‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’: How Cinematographer Robert Richardson Captured 1969 in 2019

Quentin Tarantino's go-to cinematographer found a timeless hybrid look of the old and the new for shooting the pivotal year of 1969 in 35mm.
"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," Margot Robbie and Robert Richardson.
"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," Margot Robbie and Robert Richardson.
Sony Pictures

Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” marks the director’s summary statement about the importance of the dream factory in countering life’s failure and disappointment. And, without hesitation, his go-to cinematographer, Robert Richardson, thinks that it’s Tarantino’s most emotional movie. The challenge was finding the right look for depicting 1969 at the end of the golden age and the rise of the counter culture in Hollywood.

“When Quentin goes, ‘I want to feel retro but I want to be contemporary,’ I tried to weave time periods,” said Richardson, the three-time Oscar winner (“Hugo,” “The Aviator,” “JFK”) who’s made half a dozen movies with Tarantino. That meant shooting in Kodak 35mm (mostly anamorphic) with Panavision cameras and lenses (including the new T Series for extreme close-ups and greater contrast and resolution). They discussed 65mm but that proved too difficult and costly with the use of zooms; they also shot black-and-white for period-correct TV shows and brief sequences in Super 8 and 16mm Ektachrome.

Richardson achieved high color saturation with hints of blue and deeper skin tones, and pushed the grain for a crisp look. In that way, he conveyed a smooth quality of LA for this intersection of fiction and reality about has-been TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt-double/buddy Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) on a collision course with the mass murders at the home of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) by the Manson Family. Time has clearly passed Dalton and Booth by, but, while Dalton frets about it constantly, Booth takes it in stride with Zen-like ease.

"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”Sony Pictures

“So much has been written about this in terms of old Hollywood and new Hollywood, but so much of what we shot was based on television series,” Richardson said. “But you don’t feel ‘Easy Rider’ within this film, other than the fact that there are some hippies on the side of the road and there’s something new coming. It’s more about the hairstyle that Rick Dalton wears, the pompadour, shifting that to some other place. So when we started to make the movie, I knew it was about old versus new, but when I read it and watched it, I thought it’s a story that’s much more intimate about the waning years of a career that had the capacity to move in a direction that [Steve] McQueen or [Clint] Eastwood had moved. And, for whatever reason, Dalton was unable to capitalize on it.”

Richardson found the instant rapport between DiCaprio and Pitt to be remarkably similar to the charismatic pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in 1969’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” And he was impressed with Margot Robbie’s ability to channel Tate’s free-spirited, happy embrace of life. “We haven’t had that kind of chemistry between stars of that magnitude in many years,” he said.

“And you watch Margot as she’s coming across the street as Sharon Tate and sees her film playing in Westwood [the Matt Helm spy spoof, ‘The Wrecking Crew’], and she captures that innocence so well,” added Richardson. “She looks at the poster and walks into the bookstore, and then the long tracking shot with her legs coming back to the theater. She wants to go in but doesn’t want to pay for a ticket. She has that playful exchange with the ticket taker and the manager, and the Steadicam follows her into the theater and she sits down to watch the film.”

Leonardo DiCaprio
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”Sony Pictures

While Tate appears on the cusp of stardom, Dalton has lost his mojo. After quitting a hit western series, “Bounty Law,” he struck out in movies and is back on TV playing guest baddies. “It’s a very different Leo in ‘Hullaboo’ than a character who comes into his trailer fuming at his failure to remember lines and swearing he won’t drink again,” said Richardson. “To me, that was one of the great scenes in the movie because that speaks volumes to the new and the old, because in ‘Hullaboo,’ you have his hair pulled back in a pompadour, and then you are suddenly looking at a man with long hair [on the hit series, ‘Lancer’]. He looks like a hippie. The contrast between those two moments is then and now, and his unwillingness to trespass that fracture in the earth. And then, when he goes back to shooting ‘Lancer,’ he performs brilliantly and looks fantastic.”

“Lancer” was a real hit western series on CBS in 1969 about a wealthy cattle ranching family, which Tarantino remade with his own signature touch for “Once Upon a Time” (“Lancer” star Andrew Duggan even made the cover of TV Guide the week of the Manson murders). They shot it on a retrofitted Western Street backlot at Universal (production designed by Barbara  Ling). Richardson crossed “Lancer” with the “Butch Cassidy”-inspired “Alias Smith and Jones” in helping find the retro-future look that Tarantino requested.

“We do inside the show and then that pops out to what’s behind the camera when Dalton forgets his line and asks for a line reading,” said Richardson. “That aspect of the retro and modern was the best example to show how it was played. But the level of sophistication and the camera moves wouldn’t have been done at that time. It’s really a Quentin touch. He wanted to make this his next western, as a central point. He achieved that goal but I wouldn’t call it a ‘spaghetti western.'”

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Leonardo DiCaprio and Quentin Tarantino.Sony Pictures

The “Lancer” segment was one of the highlights for Richardson, who calls it peering behind the movie curtain like “The Wizard of Oz.” It’s one of the aspects that makes “Once Upon a Time” both surprising and unique. Not surprisingly, the movie, overall, represents a personal benchmark for the cinematographer. ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is exactly that for me,” he said, “a reminder that I am here and now and at some point it will be said once upon a time Robert Richardson shot films in Hollywood.

“The film speaks to all of us — whether we are in film, in business, in sports, anyone who exists on this planet. We are all fragile beings with a limited time to achieve whatever it is we desire, and in those years we must be aware of that place we live in and understand that at any moment that place will shift either for better or worse, but eventually it will cease. So take stock of life and have the courage to believe in yourself, your heart, your mind, and a deep trust in the spirit of intuition and love.”

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