Cinematographers & Cameras: Lensing "Tár," "Women Talking," "Don’t Worry Darling"
Director Sarah Polley (l) and cinematographer Luc Montpellier on the set of "Women Talking" (photo by Michael Gibson/courtesy of Orion Releasing)
DPs Florian Hoffmeister, Luc Montpellier and Matthew Libatique discuss their collaborations with directors 

One DP realized his dream of working with a director whom he feels set the tone years ago for what’s possible in indie cinema.

Another continued a fruitful collaborative relationship with a writer-director which has now yielded their most challenging and perhaps most relevant film.

And our third cinematographer, a two-time Oscar nominee, helped create a 1950s’ utopia masking a sinister underbelly, serving to heighten a much anticipated psychological thriller.

Here are insights form Florian Hoffmeister, BSC on Tár (Focus Features), Luc Montpellier, CSC on Women Talking (United Artists Releasing, Orion Pictures), and Matthew Libatique, ASC on Don’t Worry Darling (Warner Bros.)

Florian Hoffmeister, BSC
For Hoffmeister, the opportunity to lens Tár was a dream come true. In fact, he never dared to dream that one day he would work with writer-director Todd Field whom he described as “an auteur in the truest sense.” Hoffmeister shared, “I cherish him as a filmmaker very much,” citing the impact Field’s In the Bedroom (2001) had on him. “It spoke to me as an audience member. It was a seminal film in many ways. It set the tone for what’s possible in independent cinema in my generation.”

Field’s first film in more than 15 years, Tár delves into the life of a gifted artist at the peak of her career. The fictional Lydia Tár, portrayed by Cate Blanchett, is a lauded composer, musician, philanthropist and conductor. The EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winner, mentored by Leonard Bernstein, is the first woman to preside over a prestigious German orchestra.  

Hoffmeister was captivated by Field’s script which had an intimate knowledge of the dynamics around a classical orchestra and conductor. “The further you dive in, hidden realities are revealed--hidden little gems,” said Hoffmeister who marveled on how light is shed on Tár’s character. “When you work with an auteur like this,” noted Hoffmeister, “you think how can I serve this with my creativity, my abilities, to make this world appear.”

We first meet Tár during an on-stage interview in front of a live audience with The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. At the time her career is continuing on a seemingly irreversible ascent as she prepares to debut her autobiography “Tár on Tár” and complete the Gustav Mahler cycle with the orchestra. The interview is shown in real time as if we are members of the audience in the room with Tár and Gopnik. Hoffmeister said the idea was to not move the camera. 

This observational bent best served the story, related Hoffmeister who shared Field’s piece of advice that a cinematographer “sometimes wants to contribute too much.” If a scene works a certain way, it doesn’t need any comment. “We were able to watch this interview without any commentary,” explained Hoffmeister. “Any [camera] movement would have been a comment to try to guide the audience. To use a phrase that Todd uses, ‘Don’t gild the lily.’”

Shortly thereafter in the film, there’s another long sequence, presented as one continuous shot, with Tár teaching at Julliard, walking about the room, addressing the students, including one who annoys her with a politically correct attitude towards music. Clearly music is Tár’s passion and now after being constrained, the camera follows her about, capturing Blanchett’s remarkable performance which reveals much about Tár as an artist and person. 

Hoffmeister shared that Field taught him a lesson about how restraint can be a cinematographer’s storytelling ally--and then when that restraint is selectively removed, freeing the camera, the impact can be that much more profound. If restraint is what a scene calls for, “less is more” and “even less is even more,” smiled Hoffmeister.

We are exposed to two Társ in this mesmerizing character study. Initially we are introduced to the celebrated genius and breaker of the glass ceiling as the opening on-stage interview feeds right into that narrative. But over time the private Tár comes to light when we see her anxiety, seemingly almost haunted by an unseen yet felt force as her lofty status begins to erode amid allegations of misconduct.

“I feel tremendously privileged to have photographed Cate in this performance and to work alongside Todd,” said Hoffmeister, adding that the experience “changed some of my perceptions on the field of cinematography. Coming from a place of restraint--when you set up a shot in this mindset--a lot of the things that you consider part of you suddenly don’t work. Then when you find that sweet spot that does work, it is absolutely liberating. It’s almost like you’re in a confrontation with yourself. You may at first think, ‘no, no, no,’ but in the end you realize this is it, this is right.”

Hoffmeister said that Tár was digitally captured, deploying ARRI cameras in different formats, coupled with ARRI Signature Prime lenses. These lenses--which were modified for Tár--lent themselves to what Hoffmeister described as the feeling of being present without leaving a commentary.

Tár figures to add to what is already an impressive awards pedigree for Hoffmeister. In 2012-’13, he became the first cinematographer to win an Emmy, a BAFTA and an ASC Award for the same program--the miniseries Great Expectations. Hoffmeister’s first Emmy nomination came in 2010 for his work on the “Checkmate” episode of The Prisoner miniseries. The DP’s first BAFTA nod came in 2009 for House of Saddam. And in 2019, Hoffmeister was again an ASC Award nominee--this time for the “Go For Broke” episode of the miniseries The Terror. Earlier this year, Hoffmeister scored his third Emmy nomination--but this one, on the basis of Pachinko, came for Outstanding Main Title design, which he contributed to as a cinematographer.

Luc Montpellier, CSC
Women Talking continues a longstanding collaborative relationship between Montpellier and writer-director Sarah Polley, which includes the features Away From Her and Take This Waltz. They first served together as DP and director on the short film, I Shout Love. Montpellier had known of Polley back then as an accomplished actress. Mutual friends had recommended him to her for I Shout Love, one of her early shorts through which she diversified into directing.

“We hit it off,” recalled Montpellier. “You never know at that early stage how you will get along. But I felt we had similar ways of seeing the world and about what meant a lot to us in life. Working on her short film was an enriching experience. I watched how her experience as an actor translated into how she directed actors. She had a tremendous amount of curiosity and collaborative spirit. She had been exposed to so many amazing directors as an actor and I could see her already able to direct at a very young age. She created this safe creative environment.”

And such an environment is all the more necessary for a Polley film in that, said Montpellier, “She never shies away from challenging material--with human beings always at the core of it and how they are impacted by something. What keeps me coming back for more with her are her creative spirit and knowing that it will always be challenging material--something that would move society.”

Adapted by Polley from the novel by Miriam Toews, Women Talking is indeed challenging, introducing us to the women of an isolated religious community as they grapple with reconciling their reality with their faith. 

Dealing with continued sexual and physical abuse from the men in their colony, the Mennonite women come together to discuss whether they should leave or stay and fight. Polley assembled a cast which includes Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Ben Whishaw and Frances McDormand.

Montpellier values how early Polley brings him into the process, sending a script to him that is still being shaped. “We have a discussion about it, throw ideas back and forth, talk about a visual language based on how she feels as a writer and director,” related Montpellier. “She will then go back and rewrite. So instead of being reactionary to a script, I can be a part of it.”

This progressive way of working, said Montpellier, has proven invaluable in crafting scenes, helping to do full justice to story and characters. For Women Talking, there are turning points in the women’s conversation. Opinions shift. “We didn’t want the audience to just observe this. Through subtle and sometimes bold camera movement we looked for the right way to accentuate an emotion.”

The camera movement in a sense was designed to kind of support this idea of shifts within the film as women came together and impacted one another’s viewpoints and opinions.

For a movie driven by dialogue, closeups are used quite sparingly. “We liked the idea of uniting these women. We wanted every frame to feel full of women’s faces at all times so that you feel you are part of this group debating and trying to figure things out,” explained Montpellier. “We only went to an isolated closeup at specific times. Mostly we wanted the feeling that there’s this group of women uniting”--even when there are opposing views.

“There’s a lot of content in this film that challenges how we think,” said Montpellier, adding that in the spirit of trying to create a tone, a mood, and to facilitate empathy and understanding, the photography is “very much like a supporting actor. It’s there to support these amazing performances.”

Despite his collaborative bond with Polley and the fact that they’ve developed a shorthand over the years, Montpellier felt some trepidation about shooting Women Talking

“I thought it might be better for a woman to take this on,” reasoned Montpellier who offered to take a step back for Polley to consider a female DP. Montpellier recalled that Polley then made it clear to him why he should work on Women Talking. “She said this film isn’t just about women. It’s about everyone, the hard conversations we need to have between men and women. Having you photograph this film is honoring what is in the film--a conversation between men and women that’s needed even though the film is women talking amongst themselves.” 

Montpellier deployed the Panavision DXL2, a camera that has an 8K full frame sensor, on Women Talking. Polley wanted the imagery to feel as epic as the decision these women were making, noted Montpellier. 

“I knew I wanted to shoot this in large format,” said the DP. “I wanted to feel every pore, every blade of grass. It was important to not feel too much like a period piece, to create more of a timelessness. As you watch the film, you kind of don’t know what time it is. A period film tends to disconnect an audience from the subject matter. Shooting in large format gives it a sharper image.”

At the same time, Montpellier sought a softness to mesh with the sharpness, opting for Panavision Ultra Vista anamorphic lenses from the 1950s. Montpellier thought the benefit of large format along with the soft feel of anamorphic, a combination of new and old, would serve to “take the edge off,” lending to “a more classic cinematic feel.” He noted that there were but seven or eight sets of these vintage Panavision lenses still in existence.

Among the cinematographer’s takeaways from his experience on Women Talking was seeing the end credits roll in theater as people started to have conversations about the film. “I hope Women Talking is a huge contributor to conversations about what is happening in our world among men and women. There is a movement. I had never seen so much conversation in a theater after a film. We can’t forget the power of cinema, especially on the big screen. Every decision we made on the film was made for that communal experience in a dark room on a big screen. We have to remember that this communal experience will never be replicated anywhere else but the cinema. Making a film for the big screen and telling a story for that is what we need to preserve.”

Matthew Libatique, ASC
Libatique was drawn to Don’t Worry Darling by its director, Olivia Wilde, who also stars in the film. He had first worked with her on Cowboys and Aliens (2011), a feature directed by Jon Favreau. Libatique served as DP and Wilde was in the cast of that film. 

Wilde of course went on to direct, making an auspicious feature debut with Booksmart (2019), Libatique had earlier read the script for Booksmart and found it entertaining but didn’t put his hat in the ring to do the film because it seemed like the kind of coming-of-age story that he had done before. “When I saw the film, I was blown away,” recollected Libatique. “Olivia added so much to it directorially. In retrospect, there were things in the script I didn’t notice when I first read it. She showed a nuanced knack for creating an atmosphere and vibe that was remarkable.”

Libatique was quick to work with Wilde in light of that, lensing a short film she directed, Wake Up (2020), starring Margaret Qualley. And when Wilde approached him with her second feature as a director, Don’t Worry Darling starring Florence Pugh, Harry Styles and Chris Pine, the DP was in.

Libatique came to appreciate Wilde’s affinity for assembling a team to “work in the sandbox together.” He found on Don’t Worry Darling like-minded, high caliber people with a propensity for collaboration, citing as an example production designer Katie Byron whom he had never worked with before. 

Her sensibilities, said Libatique, meshed with his and others to help realize Wilde’s vision which entailed creating an idyllic world that upon scrutiny reveals evils lurking beneath. Pugh’s character, Alice, sees the cracks in the facade, sensing that something is terribly wrong. She tries to get her husband Jack (Styles) on board but meets resistance. Still there’s something percolating that suggests that this notion of Shangri-la is about to be shattered.

The groundwork to create this appealing yet ultimately sinister world was rooted in extensive give and take among team members, including Wilde, Libatique and Byron. Libatique had a substantive, insightful initial phone call with Wilde which got the ball rolling on the atmosphere she wanted to build for the story. “When I arrived in person,” related Libatique, “the next level was in place with a wall of photographs reflecting her [Wilde’s] inspiration. We talked about each image, what it inspires and why.”

Libatique said of Wilde, “She’s so easy to talk to. The best relationships are the ones where you work with someone you like to spend time with.” Informal talks during a walk, during lunch shed more light on the process and how to best bring the film to fruition.

Maintaining that openness can be all the more daunting when you consider that Wilde directs and acts in the film. Still, continued Libatique, she’s up to the responsibility of preparing cast and crew for what’s in store at every turn, keeping everyone on the same page in terms of the desired vibe and the intentions of the film.

Libatique deployed ARRI Alexa Mini LF cameras paired with Tribe 7 Blackwings and Sigma Classics lenses to create a highly stylized world with a photographic naturalism. With a customized LUT (look-up table) that accentuated each color and skin tone, the look was designed to maximize the production design, wardrobe and makeup. 

A California desert backdrop imbues the motion picture with a natural visual grandeur. Libatique sought to capture a utopian world that viewers might at first aspire to while maintaining an underlying sense of mystique, imperfection and ultimately dread.

A two-time Best Cinematography Oscar nominee, Libatique is known in part for his work with director Darren Aronofsky on such films as Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, Black Swan, Noah and Mother! (Coming up next is Aronofsky’s The Whale which will be discussed in a future installment of this Road To Oscar Series.) 

Libatique earned his first Academy award nom for Black Swan in 2011. Eight years later, his second Oscar nod came for Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, A Star Is Born. Black Swan and A Star Is Born also garnered ASC Award nominations for Libatique.


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