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Robert Richardson on Quentin Tarantino’s Specificity, 1960s TV, and 35mm vs. 70mm vs DCP

Written by on July 26, 2019 

Were he only a distinct player in some of Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone’s best films, Robert Richardson would have one of the most solid foundations of any working cinematographer. Arguably the most fruitful relationship, though, is with Quentin Tarantino, for whom he’s been an essential partner over most of the director’s career. Their collaboration reaches new heights with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Practically exploding color and light, the movie does less to evoke old-time Tinseltown than create a living memory of homes, bars, cars, streets, faces, landscapes, and, of course, movie theaters.

With one of the year’s best films (about which I wrote some here) opening today, I was immensely fortunate to interview Richardson about this dazzlingly complex production’s mix of stocks, grades, and long takes, as well as those elements you can’t control once it’s out of your hands–most essentially the presentation, which plays a major part in how we, collectively, talk about his work with the director. And because–to quote another Tarantino character–I couldn’t resist, there was time to ask about our chances of ever seeing Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair.

Did Tarantino shooting Death Proof change anything about him as a director, as far as you can tell, and anything about your creative relationship?

It didn’t, actually. It was interesting that he made the choice to shoot it on his own, and I think his relationship with other directors who were shooting influenced his choice greatly, but it didn’t necessarily impact our relationship. It maybe, in some ways, could be beneficial, because to actually shoot a movie–to light a film, do the camerawork, and direct, act, etc.–is a tremendous amount to try to do by yourself. So perhaps he found that it sort of liberated him from a desire, in the future, to do the same thing.

Yours is one of the most recognizable DP filmographies. I think of my friend who said Casino is “the most Robert Richardson you could ask for.”

[Laughs]

I’m curious about visual autonomy. How much do you value that opportunity? And how readily could you watch Hollywood (or any other Tarantino collaboration) and identify what’s yours, what’s his?

As you may know, and has been said, Quentin comes in with all the shots, so there’s very little that I offer in terms of shooting an image–in terms of coming up with a composition of something, or determining where it’s going to move or how it’s going to go. Quentin comes in every day with that. The look, he leaves a lot of to me. He will say when he wants something very specific. I try not to have my work stand out and take attention away from his words as much as possible. There are times, obviously, when my work has more of that hardcore lighting or back-lighting, etc., but I try not to do that.

Particularly with Once Upon a Time, I think you’ll notice there’s very little that draws attention to another time. For instance, Musso & Frank could easily have been lit off the table, and I made a strong decision not to do that–to make it more keeping with the dialogue, more keeping with the place, a little more conservative, and trying not to shine so brightly. Casino is very different because, of course, I was working with Marty and he wanted a strong feel. We kind of bounced around and I was in that timezone where he allows me to do certain things with hard lights, top lights, and backs, and I think it worked very well with what Casino is as a movie. In this particular case, I don’t want my work to overpower or in any way take over the element of what the director’s achieving.

How much are you and Tarantino talking through the psychology vs. the technique?

For me, it’s carrying out his wishes. Quentin comes in and is very specific, and the psychology of a shot can often be determined by where he’s placing the height, etc.–whether you’re lower, high, or above. Any of that, in terms of eye level, is more about where the two of us intersect, and we try to work on that aspect. But it is his. He comes in and says, “I want the camera here.”

There’s a high-angle shot of Leo walking back from his trailer after his conversation in the trailer and he comes back to the set, and the camera’s up high and goes down and gets to his foot level. A complicated shot to actually achieve as an operator, which I do, and it’s clear why he’s going it: he’s clearing the air. Also, we went with very long lenses where he appears almost through the dust before it goes into that shot. That element is technical, but also, I understand where he wants to go with it when he does it. He sees it because he wants a certain element to be broadcast in terms of what he’s trying to tell about the character. I assume that’s what you mean by psychology.

At what point is it made clear that certain scenes (e.g. the Bruce Lee fight) will be composed in a single take?

I knew that very early on. In fact, a weekend we went down with a small number of crew members to where we were shooting. We had stand-ins and ADs. We went through it, whether we could achieve the shot he wanted via the crane we normally work off or if we had to get something else. He choreographed it while we worked with these people, but he knew immediately what he wanted–he would say, “We start here, we slowly pull back, you need a zoom attached.” So we just slowly walked on the ground, the tracks, and found the placement of where the camera needed to go, so when we went back to shoot the scene, we knew we could achieve it.

I was surprised by the Lancer segment being presented in-camera and real-time, as opposed to Bounty Law‘s broadcast-ready presentation. What was the thinking behind this method?

Since this was a different time period, he wanted to make it feel like this was when Dalton was at the height of his career. It needed to be pulled from the past. So as opposed to living within the time period and seeing behind the scenes, he didn’t want to do that, but because he’s dealing with the day-to-day life of Leo on Lancer, he did want to incorporate the behind-the-scenes into the scene on Lancer. Because it’s “current,” right now.

The movie kind of finds a middle ground when they watch FBI at Dalton’s house. I love seeing the TV from their POV and getting a sense of how it would look shown in someone’s home. You’d shot on various film stocks for these segments, so when do you know the appearances of these period-appropriate broadcasts are enough? How much is it instinct vs. experience, or is accuracy not a concern?

What I had to do was find the highest-quality material we could get from FBI, because it’s obviously intercut with real footage. So I had to find out what that quality was, and once I understood what that quality was, I understood I had to do it native. That was shot with 35. And what I had to do was, first of all, get it in the same weather, find a location that was proper, and I pushed the stock to get more grain into it, and it almost cut in perfectly on the first attempt. We degraded it slightly, but minimal because it just fit inside FBI. We were very lucky, and I think that comes down to, as you were saying, instinct and also experience.

Tell me more about grading shows within the film.

Everything, I grade. I’m involved with grading on the movie from the moment we shoot it to when we do digital intermediate. I work with Yvan Lucas, who I’ve worked with for years and on a number of films with Quentin, and he does all the grading for all the dailies. Quentin shoots on 35, and also selects his takes–whatever those takes are–and prints those selects. So I work intimately with Yvan to make those dailies as effective as possible, so that when we get down to the point of having to do a final release, we are as close with our film. Because we match the film; we don’t create something new in the digital intermediate, or we try not to. We basically try to match what the film is. I try to keep away from all the tricks you can do with a digital intermediate, and stick to what would be chemical–which is why I think you feel there’s an honesty to the film. Nowadays, we have so much capability of changing things in a digital intermediate that it has a huge influence on the way films are coming out.

I saw it on 35mm at SVA and am seeing it on 70mm at the Village East. How much of a hand do you and/or Tarantino have in choosing who screens on film? Or is that delegated higher up?

It’s the latter of what you said–it’s more delegated. Quentin obviously loves the Cinerama Dome and pushes very high for the Cinerama Dome to become part of what he’s doing–there’s no question about that–but, overall, we don’t have that much influence, I don’t believe. I mean, I don’t have any influence. Whether Quentin has influence on trying to get into a particular house… the 70mm print, I haven’t even seen yet. I only saw a test of the 70, and I’ve never seen how it holds up on 70mm. In fact, nobody I know–not even the grader–has seen the whole movie. Which tells you one thing. So I can’t tell you.

Almost every single screening that I’ve seen thus far with press has been on 35mm. It can be a mixed bag, because if a house doesn’t have proper projection, you’re going to suffer greatly because the projectors are going to be out-of-focus. The vast majority of theaters no longer work in film for projection. They work DCPs, so in that cinema, the projector is dead-center and has the best spot, whereas film has been moved to the outside edges. It’s hard to find focus, etc. You need very good projectionists and good equipment, which isn’t being kept up-to-date in a lot of houses because there’s little use for a release on film.

It was great to see it on 35mm. I’m not as much of a fetishist for these things, but the textural quality was often stunning.

I agree with you. And you know what I’d be very curious about: you’ve seen it on 35, you’re going to see it on 70, you should see it on DCP–especially in a good theater. Especially if somebody does laser projection; the blacks are so great. But I wonder if you have a different reaction to a movie depending on the manner in which it’s exhibited, and I’d be very curious when somebody goes, “I saw it on 35, I saw it on 70, and I saw it on DCP, and I’ve got to say x, x, and, x.” I’ll be interested in seeing if there’s a difference in the way you respond to something because of digital vs. whether it’s on film.

So clearly you have a lot of ideas about how it should be shown. Do you get involved with that kind of thing, e.g. the famous letters Kubrick or Lynch had sent to projectionists?

You really kind of can’t get involved that way because, first of all, I don’t know the theaters in most cases. Like, for the premiere in L.A., I went to the Chinese the day they were setting up. I’d had a bad experience with a previous screening for the cast and crew, and I hadn’t been involved, so I thought, “I don’t want to go to the premiere and be upset.” So I sat with the projectionist, who’s extraordinarily talented, and we went through it. He got the very best he could in the two afternoons I was with him. That is extraordinarily rare, that you get to do that.

Do you know of any plans to do a home-video release for Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair?

No, I’m not aware of any, but I would certainly think he would do it. I’m surprised that isn’t already out there, because it would’ve seemed the most natural thing to do once he put it together as a whole movie. But I haven’t heard anything. I guess you know, with Hateful, he did an extended version for Netflix, so I would think there would be some plans in the works, but the best people to be asking would be Shannon McIntosh or Quentin himself. I will ask him when I see him, though.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is now in theaters.


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