Quentin Tarantino’s collaboration with his “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” cinematographer Robert Richardson started on “Kill Bill,” but it didn’t begin in the most conventional way. With “Kill Bill” Tarantino was referencing four distinct aesthetic styles of filmmaking: Shaw Brothers kung fu, pulpy 1970s samurai films, Japanese anime, and Spaghetti Westerns. When Tarantino was on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast along with Richardson, he explained that he wanted to take a different approach to how he handled the film’s various styles.
“Initially putting the idea together in my mind, I had a whole hodgepodge idea of the movie [of] compartmentalizing the whole damn thing,” said Tarantino. “I even had an idea of hiring four composers to do different sections, nobody was into that idea. [Laughs] And at first I had the idea of hiring two different cinematographers and then I did.”
Tarantino hired Hong Kong cinematographer Arthur Wong and his “Jackie Brown” cinematographer Guillermo Navarro to shoot “Kill Bill.” It was around this time, and after Navarro asked if he could skip a location scout to shoot a commercial, that Tarantino was told that Richardson — who had become one of Hollywood’s top cinematographers working with Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese — had read the “Kill Bill” script and wanted to sit down and meet.
“The producers were pushing, ‘He’s one of the greatest cinematographers in the world, what’s it going to hurt to sit and have Thai food with him?'” recalled Tarantino. “So we got together and started talking, and I told him that I had already hired two other guys. And we talked and we talked and basically I just fell in love and I let those two guys go.”
It was the start of a relationship Tarantino jokes was his first marriage, before actually getting married for the first time to actress/singer Daniella Pick in 2018. Richardson is just as dedicated, calling Tarantino the most “brilliant director” he’s ever worked with, adding “and I’ve worked with some very good directors.”
In looking back at their five-film collaboration (both treat “Kill Bill Vol.1 and 2 as one film), Tarantino credits Richardson with bringing his films a level of visual sophistication he could only dream about when first started working in a video store. It’s also a collaboration that has grown over the years, as both have learned to adjust to each other. Tarantino admits he was somewhat mistrustful at first, feeling like Richardson’s crew was working for the cinematographer and not him on “Kill Bill.”
Richardson admits he has grown to accept that the performances are what is beyond a doubt the most essential aspect of the films they make together. “Very early on, we had a conversation about, ‘This is going to look shit,’ and he said to me, ‘If they are looking at your images, they’re not listening to my words,’” Richardson recalled. “But it’s so true. That’s why I work with writers, I want a writer/director. I do care. I can make beautiful images without question, but to have a director who writes brilliantly, who directs brilliantly, and constructs a film brilliantly, you have to move to their space.”
Richardson will often try to maneuver through Tarantino’s extraordinarily specific shot lists, suggesting small alterations in which direction they shoot based on what’s best for light. The cinematographer credits Tarantino’s long-time assistant director William Clark with helping the two collaborators find the path that meets both their needs, but Tarantino added that he himself has learned to adjust. “It’s taken me a few movies with him to not fight him about, ‘Ok, it’s better for us to go this way, as opposed to that way,’” said Tarantino. “I get it now. I fought with him before about that shit.”
Yet it’s the specificity of Tarantino’s vision, both in his writing and use of camera that Richardson admires most. Richardson points the fact that Tarantino is one of the very few directors working today who uses only one camera, rather than “hosing things down with multiple cameras. “
“Yeah, but they’re selectors, not directors,” chimed in Tarantino. “And my feeling about it is in particular, to make it even more of an ostentatious point, is I don’t want a sloppy angle in my movie ever. Every single, solitary shot in my movie was composed by us.”
Richardson replied, “It’s pretty rare. I’ve been with no director like him.”
This interview took place the 2019 Camerimage Film Festival, where Tarantino and Richardson received an award for their collaboration.
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and Google Play Music. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.