Director Oliver Stone and cinematographer Robert Richardson, ASC empty the cinematic clip in kaleidoscopic tale of serial murder and media mayhem.
Unit photography by Sydney Baldwin, courtesy of Warner Bros.
Violence has always played a prominent role in American cinema, but pure carnage — and the psychotic mindset that accompanies it — has never been conveyed as hyperrealistically as it is in Natural Born Killers.
A satirical joyride through what director Oliver Stone terms “the schizophrenic madness of modern society,” Killers tracks the bloody exploits of ruthless, romantically entangled serial killers Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) as they cut a savage swath across America. Along the way, the deadly duo is glorified by blustering, ratings-obsessed tabloid television commando Wayne Gale (Robert Downey, Jr.), whose show, American Maniacs, helps turn them into pop icons. Mickey and Mallory are eventually captured after a frenzied shootout with a battery of police led by psychopathic, publicity-savvy “supercop” Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore), who turns his quarry over to an equally venal prison warden named McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones). In a climax that underlines the absurdity of life in the Media Age, Mickey engineers a daring escape from the prison when a riot erupts during his live, exclusive interview with Gale on Super Bowl Sunday.
Although NBK echoes the themes of such previous films as The Wild Bunch, Bonnie and Clyde, A Clockwork Orange, Badlands, Taxi Driver, Network and Wild at Heart, its unique visual style is a striking example of cinematic experimentation. In crafting the film’s garish, eye-popping psychological mindscapes, Stone and cinematographer Robert Richardson, ASC combined a wide variety of shooting formats (color and black-and-white 35mm, black-and-white 16mm, Super 8, Hi8 and Beta), with front- and rear-projection photography, bits of heavy-metal animation, stock footage and clips from other films, including several of Stone’s previous projects. The filmmakers further enhanced this hallucinatory brew with offbeat lighting schemes, unusual angles, subjective camera techniques, a fractured, stream-of-consciousness editing style and a daring soundtrack that serves as an aural collider by juxtaposing wildly diverse musical samples (in one particularly inspired moment during the film’s first scene, a snippet from a Puccini opera is stitched to the guitar-heavy grunge of the rock group L7).
“The style we chose was perfect for this particular film; it reflects that hallucinogenic quality that is in the killers’ minds.”
— Oliver Stone
Asked to explain the genesis of the film’s radical style, Stone replies, “We were simply trying to tell the story in a new, interesting and innovative way. I didn’t want to portray realistic murder because it’s been well done by Richard Brooks in In Cold Blood and by John McNaughton in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. My attitude on Natural Born Killers was more influenced by combinations of Godard, Peckinpah and Kubrick — the ferocity of Peckinpah, and the satire and dark humor of Kubrick. We started using some of the specific techniques in this film on JFK, and the success of that picture gave us the confidence to push those techniques much further on this project. The style we chose was perfect for this particular film; it reflects that hallucinogenic quality that is in the killers’ minds. But your approach depends upon the material. I don’t think you can rock ‘n’ roll all the time; sometimes you’ve got to do a slow dance.”
With its array of shifting perspectives and flash cuts, NBK has led a number of pundits to conclude that Stone’s visual style was intended to simulate an evening of channel-surfing. While Stone confirms that this was part of his intent, he explains that the overall visual plan for the picture was more ambitious, involving some key dramatic transitions. “At the beginning of the movie, these two young people are really desensitized to violence,” he notes. “The concept is that they live in a TV world and don’t realize the consequences of their actions. They also live in a world of rage and anger because of their abusive parents and because the nature of the Twentieth Century has been very violent. We incorporated those ideas into the movie by using rear-screen images. We wanted to give a sense of the schizophrenic madness of the century, and to convey the feeling that the characters’ minds are hopped-up and speedy. That style prevails in the first part of the film; it’s a thrill ride, and it’s supposed to be fun. As horrible as it sounds, these characters enjoy killing.”
The style of the film changes subtly after Mickey accidentally murders a sage-like Indian man who has provided the bedraggled, drug-addled couple with food and shelter. “At that point, Mallory gets off the ride and condemns Mickey,” Stone relates. “Shortly thereafter, they’re bitten by rattlesnakes and the whole mood of the lighting changes into a greenish, poisonous hue to reflect the idea that the fun has ended.”
Other styles were used to reflect the warped world-views of the Geraldo-like Gale, sleazy cop Scagnetti and the paranoid Warden McClusky. “With Robert Downey, we used a ‘television magazine’ style. In the case of Tom Sizemore, Bob and I were trying to create a lurid, pseudo-Mickey style because Scagnetti wants to be Mickey and possess Mallory; the lighting is tawdry. And when Tommy Lee comes in, we move to his character’s view of the prison, which consists of images of large, looming men who don’t speak. He doesn’t understand them, and there are a lot of fractured cuts. I wanted to create a scary, ominous prison that suggested punishment.
“At the conclusion of the film, during the prison riot, the look is one of complete chaos — everything but the kitchen sink,” Stone concludes. “In a sense, it’s supposed to be the end of the world, with the prison representing the world.”
To bring this metaphorical funhouse mirror to fruition, Stone elicited the aid of longtime friend and collaborator Richardson, who has served as director of photography on all of the filmmaker’s pictures since 1986’s Salvador — a formidable list that includes Platoon, Wall Street, Talk Radio, Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors, JFK and Heaven and Earth (Richardson earned Academy Award nominations for both Platoon and Fourth of July, and won the Oscar for JFK; he has also shot A Few Good Men for Rob Reiner and Eight Men Out and City of Hope for John Sayles). This time around, however, Stone encountered uncharacteristic resistance from Richardson, who concedes that he had an “intensely negative reaction” to the Natural Born Killers script, originally written by Quentin Tarantino and then revised by David Veloz, Richard Rutowski and Stone.
“The situation, quite clearly, was that I
didn’t want to do the film.”
— Robert Richardson, ASC
“The situation, quite clearly, was that I didn’t want to do the film,” Richardson reveals. “I simply didn’t have the level of respect that I’d had for the written material on, say, Born on the Fourth of July or JFK. Each of those aroused in me a great deal of historical respect and intellectual curiosity. I really attacked this project as pure imagination, but Oliver grasped that element and pushed it further than I might have been willing to go.”
Stone, for his part, freely admits that he played the “friendship card” in his attempt to persuade Richardson to shoot the picture. “I feel a lot of love for Bob; he’s a friend, and I’ve grown with him over the past nine years. He was in a strange place on this movie. I was in the middle of a divorce, so I was in a very difficult place myself. I felt like he was abandoning me, and I asked him to stay on because I was feeling very vulnerable. He did not like the material in its scripted form. As far as the morality of the story was concerned, I argued with him that it represented the culture we were in, and that the picture was a satire, which required us to exaggerate and distort in order to make our point. That’s what satire is — making things larger so you can examine them.”
Richardson finally acquiesced, and that decision led to one of the most harrowing periods of his life. “I only agreed to do this film out of love for Oliver and our relationship; he’s like an older brother. But once I began the process, it truly became a nightmare for me. Making this movie was like reading Jung’s Modern Man in Search of His Soul. The story brought up unpleasant memories from my own childhood, and those memories plagued me to such a degree that my nights were literally sleepless. I became heavily dependent upon sleeping pills to get me through the night, and each day was just a living hell. To make things worse, my wife almost died from a serious illness while we were scouting locations, and my brother went into a coma near the end of the shoot.
“A tremendous number of demons came up through my body during the shoot; this picture almost resulted in a divorce with my wife, and it was ultimately the reason I moved out of Los Angeles. In the end, though, all of the strife was what provided me with the creative juice I needed to deal with the project.”
— Robert Richardson
“All of these problems translated into physical and mental angst on the set. I was very hard on my crew (which included key grip Chris Centrella, chief lighting technician Ray Peschke and first camera assistant Gregor Tavenner), but most of the guys I work with are close friends, so it’s a bit easier to get through those abusive moments.
“There’s no question in my mind that I was extraordinarily weak and abusive on this show. At times, I was very rude with Oliver because of the pain I was feeling. A tremendous number of demons came up through my body during the shoot; this picture almost resulted in a divorce with my wife, and it was ultimately the reason I moved out of Los Angeles. In the end, though, all of the strife was what provided me with the creative juice I needed to deal with the project. Had I been in love with the material, I might not have been so aggressive in my approach; my angst wouldn’t have been as much a part of the camerawork. I might not have been as willing to overstep the boundaries of what we commonly want to do professionally in our business, and that would have resulted in a different film, one that might not have been as successful for Oliver.”
“What makes me happy is that Bob seems excited by the results,” Stone says. “He was in contradiction with himself, but I think that gave his work a lot of energy. At first I’m sure he was thinking, ‘I’ll just do it to make Oliver happy, then I’ll forget about it.’ But now I think he’s really proud of his work, and he should be, because it’s outstanding.”
During preproduction, Stone and Richardson conferred closely with production designer Victor Kempster and editors Hank Corwin and Brian Berdan; Richardson maintains that the finished product is an amalgam of the quintet’s individual cognitive processes. “What’s fascinating about this project, in my mind, is that it mirrors the attitudes of the filmmakers. Most obviously, it represents Oliver’s mental workings, but it also reflects the interests of Hank, Brian, Victor and myself; I guess we could all do with a little therapy,” he says, laughing. “When we became aware that we wanted to treat the material in a more surreal or even Cubist manner, we held a lot of discussions. In all of the various departments, we were attempting to deal with the subject matter of schizophrenia and psychopathic attitudes — a grotesquely aberrant collection of nightmarish actions. I think one of the things that’s most successful about the film is that the burden of its narration isn’t placed upon dialogue as much as it is upon metaphorical connections. For me, it’s not simply the visuals — it’s the brilliant things Oliver did with the dialogue, the music, the effects, and everything else. After all of these ‘samples’ have been tied together, each layer helps to illuminate and define what the picture is. When you look at our landscapes, whether they’re manmade or natural they’re really intended to evoke the characters’ states of mind, emotions and experiences. Hank and Oliver could cut away to a flower as opposed to the exterior of a building, and the flower would say something about what was happening in a more interesting way than just defining the landscape physically. The approach we chose says more about the characters’ mental landscape. I’ve always been a big admirer of Antonioni’ s films, especially L’ Avventura, because he was always very successful in achieving a sense that a location was a character.”
“There was nothing straight ahead or linear about this project,” notes editor Corwin, who first began collaborating with Richardson on television commercials. “The script was almost like a blueprint. The use of the mixed formats really dictated how the film was cut. Fortunately, we were using a Lightworks random-access system, so the formats didn’t really affect us that much — everything was entered material to him, after which we’d recut it or fine-tune it. Some scenes were fine, and others he made us cut 40 times. He gave us a lot of freedom, but he also managed to personalize the material. The process was a constant exploration.”
NBK’s jagged, schizoid visuals — which occasionally included purposely “sloppy” techniques — ran counter to Richardson’s perfectionist impulses, which have become deeply ingrained over the years. Stone jokingly notes that Killers “breaks all the laws of cinematography,” but Richardson had a difficult time breaching those hallowed boundaries. “Oliver was constantly needling me in that regard,” he recalls. “I’d be shooting a sequence, and he’d say to me, ‘Bob, are you shooting for your peers today?’ Personally, I never saw this film as a direct affront to anybody, or as an attempt to break rules. We needed to be as off-balance as the characters were. Once we decided on that approach, it didn’t make a great deal of sense to enter the arena without oscillations that were equally schizophrenic and psychopathic. That was my goal, it was Oliver’s goat and it became the editors’ goal; everything is dependent upon being fractured, and it’s a cumulative effect of the various layers.
“If we hadn’t gone in that direction, there were several other options. I could’ve seen shooting the picture extensively on black-and-white 16mm. But Oliver didn’t feel that that was enough of a creative ledge. He wanted to pursue something larger.”
The filmmakers’ anarchic intent is introduced in a shockingly graphic opening sequence, during which Mickey and Mallory annihilate a group of ill-mannered rednecks in a desolate roadside diner.
The scene begins peacefully enough, with Mickey ordering a slice of key lime pie from a waitress at the lunch counter. Moments later, however, Mallory stirs up the locals by indulging in a sexually provocative dance routine near the diner’s jukebox.
A pair of truckers arrive in the midst of her performance, and when one of the men makes a series of crude advances toward Mallory, she turns on him with the fury of a scorpion that’s been poked once too often with a stick. As she beats the much bigger man to a pulp with her bare hands, Mickey guts his companion with a Bowie knife, guns down a female cook, and thwarts another patron’s attempted escape by throwing his knife through a plate-glass window and into the man’s spine.
With just one quaking cowboy and a frightened waitress left alive, the couple must decide whose life to spare (as Gale later notes in one of his hyperbolic, Aussie-inflected broadcasts, “Mickey and Mallory always leave one victim alive — to tell the tale!”). They make their choice by forcing the two unlucky souls to submit to a gunpoint game of “eeny meeny miney moe.” The wailing waitress loses and is felled by Mickey’s bullet.
The diner sequence was shot on both 35mm and high-speed 16mm black-and-white stock, and other attention-getting tactics were employed: when Mickey shoots the cook, the audience views the killing from the perspective of the spinning bullet; the same POV is employed when he hurls his knife at the fleeing cowboy. Both shots were accomplished with the help of fairly simple mounts developed by effects expert Matt Sweeney. The prop bullet and knife were attached to metal rigs that extended in front of the lens, and the camera was then dollied slowly toward each victim as the weapons revolved. Richardson explains that the unusual perspectives were intended to prepare the audience for a new visual experience. “With the first shooting, where the bullet is revolving in front of the camera, you’re really jumping off stylistically, and it clearly sets the tone for what will follow. The language has been stated: what you’re about to see is not realism. The ‘eeny meenie miney moe’ sequence has its own humorous point of view, because the camera views the scene from Mickey’s perspective, as if the viewer is holding the gun. Normally, you’d cover that action with an objective camera which would witness the overall schematics of the scene.”
Richardson adds that the mixing of film formats, which may seem random to the casual viewer, actually serves a predetermined philosophical strategy. “For the 35mm sequences inside the diner, we went with non-fluorescent lighting; we used HMIs through the windows. With the other stock we cut in for the scene, the 16mm high-speed stock, we went with almost everything, and had overhead fluorescents working. The idea was that we would introduce characters in 35mm establishing shots, which then became the generic foundation for the black-and-white inserts. The black-and-white wasn’t used until the aggressive movement by the cowboy during Mallory’s dance. Most of the black-and-white was used for the violence, except for shots that provided pinpoints of color, such as the green pie, the records inside the jukebox, or blood on the tables. If we had decided to shoot the initial fight sequence between Mallory and the cowboy entirely in color, it might have altered the rest of the sequence as it played out. Instead, we isolated certain parts of the violence in the highly grainy black-and-white so it would be a shock to come out to 35mm, with extremely strong, clean colors.
“I like the energy of all of the various forces on the set flowing together, but I like to guide it and get us out of there so we don’t degenerate into a self-indulgent mess.”
— Oliver Stone
“Specific shots were also intended to heighten the power of a kill,” Richardson adds. “For example, we did one shot in which the bullet did not stop in front of the cook’s head, but actually continued to the point of impact. It just kept going and smashed into her brain, and the wall was shot in both black-and-white and color so that a post decision could be made about how to temper the effect. Many of our shots were so experimental that we would often duplicate them another way if we had fear about whether it would be too excessive or whether it would line up with another, more conventional shot. We had to find a way to make the connection between shots, or our compositing rhythm might have been entirely thrown off. Much of the success of our approach was in the layering, and we had to make a great number of decisions based upon that consideration.”
This loose, improvisational shooting style prevailed throughout the shoot, although Richardson notes that some scenes were meticulously preplanned and carefully controlled. “There was a lot of spontaneous stuff going on in the movie, particularly with action. This film was as close to a documentary as you could get, in terms of the rendering of the material. But certain sequences were quite clearly defined visually — such as the moment when Scagnetti strangles a hooker, or the gas station sequence, or the wedding sequence. In those instances, it was well known what each shot would be.”
Stone maintains that while he and Richardson have worked out a fairly standard division of duties during their many years together, he always encourages as much improvisation as possible from everyone involved in a production. “The lighting is pretty much Bob, but we do talk about it. Framing is pretty much me, but he gives me very good suggestions. I feel that camera position is really part of the director’s approach to the scene. I also think the director serves the idea, and should encourage everyone to collaborate. The director has to maintain the organization in terms of moving the scene on; he has to keep to some sort of time schedule. This was a very complicated film, and we shot it in just 54 days.
“During the shoot, I make shot lists for each coming week,” the director continues. “I generally don’t like to hand them around, because I don’t like the sense of everyone getting into a predictable rhythm. If everyone knows the course of the day, that sense of experimentation and spontaneity gets lost. Things change as we shoot. If I have a nine-shot scene, and something happens on the set that works, my nine shots could become six shots, or four shots. What I’m always trying to do is shortcut. Bob knows exactly what I have in mind, and I usually tell my AD about the day. But I don’t like to hand things around; the key people know what I have in mind. I like the energy of all of the various forces on the set flowing together, but I like to guide it and get us out of there so we don’t degenerate into a self-indulgent mess.”
That sense of discipline is a bit more difficult to maintain on a picture as unusual as Natural Born Killers, but Stone and Richardson conceptualized the use of the various film formats to maintain an overarching sense of organization. “One of the ideas we came up with was to break the film down, piece-by-piece, into textures,” says Richardson. “The most obvious way of doing textures is with production design — walls, colors, and so forth. But that always left me with a fear that financially, or simply because of logistics, we wouldn’t be able to control those textures to the degrees that were necessary. And a lot of locations were not allowing us to get beyond the simply bland or slick walls. What started to get driven in as these locations unfolded, and as our minds got stretched further and further, was going back to 16mm black-and-white, and figuring out how we could utilize the grain structure, how we could break down into Hi8 or Super 8.”
“Although we were at a beautiful location, we tried to find some visual opposition to represent the characters’ conflict.”
— Robert Richardson
A good example of this strategy in action occurs during a scene in which Mickey and Mallory, under the influence of psychedelic mushrooms, have an argument about fidelity in the midst of a desert expanse. “Although we were at a beautiful location, we tried to find some visual opposition to represent the characters’ conflict,” says Richardson. “One of the decisions we made with that particular sequence was to punctuate it with silky 35mm landscapes, which we then tore apart with some highly improvisational Super 8 shooting. The Super 8 footage was extremely grainy, but still managed to reproduce the elements of color in the location, which was mostly reddish. As the argument progressed, we went a little wilder with the handheld black-and-white.
“Moments like that were how we found out, as we went along, that some dramatic elements worked better with certain formats. But it wasn’t like Super 8 always represented a ‘breakdown.’ Some of the most loving material, such as Mickey and Mallory’s impromptu wedding on the bridge, was also shot on Super 8. For that scene, we shot Super 8 footage of them kissing, with one piece of black-and-white mixed in. We decided to go with Super 8 because it had a ‘home movie’ quality that felt extraordinarily real for that moment; going back to 35 right there would have felt too commercial, and not as genuine in spirit. So there was no set ‘recipe’ for the formats — we never said to ourselves, ‘16mm black-and-white is gritty and rough, so it’s meant for abusive moments.’ Our strategy wasn’t that easily defined.”
In rendering the different looks, Richardson made use of a number of photographic systems. 35mm footage was shot in the 1.85 format using Panavision cameras and Primo prime lenses, as well as 11:1 and 4:1 zooms and a Cooke zoom. He also had an Aaton 35mm camera on hand. His 16mm package consisted of an Arriflex camera and Zeiss lenses. Super 8 scenes were shot with a Beaulieu system from Pro8mm, and Hi8 was accomplished with a Nikon camera. For a major sequence intended to have the look of television sitcom, Richardson employed an Ikegami Beta system.
The cinematographer’s 35mm stocks were Kodak’s 5248, 5293, 5296, a bit of 5297 and some 5298 (the 98 stock only became available at the tail end of the shoot). 16mm stocks were Tri-X (high-speed) and Plus-X, as well as some Kodachrome and a bit of Ektachrome. For Super 8, he shot mainly Kodachrome with some Ektachrome, as well as highspeed black-and-white.
Filtration included 85s, NDs and Pro-Mists, as well as the occasional low-contrast filter. Richardson used some black-and-white filtration for his 35mm black-and-white footage, but most of the film’s black-and-white shots were rendered in 16mm. The black-and-white 35 was used selectively to heighten specific moments.
Both Stone and Richardson felt that the mixed formats helped them overcome logistical difficulties, such as a short schedule and sudden shifts in the weather, while also allowing them to take advantage of unforeseen photographic opportunities.
“We ran into a lot of weather changes at Stateville Prison in Chicago, such as storms, which changed our lighting and the look,” Stone relates. “But the different stocks gave us a wide latitude, so if the weather hit the shit we could just go to black-and-white and make it grainy!” He pauses, laughing at the cinematic irreverence of this concept, then strikes a more serious tone. “I’m not the kind of director who likes to stop working; I like to keep the energy going. Bob has been terrific in that respect; he’s flexible enough to keep shooting and find a way to do it, no matter what the circumstances.”
Says Richardson, “To some extent, switching formats helped us deal with a very fast schedule and a lot of locations. Varying formats relieved me of the need for consistency in the most obvious way. 35mm calls for you to do your very best work; it says to you, ‘Please treat me gently.’ As a cinematographer, it’s ingrained in me to be loving, to try to produce the most appropriate imagery that I possibly can. Using video and 16mm throughout this pictured trained me step-by-step to give up that fear.”
Richardson’s abandonment of his usual aesthetic instincts reached a peak while shooting a surreal sequence in which Mickey recalls his first meeting with Mallory. Rather than presenting the scene as a straightforward flashback, the filmmakers used the Beta format to create a warped situation comedy called I Love Mallory, starring Rodney Dangerfield as Mallory’s repulsive, sexually deviant father; a purple-haired Edie McClurg as her spineless, capitulating Mom; and Stone’s son Sean as her bemused younger brother.
“When you watch a sitcom, there’s something distinctly different in the quality and reproduction of color.”
— Robert Richardson
Shot in an exaggerated television style against Victor Kempster’s strategically tacky sets, the sequence — complete with a horrifyingly inappropriate laugh track and closing credits — serves as a chilling, ironic, and highly effective critique of television’s cliched vision of the “happy nuclear family.”
“I have a particular fear of tackling any subject matter that says ‘television’ in a 35mm format,” explains Richardson. “When you watch a sitcom, there’s something distinctly different in the quality and reproduction of color. To try to capture that ‘sitcom look,’ we shot in the Beta format with Ikegamis, and we set up in extremely static positions, motivated simply by the motion of the characters, and by traditional TV shots — masters, over-the-shoulders and singles. The angles you would get with a typical three-camera setup were the angles we chose. We didn’t attempt to do anything beyond that, except for a couple of shots — one tracking shot that took Rodney to his second position; a graphic, high-quality 35mm black-and-white insert of the father fondling the daughter; and a couple of silky close-ups of Woody and Juliette as they look at each other lovingly.”
Kempster’s gaudy, eccentric production design heightened the sitcom effect by creating a bizarre separation between foreground and background elements. “If you walked onto that set with any type of mental disability, you would have been thrown into a seizure by the design of the wallpaper,” Richardson jokes. “And the video just attacked it, which we hadn’t really anticipated. That jarring illusion of separation was heightened even further when we transferred the video footage to film.”
The cinematographer swallowed his professional pride yet again while shooting a “television documentary” segment in which Wayne Gale details Mickey and Mallory’s murderous rampage. The sequence begins with Gale’s introduction, a “roadside report” from Route 666. To simulate the sort of experimentation that might be found on a magazine-style television show such as American Maniacs, he recorded Downey’s melodramatic intro in offspeed 35mm, shooting at 6 fps. Reprinted later at 24 fps, the footage retains the element of sync dialogue, but has a jittery quality that adds a foreboding edge to the reporter’s spiel.
“While shooting that sequence, I really
had to get rid of my desire to produce
something with quality.”
— Robert Richardson
Richardson was pleased with the results, but found the limits of his good taste tested while creating the rest of Downey’s segment, which combined the hardboiled kitsch of old-fashioned “true crime” documentaries (complete with a stilted voiceover and black-and-white blowups of “police file photos”) with the raggedy look of “dramatizations” familiar to viewers of sensationalistic television shows such as America’s Most Wanted. “If you find yourself tuning out creatively, you can always try shooting that type of material,” Richardson says with a derisive chuckle. “It doesn’t take a lot of ingenuity to reproduce that style of filmmaking. It’s very over-the-top, and there was a lack of concern on our part for the filming of that stuff. While shooting that sequence, I really had to get rid of my desire to produce something with quality.”
More palatable to Richardson were sequences in which rough-hewn techniques were blended with state-of-the-art images, such as the scene in which Mickey, thrown into prison for auto theft, improvises a mythical escape. Working in the prison corral, our inventive protagonist takes advantage of a sudden tornado by commandeering a horse and galloping off into a massive dust cloud. “That sequence was shot extensively in black-and-white 16mm, but the landscape imagery was 35mm,” says Richardson. “The entrance of the tornado, as well as a cutaway to some rattlesnakes and a picturesque shot of Woody riding his horse across the frame, was all done on 35. Everything else was shot in 16mm using two cameras operated by [second-unit cinematographer] Phil Pfeiffer and myself. Phil and I shot almost all of the action that occurred within the corral simultaneously. He would have to be hidden if I was in the handheld position picking up a secondary action with the actors.
“To simulate the effect of the twister, a small explosion was set off in the distance, and the tornado itself was added digitally by Pacific Data Images. While we were shooting, Matt Sweeney and his effects crew used jet engines to kick up a tremendous amount of dust, and one of the cameras was essentially buried in sand. The ultimate effect upon three magazines of film was the scratchy look that you see in the movie. To me, that look was outstandingly beautiful, but it was entirely accidental — the result of some fortuitous demons. Because we were switching stocks all the time, we were able to take advantage of it.”
Mixing formats was just one method used by the filmmakers to lend the visuals emotional and psychological resonance. In order to convey the characters’ interior thoughts and attitudes, Stone came up with the idea of iterally “projecting” those thought patterns via plate footage that would appear in the background of certain scenes. This bold tactic greatly expands the film’s cinematic syntax and infuses many scenes with a revealing visual subtext. The technique is introduced at the tail end of the diner slaughter, when Mickey and Mallory indulge in a romantic slow-dance. As they clinch and spin, the diner’s lights fade out, revealing a process shot of fireworks in the skies of Paris. “The initial drafts of the script included several process shots, but they were more intended to provide a ‘travelogue’ feel than a pyschological element,” Richardson notes. “We ended up conceiving, principally due to Oliver, the idea that we would enter the characters’ minds through those sequences.
In other words, their corporeal world does not necessarily reflect the mental world they are in. So in the diner dance, we placed them in Paris, with the exploding fireworks. That was tough to accomplish technically, because the diner was an actual location rather than a stage set. It was difficult to coordinate things logistically, and in my mind we never achieved the perfection we could have gotten on a set. We had to resort to front projection on the diner wall, whereas on a set we could have cut out a wall and used rear projection. We also could have had a larger screen and a more elaborate dimming system for better control over the lighting. But other than that it wasn’t too difficult; we simply used a dimming gag with a corresponding spot-lighting system. The irises were open to give the characters two separate edgers that led them into black, and the camera just drifted off slightly to reveal the background process footage.”
A different use of the background imagery occurs moments later, during the film’s unique title sequence. To create the feel of Mickey and Mallory’s physical and psychological “joyride,” the filmmakers placed Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis in a car on a stage, and shot the actors’ ebullient gestures and reactions against a kaleidoscopic collection of rear-screen plates which included desert landscapes, stock footage, and scenes from cheesy old science-fiction and cowboy movies. “Most of that sequence was shot on a Los Angeles stage prior to production,” says Richardson. “The large rear-projection setup was provided by Hansard, and the plate material was collected in a number of ways. There was a two-week period prior to production when I went on the road to shoot landscapes, buildings, and particular locations that Oliver had pinpointed during our scouts. Along the way, I found other things, such as roadkills, interesting-looking telephone poles, and so on. Those pieces were shot in both 35 and 16, and they were combined with found footage from stock libraries. We used scenes from old movies and television shows, and also mixed in nature footage, such as daisies. Other stuff was taken from time-lapse stock libraries.”
Richardson notes that he kept his camera aperture “wide open as much as possible” while shooting the driving scenes, because many of the plates were quite dark. “Not all of the values on the film were the same,” he says. “Some things would be too dark to my taste, while other things were a little too bright.”
This problem was alleviated a bit by the colorful, almost psychedelic lighting patterns Richardson used in the foreground on Harrelson and Lewis. “The fact that the rest of the lighting in those sequences varied wildly was what made the overall look acceptable. If a plate was weak, or if we didn’t want the plate to be the element that your eye would be drawn to, we might focus on the foreground elements and play them up a bit. Woody and Juliette’s acting was another determining factor. I tried to oscillate between highlights and foregrounds with colors and brightness values that would be in direct friction to the plates in the background. That way, when the plates were weak, or even if it was a random choice, it would end up being to my benefit. I wasn’t worried about being too bright, because I knew how far I could go in terms of overexposure.”
Says editor Hank Corwin, “Working with the plates was like cutting movies within movies. The plates were cut beforehand, and then they’d shoot them. We figured we could pack in a lot more feeling with that approach; it was a more impressionistic way to tell the story. [Co-editor] Brian Berdan has worked with David Lynch, so he picked up the style really quickly.”
The success of their initial rear-screen experiments led the filmmakers to expand the concept for other setpieces as well, such as Mickey and Mallory’s turbulent stopover at a cheap motel. As Mickey lounges on the bed, flicking through TV channels with a remote control, disturbing images of his abusive childhood — as well as shots of Nazi atrocities, galloping horses and a howling coyote — play across a multi-paned window behind him. “That plate was designed after we realized the success of our original plates,” Richardson notes. “Oliver decided that he wanted to go another step. The motel plate footage is not conceptually tied to the television screen, which clearly shows representations of Hollywood movies and nature shows. The window material reflects Mickey’s interior state of mind. In a similar scene later on, when Scagnetti strangles a prostitute in a different motel, we projected police file photos of murder victims, but you have to look very closely to see them, because they were quite graphic and repulsive and we didn’t want to show them too prominently.”
Plate photography is also featured during Mickey and Mallory’s visit to the wise Indian, who lives in a “hogan,” a traditional, spherical Navaho dwelling constructed of logs and mud. As the Indian entertains them with humorous anecdotes and bits of philosophy, the two outlaws — ragged from the road and experiencing mushroom-induced hallucinations — drift off to sleep. Mickey’s halfslumber is interrupted by vivid, nightmarish visions, and when he is jolted awake, he panics and shoots his host. Distraught by this accidental homicide, the pair attempt to flee into the night, but rush headlong into a field of rattlesnakes.
Richardson notes that the filmmakers shot most of the interior scenes involving the Indian on a stage, within a specially constructed hogan. A real hogan was used for exterior shots of Mickey and Mallory as they approach the structure, as well as shots of their hasty exit through the rattlesnakes. “Most of the interior footage was shot with either light coming through the top hole of the hogan or through the windows; the fireside scenes were lit mostly by fire,” he says. “The daytime dialogue scenes were primarily lit with tungsten Pars; for the nighttime sequences, we went mostly with propane gas as our lighting source, because the characters were only a couple of feet away from the fire itself.”
Projection plates were used several times during the sequence — to simulate the sky though the hogan’s top hole; to create an ominous nighttime background of a how ling wolf through the door; and to simulate several of Mickey’s horrifying hallucinations, which include more images of his childhood and time-lapse footage of decaying fruit. “The projection screen determined my lighting values,” Richardson explains. “Almost all of that material was shot at a 2.8 or slightly under 2.8. The lighting source in that particular situation was a fire with an additional bank of blondes through colored gels to get me to a higher level, because I couldn’t get the fire to the height I needed to give me good values for the sequence.”
In scenes where plates or different formats weren’t used, Richardson relied primarily upon unusual lighting techniques to achieve a sense of disorientation or drama. Several key scenes, for example, are imbued with a sickly green hue to indicate the characters’ instability. This green wash first occurs when Mallory, feeling spurned by her man, seduces a gas station attendant in a garage. The look is used in two other key sequences as well — in the first, Mickey and Mallory, poisoned with snake venom, attempt to track down an antidote at an enormous pharmacy called Drug Zone; in the second, which occurs at the film’s climax, the outlaws take refuge in a tiled, bloodstained room during the prison riot.
Although the looks in each scene are similar, Richardson notes that slightly different methods were employed. “In the gas station sequence, the green hue was achieved by using gels on fluorescents, and by using KinoFlos with a type of fluorescent light that’s used for lighting greenscreens in optical work,” he reveals. “In that particular scene, there was a bit more blue in the green because we also used HMis with green tones in them. We used this steel-blue green again at the end of the prison sequence.”
The Drug Zone interlude, however, is awash in a purer shade of green. “For that sequence, we spent a great deal of money — somewhere in the vicinity of $20,000 — to purchase between 2,000 and 3,000 green bulbs from General Electric. We were shooting 35mm, but coating it with a veneer of repugnant color. That color allowed the repugnant quality to take on a very heightened, lush element, which helped me find relief in shooting 35mm under fluorescents. Quite honestly, the use of the bulbs made things much easier for the electrical crew in the long run, because once we got everything hooked up, the supplementation of color was provided by simply using fluorescent units on the floor to fill in eyes.”
The final reel of Natural Born Killers, which takes place almost entirely within the prison, offers a show-stopping crescendo of seat-of-the-pants cinematography. Beginning with Scagnetti’s introduction to Warden McCluskey (which supposedly takes place one year after the supercop’ s spectacular arrest of Mickey and Mallory), the film’s last act features a wide variety of looks.
“Once we reached the prison, I really became a ‘method cinematographer,’” Richardson says. “We were trying for a paranoid feel, which is not extraordinary difficult to achieve when you’re in the middle of a real prison! Initially, we went to a very conservative approach in the prison to settle the film back down after the madness of the ‘road movie.’ We still attempted to keep the punctured, expressionistic element with quick shots of Tommy Lee’s tongue, the guards’ keys, and some black-and-white tracking shots. We wanted to keep that style alive, just on a much more subdued level; later on, during the riots, we went into pure madness, mirroring Oliver’s staging. For the first scene at the prison, we used a Steadicam to get a backwards tracking shot of Scagnetti and McClusky. We shot on 93 and 48, depending upon whether the characters were walking inside or outside. I felt that we should strengthen the grain element in those shots, and thought about using 16mm. But the quality of 16mm color stock has become so good at this point that it’s impossible to get that kind of grain. Instead, we created a granular look in post for the first set of walk-and-talks, all the way up until McClusky confronts some prisoners in the dining room, where we went with straight 35mm. We did use 16mm for shots intended to add elements of paranoia — mainly the eyes and faces of frightening-looking inmates.”
Stone soon pushed Richardson’s “method” technique to its maximum for a scene in which Mallory, after spotting Scagnetti peering through the window in her cell door, charges headfirst into the glass, knocking herself unconscious. The same fate nearly befell Richardson and second-unit cinematographer Phil Pfeiffer. “Oliver wanted Mallory’s point of view as she ran toward the door and smashed her head into it,” Richardson recalls. “He wanted the actual impact. I was using a 14mm lens, handheld, and I had strapped a piece of foam rubber onto the camera so I could get run up really close to the door. Once I felt the foam rubber absorbing the shock, I would stop my forward motion, because at that point I was only six inches from the door. But Oliver felt that he wasn’t getting the actual hit, that I was pulling back at the last second — which was absolutely true! I was extremely reluctant to take that next step, but Oliver took me off to the side, chained me up and whipped me a few times to make me comply.” He chuckles ruefully before adding the inevitable punchline. “When I went back to do the shot again, I wound up breaking a finger, which put me out of commission. Then Phil gave it a try, and he cut his eye open. He needed four stitches, and that was the end of the game, because we didn’t have a third-string quarterback. But Oliver got his shot.”
Another eye-catching shot reveals a solitary Mickey in his cell, writing a letter to Mallory. The light in the cell is provided by an extremely hot ray of “sunshine” pouring through a single window. “In that scene we were using a beam projector,” Richardson says. “It’s an older light that Barbara Ling, the production designer on The Doors, turned me on to. One of our desires on that film was to find fixtures that were from that period; we didn’t want to use contemporary lighting styles and equipment. The beam projector, along with Pars, became the easiest way to get the brightest elements in tungsten. The beam projector consists of 5K and 10K bulbs placed in front of a Bausch and Lomb mirror, with no Fresnel. It creates a very sharp beam, but it’s not as bright as a Xenon. Ian Kincaid, my gaffer on The Doors, developed a series of those fixtures, as has Ray Peschke, my gaffer on NBK. We used one of Ray’s lights on this show.”
As in the earlier diner sequence, Richardson employed a dimmer system while filming a shot of McClusky and Scagnetti observing a conversation between Mickey and Wayne Gale from behind a pane of two-way glass. As the camera moves in on the opaque window, McClusky and Scagnetti magically materialize beyond the pane. “That’s a technique we began playing with in Talk Radio,” says Richardson. “You are looking at a two-way mirror which is mostly reflective. We had dimming gags in the space behind the mirror. You have to raise the inner light level to a certain height before you can penetrate the mirror visually. As we pushed forward, I lowered the existing light level in the room I was in and raised it to a corresponding level on the other side of the glass. I had to raise the light level in the other room to quite a high level so we could see beyond the glass, which absorbs a certain amount of light. That shot was really done by eye.”
Dimmers were also used for Mickey’s primetime interview with Gale. This time, the system helped to provide color shifts as actors Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey, Jr. engaged in their highly improvisational confrontation. “I was operating, but Ray Peschke was attached to me via intercom,” Richardson relates. “The two of us would whisper to each other and make the color changes based upon each succeeding take. Ray controlled the lights with dimmers as I moved around. If he felt we needed a sudden change, he would pull; you have to have a lot of faith in the person who’s behind your lights, and Ray did a brilliant job. Robert and Woody kept changing their dialogue and the rhythms of their line readings; as a result, it was a bit difficult for us to maintain consistency. We would choose our color — either red, white or blue — as our major element according to the dialogue. It was a very instinctual process, but we finally locked into a pattern after a number of takes. Once we were locked in, we would attempt to repeat the cues as closely as possible so we could match the footage later in editing.”
“The theme of Natural Born Killers is that violence is all around us; it’s in nature, and it’s in every one of us, and we all have to acknowledge it and come to grips with it.”
— Oliver Stone
The same color scheme is used for a parallel sequence in which Scagnetti attempts to seduce Mallory in her cell. Richardson combined the shifting colors with his trademark lighting style, a mixture of hard toplight and backlight. “We used hard toplight and a number of tones,” he says. “We used red, white and blue again, as well as a slight amber shade. We felt that the oscillating tones were capturing their feverish mindstates; as the scene plays, there’s a sense that they’re in a precarious place. The trepidation the viewer feels mirrors Mallory’s state of mind as she sits there with Sizemore. We also kept the camera moving to put the audience on edge.
“The hard toplight says something as they start to burn and glow; the look is harsh and contrasty, and the backgrounds start to fall off because so much of your attention is being drawn to the foreground. Not being able to look at something for a long period of time does make the viewer feel a bit ill at ease.”
Asked about his pioneering use of these glowing halos of light, Richardson demurs a bit. “I have no idea what led me to adopt this approach; I’ve been moving in that direction for awhile. Personally, I find it a visually engaging look, so I’ve always been attracted to it. It tends to draw the eye to the characters; that was the motivation on previous pictures, with the characters of Oswald and Jim Morrison. It’s really no different than putting a spotlight on somebody, but a spotlight isn’t conducive to what we generally consider to be proper placement of light on a face. Instead, my light comes very hard from above. I use different lighting positions to achieve different types of glows — slightly behind the head and directly down, or at eye level and down, hidden behind a head or a body. In the case of Oswald in his jail cell, the light was parallel with his body. But the glow is not as dependent upon positioning as it is upon the lighting level. Generally, I work at a stop between 2.8 and 4. On this particular film, the zoom was used at times for convnience, and that lens started at a 2.8. With the primes, I’d generally be dealing with a 2, and I would usually go a stop down. I don’t necessarily set up my lighting to suit the lens, though; when I’m hired to shoot a picture, I usually look to the locations to help determine my lighting scheme.
“It’s very hard for me to give an intellectual reason for why this technique works for me,” he concludes. “A lot of times it’s simply an emotional reaction or an aesthetic approach that feels appropriate. I may be absolutely wrong in my decisions, and there are many who will insist that I am, but I can’t battle with the critics. It’s just something that feels right to me.”
Battling with the critics, of course, has become standard practice for Stone, who insists that he takes no particular relish in defending his artistic endeavors. Like many of his previous films, Natural Born Killers has provided plenty of grist for America’s op-ed pages, where armchair auteurs have taken the director to task for his stylized depiction of violence. As always, however, the outspoken Stone offers a spirited defense of his motives. “If you censor the concept of violence, you are doing society a disservice,” he maintains. “The theme of Natural Born Killers is that violence is all around us; it’s in nature, and it’s in every one of us, and we all have to acknowledge it and come to grips with it. I think this film deals with the idea of violence. It disturbs people, it roils their minds, and it makes them think about themselves and their reactions to the violence. By taking a ‘higher moral road’ — which is easy when you’re in civilian life and you’re enjoying the benefits of an advanced technological society — you’re under the illusion that you don’t have to deal with it, and that’s wrong. There are those who are all for ‘three strikes you’re out’ and ‘throw away the key,’ but that doesn’t solve the problem of crime or the problems of society.”
Following Natural Born Killers, Richardson would go on to shoot two more features with Stone — the revealing biopic Nixon (1995) and the quirky neo-noir crime film U Turn (1997).
The cinematographer was honored with the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019.
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