A deep dive into the nuts and bolts of bringing Quentin Tarantino's 70mm Western to life.
Robert Richardson has been Quentin Tarantino’s DP of choice since 2003’s “Kill Bill: Vol. 1.” The relationship has distinguished Tarantino’s visual language considerably from that of films like “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown,” which established his voice in the 1990s. On “The Hateful Eight,” the collaboration reaches new heights with not just a 70mm production, but one captured through archaic, wide-angle Ultra Panavision 70 lenses that haven’t seen the light of day since 1966’s “Khartoum.”
This was a considerable undertaking. How do you feel about it all now that everything is locked and ready to go out?
I love the movie. It’s such an intense experience. It’s so unlike this sort of path that the majority of filmmakers are now moving down. But it was very difficult to get my head wrapped around, “Wait a minute, we should be [digitally color] graded.” It used to be you would do [color timing] in a lab. As the film progresses, you call out shots and you correct them with YCM, whether it’s going to be magenta, yellow, whatever it’s going to be. And it’s like one point here, two points here, give me a point of density. That’s pretty much the extent of the way we graded years ago. How you grade now is in a digital intermediate suite, where you have multitudes — quarter points, half points, shades of points — you know? But Quentin doesn’t want that movie. He wants the film as a film.
He’s been impressively adamant about the process on this.
And I think brilliantly so because when I watched the film, the colors scream on 70mm. They scream at you. The red in particular looks like we could have shot this film Kodachrome. I would almost say it was a Kodachrome movie except for there’s absolutely no grain anywhere. It’s really beautiful. It would be lovely if we could achieve more of this, more 70mm shooting, if people could afford it and if the cameras would be more available and not just for visual effects shooting but for entire pictures. That would be fantastic.
I’m fascinated at the ambition of reach on the roadshow rollout. There were so few 70mm prints of “Interstellar” and “The Master.” But you’re aiming to screen in 100 venues!
That’s part of the thing that we’re immediately in the midst of. Because you have to make the print and the print comes from the negative, and it has to be cut. [So you have to consider] the time it takes to cut a negative, how many negative cutters there are that do 70mm, changes that erupt when Quentin watches a screening. [If he] changes a reel, you go back to the negative to recut and nobody can progress forward until you’ve got a locked reel. Then there’s the added dilemma [that] media will need to be done for the mass release, which is in January. Also for DVDs, Blu-rays, you know, all things that go digital. It takes two and a half days to scan one reel. And the original negative will probably only give you 15-to-20 prints, maybe, if you stretch it. You don’t want to damage it, but I’m kind of hoping we can go a little further.
And from those masters you will create prints that will go out to theaters.
We used to call them “directors,” for the director. But in essence the first generation. Now, 70mm is so clean it’s hard to distinguish. You pick up more contrast, and the colors maybe get muted a tiny bit [when you strike theatrical prints from the directors], but they’re still quite rich.
It certainly sounds like the decision to go this route complicated things across a much wider spectrum than you’d initially expect.
That’s the best part of it! To actually have been given the opportunity to shoot in 65mm is sort of a dream. I think that complication is something that we all have taken on with deep respect, and also with the knowledge that we are extraordinarily fortunate to have been given the opportunity by Quentin. And now you’ve got, what, 80 projectors you have to come up with? Eighty lenses — because the size of this frame is not like anything that exists out there now, being 2.76:1. It’s the widest possible frame you can get. And those lenses had to be built by Schneider. Panavision had a few originals but most of them are all Schneider lenses and they go into those projectors, but then you have to retrain projectionists, those that are still around. It’s a wonderful cocktail of these pros that haven’t done it in years and are absolutely enthralled with the possibility of doing it again, and then younger projectionists, guys that didn’t have the experience but are being trained. And they’re in love with it, because they’re not going to get their hands on 70 again.
I’ve been wondering if this is going to be reel-by-reel or will they build the film on platters?
This is something I don’t exactly know. I’m thinking platter.
That’s pretty heavy!
That’s heavy. I was so enthralled with the actual experience I failed to go the next step on the question, if it is really platter or they’re doing changeovers. From what I gather it’s going to be platter.
Did 80 projectors even exist? Did they have to build any?
No I think they exist. They just took the old ones and started to work on them. And if they are going platter that would have made it an easier choice because initially it was considered we would need two projectors in every room. But you’ve also got to move the digital out of the way if you’re in those buildings. The Cinerama Dome, you know that that’s going to have the capability of 70mm projection. The Chinese has that. I don’t know if Quentin is going to use the Chinese but I don’t know where he’s going to put his choice of venues? Do you?
No but I’m expecting Cinerama Dome to be the place here in LA. Especially given how big that screen is. But it also curves.
It was built for that. Cinerama allowed a falling off to the sides. But there’s a love of that in Quentin that’s built from years of seeing films, that he doesn’t mind if it falls off to the sides and it’s out of focus or a little darker. That’s part of the charm. The beauty of these lenses is akin to nothing I’ve ever shot with. They’re very, very difficult to wrangle into contemporary modes with electronic focus pullers. All that had to be done by Dan Sasaki at Panavision, who did an amazing job. Some of these lenses, I mean they hadn’t seen the light of day, as you know. They had not had had light pass through them in 40, 50 years. And they don’t even look like lenses. You see them first like prisms. They’re strange-shaped elements.
Why were they shaped that way?
They used a prism in the front to create the width and there was a flat element. It’s actually a very flat-looking lens, in terms of the way you get distortion on the edges, because the elements are bigger. When it was put up on a screen for me to look at, I was with Gregor Tavenner, the assistant, and Dan Sasaki. And the minute it hit the small projection screen, which was just showing you numbers, I was like, “That’s it. We’ve got to make this work. We’ve got to make this work.” Because it was as if there’s a smoky quality. This amber light just diffused the image. I started shooting and I felt it immediately on the faces. Once they got the lenses to be able to take out on a test, I shot tests with people in Montana and the faces were just like nothing I’d ever shot before. We had all this high definition from being 70mm, but the skin rolled off in the sweetest way. The faces were beautiful.
So is there a painterly quality to it, then?
When Neil Young goes into the room and records with Jack White and they just turn the turntable and they record straight into it and it’s all laid down on a master, it’s akin to that. But each lens is unique. Each lens uniquely gave you a characteristic that the other lenses did not. So you would move with them depending upon whether you wanted the blue flares, didn’t want the blue flares.
Who created this technology? Was there some person who led this charge at Panavision long ago that you’re aware of?
I don’t know. There is somebody that renowned at Panavision which I don’t recall his name. And he is known as, like, the mastermind. That would be a question you could ask Dan Sasaki. He’s extremely knowledgeable and absolutely in love with optics and the physics of optics. He is also a magician and he took over for someone that was a mentor and extraordinarily good.
(Sasaki: “It would probably have to be Robert Gottschalk and the gang. Walter Wallin. The whole group back then. Robert Gottschalk was the founder of Panavision. He drove the Panaflex, drove the Ultra Panavision. He was the marketing genius behind it. And then Walter Wallin — I looked at some of the old patents — he was the name that designed some of the cylinders.”)
So at Panavision they must have just been in love with this whole concept from the start.
That’s a good question. I’m not entirely certain that they were absolutely in love with it. They didn’t know it was going to happen. I came in with the intention of shooting the film as Quentin had outlined, in 65mm with normal spherical lenses. But I walked by a case and I see a lens that shot Omar Sharif in “Lawrence of Arabia” and I go, “I want that lens.” But it’s the original. It’s the only one. “Bring the lens out. I want to get it fixed and we’re going to shoot with it.” But they wouldn’t pull that lens out of there. They said I’d have to break the glass case, which I was more than willing to do! Break the glass case, pull the lens out and let’s figure out when to use it. So I went up and I started looking at our spherical lenses, which were astoundingly beautiful. And then I, with Gregor, walked into a back room, and it was like “The Wizard of Oz.” We opened up the curtain to go back and behind there were these shelves and these lenses that were sitting on those shelves for years upon years. Essentially they’re relics. Nobody thought they would pull these lenses out to shoot on. I said, “Let’s put them up.” I didn’t know what I expected when I saw what I sort of described to you earlier. I was just amazed by the quality. Just the coloring. But I also knew the sharpness because it was numbers. I could see from one side to the other how sharp that lens was. Even though it was not quite a perfect setting — they had to play with how they were mounted on the projector.
I asked Quentin this and I was just kind of holding his feet to the fire because the enthusiasm is wonderful and there’s plenty of us that would love to see film maintain a foothold, but do you really think you can stem that tide too much with the industry being such an unwavering ocean liner?
I don’t think you can stem the tide. I’m not the romantic that Quentin is. I see what I’ve already done. I love film. But I also am keenly aware that the world is rapidly altering and to be able to project film becomes more and more difficult. And, you know, the other side of that is how many people can continue to chemically finish a movie. Because I can shoot on film and film is actually gaining in momentum with people shooting over the last few years, 35mm in particular. And 65 for, you know, visual effects often, or IMAX, clearly. But even those are starting to alter. You’re getting into higher and higher resolutions in the digital world. I don’t think you can stop it from turning. I do think as long as we have it as a tool we should make the very best of it because it is a tool for filmmakers. I’ll tell you more later whether I feel the same way after I’ve shot this film [Ben Affleck’s “Live By Night”]. But the roll-off in film in terms of skin color is a more graceful roll-off. It’s a strong learning curve to get to the digital but not only that, you take film and you go digital intermediate. So you shoot on 35, you process on 35, but then you basically turn it into digital information. So you’re taking the benefits and then you create a look that is digital and it’s going to go out digital. It’s not going to go out on chemical in most cases. In this case it clearly will. That’s where I think there’s a beauty to film to record on because it is a softer record. But it still does end up in digital projection.
He says he hopes that this could become a premier way for filmmakers who care to showcase their work in such a way. So let me ask you. You’ve worked with a number of the greats — Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese. Do you think that there are filmmakers who are keeping an eye on this and would jump at the opportunity?
Yeah, I think there are filmmakers who would do this. We obviously know some. On “The Master” you’ve got a brilliant director. You can go to “Interstellar,” you’ve got another great director. There are all different zones of people that will allow this change to take place. How many can do it? How many can convince, for example, Warner Bros. or Paramount? There is an element that’s complex, because they already have the format they want out there. I hope it does change. I’m sure Marty would love to shoot 65mm. I know that would be a dream. It would have to be. But the cost is phenomenal. And there’s no one trying to lower that price point to make it bearable on an average scale. Quentin made a low budget film. You may not see that it’s low budget but whenever it sits around the $50-something[-million]-to-60-something zone — he did 100 days of shooting or 90 days of shooting or whatever it is — why can’t others do it?
Tell me about the hardships of shooting up in Telluride.
Telluride was externally difficult way out there. We had a pretty miserable winter because it was cold, but we didn’t get much snow. Most of the West didn’t get much snow last year. And then we had the unbearable studio, which was colder than anywhere in Telluride. It was unbearable.
Where did you do that?
At the Red Studio [in Hollywood].
Where in Telluride were you shooting? Like how far from town?
I think it’s called Wilson but I don’t know positively. It’s about a 35 minute drive from the center of town, 40 minutes.
With this big rig I assume that was difficult.
It really isn’t that big.
You’ve got these giant mags, though.
Well, we built 2,000-foot mags for Quentin’s dialogue. That’s the largest of it. It’s quite substantial. But most of our shooting initially started on the 1,000, and some of our more difficult, say, remote camera shots that we had to do for the horses, they’re on 500-foot mags. We just couldn’t carry any weight on the camera. It was about 70 pounds, which, I’ve had other rigs — like for “Hugo” we had 70-pound rigs, you know, with two cameras mounted and digital. So I don’t think it’s that, but it was pretty close to a max-out. If you tried to put it on a Steadicam it would be close to maxing it out.
And filming in that kind of a striking environment?
Telluride itself is magical. The town itself is situated in an extraordinary environment. It’s one of the most beautiful towns I’ve ever been in. You’ve been there right?
Yeah, I go to the festival.
It’s just amazing. What Telluride is as you walk through it is what you carry. That energy. So for us it was a privilege to be there. To shoot with the cameras, I tried not to think of the cameras as in any way altering the perspective of the way we were shooting. So for me, 35 or 65, it’s like, I didn’t want to think about it. I saw the light at the same level. You’re basically on 500 ASA stock all the time in the interiors. You’re lighting much the same way. The difference is the width of the lens. So when you shoot a medium shot…
You’re seeing a lot more.
I’ve got half the room in the frame, minimal. Now if he has me moving, I basically shoot two-thirds of the room. All I have to do is a six- or seven-foot move and a pan to re-correct and I’ve basically shot out the set. I can shoot out that set. And he was doing 360! No holds barred on Quentin. It didn’t stop his creativity. He wants it to be a shot that’s right on the floor, it’s on the floor. He wants to go through the floor, it’s going through the floor. Quentin was very much the same thing, in terms of the level of his creativity, which is of course what you want to have. The format shouldn’t stop the way you shoot. If we go back and we look at the great films shot all through time, even in 35mm when we’re back in those huge housings to make them quiet enough, they’re still shooting some of the greatest films we’ve ever seen, camera moves included. So I don’t find it a hamper in any way. And we used every angle. But I couldn’t move walls to help me with the lighting. It wasn’t until we got back [to the Hollywood sound stage], Quentin had several shots that he knew he couldn’t do on location because he wanted to go through the roof, from a high angle, or he wanted to track outside the building and take all the walls off so you had more width. So for Quentin those shots were all saved for a stage.
Let me ask the layman question, which is, using a format like this, but everything being interior for the most part, did it feel like a missed opportunity to not shoot a big landscape movie?
We’re making a Quentin film. We’re doing dialogue. I’m looking at faces. And I’m looking at the way they’re staged. And they’re staged in the most unique way because of the lens and the shape of it were massive. So then you could all of a sudden include five, six people in a shot with no issues at all. Each one would have an identity in the positioning. I think that’s what Quentin excelled at is, compositionally speaking, how he formed and increased the level of tension within this room. That width … I find it very intimate. I like the width and I like to play with the use of negativity. What’s in your frame? What’s isn’t in your frame. How do you include it? Where do you put the face in the frame? Also, in my opinion, these lenses are the most beautiful for face that I’ve ever used. So I’m going with the theory that it’s not a missed opportunity. In fact it’s an opportunity that probably we’ll never see again.
You make a good point, too, about the amount of people you can put into a frame, because that inherently affects the drama that you experience and how the actors are interacting.
And where they’re positioned. Is someone back there? Is someone no longer back there? And Quentin used that brilliantly to let this tension build inside the set. You feel as if you can see all the walls all the time. So there’s a higher level of tension. My friend saw the movie and I called her and I said, “How was it?” She said, “Bob, it’s a masterpiece of character study. But it’s the damn most violent movie I’ve ever seen Quentin make.” And I was: “Wait a minute — 99 people get killed in ‘Kill Bill.’ The 99 come in, they get slaughtered. There’s more death and blood in that movie than any movie I’ve ever shot in my life. How can you say that?” “Because the tension of the room built on you and built on you and you were aware there’s only eight characters and you’re virtually seeing all eight at all times. And once the violence unleashed, you had already been taken to this high level of tension, like a thriller.”
It amplified it.
It amplified it in a way like Polanski can amplify a situation, which is closed-in. You feel it. Quentin captured something I don’t think he’s captured. And it’s not because of great vistas. It has some of those in it. Most people ask that question right off the bat. “Why would you shoot eight characters primarily within one set with 70mm?”
It’s probably good to establish what you can do with it in a different kind of movie than a landscape movie, because then if it does become a little more popular, people will understand its versatility.
I agree with you. And I think that the concept that because it’s 70mm, you’ve got to make an epic, “Lawrence of Arabia,” is false. “The Master” proved that. “The Master” is a series of very intimate scenes. And you probably never question the fact that it’s 70mm.
Regarding the genre, the Western, what did you guys talk about? Did you look at any movies in particular? Did you want to emulate anything?
We would always watch films. I’m sure we watched “The Great Silence” just one more time. It’s hard not to. But we went back and evaluated all the films that were shot [in Ultra Panavision], like “Ben-Hur” and “Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” I mean there’s a film that didn’t need to be shot [this way], but Quentin had always questioned why it was that he never felt the lack of intimacy with the actors. And then as he watched it over and over he realized what a brilliant jumble of composition was achieved because they fit all those characters into one shot so often.
Was there talk about the visual language of the Western?
He’s stretching into wider, compositionally, with actors and staging than he probably would have in the past. But he’s still a man who loves a master, would love to do things in a master as long as possible to keep the tension. Then when the tension falls apart, to walk away. He also deeply loves the closeup. The medium shot is primarily where he sits and then he utilizes the extreme closeups with the Sergio Leones for very specific reasons.
Do you have a favorite Western?
That’s a tough one. I would say Peckinpah would most likely ride right up there at the very top for me.
“Wild Bunch?” “High Country?”
“Wild Bunch.” I have always loved that movie because of it’s time frame and the characters. I think it’s a near-perfect Western. I do love “The Great Silence,” because Quentin turned me on to it and I love the cinematic nature of that, in the snow. But I’m going with Peckinpah if I’ve got to pick one.
By the way, what were your thoughts when you first read the script? The leak had probably made things touchy at that point.
He didn’t even give the ending! I came to his house, he goes, “Bob, let’s have a drink.” I said, “OK.” We go in the back. I think we had a couple tequilas and we talked for maybe 30 minutes about how we’d do it. Are we going to be able to do it? What would the limitations be, technically speaking? Will the cameras be able to survive this level of cold, etc. And then we walked inside his house and he handed me a draft. He said, “Go to the back office, sit down, don’t come out until you finish it.”
With a couple of tequilas in you!
Heck yeah! I’m like, “OK!” This is Quentin. I’m used to Quentin now. He makes me giggle. He’s a hard worker. He’s one of those people that I think are very rare in this world. He burns both sides of the candle, no doubt about it, but he does it with brilliance. So I read it and came out. I said, “Where is the ending? What happens at the end? I was sitting on the edge of my seat.” He said, “I’m not giving that out. You’ll get that later.” And that was it. That’s Quentin f***ing with your head.
That’s great. Yeah the one that leaked didn’t have much of an ending either because it was still very much in process.
There’s a pretty serious ending in this one. One of the things that this woman said to me when she said it was the most violent movie, she said there were almost no good characters in the movie. Not well-written characters, but characters that you like. So it has a different feeling all around. It’s like, this is a bunch of outlaws, liars, killers. Every single one of them, you don’t know what they are, which one might be good. There are a couple that are sort of good in whatever ways they are. But in essence you’ve got a lot of duplicity and I think that wears on you if you want to find somebody you can identify with, and that’s where he sort of broke the mold in this particular film.
Finally, this week’s Variety cover story features Quentin and Sam. What is your perspective on that collaboration?
I would start by saying that both are masters of their trade and there’s a deep respect for each other that borders on the level of a brother. When they work together they tend to push the other, but gently. If Sam has an idea, Quentin is deeply respectful of the idea. And as Quentin moves and Sam sees something, he’ll push Quentin in certain directions. But their relationship is about honor, and, as I said, a huge level of respect. Sam is magical with the way he can twist the words for Quentin as only Sam can do. And also I think Sam’s a teacher. I saw it in “Django,” the way he worked with other actors, what he expected of other actors. When he came out to a set, he was prepared. He was delivering. And anyone who doesn’t prepare or is not at that level is going to see a side of Sam that is going to help them. He generally does it in a soft way, but he does it like a teacher, a martial arts teacher. He moves you. He brings you out, to try to get the best out of you in all situations, including this movie. Sam was fantastic. And ornery, he can be ornery, but it helps you.
Quentin has said Sam is the only actor he’s granted rewrite privileges, which is fascinating given the ownership of the material he sort of covets.
Quentin has an ownership. When the line is not delivered as written on the page, there’s a correction made to anyone. His words on the page “are what I’m asking you to read. I’m not asking you to improvise. I want you to use the words that are on the page. How you interpret that is why you were hired as an actor. But you alter those words – that’s not to take place.” But with Sam, as you noted, there is sometimes a softness in terms of if Sam slides out a little bit to hand something in, Quentin will listen.
Have you ever witnessed an actor have some trouble with that?
No, not with Quentin. Anyone who signs on with Quentin, they know what they’re coming into. “I bought this ticket. I’m on the ride and whatever it does to my work, whether it’s good or it’s bad, I’m there. I’m making this movie. He’s it. I’m there to support him.” Quentin on this show with me, it was just an honor to be with him. I was happy. It’s hard, hard work. He knew it was hard work. It’s hard work for him as well and we just came to work and put vision down.