Nearly lost in all the controversy surrounding the pop cultural deconstruction of slavery in Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," is what a liberating experience it was for the director and his fellow filmmakers. For Tarantino, it was a chance to improvise more than usual, but for cinematographer Robert Richardson, it was like making a rock 'n' roll movie, with its ragged quality but beautiful elegance.
"It was like doing a concert or was akin to a Neil Young album," admits the three-time Oscar winner ("Hugo," "The Aviator," "JFK"). "This has been a long time coming for me, having done a rock film with The Doors. This is the first one I've done that's like what Young creates in his best work or what Dylan does with his words."
And with a freer Tarantino content with watching a scene unfold before laying out all the shots rather than having it all worked out in advance, Richardson was able to experiment right along with him.
Richardson says it's all about creating a tension between beauty and ugliness, which is even more apparent on "Django Unchained," a mash-up of Blaxploitation and the spaghetti western.
"I think Quentin was searching to change, letting the scene do the talking and devising the shots that felt best for the sequence," Richardson adds about Tarantino's maturation. "It didn't mean the shots were vastly different than what he would've done had he put them down on paper. I can't tell you what level of difference it would've been, but the freedom was a challenge that he embraced."
However, despite the elegance of Richardson's backlighting, they tried to avoid languishing in pretty landscapes typical of the western. That's not Tarantino's style — he's much more in tune with the rougher vibe of the '60s and '70s. "The pretty backlighting was a way of keeping things consistent," Richardson suggests. "I find that on most films it's very difficult to have a backlit movie in an exterior. It's also hard to be consistent in an exterior movie because the sun constantly moves and with long dialogue scenes, in particular, you are [put into] certain jail cells that aren't necessarily the ones you want to be in to create the visual feel. Good-looking for Quentin is a different aesthetic. The beauty of a Tarantino film is that the visuals match the rhythm of the words. That's his goal. And that's my goal."
Night scenes were difficult to light for Richardson, especially the charge through the desert with a moonlit sky and lots of torches. He tried to make it real in a vast empty space. Overall, the challenge was to vary the lighting, going from the naturalism of candlelit scenes to stylized shootouts.
The climactic shootout involving Jamie Foxx's Django was the most ambitious. But it was totally reworked during the shoot when Tarantino realized that the weight of the movie was uneven: it peaked physically during the previous sequence upstairs with Leonardo DiCaprio's sly slave owner.
"The shootout became a companion piece to that but with action," Richardson concedes. "But we basically made our way through the sequence shot by shot, as Quentin developed the choreography. For all of us, that was a remarkable move."
And shooting in Louisiana amid major rainstorms interspersed with hard sun meant splitting up the sequence into three episodes spanning two or three days each. Still, the six-minute shootout, which oscillates between normal speed and slow-mo, is pure Tarantino in all his film geek reverie, and pure rock 'n' roll for Richardson.
But, alas, Richardson thinks this might be one of Tarantino's last movies, what with his desire to develop more long-form projects and the demise of film. "He wants to shift in a different direction," Richardson says. "He's talked about doing a miniseries, but I don't think he's ready for digital, so I don't know what he would do. Maybe he'd insist on shooting 16mm and converting it to digital. He's also talked about novels and writing criticism about some of his favorite directors.
"But I'm very happy with this film because I feel like I've gone to a concert."