Famous for his collaborations with Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, cinematographer Robert Richardson this year received his ninth Oscar nomination for his work on Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. The nom is helping to fly the flag for the pic, which saw Tarantino snubbed in the writing and directing categories. This came as quite a disappointment for Richardson, who considers the film a triumph in storytelling and one of the best of the filmmaker’s storied career. Fresh off the production of Ben Affleck’s period crime drama Live By Night, Richardson discussed the Tarantino-Disney screen controversy, Tarantino’s pop sensibilities, working in defunct formats, and the cinematographer’s postproduction contributions.
Three of your last four nominations were Tarantino films, yet his films so often seem to be disregarded by the Academy.
I have to say that I was personally disappointed that the film itself didn’t get more recognition, for its directing, for writing, for acting, for editing. It surprised me. I’m not entirely certain why that is because it clearly is an exceptionally well-made film. Most of all, it surprised me that it didn’t get a nomination in the Best Film category. I personally felt it’s one of the best films he’s made. I think, from a directorial standpoint, he created an incredible story—you’ve heard it described as part Agatha Christie, but this idea of being within a small space and letting the characters reveal piece by piece—he did a phenomenal job telling that tale.
Quentin was famously, majorly disillusioned with Disney’s decision to push The Hateful Eight out of the Cinerama Dome in order to screen Star Wars: The Force Awakens in yet another theater. We haven’t heard much from Quentin in the aftermath.
I found out pretty much when everyone else found out. From what I gather, it might’ve been decided prior to the premiere, but people didn’t want to discuss it with Quentin. They did discus it after the premiere. This has been the one place he wanted to put the film. I’m not going to say this was something directed at Quentin, but I will say that if he had that screen for two or three weeks, I believe that Star Wars would’ve survived elsewhere.
Do you think this all hurt The Hateful Eight?
I think it hurt Quentin, emotionally. I believe that the director of the ArcLight, and everyone else should’ve stood by and honored Quentin and the commitment they had made to him a great deal prior. I don’t know exactly what the pressure was to have ArcLight pull it from there, but it’s sad that it had to happen, but it did, and the film moved on.
You’ve spoken in the past about Quentin’s pop sensibility and the way he uses saturated colors, which speaks to your work together on Hateful, as well.
There’s nobody else quite like him in the business in this country. I think you might find a bit of this in Japanese or Korean films, in terms of the use of color, but I embrace it wholeheartedly. Quentin is violent—there’s no doubt about it, but it’s also part of the beauty. This particular film, because of the use of 70mm as a final release format, did provide a remarkable saturation level and a hue, overall, from the lenses, which I have found impossible to achieve in the past. It’s not monochromatic by any stretch, and for me, there is almost a sensibility of what Kodachrome can do with reds, with a quality to the negative that has a velvet feel. And the blacks are remarkable in their density without forcing an inherent contrast into the digital intermediate.
The lenses on Hateful Eight were out of use since Khartoum in 1966 and had to be engineered for modern camera technology—how far does your technical knowledge go when it comes to all that?
I’m not a hugely technical individual, and I obviously have a fair amount of knowledge from my experience, but when it came to these lenses, most of my input came in the manner of the feeling of what this lens is giving me. If pieces of it have to be rebuilt, I don’t want it to become something that’s sharp and modern. I’d like to keep the old quality of the lens. In terms of altering them for follow focus and such, that’s really in the hands of others. Where I would discuss, I would say, “We need to have something that can focus at such a distance, and I’d rather pull one of these lenses up for close focus, and I’m going to throw the other 50 into something that has more infinity.” Those kinds of adjustments were made, but in reality, Dan Sasaki and Gregor Tavenner were primarily responsible for that technical movement of those lenses into a contemporary setting.
You found a lot of pleasure in working with a previously defunct format for The Hateful Eight—having just wrapped production on Ben Affleck’s Live By Night, I’m wondering how the experience compares, in that regard.
Live by Night, we’re shooting with the Arri Alexa 65mm in combination with vintage 65 lenses from Panavision, and I’m finding that to be a superb experience, unlike what I just went through with film. It’s vastly different. Obviously, it’s digital, but it has been an eye-opener, in terms of the clarity you can get from digital, but also because of the lensing—the softness that you can still create on a face.
Having loved the technological revival aspect of Hateful Eight’s production, were you equally excited about the way the film has revived the roadshow format, with its own overture and intermission?
I love the intermission. The other day, I went to a print at the DGA and it was like silk. It was just perfectly projected, and it was such a pleasure to see the changeovers done with perfection and to see an audience that was completely into it, laughing at the right times and even laughing when you had these ghastly, bloody moments of violence fully within it, fully within the movie…
Do you share the frustration of a lot of cinematographers, in terms of the various ways in which the image can be corrupted in the theater or on alternate viewing formats?
Of course it’s frustrating. I think that the truth of the matter is, it’s the future. You have to acknowledge the future, or at least what the present is. One hopes that the iPhone, the iPad will not be the majority of the way that films are being viewed, but from what I gather from recent numbers, it made it very clear that these devices are a way that a lot of people are viewing their films.
It’s not as if the language of cinema has altered tremendously to adhere to a small format. You’re not seeing less wide shots, or at least I haven’t calculated enough films to see whether there are more close-ups in current work than there were two or three years ago to try to fit more into this. But it’s interesting—the films that I’ve been watching, I’m seeing virtually the same number, or perhaps it’s akin to when you haven’t seen someone for many years and they come by, and you go, “Oh my God, what happened? You don’t look at all like I recall.” Maybe I’ve been growing up with all these films and watching so many films that I don’t necessarily see the change because it’s been a part of my life, day to day.
You’re a perfectionist in your work and typically abstain from watching your films once they’re out in the world. At this stage in your career when you’re considered a master of the craft, are there still quirks or flaws in your work that you would like to be rid of?
There’s not a film I can look at that I don’t find my flaws immediately, and it doesn’t matter what movie. I was, just this afternoon, looking at material from Live by Night, and I’m going, “Oh my Lord, why did I make that decision? How did I make that decision? I need to fix that. I have no way to fix it.” So I’m constantly trying to adjust and calibrate to become a better director of photography and create better images. I’m never happy, and especially because it’s so close to me right now, it’s even more frustrating to think that I just finished that and I’ve made those errors.
Where are you in the process with Live By Night?
With Live by Night, we just finished shooting on Monday night. We finished the dailies and I did a little work on trying to prepare some examples to sit with Ben (Affleck). Now that we have sequences in our hands that are not finished cuts, but they’re loosely finished, to look at a few minutes from some of those and to move towards a lookup table, to utilize lookup tables that we originally created for our tests, and now applying them and trying to refine them, and then to get Ben’s point of view on how to further advance them prior to his departure to Europe for the next film he’s doing.
For me now, it ends until they do a cut, and there may be moments where something’s asked to take a look at for a cut that he creates. My involvement pretty well comes to an end until they finish previewing and get ready to actually complete it as a final film.
What were some of the challenges specific to this film?
When you shoot a period film, there can be a precious attitude towards period, and I didn’t, nor did Ben, want to get caught in being precious about a period—to treat it from a more contemporary point of view. That’s a constant challenge, that you don’t get enamored with cars, or costumes, or this or that. These things are sitting in front of you, and yes, you could make them look beautiful, but we try very hard to keep a modern sensibility to it.
Is there ever a sense early on, even in production, that a film is going to be something special?
He’s created a very interesting environment and fantastic characters. I have a strong feeling this will be a very good film, but I am knocking on wood so I don’t jinx that one. Too early to put a mandate.