Only in Hollywood

[Only IN Hollywood] After ‘The Prom,’ Fil-Am DP Libatique works again with Aronofsky

Ruben V. Nepales

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[Only IN Hollywood] After ‘The Prom,’ Fil-Am DP Libatique works again with Aronofsky

Matthew Libatique. Photo by Ruben V. Nepales

Photo by Ruben V. Nepales

The Fil-Am director of photography, one of Hollywood's most in-demand, looks back on the films he's worked on and what he still wants to do

After working on one big project after another, including The Prom and A Star Is Born, for which he earned his second Oscar nomination, Filipino-American cinematographer Matthew Libatique will return to lensing a small film.

“After Don’t Worry Darling, I’m planning to make a small film with (Darren) Aronofsky that obviously I can’t talk about. But yeah, that’s the next thing for me,” revealed Matthew in our recent video call.

Darren has been the in-demand director of photography’s (DP) frequent collaborator, resulting in such films as Black Swan, for which the Fil-Am earned his first Academy cinematography nod, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and Mother!

Calling from his LA home, Matthew, whose late father was from Pangasinan and whose mom is from Quezon, wore a newsboy cap which hid his trademark spiky hair. “It’s because my hair is long,” he explained then quipped, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed but we’re in a pandemic. I can’t go to my place.”

I remembered to show him my brand new coffee table book of the photos I took of talents in almost two decades of interviewing and taking photos, Through a Writer’s Lens. Published by my good friend, Bessie Badilla, the limited hardbound edition, 12” by 14” in size, includes my snapshot of Matthew.

“Wow, that’s big!” exclaimed Matthew as I held up a copy of the book for him to see. I quickly showed him some pages of photos of the featured stars and choice quotes. “Oh, it’s fantastic. Congratulations. That’s awesome.”

The New York native, whose other frequent collaborators are Spike Lee and Jon Favreau (the first two Iron Man movies), seems to be cinema’s DP du jour. Olivia Wilde tapped Matthew for Don’t Worry Darling, a horror-thriller, her follow up to her acclaimed feature directing debut, Booksmart.

“It’s got a fantastic cast,” Matthew said of the film’s roster of actors – Olivia herself, Chris Pine, Gemma Chan, Harry Styles and Florence Pugh.

“But I can’t say much about it,” he remarked. “They always tell me I can’t say much about anything. But definitely, I’m having an amazing time with Olivia. She’s an extreme talent. She has interesting and impactful films.”

“It’s a project that’s both entertaining and let’s say, personal, in the sense that it’s got a lot of stylistic choices. It’s got an attitude and vibe to it. The performances are fantastic. She’s making a really great film. I’m happy to be a part of it. Hopefully, I get to make more with her. She’s got something special.”

Matthew also shot The Prom, Ryan Murphy’s film adaptation of the Broadway musical, which is now streaming on Netflix. Matthew joins Fil-Ams, including actors Darren Criss and Jon Jon Briones, whose talents have been spotlighted by Ryan in his projects.

Matthew Libatique on the set of “The Prom.” Photo courtesy of Netflix.

“It’s a testament to Ryan’s character as a person and what he believes in how the world should be,” Matthew praised the prolific creator’s emphasis on diversity in his films and TV shows.

“It’s no surprise that he’s worked with as many Filipino-Americans (including Isa Briones and Carlin James) as he has. But it’s not just diversity within sexual orientation, it’s the gender and racial diversity as well. So all of that plays into his thinking. It should be applauded, and he should be credited.”

“Mostly, he does things because he is the chief of so many different pieces of content that he has the power to do that. He’s using it in the best possible way. He can make those choices whereas a lot of people maybe don’t have those opportunities to make those choices. Luckily, we have people like Ryan who are going to push that forward.”

Asked about his reaction when Ryan took him to lunch, offered The Prom to him and mentioned that it would star Meryl Streep, Matthew laughed as he replied, “I said, I’m in! She is a multi-generational talent and a master. In my craft, part of my responsibilities is to create an environment for actors to perform. And because I believe in that, just the very idea that I would be able to do that effort with Meryl Streep is remarkable to me.”

“It is definitely a moment in my career where I was just so happy that I had the chance. It was incredible watching this cast (which includes Nicole Kidman, James Corden and Kerry Washington). Their ability to work in the same frame together and have everything, and never lose any momentum. It was expert work.”

Meryl, in an earlier interview, told me that Matthew is extraordinary and that she hopes The Prom is not her last time to work with him.

“I’m blown away by that comment,” Matthew said. “I enjoyed working with her. She was a joy to watch. You learn from all great actors – their ability, control of their instrument and how they’re able to turn nuance to noticeable is amazing.”

“And to go as big a performance like (the number) It’s Not About Me but then give subtlety to some of the things she was doing. Say, in the hotel room, when she was with Barry (James Corden). They were pouring their hearts out to each other.”

“Like on the bus, or in It’s Not About Me or That Lady’s Improving, and then see her act in a dramatic scene with James Corden inside that hotel room. I’m watching a master at work. So those are the highlights. When I do my giant coffee table book that’s bigger than my head, that will be one of the things I will talk about.”

I grabbed the chance to catch up with Matthew on his recent DP work. On lensing Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey, especially with Ella Jay Basco (of the Fil-Am family of actors) as Cassandra Cain, he said, “I have a photo somewhere with almost the entire Basco family. I have to find that photo. It was pretty incredible. I showed my daughter that picture and she was just amazed because she’s a fan (of the Bascos) as well.”

“Ella was fantastic. It was a joy to work with her. I was proud that I was photographing a Filipina-American. And I got to know her father, Derek. It was nice to be acquainted with that family.”

“I’m very proud of them as a family. And I was very proud of her in the film. She’s one of the highlights for me – being able to work with her, photograph her, just be there and letting a Filipina-American be in front of the camera. That was a joy.”

On his experience filming Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in A Star Is Born, and working with Bradley as a director as well, Matthew raved, “It was one of the best. It was a very soulful process where Bradley and I, as collaborators, just put the camera in the right place. We got our eye on the thing that was most important. People talk about the cinematography or the camera in that film but the performances are the most important part.”

Matthew Libatique earned his second Academy best cinematography nod for his work on actor-director Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born.” Still courtesy of Warner Bros.

“And the ability that Bradley had to be able to valuably perform while directing the movie. He was even evaluating camera placement out of his peripheral vision while being in a scene. That was astounding to me.”

“And I can’t say enough about Lady Gaga. She’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever laid eyes on and heard. Talk about having a front row seat to Meryl Streep and James Corden. I had a front row seat to Lady Gaga. So that’s pretty, as they say, baller, as well.”

The cinematographer, who spoke to young filmmakers in Manila in 2017, said he’d be glad to do that again when the coronavirus pandemic ends.

“I’d be happy to when this is over,” said the DP, whose nickname is Matty. “I’d be happy to visit again. I had a great time last time, just talking to all the cinematographers and hearing what their situations were and just the state of the industry. Like in many countries, there’s a local industry for a local audience but there’s also an international one.”

“And the Philippines, it’s a place that has put out talents in the international festival circuits. Really good things. Brillante Mendoza and Raya Martin come to mind right away. I look forward to a future where I could be more interactive with those guys and the community and share what I’ve learned and give back to the place that my parents came from.”

“I had a great time. I have good friends that I made there. It would be nice just to hang out, maybe not work actually and just visit family. If there’s one thing that a time like this has taught me is that it could be time to go back to reestablish your roots. I think about that often.”

“It would be nice to go again. Last time, I couldn’t go with my family to Quezon because I was doing a master class. They all went down there because of my mom’s family. It would be nice if I can go, too.”

Speaking of aspiring cinematographers, Matthew, replying to my question, offered his advice, especially to young talents of color: “When I started out, I just wanted to be a cinematographer. I didn’t think about my color. But I know that as I’ve gone along in my career, my color is a factor. I’ve been cast aside many times because of preconceptions of who I am and how I grew up.”

“You have to study. You just have to know more and work harder. Even when they started affirmative action and it started early on during the civil rights struggle. It’s still going on.”

“A person of color has to work 10 times harder than another person to be able to make it through. Obviously, you want to have a certain amount of talent but whatever talent you have, you have to take care of it, like you’re taking care of your car. You have to feed your talent. You have to study Asian art, European art, American pop culture.”

“Most importantly, from a pragmatic level, you have to keep your overhead extremely low. Don’t buy things. This is business and there’s a long line of people who want to get into this business. A lot of times early on, you’re going to have to do things for nothing or for very little. It’s not enough to live on. So if you keep your overhead low, you can have more freedom creatively.”

“As a person of color, you need to keep yourself free to take advantage of things, even if you’re not going to get paid so that you have an opportunity to make things. As a cinematographer, we’re kind of beholden to directors, people’s scripts and stories.”

With Christmas coming up, I asked Matthew, who told me in one of our interviews that one of his first jobs was delivering lechon in the LA area, what he was planning to eat or cook at noche buena.

“I’m going to skip the lechon this year,” he answered with a grin. “I might try my hand at cooking palabok.” –

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.