In honor of his Oscar nomination and the tremendous success of his latest film Black Swan, we decided to sit down with cinematographer Matthew Libatique and talk to him about the film. Libatique, a frequent Darren Aronofsky collaborator, has worked on some fantastic films such as Requiem For A Dream, the Iron Man films, Inside Man, Phone Booth and more!
This week he’s up for an Oscar for Best Cinematography at the 83rd Academy Awards, and deservedly so. His work on Black Swan was excellent. With upcoming projects that include Cowboys and Aliens and The Wolverine, Matthew Libatique is one of Hollywood’s most talented and respected cinematographers. Mr. Libatique recently took time for his busy schedule to talk to us. Check out the interview below. Audio version included at the end of the page.
Matthew Libatique: Thank you very much, I appreciate it.
WGTC: Why don’t we start at the beginning, how did you first get into cinematography?
ML: It was really a sort of realization. Filmmaking in general was the beginning. With friends, in undergraduate school, I had seen Do The Right Thing and it was the first time really that it dawned on me that a person like me, coming where I came from, can make films. It just made it seem attainable. Before that film came out, for me, it didn’t seem like something that was possible.
So I started getting into films and when I started making them on my own, someone pointed out to me that I was much more interested in the camera than I was in the performances. So I kind of just gravitated towards cinematography as soon as I got into filmmaking.
WGTC: And when did you first team up with Darren Aronofsky?
ML: We met on the first day of film school and we sat next to each other at a screening of everyone’s work, everyone’s reels from the people who were admitted that year. And during that seminar we kind of hit it off and it wasn’t until our second project that we worked together. We just knew that there was something there between the two of us so we just tried to keep it going.
WGTC: You’ve worked on most of his films and they’ve all been successful. Why do you find that you guys work so well together?
ML: Early on we had similar influences. Whether it be in music or films. As we’ve aged, it’s just been an ongoing learning thing. Ya know, he’ll introduce new things to me, I introduce things to him and we just share these things that help us grow as filmmakers. But really it’s just developed as a friendship so at this point it’s more of a familiarity and a friendship than it is just a working collaboration. It’s much more different than any other relationship I have with any other director and probably because we started together. We just have similar tastes and beliefs. We believe that every aspect of filmmaking needs to contribute to the film. Whatever it is, everyone has to do their part. We share that philosophy and that goes a long way.
WGTC: Now you’ve done all his films except The Wrestler, why did you sit that one out?
ML: There’s a variety of reasons that I didn’t do it. Firstly, I was already on a film and I would have had to leave it early. I was working with Spike Lee on Miracle At St. Anna at the time when Darren was starting The Wrestler. I don’t particularly like leaving early so that’s reason number one. And two, I think we needed a break after The Fountain, it was a very intense experience for the two of us. It strained our relationship a bit. Sometimes you need to grow and we needed time away from each other and ultimately, it was a good thing that he made The Wrestler without me.
WGTC: How early on did you get involved with Black Swan?
ML: I was aware of it long before I got involved in it. Sometime after Requiem and before we did The Fountain, Darren had acquired a script called The Understudy, which was at its core, the same story of Black Swan, but set in the theatre world. So he had spoken about that but then he lost interest in it. Over time though, he connected it with ballet and Swan Lake. He didn’t really approach me about it until right after I wrapped Iron Man 2. I was at his 40th birthday and we started talking about the film. And it was just an ongoing conversation from that point until we started prepping the film, a couple months later.
WGTC: When you were prepping, where did you look to for influence or inspiration?
ML: All over. The first thing for me was getting my head around the ballet. I wasn’t familiar with it at the time. And I’m still a novice, although I know a lot more than when I started the film. But that was my priority, I wanted to understand it. As a filmmaker, it was my responsibility to understand the subject matter. The technical part isn’t difficult for me but I knew the inspiration would come from the ballet so I had to understand what it was. That was the toughest part. We also looked at old performances of Swan Lake and other dance films, to see how the camera and the dancer related.
WGTC: Now speaking of the ballet scenes, what was your approach to them?
ML: Well everything’s born out of the need to establish a subjective camera. It’s as simple as that. The camera needed to be connected to the character. And Nina was driving the camera, her movement drove the camera throughout the whole film. It’s a philosophy and technique that Darren and I have employed since Pi. In Pi we did it out of necessity, we had to simplify what we wanted to do because we didn’t have enough money to shoot the way we wanted to. In essence, our goal for all the dance sequences was to keep the movie with Nina the entire time. That was the guideline. What you see on screen is a byproduct of that rule of subjectivity.
WGTC: Can you tell us about your use of mirrors in the film, since they play a large role?
ML: I was attracted to the idea of reflection, whether it be literal reflection or silhouetted reflections. I just like the idea. The mirrors were sprinkled in throughout the whole film, they play such a part. Having walked through the New York City Ballet and other ballet centers, mirrors are so predominant. It’d be hard to escape that. Black Swan is a story about personalities and paranoia and obsession. Reflections really had to be sprinkled in to the entire film. We wanted to make sure that we could do them in literal ways, to get scares out of them. But if you look at the film, there are also reflections in other places that are much more subtle. It goes hand in hand though with the idea of creating a visual language.
WGTC: What do you think the biggest challenge of shooting the film was?
ML: The biggest challenge was the third act, the live performances. We had only rehearsed with Natalie up until that point. We’d never been on the stage and we never had the entire core. So it added a lot of complexity to how we were going to move the camera and how we were going to light. That was by far the most difficult part of the film. We were also pressured for time. The lighting, camera movement and choreography were all complex. We had a lot going against us but we had an idea of what we wanted to. Still though, we had to think on our toes and figure out how we would execute the scene with all the new elements that were presented.
WGTC: What do you rather, big studio films or indie movies?
]ML: I like the more personal ones. I don’t look at it as big or small. I look at it as something that is more entertainment oriented and large audience oriented. They both satisfy a different part of who I am as a person and what I want to do at this point in my life. It’s hard to pick one though. For instance, I gained more satisfaction out of doing Requiem For A Dream than I did from Everything Is Illuminated, just from a creative standpoint, as a cinematographer. From a skill stand point, I do gain satisfaction out of doing the Iron Man films. It’s hard to have a preference though.
WGTC: Speaking of Iron Man, would you happen to be on board for Iron Man 3?
ML: I don’t know. I guess there’s always a chance but no one has approached me. I hear they hired Shane Black which is cool. He and Downey get along real well. It’s like The Avengers though, a director doesn’t really want to work with a DP of the guy who did the first two. So who knows? I would be open to it because I love Downey but again I haven’t been approached.
WGTC: Can you give us any updates on The Wolverine?
ML: Well that one has a lot of talk around it. Nothing is official though. The script is being worked on right now and Darren talks about it from time to time. We’re kind of caught up in Awards season this week but we have discussed it creativley. I haven’t gotten an official call from the studio and there are no dates to shoot yet. Really, we’re just waiting. But the studio does want to make it this year so I expect that we will be making it, I just don’t know when.
WGTC: Any other future projects?
ML: I’m just waiting for Darren’s next film to be honest with you. And then I’ll move on from there. If The Wolverine happens, that may be the next thing. This year though I also have to put the finishing touches on Cowboys and Aliens and I really think that the film is going to be something special.
WGTC: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us and good luck with everything!