When you take a step back and think about what “A Star Is Born” pulls off, it’s easy to see how the Oscar nominated blockbuster was, at its core, a risky undertaking. A first-time director (Bradley Cooper), who is not a musician, playing as a rock star who simultaneously is directing a real-life pop star (Lady Gaga) who doesn’t act. As Paul Schrader pointed out, writing for IndieWire, that Cooper was able, in his collaboration with Gaga, to transition both her persona and performance to the big screen, but at the same time find musical and romantic chemistry, is a remarkable feat.
It was an undertaking that cinematographer Matthew Libatique knew was the unquestionable priority, one in which camera and lighting would need to be completely subservient. In creating the film’s visual language he would need to design a shooting plan that allowed Cooper and Gaga to explore.
“I just wanted her [Gaga] to feel free to experiment or search, both of them, because he was evaluating her performance, he was evaluating his own performance, so he’s wearing multiple hats,” said Libatique. “So I had to create a space, and it’s weird because you want to say everything was a creative decision, but it was a pragmatic one for me.”
According to Libatique, this meant doing very few setups. The cinematography could never be the reason to cut or interrupt a performance. And yet, when you watch “A Star Is Born” one assumes the camera was choreographed and pre-planned with a Kubrickian precision. Each emotional beat is perfectly in sync with Libatique’s often swirling camera, which consistently finds the right frame as it weaves and wraps around Gaga and Cooper. In particular, the first 30 minutes of “Star” feel like one intense close-up, as the audience, like the characters, get swept up in the whirlwind romance.
“I think he completely reads performance like a director, and reacts to it emotionally,” said Darren Aronofsky about Libatique, his friend and collaborator of 25 years. “So, I think because he has that empathy, and also he has this incredible technical skill set, he can feel what’s going on in front of him and then he can apply his great experience to figuring out the best way to capture it.”
It’s a trait most notable in Libatique’s camera movement which has an ability to not only find the right composition, but to also match the rhythm and emotion of the scene. May it be the handheld subjective fright of bearing witness to the world crumbling around Jennifer Lawrence in Aronofsky’s “mother!,” or the sure footed-steadicam bravado of Robert Downey Jr.’s “Iron Man,” Libatique’s camera dials into the pulse of a film.
At Sundance last month, “Native Son,” by another first-time director, Rashid Johnson, showcased yet another completely different note the cinematographer’s camera could play. Actor Ashton Sanders’ (“Moonlight”) interpretation of Richard Wright’s celebrated character, Bigger Thomas, was filled with an anxiety — the dichotomy of “aggressive muscular energy” and intense vulnerability — that resulted in a performance that had a cadence and movement all its own.
“Matty and I were mesmerized by Ashton and the way that he moved and the decisions that he made — and then simultaneously, he was often aloof, almost hiding from the camera,” said Johnson. “Matty’s decisions and strategies for following him and staying with him are very much reflective of that — it’s almost as if there’s no camera between him and what he’s seeing. It was like the camera was an instrument playing the rhythms of Ashton’s anxiety.”
When the young actor worried his performance was too unorthodox, or reaching too far, Johnson would tell him, “It’s you, me and Matty — it’s a triangle and you have to trust us.” On “A Star Is Born,” the triangle was often Libatique, Cooper and Gaga, but in this case the director was in front of the camera, which Libatique admits was a different experience.
“I learned a lot about multitasking from Bradley,” said Libatique. “He has a peripheral vision for the camera and knows if it’s in the right place — 99% of the time he didn’t watch playback. He would give me a note, like, ‘Can you be lower next time.’ But in the same sense, he would be aware of her performance while he’s acting with her in an intimate scene and then we’d do it again because he saw something he wanted to change. It was infectious, because then I started to wear multiple hats and watch performance. There’s something, if you’re really sensitive to the core of a scene the camera gets put in the right place.”
To get to that stage, Libatique must first do what he calls the “the math” — having grown up with an engineer father — of laying down rules and groundwork put in place so the cinematographer can lose himself emotionally on set.
“The concepts that go into any film, Darren’s films or Bradley’s or Jon Favreau’s, Spike Lee’s,” said Libatique. “I actually have to distill it down to nuts and bolts because I have to communicate it to people. So I do go through a process on every movie where I have to distill it down to some boring aspect — ‘we’re at three feet, with a 35mm lens.'”
For the music in “A Star Is Born,” Libatique would study the songs intensely as soon as he got them. When it came time to shoot he would have up to four cameras — Scott Sakamoto as camera A, Chris Moseley as B camera operator, with Libatique always having an Arri Alexa Mini on his shoulder as well. The goal, though, wasn’t to have them all shooting at once, but rather to treat each as an A camera, often with different lenses. The collaborators all communicating through a com-system, with Libatique calling the plays — the idea being never to interrupt the performance and to keep the number of times they had to perform to the absolute minimum.
“We would do our inside before we did our outside — in other words start close before our wides,” said Libatique. “And once we felt comfortable with the performances, we went to the wide and it was all there and we do it once. I would be able to choreograph certain beats in my head and Bradley’s performing, so I’d be on him, and then I would communicate to another camera, like I’m going to bail out, you come in.”
In essence, Libatique would change the shot, but without calling cut. Libatique’s assignment only becomes harder when you consider the live real-life concert settings, but also the conceit that the camera never leaves the stage. Never are we in the crowd watching the concert, we are with our performers. The lights pointed at and aiming toward the camera (and performers) itself. And yet the film is seamless. It’s one he pulled together with complex and satisfying color story.
“If Jackson Mayne, when you meet him, seemed like a false character in a real world, I think the film would have failed,” said Libatique. “Everything about the visual language of “A Star is Born,” the thing I focused on the most is making Jackson Mayne real. This guy has to feel like he exists in our time. So, the palette was born out of his character. She enters his world, even though she’s number one on the call sheet, but if she doesn’t enter his world, the movie doesn’t exist. So I had to, from the top, I had to make sure that people felt a real rockstar.”
Inspired by the red light in Bradley Cooper’s real life kitchen, Libatique created a world in which Jackson is defined by red and cyan colored light. As Ally enters his world, she enters his light. The climax of which being when she performs “Shallow” on stage. As Ally becomes a star of her own and the couple begin to drift apart, Libatique shifts the color story.
“I just started to mix the colors that were on his stage and then create a new palette for her,” said Libatique, as the cyan and blue mix to make a magenta light. “It comes out when she did this sort of I Heart Radio [performance], it was a separation of them – he had asked her to go to a gig in Memphis with her in the film – so it was the first time, that she independently had to do her own thing.”
The magenta light is one Libatique emotionally reacted to. He’s aware it’s a color cinematographers actively try to avoid, but for him it wasn’t even technical. It came from how he reacted emotionally to the story.
“It’s something about being my age, having relationships, and having had relationships end, and Bradley as well,” said Libatique. “We’ve been able to share a lot of our personal stories in making this movie.”