Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Robert Richardson on the ‘60s and That Final Shot

Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Richardson talks Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Sharon Tate, '60s TV Westerns, and that last shot.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Robert Richardson Interview Ending

This article contains Once Upon a Time in Hollywood spoilers.

Robert Richardson learned what his next collaboration with Quentin Tarantino would be while sitting in the director’s kitchen. The pair, whose partnership goes back nearly 20 years and five movies (depending how you count Kill Bill), have become as close as family. Yet the thing about Tarantino is you don’t really know what his next project is until it’s staring you in the face.

Like other key cast and crew members, when Richardson was invited to read Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood at the filmmaker’s home—with some cast alleging the kitchen table is special treatment—he had only a faint idea of what Tarantino was working on: a movie about Old Hollywood giving way to New Hollywood. Yet when he opened a script that featured Sharon Tate as a major character, he was taken by surprise.

“He handed me the script and I and read it in the kitchen of his house at a little dining room table,” Richardson says. “He sat in the other room, doing various work, and periodically would test the waters of Bob Richardson to see whether he was laughing or not. And I read for three and a half, four hours, and that’s when I knew what the film was about. But we didn’t have the last act.”

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Even with family, Tarantino likes to keep his cards close to the chest.

Richardson is a three-time Oscar winner with a penchant for collaborating well with highly specific auteurs. Having major success early in his career by teaming with Oliver Stone on Platoon and Wall Street, he has gone on to work extensively with Stone, Martin Scorsese, and more recently Ben Affleck. But his relationship with Tarantino is something special as each project increasingly becomes an opportunity to delve into cinema history and have a dialogue with the past while creating something new. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is no different, albeit now 1950s and ‘60s television was extensively added to the milieu.

“With Quentin, I watched a number of episodes of Alias Smith and Jones,” Richardson says, marveling at the difference between ‘50s television and some of the more cinematic offerings Tarantino was showing the rest of the cast and crew, such as Paul Marzursky’s Bob & Carol, Ted & Alice (1969). “We watched a little bit of Maverick; Wanted: Dead or Alive. We’d go through a series of films and television shows, and then I would take it from there, and I would complete [a series]. He’d show the first episode, the pilot, of Lancer, and then I just purchased everything I could and went through it as deeply as possible.”

The result was Richardson becoming as intimately familiar with American Western television as Tarantino’s influence led him to begin appreciating Spaghetti Westerns back when they made Django Unchained (2012). Yet with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, which follows struggling TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), it was an excuse to play in the conventions of American television as well as more conventional American Westerns.

Says Richardson, “You cannot not love going back and also employing the lighting that was more used then, the reflectors and hard light, which I wouldn’t do nowadays, but I wanted to employ it as much as possible.” It was an excuse to examine another part of the past that both men grew up with, as well as in vignettes that play openly with the style of movies they’d previously riffed on, such as Inglourious Basterds’ forefather in Nazi killing, Where Eagles Dare (1968).

Nevertheless, this is ultimately a movie about the ‘60s, as well as the night that many believe cut the decade short in bloody horror: Aug. 9, 1969. It was during the midnight hour of that date when three of Charles Manson’s followers broke into the home of Sharon Tate, who was at the time more than eight months pregnant, and sadistically murdered her along with three friends who were staying over. It changed the fabric of American culture in a way Richardson himself only appreciated fully as an adult (he was 13 in 1969). Yet that is not how events occur in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. If you’re reading this, you’ve hopefully seen the movie and know that it concludes with Rick Dalton and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) killing the Manson followers who in reality slaughtered Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch).

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In Tarantino’s vision though, we get something of a wistful Hollywood ending, evocative in its own way of Casablanca (1942) as Rick is invited into Sharon’s home for a drink and walks up her driveway by Sebring’s side as if he were Humphrey Bogart to Sebring’s Claude Rains. And in one long shot, Rick and Sharon finally meet as neighbors. It was one of the most complex shots of the film, and one that Richardson is quite proud of.

“It’s a very technically complicated shot to achieve, and for me, I was more involved with the technical aspects of trying to achieve it in a seamless manner for Quentin,” Richardson says. It wasn’t until he saw a cut of the movie that he realized the full weight of the ending. “[Quentin] shifted my entire perspective of the film in an extraordinarily beautiful way.” Intriguingly, neither he nor Tarantino were sure that was the final shot when it was filmed, but it serendipitously made sense after Tarantino began cutting.

“He was hesitating, he didn’t know if we would go back and reshoot that shot, but when he did the titles, and it said, ‘Once Upon a Time,’ for me, that said everything about what the movie is, which is a fairytale. And the way he paused and then put the ‘… in Hollywood,’ I had no need to be down below, because I don’t want to start another scene. I don’t think he wanted to start another scene. All he really wanted you to know is everything has changed. We’re leaving [Rick] with more hope, and I think that’s the beauty of why he restrained himself and held that shot for so long for so many titles as well, just let it play out. And when we were there, we just shot and shot till we rolled out of film.”

The effect, however, lasts longer than any film reel. Our full interview is below.

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What are your memories of the late ’60s?

Robert Richardson: Well, I wasn’t that old. I was 13 basically [when the movie is set], and I was sent away to private school. I was isolated. The period in the ‘60s sort of disappeared for me, from my life, because there was so little contact when I was in a school that was in New Hampshire. You just didn’t get day-to-day life. I was having to get dressed in a blazer and gray slacks, and penny loafers. You walked to school and life didn’t exist outside of that school. So I didn’t get to experience it except for when I went home or through the music, of course. Whether you listened to T. Rex or you listened to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, or The Beatles, or whomever. That was really the only way I actually saw or felt the time period.

Did you see many movies in that era and what do you think of when you think of Hollywood in the ‘60s?

Of course you’ve got Easy Rider… the Hollywood system, whether it was Cleopatra, whether it was Doctor Doolittle, or whatever was being made at that time, I wasn’t judgmental about those films, I just didn’t enjoy them as much. With films such as Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider, or when you started seeing 2001 and The Godfather, et cetera, I became aware of those. One of the first films that I was taken to by my school is 2001. Those films made a deep impression upon me, and then I recycled back to things, which were early Marty [Scorsese] work, and [Brian] De Palma work, and some of the early work that Bob De Niro was involved in. A lot of New York; Coppola as he slipped in there; and Lucas with THX. It was all building up to it. So that was mostly my experience of that time period.

But I was willing to watch anything, no matter whether you’re talking about Smokey and the Bandit or [Sam] Peckinpah], I love movies, period.

Do you remember when you first heard about the Sharon Tate murders or where you were?

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I heard about Sharon Tate while I was at school, and it did not influence my world like it influenced every other world. I was more deeply impacted via the death of JFK, the death of Bob [Kennedy], and the death of Martin Luther King. The Manson murders were isolated to LA, and although it impacted greatly the way America overall took to violence—and closing their houses off, especially in Los Angeles, when doors started to be locked, and it was no longer open—my world remained pretty much open on the East Coast. We didn’t see it, feel it as intensely as you did here. It was a strange cult, clearly, but it didn’t hit the same level of impact that I’m now clearly aware of.

It clearly impacts how Quentin still processes all of this. So how did he approach this subject for this movie to you? Did he already have a screenplay when he started talking to you about it?

Yes. The first time [I learned about it], I was called by Quentin up to his house to read what he was thinking of as his next film. He didn’t tell me what it was about. I had heard that he was doing a project that was somewhat involved around the movement from Old Hollywood to New Hollywood, and that was all I was told. That took me to the evolution of, well, everything that we just talked about to a certain extent, with Scorsese and De Palma, Coppola, Lucas, and that shift out of the place where it was previously. You also have people like Bob Rafelson and how vital he was to that time period too with Head, with The Monkees, all of that.

So that’s where I thought he was going to go to. But when I met him, he handed me the script and I read it in the kitchen of his house at a little dining room table. He sat in the other room, doing various work, and periodically would test the waters of Bob Richardson to see whether he was laughing or not. And I read for three and half, four hours, and that’s when I knew what the film was about. But we didn’t have the last act. He didn’t give me the last act.

Really?

So when I finished the script, I said, “Quentin, it’s fucking great. It’s amazing, but what’s the last act?” And he said, “Well, I’m not going to give it to you now, I’ll give it to you later.” I didn’t read the last act until a number of months later, because this was pretty early on when I read the script, and he did more revisions on it, et cetera, and the last act was shown to me while I was at the production office. It was hand delivered to me as it was to almost anyone at that point that was intimately involved with shooting the movie. You went into a room, and it was brought out of a safe and given to you to read, and then you handed it back.

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So you saw nothing of the scenes set in August 1969 until you opened that safe?

No. We did it prior to, obviously, scouting locations, but it was at that late a time, yeah. So all I knew a quite substantial part of the film, but I had no idea how it ended.

How has your shorthand with Quentin evolved, and how has your working relationship changed over the years?

We’ve gone deeper into a family atmosphere, which is vital, I think. We’ve grown closer as friends, a level of trust, belief in each other. This film was highly celebratory in terms of our atmosphere, we worked extremely hard, we all supported each other. I mean, I supported him, and he supported me. There was never a hesitation in the feeling between the two of us in this film. It was the easiest working relationship I’ve had with him. It’s not to say any of the others were difficult, but this one was without strain, it was more with love than it was with any previous film.

read more: Sharon Tate – An Icon of Youth in the Decade of Youth

I know he’s shown cast and crew movies like His Girl Friday before production. What was the communal viewing experience on this one?

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Yes. We saw [Paul Mazursky movies]. We got Bob & Carol, Ted & Alice, a whole series of other films that came to bat, Terry Southern films. He does this all the time, but what we did between the two of us that was not so much the communal aspect of what films he was showing people, which he would do, like Rolling Thunder and such. But Quentin and I, I would go to his house, and I did see Rolling Thunder, and then I purchased it myself so I could see it again.

But I also, with Quentin, watched a number of episodes of Alias Smith and Jones; we watched a little bit of Maverick; Wanted: Dead or Alive. We’d go through a series of films and television shows, and then I would take it from there, and I would complete [a series]. He’d show the first episode, the pilot, of Lancer, and then I just purchased everything I could and went through it as deeply as possible: all the Mavericks, I did Gunsmoke, Have Gun – Will Travel. I did all of the Lancers, all of the Alias Smith and Jones, et cetera, and that was my homework and the way we worked.

Then we would talk about them when we were on set or on locations, and go, “Oh, that’s like the third episode, I love what happens in that,” and we would just chat about it.

While this movie is set in ‘69, you’re listing all these ‘50s shows, so how much fun was it recreating a ’50s Western in that opening scene?

Loved it! I mean, you cannot not love going back and also employing the lighting that was more used then, the reflectors and hard light, which I wouldn’t do nowadays, but I wanted to employ it as much as possible. We used arcs in certain scenes because we had the access to arcs. So we did try to recreate to some extent, especially those sequences you’re talking about, we tried with Bounty Law to have it as close as possible to what would have been done at that time.

Did you film entire episodes of Bounty Law or F.B.I.?

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No, what you see is exactly what we shot in F.B.I. There’s a little bit more in Bounty, but not much more. I would say maybe another couple minutes were involved with that initially when we shot, but not much more. Lancer’s really a film unto itself, so Lancer would obviously not have been shot in an anamorphic format for television. It would have been shot spherically and would have been shot for television, so it would have been in a 1.33 format. But Quentin saw it as a Western within the movie and didn’t want the format to alter when you went to it. And I think that was a highly intelligent choice, because it could have been broken if he so desired.

I was going to ask exactly about that, because you and Quentin have made your Nazi-killing movie as well as several Westerns, but I felt like you were more openly embracing some of the visual tics we associate with Leone, or Where Eagles Dare. Was that liberating for you?

Yes! Absolutely, I mean Where Eagles Dare was actually a film that was watched. And Leone, a little less so with Leone, we did more Leone in terms of Django than we did with this, and also with Corbucci, but in essence, we did less Spaghetti Westerns here and more American Western, and more television American Television Western.

I see, I was just really taken with the shot where the camera pans over, and you see the gun belt in the foreground.

Quentin talked about that shot on our first scout, and I’m thinking, “Oh, my God, how are we going to do this?” Track alongside, come up on that deck, move through the slats, come up and end on the rear of a pistol as he undoes the strap holding down the hammer, and then hold focus to the back as he walks forward. Quentin wanted it, and those are very complicated shots to accomplish, and they feel more or less effortless when I watch it now, whereas I know how difficult it was to achieve.

On the other side of the sequences, I think there’s obviously a real vividness to the way both Sharon is filmed. Could you talk about if you and Quentin were as much trying to evoke the historical reality of it as maybe how the cinema or media of that day liked to glorify or romanticize, their times?

I think with Sharon, there was a very strong attempt to keep inside of a lightness her, a lightness and luminance of her, and to give the film—I mean, to walk with her into the movie theater is a very unique experience. I don’t remember having done it any film in my life. I haven’t seen it. I mean, I’ve done it in Hugo and others, but nothing like this, where the actor is looking at herself, and that love of what the audience is doing around her and how they’re responding, and the joy that it elicits on her face. That’s so vital to this movie, because it speaks of something of someone who is really just beginning to champion her own career while you’ve been spending time with a man whose career has slowly been falling down. She’s at the height, and also [Roman] Polanski, though you don’t see any of Polanski’s work.

He hasn’t quite yet stepped into Chinatown at the very top of his peak. He had done The Vampire Killers and films like that but hasn’t hit the top zone. And so, for her to go in there and walk with her, that was a fabulous opportunity and also something that lifted the film out of anything that was like Rick, where there was that clear depression about what his career was doing and hesitation to acknowledge how fortunate he was actually to get a Spaghetti Western.

In essence, if you think about it, Steve McQueen obviously rose out of the world of television, and most notably at that time, Clint Eastwood was in Sergio Leone films, which I recall when I was growing up, that I did not feel a great love for the Spaghetti Westerns. I was more in the world of [Howard] Hawks, more in the world of John Ford.  It took a long time for me to get around to Anthony Mann, and then eventually finding my place in Spaghetti Westerns and loving them. Quentin is highly responsible for that love and appreciation of not only Leone, which is very obvious why you should love, but to learn Corbucci. The Great Silence is one of the great Westerns of my mind.

read more: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Ending Explained

I really want to talk to you about the ending shot. You were talking about some of the American classics, and there is something very beautifully dreamlike to me about Rick walking up to Sharon’s house with Jay [Sebring]. It’s very Old Hollywood but it’s also otherworldly. I was curious, were you thinking about movies like Casablanca, or the beginning of a new relationship?

I was when we shot it. Actually, when it truly hit me, because it’s a very technically complicated shot to achieve, and for me, I was more involved with the technical aspects of trying to achieve it in a seamless manner for Quentin. But it wasn’t until I saw a cut of the movie that it took on what you just said to me, because it’s then you’re working with the combination of sound in terms of soundtrack, but also the acting which led up to it and what you know is the relationship between Rick and Cliff, and Sharon and Polanski up to that point. The distance between them—the first time you see him, he’s been living there for a month, and there’s no real connection. And suddenly there he is walking through the gates of Oz. Even with that soundtrack, which is slightly on the eerie side and really beautiful. And the way [Quentin] did titles and such, I thought, “Masterful.” 

He shifted my entire perspective of the film in an extraordinarily beautiful way.

It is an amazing shot, but what for you is the reason you think we don’t see Sharon’s face in that final shot? We see her greet Rick, but it’ again, very otherworldly.

What did it for me—it wasn’t necessary to see them. I think what Quentin saw when he did that, and he was hesitating, he didn’t know if we would go back and reshoot that shot, but when he did the titles, and it said, “Once Upon a Time,” for me, that said everything about what the movie is, which is a fairytale. And the way he paused and then put the “… in Hollywood,” I had no need to be down below, because I don’t want to start another scene. I don’t think he wanted to start another scene. All he really wanted you to know is everything has changed. We’re leaving him with more hope, and I think that’s the beauty of why he restrained himself and held that shot for so long for so many titles as well, just let it play out. And when we were there, we just shot and shot till we rolled out of film.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in theaters now.

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David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.