Along with Sandi Sissel, Ellen Kuras, Lisa Rinzler and Nancy Schreiber, Maryse Alberti was a groundbreaking female cinematographer at a time when the field was overwhelmingly male (more so than today). Even as more women have steadily entered the field, Alberti still stands out for her versatility and inventiveness.
Since starting out in the late 1980s working on a short film with Christine Vachon, Alberti has worked steadily with some of the boldest directors of our time. She’s shot a wide range of films, alternating between nonfiction and fiction, with directors including Todd Haynes (“Velvet Goldmine,” “Poison”), Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler”), Terry Zwigoff (“Crumb”), Michael Apted (“Moving the Mountain,” “Incident at Oglala”) and Liz Garbus (“Love, Marilyn”) and Amy Berg (“West of Memphis”), among others.
She received Sundance Film Festival Best Cinematography honors for documentaries “H-2 Worker” in 1990 and “Crumb” in 1995 before beginning a long-time collaboration with Alex Gibney on films including “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” “Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “The Armstrong Lie” and “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.”
Alberti’s three latest projects are already garnering attention. They include M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Visit,” which hit theaters on Sept. 11, Peter Sollett’s “Freeheld,” which just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and hits theaters on October 1, and Ryan Coogler’s “Creed,” which Warner Bros will release on November 25.
“Freeheld,” starring Julianne Moore, Ellen Page and Steve Carell, is based on the 2007 documentary of the same name and tells the story of a female detective lieutenant and her girlfriend who battle elected officials to be recognized as legal partners.
Indiewire recently chatted by phone with the French-born, New York-based Alberti, who has 83 cinematography credits to her name.
You’ve been quite busy! You have three films coming out soon. How did the timing work on those?
“The Visit,” the M. Night Shyamalan film, I shot that in January and February 2014. Then “Freeheld” and “Creed” were back-to-back. “Freeheld” was shot in the Fall of 2014, in September and October, and then I was hired to do “Creed” after that.
In each of these cases, did the director specifically have you in mind? How did you end up working with them?
M. Night Shyamalan talked to a few people with big names and then somehow he decided to work with me. I think M. Night works with different people for different projects. He finds the person he thinks is the right person for the project he’s doing at that moment.
He uses the word “cast” for crew as well as actors. He cast his cinematographer. So I was lucky to have been selected. For “Freeheld,” Peter [Sollett] and I met a couple of times and we decided to work together. And with “Creed,” that was my greatest surprise, I think that Ryan Coogler was interested in working with an indie filmmaker, not with the usual DP for boxing action movies, and to my great surprise I was approved by the studio, who then paired an indie filmmaker with an indie cinematographer. I think they made the right choice. We were a great team and we had a great time.
I know you’ve alternated between documentary and fiction features. How does the preparation differ for a nonfiction project versus fiction?
Most of the time for a documentary you don’t do a lot of prep. I’ve done a lot of movies with Alex Gibney and I was always asking, “What should I read?” So I read on the subject, but then you just go into the film and shoot. You’ve never seen the location, you’ve never met the people, you don’t have any idea what’s going to happen.
For a fiction film, usually a director will have four to eight weeks to prep depending on the final project, then you have the time to have a conversation with the director and production designer. You discuss the look of the film, what we call the palette, the style, you go to a lot of locations and you choose and after a while, you get a sense of the style of the film and how it adapts to the location. And then I can go back with my crew and talk in a more technical way. How do I need you to prep location? And then, as always, there is a moment, hopefully, of spontaneous creativity, even by the actors or by what’s happening while we shoot. I always think of the feature process as a more intellectual process. There is a lot of reflection and thought put into the movie, whereas with a documentary you rely more on instinct.
I would think also that it depends on the type of documentary, if you’re really running and gunning it, as opposed to one with scheduled interviews.
In the case of those interviews, 99% of the time you show up in a location that you’ve never seen, and this is where you shoot the interview. I always try to put in a look for the film. So I ask the producer of the documentary, “Try to find me a space that’s more in line with the look we’re trying to achieve for the film.” Like in “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” we were looking for a dark environment because of the subject matter. But it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes you have an interview with someone and they put you in the conference room or the office with a bookshelf in the back. You try to choose and you try to design in the documentary film, but it doesn’t always work.
Do you have a philosophy regarding lighting? Do you prefer natural lighting or does it depend on the particular project?
It depends on the project. For documentary, I prefer natural lighting, just because you don’t have a big kit. For some specific scenes within the documentary you might hire a local gaffer with a small van. Again, in “WikiLeaks,” the idea was not a natural light at all, but instead we would use the light in the bars, we would always try to use what was in the location and then supplement that with the design of the film.
In fiction, the film could be very grounded in realism or naturalism. So the difference between a documentary and fiction is that a scene in the documentary is pretty much going to play in real time, so if it’s the late afternoon sun, that’s what you have, and you play that in real time. In a fiction film, your late afternoon film will shoot for ten hours so you have to control the sun and make the sun. That’s the big difference. In the fiction film, you might want a natural look of the late afternoon sunlight, but you’re going to have to make it for the next ten or 12 hours.
You’ve worked with many, many directors, many of my favorite directors. I’m sure they all come in with a different approach and some like to collaborate more than others.
All the directors I’ve worked with have been great collaborators. What I’m looking for in a director is a collaborator. Every director surrounds herself with people they feel they collaborate with, get ideas from. But at the same time I want a director who is the captain of the ship, someone who is a director.
I believe “The Visit” is the first horror film you’ve shot?
One of the first films I shot was Todd Hayne’s “Poison,” which was in black and white and you can almost call it a horror film. I don’t know if I’d call “The Visit” a horror film. It’s a black comedy.
Were there any particular challenges on that film?
The cold! [laughs] We shot the film in sequence, we shot one location. Since we were in one big farm house, it was easy to go downstairs, and then back upstairs, and then downstairs and follow the script. So that was a little bit of a challenge, but it was great. The big challenge on that film was the cold.
I know “Freeheld” was based on a documentary. Did you look at that documentary before?
Of course, yes.
Sometimes there’s a decision not to look at it, just to do something wholly original.
The intention was not to duplicate but to be inspired by the mood of the real thing. The challenge on “Freeheld” was time, we did not have enough time, which is often the case. We did not have enough time and we had to schedule around the wig. The wig was the challenge on that film. We would have to shoot daytime scenes at night because of the schedule and you can fight for the photography, but after a while you have to realize that is what you have to work with. This is it. This is the only thing we can do within the structure. So you pull down the curtain and blast the light through shades and that’s never what I like to do but we had to accommodate the schedule of the actors and the many wigs and bald caps and the long time it takes to put them on. So when you have an actor with a 12-hour day door-to-door and a location 45 minutes or an hour away from downtown and a wig that takes three hours to put on, you have a challenge. But the director, Peter, was so calm and wonderful, and the actors were great and loved each other.
And then with “Creed,” did you go back and watch the original “Rocky” films?
The original “Rocky” is a great film! And I watched some of the fights in the other “Rocky” films. But for “Creed,” the movie we watched was the Jacques Audiard film, “A Prophet.” We watched other fight movies, but we watched a lot of “A Prophet.” It’s a mix of hand-held and Steadicam.
I know that you were the first contemporary woman to be recognized on the cover of American Cinematographer!
Yeah! I hope it happens to me again, that would be great! [laughs]
Have you seen strides since then in terms of women DPs getting recognition?
I think that in the 25 years I’ve been shooting, there are more women directors of photography. In the past few years, we have steadily grown, but we are definitely still a minority. I don’t hear the same thing as I did years ago: “Can the little lady handle the big lights?” I don’t hear that anymore. I shot a boxing movie for MGM. Most likely that would never have happened 25 years ago. So I feel that women DPs have had steady progress.
Now there is a whole other side to the industry. I think that women directors have not made progress at all. It’s really a shame and something to address. I think that the studios still don’t trust women directors. I mostly work with men directors in features, in commercials. The documentary world has more women directors.
And of course, women actors have a hard time. As a reflection of society, we want our women to be young and pretty and we want our male, 60 or 70-year old actors to be on screen with a 35-year old love interest. The exceptions, like Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon are amazing, but it’s still a very unfair and very unbalanced playground for men and women actors.
Why do you think it was, or has been, challenging for women to break into cinematography?
I think that 60 years ago, it was traditionally male, like a lot of other jobs. Women were traditionally working in costume or as script supervisors. Now there are a lot of women in production. It has changed as women become more and more accepted as directors of photography. We are still a minority, but I think it is moving forward. I don’t know why it was challenging for them to break in. Maybe because it’s a technical job with big tools and big lights.
Are there any directors you’d like to work with, but haven’t had a chance?
I’m truly looking for good scripts. I was very excited to work with M. Night Shyamalan, and of course, if Martin Scorsese called tomorrow I would say “yes,” but for now, I look at the scripts.
So what attracts you to a project? Is it more about the subject matter? Or the challenges it might bring you creatively?
What immediately attracted me to “The Visit” was the director. With “Freeheld,” when I met Peter I immediately liked him and the script was great. It’s very much a political script. I was inspired to take a stand. And that’s the idea of any art form. We all aspire to great content and great style. It doesn’t have to be a high, intellectual political film – although that’s my goal – but you can have great style. There are so many amazing things happening in the world, the issue of refugees, the issue of war zones where a bomb can explode at any time, the state of our political system, climate change that we’re not addressing and self-destructing with a smile. There are so many things we can talk about and that’s what I’m looking for in a script. I’m not really finding it right now, but that’s what I want.