by John Pavlus
Unit photography by Andrew Cooper, SMPSP
I am first and foremost drawn to the director
of a project. The dynamic of this relationship is central.
- Robert Richardson, ASC
"...even as worn-out clothes are cast off
and others put on that are new, so worn-out bodies are cast off
by the dweller in the body and others put on that are new."
-The Bhagavad-Gita, from Richardson's Kill
If Robert Richardson tends to describe his filmmaking
loyalties in spiritual terms, he has ample reason. His 11-film partnership
with Oliver Stone bears mention alongside such other moviemaking "marriages" as
Bernardo Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, or David Lean
and Freddie Young, BSC. Though Richardson took occasional sojourns
with other filmmakers throughout the 1990s, his compass always spun
back to Stone. But that changed in 1997, when a disagreement over
the schedule for Any Given Sunday forced the partners apart.
Subsequent projects such as The Horse Whisperer, Snow
Falling on Cedars and The Four Feathers earned Richardson
praise from peers and critics, but have so far failed to yield
sustaining relationships. His collaborations with Martin Scorsese
(Casino, Bringing Out the Dead and The Aviator, the
last of which is currently shooting in Montreal) would seem to
indicate a budding partnership, but Richardson says he considers
himself a substitute for the director's more frequent cohort, Michael
Ballhaus, ASC. As for Stone, Richardson says they have reconciled,
but admits that "Oliver has gone on to establish new relationships
in other capacities."
A Valentine Offer
They say you can't expect to catch lightning in
a bottle, but this is Hollywood, and bottles have nothing on modern
courier service. On Valentine's Day 2002, Richardson opened his front
door to a bouquet of roses and a parcel. Inside was the screenplay
for Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino's "chopsocky" opus.
Richardson's reaction was swift. "I've never heard Bob more
excited than when he started talking to me about Kill Bill," recalls
Ian Kincaid, Richardson's gaffer on the show. "You read the
script and you immediately think, 'Robert Richardson should shoot
this.' You just know that he and Quentin were meant to do this movie
Indeed they did, and in the months following Kill
Bil 's completion, the silver-maned cinematographer would categorically
describe the experience as "the purest rhythm I have had with
a director - ever."
Feb. 16 [first meeting]: On the edge. Nervous.
Unusual. Perhaps not so unusual .... Quentin arrives. At once -
ease. A warm spell cast over the table. I am weary from three nights
of commercial shooting, but regardless of how low the eyelids hang,
there is the dimension of a dream taking place. Quentin tells me
that my letter took him by surprise and "oddly moved" him.
A handshake thrusts me into the future.
March 11: Bracelet fell off today - second time.
A lost bracelet brings bad luck. Must remedy the problem, otherwise
my superstitious mind will take control.
March 12: Repaired bracelet myself - bonded to
wrist - will not let Kill Bill go.
Kill Bill's script is an unabashed kung-fu
blowout, and Richardson was enthusiastic about its visual potential.
Dubbed half-seriously by its author as "the biggest B-movie
ever made," Kill Bill pays tribute to all things "exploitation":
samurai swordsmanship, Hong Kong "wire-fu," blaxploitation
funk, Spaghetti Western standoffs, gangland vendettas, sexy assassins
and lots and lots of raspberry-red blood. (In true B-movie spirit,
the plot is as cheekily monosyllabic as the title: an underworld
boss named Bill double-crosses a hitwoman known as The Bride, who
then embarks on a mission to - well, you guessed it.)
"One of the first statements Quentin made was
that he wanted each chapter of the script to feel like a reel from
a different film," Richardson recalls. "He wanted to move
in and out of the various signature styles of all these genres -
Western, melodrama, thriller, horror. He had an absolute knowledge
of what he wanted each sequence to look like."
Richardson adds that Tarantino's chapter concepts
were so specific and varied that the director initially considered
hiring three cinematographers for the project, "but in the end,
Quentin decided to hire just one person, probably to help keep things
consistent over such a huge production. I had sent him a letter expressing
my enthusiasm for the script, and eventually I was chosen."
Richardson closed his deal and sidled into a 10-week-long
tango with his new collaborator as they prepped the project. "I
was patient not to rush for answers," he recalls. "That's
a lesson that anyone who wishes to be a cinematographer should take
March 5/6, 7-11: Films arrive. Designing the
days to allow complete immersion. Schedule: wake at 6 a.m. -
finish [watching] film from previous night - make breakfast - pack
lunches and take the girls to school. Begin films at 8:30; 2:30 -
pick up girls. Watch films during dinner with girls - until their
bedtime - then continue until fatigued.
Richardson's legendary zeal for visual research
continued on Kill Bill. Between the daily shipments from Tarantino's
assistants and his own purchases, the cinematographer claims he consumed
more than 200 films. These included such genre classics as Once
Upon a Time in China, Shaolin Master Killer, Lady Snowblood, 18
Fatal Strikes, Carrie and Coffy, as well as obscurities
like Reborn From Hell, Texas Adios, Black Mama White
Mama and Deaf-Mute Heroine (one of Richardson's favorites
from the bunch).
With a bevy of genres to juggle and a globetrotting
production to manage - the film was shot primarily in China, but
also included locations in Japan, Mexico and California - Richardson
admits that maintaining visual consistency over "the sheer scale
of the picture" was his greatest concern. He modestly credits
Tarantino's elaborate mise en scene (developed in collaboration with
production designers Yohei Taneda and David Wasco) with shouldering
most of this burden. "The look of this film was primarily decided
well prior to my involvement," he remarks.
Kincaid, Richardson's gaffer since The Doors,
observes, "Bob will give Quentin credit for having lots to say
about the film's look, but it's more accurate to say that Quentin
really inspired Bob to get the look of this picture going. For instance,
when you see a blaxploitation movie, you don't necessarily want to
make [your film] look like that, because a lot of them were made
at a time when pictures weren't so attractive! Bob's got the ability
to look into those films and say, 'This is the essence we have to
pull out and use.'"