas fairbanks, dw griffith

On the building’s exterior, the carved grotesques crouching at the top of terracotta columns and in window arches were cameramen and jazz musicians instead of gargoyles. And the proscenium around the silver screen was a riot of red filigree to match the extravagant ceilings gold painted to look like tapestries and the exotic Byzantine lanterns. The auditorium ceiling featured an oval dome tiled with dazzling mirrors and thousands of crystal drops that shimmered in a draught. Pickford had her own private screening room installed – only accessible via the gentlemen’s restrooms – and continuously running water fountains dotted the lobbies.

Throughout 1927, crews worked around the clock to get the building ready for the January 1928 premiere of Pickford’s My Best Girl. On opening night, 100,000 fans crowded the streets to listen to the event via loudspeakers, the national guard called in to keep order. The movie-star owners regularly appeared at the venue until the Depression forced a temporary closure. When it reopened, the United moved with the demands of the times, installing Todd-AO 70mm widescreen-format projectors, but its single-screen majesty fell out of favour in the 80s when crowds flocked to modern multiplexes. 

united on broadway, united theater, space odyssey, architecture, mark read, hollywood authentic, greg williams, charlie chaplin, mary pickford, douglas fairbanks, dw griffith
united on broadway, united theater, space odyssey, architecture, mark read, hollywood authentic, greg williams, charlie chaplin, mary pickford, douglas fairbanks, dw griffith
united on broadway, united theater, space odyssey, architecture, mark read, hollywood authentic, greg williams, charlie chaplin, mary pickford, douglas fairbanks, dw griffith

On opening night, 100,000 fans crowded the streets to listen to the event via loudspeakers, the national guard called in to keep order

While many solo-screen cinemas were carved up for multi-screen use or razed entirely, the United survived thanks to a period during Downtown’s down-turn when it became a Spanish-language movie theatre and then a ministry for TV evangelist Gene Scott. The flamboyant Scott, who often wore two pairs of glasses and claimed to hang a Rembrandt in the lobby, bought the building in 1986, installing a neon ‘Jesus Saves’ sign on the roof and preaching to his congregation in the seats and via TV. His occupation helped the palace remain beautiful, his restoration works ensuring its longevity for future generations of wide-eyed audiences and, in 2013, hotel guests when The Ace Hotel took over. The theatre has gone full circle in its identity this year; having been called numerous names over the decades, it has now returned to The United Theater On Broadway after The Ace moved out in January. 

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Today, the 1,600-seat venue still retains its original features and such an aura of the roaring 20s that it made the perfect space to convey the hedonistic party atmosphere Damien Chazelle wanted for the opening 40 minutes of Babylon. During a two-week shoot, the The United returned to its heyday – with charlestoning revellers, rivers of fake champagne, mountains of stunt cocaine, chickens and a jazz band. Stepping through its doors now is like time travel – a picture palace stopped in its tracks, the creativity of its founders and the joy they brought audiences felt in its foundations. Perhaps that’s why the unique space still attracts singular performers such as The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Nick Cave, Johnny Marr and Ariana Grande to its stage, and film premieres continue to roll out the red carpet. Troubadours and artists still keeping the fierce spirit of independence reverberating through its walls… Just as Charlie and Mary intended. 

Photographs and video by MARK READ
The United Theater On Broadway Los Angeles, CA 90015 Los Angeles. theunitedtheater.com/@theunitedtheater