Oscar-winning American cinematographer Robert Richardson talks of his works and India connection.
If Robert Richardson were to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there would be at least one good reason for an instant bonding. Monona Wali, the first wife of Richardson, three-time Oscar winner for best cinematography, was born in Varanasi that has just returned the PM to the Lok Sabha for the second time.
“My wife was born in Varanasi and my daughter lived there for a year on Fulbright (Fulbright-Nehru research grant),” Richardson says during an interview with FE on Sunday. “I haven’t been to Varanasi,” says the director of photography best known for his long collaborations with celebrated filmmakers Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino.
Richardson has two daughters — Kanchan Wali-Richardson and Maya Wali Richardson — from his first marriage with Indian-American writer-filmmaker Monona Wali. If five years ago, Kanchan came to her mother’s birthplace on the Fulbright-Nehru grant to do research on the ancient city, her father roamed the dusty streets of old Delhi with his camera for Absolut’s international campaign titled Colourless. The scenes for the new Absolut global ad film that Richardson’s camera captured had 654 people along with the Red Fort and the majestic streets built by the Mughals.
Richardson’s arrival in India coincided with the Cannes film festival premiere of the last feature film he shot. The film, Once Upon a Time…In Hollyoood, was his sixth with American director Quentin Tarantino. “To be able to look at Leo (Leonardo Di Caprio) and Brad (Brad Pitt), two of our most iconic actors in the United States, in one setting together was enough to make you smile,” says Richardson. “It was just amazing chemistry and Quentin worked with them,” he says referring to the fact that Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood is the first movie ever to star Pitt and Di Caprio together.
The cinematographer, who has worked in 11 of Stone’s movies, seven of Scorsese’s and six of nine Quentin films winning three Academy awards Hugo, Aviator and JFK) and six more Oscar nominations, treasures his partnerships with these filmmakers. “With Oliver (Stone), it started obviously professional. Then it became a mixture of relationships,” he says. “It is always professional from beginning to end but you move into different states of working.”
Over the time, he says, Stone became his brother, ‘a deep brother’. With Scorsese, it was always professional. “From beginning to end with respect,” he adds, “In greater and greater respect, perhaps, as we went through them.” It all started professional with Tarantino too. “And it moved slowly into the best relationship you can have with a director.”
His relationship with Tarantino was ‘deeply respectful’. “But also loving and willing to speak (about work). And when an argument or something comes forward you push it away. I love him deeply.” The feeling is apparently mutual. When Richardson was chosen by the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) for their lifetime achievement award in March this year, Tarantino came to present the honour. “When I was told (by ASC) it was going to happen, I went to Quentin,” recalls Richardson. “I said, ‘They have asked me to do this lifetime achievement award and you know what?’ And he goes, ‘No question, I will do it.’”
“He knew the answer because we know each other so well,” says Richardson before going on to explaining his work with Tarantino. “I work within what he leads. He teaches me. Quentin as you know is an amazingly brilliant man. Very much like Marty and Stones. I am not going to say who has the better knowledge. They have amazing knowledge and teach you through what they know of their films.”
After shooting Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood in celluloid, Richardson is confident that the move into technology is what it should be. “The more we move (like digital), the more we are going to adapt. I don’t want to hold on to something. I do want to admire and utilise it (celluloid) for as long as we can. But I am also willing to take what is given to me in the future to make it a part of the language we are going to delve into.”
He is, however, in awe of Scorsese’s work in preserving cinematic heritage through his World Cinema Foundation. “That is what we need to do,” says Richardson. “More and more of us need to be able to understand how to archive. Number one, archiving is the most important issue we are going through. How do you preserve movies, not archiving them necessarily but not allowing the digital world to shift them (through for example, colourising black and white films). We have to be very careful about how we alter the original vision,” he says.
(Faizal Khan is a freelancer)