Since their AFI days, duo have been almost inseparable

When their trajectories intersected at the AFI Conservatory in the early ’90s, Darren Aronofsky was the youngest directing student, Matthew Libatique the youngest cinematography student. They came from similar backgrounds. They shared an aesthetic. “We had a lot to talk about,” says Aronofsky.

And they’re still talking. Even if the talk can sometimes involve Aronofsky gently critiquing Libatique’s work with other directors.

“Actually,” the director says, “it’s usually much meaner than that.”

As Libatique finds himself in Billion- Dollar Cinematographer status, he can thank, in part, several of his big-ticket alliances, notably with Jon Favreau (“Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2,” the upcoming “Cowboys and Aliens”) and Spike Lee (“Inside Man,” “She Hate Me,” “Miracle at St. Anna”). But it’s Aronofsky with whom he’s synonymous. “If I stopped working now,” Libatique says, “people would call me his cinematographer.”

Like the Coen brothers and Roger Deakins; Bryan Singer and Newton Thomas Sigel; Paul Thomas Anderson and Robert Elswit; Wong Kar Wai and Chris Doyle; and Guillermo del Toro and Guillermo Navarro; the Aronofsky/Libatique duet — on “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Fountain” and “Black Swan” — has played out as one of contemporary cinema’s more artistically daring and significant collaborations.

The overture commenced at AFI. “I remember walking through the cinematography class,” Aronofsky recalls. “John Alonzo was teaching, they were doing a handheld exercise and Matty was operating. I was watching him, and his aesthetic in that moment was really interesting. I think I went up to him and said, ‘You want to shoot this project?’ ”

The project was Aronofsky’s short, “Protozoa,” a precursor to “Pi,” which won Aronofsky the director prize at Sundance ’98. Libatique wasn’t his first choice as d.p.

“Darren found a guy in New York with a camera,” Libatique remembers, wryly. “I didn’t have a camera. That’s what it took back then: If you had a camera, you got the job.”

When the original d.p. “bailed,” as Aronofsky put it, he called Libatique. “He came to New York and lived in our apartment for months,” the director says. A partnership was forged.

It’s a partnership that has thrived on talk. “Every project is born out of social discussion,” Libatique says. “He has an idea he wants to talk about; he bounces it off all his collaborators. He’s still the ringleader. He throws out a piece of it to me, to his production designer, his costume designer, maybe his producers. He may have had the ideas from the get-go, but wanted to see if other people would have the same ideas.”

If there’s a script at that stage, Libatique says, it’s just a framework. “Everything’s an evolution with him,” he notes of Aronofsky. “When you get a screenplay, no matter how good it is, it’s just a shell of what it will be because what defines him as a filmmaker is that he uses every aspect of the medium, all aspects of the craft.”

“Matty is largely responsible for the lighting,” Aronofsky says. “I’m more responsible for framing and camera movement, but I always draw on him for ideas. We always have a healthy preproduction, he and I, and the designers will sit down and collaborate and come up with an approach to the movie.”

“Black Swan,” for instance, was “about doubles,” Aronofsky says, “so, clearly, reflection became a major part of the film — working with mirrors, making it unclear who you’re looking at, lots of shadows, the black and white are split. You’re trying to choose colors that connect to young girls — pink, for instance, which is very big in the ballet world and innocent. And then the green, which was the jungle of ‘Swan Lake.’ ”

On “Requiem for a Dream,” he says, the intent was “movement from wider shots to tighter and tighter close-ups, to accelerate the film and the movement of the audience into a paranoid space. So many ideas that came out of the novel and book. But whenever it’s working on screen, it means the filmmakers are collaborating.”

Aronofsky thinks “The Fountain,” their least successful movie financially, was his and Libatique’s most successful film artistically.

“We worked on it for four years,” he says, “and we feel it’s our best work, our greatest collaboration, probably our best-controlled palette, and our best film technically.”

Libatique seems a bit more on the fence.

“I can see why he would say that,” Libatique says. “It’s hard for me, because I look at that and ‘Requiem’ as a very tight time and the reasons I hold ‘Requiem’ in such high regard is we were younger and more aggressive. It spoke to that time. Like, we were aggressive on ‘Pi’ and were aggressive with a little more craft on ‘Requiem for a Dream.’ Then, on ‘The Fountain,’ more craft, less aggression. But I can see why he says ‘The Fountain.’ ”

Libatique echoes words common to longtime collaborators — “comfort zone” for instance.

“After taking a break on ‘The Wrestler,’ and then coming back together on ‘Black Swan’ it felt better than ever before because we had time apart. We’d been working together since film school. It seemed more fluid; it was like coming home.” And decidedly unlike other projects — “Iron Man,” for instance.

“Typically, the script is the framework and the motivation for any ideas,” he says. “On ‘Iron Man’ there was no set script. It was always in flux. I didn’t know what (the) scenes were, frankly, and there was very little to latch onto. It was like you were rock climbing and there was nowhere to put your piton.”

With Aronofsky, virtually the reverse is true.

“Now, with DSLR’s (digital single-lens reflex cameras), we can rehearse with the camera together, and it can be a decent lens quality and we can get an idea of the depth of field,” Libatique says. “The camera is something we share. It’s not the cameraman’s camera; we share it.”

On the spectrum of directors who know the camera, and those who basically don’t, “he’s in that class (of) a lot of directors who have a great knowledge. He’s definitely in that upper rank.”

Like some kind of screwy romance, the d.p.-director relationship has its rules of decorum. “I don’t talk about directors with other directors, but especially with him,” he says of Aronofsky. “You know, if he made two films a year, I wouldn’t make films with anyone else; he challenges me more on a creative and artistic level. But I can’t make one movie every four years.”

Which doesn’t stop the elbows from flying. “He’s better now, but early on he’d be like ‘Who you shooting for?’ I’d say ‘Why?’ He’d say, ‘That movie’s gonna suck.’ I’d say, ‘Thanks I appreciate it.’ ”

Still, Libatique says, he always checks with Aronofsky when he’s about to take a job. “I say ‘What’s your schedule?’ And I try to accommodate him. When he was starting ‘The Wrestler,’ I was shooting for Spike Lee and would have had to leave a month early.”

Aronofsky instead used the celebrated documentary d.p. Maryse Alberti. “It was a great script and a great film and when I watched it I was very proud of him,” Libatique says of his director. “I saw things I recognized from my old friend. And without having to see myself.”

BILLION-DOLLAR CINEMATOGRAPHER: MATTHEW LIBATIQUE
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