The ascent of cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubzeki into a household name (or nickname) can be traced to his stunning work over a 30-year career, but also the enticing narratives behind the scenes on each project. First there come the whispers of what’s happening on a particular set — All natural light! Shot in one unbroken take! Set entirely in space with one character! — and then quickly from there, anticipation mounts around exactly how the hell Lubezki will be able to pull the feat off.
The incredible thing is how few missteps have resulted from Lubezki constantly pushing technology and storytelling forward. A lifetime collaboration of over six films with director Alfonso Cuarón has cemented an intimate style coupled with technical prowess, starting with “Sólo Con Tu Pareja” up through 2013’s Oscar-winning “Gravity.” That ambition has only increased in his partnerships with Terrence Malick and Alejandro González Iñárritu, both of which have resulted in those directors’ finest works.
Lubezki is a favorite this month to receive his third Oscar in as many years for “The Revenant,” but he hasn’t stopped working in the meantime. On a break from a shooting a commercial — half in Los Angeles, half in Mexico — we got on the phone with the famed DP to discuss his whirlwind of the past few years, Malick’s visual direction for his newest films, the evolution of digital technology, and much more.
Have you gotten the opportunity to reflect upon the last several years, Oscar wins and all?
No, I think it was like a tsunami that hit me. I’ve been working with Alejandro for four years nonstop, and we haven’t really sat down and talked about how we feel about all this. It’s very weird, because these movies are still in theatres and opening in different countries. I’m very happy that audiences are getting the chance to see them, but the opportunity hasn’t come yet to see them with objectivity. When I watch the movies I can barely follow them because I look at all the little things that aren’t quite right.
On “The Revenant,” was there a small item or add-on that ended up as essential to the production?
The big shock of the movie for me was that I had made a decision with Alejandro to shoot on film, and only bring the digital cameras in to shoot very small parts of the movie — dusk or night scenes, mostly. To our surprise, when we started doing tests on location with the actors, we were much more happy with the digital cameras. They were allowing us to shoot with very low light levels and make the movie more immersive, which was our main goal. So during prep we sent all the film back. That’s an easy thing to simply say, but for a middle-aged filmmaker who’s been using film for many decades, it was kind of a shock to suddenly say, “You know? Digital is better for our movie.”
How did you and Alejandro shape the themes and different points of view in the film?
We didn’t do any storyboards before production — Alejandro doesn’t really like them at all. His preferred methodology is to rehearse. The studio was very kind in allowing Alejandro to do this on “The Revenant,” because rehearsals with the main cast aren’t usually something you spend money on. So during the rehearsals we set up these complicated scenes, like the opening of the movie where we present the universe, and set up all the main characters and how they behave. Leo[nardo DiCaprio] is looking for his son; the fur trappers are trying to run to the boat; Tom Hardy‘s character is trying to save the pelts because it represents the money he’s earned. And then you realize the Native American warriors are looking for their chief’s daughter.
Speaking recently with Jack Fisk, he seems like a person who will help overcome a problem no matter what his job title says. How do you approach collaboration?
When you’re shooting on a film, I think the best thing is full collaboration from everybody. But the amount of collaboration you get from the people depends on how much you look for it. Alejandro is very much into looking for it: he really wants someone like Jack, who not only talks about production design but also has that holistic global vision of the movie. He talks about cinematography, light, performance, history. He does something that I’ve never seen another production designer do, which is travel with his camera, everywhere. And when he sees a location he shows me a study of light, how the location hits at different times of day. It’s almost like he’s shooting the movie.
Same with Alejandro, and same with my camera team. Like Ray Garcia, my key grip, he’s one of the greatest collaborators I’ve ever worked with. When he’s there with me in the snow he’s not only taking care of me so I don’t fall in the river and die, but he’s also very in tune with the performance of Leo and the camera’s movement. So when you create an atmosphere of work like that, we are able to participate with the best sense of collaboration. I’ve worked with directors that don’t want any collaboration, from anybody, and those movies are never fully satisfying. You realize one person can not make a movie. That doesn’t mean that the director is not the auteur, but this is not a one-person craft.
You’ve mentioned the stress of age when filming “The Revenant”; how do you now view something like your first commercial with Alejandro, which went well past the normal working hours?
You know, I don’t think I would have the energy to do the first commercial I did with Alejandro. It was 42 hours straight, and it was a lack of discipline in a way. We lacked focus, we were just learning. Kind of like a bunch of musicians trying to play hard rock but the guitars were still out of tune, the drummer’s a bit off-tempo. It didn’t sound like a proper band. [laughs]
An interesting career shift was between “A Series of Unfortunate Events” and “The New World,” when you went from one of the largest lighting packages to the lightest. What was that like?
What I would say is that if I used a lot of lights, I needed them. Like an engineer who was hired to build a bridge, if the bridge needs a lot of concrete I need a lot of concrete. [“A Series of Unfortunate Events”] needed that because the sets were massive! I’ve never seen sets that big. I did not design the sets, I participated in picking colors and all the ideas of the sets, but once the producers and director and production designer made a decision, and then they hire me to shoot the movie, of course you’re going to need a lot of lights! Otherwise they’ll look terrible.
I never wanted to use that much light. I don’t like to break any records like that. I’m just as happy doing an intimate film like “Y Tu Mamá También” with a small crew, handheld, with no lights on the Mexican coast. But I wouldn’t have done that movie any other way. If Alfonso said, “Chivo, we need to bring a lot of light,” I would have said, “I’m not the right engineer for this.” So it hasn’t been my decision. It’s been the decision of the director and other filmmakers that I’ve worked with.
Are those examples of what you’d refer to as a “Burbank movie”?
I would gladly do the Burbank, big studio thing again, but it’s — you build all these big sets, and if you don’t really think about it doesn’t make sense. Sometimes you regret it later. They break down the sets, you see the massive amount of plywood piled outside a soundstage, and you think, “Couldn’t we have done it any other way?” But it is what it is.
What was your experience like on “The Birdcage” with Mike Nichols? That opening shot was, I would imagine, great practice for something like “Birdman.”
It was incredible. It was one of the highlights of my life, and [Mike Nichols] was a wonderful human being. I miss him dearly. What he taught me had more to do with love for the craft and the actors. That first shot I think was his idea, and at the time it sounded completely insane. But little by little we did storyboards, and I think it was with the help of ILM that we did previz of the different shots. But you know it was very tricky because the digital technology was not the same as now. It’s three or four shots stitched together, and the movements were very complicated — the speed had to be the same from one shot to the other, and the lighting had to match. It was very tricky.
And then, I was very upset because they put the credits on top of it! But that’s an interesting thing — it hurt my ego, and the ego of the technicians. But if you think about it, a great director does things like that. A great director will destroy his own shot, no matter its difficulty, if it’s messing up the tempo of the movie. Otherwise it has no reason to exist.
What feelings and approach are you taking with your modern-day films with Terrence Malick, like “To The Wonder,” “Knight of Cups,” his Texas-set one – is it still called “Weightless”?
It used to be called that but I don’t know the final title. Those two last films with Malick were very, very different from anything I’ve done before. I did those two films a long time ago now. I shot those, and then I did “Birdman,” “Last Days in the Desert,” and then “The Revenant.” So these happened a long time ago. One of the main differences was that Terry didn’t want me to read the script. He wanted me to approach the movies in a completely fresh way, and arrive to the sets and try to figure it out as I’m shooting. In that way the camera would be accidental, and unrehearsed, more like a memory.
What I did feel going from LA to Austin was that I felt excited to go to work the next day. It was incredibly exciting to not know what we were going to do, but knowing that we wanted to find something great. I didn’t know who the characters were and how they were related. You start shooting though, and you start to understand their connections and the arcs of their stories. It was almost like watching the movie as you were shooting it. It was wonderful to be able to improvise and be fearless, because I knew that if something wasn’t working Terry was not going to use it.
So every day you had to show up to set with every piece of equipment you might need on hand.
Ah, but instead of having everything, what I did was have nothing. It was better to be humble and bring the minimum. I only had one camera, one lens, and then one camera and one lens on the Steadicam. When we were in trouble, say an actor goes into a room into a corner that is completely obscured in dark, I would either tell the actors to move, or I’d cut the camera while they’re still performing and wait until they enter light again. Or maybe shoot a bit in shadow and then shoot them coming out. It was what you would do in documentary, pretty much, but instead of trying to show the action in a very objective way, it’s about capturing the emotion of what’s happening, the essential core memories. In a documentary you want to catch everything; in this we wanted to miss most of it.
Flashbacks also feels different. In “Knight of Cups,” memories have reached the point where they’re filmed with a GoPro, so you shoot with one.
That’s another case where we are fearless in our techniques. We don’t care about mixing all these different technologies, so we can use GoPros and allow the actors to operate a lot of scenes. We gave a GoPro to Christian Bale on that film, and he shot wonderful B-Roll with it.
Are there any DPs whose work has impressed you recently?
So many. I always follow Rodrigo Prieto‘s work, I think he’s one of the greatest cinematographers. I love the work of Alexis Zabe, he’s a Mexican cinematographer that’s done incredible work and I look forward to his next movie. All our masters, Caleb Deschanel, John Toll, Roger Deakins. And a lot of the foreign movies that are up for the Academy Awards have really wonderful cinematography.
Would you like to work in VR at all?
Well it’s interesting you say that, because we are about to start a little VR project. Right now we are testing different cameras, stuff like that. But we’re very close to starting a little project and we’re very excited. I can’t say too much because we’re about to shoot it, but I love the format, because nobody has invented the grammar yet. This is like arriving to films when the Lumière Brothers were shooting. There’s still everything to experiment with, since the way VR is shown right now is very primitive. It’s exciting to be able to not only tell a story but also push the technology forward.
How do you look back on “Ali,” considering you worked with the first digital cameras on the market?
The digital technology we used with Michael Mann was very primitive. Michael jumped into digital when it was still very — it was probably not ready. By “ready” I mean that today, people are immersed in a film and forget that it’s digital, but when we used it on “Ali” you can feel very quickly that it was different. Cameras were low-resolution, four-band images with all sorts of video issues. But Michael saw something in digital that he could not get on film, and he wanted to be able to express that. It was the beginnings of digital, and now a lot of films mix digital and film to the point where it’s hard for even the filmmaker to remember what was what.
“The Revenant” is in theaters now.