Robert Richardson
© Robert Richardson

Robert Richardson: “I try to be a chameleon”

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Short Profile

Name: Robert Richardson
DOB: 27 August 1955
Place of birth: Hyannis, Massachussetts, USA
Occupation: Cinematographer

Mr. Richardson, you have had long-term working relationships with Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino. What would you say is most important in the dynamic between a director and his cinematographer?

I believe respect is the most important ingredient in a relationship of this nature, particularly when situations are extremely difficult, as they can often be in filming a motion picture. The stress levels are so high that to have similar thought patterns as to how the world moves is a benefit. And I believe that loyalty is vital as well, a deep sense of loyalty. But when two people come together there’s a chemistry which inevitably takes place whether either one of you are specifically aware of it.

You once said, “I would much rather shoot a good picture than a good-looking picture.” Isn’t that a bit counter-intuitive coming from a cinematographer?

Well, I came to film through the word. I always felt that I had a greater affinity towards directors who are writers because the story for me is the most pivotal element. I’ve always enjoyed films of great stories, visuals were not keen on my mind. It was, “How good of a film is it?” I was fortunate enough to be given Oliver Stone, who’s a writer, early in my career. He would call me “The Birdman” and he’d be “The Wordman.” I’d fly using my eyes and he would use his words. And actually I started studying film at University of Vermont and then after two years at Rhode Island School of Design and it was in the process of making films — short films, abstract films — that I found out that I actually loved shooting.

“I desperately felt my character as a human being needed a waking up. I felt that I was too naïve.”

What made you prefer the visual side of things?

In my life I’ve had issues with hearing, so my eyes have always been the focus of my capabilities. I’ve enjoyed the work of photographers such as Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Robert Frank; those individuals influenced me greatly in terms of moving forward visually.2001: A Space Odyssey was a memorable experience for me. It was one of the first films that altered me in a very specific way and fundamentally changed my perspective on what I wanted to do. That along with Lawrence of Arabia. Those two films took me to places that I’d never been with a vision that I didn’t know existed. They were pivotal in my choice to become a filmmaker. So when I completed my degree at RISD, I applied to the American Film Institute as a cinematographer.

And yet how did you go from being a student at the American Film Institute to working with Oliver Stone on your first feature film?

There’s something I believe in greatly: intuition. At one point when I had finished my second year at the American Film Institute,I desperately felt my character as a human being needed a political waking up. I felt that I was too naïve. I ended up doing a Frontline piece on El Salvador that led me to working with Oliver. I wanted something, I was given a sign, and I followed it. That’s what I mean by intuition — and I believe that each step of the way I have gone I have been given these fortunate signs and I’ve been able to see them and to move with them.

Would you say that luck played a big role in your career?

Luck is vital. Fortune is the greatest gift of all, if you can see it. Not fortune in wages but being fortunate to be able to see what is on a wall in front of you, recognizing that sign, and capturing it. The recognition of luck is extraordinarily important — as well as making the best of it and creating to the best of your capabilities on that one opportunity you’re given so that it doesn’t end up in the museum of errors. I’m often asked, “If you had to have a recommendation for me as a cinematographer or director, what would you recommend?” It’s a very difficult question because you have to assume there’s a certain level of talent — you have to have talent — but you have to be fortunate enough to see something and be given something, too.

“I try to bend and be a chameleon towards what the director is looking for.”

Did you have any indication of how fruitful your collaboration with Oliver Stone would be? You won your first Oscar for JFK and you’ve done 10 films with him.

Well, Oliver had already won an Oscar for his writing, he was quite successful as a writer. He was a man on a mission. Meeting Oliver was a life-changing experience. When I first met him he was in a small office in Hollywood, it had to be 100 degrees in there. He was dressed in a leather jacket and he was sweating profusely. I knew that if he did offer me the film, it would force me to embrace a great deal of this man in a leather jacket who was sweating prolific amounts of sweat.You might have your own thought pattern as to why he was sweating profusely in a leather jacket in 100 degree weather. And you would probably be right. I never did ask, but I got the job and that was the beginning of my time with Mr. Stone. And it only got stranger from then on...

I can only imagine…

I was a Lutheran and engaged to be married… I did not wish to partake in certain matters that Oliver was quite fond of spending his time with. So I travelled with Oliver to a number of places each evening, some of ill-repute, and I would just order a beer while Oliver would disappear and return. This was the way life was with Oliver for years. It went very rapidly from Salvador to Platoon — basically they were released in the same year. It was a captivating period of time with Oliver. I didn’t always envision that it would happen like that or that I’d have any success at all, though. In fact, I thought there was a stronger likelihood I would fail in this business!

And yet it was just the beginning of a rich career. Besides Oliver Stone you’ve shot five films with Tarantino, seven with Scorsese — two of which won Oscars — and you’ve shot on everything from digital 3D to an ultra-wide 70mm format on Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.

I try to bend and be a chameleon towards what the director is looking for. I think equipment is vital for all filmmakers. All filmmakers should have the opportunity to use film, whether that’s Super 8, 16, 35, or 65, or to use small cameras such as an iPhone to create an entire film, or to work with the Alexa or the Red. It doesn’t matter. I think all these are tools to create and they’re all vital. The more we have the better and well-rounded we’ll be as filmmakers. The width of that 70mm format — I’ve never shot on that before! Both Quentin and myself were trying to learn how to utilize lenses that hadn’t seen the light of day for 50 years. It had a quality in which it reproduced skin tones that was unlike anything I had seen captured on film before! I probably will never get the opportunity to shoot like that again. So I find myself extraordinarily fortunate.