Cinematographer Matthew Libatíque has become known for his signature use of anamorphic lenses and working with light to add realism to his images.
But for Ryan Murphy’s “The Prom,” the screen adaptation of the 2018 Broadway musical that premieres Dec. 11 on Netflix, he changed the approach. This time, he went with spherical lenses because he felt he was starting to repeat himself — and Murphy went along with the cinematographer’s preference.
Libatíque used large-format lenses to capture Meryl Streep’s Dee Dee Allen, a Broadway actor whose star is beginning to fade after her latest show flops on opening night. When she and fellow actor Barry Glickman (James Corden) decide they need to revive their image by latching onto a good cause, Barry, Dee Dee and a few other down-on-their-luck Broadway stars travel to Indiana to help Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), a teenager who’s barred from the prom because she’s a lesbian. “I used [low-grade] Falcon lenses for Indiana that had less coating and a little more degradation at the onset, and Leitz lenses for Broadway,” which provided a sharper, crisper image, he explains. “But as the worlds meshed, I used the same set of lenses.”
Libatíque referenced films like “Elephant” to convey the look he was going for. “As realistic and naturalistic as that film felt, there are choices in color that were made, whether a yellow shirt or blue chair,” he says. He also referenced color design in “The Virgin Suicides.” But it was the way Bob Fosse lit Liza Minnelli’s performance in “Cabaret” that he thought of most often. “It’s the greatest benchmark for a theatrical director in cinema,” Libatíque says.
As for planning, the DP’s prep process at one time involved drawing a line diagram of the narrative, but he’s now switched to Excel spreadsheets. Once everything is in place and there aren’t going to be structural changes, he says, “I hammer it out as fast as I can: first thoughts, colors, camera movement and where the light comes from.” The spreadsheet also reminds him of whom he should be focusing on and how to make transitions better: “Ryan was super conscious editorially. He has above-average tendencies to be thoughtful about his transitions. He knows how he wants to get into a scene, and he knows how he wants to come out of a scene.”
Libatíque notes that even though there was ample cast rehearsal for “The Prom,” there wasn’t a lot of time to light sets. “A lot of it was improvisational,” he explains.
A quick underwater sequence with Emma was initially set as a fantastical scene at the beach. But Libatíque reveals that Pellman did not know how to swim. “She spent time learning how to swim and dive,” he says. And Murphy moved the idea for the sequence to the realistic setting of a high school pool, with the character doing the backstroke. “Because of that, you get the essence of how the other kids react to her,” the DP says. “And that’s what I love about the movie — all the characters made the relationships feel genuine.”
Though celebrity is a theme of the film, Libatíque focused on a more natural look. “I try to route the light into reality,” he says, “or something that’s been seen in real life. I had to embrace the concept of lighting a face in the traditional sense.”
He notes that the hotel room exchange between Barry and Dee Dee, in which the two reveal their history to each other, took a while to put together. “The performances weren’t hard to get, but structuring the blocking and the flow were,” he says. “The tone switched from having a magnifying glass on Dee Dee and turned around to being on Barry. It was about creating a space that didn’t have a lot of encumberment in terms of technical things, and [about] allowing the actors to move freely.”
Toward the end of the shoot in March, COVID brought production to a halt. The crew had finished filming the number “Zazz” with Nicole Kidman as Angie. “She comes to hug me,” Libatíque says. “I said, ‘If I get it, I’d rather get it from you.’ She was the last person I hugged.”
But there were still four days of shooting left, and an entire section of the number “Just Breathe,” sung by Emma near the start of the movie. The crew needed to finish filming, and after much preparation with new protocols, production resumed four months later.
Libatíque found one bright spot in the shutdown: “Anytime you have a little hiatus, you have a chance to make things a bit better. We had shot so much, we knew what the film was supposed to be.”