How SFX supe Jeremy Hays found himself acting next to Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

‘Rick, it’s a flamethrower.’

One of the most memorable scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood sees veteran Hollywood actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) being coached on how to use a flamethrower for a role in a World War II film.

Dalton’s ‘flamethrower trainer’ in that scene is actually the film’s special effects supervisor Jeremy Hays who, unexpectedly, got to say one of the best lines in the movie. How that all came about is a fun story Hays related to me while we discussed one of his upcoming projects, Call of the Wild (soon to be covered on befores & afters).

Of course, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, that scene sets up a stunning later moment in the film, so if you don’t want any spoilers, DO NOT read on. Otherwise, here’s Hays on what it was like working with Tarantino and DiCaprio and going from confident special effects supervisor to nervous actor.

Jeremy Hays (special effects supervisor, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood): When we developed the flamethrower for Quentin, it was pretty clear that he wanted to try to push the envelope and go for a liquid-propelled flamethrower. Shooting in California, you have to have a special flamethrower license to be able to shoot any kind of device that propels fuel gas. A propane kind of flamethrower is more common, but it doesn’t have that World War II ‘nasty’ flamethrower thing happening.

So, we challenged ourselves from the beginning to try to create a flamethrower that Leo would be able to shoot himself and would look like a real flamethrower. There was a lot of co-ordination with the state fire department and us to try to develop this thing. What we made was really nice because it would self-extinguish itself. So if Leo was to drop it or if something happened, it would shoot CO2 through the unit and extinguish it. So we felt pretty confident with this whole thing and that Leo would be able to act all this stuff out.

Once Quentin got hold of it – I let him fire it – he fell in love with it to the point that he actually changed the ending of the movie to incorporate this flamethrower, which was never quite the end scene, because it worked so well.

Then, as an opportunity, he goes, ‘Hey, I’ve got this other idea for a little scene. Would you be okay being in the movie? You’ll just stand next to Leo while he’s delivering his lines while he’s doing the flamethrower.’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ They basically put me in costume and I stood there. I had already been working with Leo with the flamethrower and we kind of hit it off, because I’m pretty much a wise guy and he dishes it out too. We had a pretty good rapport going.

Then, just as we’re getting ready to shoot the scene, Leo walks up to me and goes, ‘Hey, so I’m going to ask you a couple of questions. I’m just gonna throw some lines at you. Just say or do whatever you would normally say.’ And I found myself going, well, wait a minute, that’s not what I do. I’m not an actor!

But I wasn’t going to back down. Quentin’s right there and Leo’s asking me, and of course I don’t want to look like I’m scared. But actually, the thing is, we were prep’ing to burn eight stunt people with a flamethrower – and I’m not even nervous about that – but the moment that all of a sudden I’m supposed to ‘act’ on camera, I was, like, super-nervous.

Anyway, we start out the scene and I do the thing and then all of a sudden Leo turns around and he says something to me. I don’t remember what the first one was – it’s all kind of a blur – but I went along with it and I just said something back. People chuckled a little bit. And then Quentin goes, ‘Okay, let’s just do another one.’ We did a series of four or five of them. As it progressed, by the third one, I was just dishing out one-liners that I was ad libbing.

The fourth or fifth one was the one that they picked for the movie. I never really thought that that scene was going to make the movie. But of course we were all laughing because we were just having a good time doing it. I thought it would be edited down to just Leo with the flamethrower and you’d see me in the background.

Quentin was like, ‘Not only did I give you the part but you totally delivered!’ It was such a surreal moment because it wasn’t a planned thing. It’s just something that happened.

The next thing you know, the people who saw the movie were like, ‘I saw your scene and it was great!’ I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ Then when I saw it, it was a really awesome experience to sit in a theater and then when the scene comes up, not only to see yourself on that big screen, but to have the audience laugh at something that you just made up on the fly as a joke. It was a whole other experience. We were like, how did that even happen?

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