February 15, 2019
The Cinematography of ‘A Star is Born’
A Star is Born has had its fair share of renditions. Technically, four different stories exist about an alcoholic mega-star and his greatest musical discovery. Director Bradley Cooper chose a new adaptation of the material as his first time directing. It’s hard enough navigating the new responsibilities that direction brings when making a feature film. Nevermind the fact you’ve decided to adapt a well-trodden story that has been performed by iconic actors and actresses throughout the last century.
Cooper needed someone to capture his vision and turned to cinematographer Matthew Libatique, ASC. They were introduced through their shared acquaintance in Jennifer Lawrence, according to a feature in American Cinematographer Magazine. Cooper had appeared with Lawrence in films like Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, while Libatique had just worked with Lawrence while shooting the Darren Aronofsky film, mother! Libatique has been working with Aronofsky throughout his career shooting films like Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, Black Swan, and Noah. Libatique has also shot a significant amount of music videos including Suit & Tie and Mirrors for Justin Timberlake.
But it is Libatique’s collaboration with Cooper for A Star is Born that has brought him his second Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography. Libatique and Cooper capture the concert footage as if you are there performing and looking out over the audience. This perspective allowed audiences to connect with Lady Gaga‘s Ally as she was taking on the daunting task of performing before a live audience. Each of the live performances is thrilling in their own right, but Ally’s performance of Shallow has become an iconic scene by itself.
Libatique took some time away from shooting his new project for Warner Bros. Pictures, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), to speak to Film School Rejects on some of the most memorable shots from A Star is Born.
You had a history in music videos before A Star is Born. How did that influence your approach to shooting the music sequences in the movie?
It didn’t really influence me. I didn’t think about the videos. For me, each scene that was on stage was a narrative scene. The way we photographed it and the way we set up cameras was less about the music and more about what was happening narratively. I mean “Shallow” the scene where she comes on stage with him for the first time is case in point. But in music videos, some of the performances aren’t live per se. They’re stylistic and performances. It’s really a relationship between the artist and the camera. But with this, I had to sort of take an almost documentary point of view, but also a narrative point of view and make sure that the relationship is between Jack and Ally. And the relationship is between Jack and Ally and the audience. The music video thing never really crossed my mind because of that.
That’s interesting that you say it was almost like a documentary that you were shooting.
[Cooper] had the idea early on where we were thinking about how we were going to shoot the stage performances. Remembering an experience he had being backstage at a show and the feeling that he had. Just being there looking out at the audience amongst the stage and amongst the band and all people around the stage. What that sort of feeling was. He had the idea to shoot it from that perspective only and forget about the audience’s point of view.
How was working with a first time director like Cooper?
I don’t regard [Cooper] as a first time director. He didn’t act like that, and he didn’t perform that way. Of course, when you’re talking with him and speaking with him, that’s in your mind. But it’s not in any way shape or form with how he was dealing with things. He had the utmost confidence in every decision. He was very bold and able to change directions because of something that’s inspiring on set. A lot of first time actually have this angst between what they intended and what they can accomplish. But experienced directors understand when they’re being offered something in the moment that it is something to be treasured. [Cooper] has that skill and he has that intuitiveness. He didn’t resemble a first time director to me. I’ve worked with second time and third time directors that felt more like first-time directors.
The first time we see Ally perform is during the La Vie En Rose musical number which culminates in the first face-to-face between Ally and Jackson. What decisions were made setting up the shot and how did you decide on the red light to accentuate Lady Gaga during that pivotal moment?
When we were prepping, [Cooper] and I…We would shoot footage in prep at his house. I was just trying to get an idea of what his silhouette was like. You know, let’s try a hat on, check out different angles, and I brought an Alexa mini to his house. He has this beautiful red neon sign in his home. There’s something quite beautiful about it, and it was the inspiration for the sign you see in the film later when Ally moves into Jack’s house. But red became this thing that I really wanted it to be present. You don’t see it in Jack’s stage show first [the opening] because it’s a day exterior the first time you see him perform. So the first opportunity I had to use color was with Ally.
Because I knew that we were going to use that sign later at the house and he was going to buy, as a gift, a La Vie En Rose sign. All these things sort of mixed together, which is why that color is present. I tried to light it from the bar, not from the stage. When [Cooper] first walks into the bar, [you can see] the cyan glow of the stage. But then the red light when [Ally] comes down, there’s something about that song and something about where I knew we were going to go with that sign. I wanted to tie in together, which is why that color existed there.
Another one of my favorite shots in the club comes when Jackson is performing “Maybe It’s Time.” Ally is partially covered by the tinsel in the club while she watches Jackson perform. What is it about this moment that tells so much about who Ally is?
She’s a person who is destined for a greater thing. I think that’s one of my favorite closeups of her in the entire movie. We just came from the scene where he’s basically peeling tape off her eyebrow, surrounded by people who are very dressed up for the occasion. And she’s in street clothes, just standing next to a mirrored pillar, and she’s going through a tinsel curtain. On the one hand, it’s the glamour of that place or the would-be glamour of that place. And the other hand, she’s about to meet one of the largest, greatest rock and roll stars of our era. It was important to me from a filmmaking standpoint that people believe that Jackson Maine is a real character. There is a lot going on there in terms of performance and script wise with how he was treated by everybody in that club. The design, in performing on that stage even so small, there’s a lot of little subtleties that go on. A lot of that was from [Cooper] and production designer Karen Murphy. A lot of very small, subtle choices.
“Shallow.” Probably the moment that has become more synonyms with the film than anything else. Can you talk a little about the setup for that sequence?
From the moment [Jackson’s] driver knocks on the door of [Ally’s] home, with Andrew Dice Clay there and all the way through her going to work, quitting her job, again in the car, driving out the tunnel, getting to the plane, going inside the plane, getting out, being greeted by the greeter, and going through the bowels of the arena, past the crowds, and finally backstage into a wide shot.
She’s looking at thousands of people watching Jackson play was uber specific for what [Cooper] wanted to do. He described it and even knew what part of the music he wanted that all to happen to. So he described that completely. So specifically that’s what we did. [Cooper] really wanted her to arrive in a place where Jack was in all his glory. And he’s in the middle of a solo at that point. Going to the very last verse kind of perfectly, and then the song ends, and then he’s introducing Ally, unbeknownst to her she’s about to perform on stage for the first time.
The wedding sequence. The pivotal moments of A Star is Born all come from these extreme close-ups of Ally. Was the thought to always tell the story through her eyes?
Just a sense of subjectivity where you’re concentrating on the emotion of the person’s face. There’s also a certain honesty to that. We were very fluid in scenes where we played the entire scene out. We didn’t leave any pickups. That happened in the middle of the scene as we were going through it.
The first take, the first time it happened, it was this magical moment. A discovery to be honest. The proximity wasn’t a discovery, it was intentional, but there was something about the eye line. The way it happened at that moment that sort of informed us to the end of the film as well. Part of it was where we put the camera, and part of it is how she reacted to where the camera was which was insane. It speaks volumes about her show business I.Q. You talk about basketball I.Q., about baseball I.Q. She just has an entertainment I.Q. and she knows how to connect.
The first time it happened in the wedding scene was absolutely magical. So much so, that I told [Cooper] I can do this better. And I knew that moment was going to happen. I just wanted to be completely 100 percent happy with how everything looked. I wanted it to be perfect. Luckily she was able to repeat it. That’s the main thing for me. It’s just giving these guys space, both [Cooper] and Lady Gaga; to create, discover, improvise, repeat, whatever they felt was necessary.
Ally and Jackson looking at her billboard before the SNL performance. That billboard actually exists right? How important was it that it was real and not a trick done digitally?
Anytime you can do something real and not have it created, it’s just [better for] everybody. I don’t know how to explain. Is it essential? No. Is it important? Yes. As much, as much as you could possibly do something.
The “I’ll Never Love Again” Sequence. Gaga has said in an interview that her “dear friend Sonja died of cancer that day.” How did you approach shooting that sequence during that difficult time?
Professionally you don’t pry. [As an actor] you use whatever you have to use to stay in character. I don’t think anybody felt any undue pressure and I don’t think she placed any extra pressure on anyone else either. That speaks to the kind of professional she is. There is an emotion that she used. You’d have to ask her. Whatever pain she was going through was felt, and it was a sort of segregate for the loss of her husband. I think that scene is beautiful because you feel that.