Robert Richardson ASC describes recreating the summer of 1969 for Quentin Tarantino’s new blockbuster.
Any new Quentin Tarantino film is an event, not least because the director is far from prolific. It’s been four years since his last film, The Hateful Eight, was released, during which time anticipation has been building toward his next opus. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has the added spice of touching on the infamous Tate La-Bianca murders of 1969 and is by all accounts quintessentially Quentin.
The story, “oscillates between humorous, serious and spooky,” according to cinematographer Robert Richardson, ASC who spoke exclusively with IBC365.
“I was mesmerised by the sheer spread of the story,” he says.
In classic Tarantino fashion the production is peppered with pulp film and TV references from spaghetti westerns to cult B-movies and comes with a soundtrack of 1970s hits including one from Paul Revere and the Raiders.
Having had a draft of The Hateful Eight leaked online, secrecy was so tight that principal collaborators including Richardson and editor Fred Raskin were only allowed their first look at the script in the privacy of Tarantino’s LA home.
“I hadn’t seen Quentin for a substantial period of time, so we had coffee and just spent a simple hour talking loosely about what had taken place since Hateful Eight,” Richardson explains. “He asked if I wanted to read the new script, sat me down at a small dining room table and put the screenplay before me. While I read, he sat nearby. I knew very little about the subject matter beyond what was circulating on the internet. The screenplay was so rich that I had to take notes to keep up with all that it referenced in respect to films, television shows, actors, directors, music and so on.
“We proceeded to eat a meal with [Tarantino’s then girlfriend, now wife] Daniella and we all spoke about the script as well as my reactions to it. The entire first read was an intimate, almost an out of body experience. I can recall only fragments of that first read. I was spellbound by its richness and texture.”
The Sony Pictures release is set at the height of the counter-culture and centres on Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a washed-up actor struggling to make it in the movies, and his long-time friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). They happen to be neighbours to the beautiful, fast-rising star Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). The action takes place over two days and has a sword of Damocles hanging over its characters because you know that at some point the Manson family is going to show up at Cielo Drive, the fateful Tate/Polanski residence. Also, in the ensemble are Al Pacino, Tim Roth, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Kurt Russell and the late Luke Perry.
“It is immensely enjoyable to work with actors of this calibre,” Richardson says. “The combination of putting Leo and Brad together always brought a huge smile to my face.”
There are elements of Pulp Fiction – with the intersecting Los Angeles-based storylines and Kill Bill – with the picture journeying through different genres of film with pastiches of TV shows and commercials.
One storyline involves DiCaprio’s character playing the villain for a TV Western called Lancer. The series aired on CBS from 1968-1970, and its pilot was directed by Sam Wanamaker (played in the movie by Nicholas Hammond).
This is Richardson’s sixth film with Tarantino, a relationship that began on the two volumes of Kill Bill. At an early stage on ‘Hollywood’, Richardson says he knew which elements of the script would require a certain look.
“I knew when we would be in black and white or in colour and if we would be 1:33 or 2:40 aspect ratio. I knew if he wanted a contemporary look for the series of commercials that are within the script or whether to create a more retro, less slick feel. The answer was different for the various commercials - one was to be black and white, another with a period feel, another more modern but not stunningly clean.”
He began by researching the cultural references thrown up in conversation with the director. He watched Lancer and contemporary western TV shows including every episode of Alias Smith and Jones, the entire Maverick collection as well as box sets of Wanted Dead or Alive, The F.B.I and martial arts crime caper Green Hornet. For films he rewatched the classic 1963 war drama thriller The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen who is played by Damien Lewis in Tarantino’s movie and more obscure war films like Eagles over London, directed by Italian Enzo Castellari who cameoed in The Inglorious Basterds.
“Of course, I turned to books to learn aspects of the Manson story,” Richardson says. “When it came to music, Quentin was extremely specific. After I’d read the script for the first time, he played some major hits from the late 60’s as the type of music he was considering. The soundtrack is vital to the movement of the film. It’s bold…a game changer in respect to the film.”
Once production had begun, Tarantino screened movies for the cast and crew including The Valley of the Dolls (1967) starring Sharon Tate and The Wrecking Crew, a vehicle for Dean Martin which also co-starred Tate, scenes from which are recreated in ‘Hollywood’.
We see a couple of clips from Bounty Law, the 4x3 format black-and-white Western which made DiCaprio’s character a star. For that, the VFX team rough up the edges of the frame, while the sound editorial team, headed by Wylie Stateman, Harry Cohen and Leo Marcil, compressed the audio and added a warble to give the sense that it was being projected in 16mm.
There’s a scene from The Fourteen Fists of McCluskey, a 1:1.85 men-on-a-mission movie from the early ‘60s, which VFX supervisor, John Dykstra, took through a duping process to make it look like a print from the era. Additionally, Richardson allowed the editing team to seamlessly replace an actor in a popular TV show from the mid-1960s with DiCaprio, photographing him from the exact same angles and exactly matching the lighting and grain of the film stock.
Location, Location, Location
Production designer Barbara Ling (with whom Richardson had worked on The Doors) scouted the film’s eighty locations with Tarantino around Los Angeles. One of them was the Spahn Movie Ranch which in the 1940s and ‘50s was used to shoot B movie westerns. It was also notorious for having been the primary residence of Charles Manson and his followers in 1968-69. The sets had burned down in 1970, the land now part of a national park, and all that is left is scrub and rock.
“It was simply barren land,” Richardson says. “Barbara and Quentin had scouted this and planned a large set build. My instinct at that time was not positive because I thought it would prove hard to get good light for the sequences listed there. That turned out correct, but I didn’t create a fuss.”
He adds that on location scouts “Quentin is as specific as possible so that we can all make sure we arrive on set with the equipment we need. He doesn’t storyboard unless for a specific sequence that requires VFX or SFX to plan out in advance what is in his mind - but that is rare. Quentin doesn’t shoot a lot of coverage - only what he requires. He’s like Marty [Scorsese] in that respect.”
For the Lancer sequences Richardson attempted to create a blend of film and TV styles from that period; “cleaner than other sequences but with a roughness to the visual aesthetics,” he says.
“We wanted a 70s feel, something not perfectly definable”
“I was hoping to achieve a smooth quality but with visible limitations. Quentin and I wanted a 70’s feel, or 70’s retro, something not perfectly definable so that when watching the film, it feels off balance. Just enough so that you recognise something familiar from the past but sitting in the present.”
Like The Hateful Eight the film retains an epic cinemascope presentation but rather than 70mm this time he shot mostly in 35 anamorphic using Panavision E, C, and T lenses. The film stock was Kodak 5219, 5213 and 5222 (black and white) with one small sequence on Super 8 Ektachrome and part of one short scene on 16mm Ektachrome; “Quentin loves the wide screen and didn’t want to consider a spherical super 35 option.”
“We’re pushing colours to places we do not ordinarily go these days,” Richardson says. “A touch more grit and grain than we’re accustomed to. There’s a blend of past and present in the wardrobe, set design, hair and make-up which all greatly influenced the overall aim to look toward the past without sliding into cliché. I believe it’s fresh yet maintains a truth about the time period in which the film is set.”
Editor Fred Raskin says Tarantino loves the editing process just as much as the other stages of filmmaking. “Sometimes my assemblies end up in the film virtually unchanged. Other times, we’ll go back to dailies and start from scratch. In the latter cases, it’s generally a reflection of Quentin’s passion for a particular sequence. He conceived of the scene, wrote it and directed it, and he wants the opportunity to assemble it as well.”
Dailies were developed and printed at FotoKem. Colourist Yvan Lucas at Harbor Picture Company in Santa Monica worked with the facility to set the look of the film dailies and also supervised the digital intermediate.
“The DI for Quentin is only necessary in order to get the film out into theatres not to correct the look that we have captured,” Richardson says. “There was some colour correction shot to shot as it’s impossible to colour correct days of film ingestion properly, but the work was to be as minimal as possible.”
The lighting package was much the same as Hateful Eight, or Django with some small versions comprised of a string of light bulbs. “The lenses are not the fastest so with film, unlike digital, you need to abide by that restriction,” Richardson says.
Almost all movement in the film is from either dolly or crane. “We had an underwater camera for one sequence in a pool. Steadicam was used on a few scenes as was a stabilised head (Pursuit system) on a car to work with horses.”
Another scene, among Richardson’s favourites, is the reveal of Dalton studying his lines for Lancer in his pool. “The camera moves from a wide overhead, across the roof of an adjoining house, and down that roof into a medium shot of Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski as they exit their house and move to their car,” he says.
“The most challenging aspect of the shoot was the scale,” Richardson says. “The script reaches far and beyond the normal and it is brilliantly written and performed and as a camera person or production designer or costume or hair or producer … one needs to rise to that level. It’s a day to day challenge.”