The legendary cinematographer tells us about shooting Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon A Time in Hollywood’
Richardson also discusses his previous partnerships with Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone
On 14 February 2002, cinematographer Robert Richardson opened his front door to find a gift from Quentin Tarantino: a bouquet of roses and a parcel—the screenplay of Kill Bill (2003). It was, as they say, the start of a beautiful friendship. Richardson has since shot four more features for the film-maker, Inglourious Basterds (2009), Django Unchained (2012), The Hateful Eight (2015) and his latest, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, which got rave reviews at the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival. Valentine’s Day, roses, a screenplay, and a leading film-maker—Richardson fell in love for the third time. His first two partners were Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese, for whom he has shot 11 and seven features, respectively, winning Academy Awards for three—Platoon (1986), JFK (1991) and The Aviator (2004). Richardson, who was recently in Delhi to film an ad for Absolut Vodka, spoke to Lounge about his partnerships with Stone, Scorsese and Tarantino, and contemporary film cinematography. Edited excerpts:
‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’ is your fifth collaboration with Tarantino. What kind of conversations do you typically have with him about a film’s visual style and look?
When I initially met him for Kill Bill, he had already hired two directors of photography—one for China, one for the US—so for me, he was a little bit surprised, thinking, “Why would Robert Richardson want to work with me?", and I thought, “Why would Quentin Tarantino want to work with me?"
I had met him earlier on a film called Casino (1995), and he had come to visit Marty (Scorsese). We did spend some time looking at a couple of films, but I didn’t know him well, so when we did Kill Bill, he told me what he wanted to accomplish, and after the first meeting, he agreed to hire me, and he sent me around—could be 100 or 200 or 300—different visuals of the martial arts stuff. And that’s how we developed a synchronicity in vision, and what we did find is that in each of the films, it is the same procedure for both of us. He would take me through films at his house, or send me—it could be VHS, laser disc, anything—and that’s how we progressed and found a visual style for the film.
Your previous collaborations with Tarantino lean on some identifiable styles—martial arts and blaxploitation cinema, war drama, Westerns—while ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’, set in 1969, looks more genre-agnostic. Did you have any reference points?
The movie is set in 1969, but it also goes back to the (early) 1960s, when (the character played by) Leo (DiCaprio) had his own TV show, a (fictional) black and white Western, “Bounty Law" (1958). We then watched some of the early TV he had done: Gunsmoke (1955), Maverick (1957), The Rifleman (1958). The film spans a certain number of days, so we tried a retro appearance. We utilized zooms, high-volume colour, and a little dirtier feel in some of the visuals in terms of appearance. Rolling Thunder (1977) was one reference—a lot of films in that time period. The colour section is based on (the American Western series) Lancer (1968), then there was Alias Smith And Jones (1971), which is a take on Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969), but for TV. These were all influences in the way we shot those sequences, in the capacity of making Westerns for TV at that time period, because Leo is a TV actor, who excels and falls.
You have said ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’ is a film whose “tone is difficult to describe". Can you talk about the challenges, then, in shooting such a movie?
It’s in the vein of Jackie Brown (1997), and, of course, Pulp Fiction (1994). Since that time, Quentin has become, in my opinion, a more sophisticated and accomplished director as well as writer. The Hateful Eight, for me, is one of his best directorials, and it shows. It may not be the one you love the most—Pulp Fiction is the one most people look to—and this (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood) runs again inside that zone, and you are dealing with a looseness and pop vibrancy that is astounding.
During ‘The Hateful Eight’ pre-production meeting, Tarantino got you drunk on tequila, handed you the script—which didn’t have an ending—and made you read it. Even when you were given the script of ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’, it didn’t have an ending.
No, Quentin hadn’t seen me for a substantial period of time, and I had come there to meet him. We both had a couple of drinks, he let me read the script, but this time, the last 30 pages—of the last act—were missing.
So is there a fear of the climax getting leaked or is it Tarantino just being, well, Tarantino?
I think it’s a bit of both. He doesn’t want the ending to be leaked, but I don’t think he’s worried about me doing it. I am allowed to read the ending, but I have to go to a room, take it out of the safe, and read it without the door ever opening or closing.
You are known for long partnerships with Oliver Stone, Scorsese and Tarantino. How would you describe an ideal film-maker-cinematographer collaboration?
I think all my collaborations with directors have been ideal. Each director has a different programme in the way they move forward. For example, with Oliver, we built from the very scratch—it was my first feature. By the time I got to the end, the relationship was distinctive, he was a brother. We didn’t even have to finish thoughts, and we knew that even if we got angry with each other, we could alter that into something positive. With Oliver, I could work in the capacity of helping, or giving my ideas on how to shoot, like what shots—even if he didn’t like them, I was able to process it that way and give it to him. But with Marty, there’s no giving shots. With Quentin, there’s no giving shots. They’d come to you if there’s a problem, but, in essence, Marty gives you the script, and in that script every single shot is outlined.
The last decade has seen frequent overlaps between VFX and “conventional" cinematography. You had even proposed the idea of two Academy Awards for cinematography. Has the explosion of technology affected your work in any way?
Now that’s a complicated question. It’s a good one. So Hugo (2011) had to be shot in 3D. Do you take two film cameras and try to create it? Because he (Scorsese) wanted to do it in camera—well, that’s not actually possible any more—so it became two digital cameras, so that influences the way we shot the movie. With an instantaneous reproduction of a high-definition image, we could deal with depth, colours, and so on. That is a big difference.
The digital intermediate has shifted the way we perceive films, because now whether you shoot on film or digital, it all goes through the digital intermediate room, which means that it all goes into DCP—Digital Cinema Projection—and that’s huge. The VFX is becoming vastly superior, and they can lift the film in much the same way a production designer or a costume designer can.
You took your name off the credits of ‘World War Z’ (2013) because you didn’t agree with the changes, imposed by the movie studio, in post-production.
Thank you, this is going to help me with Paramount Pictures.
Have you lost projects because of it?
I have definitely lost projects because of that.
‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’?
Umm, no. I was working with Quentin then, so that overlapped.
You have been a cinematographer for nearly four decades, worked across mediums. So is there any avenue that you still want to explore?
I would love to do a Marvel film. I had always wanted to shoot Superman. It was one of my dreams. Although I did investigate that with Tim Burton, where he was supposed to direct Nicolas Cage, that fell apart. So that’s the kind of film—tent-pole, high level—I would like to do at least once.
What is your opinion about contemporary film cinematography? How do you think it has evolved? What are some of the recent works that have impressed you greatly?
I think Chivo’s (Emmanuel Lubezki’s) work, (Roger) Deakins’ work, and there are so many young great cinematographers in the business right now. I actually think I haven’t changed a lot. I work in the same place as them—except sometimes I don’t want to utilize the same tools. For example, a simple fact of a viewfinder on a camera. Well, a lot of people are now using phones or monitors to frame shots. When you are on an exterior location, using Alexa and a monitor, you are seeing reflections, you can’t even see exactly what you are composing. So it’s a very different approach.
Now there are both positives and negatives of that. I like to look through an eyepiece, so that my eye connects with you. If I am looking at you, I want to know what you are thinking, in the way you react to the actors around you. So that if I go to the director and he goes, “How was it?", I can say he was so connected, whether it was a good performance or not, that’s his choice. But I think what’s happening right now is a loss of that.
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