Cinematographer Taking a Break from a Career Culminating in Kill Bill, Vol. 1
By Jack Egan
Robert Richardson, ASC is arguably one of the most capable, passionate and artful cinematographers working today. His dazzle was on view in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol 1, with a sequel ready for the New Year. He just finished shooting The Aviator for Martin Scorsese. Richardson’s past films range from Platoon and J.F.K. (he’s done a total of 11 films with Oliver Stone) to The Horse Whisperer, Wag the Dog and Four Feathers. Richardson gave this rare interview to Below the Line.
Below the Line: Word is that on Kill Bill, Vol. 1 you enthusiastically immersed yourself in martial arts, chop-socky genre films. Had you been a fan of this genre before?
Richardson: Yes, I was. But Quentin is a lover, I am but a fan. I became a pawn in his hand. A willing student, I will add.
BTL: What were challenges in merging CGI with your shooting? In the climactic House of Blue Leaves segment, it appeared seamless.
Richardson: It was virtually seamless is because there was very little CGI. Quentin does not respond well to computer-generated images. Hence in most cases we worked “old school”—in other words, in camera. CGI was necessary for the removal of wires. That is a relatively easy task compared with the set-up time for flying the actors in in the first place. Whenever possible we attempted to do the creative tricks, such as the nails to head, in camera. Quentin believes an audience recognizes and is influenced by that which is not real. For this film he is, without question, correct.
BTL: Talk about the extreme close-ups on the eyes of the Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu characters.
Richardson: Eyes. Expression. Quentin understands that there is great virtue in the dignity of expression. Eyes are windows. Eyes are mirrors. Truth sits evident. [Director] Sergio Leone stepped deeply into this well. Yet Leone, in my opinion, never had such beautiful eyes to look upon. We were fortunate. And Quentin took full advantage. The close-ups were less my battle then [key first assistant cameraman] Gregor Tavenner’s. I had it easy compared to the issue of holding focus.
BTL: Is the sequel Kill Bill: Vol. 2 more influenced by Leone’s Fistful of Dollars spaghetti western?
Richardson: Vol. 2 uses the western landscape to a greater extent than Vol. 1, so if that implies it’s more influenced by Fistful of Dollars, then, yes it is. But in my mind the degree of influence of one genre or another has been vastly exaggerated in the various reviews. Kill Bill is a startling vision all of its own. What Quentin utilizes for inspiration is his own business and we are all lucky that he has been willing to share to the degree he has.
BTL: What was your entrée into cinematography? Any film school background?
Richardson: I first became interested in cinematography while attending Rhode Island School of Design. Slowly I realized that when I held a camera a chemical release took place within my brain. A calmness and serenity washed me into a state that contained great focus. That interest led me to the American Film Institute where I became a cinematography fellow. Following AFI, I began shooting various documentaries and was introduced, over a period of years, to shooting second unit on a few independent films. Repo Man was the most exceptional of the experiences.
BTL: Do you feel you have a signature style? I sense an amazing eclecticism. Does it depend on the director with whom you are working?
Richardson: Eclectic indeed. Perhaps that is my signature style. I will leave that for you to answer. As regards directors, yes, my style, the quality of my work, is strongly dependent upon the union, with the director I’m working with…
BTL: How did you first hook up with Oliver Stone? What explains your long association?
Richardson: I worked on a documentary that filmed in El Salvador during the height of U.S. involvement. It was funded through PBS and Channel 4 in London. The film was executed as a daily journal of sorts, contrasting El Salvador’s government forces, including the death squads and military, with the guerillas. The blood-stained experience of shooting in El Salvador pried me open. I had been living like an ostrich. Eyes closed. World events passed without serious observance. Time passed. Nine months. The documentary led to an introduction to Oliver for his film Salvador. Eleven films have risen beneath us since then. When you ask what explains the long association, I have one response: Oliver’s incredible facility. His mind, his words, his vision. Beyond that, and perhaps most importantly, we grew together as brothers. Quite simply, I love Oliver.
BTL: The critics weren’t very kind to Four Feathers, which you did in 2001 with director Shekar Kapur. But it was a sweep of cinematography—from the early pageantry to the desert scenes. Did you enjoy doing a costume epic?
Richardson: I understand the critics. As to the sweep of the cinematography—I apologize. Of what value is visual beauty if not aligned with the word? Yet that being said, the experience of filming Four Feathers was a consuming affair, an affair of great passion. Immersion is vital to me, so I have remorse that the filmed version of Four Feathers failed to leave a lasting footprint.
BTL: Talk about your use of backlighting in Four Feathers to establish atmosphere.
Richardson: Daylight is not always a tender lover. In my mind, backlight is one of the central keys to success regarding day exteriors where weather is often inconsistent. With direct light, if the sky suddenly shifts to overcast there will be issues of matching. If a scene continues to shoot into the later hours of the day, the color temperature shifts towards a warmer hue at first and eventually towards cool. Backlight can again be of service in the attempt to match shot to shot. In Four Feathers we shot through the magic hour in order to avoid vast night exteriors
BTL: You finished The Aviator in late November with Martin Scorsese. What was most unusual, challenging for you in shooting this film?
Richardson: The Aviator was my third round with Marty. I also worked with him on Casino and Bringing out the Dead. On first read the script sails with ease. On second read the immensity of scale becomes increasingly obvious. The public life of Howard Hughes is virtually mythological and the private life of Hughes borders on pathological. The combination makes for a superb cocktail. Visually the film traipses briefly through a Victorian-style childhood, then to Hollywood in the roaring 20’s up to the late 40’s. Developing a cinematic grammar that best represented each time period and blending a series of visual styles corresponding to the various eras was the most difficult challenge. Under Marty’s leadership we focused on the historical development of color in cinema. For the 20’s we worked to emulate the two-strip color process and gradually moved to British three-color and then three-strip Technicolor. We concluded the picture with a contemporary feel.
BTL: How did the shoot go and how long did it take? How disruptive was the change of location due to the Southern California fires?
Richardson: The shoot went smoothly. We began in Montreal and after approximately two-thirds of the picture was photographed, we moved to Los Angeles. In all we shot for about 90 days. We were on schedule. The fires did in fact destroy a set, but [production designer] Dante Ferretti quickly regrouped with a new location and the set was reconstructed. We lost better than a day due to the fires.
BTL: What’s your next project?
Richardson: At this time I have no project lined up. I have worked for two-and-a-half years straight. No time down. I have recently lost, through divorce, my marriage. It is difficult to discuss conventional morality with me when the discussion revolves around film. I lack the skills of self-preservation when the camera is in my arms. She is my great love. So now the time to detach is here. Mouth gaping, I need distance and sight. I have lost perspective.