Director Darren Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique naturally gravitated toward one another when they arrived on the American Film Institute campus in the fall of 1990. “We just had a lot of similar aesthetic and things that connected us,” said Aronofsky. “We met on the third day at AFI. I think Matty was probably the youngest guy in his DoP program, and I was one of the youngest guys in the directing program; Matty’s from Queens, I’m from Brooklyn, and we both grew up listening to hip hop.”
The emergence of the New York City underground hip hop scene wasn’t the only thing that impacted the two future collaborators as teens, it was also when independent film started to rise out of Hollywood’s 1980s nadir. “I stumbled into ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ at a local movie theater in Brooklyn,” said Aronofsky of Spike Lee’s 1986 indie breakout. “Not having seen anything like it, my taste immediately went in that direction.”
Whereas Aronofsky came to the AFI MFA program having just studied film at Harvard — his undergrad senior thesis project “Supermarket Sweep” a finalist for the Student Academy Award — Libatique had no formal training.
A sociology and communications major while an undergrad at Cal State Fullerton, it was Libatique’s turn to have his world upended by a Spike Lee film; seeing “Do the Right Thing” for the first time made him realize there may be a place in the film industry for the son of Filipino immigrants. Inspired, he started making small films about petty crimes. The one film camera he could get his hands on at Cal State had a variable speed motor which, on one occasion, Libatique accidentally set to reverse, resulting in a double exposure. It was a beautiful “fuck-up,” he wanted to learn how to purposefully repeat.
Even at 21, Aronofsky’s provocative tastes were well-established, and he was already dreaming of his first feature being something that would get a midnight screening in Greenwich Village, like the trippy “Liquid Sky,” and the twisted genre films of David Cronenberg that inspired him.
“I remember on ‘Protozoa’ [a short Aronofsky wrote and directed their first year at AFI], the first time we worked together, there’s a scene, where Blue, our hero, takes a baseball bat and destroys a television, the explosion is incredible,” said Libatique. “[Darren’s] just screaming at him to ‘fucking just break it.’ There’s a direct line between that scene and ‘mother!.’”
The two young collaborators’ mentor Stuart Rosenberg — the “Cool Hand Luke” director, who later taught at AFI — instilled in them the need to need to keep the audience at the edge of their seat (“make them laugh, cry, or scare the shit out of ‘em,” being one of Aronofsky’s favorite Rosenberg quotes), while also chiding them that any of their provocations and bold uses of cinema had to be at the service of story and character.
“When you’re in a band, it’s more punk rock at the top, and then all of the sudden you become better musicians and things get more subtle, you start hearing the things behind the things,” said Libatique, whose long hair was down to his waist while at AFI. “Where everything had to be upfront and loud for us at the top. We just had all this energy.”
Be sure to check out our exclusive video essays, focusing on Aronofsky, Libatique, and their shared body of work, below.
That raw energy is palpable in every frame “Pi,” the duo’s first feature, shot for $30,000 on black and white reversal film stock, which put them on the map when it became a breakout in 1998, grossing over $3 million in limited release, and quickly becoming a cult favorite on DVD. Shot with no permits, the run-and-gun film feels spontaneous, but it’s the way the heady sci-fi script was matched by cinematic invention that propelled the film.
Libatique makes the point that, in the late ’90s, he and Aronofsky were very much part of the “anti-Dogme 95 crew.” Not that they necessarily disliked films like “Breaking the Waves” and “The Celebration,” but more that they rejected the self-imposed limitations of Danish filmmakers. “We were believers in everything could be taken advantage of, propelling the narrative,” said Libatique. “Why stop short of music, why stop short of light, why stop short of editorial and design, all the things that are pushed an extent and the reality is built with the film.”
As they saw it, to reach for naturalism for the sake of naturalism was missing so much of what cinema has to offer and what had been fueling them as filmmakers. At the time, music videos were still boundary-pushing, and both Aronofsky and Libatique found inspiration in filmmakers just a few years older than them going in the opposite direction of Dogme and using the music video form to employ bold, impressionistic brushstrokes.
“We were devouring music videos, every piece of content that’d come out from Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Jonathan Glazer, [David] Fincher, and a lot of the techniques were born out of that realm,” said Libatique. “So obviously when we made ‘Requiem for a Dream,’ we were going pour a lot of technique into it.”
The four-protagonist story of addiction supplied the perfect canvas, while the success of “Pi” brought in a $5 million production budget and professional crew to try it all. “We could finally execute a lot of different ideas that we had been playing with in really shoestring amateur ways in ‘Pi’ and our student films, we were able to do them properly,” said Aronofsky. “Just doing split screen in film school would have been tough.”
On “Requiem,” they would use (and re-use) a host of camera tricks to put the audience inside the characters’ experiences. Time-lapse captures the sense of being on uppers; while blurring slow motion, double-exposures, and a vibrating camera rattle correspond to a character’s break with reality. The visual language becomes increasingly claustrophobic as the film progresses — a fish-eye lens practically touching Ellen Burstyn’s nose in a key hospital scene — while careful graphic matching of compositions, combined with a preordained cutting pattern, cues the audience that each of the four character’s storylines is part of the same addiction journey downward.
Libatique’s cinematography pulls out the gritty texture that captures the rawness of this dark world on the edge of society, but at the same time, the images are so alive — color and light combinations that pop, an evocative atmosphere lending a sense of place and changing season, a grain (from pushing the 35mm film stock), and visceral energy that is striking, almost beautiful, in how it captures the ugliness of addiction.
“There’s only one moment where we asked ourselves whether or not we went too far, it was when we shot Harry’s arm in the car,” said the cinematographer, recalling the scene where Jared Leto’s character’s heroin-needle riddled arm is a stomach-turning sight. “Darren goes to me, ‘What do you think, you think it’s too much?’ And I said, ‘All this time and you’re going to ask this question now?’ [laughs] ‘No, I don’t think it’s too much. Look at what we’ve done.’ We were at the end of our shoot basically at that point, we’ve already gone there.”
For the MPAA, they had indeed gone too far, resulting in a controversial NC-17 and a limited theatrical release, but the midnight movie-like curiosity and sense that “Requiem” was something dangerous spelled home video success during the DVD boom. Aronofsky became the exciting indie director everyone in Hollywood wanted to work with, while Libatique would get the opportunity to shoot movies for his “Do the Right Thing” idols Lee (“She Hates Me”) and cinematographer-turned-director Ernest Dickerson (“Never Die Alone”).
Warner Bros., courtesy of The Everett Collection
In other words, pushing the envelope, once again, brought success; making the ambition behind the ill-fated “The Fountain” — a spiritual sci-fi love story stretching across three storylines and all space and time — almost logical.
Aronofsky and Libatique also pushed each other, a defining characteristic of their creative partnership. The two friends’ professional exchanges had always been abrasive, no need for niceties on set, but on “The Fountain,” their relationship turned rocky. “There was so much pressure on ‘The Fountain’ for a lot of different reasons, in personal life and professional life,” said Libatique. “I feel like it was muddied by peripheral factors.”
While the experience of making “The Fountain” was bad, the results, at least using Hollywood’s metrics, were worse. Problems surrounding the film were reported in the trades up to and during production, setting the stage — after its inevitable box office failure and an all-over-the-map critical response — for Hollywood’s favorite bloodsport: tearing down indie film’s most recent golden boy.
Aronofosky embraced the moment as a new start, stripping down his own approach to filmmaking by going “back to film school” (Harvard, not AFI) and exploring a semi-choreographed cinema verite style with “The Wrestler,” which he turned to cinematographer Maryse Alberti to shoot.
Twentieth Century Fox, courtesy of The Everett Collection
“Prior to ‘The Wrestler,’ I think I was basically a really good student, and I would do all my homework and I would shot list and storyboard everything before I got to set,” said Aronofsky. “I was still open to the actors when they would show up and want to do something, but I would force them into my square peg just because I knew how I was going to put those shots together.”
One day, a solo Libatique decided to walk into New York City theater to finally see “The Wrestler.” “Obviously, I resisted, but then when I went to see it, I felt nothing but pride. I saw every move that he made and I was happy that I could still see them,” said Libatique. “On ‘The Wrestler,” he made magic happen, a lot of it had to do with how he just got rid of a lot of baggage of how we made movies, and what is needed to make them.”
While after the $30-plus million “Fountain” budget Aronofsky would go back to “film school” basics, Libatique graduated to big budget Hollywood filmmaking with Lee’s bank heist thriller “Inside Man” and the first MCU chapter “Iron Man.” He was now, in Hollywood’s eyes, no longer that edgy indie DP, but a sought-after A-lister directors, actors, and producers all loved. For Libatique, who today still bounces between indie passion project and studio tentpole, what changed in his career in the years between “The Fountain” and “Black Swan” was his perspective on it.
“The way I look at now, in retrospect, when we made ‘The Fountain,’ we were young men, and when we reconvened on ‘Black Swan,’ we were older — because having just turned 40, I was kind of free of mind and I didn’t have a lot to prove,” reflected Libatique. “Honestly, I felt like I had things to appreciate about Darren and about the kind of filmmaking we made and the time we had, in the one film we didn’t make together.”
On the same Zoom call, listening to what Libatique had to say about “The Wrestler” and the pause in their partnership, elicited a sincere “thank you for that, Matty” from Aronofsky. For as miserable an experience as shooting “The Fountain” became, facing the significant challenges of “Black Swan” ended up being the most fun the duo have yet experienced together. Aronofsky’s new stripped-down cinema elevated Libatique’s cinematography, leading to his first Oscar nomination and a decade-long recognition as one of the best DoPs working today.
In “Black Swan,” the cinematographer’s incredible ability to adjust to the demands of proximity, performance, and choreography is readily apparent. “Finding ways for the lighting to accommodate is a cinematographer’s responsibility,” said Libatique. “It’s equal parts technical and emotional at the same time, because ultimately, you want that proximity to the actor. It’s not always easy to achieve, because you are dealing with shadows and the physicality of the gear, so stripping things down to a 16mm camera helps, doing everything you can to get the camera as close as possible.”
Fox Searchlight Pictures, courtesy of The Everett Collection
The almost-cosmic connection and energy between Libatique’s camera and character is something that can’t be taught. Asked what the key is, Aronofsky joked, “breath mints,” but in previous interview, without Libatique on the phone, he was much more direct.
“I think he completely reads performance like a director, and reacts to it emotionally,” said Aronofsky. “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 might be easier to see this in a non-Aronofsky film, removed from the director’s careful dialed-in precision of the camera. On “A Star Is Born,” first-time director Cooper also played a rock star who simultaneously had to direct and find chemistry (musically and romantically) with a real-life pop star (Lady Gaga) with limited acting experience. Libatique created an unobtrusive shooting style that could bend to the performances, while also bringing an immediacy and intimacy to the project — the film, at times, feels like one continuous close-up.
“I just see Matty going off and having all those experiences as a good thing, because when we we get back together, there’s always something new for myself to learn from him,” said Aronofsky of the in-demand cinematographer’s career between their collaborations. “That’s a great gift that someone you started with when you both had not made a single film and then that person goes off and gets incredible experience and skills and exposed to all different types of different techniques, and new ideas, and new working situations, and able to bring that back to the original shop is great.”
Those experiences were certainly helpful on “Noah,” Aronofsky’s big-budget biblical epic, but it was ultimately on “mother!” — an environmental allegory of Mother Earth (Jennifer Lawrence) and how, collectively, we humans are the worst house guests imaginable — that would draw on every ounce of the director and cinematographer’s collective experience.
“Because of the complexity of the filmmaking, it might’ve technically been the most difficult thing Matty and I ever did together,” said Aronofsky of “mother!” “We’ve been doing this for awhile, we like to push each other, let’s try to make something crazy.”
Conceived and written in a five days, the “fever dream”–like logic of Aronofsky’s original script was the foundation upon which the film was built on from day one, “but character was something I knew we’d develop with the actors,” said Aronofsky, who gathered his cast and Libatique in a Brooklyn warehouse for an unorthodox six-week rehearsal process.
Character and camera would be worked out in unison, but so would the film’s unusual coverage rules. Aronofsky’s first attempt at a fully subjective film would be limited to three types of Lawrence-centric shots. This meant coverage of not only the other actors, but the the world descending into chaos — the film breaking from reality in its last 25 minutes — would have to exist in either Lawrence’s close up, point-of-view, or when the camera looked over-her-shoulder.
To learn more about how “mother!” was shot, watch the video essay below.
The film was not only, as the late Anthony Bourdain described it, “a poke in the eye” for the audience, the far shorter-that-normal writing through pre-production window — when the film’s incredible geometric and logistical complexity would have to be worked out — was meant to supply a jolt for those behind the camera.
Aronofsky points to Alex Gibney’s “Mr. Dynamite” as an inspiration, specifically the portion of the James Brown-centric documentary that follows the period in the singer’s career where his band fell apart, funk was emerging, and Brown went electric. “That was very inspiring to me,” said Aronofsky of this turning point in Brown’s career. “To shake things up and keep moving forward creatively, to take risks, and do different things. I think that’s what keeps you young.” —Chris O’Falt