Were he only a regular collaborator for Spike Lee and Darren Aronofsky, Matthew Libatique could be said to have shaped the contemporary landscape more than almost any working cinematographer. If the name alone inspires confidence, it’s evidence of Bradley Cooper’s smarts that Libatique was brought along to shoot his directorial debut; A Star is Born amply lives up to that promise. Sans any boring shots and lit with a scene-to-scene variety that turns its 136-minute runtime fleet, it’s this season’s epitome of “better than it had any right to be.”
I had the good fortune of speaking with Libatique at this year’s EnergaCamerimage, where A Star is Born screens in the main competition, and picked his brain about the complex interplay between DP, director, stars, and their below-the-line craftsmen.
At the risk of misquoting you, you’d talked about seeing “five very different cuts.” That’s intriguing, because A Star is Born has a clear track — filmmakers can insert their own interests, but the arc’s largely set in place. How did other versions play?
I mean, they were different cuts. For me, I see an early cut, then see its evolution. Bradley was working on it — intensely working on it — to find a flow. It’s a rather long film because the music is in it. Things had to go so the music could take place; it couldn’t all exist at the same time. We shot, probably, more movie than is in the movie because of that. I think, editorially, he really started to shave it down to the bare essence of what the love story was. And that’s really all he was doing — making sure that was his priority — and you have to make some really tough decisions. Some performances.
I think they’re actually doing a new cut, a director’s cut, and putting some stuff back in. I think there’s always the concern about length, but, for him, I think it was mostly the concern about, “When am I stepping outside the forward narrative of this love story, and when am I stepping outside the idea that you have one character ascending, another descending.” I think that’s all he was doing when doing different cuts, is trying to find that soul.
What stands out most about the movie is that there are basically no boring shots — perhaps because it felt like Cooper needed to get this out, thus a driving force. Previously, you’ve talked about how the main strategy here was knowing where to place the camera.
It’s very simple. Yeah.
And you didn’t have a traditional shot list.
How does that affect the speed of production? If gifted sudden sparks of inspiration, what happens to the speed of set-ups or lighting?
Conceptually, I think the language is borne out of the idea that I just wanted to create as broad a lighting set-up as possible because my sense of how he wanted to shoot the film was of a very free, improvisational way. He had specific, specific ideas for certain shots — the suicide, for example. He comes out of the truck and you see his boots, then the camera booms up and you see him holding a belt. The camera pauses, then moves laterally as you wait for his hat to come down. That was an idea he had vividly in his head; the shot where she throws away the trash at the beginning was another. But most of the dramatic scenes were really about finding the right place to put the camera.
I guess the best example was a very simple scene where she comes to visit him at the end of the movie, after he’s been told off by the manager, and he’s staring into the ceiling. He wanted to have a detachment from her as the camera’s up high, looking down at him, and feeling like the camera’s telling us he wasn’t with her anymore. It was a bit foreboding, the look on his face. It took a little while to find it, to be honest with you. When it speaks to the actual set-ups, something always has to give when you take time with something else — so taking the time to find where to put the camera only meant that we didn’t do as many different shots, because he didn’t feel like he needed it. We didn’t do traditional coverage. There’s a scene at the end where Sam Elliott’s talking about the 12 notes and she’s in tears, feeling guilty that the last thing she ever did was lie to him. The camera jumps the line. [Laughs] The shot on Sam kind of jumps the line — we’re in front of her and behind her for his shot. He didn’t really care about that.
There’s a few times where we do that because we’re trying to put the camera in the right place for the most compositional and emotional impact, but those rules didn’t apply — mostly because we didn’t really lose the sense of geography to make it confusing. We didn’t have too many shots. When you do jump the line on two shots of two people speaking, as long as you understand where they are next to each other in a space, as you can do it. So we always went for the best angles, and there’s maybe two or three points in the film where it’s not your traditional grammar.
I sensed you had an intimate understanding of each environment, which grants a further sense of momentum. How much time did you spend in a space before setting anything up? And how much of a hand did you have in locations?
We spent a lot of time. Because it was a location-heavy film, that’s where the production designer, Karen Murphy, really spent the majority of her time. She sort of built a language based on character — as all production designers really do. The hardest location to find was where he was going to live. The original idea was that he’d live in Malibu, and then we just could not find a house that resembled him as a person until we found this house in Calabasas that we ended up shooting in. At the time — because it was one of the last locations we found and we really needed a house — I saw it in pictures, the wood hallways and beams, and said, “This feels like somewhere he would live.” When I saw that front yard and all the leaves on the ground, “This is it. This has to be the house.”
In terms of how much time I would spend lighting: I spent more time at the beginning of the day setting up a house or set or scene because I always try to anticipate where the cameras might be, so I anticipate it very broadly. Then I would only finish after we figured out where the camera was going to be, so I was always working in the background, trying to anticipate and mitigate the time it takes. I always have something going on while we’re working on something else and trying to be as efficient as possible. The challenge for me was having this concept of being very broad and not too precious with the lights, so that was the challenge, really: figuring out how to do that and how to move if he gets inspired to be on her instead of him. I should be ready to do that in a pinch. The whole language of the movie is borne out of the necessity to keep space for them as performers.
Lady Gaga can look fairly different from one angle to the next, and I appreciate that equal credence is given to the softness and sharpness of her facial features. I’d like to know about your experience, here and elsewhere, of getting to know an actor’s face.
That’s part of our responsibility, is studying a face. When I was prepping… I’m always looking at the actor’s face, no matter what, and you’re sort of sneaking a study. “Why are you staring at me?” “I’m just looking at your face.” “What’s on my face?” “Nothing. I’m just looking.” When we were prepping, I had the good fortune to meet her while they were rehearsing and talking about music, so I have my camera with me and I was just taking some photos. “Do you mind if I take some photographs?” “No, no, of course.” I said to her, “I want to study your face.” She was like, “Oh… okay.” [Laughs] It’s essential with anybody you’re working with for the first time, is to study their face and figure out what angles work for them.
But I have to say: at first I was like, “How am I going to do this?” But then I let go and just said, “What’s more important is that her character has room to breathe.” So broader sources, further away, keeping lights outside the set, and blocking her in certain ways. Bradley was down with it. He was conscious, too: “Make her comfortable so she was no anxiousness about what she’s doing as an actress.” That was our main goal, and we blocked it with all this in mind. We had her face windows — I want to put her in the best light possible — or take light away. When she’s crying and Sam Elliott’s sitting right next to her, she’s away from the windows. Nine times out of ten, she’s the one facing them, but, at that moment, there was darkness around her. It was just putting the camera in the right place as much as putting them in the right place, too.
But it was a good collaboration because I’m dealing with someone who’s so used to blocking. Bradley’s great at blocking, and it made life a lot easier. Maybe I would suggest something for light and we would change it. So it was a very fluid process, with no ego. But yeah, of course I study the face — I want her to shine. But I didn’t want the light to make her separate from the film. I wanted her to exist within the narrative, the world; it’s a general belief I have about movies.
There are a number of credited camera operators. Did you do much operating here? And what is your working relationship with them?
I was lucky: the first week I had Stephen Campanelli as A camera operator; after the first week, we had Scott Sakamoto. I was blessed. My B camera operator was Chris Moseley, and I had a movi operator, Chris Herr. All of them followed my lead and there was a consistency, but I operated most of the tight stuff onstage with a handheld, and then I operated her shot when she performs “La Vie en Rose” at the beginning. Most of the musical stuff I would operate; the dramatic stuff, Scott and Chris operated. Sometimes in the bedroom they’d do a single camera — many times we’d go single-camera, or I’d have Chris leapfrog a bit and set up camera on another scene.
What was nice was starting the film onstage, where I was operating, so the operators got the vibe of what I was aiming for. One thing I just tried to tell people was that I wanted a single vision behind it, and to compose accordingly so it doesn’t look like it’s got the opinion of too many people. Sometimes an operator just has the same exact instincts as you do — Scott’s one of them for sure — and sometimes you just get pleasantly surprised. You talk about the shot or what, narratively, is important, and there’s subtle things. Like when do you tilt down for the would-be insert, or when do you tell the story of this one moment? Really good operators, you don’t have to tell those things to because they’ve been around and have shot many scenes. Both on my team were like that, and, operating on my own, I was so in-tune with what Bradley was doing as a character because I was there when he was inventing it that I felt like I had a need to operate musically.
One of the things I focused on mostly was the idea of creating a language around Jackson Maine as a person, an entity, a myth, legend, whatever. Shooting lenses to shoot his performances so we’d have a specific flare and language, and the palette all went in because I wanted to make sure he had this signature, knowing full well that, eventually, she was going to enter his world; I wanted his world to be larger-than-life. We did some point-of-view shots from the crowd at the very end, and we struggled with it. “Should we try to do that here at the end, because now we’re presenting her to the world as the Ally she was meant to be, or the Ally that Jackson always wanted her to be.” It didn’t really work. [Laughs] We sort of kept it onstage, and I think that was the right choice.
You shot a movie that, as I’m sure you’re well-aware, became so intensely memed that it was soon a phenomenon entirely outside the original project. I’m curious how you — and, if you can speak for him, Cooper — feel about that. It must be funny having your work circulated at such an intense rate, taking on its own life.
I don’t think we were aware of it. [Laughs] He’s not on social media, so I can say he’s probably not aware of the memes; maybe people have shown him and told him. As a fan of pop culture, I love that it has its own life outside of being just the film. I think part of that has to do with Lady Gaga herself, and just the power of her fanbase, but of course I’m proud of it. Popular culture is a lifestyle and hobby and part of cinema, and to be a part of it… you’ve just kind of reached a goal in your life, if that’s what you do for a living. Iron Man had a similar quality, and some of the stuff Darren and I have done have reached wide audiences and had longevity — Requiem for a Dream, for example. How lucky am I to have a film in the canon of what people consider good cinema? Hopefully people appreciate this for its value as a film, not just as a remake.
A Star is Born is now playing.