Noah interview round-up: d.p. Matthew Libatique

I already have “interview round-ups” for director Darren Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel, so hey, why not one for cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who actually shot the images without which a film like Noah couldn’t exist?

Libatique went to film school with Aronofsky and has shot all but one of his feature films (the exception being 2008’s The Wrestler). Libatique even shot a couple of Aronofsky’s early short films!

Libatique has also worked multiple times with filmmakers like Spike Lee (She Hate Me, Inside Man, Miracle at St. Anna), Joel Schumacher (Tigerland, Phone Booth, The Number 23) and Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Cowboys & Aliens).

The immediate impetus for this post is an interview with Libatique that appeared in Variety yesterday, but I’ve had a few other interviews banked for a while, too.

In the Variety interview, he talks about the “naturalism” that he and Aronofsky were looking for, and about the visual effects and other things, too. A sampling:

The setting and look of “Noah” suggests both a pre-civilized and post-apocalyptic world. What was your aesthetic approach in achieving this?
It was a focus on naturalism. The film ultimately goes in a place where you’re basically telling the story of a myth. If we went too severe atmospherically, photographically, I think we would have lost the audience. Darren (Aronofsky) and I both had the same goals, keeping it as naturalistic as possible.

What is your theory on exterior lighting? Those Icelandic landscapes are so exotic that there’s already an otherworldly quality about them.
I don’t typically like to light my exteriors. I try to block accordingly to the situation and the time and the place and the natural position of the light. I mean, Iceland in the summer, I don’t know if you’ve been but Reykjavik is the northernmost capital of the world and the sun at 11 o’clock at night is just skirting through the horizon. So you have this beautiful low light. Of course it was challenging because (of) the weather.

Was this your most FX-laden film?
“Iron Man” and “Cowboys & Aliens” were big effects-wise. This one was big as well. But you know, we didn’t do very much green screen. A lot of it was working with plates. And all the visual effects with ILM were rooted in the live action, versus the other way around, which would be a virtual world.

What is your philosophy on creating invented worlds vs. real worlds?
The light has to be recognizable to me. Whether it’s a real world or a created one, I think it’s important that the light communicates an atmosphere that is familiar so that people don’t get disconnected to it. I have a problem with films in virtual worlds. I think they’ve done really well. “Avatar” was beautiful and “Life of Pi” was beautiful. But I think that if you go the route of, say, “300,” I get lost in that artificiality. It’s almost plastic. I’d rather it be wood.

The American Society of Cinematographers also spoke to Libatique:

A handheld camera seems like an unusual approach for an epic set in that era.

Libatique: Darren is very particular about the camera. He wants something very controlled that also moves fluidly and naturally. If the camera can move with the actor’s performance without a device like a crane or dolly, that’s what we do. . . .

What are some things that differentiate Noah from your other collaborations?

Libatique: Darren doesn’t usually work outside, so Iceland presented a strange situation for him because we had to worry about weather and light. We were fortunate in that there were a lot of opportunities for overcast light, which is very favorable for photographing faces. When we did have sunlight with more than one person in the scene, we tried to block to backlight the actors. As long as their faces were in a similar realm, I could match them using a polarizer to mitigate some of the sunshine when it popped out, or to create more reflectivity on a face when the sunlight disappeared. Another challenge was fighting the urge to make every image beautiful. The story begins in a land devoid of trees and water — a barren, otherworldly place. There was some moss, but depending on the light, it sometimes just looked like part of the ground, not necessarily a living thing. . . .

What were some of the ways in which you used Iceland’s natural terrain to create the story’s environment?

Libatique: We started out not too far from the volcano that erupted, in the southeast part of the country, and then we spent some time in the north. The only thing that kept us from shooting everywhere in Iceland was that we had a company of 300 people to move around. The Watchers’ land is a combination of lava fields of different ages. We traveled to the north to shoot plates on young, scorched land, and then we shot our night-exterior scenes with principal talent in the older lava fields of the south. We did our one night exterior in Iceland, the scene in which Noah and his family are captured by the Watchers and put in a pit. Our pit was about 40 feet deep on one rock face and 20 feet deep on the other. We had a couple of 18Ks on Condors for separation, but we lit the scene predominantly with daylight-balanced Lumapanels [28 4-foot T8 fluorescent globes]. They were the only lights I could see working because I didn’t want to use a lot of hard backlight; I just needed some soft definition for the actors.

Methuselah’s mountain and cave were also natural locations. In the film, the mountain is a symbol of life. It’s green and lush, and at its base are black gravel and decrepit lava. The cave was underground, and our production designer, Mark Friedberg, made it more accommodating for shooting by creating navigable walkways out of the rocks that were there. I knew we could work with natural light because there was a giant aperture in the roof of the cave. We put a 30-by-30 frame of Full Grid over it, and above that we had four Arrimax 18K Pars spaced out evenly to cover different angles. . . .

Did you shoot the ark interiors on location?

Libatique: Very little was shot inside the practical ark. One shot we did there shows Noah closing the ark door during the battle against Tubal Cain and telling Shem to protect the family. However, we shot the reverse of Shem at the Marcy Armory in Brooklyn, where we built a three-level ark-interior set, as well as part of the exterior ark door. Many shots of Noah at the door of the ark looking out were done against a bluescreen. After the deluge comes the part of the story we call ‘40 Days and 40 Nights,’ where the ark is completely sealed up. We wanted it to feel almost coffin-like, and from a lighting standpoint it was a challenge because of the interesting but difficult angles by which we had to bend the light. Also, there’s the conceit that all the light is motivated by a furnace shaft in the center of the ark and the main furnace, which is located on the mammal deck. . . .

Is there an overarching narrative in terms of color and quality of light?

Libatique: For me, the visual language of the film was built around the fact that I knew an entire reel of the movie, ‘40 Days and 40 Nights,’ would be in dark, warm light. ‘100 Days’ would be a reprieve from that, and then, finally, we’d be in bright sunlight when the ark finds land. But we didn’t get sun at the end of the shoot! We didn’t get any consistent weather at the beginning of the shoot; we didn’t get consistent weather in the forest; and we didn’t get cloudy weather for the battle. So, we reacted accordingly and did what we could on the 85-day schedule that was given to us.

Libatique discussed “biblical accuracy” and the movie’s themes with The Daily Beast:

What were the earliest conversations like as far as the look of the film goes? As the film progresses, you go from these beautiful desert vistas to a much darker, grimmer look.

Our earliest conversations were about how we were going to cover the scenes, and the movie’s palette. Zohar [sic] was a key element in understanding the color of what we were going to do light-wise. Everything’s rooted in the narrative.

Unfortunately, your source material here is only a few pages long, so the look really had to completely spring from the imagination.

This is the first time I’ve ever made a movie with no references. I didn’t have any. But we scouted Iceland and it’s just stunning. There are these beautiful vistas and the atmosphere’s so clear that you can’t tell the distance between mountains. Ultimately, this film is a road movie and it’s episodic, and it jumps off in Iceland which serves as the catalyst for the movie since it was born out of naturalism. The things that are up to discussion in terms of the Biblical accuracy—that seems like an oxymoron, “Biblical accuracy”—the naturalism was going to help the film be rooted in something that people could feel connected to.

Darren really wanted to capture the moss, and the geothermal quality of it. It feels like the beginning there—like a land untouched by man. That was the largest them of the film: environmentalism. In the marketing of the film they shy away from it. I don’t know why it’s a taboo thing to say “environmentalism” cause you’re going to scare off half the population because they’ve been told “environmentalism” is a bad thing? The idea that we have to stay away from the issue because we’re going to polarize half the audience speaks to how fucking dysfunctional we are.

What is the film’s environmentalist message?

I love the environmentalism allegory. It hasn’t been talked about much because of this fear. But one of the things I appreciate about the film is its statement and about how timely it is with climate change. People are wholeheartedly denying climate change because they’ve been told to deny it. So the fact that we’re still in a society where people are denying climate change is happening is insane. Science and religion have always been in conflict.

And the story of Noah really sees these two things—religion and science—in conflict.

I think that’s what we’re dealing with in our world, and that’s why the film’s important. If you think about the conflict between science and religion, it speaks to that. One of the great characters in the film is Tubal-cain. I’ve seen things written that he’s a shallow, thinly written villain. I disagree. Listen to the man’s words! Those are not Marvel lines, man. He bites the head off a lizard and Ham says, “What are you doing? That was precious! There’s only two of them!” And he says, “There’s only one of me. You have to seize it. The Creator’s created this for us—to take dominion over all the things that He created, He created man.” That idea is happening now. Nobody says it. John Boehner doesn’t say it. But that’s what he fucking feels. It’s insane. . . .

I’m curious about you and Darren’s DP/director relationship. Did you have any disagreements on Noah?

I can’t remember many, to be honest. We’ve come a long way. We used to fight incessantly. We’ve always had a creative-but-combative relationship with each other, even in school, but we just like working together. And Darren really is brilliant. I would never tell him that because he’s a good friend—and he’s so full of shit, too—but he is. I love the guy. The Fountain was one long fight, The Wrestler was divorce, and then we reconciled on Black Swan. But The Fountain was a tough movie for both of us. Everything happened. It got shut down in Australia, we made it for $35 million, which was less than half of what we had when we began. This was a three-time period film that we made for $35 million! It was the most high-pressure situation I’ve ever been in, and we ended up not getting along so well. I was going through a divorce; he’d just had his first kid; he was working with his partner at the time, Rachel Weisz. A lot of stuff was going on. But it wasn’t aesthetic stuff, we just argue about silly things. He had this big New Yorker article come out and I said to him, “Hey, did you really say in that that working with me was like being in a bad marriage?” And he said, “Yeah, I did.” And I said, “Well, fuck you, man!” [Laughs]

I must say, I’m not really sure what is meant by the idea that “religion” and “science” are “in conflict” in Noah. Is Noah himself supposed to be the scientist or the religious guy? And which one is Tubal-Cain? Methinks those categories don’t apply here — except perhaps to the extent that Noah not only believes in the existence of God but tries to follow his will, as well, which could make him “religious”. Anyway.

Because Libatique is a Filipino-American, he was also profiled by the Philippine Daily Inquirer (I have put the questions in bold type to clarify what is what here):

Is “Noah” the most difficult film you’ve shot?

It’s hard to say. “The Fountain” was, in its way, a very difficult film to make, not just in terms of my particular work but how hard it was for Darren to make because that [movie], in many ways, was an even closer story to him…

But, logistically, this film is up there. I don’t know if it’s the hardest film I ever had to make but it’s… up there. If this film were made by somebody else and with the same amount of money, maybe it wouldn’t be as difficult. Darren is demanding as a director, and he should be. He’s uncompromising; he likes to put everything, all the money, on the screen.

How much of a contrast was shooting this film and working with Darren on “Black Swan”?

It’s not that different, really. Working with Darren is the same whether we’re making a $5 million or $130 million movie. Maybe he’s become a little more fluid. He’s gotten older, more comfortable in his directorial style. . . .

Some scenes were simple yet so striking, that visual effects were barely needed. Russell and Jennifer’s conversing, silhouetted figures were some of the most beautiful images we’ve ever seen.

We didn’t know how beautiful it was going to be. This is not a lie—we shot it at 2 in the morning… I wish the whole thing was just in silhouette but it was so stunning. I don’t think we’ve been so blown away before. We were sitting there at 2 a.m. and the sun was actually coming up. It’s on its way up from the sunrise. It would stay beneath the horizon only for an hour and then come back up, so it was just incredible. We shot that whole scene as is.

Obviously, they put some stars into the background. But that’s the color of the sky at 2 a.m. in June in Iceland, right outside of Reykjavik. It was incredible.

The Creation story segment was also stunning.

When I read that sequence, I was excited… Ari (Handel) and Darren wrote a very beautiful piece. The funny thing is, when we shot Russell delivering that, on his close-up we could have just stayed there the entire time and he held that close-up for that entirety of the soliloquy. . . .

Were you on board this project from the beginning?

I think it was after either “The Fountain” or “Black Swan” that Darren mentioned it to me. My first thought was, how are we going to deal with the water?

But all the tidal wave movies came out. Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” had the big tsunami. As soon as that film came out, I knew that “Noah” could be made. That’s when I stopped worrying, except for whether or not somebody was going to give Darren the money to make the film.

Libatique’s interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer concluded here.

Many of the points Libatique makes in the interviews above were also made in an interview he did with Bill Desowitz for Thompson on Hollywood.

December 12 update: Libatique did an awards-season interview with Variety:

On “Noah,” with longtime collaborator Darren Aronofsky, Matthew Libatique also worked with elaborate exterior sets built on a grand scale. Libatique, an Oscar nominee for “Black Swan,” says so much stylization was built into the production design that his photography best served the story and characters through restrained naturalism.

“There was so much going in the locations, and in the hair, makeup and wardrobe that I felt I didn’t need to go the extra mile by putting a patina on top of that,” Libatique says. “So I shot it straight, with the palette mainly controlled in the production design.

“Unlike our previous projects, Darren and I didn’t use many visual references,” he says. “Our references were more written and scholarly in nature, with an eye toward the screenplay. The scale was big, but the jumping-off point for the story was the internal family struggle.”

You can read more about the Oscar campaign for Noah here.

December 30 update: Libatique spoke to Deadline for an article about the pros and cons of working with the same director on multiple films:

The relationship between director and cinematographer sometimes can be too intense, acknowledges Matthew Libatique, director of photography on Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Like Iñárritu and Hernandez, Libatique and Aronofsky have been collaborators since film school days. But one troubled collaboration, 2006’s The Fountain, caused Libatique to take a break from Aronofsky for The Wrestler (2008) before rejoining him for Black Swan in 2010.

The Fountain shut down production midway due to casting changes and subsequent cost overruns, but was later completed at about half of its original $70 million budget. “Even though, ultimately, when you look at the film our ideas were the same, but we were bickering anyway,” Libatique admits. “It was a lot of money for us—I’m sure it was the biggest film that we’d both done.”

Add that to relationship problems in their private lives and it seemed like time to take a step back, Libatique says. But after The Wrestler, when the D.P. and Aronofsky found themselves on a subway tossing around ideas for Black Swan, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.

Libatique has collaborated on multiple films with other directors, including Spike Lee and Jon Favreau. “There’s a responsibility about being the cinematographer that is rewarding unto itself, but to actually be part of a person’s body of work, it gives me a sense of purpose,” he says.

As ever, if I find more interviews with Libatique, I will add them to this post.

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