Shooting Lady Gaga revealing herself as a down-to-earth woman while lensing a rock star character Bradley Cooper was creating for himself were just two of the challenges facing DP Matthew Libatique in the star-crossed lovers story “A Star Is Born.” The love story is screening at the EnergaCamerimage fest, competing for the main cinematography prize. Libatique confesses Cooper was so busy performing in his directorial debut that the DP was often left on his own to decide on composition and shots.
You started your career working for Ed Lachman, a master cinematographer and perennial mentor here at the fest. Were there lessons from him that you still use today in your shooting?
The way I meter. He has this modified exposure zone system that he uses that’s not quite the Ansel Adams zone system. He sort of works in gray scale and total values so I meter very similarly to him – except he overexposes. I underexpose. The other thing is that he’s so versatile, project to project. He’s a major influence for me.
You’ve said that you did not shoot much cover footage on this film because you wanted to give Cooper and Lady Gaga the space to move around the halls and hotels where their romance is blossoming. Isn’t that risky?
I was reacting to what they were doing – it was always kind of a surprise. Like the wedding dress they found. It was actually the costume designer’s wedding dress. It was that kind of grass roots mentality the film had. It’s a Warner Brothers movie but it had that independent feel – there was not studio presence like you get on a normal film.
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You shot concert scenes at real performances, filming between the shows of live bands. That takes some expert timing, clearly.
That was a source of anxiety. It was kind of relaxing to get into the narrative bits. We started at Coachella in between the two weekends. So we were able to get the production values of their stages and their lighting. Then going from there to something we staged, like at the Greek Theatre during the scene for the song “Shallow,” where she comes on stage for the first time. And then having the next level, where we were shooting between acts at real concerts.
So Cooper, who is in front of the camera throughout much of the film as we see the self-destruction of his character, the singer-songwriter Jackson Maine, relied on you to decide how to film many scenes?
I can’t say enough about how motivating he was. The process was very fluid. He wasn’t too precious about things and he had none of the anxiety that some directors have about getting shots. It was the authenticity of the performances that he was focused on. He acted in this film and did a wonderful job. His directing prowess was impressive for a first-time director.
Did you feel under extra pressure as you became effectively a bit of a co-director?
I never thought about it that way – I just wanted to support him. Between Lady Gaga – Stefani [Germanotta] – and Bradley, they were wearing so many hats. You know at night they were making music, tracks for the weeks coming.
He’s directing and he’s acting and evaluating her performance in a scene while he’s acting with her. The least I could do was help him out by paying attention to other things besides cinematography. And down the line, camera operators did more than they usually do. We all had to pitch in collectively.
So his dozens of acting roles on camera seem to have prepped him pretty well for directing then?
He’s very persistent in terms of trying to get it better. And he has a great sense of the edit when shooting, which I think is the mark of a great director. Knowing how you’re going to get out of a scene and get into a scene. How do you learn that? I think it’s just because he’s spent so much time acting both with Clint Eastwood and David O. Russell.
In terms of deciding the look of the film – and the color palate of Cooper’s concerts – you’ve said that you prefer to decide the tones of your scenes on set rather than tweak them in post, correct?
I don’t really love to reinvent the wheel in the post process. I’m very particular about the dailies. The dailies have to be pretty much what the intention is. So there’s no confusion. And I find that it’s hard to deviate from it. In rare cases I’ve worked with directors who wanted to change the look of the movie. What’s the point of that? I think it starts to look false when you start to break it.
And what about directors who want to shoot in neutral tones so they can decide later about the color palate in post?
Well, it’s the same feeling I have about shots coverage just to get something different. You’re just changing something for no reason other than to have editing choices. I like people who have an idea what they want to do.
Did you have more flexibility to shoot cover footage on “A Star Is Born” than on “Mother!,” where you were in tight quarters, filming on 16mm for Darren Aronofsky?
Actually the budgets were about the same on both films. They’re mid-budget, the rare sort of $30 million movie. It seems like today it’s over $100 million or it’s $10 million. So I’ve been lucky. It’s a nice place to be. You have enough tools to do something special but you don’t have the $100 million pressure.
Do you always operate the camera yourself as much as you did on “A Star Is Born”?
No, sometimes I step back, especially on multi-camera events so I can watch all the frames, so I can make sure that everybody’s on the same page. The last thing I want is like three different personalities doing three different things.
I kind of learned that working with Spike Lee. He’ll use multiple cameras in very interesting ways and I have to step away from camera operating because I have to watch all the frames to be sure everybody is in connection. But I love operating, especially handheld.