Django Unchained, a controversial mash-up of Italian “spaghetti westerns” and the horrors of slavery, is the fourth film multi-Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson has lensed for Quentin Tarantino. Over the span of a decade – encompassing the two martial arts pastiches Kill Bill I and II and Inglourious Basterds, a sly revisionist take on World War II – “our interaction has become more and more intuitive,” said the director of photography. “With Quentin, I tend not to draw as large a signature on my work. I’m trying to become more like one of his actors, rather than a cinematographer with his own agenda.”
That’s not to say Richardson is in any way a shrinking violet, but rather that he’s fully in sync with Tarantino’s audacious genre-busting aesthetic. From rollicking to ravishing to stingingly realistic, from blood-drenched shootouts and horrifying slave whippings to scenic snowbound episodes set against majestic mountains, Richardson’s virtuosity as a cinematographer is abundantly on display throughout Django Unchained.
Tarantino’s often declared love of spaghetti westerns inspired the making of Django Unchained. During prep, Richardson and the director screened classics of the genre by directors Serge Leone (A Fistful of Dollars), Dario Argento (Once Upon a Time in the West) and Sergio Corbucci (the original Django 1966).
“We were looking less at the narrative element and more at their style and aesthetic, especially in the ways they use their cameras,” said the DP. One stylistic device Richardson picked up from the Italian westerns was an eye-popping quick zoom used sparingly but employed to great effect for transitions.
The look of Django Unchained is “more stylized than realistic,” said Richardson, who reached for a music metaphor to describe his take on the film. “To me it’s akin to a brilliant rock and roll concert or an album where you can weave together Neil Young, Bob Dylan with the Who and Creedence Clearwater – there’s some of all that there,” he noted.
“Most of the films out this year have had a more realistic approach to lighting, but I didn’t have to do that,” said Richardson. “It’s not what Quentin wanted.” One example is the beautiful burnished look of the film’s centerpiece sequence in the ornate dining room of the Candyland mansion – the plantation home of Calvin Candie, the cruel slave owner played by Leonardo DiCaprio – an ironic contrast to the cruelties that unfold. “With very little daylight coming in, the primary lighting is from candles and gas lamps,” he observed. “I was looking for the softest light I could find to give it that glow.”
The film’s critically acclaimed visual appearance derives in part from Tarantino’s decision to shoot in 35 mm anamorphic, creating the wide-screen format of classic Westerns. The trade-off came in constraints when shooting the numerous low-lit scenes, from a campfire setting to a nighttime ride by Klan-like vigilantes carrying torches. “Night scenes were extraordinarily difficult to do because we were shooting anamorphic on 400-500 film stock,” noted the DP, offering little tolerance in making adjustments to the minimal lighting. “Whether you push film at that speed or not, there is always the possibility of a shipwreck.”
The demanding shoot lasted six months and stretched across many outdoor locations from Southern California to the South along with a stint on sets in a New Orleans studio. Filming began outside Los Angeles on Melody Ranch, known for providing the setting for hundreds of Westerns including Stagecoach and High Noon. The next stop was the nearby Big Sky Ranch, followed by Lone Pine, just outside Death Valley, which over the years had hosted shoots for classics like Bad Day at Black Rock High Sierra. Because of a lack of snow in Mammoth, a California ski area, filming shifted to Jackson, Wyoming where the Grand Tetons provided the backdrop for the film’s winter scenes, followed by a move to the historic Evergreen Plantation an hour outside the Big Easy.
Filming at the iconic locations resonated emotionally with Richardson. “It was amazing to be at Melody Ranch or Lone Pines and to trespass on sites where so many films I’ve seen were made,” he observed. “I felt influenced not so much in terms of style but in terms of the heart and our attachments as artists or craftsmen.”
What’s the atmosphere like on a Tarantino shoot? “It’s jocular, and there’s an element of being able to loosen up, but it’s also very serious,” said the DP. “Everyone involved is of a very high caliber, and Quentin asks a great deal from everyone. His passion is explosive, volcanic and without question his most endearing aspect is to have others working on the film love what they’re doing as much as he does.”
In addition to Tarantino, Richardson has collaborated repeatedly with two other notable directors, Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese. Out of seven nominations, the DP has won three Academy Awards – for Stone’s JFK (1992) and for two Scorsese films, The Aviator (2004), a biographical story about eccentric movie mogul Howard Hughes, and last year for the fantastical CGI-laden Hugo, Richardson’s first time working exclusively with a digital camera. (The Oscar hat-trick puts him in the rare company of only two other directors of photography who have achieved that honor, Conrad Hall and Freddie Young).