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Quentin Tarantino gestures happily as Brad Pitt looks on.
Quentin Tarantino on set with Brad Pitt.
Sony Pictures

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The tricks to making Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood look vintage

Cinematographer Robert Richardson explains his throwback methods

Quentin Tarantino is known for his love of film, figuratively and literally, constantly referencing old movies as well as using old equipment to revive a vintage feel. Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is perhaps his most gushing work yet, and there’s no lack of cinema trickery in it, as leading man Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) stars in various films and TV shows that all demand a different look.

To get the nitty-gritty details on just how it all came together, Polygon spoke to legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson, who also shared a story about sharing a drink (or three) with the celebrated director.

Cliff drives as Rick sits in the passenger seat of the car in Once Upon a Time in Hollywoood
Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff (Brad Pitt) drive down Hollywood Boulevard.
Andrew Cooper/Sony Pictures

Polygon: How many different film stocks did you end up shooting on?

Robert Richardson: It’s always refreshing when you get the opportunity to be able to shoot, for example, Super 8, we did some 16mm Ektachrome, which came up in the middle of the film for the guests that were at the house. If you look at that film stock, [featuring] the heiress to the Folger fortune [played by Samantha Robinson], the Kodak bath broke and it sat at the bottom of the tank, and that’s why it has that particular visual look.

We shot Super 8 for the flashback to the Spaghetti Western that [Rick] was involved with in Italy. Same thing for the Italian films; we shot within a car with green screen. [Quentin] wasn’t entirely certain what parts he was going to use for the film. He knew it was going to be one section, but he didn’t know how many shots would be involved, so we shot a number of small pieces for that to be able to be utilized inside of the remake of that, and tried to duplicate the quality inside the negative, which is of course the same thing we ended up doing by recreating the look of Bounty Law, just trying to make it in black and white stock and duplicate the visual look of the time period.

Were there any particularly difficult shots in those recreations?

In terms of other work that was done that’s sort of tricky in that way, was of course the Van Nuys drive-in, because that’s actually a fabricated drive-in. We didn’t have a drive-in. We had the marquee that’s out front that you drive by in the street, pan to [Cliff] going by marquees of Lady in Cement, and then the camera moves towards what is the drive-in as the car disappears to the left and then booms up over the top. So [visual effects designer] John Dykstra created that in CG, or actually in miniatures. He did miniatures also for the airplanes in the sky.

Did you use much vintage equipment in shooting the film in order to nail down the look of the era?

Our lenses are old, but they would have fit some of these time periods. Certainly, they’re older than ’60s for some of that stuff, but that wasn’t what we were going for. The things that they would’ve used, we use back. In other words, we use them as props, not as elements to shoot. So we used real cameras, we used real dollies from the time period, et cetera, ramps, and things like that, but we didn’t shoot with those cameras.

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio sit facing each other in a restaurant booth as Quentin Tarantino watches from behind the camera filming Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood
Tarantino films a scene between Cliff (Pitt) and Rick (DiCaprio).
Photo: Andrew Cooper/Columbia Pictures

Was it at all strange shooting the different films and TV shows within the movie and adjusting to their respective styles?

Not to me. I spent a lot of time preparing for those kinds of shifts, and so when they come to me, they’re not surprising or difficult, in essence, once you’ve solved the dilemma. It’s the, “Oh, I want to do it this way.” It’s more about resolving and solving what Quentin needs, but they don’t come as surprises to me so much of the time. There are shots, of course, that come from Quentin, which are always like, “You want to do what? Today?” Like, “Okay, all right, we’ll come, we’ll solve that.” But other than that, we tried to be as prepared as possible because we had so much to shoot, so many pages in the script and so many locations, and so much to accomplish that we couldn’t not have the level of preparation.

Are there any strange requests from Quentin that stand out to you?

Some of the tough shots are when you go, “Let’s pull out of Leo in the pool, and end up in a two-shot over the roof with Roman and Sharon.” That’s a big request. We went through a myriad of solutions for that, because it’s an extremely difficult shot. We had to resolve it by trying different concepts out, whether it’s going to be spider cam, the sort of things they use in football games, or whether we were going to try to do it with a crane, and what crane would it be? Would I have to use a zoom? A lot that went into that. Eventually, we tried to test one, and we showed it to Quentin during a daylight hour on our off day, and he looked at it, he said, “Yeah, this’ll work.” That’s how we knew to resolve it, but otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to solve the problem.

Can you speak a little about the Lancer sequence? It starts as though we’re actually watching it play out, and then when Rick breaks to ask for a line, the camera just moves back into place.

Of course, it’s in the script, but none of us really had any knowledge of how it was going to play out, because we also did coverage of the director during that sequence. You can see that cut, sort of, in the trailer, but it’s not actually in the film. The first time I saw the movie, in a rough cut, I was like, “Oh! Well, that’s brilliant.” Because I’d been sitting inside this movie with him, and [Timothy Olyphant] comes in and he comes down, they join each other, walk to the bar, we’ve already heard, “And then it’s ‘Spanish, Spanish, Spanish,’” with [Rick’s] rehearsals while he’s drinking and floating on the water, so we already know what’s going to happen.

When he said, “Line,” I was expecting to cut. But Quentin just held, and that’s, of course, the brilliance of that scene, is you hold, you hear from the back, if you’re listening in a good sound system, you hear from the back behind you, the line given out by a script supervisor, him delivering, and then blowing it again, and then it’s frustration. “No, no, just go back.” “Can we cut?” The camera just rotates back. That sequence is one of the highlights of the film for me.

How much nostalgia do you have for all of the films that Quentin is referencing?

Well, initially when I started the project and I read it at his house, I was making notes, and reading the script. As I made the notes, it felt like I was making a note for every page. I was dealing with 190 pages or 180 pages of a script, so it was taking me forever, and Quentin was watching, so he was watching me take notes on his own script, and it wasn’t just films, it was music as well, and it was artists that I didn’t recognize. There was so much in the script.

It was so detailed, because when he writes, he writes with a high level of description, which is unlike most directors. He writes a very long script; it doesn’t mean it’s going to play that long, but his descriptions give very detailed information to anyone working on the production, and also a great sense. It’s almost like it’s as much a novel as it is a screenplay, and that’s the joy of reading Quentin’s work, so of course I made tremendous amounts of notes. I didn’t know a lot. I didn’t know Alias Smith and Jones, I didn’t know Lancer, I didn’t know the [Sergio] Corbucci film that we ended up doing. He ended up showing it to me on the screen in his house. There was a great deal that I was unaware of, and in every film I do with Quentin, that’s actually the truth. He’s a great friend, but he’s also a phenomenal teacher.

Did Quentin say anything when he saw you making all those notes in his script?

No, I had a little bit too much to drink in terms of tequila at the end of the night. I left my glasses and my notes there. I took an Uber home, which I’d arrived in, because I knew I was going to end up having a drink with him. The next day I go, “Can I get Quentin to send me back my notes and my glasses?” And they said, “Sure.” My glasses came back. My notes have never shown up.

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is in theaters now.