Don’t Worry Darling Cinematographer Matthew Libatique Brings The Light [Interview]

For “Don’t Worry Darling,” did you go back to a lot of mid-century photography? Like Slim Aarons or any names in particular to help create this world?

Yeah, Slim Aarons, of course, was a reference. He sort of has a signature photograph at the Kaufman house, which we shot at as a location. We were so tempted to recreate it, but resisted in all the other things we had to do those days. Certainly of the atmosphere, Slim Aarons, his photography was so much about capturing the essence of groups of people at a certain time. One of the goals of the film that Olivia had going in one of the first things she wanted to really establish with me is visually how we tell that. The notion that these people are in this idyllic yet debaucherous place where everybody’s just living their best life.

The light feels intense in these houses, almost like dollhouses.

Oh, I think Palm Springs has that quality, and we were so fortunate. I feel fortunate to shoot at a time where the sun really could be a character, because it was low enough in the sky to create long shadows. It helped us bridge the gap between shooting those exterior locations in the cul-de-sac and our set, which we shot on a stage in Santa Corina. Using the sun as the glue between those two spaces, that was paramount, really. It just goes a long way to establish the visual or the atmospheric language in the movie.

What’s your relationship with natural light these days? Do you know exactly what you have to do or can it still be very unpredictable?

It’s definitely unpredictable. I have a love-hate relationship with natural light. You’re bending time. You’re bending time, you’re bending light, you’re using your skill set to be able to shoot things at a certain time. Something that takes three days to shoot feels like the five minutes that it takes up in the movie. With more experience, you learn that trying to create naturalism is far more difficult than actually just trying to go with it. My first go-to is actually trying to be clever about how to go about shooting an exterior or shooting at a location and at natural light at the optimum times, rather than force feed artificial light that sort of seems naturalistic.

People who are my references, a lot of photographers, they don’t light, they find it. I try to keep that mentality as much as I can. Obviously, if it’s an 11 shot scene then that’s going to be harder to do. But yeah, the actual light that’s occurring in the space is what I try to achieve. It’s really about trying to figure out what time that is.

Say for the Busby Berkeley-esque dance sequences, do you have a love-hate relationship with artificial lighting as well?

That’s another phase three of cinematography. Getting to know really what the director’s references are. But then you’re really giving birth to something out of nothing. Those are exciting opportunities, because things you’re inspired by can come and shine through. This is one of those cases where the light was, it was also a vehicle, obviously a looming scene, but it’s also a vehicle to sell the geometric shape of the dance choreography.

It was also used to exploit the artifacts of the lens. Many times the lights would be focused into the lens during performance. And those are visual ties to the film where we do the same thing and let the sun hit the lens, light hit the lens. And those aberrations in optics were kind of a theme to create imperfection in this world.

Do you enjoy creating imperfections?

Well, they were definitely moments that when they work narratively, they’re definitely some of my favorite moments. They’re beautiful, but you could easily overdo it. It’s a fine line, I think. Of course it’s good every time you’re surprised you have a game plan going in, all of a sudden something happens and it’s magical, then it creates more inspiration to continue forward. Putting yourself in the position with the right sort of strategy allows those mistakes to actually reap the benefits.

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