Robert Richardson Interview: ‘A Private War’ cinematographer
When Robert Richardson, a three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer, started work on “A Private War,” he wasn’t the only one who had their hands on the camera. The film is the first narrative feature by documentarian Matthew Heineman, who DPed his own docs, including “Cartel Land” (2015) and “City of Ghosts” (2017), and was a littler reluctant to relinquish control, Richardson revealed at Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Cinematographers panel, moderated by this author (watch above).
“The beginning of the journey was a little more complicated. The first few days was like, ‘Hmm.’ He wasn’t 100 percent sure he wanted Richardson to be operating his camera,” Richardson said. “And then he finally went ‘All right. Do it.’ We’d have conversations. I’d say, ‘Work with the actors. Don’t worry. You tell me what you want to do with the camera, I’ll do it.’”
What they both wanted to do was tell the story of Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) as truthfully as possible. A premier war correspondent, Colvin died in 2012 while covering the siege in Homs, Syria. To achieve that verisimilitude, Richardson, who won Oscars for “JFK” (1991), “The Aviator” (2004) and “Hugo” (2011), used as much natural light as possible and often shot Pike from behind as she entered dangerous gunfights and war zones, much like how you’d see in a real news report or documentary.
“You have to follow. When you’re following a journalist, you’re following from behind. You don’t lead a journalist. They only lead you,” he said. “We wanted to be as honest as possible. Cinema verite, I’d say, is the closest. I tried as hard as possible to be as natural as possible not to light where I didn’t have to light. I tried to do everything in a natural way.”
Heineman and Richardson went even further by filming real refugees when they shot in Jordan. The drama features numerous harrowing sequences, including a mass grave excavation and interviews with women in the widows’ basement. The emotional toll of these scenes was more difficult than any technical set-up, Richardson said.
“They were almost improvised. We went to certain people we knew and then I would just put the camera on my shoulder and start shooting,” he revealed. “And [Heineman] would sit beside Marie and help guide her toward particular subject matter with the children, particularly that one woman who had the tear in her eye. All the people he chose had gone through something similar to this in their experience, so they were drawing from real experiences. Same thing with finding the body parts in the mass grave. A lot of those women had lost husbands, children, so it was an extraordinarily real experience for all of us.”