Detective of photography: DP tom richmond starts from ground zero on two new movies

It's not uncommon for a cinematographer who shoots independent films to have two movies open within a week of each other. But rarely are the films as disparate in look, tone, and style as First Love, Last Rites, which Strand Releasing opened August 7, and Slums of Beverly Hills, released by Fox Searchlight Pictures August 14. As the director of photography in question, Tom Richmond, describes it, "First Love is a painting, and Slums is frenetic, wild-style LA filmmaking." Yet he doesn't see this difference at all as an aberration. "I don't have a style," he states adamantly.

Richmond elaborates, "My style is completely based on the script and the director. I start from zero every time I start a film--I don't come in and go, 'I use high-angle spotlights,' or anything like that. I actually hold back as long as I can; for me, DP means Detective of Photography. I spend the first week or so of any job giving people as much as they need to realize I am a cinematographer, so they don't freak out. But I'm actually just trying to figure them out. Every director is different in their styles and in their ability to communicate. All my films look different because they're not my visions; they're my reflections of the directors' visions."

Richmond didn't always have such confidence in this open approach; he says he had to arrive at it, a process that began with his first major feature film, 1987's Stand and Deliver, and came to full flower about the time of Keith Gordon's wintry war film, A Midnight Clear, in 1991. Following that experience, Richmond's credits have ranged from the young-couple-on-the-lam cheapie Love and a .45 to the bleak family drama Little Odessa, from the "rockin' handheld" bank heist film Killing Zoe to Gordon's adaptation of the allegorical Kurt Vonnegut novel Mother Night. More recent movies shot by Richmond include johns, an LA-set story of street hustlers, and the play adaptation The Twilight of the Golds.

His summer duo includes one film--the under-$1-million First Love, Last Rites--of very modest means even by indie standards, and one--Slums of Beverly Hills--that featured a larger cast, crew, and budget (a steep $6 million or so) than is customary for the cinematographer. Both are feature directorial debuts. First Love, the languorous story of a young couple whiling away a summer together in Louisiana Bayou country, was shot over a brisk four-week period in 1996 under Jesse Peretz's direction; Tamara Jenkins' autobiographical, 1970s-set Slums covered 30 to 40 locations in Beverly Hills and environs during a 34-day shooting schedule last year.

However varied in style his projects may be, Richmond likes to go through a similar process, to the extent that he can, on every movie. He has theories, which he has a habit of calling attention to by saying, "Here's something about Tom, and I'm Tom." One is, "You should take only so much time to light, because if the actors don't act good, the movie doesn't matter." Terming himself "an actor's cameraman," he continues, "I give myself a time limit, because I know the actors get bored, or start to fall asleep, or get mad. Be confident in what you do, and do it fast. If it's impossible, I'll say, 'I'm going to take three hours,' and send everybody away. In the middle of the scene, if I have to do a relay, I'm going to do it reallyfast so the actors don't get out of their element. My feeling is that the shooting is all about people, that I have to make sure those people are intact, and the director, too."

The key to getting the job done fast? "The more I can do in advance with the director, the better and faster I can run," Richmond says. "So if some style does come out of my films, it's because of preproduction. If I promise the director or producers I'm going to give them a beautiful or weird or stylized film, it has to be done before I start shooting."

Speaking of producers, a DP who works quickly is good news; one who wants a lot of prep time isn't, necessarily. "If you were paying me, I'd say I need three weeks' prep," says Richmond. "But if I'm in the same city as the director, I give them all my extra time. It doesn't matter how much time you have off before shooting, if when you start shooting it sucks."

In the case of First Love, Last Rites, the production brought the DP, along with the actors, to Louisiana two weeks before shooting. The film, which stars Natasha Gregson Wagner and Giovanni Ribisi as the two young lovers, takes place mostly in a one-room house, making rehearsals an easy matter. During this time Richmond worked intensively on the look of the movie with Peretz and production designer Dan Estabrook, who is also a visual artist. "For a $700,000 run-and-gun movie, we had it down," says the cinematographer. "It was totally designed."

Standard preproduction procedure for Richmond, who majored in photography at Harvard, involves taking numerous stills. Peretz is also a photographer, and joined in the process on First Love. "Once we'd rehearsed a few times," Richmond recalls, "we started taking photographs. I take pictures from the angles I think might be good, and to see the jeopardy of looking in this direction at this time of day. Way before I learned about light, I learned what looks cool if it's light, what looks cool if it's dark, about composition and balance, stuff like that. When I started doing movies, I had to learn how to recreate that, how to match continuity and angles. You can do the coolest master shot of all time, but good luck matching it--that's movie lighting. My goal is to make sure that every shot matches every other shot." He says that the movie he is proudest of, Little Odessa (which gained him an Independent Spirit Award nomination), matches his criteria: "I never interrupted the story; it's consistent, and it's also beautiful."

The stills help Richmond arrive at his goal, and sometimes more. "Usually I do it for camera angles, and to remember what we're shooting Thursday, so I don't forget there's a door there or something," he says. "But what's turned out on the last few films is that they're super-useful in designing the lighting. They've given me tons of ideas, and they've encouraged the director to make decisions in advance"--hence speeding up the actual shooting. On First Love, "We laid our photographs out on the floor, and planned our camera angles. We also learned about the subtlety of the light in the room. Available-light interiors can be beautiful, and you don't want to fight them. But you have to light because you're shooting in different directions, and things look different. So I did do a lot of lighting, but I matched it to what it really looked like in the stills."

"What it really looked like" was captured by a still technique of Richmond's. "When I go to a location," he says, "I set my shutter speed at 1/50 or 1/60--24fps, basically. Film is much more limited than stills, you can't shoot it at 1/250. So I set my still camera to the limitations of the movie camera, and use it as a test. It won't be exact, but I learn from it."

The cinematographer's attempt to lend the images an authenticity resulted in, among other things on First Love, Last Rites, what he calls "the best night interiors I've ever done. I just thought, what does real nighttime look like indoors? Dark and flat. If you went into a room at night, it would be black, and maybe it would get up to middle gray. Instead of doing standard moonlight, I lit it like that. First you can barely see, then I started putting splashes of light on the walls, motivated by nothing. I used a light made out of three mosquito candles, with aluminum foil to focus them. And Kino Flos.

"I'm a Kino Flo boy, I have every size of them," Richmond continues. "They don't weigh anything, you can attach them to anything, and they fall off real fast. If you point a light at a person and there's a wall 10' (3m) behind them, you get the right exposure on the person and you don't have to worry about the wall being too bright." The DP and his gaffer, Shaun Madigan, discovered Kino Flos early in their existence, while looking for a noiseless, flickerless instrument to use in Stand and Deliver's classroom scenes. On Little Odessa, Richmond used them for the first time as an all-purpose light, and he continues to do so. In small spaces, particularly low-ceilinged ones like he was dealing with in both First Love and Slums, he considers Kino Flos to be indispensable. "You can jam them against the wall, and you don't have to cut them."

Still, the DP needed the stray 4k PAR and 12k HMI outside the windows of the house to control direction and intensity of daylight, and that presented a problem. "Here is a pet peeve of Tom's, and I'm Tom: The production designer is hired much earlier than I am," he says. "They had already chosen the location when I arrived, and I was glad I was there early, because I'm not sure I would have chosen this exact spot. Since it had such character from the exterior, they chose a house that was up on stilts, because it's in a flood area. But let's say I want to put a light outside a window--it's about 18' (5m) high. How are you going to operate it? Because we got going so far in advance, I figured it out. We shot the exteriors first, and then I built scaffolding all around the building, so all of a sudden we were on the ground floor again. I would say, 'Can you move that light?' and if we had been on the second floor, they would have said, 'We'll be back in 45 minutes.' This way, it was just, 'Push the light over there.' "

With its intentionally static, contemplative style, First Love, Last Rites didn't give Richmond any chance to do handheld shots, which he prides himself on. Slums of Beverly Hills was another matter. "First Love is soft, Slums is hard, a little nastier," says the DP. "It looks much more like I ran into a room and shot a scene. It's controlled chaos, which is what's happening in the movie." Loosely based on director Jenkins' own girlhood, the movie is the story of a struggling single father (Alan Arkin) who keeps his daughter (Natasha Lyonne) and her two brothers in the Beverly Hills school district by scrambling from one tiny apartment to another on the fringes of the rich community. Marisa Tomei and Kevin Corrigan co-star in the movie, which moved from one cramped apartment location to another, just like the characters.

Richmond arrived in the midst of location scouting, and had time to give his approval and take his stills, which he says served a more utilitarian purpose than on the previous film. It was a much larger production than First Love, so the cinematographer's equipment package included two 12ks and "four times as many lights, but the same kinds of lights," he says. "But I had as much time on both movies to do any given scene, because Slums had so many scenes and locations. We did a lot of preproduction and we tried our best to design shots, but we winged it a lot. My idea is, design every shot down to a T, and then you can change it. But you can't improvise if you don't have a plan."

The plan on Slums of Beverly Hills included emulating the rawer film language of the 1970s, when the story is set. For that reason, Richmond decided against Kodak's crisp new Vision line, opting instead for his favorite traditional film stocks, 5293, and 5298 for nights and interiors. "If I ever have kids, I don't want to be saying, 'I hate that new music,' " the cinematographer says. "But to me, 98 is kind of punk rock, and Vision stock is easy listening. On Slums, I wanted the edge and the grittiness."

The film was also Richmond's first union shoot, which raises new issues for the DP. "I operate my own camera, but they've got to hire an operator anyway," he says. "It's a huge question for me, actually: I really want to do a big-budget movie one of these days, and there are directors on big films who will only work with a DP and an operator. Then I'm going to have to deal with it. I figure out everything from the camera; that's the reason I wanted to be a cameraman in the first place--to operate the camera."

In fact, when Richmond entered UCLA's graduate film school, he was startled to discover the program was actually intended to train directors. "It was a blessing in disguise," he says, "because guess what directors don't like to do? Shoot. I was the only cameraman at the school." And for the first but not the last time in the movie business, his still photographs came in handy. "I put some of my photos in the school magazine, and one of the directors came up to me and said, 'You're shooting my movie.' That was Ramon Menendez; I shot two student films for him, then we did Stand and Deliver.

"What I've tried to do since then is bring movies and stills back together," he continues. "He hired me because he liked my stills, but movies are so different. I tried to figure out how to bring a movie toward what he liked in the photographs. Because I could compose a really cool picture, but I didn't have the slightest idea what lighting or editing meant. That's what I've learned. From that, I got interested in stories and actors. Now, I'm thinking I might like to direct a movie."

As a DP, Richmond prefers taking orders, though. "It's the best thing in the world," he says. "I'd much rather have that than somebody telling me, 'Do something original.' A good director, like Keith Gordon, you can tell him four ideas, and in about 30 seconds he can tell you what he wants." And after 25 feature films and many commercials and music videos to his credit, the cinematographer is not out to wow anyone with what he can do. "I rely on the fact that I'm semi-successful and people love my photographs, and things I've done before are great," he says. "That's why I get hired--because I did something good. If you're a cameraman, it's a time job. You can't go out there to prove yourself every time, because you're going to get stuck."