Robert Richardson is not only one of the best cinematographers working today, he’s also one of the closest collaborators of one of the best writer-directors in history. Richardson has worked with Quentin Tarantino on five films now, dating back to Kill Bill, but their latest collaboration is one of their most satisfying yet. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes place over the course of three days in 1969 and follows the lives of a fading TV actor named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), his laid-back stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and shining star Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie)—Rick’s next-door neighbor.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood brings 1969 Los Angeles to life in a way that feels vibrant and vivacious, but it’s also a deeply intimate story of these three characters. Richardson’s cinematography at once evokes the epic promise of Hollywood, but also the personal triumphs—and failures—of those trying to make it. Along the way, Richardson and Tarantino delightfully capture life on a Western TV series set, evoke the spookiness of the Manson Family-filled Spahn Ranch, and go dark for a truly shocking (and ultimately touching) grand finale. The striking nature of images onscreen is a testament to both Richardson’s and Tarantino’s talents, but despite the varying locations and landscapes, all feel like pieces of a whole.
With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood now playing in theaters everywhere and continuing to rack up an impressive box office tally on the heels of positive reviews, I recently got the chance to speak with Richardson at length about his work on the film. During our wide-ranging conversation he discussed his close working relationship with Tarantino, how they nearly shot all the Lancer scenes in 70mm, the way in which they approached the film’s driving scenes and Spahn Ranch, working with DiCaprio and Pitt, shooting the scene where Sharon goes to the movies, and much more. Richardson also spoke about Tarantino’s retirement as we commiserated over the filmmaker’s potential exit, and he talked a bit about what drew him to sign on to shoot Venom 2 with director Andy Serkis.
It’s a wide-ranging discussion that’s made all the more insightful by Richardson’s candor and genuine passion for film and filmmaking. Check out the full interview below.
You’ve worked with Quentin a number of times now, but I was kind of curious what your initial conversations were about what does the film look like?
BOB RICHARDSON: Well, early on we also talked about Rolling Thunder, and the look of Rolling Thunder, which Jordan Cronenweth shot, and we utilized it as, “I would like my blacks to be this black,” with one sequence. I don’t know if you remember the film, but William Devane, there’s a sequence inside the kitchen and it’s rather gruesome, but the blacks there were raised as an issue in terms of “I’d like to have this darkness and yet make it feel natural.” So that was one of the first things we talked about specifically, in terms of the final sequences of Once Upon a Time. As to the rest of the film, initially he was undecided whether we would shoot it for 70mm, or part of the sequences in 70, and then the rest in 35, and it all ended up going 35mm with what he described as a retro look but yet feeling contemporary.
Why did you decide not to go 70mm?
RICHARDSON: Well, I think that we decided—first of all he needed zooms for the sequences. He was thinking, for him the primary sequence would have been what is Lancer. So that we would have shot in 70, and then as he went through and developed a shot list—because that was quite early in the process in which we initially started talking about the movie—he felt, “Okay, I need a zoom so that takes us out of 70 no matter what,” so we dropped it.
That makes sense. You guys have worked together a number of times. I was kind of curious how the experience of making this film was either different or similar to your experience on other Quentin projects?
RICHARDSON: I mean, in a similar sense that you’re working with the same director, a lot of the same team around, his methodology hasn’t altered through the years in which I’ve worked with him from Kill Bill till now. He doesn’t leave the set. All of those aspects of being very close to the camera, never leaving, and keeping a happy set existed in this film. I think the difference is that our relationship has shifted from something that was more at a distance as we learned each other in Kill Bill, and by now we both know and trust each other implicitly. I think we have grown together as a creative family, getting closer and closer. So this is the closest experience I’d had with Quentin from all the other films. I mean, it just for some reason has shifted in the last two films, closer and closer, Hateful Eight and this.
I think part of that is the loss of Sally Menke, who was his primary collaborator and extraordinarily important to him, and that was a tragic death. Somehow I think I partially have filled a bit of the void of Sally. You can’t replace Sally, it’s a very long relationship, but I think he sees my relationship with him as something which is akin to that, although not at the same level.
Well it’s a fruitful relationship to be sure. I’ve really enjoyed watching that relationship evolve. If you look at the films you can tell it’s the same filmmaker, and it’s obviously shot by you, but there is a bit of a different style to them all that I enjoy.
RICHARDSON: Yeah, I think that Quentin has… I don’t know what it is, but he just feels emboldened. There’s really nothing he can ask me to do that I won’t make happen one way or another. He’s become extraordinarily confident in his work. I think it’s clear as you watch each film, whether it’s Reservoir all the way to this point, you can see his directorial skills. I mean Hateful Eight is a masterpiece in terms of what he did with actors in a small space, just remarkable work and under-appreciated, I believe. And this film is a fly. I mean, it’s just such a beautiful film because it feels as if you are literally surfing Los Angeles.
Well, and to that point, one of my favorite sequences or number of sequences in the film are the driving scenes. You just feel like you’re flying down these streets. I was wondering if you could kind of talk to the approach to those scenes. Because obviously Quentin served as DP on Death Proof, but there’s something about these driving scenes that feels different and energetic and kind of really puts you in it.
RICHARDSON: Well, I think they’re not shot in a way which you would have done on Death Proof or something like that, but what you do have is the underlying score of the film. The music playing from KHJ just gives you this momentum in all those sequences. He has so brilliantly aligned the image with the music that… I mean it’s one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in the longest time because I’m constantly put into the exact time period of ’69, number one, but I just feel as if I’m grounded and he gives me the energy in which to experience that scene from the music, which is coming right off the radio. So of course all those sequences are in my mind, about why they have that sense of freedom that you’re talking about.
And of course we were very free. We just shot the best we could and gave it as much energy as possible. When Brad was driving, Brad drove fast; he’s not driving slow. He’s got this sensibility. He’s very competent at the wheel, and we had a very competent driver with the car. So we would push it a little further in terms of letting the camera find its space. Quentin was specific like, “Come about, come around, behind,” etc. etc. But I think that’s one of the reasons it has that level of freedom, is primarily due to the music.
I also just think the way it’s shot. I mean, I agree with you, the music is a huge part of why it works, but I mean specifically the sequence where we follow Brad’s character home on that first night. I just love the way that feels.
RICHARDSON: I do too. There’s a sense of freedom in it. It’s just like you’re just rocketing down the streets. It’s just that sense of freedom he wanted and we pushed very hard to achieve it. That’s a lot of work when you think about, those backgrounds aren’t CG backgrounds, but yet he’s not focusing on those backgrounds either.
I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about working with Brad and Leo. I mean, when you cast actors as famous as they are in a movie about Hollywood movie stars, obviously there’s something the audience is going to bring to it. I think that works in the film’s favor, but it’s just so incredible to see these shots where you just have two of the biggest movie stars on the planet together in the same shot.
RICHARDSON: Well, I can definitely talk to that. I also think there’s a third component in that, which is not only do we have Leo and Brad and Margot, but we also have Quentin. Because his public following is so strong in terms of his films, everyone sort of knows where Quentin’s going, or they think they know where Quentin’s going. So you have that element that’s on top of Leo and Brad, which was an absolute joy and will be impossible to duplicate that again. Will not happen, especially with a script this full of life. I mean we’ve talked about it before, but it is sort of a very similar world to The Sting or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. When you put Paul Newman and Robert Redford together, I think Leo and Brad are very much this generation’s very finest stars. It was remarkable to have that. I feel so lucky, so fortunate that I’d be able to shoot them together.
Their friendship just kind of drips off the screen, too. That’s not something that’s super easy to accomplish.
RICHARDSON: No. When you have a relationship in a movie between a man and a woman or a man and a man, whatever it is, even if it isn’t sexual, if they don’t have the chemical element, then it doesn’t work. You can feel when love doesn’t work on a screen just as you can feel with a friendship. This friendship works extraordinarily well on a screen because they clearly were at ease with each other and had been doing this in a similar way for so many years. Both of them started in Hollywood at a very young age, they moved up through it, they’ve had huge levels of experience. To me, whenever you saw them sitting together, it felt like two guys just hanging out at a house. They just were totally comfortable and then they perform and it’s just remarkable. It’s like, why? Why is this working so fucking well? I don’t actually have an answer to it, but it was magical.
I love the scene where they watch FBI together.
RICHARDSON: Yeah, they were great together.
There’s a big Western element to this. Obviously Quentin with Hateful Eight and Django really got into a groove with Westerns and it’s kind of like he almost makes his third Western inside of this movie, specifically with Lancer. But I was wondering if you could talk about shooting those sequences, shooting Bounty Law and stuff, and then the decision to present Lancer as if it’s part of the film.
RICHARDSON: Well, I can talk about the fact that when we tried to shoot the Bounty Law material, we went back to Steve McQueen and looked at his films. Basically we tried to emulate them, to a degree, although I think it’s clearer or sharper, which is where the sort of modern element on the retro goes. So we did shoot in black and white. We lit it in a similar way, I use hard lights, things I wouldn’t ordinarily do in a sequence, to try to get underneath the hats and such. That differed substantially from the way we shot Lancer. I did see Lancer of course, but I also watched Alias Smith and Jones, which was rather influential in terms of the attitude. If you’ve seen that, I think you will see a comparison that will make sense to you in terms of the attitude within Lancer.
Then you’re absolutely right, the only introduction you really have to Lancer, initially, is the walk to the set from the trailer and a bit of it in the background when they arrive initially, but once you start the scene you’re in the movie. And I do believe this was Quentin’s desire, just as you have noted, to be his next Western. And we were willing to make more of it and that’s why we talked about it initially possibly being 70mm, but decided in the long run it wouldn’t work. But I did like the way that it’s a movie within a movie, because you are within the characters and then suddenly it’s, “Line, line, line.” That is such a brilliant break. Anyway, I think that’s where Quentin’s genius is.
Yeah, it’s fantastic. What I also really like about it, though, is that you have Rick on this Western TV show set and you contrast that with Cliff at Spahn Ranch, where he’s literally in danger. I was wondering if you could kind of talk about the shooting of the Spahn Ranch scenes. It gets really spooky and kind of terrifying.
RICHARDSON: Well, that was the entire goal, to sort of initially step into this as a large, empty vacant space for him. It’s not until you cut to the interior where all the family is lying down watching television that you get a sense that they’re watching, they want to know who he is, and then it becomes more about, “All right, he’s here. He seems to be okay.” And then he, meaning Brad, starts to push the buttons up, “Is that where George lives?” We move that direction with them, and as you moved, the thought pattern between Quentin and I—well, really Quentin—was that as you move toward it you begin to feel that the family’s starting to circle around, worried. And they push that attitude further and further till you end up with mama bear right there with Dakota [Fanning] and it’s like, “I’m going in that door,” and they go in that door.
Then we kind of shifted the lighting into something which we didn’t use anywhere else, which is a bit more horror film. One spot for him to hit the light just before he goes down the hallway, then darkness in the hallway. Silhouette at the end. We played more in the horror genre than we did anywhere else in the movie. As you know, the whole scene with Bruce is that you don’t know when he opens that door what we’re going to find. And then exiting, of course, it’s ratcheted at a higher level than it was before. And that was his goal, and I think he really succeeded extremely well. Particularly in a sequence where the guy that has stuck the knife into the tire upon exit, and that movement between slow motion and normal speed, gives it even more power.
I love the scene where Brad’s just strolling back to his car and he’s just being yelled at by all these hippies.
RICHARDSON: And also Margaret [Qualley].
Oh she’s so good.
RICHARDSON: When she’s up on the car, like Wicked Witch of the West, you know? Hand pointed out. I really loved that little piece. I mean she is amazing in the movie. And Austin Butler too.
Everyone’s so good in this movie. One sequence that everyone seems to be talking about, and is one of the best parts of the film, is where Sharon goes and watches The Wrecking Crew, which is this really wonderful, touching sequence. I was wondering if you could kind of talk about the construction of that scene, because I saw Quentin said recently there was maybe some pushback on including it.