Veteran Doc DP Robert Richman on the Direct Cinema Approach of HBO’s Suited
Veteran DP Robert Richman has shot more than 60 documentary films since 1985, including such heavyweights as An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for ‘Superman’ and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. His latest work is Suited, an HBO documentary produced by Lena Dunham. The film profiles Bindle & Keep, a tailoring company in Brooklyn that caters to an LGBTQ community. Richman speaks below about direct cinema, the Maysles brothers and why “pure verite films” are his favorite kind to shoot.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Richman: I teach a class on verite camera work in a masters program for social documentary at SVA. One of the other instructors, Peter Chelkowski, is good friends with Jason Benjamin, the director of Suited. I believe Peter gave my name along with some others to Jason.
I’ve been lucky enough to shoot many award winning and successful documentary films of the last 20-some odd years. So my work and my style is well known. That verite style resonates with some directors and not with others.
When Jason was shooting the trailer to raise money he called me and asked if I would be interested in a one day shoot. The project sounded interesting and I was free so I said sure. We hit it off immediately as we have similar artistic tastes. He was looking to make a pure verite film, and that is my favorite kind of film to shoot. I’m guessing he was happy with the footage from that first day so when HBO green lit the film he asked me to shoot it.
Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?
Richman: My artistic goals are pretty much the same for every film I shoot. I want to reveal something honest and truthful about the human condition. I want the viewer to enter into a world that they may not be privy to, and feel that by seeing it through my lens they are seeing it through their own eyes. To achieve this the scenes must be shot so they can be cut to stand on their own without interviews or voice over to explain them.
My style is very simple and direct. In fact Albert Maysles, who was a mentor to me, preferred the term direct cinema rather than cinema verite, and what he meant by that was the filmmaker has a direct and honest interaction with the subjects. I try to find the emotional heart of a scene. I don’t set anything up; I just react to what I’m seeing almost as if I didn’t have a camera. I want the viewer to see and feel what I’m seeing and feeling.
When a film focuses on subjects that might be considered “the other,” in the case of Suited, transgendered individuals, I hope the viewers not only experience empathy for the subjects and their situation but in the end see them not as the “other” but as us.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Richman: My greatest influences have been the verite films of the 60s and 70s, especially Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin’s Salesman. I’ve also been influenced by the photographers Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka, Gary Winogrand and Henri Cartier-Bresson and, because improvisation is so important to this type of camera work, the jazz musicians John Coltrane and Miles Davis. There have been times, while shooting a wonderful scene and everything is falling into place nicely, I find myself fantasizing that I’m in some dive bar knocking out a jazz solo on a trumpet or a sax.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Richman: The greatest challenge considering the sensitivity of the subject was making sure the subjects felt comfortable and safe. Jason Benjamin, the director, has this amazing ability of engendering trust. He spent a good deal of time with each of the subjects reassuring them days and sometimes weeks before the filming. It was quite apparent when they walked through the door of the tailor’s studio and were confronted by this strange film crew that they were willing to open up and reveal themselves. Jason made it very easy for me to film some wonderful intimate moments.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Richman: I shot the film with the Canon C-300, which since it came out a few years ago has been the camera of choice on many documentaries because of its reasonable price, it’s super 35 sensor that delivers beautiful pictures and is amazing in low light situations. In fact during the color correct I was quite shocked at a very low light scene I had shot early in the morning in a waiting room in a hospital. I shot it at ISO 3200 and it was still underexposed and yet it looked quite amazing and noise free.
To shoot scenes that can be edited to stand on their own one needs to be able to deliver wide angle and close up shots. It’s important to have one lens that can do that because you don’t want to be changing lenses in the middle of a scene. I want to be able to show a three shoot of the two tailors explaining fabric to their customer and then without moving go into the customers fingers feeling a swatch of fabric or show a wide shot of the subject trying on a suit and looking in the mirror and then zoom into their face as they register what they are seeing for the first time.
Due to the recent switch to these super 35 sensors there a very few 35mm zooms that have this kind of range and are light enough to hand hold. Before the Canon 17-120 came out I was using a Canon HJ 11×4.7 B4 zoom lens with an HDX35 optical adapter designed by Abel Cinetech which made this lens something like a 12-130mm and covered the 35mm sensor. I happily used every bit of those focal lengths. Unfortunately the adapter has a light loss of 2.5 stops so when the Canon 17-120 came out I switched to it. For me it’s the best lens of its type for my style of shooting.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Richman: Of course every situation is different. My preference is to use only natural light or to enhance it as simply as I can without changing the natural look. I like to be able to shoot 360 degrees so putting up stands is always an issue. In the case of the tailor’s studio we had large windows on one wall. We added two 400 diva lights with daylight bulbs and diffusion to reach in deeper into the room. These we mounted over the window. Or should I say our gaffer/grip did who was also the director.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Richman: The hardest scene for me to shoot was Derek getting dressed before his wedding. Technically it was difficult because he kept running back and forth from the sitting room in the hotel room to the bathroom and the lighting and color temperature was very different. I wanted to capture the wonderful tenderness between him and his sister. His sister was filled with joy and you could see the love in her eyes and Derek was frenetic and nervous. I would try to slow down and capture that look on his sister’s face but then I was chasing Derek in and out of the bathroom, readjusting focus, exposure and color temp. I don’t think I ever quite nailed it but the wonderful Miki Milmore who edited the film saved me, as she did through out the whole film.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Richman: Baking in the look to me signifies that you know what the finished film is going to be. The wonderful thing about a documentary, the reason why I love to work on them, is that they are an act of discovery. (When I started shooting Paradise Lost I was told it was a film about children killing children. Well that is not what it turned out to be.) How can you know what a film should look like before you know what it is? I like to shoot in log so that I have the most flexibility in the color correct to get it to look right.