Much like the auteurs who inspired him, Quentin Tarantino’s films share a very distinctive look from one to the next, no matter what the subject matter, thanks to repeated collaborations with the same people behind the scenes – stars, production and costume designers, and of course, his cinematographer. Since 2003, Tarantino has worked closely with one of the best directors of photography in the business, Robert Richardson, to create a consistent visual tapestry full of rich colors, overheated contrasts and dazzling fluidity, whether the setting is World War II (“Inglourious Basterds”), the antebellum South (“Django Unchained”) or an anachronistic, dreamlike version of contemporary Japan (“Kill Bill”).
All of which is why it comes as a surprise that “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” their fifth outing together (yeah, we’re counting ‘Bill’ as one film in this context), looks strikingly different than their previous ones, a detailed but unexpectedly understated recreation of late-1960s Los Angeles that straddles both Hollywood glamour and bohemian counterculture to explore an alternate history involving actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), an alcoholic former TV star (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman best friend (Brad Pitt).
The Playlist spoke with Robert Richardson this week, not only about their partnership on ‘Hollywood’ but the ongoing collaboration that has produced some of the most dynamic and indelible cinematic moments of the past two decades. In addition to offering a laundry list of films and television shows that inspired the look of this particular movie, Richardson talked about the cinematic past, technically and artistically, that prompted them to go in that different direction, and about the key members of the creative team who helped them bring this magically real-time and place to startling new life. And finally, the filmmaking luminary, who has worked with Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, and John Sayles, reflected briefly upon his own body of work, the choices that have come to define his style, and the methods he uses to ensure that each new project is a distinctive challenge, no matter how many times he’s worked with a director before.
You and Quentin have enjoyed a longtime collaboration. What was maybe the initial mandate of “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood,” because it looks markedly different than the other films that you have made together?
This film is less operatic in both its writing, but also in a way we shot it. I think operatic’s good, but we were abundant in our choices before, and in this we settled down, trying not to show ourselves as much with the camera and to capture scenes without bringing attention. It’s a less narrative-driven film; it’s a little bit more languid and flowing, and that is unlike his other films which are highly narrative-driven. This one, it’s about the way that the soundtrack gently slides you from one character to another and the travails of what they may be going through personally, whether it’s Brad, Leo or Margot, which are the three principle stories we lead through, and they’re almost given equal time on screen. So we didn’t attempt to stamp it, and I stayed deliberately away in my work from anything that said: “stare at my work.” I really didn’t go anywhere near that; I tried just to support the feeling of not only the idea that we were in 1969, but also that we had period pieces such as Bounty Law, which took place in an earlier time period with an [aspect ratio of 1.33:1]. They already had their own stamp, and then Lancer has its own stamp. The flashbacks to Nebraska with the Super 8mm, and we had so many different textures flooded through the film, but I tried to maintain myself at a distance from some version of Robert Richardson that might be too evident.
Were there films or was there a deliberate effort made to evoke the way that time period looked in a way that was different than the approach you guys had taken with some of the more theatrical worlds that you created in the past?
Yeah, a tremendous amount. For example, “Rolling Thunder” was one of the first films he brought up, so I’ll bring it up to you. But I also dealt with things like the grain structure of “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” I also dealt with “2001” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” and even I was thinking about “Easy Rider,” The Monkees’ “Head,” and “Midnight Cowboy” – so many films that were all slipping out at that time. I even went back to something which had nothing to do with the movie, beyond one, which was “Sorcerer,” which I love the quality of the shooting on that. It’s just a phenomenal motion picture. But I also slipped all the way back to “Peeping Tom,” looking at something that has a very rich color because Powell and Pressburger’s work together created some of the most beautiful IB technicolor looks, which we were gunning for to some extent in terms of the saturation of skin tones. So I played a little bit with that, and of course, you can’t help but go to the same place that you would have gone with “Bonnie and Clyde.” That’s one. “The Dirty Dozen,” that’s another. There are so many things like “The Longest Day,” which is an earlier one, but those are all things that we played with. And then on top of that, I had to throw in the most important element, which is television. Because this is not a film per se in the sense that we’re not trying to replicate just movie, we’re trying to replicate a period of time that was shot for television. So “Alias Smith and Jones” was a series I watched from the beginning to the end. “Maverick,” I saw all of that. I did, “Rifleman.” I did so many different shows that were put out – “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza.” I wanted to go old school because “Bonanza” seems to be somewhat in the zone that we can talk about “Lancer” too.