With Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, his sixth film with Quentin Tarantino, cinematographer Robert Richardson sought to capture ‘60s Los Angeles in all its glory, filtered through the auteur’s singular aesthetic, as well as his childhood memories.
Following a frustrated television actor struggling to make his transition to features and his loyal stunt double, the starry pic often lingers on the world behind the scenes of Hollywood’s Golden Age, featuring recreations of real television series of the era—including Lancer and Hullabaloo—the fictional Bounty Law, as well as bits of cinematic wizardry that place Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton in well-known dramas, like John Sturges’ The Great Escape.
Balancing the overarching aesthetic of Once Upon a Time with that of each of these productions, Richardson wound up shooting with a handful of cameras and many more lenses, on Super 8, 16 and 35mm, daunted by the question of whether all these formats would gel together nicely in the final film.
Tapping into the cinematic grammar of the various projects Tarantino was examining, while honing a fitting look for those that don’t exist, the DP was put through his paces with this ambitious piece, finding it in the end “an absolute joy” that was “absolutely unique.”
While the challenges of bringing Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood to the screen were many, the biggest challenge for Richardson was one he’s faced on every film he’s shot to date. “Every time I start a film, I feel the same degree of fear. When you shoot [on] film particularly, there’s a greater fear that exists within me,” the DP says. “It’s like, did I get the right exposure? I don’t have high-definition monitors telling me, Oh, that’s right. You’ve got it perfect. There’s nothing there. It’s you doing it with your [light] meter, just believing that what you’re doing is at the level you need it to be.”
Speaking with Deadline, Richardson offers his insights into the process of photographing Tarantino’s latest, as well as his feelings about losing his closest collaborator, with the auteur’s impending retirement from directing.
DEADLINE: What were your first impressions when Quentin Tarantino approached you for Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood?
ROBERT RICHARDSON: Well, he told me very little about the project until he asked me to come by and read it. I was sort of in the dark. I had been told it had something to do with the time period and the shifts between generational movies—in other words, from studio system to the Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas, De Palma world. So, I had really no previous information and no opinion whatsoever until I went and read the script at his house.
DEADLINE: What was that first read like?
RICHARDSON: Highly stimulating, to say the least. You know, I’m in the room with Quentin, and Quentin’s watching me the entire time I’m reading, and I was taking notes, because so much of the information within the script was about music, was about actors I didn’t know, about television series I was unfamiliar with. It was just a tremendous amount to absorb. So, I laid down notes as I read the script, and he never left the room.
I was reading at the dining room table, and he was in the living room, and he would glance periodically towards me to see, what level of response did I have? And it was quite remarkable, honestly. It was an extraordinarily well written script, as everything I’ve read by Quentin is, and I was just deeply, deeply locked in—and eventually, I just lost him, as a human being in the room. I was in the script.
The only issue that came up when I finished the script [is] I said, “Wait a minute, where’s the last act?
DEADLINE: Tarantino was watching you the entire time? This must have been a three- or four-hour read.
RICHARDSON: Yes, it was. [Laughs] That’s the intimidating factor of Quentin. Quentin had no problem watching me for three hours. I had a problem thinking, Dude, this is weird that you’re watching me read this. And at the same time, I thought, you know what? I don’t have an issue. I’ve known Quentin for way too long now. There’s not really a barrier that I feel I wouldn’t be willing to be put to task with, because Quentin’s become someone that’s perhaps the closest collaborator I’ve been with in many, many years.
I mean, Oliver [Stone] was obviously an extremely close collaborator. But Quentin has become that for me, and another step. So, it was quite remarkable to be able to sit in the room and have him watching, because I have no problem being quite honest. So, if I didn’t like the script, he would’ve known it, you know? I couldn’t hide that; I wouldn’t try to hide that. But I loved the script, and the actors hadn’t even been picked at that point, so I was trying to imagine who might be in it. He had some names, and he had told me some of the names, but nothing had been locked.
DEADLINE: Reading the script, what stood out to you as exciting, in terms of what you might be able to do with the camera?
RICHARDSON: Well of course, to be able to deal in different time frames with different mediums—to go back and to have to deal with how television was shot. It was shot on film to do interviews for television, as well—as well as doing black-and-white material from earlier shows, basically with Leo [DiCaprio], and then later with Lancer. All of that was fascinating to me, and of course I knew very well the Polanski aspect, and the time period. I’ve been in that time period before, with The Doors, and the same [production] designer was on that, who was on this.
DEADLINE: It must have been much more logistically complicated to shoot out on location in Los Angeles for this film. Much has changed since the 1991 release of The Doors.
RICHARDSON: Yeah. I mean, there were a hundred locations or sets, somewhere around that number. It was very, very complex for me to shoot. The way in which we shoot now on many projects has shifted tremendously from only a few years ago, and that’s essentially the influence of digital, and also smartphones. The aesthetics have altered, and the manner of capture has altered.
There’s a tendency to create only with what is available, and when you go back to film, and you have to shoot film at a different ASA, you need to model it more, and you have to add to it more than you do now, when you deal with 800 to 1600, or whatever number ASA you want to shoot at, depending upon the gear. And the way in which you format, Quentin hasn’t changed. Quentin stays in that spot, where he’s directing every shot to be precisely what he sees in his head. That is really the great joy of making a movie with Quentin, is that he has a strong, strong mind towards what he has seen in his brain for years. He wants that put down; that’s what he wants, and that’s why we love Quentin.
DEADLINE: What did you discuss with Tarantino early on, in terms of an overarching aesthetic for Once Upon a Time? Obviously, he wanted to recreate ’60s LA with extreme precision.
RICHARDSON: First of all, it’s Quentin, as Quentin is in many films. He has certain things he likes to repeat. I think that for me, what we talked about was to have a color palette that was rich, that did not feel as if it was period, as if you would have gone back in the 1960s and put a sepia [filter over it]. There was no attempt to desaturate. The attitude had to be contemporary, full of color, but still in some way thread the needle towards a period of time that’s well known to everyone. We wanted it to feel not slick, not to fall into the path of that which is too polished, to leave something rough around the edges, yet not lose the quality of the way in which we shot, or lit, or acted—to not lose it, but to be mindful at all times of the time period we’re trying to capture, and to keep the freedom that was coming alive—but at the same time, holding onto the characters’ movement, particularly Leo’s slump, his falling from a height, and the fear of what it was not to find what he actually wanted, which was a feature career. Then, he may forever be extinguished from the world, in terms of a respect for his work, and yet you have Brad [Pitt] and Margot [Robbie], who keep a bright star burning everywhere, no matter what they’re going through.
That was the balance we tried to find, in the way we shot. Quentin, of course, juxtaposes Brad’s life, in a trailer with a dog, and yet he’s watching Mannix, and what a bright smile he has. It’s really a beautiful juxtaposition, and that was the complexity of shooting the movie, was to find a way to say something about each one that spoke separately to them—to allow the actors to shine, in the way they were telling their part of the story.
DEADLINE: This film had you shooting on several different kinds of cameras and a huge variety of lenses, in Super 8, 16 and 35mm. Have you ever shot with such a wide array of formats before for one single film?
RICHARDSON: Not with Quentin. Natural Born Killers is [similar], which is a Quentin script, so I guess that’s with Quentin to some extent—although he disowns that one. The script, that is…I don’t actually know. We’ve never really gone into a detailed conversation about that film. But of course, that was multiple formats, and so was JFK—and Nixon, as well. They’re just amazingly complex, in terms of how you thread that—even the work with Errol Morris.
It wasn’t the most I’ve ever done, but it was great with Quentin. He’s very specific. Quentin chose when to move to something, and it was for a specific reason. For NBK, with Oliver and myself, we went for something that was a bit more Jackson Pollock. JFK was extremely specific in why it’s used, what is used, and when it’s used, and in this case, it’s very similar. Why we used what we used, when we used it, is what it was all about. We could’ve gone another couple steps, but some decisions were made—like, 70mm was discarded, for reasons that were technical, primarily, and financial, to some extent.
DEADLINE: Could you break down how you applied certain formats to certain scenes—for example, those taking place on the sets of real television series of the ’60s, or the set of Bounty Law?
RICHARDSON: Well certainly, if you look at Bounty Law, it’s black and white, and it was shot on black-and-white film. And it was in 1.33, which is vastly different than [Once Upon a Time], which was shot in 2.40, or anamorphic scale. It wasn’t an anamorphic show, so you have that, and you have Super 8, which is again, a sort of 1.33 format home movie. [It was] complicated for some of that, but also getting film is more complicated now than it was before.
We had some issues with getting reversal stocks, and some failures in the stocks, and we did some 16mm shooting, as well. In some of those sequences, too, I was a bit afraid that the Super 8 would not work, so we duplicated some in 16. That 16 sequence, for example, by the pool, that’s in the movie, I shot on Super 8, and then I shot it on 16. Because I didn’t know what was going to happen to the stock, how long it was going to take—and if it came out, would it be strong enough, visually? It ended up being used as 16mm, but [when] the 16mm went into the lab, it broke while being developed, so what you see on the screen, which was very Stan Brakhage—these large scrapes and very odd detailing on the top of the celluloid—was because it sat in a tank for a vast amount of time, before they could get it out and remove it. And they were only able to retrieve essentially what you saw.
DEADLINE: Could you expand on the approach to other recreations—for example, the film’s recreation of Hullabaloo?
RICHARDSON: Hullabaloo, we did shoot with 35, in a spherical manner. We debated whether to shoot it on video, and chose to do it in 35, but the way we lit was as you would have lit a sequence like that—very flat light. And that is actually what makes it so interesting. We tried to make it look effortless—like, you don’t have to think about what that scene is, or how it was shot, because it doesn’t draw attention to itself. It just fits within the movie. The attempt on this film is to make it seamless. You shouldn’t be drawing attention to the imagery, or what’s difficult, or what’s not difficult. You shouldn’t be thinking about whether the camera actually went up over that roof, meeting Leo in the pool. It’s like, if you’re thinking about how we did the shot, then we made an error—and there are no visual effects there. It’s literally, the camera moves, and comes back from that distance, and we created that shot. I think that could have been take one or two.
It fell into place so easily, and I must say that the first time I did that in a rehearsal, before we brought the actors in, I was deeply surprised. Because I thought this was going to be a nightmare to achieve. But it’s such a strong crew that surrounds me, and all of the spirits of film were behind us on this movie. Whatever the reason is, we had very good karma, and everyone was moving at the same level, which is not often the case when making a film. It was amazing, the synchronicity.
DEADLINE: How did you approach the insertion of Leonardo DiCaprio into The Great Escape?
RICHARDSON: Obviously, the Steve McQueen aspect of The Great Escape was a challenge. Like, how do you introduce a character into a movie and make it feel as if he’s in that film? All of that is, you’re creating and trying to utilize movie language. We were sitting down with [Visual Effects Designer] John Dykstra to say, what do I do, and then evaluating, how do I light this? I’m looking at the shadows in the background of this actual sequence—“How do I create this look? What do you think they might have used?”—researching photographs to find out what you think they [did] behind the scenes. Any information we could get, we took, in order to be able to make that, and decide, what lens do you think they used at that time? Because it’s not going to match what lenses we’re utilizing in this time period. So, how do we get that so John doesn’t have difficulty tying Leo in?
John and I talked about it, and we came to a decision on a certain lens that seemed to be the most likely lens that would be the closest to that time period, and then lit it in a similar way, so that we feel as if it matched, based upon what we saw in the film that Sturges directed.
DEADLINE: How exactly did you arrive at your conclusion, as to the kind of lens they were probably using for the real scene from The Great Escape, and the kind of lens you should use to match that scene?
RICHARDSON: Well, you start with, what’s the size of the frame? How far apart are [the characters]? Does it seem to be a similar framing? Do you think they were on a zoom? No, I don’t think they were on a zoom; we were dealing with a prime lens. What prime lens did you think was best? Let’s look at the depth of field. They’re clearly lighting it from one side, yet probably using arcs. You can see when they had a cover over the set. So, [I was able to glean] a lot of information. It just took time and a few tests, to see whether or not it felt like the correct lens.
DEADLINE: What did the set for that recreation look like?
RICHARDSON: There was no set. We shot that in a parking lot with a green screen. It was the only way to do it, because you had to do a body replacement. You can’t replicate the background. We built a ramp for [DiCaprio], so it looked like he was moving in a certain way. It was all done to the specs of what the film was, [keeping] the general movement to see that it could replace properly, and stay within the perspective. Then, you had to take Steve McQueen out and rotoscope him in—or whatever they utilized for a technique to achieve that.
But it was more about coming to a conclusion of what was the best way to achieve it, and then what we would do is, as we looked at it, we would [say], “Oh, I think the camera was maybe three inches higher.” We’d play it back directly atop the other material in the original film to determine what height, so that you wouldn’t have this issue. Because Leo’s height versus Steve McQueen’s height is different in the first place.
DEADLINE: So much of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood takes place in cars. What kinds of techniques and technology did you employ to capture these moments?
RICHARDSON: We used primarily old-school mounts, suction cups, cameras on them—sometimes on trailers—because it allowed Quentin to have more conversation with the actors during the sequence, and a lot of free camera movement, as well, car-to-car. We tried to keep a freedom to that, which was actually quite a joy, because I hadn’t done that much car material. You know, I’ve always wanted to make a road movie. So for me, there were multiple tools utilized, from ordinary to more advanced, such as car-to-car, and you had to be in total sync with the driver, and the operator of the crane. We utilized contemporary elements to achieve what wouldn’t have been able to be done years ago in the same degree, or with the same degree of precision, now allowing for the element that we talked about earlier, which was to leave a rough edge on the sides.
DEADLINE: Having worked with Tarantino for so many years, how do you feel about his declaration that his next film will be his last?
RICHARDSON: I said to him, “I’m going to be terribly sad if you stop, but I understand that this is where you want to go in your career, and that you feel like at some point, you don’t want to make movies anymore.” I also respect him deeply, because if he feels he’s at the end of what might be his best work, you have to slide with that. I don’t want to step in the path of that, but I hate to lose somebody that I’ve loved collaborating with. Because it’s rare in our lives, [for] anyone in the business, to find someone that you deeply love and respect, and that creates at the level in which he’s creating, [with] a huge, massive fire within his belly and his mind. That is what we all want, as collaborators, [to work with those] at the very top of their form, who only are making it because they love it.