Quentin Tarantino’s previous collaborations with Robert Richardson, ASC, Kill Bill (AC Oct. ’03) and Inglourious Basterds (AC Sept. ’09), quoted liberally from the visual vocabularies of Italian Spaghetti Westerns, but with Django Unchained, the writer/director blazes his own trail. “This time,” says Tarantino, “I’m doing a ‘Spaghetti Southern.’”
He goes on to explain that the bleak, pitiless universe of Spaghetti Westerns seemed like the ideal setting for the story of a freed slave in the antebellum South. The former slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), is trained in gunslinging by a charismatic bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Cristoph Waltz), who then hires him to help him track a posse of bandits called the Brittle Brothers. In return, Schultz agrees to help free Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from the clutches of wealthy plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
It has long been Tarantino’s custom to screen dozens of movies for his key creatives early in prep to help establish the language of the universe they will create. For Django Unchained, Richardson recalls, these screenings included Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence, Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, Max Ophüls’ The Earrings of Madame de …, Brian De Palma’s Carrie, Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More and Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. “That’s by no means a complete list,” adds Richardson.
The cinematographer and his core crew — gaffer Ian Kincaid, 1st AC Gregor Tavenner and key grip Chris Centrella — have worked together for so long that the cinematographer can issue any number of specific commands with the mere wave of a hand. Richardson also wears a headset that enables him to communicate with them, and occasionally other crewmembers, from his perch behind the camera. “Bob has trained all of us to be sensitive to the way a scene progresses,” says Tavenner. “Even a single close-up can contain a lot of information, so you have to be able to feel what that moment is really about.”
Tarantino and Richardson agree that they are finding their own groove after more than a decade of collaboration. “This is the most I’ve ever worked with one cinematographer, so the relationship is really getting solid,” says the director. “Bob isn’t trying to impose anything on me.” Richardson notes that Tarantino might not have always felt that way. “When we first worked together, on Kill Bill, I brought along my gaffer, key grip and first AC, and Quentin hadn’t worked with someone who came with his own crew,” he says. “I think he was afraid we would battle him, which was not the case. The director is the one with the vision, and we serve him or her. The only path to creating a great film is to support the director. Quentin is the master.”
“Bob always lines it up the way I ask, and then I look through the viewfinder and it sucks — it’s not magical,” the director concedes, chuckling. “Bob has very strong opinions, but he doesn’t editorialize. He just wants to know what’s in my head. That’s a crazy amount of trust.”
The filmmakers decided to shoot anamorphic 2.40:1 and use the same Panavision Primo lenses they had chosen for Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino’s affection for wider focal lengths meant the 40mm or 50mm was often on the camera. “Quentin doesn’t like the foreground-background separation that a long lens creates,” notes Richardson. When a lighter camera configuration or a focal length not covered by the Primos was needed, the cinematographer used Panavision E-Series primes. “The eight E-Series lenses, which range from 28mm to 180mm, are completely compatible with the Primos,” says Tavenner, “and they’re not only beautiful, they’re also beautiful wide open. Bob has a tendency to light to a T3.2.” (The lens package also included Primo 48-550mm ALZ11, 40-80mm AWZ2 and 70-200mm ATZ zoom lenses.)
After principal photography commenced, Tarantino continued to revise the script based on his work with the actors, or to reflect casting changes. Because of this, tests involving new sets and costumes were shot whenever Tarantino, Richardson, Kincaid, costume designer Sharen Davis and production designer J. Michael Riva could find a free moment on set. Kincaid recalls, “We’d sometimes have our riggers set up panels of different colors and textures of paint in an environment that we’d lit in the style we intended to use in those particular locations, and then send a B camera over to roll some footage. That way, Michael and Sharen could adjust their colors to our lighting.” (When Riva died suddenly mid-shoot, art director David Klassen assumed the production designer’s responsibilities in addition to his own.)
The 120-day shoot took the filmmakers to Simi Valley and Santa Clarita, Calif.; Jackson Hole, Wyo.; and New Orleans, La. The California locations, Melody Ranch Studios in Santa Clarita and Big Sky Ranch in Simi Valley, doubled for sites in Texas, where the first part of the story takes place. “That’s where Django is freed by Schultz — that’s the Western part of the movie,” says Tarantino. “Then we move to the winter wonderland, where Django becomes a bad-ass bounty hunter; we shot all that up in Wyoming. Then we moved down to Louisiana, where we wanted to drench the movie in Southern atmosphere.” Richardson describes the differences between the West and the South in terms of Technicolor processes: an earthy “British Technicolor” look was sought for the West, and a more saturated “IB Technicolor” look was the goal for the South.
A historic plantation in Wallace, La., called Evergreen served as Candie’s plantation, Candieland. The production used Evergreen’s mansion and slave quarters for some interiors and exteriors, as well as its oak-tree alleys and sugarcane fields. The art department spent five months constructing a 90'-wide-by-45'-high façade for the mansion exterior, which featured six Greek Revival-style columns that were 30' high. The first and second floors were art-directed approximately 20' into the façade to match the two-story interior set built at Second Line Studios in New Orleans.
The one-camera setup is a hallmark of Richardson and Tarantino’s creative collaboration. Rarely, a B-camera will come into play, and if it does, Tarantino operates it. “When people ask Quentin why he doesn’t shoot with multiple cameras, he says, ‘I direct, I don’t select,’” says Richardson. “He will reluctantly shoot B-camera coverage for action sequences, but even those shots are specifically tailored.”
Tarantino describes two different approaches to camera moves in Django Unchained in terms of other filmmakers: “When we’re outside, it’s Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci. Inside, especially in Candie’s mansion, it’s Max Ophüls.” Richardson elaborates, “One of the things Quentin brought up almost immediately [in prep] was how Fulci and Corbucci use the zoom. Often their work utilized zoom actions that mimic a dolly but have a vastly different sensibility. Whether the choice was budgetary or aesthetic is open to argument, but we embraced it as an aesthetic. We screened Ophüls’ films for the long, fluid camera moves. Django became a combination of these two styles; we were often doing crane moves or dollies in conjunction with a zoom.” When Tarantino requested it, Richardson would punctuate the drama with snap zooms, which he pulled by hand.