For five decades, Tony Richmond has been a major industry player, collaborating with the likes of Nicolas Roeg (DON’T LOOK NOW), Sean Penn (THE INDIAN RUNNER) and Robert Luketic (LEGALLY BLOND). He looks back over his illustrious career, at what new technology means for filmmaking and why time is always the biggest challenge.
You started in the film industry at the age of 15. What first attracted you to the movies?
I have to say I’ve been very lucky, because it’s such a young man’s business and I’ve managed to keep chugging along! I started as a messenger boy helping the cameramen, who were one-man bands in those days. Then I got my union ticket and started making B-pictures at another studio. I was lucky enough to get involved with a couple of pictures at Bray Studios—the old Hammer movies. I was permanently employed there, but they’d bring these big cinematographers in on a movie-to-movie basis, and I ended up meeting a cameraman called Nicolas Roeg on a movie called Judith, around 1966.
I was the second assistant cameraman on the first unit, and Nic was the DP on the second unit, and he had a big success as a cinematographer prior to that and he became a father figure to me. When that movie finished, Nic went on to work on David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago and took me with him, and obviously the inevitable happened to Nic on that [winning an Oscar]. I stayed on in Spain and worked as his assistant on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and then once again on Fahrenheit 451, and Casino Royale and then Far From the Madding Crowd [which] is the last film I did as a focus puller.
But the person who gave me my break was John Schlesinger. I went with him to Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967, and we made a documentary called Israel, the Right to Live, which I’ve never been able to find anywhere. Schlesinger told Basil Dearden, who was a big-time director back then, that I was up-and-coming, and Basil Dearden allowed me to shoot Only When I Larf. What’s interesting is there were a lot of talented people throughout the entertainment industry, but it’s about the luck to be in a position where your talent can shine through.
Looking back on your career, what are the moments that define you?
Working with some great cinematographers. I worked with John Wilcox, Freddie Young and Nic Roeg, and I learnt a great deal. They sort of mentored me. I had an extraordinary relationship with Nic. He’s been a father figure, a big brother and a great friend and I’ve shot five projects with him. All of the movies were on location, which means you have dinner every night and you’re constantly talking about the project, so we developed a visual shorthand.
Is there one shot in any of the films you’ve made that you think was the pinnacle for you?
There’s been many shots I’ve loved, but when you sit back and look at your work, quite frankly I’d like to do it all again because I could do it just that little bit better! There was one shot which I thought was fantastic, which was a close-up of Julie Christie in Don’t Look Now, at the funeral when the barge comes in. At the last minute Nic said, ‘OK, let’s get a shot from in the barge,’ so I grabbed a hand-held camera and I lay down at her feet, pointing up at Julie’s face. It was dark so I pushed the lens wide open and I had completely forgotten the barge was going to go out into the Grand Canal, so the shot was completely over-exposed, incredibly burnt-out. We managed to bring it down in the lab, but it had a wonderful, ethereal quality. That came about as a complete mistake on my part.
Don’t Look Now is full of visual flourishes. How did you approach shooting the movie?
We shot everywhere in Venice where people don’t shoot. We shot in dark alleyways where you wouldn’t usually go. We had an extraordinary winter with a lot of mist and not a lot of rain. It’s an eerie place with a cold light, and we managed to find some great locations. It’s one of the hardest places to make a movie; there is nowhere else to make a movie like that. There are no trucks, everything goes by boat, and the tide is always coming in or coming out. We shot almost entirely with an Italian crew, and it was a difficult but exciting challenge.
Is your enthusiasm for films undiminished, even at the age of 70?
Yes it is. Movies are very different now, they are much more studio-driven. It’s much more of a money-making machine, but I love what I do because it’s really exciting. I like to work with directors I worked with before a long time ago, because you go through the pain together—budgets are smaller now and time is tighter. You are racing time all the time.
I don’t think [films] are of a comparable quality [as before]; I don’t think they are as well cut. I’m not being critical of an editor’s work, but I think they are cut for kids, all this fast-paced, quick cutting. The story isn’t allowed to unfold slowly. Everything has to be so immediate. I’ve got a 14-year-old kid and she watches movies on cell phones, it’s ridiculous. The attention span is zilch.
So you don’t think technological evolution has improved the industry?
I don’t think it’s got better. Believe it or not, we have much more equipment than we used to have although the digital age is fast approaching. But the biggest evolution since 1967 is those days we didn’t have fast film. Fast lenses didn’t come in until the early ‘70s, and that was a big evolution because it meant you didn’t need so much light.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to be a cinematographer today?
I’d say get on to as many movie sets as possible, attach yourself to a DP, watch how he works and how he relates to the director, and learn just from watching and doing—not just what to do, but what not to do. Making a movie is a big compromise. David Lean said, ‘A movie is only pure before you start shooting.’ As soon as you start, every shot involves some sort of compromise. •