University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Friendship in Film

Robert Richardson | Frank Manchel

Robert Richardson


Frank Manchel

The relationship between Academy Award winning cinematographer Robert Richardson, who is a former UVM student, and Frank Manchel, professor emeritus of English and film, is seemingly not the stuff of a Hollywood screenplay. No embrace on the stage at graduation (there was no UVM graduation, in fact, for Richardson), no annual dinners to talk over the old days, yet the two have a late-blooming bond that has opened across time and distance.

Richardson, who won an Academy Award (his third) this year for his work on Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, enrolled at UVM in 1973 and would spend a couple of years on campus before leaving for another school. While the university can’t claim him as a graduate, the transformation that set his path in life did take place here. It began with watching Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal at a film society screening on campus.

Richardson was transfixed, entering into a “zone” where everything beyond what was taking place on the screen fell away. “I think Bergman taught me how to look through an eyepiece,” Richardson recalls. “I think he taught me how to live inside of an eyepiece as if you are living in the zone. And I mean zone almost as akin to Jordan getting into the zone in basketball or anyone when they find that special place.”

Struck to the core by the legendary director’s artistry, the previously unfocused undergrad quickly beat a path to film courses, which led directly to Professor Frank Manchel’s classroom.

“Frank Manchel forced me into places I never would have walked and opened the door to extraordinary things,” Richardson told journalist Susan Green in an interview for the Burlington Free Press in 2004. “But he was very tough on me. His grading on my papers? Oh, Lordy! Even so, those classes were inspirational. He’s the most intelligent person I’ve met in the film world, in terms of teaching—as brilliant as Quentin Tarantino and Marty Scorsese.”

Sitting down for coffee in the Davis Center, basking in the glow of a late afternoon sun and the recent Super Bowl victory by his beloved New York Giants, Manchel laughs at Richardson’s memory. The retired professor recalls that when students would ask him about his reputation for being stingy with an A grade, he would say: “A+ is for God; A is for me; B+ is good enough for the rest of you.”

Richardson took all the classes he could with Manchel, though he admits he audited some to spare himself the lash of the professor’s red pen. A seminar on war films was among the courses in which he learned with Manchel; some twelve years later, Richardson’s breakthrough as a major motion picture cinematographer would come on a war film, Oliver Stone’s Salvador. The genre has been central to Richardson’s work, including Stone’s Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, among others.

Richardson ultimately left UVM for a deeper education in hands-on filmmaking than the university could provide. He transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design for his undergraduate work and later earned a master of fine arts from the American Film Institute Conservatory.


Reel Lives

Inspiring students to careers in film was familiar ground for Manchel during his long tenure on the UVM faculty. Among the most notable: screenwriter David Franzoni ’71, best-known for Gladiator and other sweeping historical dramas; and producer Jon Kilk ’78, who initially built his career through collaborations with director Spike Lee, has added names such as Julian Schnabel, Jim Jarmusch, Robert Altman, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu to the list of leading directors he’s partnered with, and just produced his first blockbuster with The Hunger Games.

Kilik and Franzoni have largely remained close with Manchel through the years. With Richardson, it was a different story. Manchel had no idea of his influence on the cinematographer until he read Green’s article in the Free Press some thirty years after Richardson had left UVM. But he and his former student would soon reconnect and have stayed in touch since with e-mails back and forth at least once a week, though they hadn’t met in person or talked on the phone over the past eight years.

That changed in February when Richardson and Manchel talked film for seventy minutes on the phone, a wide-ranging conversation excerpted in Vermont Quarterly online. Calling the VQ office from a longtime family home base on Cape Cod, Richardson spoke to the role the running e-dialogue with his old professor has had in his life. “I don’t have an ongoing e-mail relationship with many people in the business. Frank is rather unusual for me,” Richardson says. “So the aspects of what I share with him are a wonderful balance between personal and professional. We can communicate about anything in the industry. This is a strong comfort zone.”

Their running email dialogue is usually about film, of course, often Richardson’s current and future projects. While his work has earned three Academy Awards, seven nominations, and the admiration of his former professor, it doesn’t mean that feisty professor is necessarily inclined to approve of all of his films.

Manchel had a deep disregard for Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and he let Richardson know it. The cinematographer tried to bring him around, sending positive reviews and the commentary of others. Though Manchel stands his ground, Richardson hasn’t given up on convincing him of the movie’s worth.

Manchel recounts their exchange about Eat, Pray, Love, an atypical Richardson project, which he took on out of a desire to do something different.

“He asked me what I thought,” Manchel says. “I wrote, ‘The opening shot was so beautiful… it’s a shame it couldn’t have been a documentary.’”

Richardson’s quick reply: “I get your point.”

No such worries with Hugo, a film beloved by Manchel and many, many others. As Richardson accepted the 2012 Academy Award for his cinematography at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles for his cinematography, Frank Manchel was on the other side of the continent in a setting that was less glamorous, maybe, but more comfortable—a seat on the couch in front of the TV applauding a student once lost, a friend later found.


with Robert Richardson and Frank Manchel

Editor’s Note:
When Academy Award winning cinematographer Robert Richardson and his former UVM film professor Frank Manchel agree to sit down for a phone interview/conversation, my main responsibilities are to hit record on my iPod and keep quiet. From a journalist’s perspective, sitting back and listening to two interesting and accomplished men talk is a fairly easy assignment.

As “Friendship in Film,” above, explains in more detail, Richardson, a UVM student for two years in the 1970s, and Manchel, professor emeritus of film, reconnected in 2004. But it has been purely an e-mail correspondence across the past eight years—never a conversation in person or on the phone.

That changed when Manchel persuaded Richardson to sit down for an hour-long phone interview for Vermont Quarterly. So it was that at 9 a.m. on February 20, a week before his work on Hugo would earn him a third Oscar, Robert Richardson called my office, where his old professor eagerly waited with a long list of questions.

Before turning the questions over to Frank Manchel, I asked Richardson what he has gotten out of their near-weekly email exchange across the past eight years.

“I don’t have an ongoing email relationship with many people in the business, Frank is rather unusual for me,” Richardson said.  “So the aspects of what I share with him are a wonderful balance between personal and professional. We can communicate about anything in the industry. This is a strong comfort zone.”

Comfort zone notwithstanding, the cinematographer from Cape Cod and the professor from Brooklyn exchanged a few Red Sox v. Yankees barbs. Then Manchel launched into the subject at the core of their relationship: film.

Manchel: You’ve often told me that you’re not interested so much in a pretty film or a good-looking film, you’re interested in a good film. I’m just curious, what do you mean by a good film?

Richardson: Well, in my career the first two films that have any bearing with respect to Oliver (Stone)—both Salvador and Platoon—I don’t consider good-looking films. But they are both very strong films. Wall Street, I would say, overall, is a good film, but not necessarily a good-looking film.

Manchel:  By a good film—this is always the question I wrestle with—is a good film something that is intellectually satisfying? Is it emotionally satisfying? Is it that for you, from an artist’s point of view, that it satisfies what you set out to do? Is it a film that’s commercially successful? What’s the connection with how it is received by the public? I mean, good film for whom?

Richardson: That’s a good question. I think that the audience is certainly involved with what you’re describing. I think the audience is always involved in some degree with respect to what is seen as good. But for me what personally is good, would be a film that I have a degree of emotional attachment to, a political attachment to, that I find is well-crafted in terms of its ultimate success—in how it relates to the viewers and it has a lasting impression.

Manchel: When you go to make a movie, say, with Marty Scorsese or with Quentin Tarantino or with Oliver Stone, do you go to make a film for the audience? Do you go to make a film that the director wants to make? Do you go to make a film about something that touches a button? When you set out, for whom are you making the film?

Richardson: I always make the film for the director.

Manchel: Does the director have to have any allegiance at all to the audience or to the money? I mean you make a film for $170 million dollars, to say that it’s for the director and not say it’s for the producer or for the audience, it’s very cavalier.

Richardson: Right. You’re shifting strongly from a time period now, which is $170 million movies whether it is World War Z or $130 million for Hugo, to a time period where a movie like Platoon could have been made for less than a million dollars. Salvador certainly for less than a million dollars. John Sayles pictures for substantially less money.

I grew up as a student, more or less, with films that came out in the seventies. They were the most influential films in my life. We could have an argument here in terms of which films are the most interesting of that time period… whether it be Godfather, 2001, Jaws, Harold and Maude, Last Tango in Paris, etc. etc. We could go on for a long time, but those are the films that had the most impact upon me in that era.

Manchel: And you’ve talked about the influence of the Bergman films that you first saw during your UVM years.

Richardson: By the time I got out of private school, I was starving creatively. You asked me right up front in an email, what drew me to Bergman, and I’ve been wrestling with that since you put that down—fascinating question for me. I realized when you wrote, that I thought that I had a firm memory. I realized that I have virtually no memory of the Bergman screenings per se. I don’t recall what day of the week they were; at one point I certainly did. I can’t remember a face or an audience inside the rooms. I can vaguely recall a space where it took place.

Manchel: You talked about your favorite films from the seventies, you were in your twenties by then. What about the films when you were in your teenage years? You had no access to films on the Cape?

Richardson: Well, most of my time in my teens was spent in private school from the time I was fourteen until I was seventeen or eighteen. So my film experience was limited at Proctor Academy. There were no films in the neighborhood. We were in New Hampshire, very rural space. We took two field trips, and both of those I remember vividly. One was to see 2001, and the second was to see The Godfather. Both of those films had an immense, but a very distinct impact upon me. One was majestic and sweeping. The other was intimate, but both spoke strongly to me. In particular, Godfather in what it spoke to in terms of America and the violence of the nature of our society. But 2001 left an impact that altered me visually on scale.

Manchel:   So where did the love of film history come from? I mean this passionate concern for different kinds of films, different eras, and directors. Was that a late development?

Richardson: Yeah, I think it was a late development. To some extent there’s a multitude of things that took place. To finish on that Bergman note, my recollection of what took place in that room at UVM is that I entered into something that I would call a “zone.” From entering into it and watching his movies, I don’t recall anything that took place from beginning until end. And I think he taught me how to look through an eyepiece. I think he taught me how to live inside of an eyepiece as if you are living in the zone.

And I mean zone almost akin to Jordan getting into the zone in basketball or anyone when they find that special place. Bergman taught me something, which I don’t think I realized until recently, and that is how important going into that sort of cave is in my work. So he pushed something that you fed and that connected to the sort of films that were being done. I worked on a number of animation films during the time that I was at UVM. Then when I went to the Rhode Island School of Design, I was further fed to create films and to watch films. The style of the films altered dramatically at the Rhode Island School of Design. They went more experimental and more documentary. You can imagine what sort of experimental films I saw, whether it was Wavelength or Dog Star or any of these…

I think that you set me on a theoretical binge, a historical search and, then of course with my love of film you have to become more aware of what took place in order to understand what to do now. I think there are too many filmmakers in the business that have very little knowledge of film history at all and have very little care to have that knowledge.

Manchel: Bob, let me ask you this. I’m sure someone reading is interested in how you get into film. You talk sometimes about being flexible and it’s good fortune, but you also talk about talent. Do you think you can teach talent or is that something that’s natural?

Richardson: I think you can teach craft, but you can develop talent. I believe that you cannot teach passion, which is very necessary in order to be able to have your talent highlighted and developed. I would recommend to anyone who wants to be a cinematographer in the business, and possibly a director, that they always carry a video camera or anything that can capture images. And they do it through an eyepiece or however they want to do it, but to carry it with them and record at all times.

It forces you to look at that world through a box; that box is shaped however you wish to shape it. It does in some way hone either your capability or incapability of seeing. Then eventually put those elements together into various short films that you constantly practice with even if only in your mind. But today since we have computers, it is so simple to download and construct. Just as one draws if one wants to be an artist—one draws over and over and over and you hone it. If you want to be a writer—you write, over and over and over. We now have that capability of doing this with film.

Manchel: I’d like to talk for a minute about Hugo, because as you know that is very dear to my heart. I’m amazed when you talk about the fact that it should only be seen in 3D, otherwise it’s not the film that you made. So many people I talk to in Vermont have seen it only in 2D. And the other thing I find amazing is they think the film has no strong narrative, they think it’s just a pretty film. You and I both feel very strongly about the weight of that film. How do you explain to people just what Hugo is about?

Richardson: In respect to 3D versus 2D, I’d like to deal with that one first. There is no question, this film was shot in 3D, that was the director’s intention. If an audience, a cinema audience that has respect for filmmakers chooses not to see it in 3D, then they are missing an opportunity. It is vastly capable of being watched in 2D, but the weight of the movie itself is not nearly as successful. It’s rare because very few filmmakers have had the opportunity up until this point to create a movie strictly in three dimensions with strong intentions that are not simply that of commercial viability. This was shot to further the narrative. I’m sad that a majority of people you know have only seen it in 2D. I think there’s an encumbrance for some with 3D as a technical element, people are uncomfortable with glasses or whatever. But it’s to their loss. I hope those who might read this would find a way to see it in 3D.

Manchel: You’ve won a couple of Academy Awards in the past and you’re up for Hugo. What do the awards mean to you?

Richardson: I will be there on Sunday. It means quite a bit to me. I love this film. I’d love to be holding the Oscar for this film. Holding this Oscar for all of those who participated in Hugo. I’m extraordinarily proud of the material, the subject matter, which you were getting at a few moments ago in terms of those who say it has no narrative quality. They are absolutely wrong. It’s a lovely film that has been sold inappropriately… and if we were fortunate enough, a Bonnie and Clyde would take place with this film. Someone would put it out again and we would fight for it.

I think it was initially sold with many people believing it was an animated film and a children’s film strictly. I think it stretches vastly beyond. I think those who have called it Dickensian, that’s close to the truth. It would be nice if we went backwards and reappraised exactly what this film is.

Manchel: How do you select your projects these days?

Richardson: My strongest desire is to, of course, maintain ongoing relationships. That would be Quentin and Marty, the two principal filmmakers that I have worked with most often in the last decade. Those are the ones I would make every effort to schedule.
A script is vital to me, but a director is the most important aspect of a project. I’ve made errors in judgment in choosing that, for a number of reasons. For instance, I chose to work with Robert Redford on The Horse Whisperer. And although The Horse Whisperer is loved by many people, for me it was a miserable filmic experience. It was a miserable experience to create that product. My relationship with Robert Redford was abysmal, to say the least.

But I’ve made other errors. Eat, Pray, Love would be an error that I did. That was chosen more for material that I wanted to make and was foolish enough to blind myself in terms of that choice. In other words, I thought I would accomplish something… war films had been a big part of my career, I wanted to do something about women. I was hoping that would become the film. I deluded myself—

Manchel: I think you’re harder on yourself than you need to be. Even when you fail, the value of failure sometimes is that you learn from the failure.

Richardson: Yeah, but I wish not to fail.

Manchel: (Laughs) Don’t we all. I want to ask you, as we’ve communicated over the years you always kid me—why do I always have to have the last word in the emails? I guess it’s part of my ego and so on. But you seem to be almost devoid of ego, you seem to be willing to submit to any of these people in terms of the script. How does one arrive at that stage? My wife would love to know. How does one gets there?

Richardson: It may be your perception of what I am. If you were to actually speak to the filmmakers, and I’m not talking about Marty or Quentin, but if you were to speak with those involved with World War Z or Eat, Pray, Love, you will find how difficult… not difficult, how demanding I am on trying to make the script a better piece in trying to be able to make a better film. To battle with the director is necessary in order to be able to produce the best product that they can do, particularly with Eat, Pray, Love.

With respect to Horse Whisperer, I didn’t battle Redford for his script or his direction. I didn’t feel I had the strength in a career to do that. Now I have altered and, to some extent, feel that I have more capability of being able to battle. There’s a hierarchy in film. It’s not like a personal relationship like with a husband and wife. There’s a hierarchy and you need to abide by that hierarchy. You need to accept those rules or else you won’t be able to exist.

Manchel: One of the things I’ve always admired about you as we’ve communicated over the years is your ability to take criticism. You don’t ever take it personally, it seems. You address the question. You mull it over. And if you think it’s right, you defend it. And if you think it’s wrong, you want to pursue it. Most people I know become very defensive when they make something creative. The conversation very often turns to defending something that’s indefensible. How did you learn to be so open to criticism?

Richardson: Very good question. I think time, being by myself, having to evaluate decisions that were made in my family life all the way back to my father and my mother—their divorce, the issues in the family in terms of abuse that took place, whether it was psychological or physical. Those aspects have created the capability in me to be able to be open. I have friends who live for different reasons than I do, that have died for different reasons than I have lived. I have a friend, a very good friend, my closest friend was Nureyev’s lover, which is the polar opposite of myself in terms of sexuality. But I found myself needing to be very open to that. I think the culmination of these experiences and many others have allowed me to find myself in the position that you just described.

Manchel: Bob, I’ve always wanted to follow up the discussion we once had when we were talking about Up in the Air. Remember how much I disliked the film and your response was “Well, that’s my life.” What is it like with all of these projects, travelling all over the world? How do you live on a day-to-day basis? Everything seems to be a strange room, strange city, all by yourself. I mean, what kind of life is that?

Richardson: (Laughs) It’s a rock-and-roll life. I take great pleasure in it. It’s a tour of the world. I’m working with incredibly talented people. What’s not to like with that? I think that the loss that you’re speaking about or the primary one that you’re implying is the loss of family and returning to a home on a consistent basis—

Manchel: My life.

Richardson: Yeah, your life. That isn’t my life. I believe I ran from that life. I saw that my home was one that was not kept together for reasons that I’ve explained already. And I know that I made the very strong decision to leave that far behind, to learn from the lessons that my father taught me and that my mother taught me…

Manchel: You talk often when we discuss things that this is a life’s journey where you get challenged and you discover who you are, where you get your perspective on the world. How would you describe your journey at this stage?

Richardson: I would like to get better at what I’m doing. I would like to make a film that reaches the pinnacle of every single individual involved.

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