For his gleaming white shoulder-length hair, an equally white beard, tinted John Lennon-esque glasses and a domineering presence — he is six-feet plus — Robert Richardson could have passed for a wayward rockstar or movie star. But the three-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer chose to stay behind the camera instead. Richardson, who has filmed The Aviator, Hugo and the recent Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, started off with shooting documentaries and was later roped in to assist on a film, which in his words, “was a complete failure”.
“The team wanted to fire me. But luckily they couldn’t afford someone else, so they kept me on. I still remember what the director of photography on that film asked me, ‘what do you want to do in your life? I replied, ‘I want to shoot films.’ He responded, ‘If you want to shoot movies, go ahead and shoot movies and then step away’,” recalls the 63-year-old.
Richardson was in Delhi recently to shoot a commercial for Absolut. The Delhi leg was the final part of the ad campaign called Colourless, which had parts of it shot in Bulgaria as well. “The campaign deals with colour and stresses on how we need to shed all that. I shouldn’t have to think about whether you are Hindu or Muslim, or if you are black or white,” says Richardson. In Delhi for just 24 hours, and exhausted after the long day of shoot, Richardson did brush aside some questions, even as he gave us tongue-in-cheek one-liners instead.
A graduate from the Rhode Island School of Design, and later the American Film Institute, Richardson has worked with the biggest names in Hollywood in his career spanning four decades. Cinematography always called out to him. “Looking into the eyes of the actors — that’s what drew me to it,” he says, adding, “It’s the vision of the cinematographer that is presented on the screen by the director.”
With films like Kill Bill, Inglorious Basterds, Shutter Island and JFK to his credit, Richardson has become a go-to person for directors such as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone. He frequently addresses them as brothers. We wonder what makes them tick? “I have a language of my own, cinematically and visually, which I tailor to the needs of the director and the script. It’s like how humans adapt to new relationships and needs. Casino is different from Inglorious, and then you compare it to Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. And cinematically, Salvador can’t be compared to Natural Born Killers,” he adds.
He is one of the three living people who have won the Academy Award thrice for Best Cinematography, for JFK (1991), The Aviator (2004) and Hugo (2011). The other two are Vittorio Storaro and Emmanuel Lubezki. He seems unfazed by it, and is rather scared that the awards eat into the chances of him finding work. “I am honoured, of course, and no they don’t create unnecessary pressure. But the thing with three Academy Awards is, people are generally frightened to work with you. They are intimidated, and it gets complicated to get work,” he says.
While there has been a lot of hue and cry about the transition from celluloid to digital formats within the cinematic world, Richardson has managed to strike a balance between the two. “I am still shooting on film, every film with Quentin (Tarantino) has been on film. So
I am very much in power in that aspect. I do equal number of projects on films and the digital format. I don’t seem to have a problem with the two, they co-exist for me,” he adds.
As for the progression of technology in cinema, one wonders if it has made things a tad too easy for upcoming cinematographers. Richardson agrees. “New technology has made things super-easy for budding cinematographers. They don’t have to work so hard. They are able to look at a monitor and figure out what’s not working. But that also helps get new talent. “Like, I mean look at Bradford Young, he is very good, look up his work,” he says.