A Conversation with Matthew Libatique
QUESTION: Where are you from?
LIBATIQUE: My parents emigrated from the Philippines to New York City. I was born in Elmhurst, Queens, and lived there until I was 11, when my family moved to California. My father was a refrigeration repairman. He figured the desert would be a good place to set up shop when people began migrating there in the early 1980s.
QUESTION: Were you a photo hobbyist as a kid?
LIBATIQUE: My father used to work as a technician at Berkey Film Labs in New York. He was the person who turned me on to photography. He had a Nikon F camera, and taught me the three basics-aperture, shutter speed and focus. I took nature photos and pictures of people riding BMX bikes and motorcycles. I was pretty much self-taught and would borrow his camera, go out and figure it out myself.
QUESTION: Did that lead to your interest in motion pictures?
LIBATIQUE: I got turned on by films as an undergraduate at the California State University in Fullerton. I learned how to edit before I did anything else. What happened was that I switched from majoring in psychology to sociology and then to communications. I ended up with a double major in communications and sociology, which had very little to do with being a filmmaker. The truth is that I was always most interested in extracurricular activities, whether it was riding my dirt bike, or playing a guitar. In high school I dreamed about playing guitar in a band. In college, I got interested in the cinema and got involved in editing. There was a film club and my best friend was hell-bent on becoming a producer. He needed a guy to hang out with who would do everything else. We ended up doing a bunch of industrial videos on 3/4-inch tape for companies in Orange County. They were the most boring things you can possibly imagine, about a carpet cleaning service and a computerized filing system.
QUESTION: What did you do after you graduated from college?
LIBATIQUE: When I was a student, a circle of friends and myself would watch films. I saw The Conformist and realized the director and the actors weren't making the film by themselves-the cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro (ASC, AIC), who I knew nothing about at the time-made a powerful contribution. I moved to Hollywood and started working at Chanticleer Films on an internship. They did short films with first time directors. My first job there was cleaning out a garage, and my second job was taking a box of scripts to ICM. I was able to parlay my video editing experience into working with the postproduction people and ended up being the postproduction coordinator at Chanticleer for a year. I still wanted to be a cinematographer, so I applied to the American Film Institute and was accepted in 1992.
QUESTION: In retrospect, what was the impact of your AFI experience?
LIBATIQUE: It changed me, and I'll always look back on it fondly. We had guest speakers including Allen Daviau (ASC), John Bailey (ASC), Victor J. Kemper (ASC), Conrad Hall (ASC) and Owen Roizman (ASC). Film school is not like any other school where there's a job waiting for you when you get out. The cinematographers who mentored us at AFI taught me that I wasn't preparing for a job - it was actually the beginning of a lifetime pursuit of an art form. That was an inspiration for me.
QUESTION: Did you form relationships at AFI that helped you later?
LIBATIQUE: On the first day, I met Darren Aronofsky, a director whom I've worked with on several pictures. He's from Brooklyn, and we had similar interests and experiences. Even though I was living in the desert and he was in Brooklyn, we listened to the same music and appreciated the same things about film. Later, we made Requiem for a Dream primarily in Brooklyn. The place is timeless. When you're in Brooklyn it could be any decade. There's hardly a sign that it's moved past 1988, which was helpful for us in our goal of creating a timeless film.
QUESTION: Is it possible to describe the collaboration between a cinematographer and a director when it's working?
LIBATIQUE: When I met Darren, I felt we had the potential for a relationship like the one between Bertolucci and Storaro on The Conformist. I'm not comparing us to them-I'm just speaking about their relationship as director and cinematographer. I think it makes you a better cinematographer when you find a director whom you can have that type of relationship with - when there's a partnership based on friendship. That makes it possible to pick up a phone and discuss things you are working on in-between conversations about life. Some of our best ideas came to fruition when we exposed the film.
QUESTION: How did you get your first job?
LIBATIQUE: My first job as a cinematographer was shooting karaokes. I had a friend at Chanticleer who wanted to be an actor, and his brother wanted to be a director. We'd shoot six karaokes over a weekend. They would edit and put them on laser discs so that people could sing to them. At that point, I was more interested in shooting music videos than features. It was the beginning of the electronic age in postproduction, and I didn't think that feature films were going to allow the opportunity to really explore that. I didn't want to miss out on the beginning of a new technology. Finally, through a friend, I got an opportunity to shoot a music video for a rapper named E40, and the rest is history.
QUESTION: How many videos have you shot?
LIBATIQUE: I've probably shot about 80.
QUESTION: How does the music drive the images?
LIBATIQUE: For me, the photography in music videos is driven by the tempo of the music and certain instruments. I still hold out hope that in today's pop climate, music videos have the potential to be an art. There are some directors and cinematographers who constantly strive for that. I don't like to sit around between pictures, so videos provide an opportunity for me to practice, not unlike a musician. It gives me the ability to constantly work on my craft and apply techniques of cinematography.
QUESTION: Have these karaoke and music videos given you an appreciation for how your work can be manipulated in telecine and has that affected your thinking?
LIBATIQUE: It affects me because I understand the process and know what can be done and the short cuts some people take to save time. Depending on the director or project, you can use your knowledge of the post process to help form your initial idea about the image . . . you know you can tweak colors in post, and that can help if you are shooting on a very tight schedule . . . but you still have to know how to expose the film properly and where to place the light to make that happen without compromising the idea.
QUESTION: What were some of the other low budget movies you worked on?
LIBATIQUE: I don't claim the ones before Pi, but since I didn't go through the assistant pool or the electric route, I had to cut my teeth somewhere. The first thing I did out of film school was a small movie named Redneck that was shot over 15 days in Nebraska and never got released. It was my first full-fledged narrative experience. I did other films after that. Those films played a big part in putting things together in subsequent movies because you learn from your mistakes. You learn that there's no time like the present on a film. There is no going back. You need to plan and also persevere through the hard times on a film. On lower budget and independent films, those hard times come all the time. There's no easy shoot, because the powers of commerce are bearing down on your shoulders. The main thing I learned doing these movies is that you have to answer to yourself eventually. You have to pace yourself and stay true to the purpose. When we made Pi (in 1998) I had a clear idea of the purpose and that told us how to shape the look, but I didn't know it worked until it was screened. I was terrified looking at the dailies and not knowing if I was on the right path. When I saw the first rough cut, it was probably my most terrifying and most exciting experience.
QUESTION: Do you think most people know what a cinematographer does?
LIBATIQUE: No. I don't think most people understand what we do with light even if they have some visceral understanding of composition. When I'm sitting on a camera looking through the lens I have a direct connection with the actors and the director, which is the core of our communications.
QUESTION: Relationships between actors and actresses and cinematographers is an interesting but pretty much unexplored topic of discussion.
LIBATIQUE: I try not to go so far in lighting actors so that it takes away from the honesty of the film. When I watch movies, I can see the difference between artifice and honesty when it comes to lighting. On a movie like Josie and the Pussycats, the artifice was predominant, but in Tigerland, because the lighting had to be realistic and natural, it was important to set up an environment that felt real for those actors. I think directors appreciate that so they don't have to beat a performance out of somebody. The cinematographer and the production designer create the set, but on the day you shoot, the cinematographer is the one that's creating the mood of that set. If it's real, the director can be halfway to his goal in getting the performance out of that actor.
QUESTION: How do you think the emergence digital mastering and postproduction technologies will affect the role of the cinematographer?
LIBATIQUE: If cinematographers don't play an active part in that process it will take away from the craft and art because you are going to get people in postproduction giving instructions to change your images. What you do is stay as involved as possible and remain a student of the technology. Make it known that you're a person who is dedicated to the film as a whole and not just the execution portion of it.
QUESTION: What do you have coming out next?
LIBATIQUE: Abandon will probably be the next release. It's a Paramount picture directed by Stephen Gaghan who wrote Traffic. It's a thriller with a twist about a college student who despite being her promising future is very lonely and despondent. As the story evolves, we reveal that she lost her boyfriend two years ago and is dealing with the feeling of abandonment. He just left her, and she's just aimlessly going through school, not knowing whether she should continue on the path of the American dream of getting an education and a job, or if she should revert back to a life of art, music and an appreciation of non-material things that were introduced to her by this boyfriend.
QUESTION: How did this project come to you?
LIBATIQUE: This is Stephen's first time directing a film and he was a fan of Pi and Requiem. We met and got along, and one thing we really talked about in our first meeting was contemporary pop music versus the stuff we would listen to while we were in college. We talked more about that than we talked about films.
QUESTION: As a first time director, was he open to input?
LIBATIQUE: He was very open. One of the things I liked about him was he was relentless, and wouldn't settle for compromises just because we had a limited schedule. It was a challenge for him, because he had never done it (directed) before, but he stuck with it and got the performances and shots he wanted. I think the cast and crew all saw him as an earnest filmmaker and they really responded to him.
QUESTION: How did he describe what he wanted the film to look and feel like?
LIBATIQUE: He really wanted to show the many faces of the main character and keep the camera dedicated to her personal arc through a portraiture style of photography. During preproduction, we watched The Conformist to see how geography and architecture played a part, and how the light is shaped for mood. That gave us some visual references.
QUESTION: What about your relationship with the production designer?
LIBATIQUE: Gideon Ponte was the production designer. That's whom I spent most of my time with in preparation for the film. It's very important for a cinematographer to be able to relate with the production designer on a personal level. I've always had the benefit of working with somebody whom I had things in common with. So, talking about palette, the lines of a set or the pros and cons of a location come easier when you have similar tastes. You may disagree, but at least you have a foundation for discussion. It was the first time we worked together, but I had worked with James Chinlund, production designer of Requiem For a Dream, who used to be Gideon's art director, so I knew him from afar.
QUESTION: Are you optimistic about the future of this industry?
LIBATIQUE: I have to remain optimistic. You try to make the best films you can and be attached to the ones that mean something to you. How many movies have been made in the history of filmmaking? How many do we remember? If you create a film that has 10 stills you pull out of it and put on a wall where you can see the progression of that movie, then I think you have succeeded. Memorable images are what people remember and that's what you should strive to get. I don't like to partake in films just for the immediacy of the boxoffice or the sort of flavor of the month thing; I would like to think I'm around for the long haul. If you realize at the end of your career that you are happy with the decisions you have made, then you've done the right thing. I feel that people should pursue their careers with as much integrity as possible and not be afraid to state their opinion. It's not important for me to get it perfect. I know that sounds blasphemous as a cinematographer, but I'm striving to create something that articulates a theme in a different way. I know mistakes are going to happen, and a lot of times those mistakes turn into something that's quite beautiful. As long as it isn't detrimental to what the grand scope of the project is, then I think that it is the correct way.
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