Movies

‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’ Cinematographer Robert Richardson Walks Us Through The Film’s Amazing Shots

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Robert Richardson, Quentin Tarantino’s cinematographer on Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, has one of the most impressive resumes of any filmmaker working today. First of all, he’s won three Oscars for his work on JFK, The Aviator, and Hugo. And he has worked, multiple times, with filmmakers like Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino.

So, with so many accolades and time enough to ask one additional question not related to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, where does one even begin? Well, we went with Breakin’, of course. But before we get to Breakin’, we asked Richardson to take us through a few memorable scenes in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood to explain to us mere mortals how some of those incredible shots were achieved.

Let’s start with Brad Pitt driving the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia down an extremely curvy road.

Well, first of all, that was Brad driving. He also is the one who pulled out, when you get that great music cue that pops in there. He just left Leo behind and switches to the other car, to the Karmann Ghia. He pulls out and then it just hits us, that beautiful music. But then the camera’s mounted behind him. The truth of the matter is, Brad is a stunt person. Let’s get real. Down Hollywood Boulevard, I’m not gonna say this for sure, but I’m betting he’s in the 50 mile an hour zone.

He looks like it’s going pretty fast.

It’s flying down that road. We were struggling with a camera car to keep up with him. That’s how fast he’s driving, but he’s fully in control. It wasn’t anything that was even vaguely a question mark. I mean, when Roman and Sharon drive to the Playboy Mansion, they’re also driving that road very rapidly. I think Brad is — well he’s obviously a stunt man in the movie. He wasn’t going to let somebody else drive it. Although, we had somebody to drive it if he wished to have that way. But he was so in control of the car that it was not a problem.

Then there’s this amazing shot of 55-year-old Brad Pitt sauntering up on a rooftop to fix a TV antenna. I suspect there’s nothing special about it from your side, but it’s still quite a shot.

Nothing special, but I think you’re absolutely right. Quentin and I were kind of joking about it later, saying it’s about the closest Quentin’s ever come to doing anything homoerotic. Brad just, you know, the way he pops up on top and walks to the antenna, the rhythm, he just looks so good. I was with this friend of mine, I don’t know, she’s 28 and she goes, “Oh my god, is he hot!”

She’s never seen Fight Club then, huh?

You know, actually, it’s a good question! I didn’t ask her. Look, we all know Brad’s hot. There’s no question about it. But that image is iconic now I think. Let’s talk about Austin Butler for a second, who plays Tex. That horse ride…

Thank you for bringing it up, that was next on my list.

Austin didn’t have a great deal of experience riding prior to this film. And he got hired and he did a lot of training — he is an extraordinarily serious actor. I think he’s also a name to watch in the future, without question. And what he did was, he was taught by wranglers to ride with one hand, which makes it even more special. I did a rehearsal with Quentin and I had already done a run before he’d gotten there to make sure that the camera car could do it, and we did it with the horse wranglers. And we did it in more slow motion and we did it faster. Then when Quentin got there, we showed him what he’d wanted to see and we did it at a really high speed with a really good rider. Then he goes, “It’s fabulous, but can Austin do this?” And we just said, “Yeah, Austin can do this.” I think we only did two takes of it because he nailed it perfectly. Flying down there and dropping over that hill and racing down at full gallop is remarkable. So yeah, no stunt people for that one.

He looked great. I think most actors look kind of stupid riding a horse. Bobbing up and down, looking uncomfortable. But he looked like he knew what he was doing.

Well, you’re absolutely right. He didn’t really know how to ride a horse prior and he learned how to do it and he did it in what is such an incredible way. I mean, that’s a fierce ride. I think it takes a very good rider to get to that point. And obviously, he had incredible coaching.

So one of my favorite scenes in this movie is the scene with DiCaprio and Michael Madson on Bounty Law. Madson says something vaguely threatening and then that music swells and the camera closes in on Leo’s face and then it goes to commercial, which is exactly like how something like Gunsmoke would have done it.

That sequence was something that Quentin said, “Okay, you’ve got to watch Wanted Dead or Alive. I’d like you to watch some Maverick and Gunsmoke,” just as you said. Or Rifleman, all those television series and it’s essentially exactly what they would’ve done. They would’ve done that and move in. And I tried not to make it feel like, oh, you know, it’s rock solid. I tried to give it a little bit of life and it worked out perfectly.

And then there’s the extraordinary segment where DiCaprio and Timothy Olyphant are shooting a scene for Lancer.

Well, we did coverage on that sequence. We did a cutaway to the director, telling him, “No, no, no, keep going.” And what I loved is that Quentin did it in one take without breaking it, and it’s absolutely perfect. You think you’re in the middle of this movie, and then suddenly he says, “Line!” You’ve gone through about six or seven shots, maybe eight shots, whatever it is. And then suddenly there’s this. “Line.” Huh? And they nailed it perfectly. And the camera came back to exactly the same spot.

There are two similar shots, one going over a drive-in movie theater to the parking lot. Then another over a house into a pool where we see DiCaprio.

The shot that you’re talking about with the Van Nuys drive-in, that shot is done by me from the outside on a crane, tracking across past the first board which lists Lady in Cement. The entire drive-in element we lifted it up, but it was basically a green screen, which (Visual Effects Designer) John Dykstra built because we could not get to the height and we didn’t have a real cinema to get. So everything, once we move into the drive-in, it’s made by John Dykstra. We twist over the top where the light flares and you see all the cars behind.

And the other one in the pool. It’s a very massive remote control, basically very similar to what a techno crane would be, but it’s the largest one possible. And so you have to, we had a remote head in, or reached over the top of, the Polanskis’ house and got relatively close, but I had to add a zoom into it to get a little closer to it, and then we zoomed and tracked back and boomed down into that medium shot that you saw where Roman comes out the door with Sharon and gets into their car and drives off. That same unit was used for the final shot, which he walks up with the Emile (Hirsch) towards the house, and that’s where that one goes and we flipped over the top of the other house to look down.

Okay. So going through your filmography, obviously you worked on a lot of amazing films. But please tell me a story about Breakin’.

Wow.

To be clear, I do realize how many Oscars you have.

You know, I have to say, I don’t know if I was involved with Breakin’ or Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.

According to IMDB, it’s the first one…

I recall Electric Boogaloo? I remembered that. I couldn’t remember whether I did Breakin’ or not. I mean, I do remember how fucking great it was to be an operator on this. Because that’s what I was, just an extra operator. And I had friends that had worked at the American Film Institute — where I’d gone — who were also working on that. So it was a highlight for me because it was virtually my first introduction to making films outside of the student level. And then what followed, I did a little bit with Jacques Haitkin on a film called Making the Grade. And then I worked with Jacques Haitkin doing some second unit work for Nightmare on Elm Street, which led me to do reshoots for Alex Cox on Repo Man. Yeah, I was just an operator. I was nothing. I was invisible.

When I was nine, Breakin’ was just the greatest thing.

I don’t often think about that part of my life because I kind of forget about it, but there’s nothing that I don’t want to remember because I remember it as joyful, being around friends that I had gone to school with. But yeah, thanks for reminding me of it. I’ll be holding that one and cherishing that thought for the next hour. It’s a great memory. Any time I work in this business is a great business.

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