When it comes to documentary filmmaking of the past 30 years, cinematographer Robert Richman has certainly left his stamp on the genre. The ever-prolific Richman has been behind the camera for films that have left audiences questioning the politics and systemic failures of our education system (2010’s “Waiting for ‘Superman’”), questioning our understanding of the environment (the 2006 Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth”), and questioning the workings of our justice system and those who fall on the wrong side of the scales (the “Paradise Lost” series).
Whether he is working with longtime collaborators such as directors Davis Guggenheim or Joe Berlinger, or emerging filmmakers like Jason Benjamin—who directed “Suited,” one of his latest projects—Richman has an understanding of why documentary filmmaking is so important. When these movies put forth questions about big subjects—the environment, our education system, or young people being swallowed up by the justice system, the answers come not just in the big moments. It’s about humanity, about finding the things that everybody can connect with, no matter the scale.
It’s with a film like “Suited,” which had its premiere earlier this week at Sundance, that we also see why smaller projects are just as important when it comes to connecting the subjects of documentaries with the world at large. “Suited,” which was shot using the Canon Cinema EOS C300, takes a look at Bindle and Keep, a Brooklyn bespoke tailoring shop that specializes in making suits for transgendered and gender nonconforming individuals. From bar mitzvahs to weddings, people who just a generation earlier were completely ostracized by society (and of course there is still much more progress to be made) get to match the images of their selves with the images that they would like to project.
Richman, who talks about his craft with a raconteur’s ease, weighed his usual considerations—scheduling, interest , and funding–and ultimately, as he says, “It happened to be that I was free when Jason called me and it was just for a day to shoot. He was doing the trailer to raise money, and it was in New York, so I said, ‘Okay, I’ll take a chance,’ and it turns out he’s a great director and a great guy, and it was an interesting project, so I’m really thankful that he called me and I was a part of it.”
Film Slate Magazine caught up with Richman while he was at home in New Jersey between projects–which is no small feat. He has been averaging about four to five films a year and he had just gotten back from Spain for his latest shoot. The loquacious cinematographer piles ideas on top of each other as he speaks, but also has a gift for simplicity as he talks about the making of “Suited” and the profession that has taken him all over the world.
Film Slate Magazine: When you go from a bigger project to something that’s more intimate like this, you’ve got a pretty good idea about how to shoot it, but do you still have conversations with the director? When you’re doing the more intimate interviews and that sort of thing?
Robert Richman: I have a particular style. Usually the director knows what that style is before hiring me. Some people like it, some people don’t. Starting there, if somebody hires me, they sort of know what they’re going to get. And I always try to be in conversation with the director. Before or after the shooting. During the shooting it’s very hard. It’s like a basketball coach telling his players when to shoot. Once they’re out there on the court, you have to trust what they’re doing. We discuss things. When he looks at the dailies, Jason and I would discuss many different things. It was more about content than actually how you shoot it. What’s interesting, what’s not interesting, and where the story lies. And that’s a constant conversation. Obviously, when I work with somebody like Joe Berlinger, who I’ve worked with for over 20 years, the conversation is a little less. There’s a lot more shorthand.
Jason and I fell into it very quickly. We had a very similar aesthetic. He knew exactly what he wanted. I would ask questions, because I’m always—even at this point in my life—after I shoot something I’m still going over it in my head. What I did, was it the right decision…because when I’m in the middle of it, I’m sort of not completely in control. I’m sort of in the flow of the scene. And then afterwards I’m thinking about, ‘Well, was this interesting? Was that? Who is the person?’ Sometimes it’s more interesting to be on somebody who’s listening than talking. There are all kinds of decisions that you’re making. And you constantly have that discussion with the director—before and after. Hopefully you’re on the same page and I always hope that I’m bringing something they didn’t expect in the end. A good thing (laughs).
FSM: If you have a subject like ‘Suited,’ gender nonconformity and these sorts of issues, were any of the subjects reticent about being filmed?
RR: For me that’s the most difficult part of this kind of intimate shooting. Beyond the fact that they were transgendered—anybody…and the job of the director, and Jason did an incredible job, is creating that trust before you do any filming. And during the filming, the whole crew—and me especially and the director—has to create an environment of trust and comfort for the individual. So that for me is more important than what camera you use or what the look is or anything else, is creating that environment.
And this was a difficult situation because except for the tailors, most of the characters, they met us once or twice as they came into the tailor shop. A couple characters we got to follow and they knew us more, but over time…a film like ‘The September Issue’ where I spent eight months in the Vogue offices you get time to build relationships. Here it had to happen very quickly and Jason did an amazing job of doing that. And when a director does that, he makes my job way easier because I can go in and shoot much more intimately. In a shorter period of time, because sometimes it takes a long time to build that kind of relationship and trust.
FSM: Do you find with some projects more than others you hang onto them more? Emotionally, maybe if you’ve done something that’s more intimate, do you take a week to decompress? Or does your schedule not allow that?
RR: My schedule doesn’t allow that (laughs). It really doesn’t. I’ve been doing this way too long. It’s been a long time. And it’s very exhilarating. I once described it years ago…it was one of the original Google type search engine start-up companies—that I don’t think made it called Excite, but I don’t remember, it was quite a while ago—and I was talking to one of the 20 year old millionaires at the time, who probably lost all of his money, but I described my life as surfing the net but in reality. I could find myself one week shooting at NASA talking to scientists who are putting a telescope up into space and another time shooting somebody who’s transgendered and another time a famous musician…and that’s what’s wonderful and exciting about my job.
And certainly after a film like ‘Paradise Lost’ I’m sure I went through some decompression. After the first trial I was pretty blown away. I drove into Memphis and I needed to decompress after the first guilty verdict came down. More than that, it’s just hard work. Sometimes you’re working 14 hours a day and it’s very physical and it’s very mental.
I think a lot of people pick documentaries about some subject that seems possibly exotic or different. A world that people don’t know about. And I think it’s the job of the filmmakers to actually do the opposite, to go into this world and in this case show transgendered people are not ‘the other.’ That they’re the same as us. And even as you show what they go through in life and many of them go through hardships we don’t have to go through—well, we all go through something—I think the point is whether you’re shooting people in a trailer park in Arkansas like in ‘Paradise Lost’ or you’re shooting people that are transgendered or I did a film where a woman had multiple personality disorder, my experience is that as you get closer and closer they seem more and more like everybody else.
And to show that, I think that’s the ultimate goal. At least it is for me. To show something about the human condition and how universal it is. That’s what this film is for me. An act of discovery. Most documentaries for me, what makes them interesting, is if they are an act of discovery. I’m not so interested in a film that has an agenda and a point of view it’s trying to prove as opposed to being open and discovering what’s there. That’s what I love about these films.
FSM: Any final thoughts about this film as it’s getting ready to premiere and be unleashed upon the world?
RR: I think it’s just a wonderful film. I think it’s very sweet. Obviously it’s a topic that’s very current now which is amazing to me, because when I was growing up I didn’t even know about it. It was barely spoken about. And I think only in the past few years, this topic of transgenderism is becoming known and becoming accepted. And hopefully this film will be part of that revolution. Because I do think it’s a revolution.
When I think 10 years ago, it was like, ‘These people are freaks.’ Hopefully this film will be part of the conversation. And like I said, once again, for me, if you go into the film and come out of the film not thinking of them as people who are transgendered as ‘the other’ but as ‘us’ then I will be very happy. It’s asking a lot of the film but hopefully it’ll be part of that process as our society is changing and becoming more tolerant. And I almost don’t like the word tolerant, because it makes it seem like you have to tolerate these people. More inclusive–not tolerant.
Photo by JoJo Whilden and courtesy of the Sundance Institute