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Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki on His Record-Breaking Oscar Win & Why the Speeches Never Get Easier

When Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki won the cinematography Oscar for his work on “The Revenant” on Sunday night — his third consecutive in the category — he was tempted to make a joke in his speech. “I wanted to say, ‘To my family and friends: Lower your expectations.’ ”

He’s only somewhat kidding. It’s the morning after his historic win for “The Revenant,” which also took home honors for director Alejandro G. Inarritu and star Leonardo DiCaprio, and Lubezki is aware he’s unlikely to ever top this year: No director of photography before him has won three consecutive Academy Awards. “I am the luckiest cinematographer in the world,” notes the 51-year-old, Mexico City-born Lubezki. “My daughters think that going to the Oscars is a normal thing that happens every year, and it’s not. I might never come back to the Oscars. I might never get another nomination again.”

Guido Vitti for Variety

Odds are that the man who took home last year’s cinematography Oscar for Inarritu’s best-picture winner “Birdman,” and a year earlier for Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” will soon enough be a contender again, considering he’s one of the most acclaimed cinematographers working today. Since launching his feature career in the 1990s, Lubezki has collaborated with a who’s who of directors, from Tim Burton to Terrence Malick to Cuaron, who he met when both were film students at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

“I always wanted to be a director, but I thought I would also d.p. my own films,” Cuaron tells Variety in a phone call the morning after the Oscars. “But when I met Chivo, it became very clear to me he was so much better. I said: ‘That’s a d.p.!’”

The beauty and style of Lubezki’s work, featuring long, unbroken takes in “Birdman” or the exclusive use of natural light in “Revenant,” has made him perhaps the first superstar cinematographer. Audiences chant his name at Q&As, and he has been stopped on the street by autograph-seekers. He was even courted by the beer company Indio to star in a commercial that aired on Mexican television during the Academy Awards — almost unheard of for a behind-the-camera artist.

Lubezki and Alejandro G. Inarritu clutch their second-straight Oscars as a team.
Michael Buckner/Variety/Rex Shutterstock

As Cuaron says: “He’s a celebrity! He’s Chivo! His nickname is a trademark now.”

Lubezki, who has earned eight Academy Award nominations, resides with his wife, Lauren Strogoff, and their two teenage daughters in Los Angeles. By his own admission, he likes to keep a low profile and has always been press shy — and hates to have his photo taken. “He has three Oscars, and he must be the most miserable man on Earth right now with all the attention,” quips Cuaron.

It’s true that Lubezki has qualms about being in the spotlight. When he was contacted about the Indio commercial, his response was one of disbelief. “It’s so external and foreign to what I really like to do,” he says. “I don’t like to be in front of the camera, and I never thought anybody would call me or I would accept an offer like that.” He was ultimately convinced after talking to the creatives at the ad agency, who put together a lyrical 60-second piece showing him working behind the camera.

As for the repeat Oscar wins, he is thrilled but a little uncomfortable.

“Cinematography is a collaborative effort, and the fact you are getting the Oscar is almost a tiny bit embarrassing, because you have a whole crew that should be up there with you,” he says. In addition, he doesn’t believe in competition among peers. “It’s very subjective to pick one movie from another when they are all so different,” he notes. He lists off the roster of iconic cinematographers he was nominated against this year: Roger Deakins (“Sicario”), Edward Lachmann (“Carol”), Robert Richardson (“The Hateful Eight”) and John Seale (“Mad Max: Fury Road”). “They are truly masters of what they do, and some of my greatest teachers. I’ve been admiring their work for so long, so you feel like a bit of an imposter.”

Third time is still a charm for “The Revenant” cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who beat the cold to win the gold
Guido Vitti for Variety

And while one might think making that walk to the podium to accept the gold statue would get easier each year, Lubezki says it’s actually the opposite. “Every time, it’s been worse for me; I’m more and more nervous,” he says. “Because you know what you’re in for. You know you can miss any name, you can forget any words, you can fall on the stage. There is joy, of course, but to a civilian like me — I’m not an actor, I cannot learn lines — so when you walk up that stage, you completely go into a different frequency, a different dimension. It’s very weird, it’s like being under anesthesia. And from the three times I’ve been up there, I don’t remember anything!”

Though he has yet to watch his speech from this most recent Oscar night — he says he’ll need a couple days — he has viewed the previous two, and says it’s like seeing another person.

One place where Lubezki isn’t shy is on a shoot; Cuaron describes him as “a force in how he can keep the energy and intensity of a crew alive.” Inarritu concurs: “Chivo can be the most contagious, positive energy on the set you have experienced in your life.” The director goes on to praise his lenser’s sense of humor, noting: “Scouting Fortress Mountain for ‘The Revenant’ was one of my favorite moments, because he likes to act. He performed the part of Tom Hardy as I was shooting a video camera, and made me laugh like a kid.”

Much has been made of the arduous “Revenant” shoot, in which long hours were spent in the cold, and cameras froze over. Nonetheless, Lubezki calls it an amazing, life-changing experience. “We always knew it would be hard, because nature is rough, but the movie was actually very joyous for me,” he says. “The energy of Alejandro, his passion for filmmaking; it’s so contagious. You’re trying to do your very best and you’ll try to get the shot no matter what, even if you’re standing in cold water for hours.”

In 2014, “Gravity” director Alfonso Cuaron kicked off Variety’s tradition of shooting an Oscar winner for the cover the morning after the event. Last year, Alejandro G. Inarritu graced the cover with his three Oscars for “Birdman.” In a bit of kismet, both those films were shot by this year’s cover subject, Emmanuel Lubezki. After taking home cinematography Oscars for those two movies, he received his third consecutive award this year, for Inarritu’s “The Revenant.”

In fact, “The Revenant” has set the bar preposterously high for whatever Lubezki tackles next. “The experience was so different, and changed me as a craftsman,” he notes. “I wouldn’t want to go and shoot something in a traditional way right now. I’m not ready.”

He has two films due in theaters this year, both shot before “The Revenant”: Malick’s “Knight of Cups,” which opens this week, and Rodrigo Garcia’s “Last Days in the Desert.”

He is tight-lipped about what’s coming up, but says it is another collaboration with Garcia. “It’s a virtual-reality project,” he reveals. “I’m very interested in that new way of telling stories because it’s very immersive. I don’t know what to call it. It’s a drama. You can call it a movie, but it’s shot and will be shown in VR.”

While many prominent cinematographers, such as Barry Sonnenfeld and Ernest R. Dickerson, have gone on to have impressive directing careers,

Lubezki doesn’t seem to feel a driving need to call the shots. “Do I want to direct? Maybe,” he says. “Only if something comes up that I feel I can tell in a way that nobody else can.”

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