Matthew Libatique

Matthew Libatique: “That’s not lost on me”

 Listen to Audio Excerpt Listen to Audio Excerpt
Short Profile

Name: Matthew Libatique
DOB: 19 July 1968
Place of birth: Elmhurst, New York, United States
Occupation: Cinematographer

Matthew Libatique's new film, Don't Worry, Darling is in theaters now. The Whale is out 9 December 2022.

Mr. Libatique, you were once asked which parts of your job as a cinematographer you wish people knew more about, and you said nothing. Why?

(Laughs) That's born out of the days of shooting on film because back then, the intention was that really only the director and the cinematographer knew what they were going for, even though they didn't really know exactly what the results would be. And there was an excitement to that. There also wasn't a position to comment, and things move forward. But now you have a monitor that pretty accurately represents what you're trying to do, and everybody can evaluate it. In some cases, it's good, but in other senses, it's bad because there's a lot of critiquing going on. That just slows down the process.

Sounds like the opposite of what you need on a film set.

Making films is about momentum and creativity and excitement, it's not about deliberation. That's for commercials, not for cinema. So I like when people don't know much about it. I'll do my job, and you do yours.

“For the director and cinematographer, being on the same page is the most important thing. And because you’re solely focused on one singular vision, magic can happen.”

Are there still moments on set where the magic of what you’re making surprises you, even though these days the monitor is giving you a pretty good idea of the outcome?

There's definitely things that you don't anticipate. When you're making a film, you should work as hard as you can to plan what you're trying to do. For the director and cinematographer and the entire team, being on the same page is kind of the most important thing. And because you're solely focused on one singular vision, magic can happen. And you open yourself to that. So say it's not working out perfectly on location because there's constraints, and you have to turn the camera this way — and all of a sudden, it's beautiful that way, it's better, actually. So be open to accepting it, be open to saying, “You know what? It's better this way.”

Are there also instances where, in order to reach that singular vision, you have to take a step back and let the film’s performances do the work rather than letting the visuals tell the story?

Sure, I mean, with Don’t Worry, Darling, I didn’t want to add too much. Olivia [Wilde, the director] had already done a lot of work in terms of color palette and design, so I thought, what can I contribute to this? I wanted it to be beautiful and naturalistic, I wanted it to feel like reality… But I didn’t ever want there to be a feeling like there was something else going on in terms of the darker subtext of the story. I just wanted that to come from the characters, and Olivia was adamant about that too, we wanted that dark feeling to come from Florence’s performance.

Apparently that was even more important for The Whale.

Oh, yeah. With The Whale, there was no question, everything was about stepping back. The camera placement, the light was subtle; the film takes place over a five day period, so the light had different qualities depending on the day… So we built that language in, it’s so subtle. But in the end, every film is different, every story requires something else. This was the right way to go for this film, but that’s not to say I don’t enjoy loud cinematography. I’m attracted to that style, too, but you have to be asking how we stylize this for the film in question.

In school you were taught that you shouldn’t even have a style as a cinematographer, that you should just be adapting your visual language to the film at hand. That sounds like a very un-egotistical way of working.

I think a cinematographer should be selfless. And that's why I think it's a very noble practice. Even if I'm trying to stay within the confines of the storytelling, that doesn't mean the film can't shine from a visual standpoint… I've always thought of it like when you're a contractor or an architect and you’re building something, you're part of that build. You take everything that you've experienced and try to use that to make the best possible project.

Is it ever frustrating to have to tone down your vision?

You have to stop yourself. I think as cinematographers, especially when you're still hungry, you're striving, striving, striving, but then sometimes you have to be reined back. And sure, it can be frustrating when you really want to do something… But it’s that realization of, “Okay, I trust this filmmaker,” so sometimes that means a compromise. Luckily, I started my career with films like Requiem for a Dream, so I got to be as loud as I wanted because I was working with an equally loud person.

“I’m in a place in my career where I can also be an inspiration for other persons of color. That’s not lost on me.”

You used to say that making Darren Aronofsky’s films could be really excruciating. Is that because you had competing visions, or is that because of his films’ often dark subject matter?

(Laughs) It's not excruciating anymore! But for so long, it used to be excruciating because he was, and is still, very specific about the composition, the symmetry, the level, you know, technical things that have to be checked over and over again: “Are we level?” “Yes, we're level.” “It doesn't look level to me.” It just takes all the attention and focus into that. But at the same time, he’s really focused on performance, and he's become such a master storyteller. So while he’s still meticulous, it's no longer excruciating — but maybe because I've just gotten used to it!

You’re known for your close collaborations with different directors, including Spike Lee, who was actually a hero for you growing up.

Yeah, I was at an age in college, where you're saying, “Okay, how do I make my mark in this world? What's next?” And then Do The Right Thing came out, and it changed my world. I mean, Spike Lee is really smart, he’s an intellectual person. But his persona, Mars Blackmon, was so street! And we can't figure out who he is, because both characters seem like they're really real. He made this film where race and the idea of racism and bigotry was in your face, and yet the end was as ambiguous as a French New Wave film. He just took the world by storm. And then beyond that, you know, just growing up as a minority, watching films with my parents, like Raiders of the Lost Ark or the Star Wars series, these are all made by white men. So to see a black man make a film this powerful, this punk rock, that blew my mind.

How was it when you eventually worked with him for the first time on She Hate Me back in 2004?

Oh, the first day I worked with him, I couldn't believe it. I met him for the first time, and I was like, “Man, how is this happening?” (Laughs) That’s the thing that inspired me to get into cinema: Spike Lee and the idea that I, as a person of color, can also make films. And I’m fortunate that I’m in a place in my career where I can also be an inspiration for other persons of color. That's not lost on me. I appreciate it. I think that that feeling is probably what I’m most proud of; that now you have more people of color, more gender diversity, more voices. That is such an important thing, it's something that we should celebrate.