Robert Richardson is one of the greatest cinematographers who’s ever lived, full-stop. His versatility is matched only by his specificity, and it’s no surprise that he’s struck up a number of fruitful collaborations with some of cinema’s best filmmakers throughout the course of his career. Richardson initially honed his craft with director Oliver Stone on films like Salvador, Platoon, and JFK, then he struck up a tremendous relationship with Martin Scorsese that ranged from Casino to The Aviator, with the latter earning Richardson the Oscar for Best Cinematography. When Quentin Tarantino set out to craft a martial arts epic with Kill Bill, he rang up Richardson, and Richardson has shot nearly every one of Tarantino’s films since.
But Richardson also lends his talents to films from various other kinds of filmmakers, whether it’s Ben Affleck on Live by Night or Andy Serkis on Breathe. His latest effort is an exciting collaboration for an essential story: the drama A Private War. The film chronicles the true story of journalist Marie Colvin, who risked her life time and again to bring crucial stories to the limelight, specifically with regards to 2011’s Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. Rosamund Pike delivers a stunning performance as Colvin, and the film’s impact is direct and emotional thanks to director Matthew Heineman’s desire for truth in every frame. Indeed, A Private War marks Heineman’s narrative feature debut after helming critically acclaimed documentaries like Cartel Land and City of Ghosts, and it’s no surprise he turned to a wildly talented cinematographer like Richardson to serve as his DP on this important true-life story.
During my lengthy, wide-ranging conversation with Richardson, he discussed why he felt it was necessary to make this film, collaborating with Heineman on the director’s first narrative feature, how Heineman’s documentary-like approach led to spontaneous and emotional filmmaking, and much more. And since Richardson is currently in the midst of shooting Tarantino’s highly anticipated new film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, we discussed that film’s tone, working with Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and getting to shoot a Western TV series for the Hollywood-centric film. Richardson also reflected on his work on The Aviator and discussed his working relationship with Scorsese.
But our conversation began not by talking about new or even recent films, but about classic film, as I conducted the interview in the wake of the cancellation of FilmStruck, the beloved streaming service dedicated to classic film. Richardson, clearly a cinephile and film scholar, talked at length about why seeing classic films is important, and the interview is bookended by a larger discussion about FilmStruck and classic film.
I had an absolute blast talking about movies with this filmmaking legend, and I’m sure you’ll find his answers just as insightful and delightful as I did. Check out our full interview below. A Private War is now playing in limited release and expanding into more theaters this weekend.
Everyone’s been spotting all the old movie posters around Hollywood for Quentin’s film.
ROBERT RICHARDSON: (Laughs) Oh really? Which brings up a really sad subject: FilmStruck.
Oh yes, it’s terrible.
RICHARDSON: It’s horrible. First of all, I’m a lover of Criterion, and they’ve had a home, I put TCM on almost all the time, that comes out of a habit from Marty [Scorsese]. Because I’d walk into Marty’s trailers, and Turner Classic Movies would always be playing in his trailer, nonstop. For me, classic movies are classic movies. We need to learn from them. It’s ridiculous when you look at people today, they don’t even know what Citizen Kane is.
No. When I was growing up, Blockbuster was where I got my film education, but now that doesn’t exist. Everyone now grows up on Netflix. And if Netflix isn’t offering anything made before 2005, where are they going to find classic film? FilmStruck was one of the last places they could find it, and even then you had to convince them to get a subscription. It’s really sad and worrying. I feel like people just aren’t gonna have that breadth of knowledge coming up.
RICHARDSON: I think you’re right, unless you take a theoretical class in college, or in a high school or some form of education, you’re not going to get there. I remember when I took my theoretical classes at University of Vermont, it was Animal Crackers, Marx Brothers. Who has seen a Marx Brothers’ film here? I don’t go back to the Marx Brothers that often, but I certainly know their work. I don’t think people can tell me what The Conformist is.
Even something as simple as North By Northwest, you would think, that’s a very popular film. It’s just really frustrating, because I feel like no one’s gonna know where these techniques started, and how they evolved throughout film history. They’re just gonna take for granted, “Oh, that’s just a cliché that they do in these other movies.”
RICHARDSON: You’re exactly right. Take Notorious for example, some of the deep focus and the separation of that teacup. Masterful.
This is why I will always hold onto physical media, I still buy Blu-rays, I buy Criterions, because you just never know when that stuff’s gonna go away.
RICHARDSON: You’re absolutely right, I probably have a couple-thousand DVDs, I’m constantly buying them and I have multiples. I probably have three or four versions of every Melville film made, because I end up buying them wherever I am. Because they sit at home, and then I’m not at home, and now I’m sitting in London, and suddenly I want to watch Le Samourai. Okay, where is it?
Even the crumbling of the home video market, another source of film school for me was documentaries on the Blu-rays. Fincher’s Blu-rays were always packed with these really immersive documentaries and commentaries. Studios aren’t paying for that anymore. That also pains me, so that’s why Criterion is the last one left that’s giving you this breadth of knowledge.
RICHARDSON: I think you’re right, we need that. Criterion isn’t gonna go down, I think they have to find their own channel, they’re gonna have to find some way. I hope that some way to catalog within FilmStruck, becomes a part of—was it Warner that bought them?
Yeah. WarnerMedia, and then Warner is gonna launch their own streaming service next year. So I’m curious to see if they just put this back catalog on that service.
RICHARDSON: That would be wonderful, I hope Criterion finds a home somewhere. Because getting those films, most people don’t want to spend money on a Blu-ray. I’m no Quentin Tarantino, but I have a fair amount. Quentin’s insane.
He still has VHS’s, right?
It would be amazing if Criterion found a home on Netflix, just to open up that audience to a whole new world of film.
RICHARDSON: That’s a fantastic suggestion, I hope you’re right. It wouldn’t be bad if it went onto Amazon Prime, as well.
For sure. I just hope it finds a home somewhere, just because kids these days—I feel old saying that, but I truly think it’s troubling when streaming, which is how young people consume content now, doesn’t include classic film.
RICHARDSON: Often people have called and go, “Can you give me your 10 favorite films, so I can start watching?” 10? You want 10? I said, “I can’t do 10, I can rattle of 50, 60 films I think you should watch if you don’t have any knowledge of films.” I can start you off in the first 10 I’ll tell you need to watch immediately, but there’s so many, it goes on and on. Do you want to go into Godard? Do you want to do the French New Wave? Do you want to go back further, do you want to see Stroheim, do you want to see Sternberg? Where do you want to go? Do you want to go into Russia? Because we can go deep into Russia, I don’t even have to take you that deep, Tarkovsky, we can go on and on. Ivan’s Childhood, turn it on.
Even something as popular as Back to the Future, I’m starting to meet teenagers who have never seen Back to the Future.
RICHARDSON: I know, or who is Molly Ringwald?
RICHARDSON: What was Carrie? Try Carrie. Want to see a good horror film? Try Carrie.
RICHARDSON: De Palma at his best. Or if you want to play it really rough, head on down and see De Palma’s Scarface. It’s very contemporary, if it was put out today, it’d be amazing. Anyway. Well I’m glad we’re on agreement on this loss.
It’s a huge bummer, and I’m hoping it finds a new home, or some other outlet somewhere. All of us here at Collider were really bummed, we’ve been banging the drum about physical media for a long time. It’s strange times we’re living in.
RICHARDSON: Yes, they certainly are.
But now on topic, congratulations on A Private War. It’s a really harrowing film and your work in it is stellar.
RICHARDSON: Thank you very much. I didn’t go on this picture to try to create something that was, as you say, stellar. I went up because of the subject matter. You don’t take on a $10 million dollar film thinking you’re gonna shoot a brilliant film, you take a $10 million film and you hope somebody puts forth an amazing story that’s relevant. And particularly relevant at this very moment, unfortunately. It’s always a relevant tale, and that was my guiding instinct to take it, because I believed in Matt [Heineman] firmly. From Cartel Land to City of Ghosts, he’s a filmmaker that clearly will go to any length to tell a story.
How familiar were you with Marie’s story before you signed on?
RICHARDSON: I was aware of Marie and Martha Gellhorn, some of her work. Not extraordinarily familiar with her, obviously I became more so, but I’d read articles of hers. The Vanity Fair article I knew, but I didn’t know her intimately. I still don’t know her intimately. She’s written a fair amount, but I certainly am in a better position than I was at that time.
What were your early conversations with Matt about how the film should look like, and did that evolve once you got onto set, or once the film got completed?
RICHARDSON: When we first talked, it was by Skype, and we did a fair amount of conversing about documentaries. Everything from his work, to films by say, Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, which that was the real time period, to Wiseman. We talked a lot about documentaries. The principle reason we were doing that was because Matt wanted to approach the picture not that far removed from the way he would approach a documentary subject. Which for me was something I had somewhat played with earlier in my career, the first film I shot, which was Salvador. There was this verite concept, Oliver [Stone] in Salvador was not searching for a verite approach, Matt was looking for something verite. Very real.
That’s a path we started to walk down, and that conversation about documentaries, and the failure of feature films to actually portray in a naturalistic manner. That was the lead-in, and that didn’t alter, he and I were in complete agreement, and along with Sophie Becher who was the production designer, we all collided together and had similar thought patterns. We collected images, Matt would send his, I would send mine, and this would generally be photojournalists’ photographs from war, or images that struck us in a strong way emotionally. We shared those, that’s what led us further and further down the path until we had to do some storyboarding for sequences for the producers, and tried to keep it as real as possible, as naturalistic as possible.
That’s interesting to me, Matt coming from the world of documentaries, that he didn’t want to run away from documentaries with his first narrative feature, and instead wanted to embrace that.
RICHARDSON: I think it was a risk for him. And we talked at times, “Should we go with the Alexa 65 for certain sequences inside of London, like the awards’ ceremony?” In the long run, I have found that the digital intermediate process pretty much evens out; you don’t get a great shift in grain or lack of grain, or texture, unless you treat something previously very harshly. That wasn’t our attitude; we decided we wanted to stay true to the principle of a documentary approach in everything we shot. That’s what we did, and I tried to not to light the movie. Most of my work is hand-held, unless it’s the news, the awards’ ceremony and scenes such as those. But overall, we tried to keep the camera relatively loose. In London, we were more on sticks or dolly than we were anywhere else. But we did maintain that concept. The light should be invisible as much as possible. You shouldn’t be thinking about lighting, I didn’t try to light the sequences.
That’s something that was really striking to me. It gives us this really naturalistic beauty, especially to the exterior scenes.
RICHARDSON: The truth in there is that those sequences, it was a 37 day shoot, or 38, or 36, you don’t choose your light. It’s akin to the way LA, straight up, you get up at 9:30, 10:00, you’re sitting in noon light until 2:00 or 3:00, and it starts to seemingly start to drop. A lot of our shooting was midday, the only way to be able to accomplish a number of scenes, and your hope is that you can maneuver the sequence towards something that could be consistent over the length of a day, because there’s so much to cover.
One of the things that I thought was really striking as well, is when you’re covering Marie when she’s in these gun fights, gun battles, the camera’s behind her, and she’s leading the charge. It really underlines the fact that she was risking her life for this, but she wasn’t timid about it, she was gonna get what she needed. Was that conscious in your minds at all, because it does feel documentary-like?
RICHARDSON: A cameraman in a war situation such as that doesn’t lead somebody, they follow. You don’t know where they’re going, so you’re gonna follow them, whether you’re at war or wherever you are, you’re following the action generally. Unless you’re sitting in the car or in a house or whatever it might be, but generally in war, you’re following your subject, you’re not leading them. You may be able to photograph other aspects of that particular scene or such and such, but in this particular case it was one woman, and of course Jamie along beside her. We followed them.
Another thing I’m curious about, because having seen Matt’s other films, he’s been in actual firefights himself, did that first hand experience manifest itself in his approach in any way?
RICHARDSON: Yeah, he’s very much attuned to everything. I’m not gonna say OCD, but he is extremely particular about every aspect of what’s in front of the camera. He does not want something to feel unreal. If it feels unreal for a moment, he removes it or corrects it. So of course shooting, having shot under situations like that, he did exactly that. He made sure that it felt as real as possible. I was early on doing a documentary in El Salvador, and I’ve been under fire before, so for me, I knew what I did then, so I felt very akin to him. I operated a great deal on the film, unless it was Shaun Cobley on steadicam, but we kept the same spirit, both of us, whether it was me or it was him.
That was akin to Matt’s delivery of how he would cover the sequence, if he could cover the sequence himself. He had to release that. He’s a cinematographer as well, he shoots his own films. That had to a bargain with the devil for him to be able to release it.
How was that working relationship then? Is that something you like out of a relationship with a director, when the director knows exactly what he or she wants? Or do you prefer the method of being left to your own devices, and crafting the shots and everything yourself?
RICHARDSON: I’ve learned over the years to be able to adapt to any of the situations that are there. When I worked with Oliver, we worked quite a bit with different methodologies. He knew what he wanted, I would put together ideas I wanted, particularly as the relationship grew and trust developed between us at a higher level. Then we would talk about it, more than likely my ideas would be scattered to the wind, but some would be picked up on. With Marty for example on Casino, which was my first film relationship with him, he handed over every single shot in a movie, which was a complete switch for me from any previous experience. John Sayles had done quite a bit, almost every shot, but was willing to have a conversation about shots, how to make them better or what might make it better, or if there was another alternative. But John basically knew, he was only gonna use the hitter and the run to first, and he never wanted to get to second, that was the end of the shot, because he was editing already in his head.