To the Wonder is the third collaboration between writer-director Terrence Malick and director of photography Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, ASC, AMC, following The New World and The Tree of Life. A simple love story with complex philosophical ideas running under the surface, it’s the next logical step in the evolution of the style that Lubezki and Malick have developed together as filmmakers moving away from the traditions of narrative toward a purely visual, abstract cinema.
Eschewing conventionally dramatic scenes in favor of the moments that most movies leave out, Malick and Lubezki create a rich sensory experience of what it means to fall in and out of love. Their protagonist, Neil (Ben Affleck), runs the gamut of human romantic experience in his relationships with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Jane (Rachel McAdams), and Lubezki’s camera finds eloquent visual corollaries for the character’s internal struggles. Meanwhile, a local priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), faces struggles of his own as he tries to make sense of the suffering he sees in his community.
As in Tree of Life, Lubezki uses natural light and unorthodox production methods to find a cinematic way of expressing the spiritual; he spoke with American Cinematographer by phone about his creative strategies and his ongoing collaboration with Malick.
American Cinematographer: This is your third collaboration with Terrence Malick, who makes movies unlike anyone else’s, and the way he makes them is unlike what anyone else does. How do the two of you begin a project together? Does he come to you with a script, or just give you a call and start talking about it?
Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC: It’s been different every time. In the case of To the Wonder he called and said he had a new project, and that he wanted to do it with the same team that had done The Tree of Life. Then he sent me a general outline of what the movie was, and we had a meeting where he talked about what the story meant for him and how he wanted to shoot the movie. He said, ‘If you want to read the script you can, but you don’t have to — in fact, it might be better if you don’t, so you can act like a documentary filmmaker and come onto the locations and capture these ideas we’ve been talking about. I don’t want to prep a movie the way they prep a movie in Hollywood.’ I’m stubborn and I’m used to doing things a certain way, so I still read the script.
The approach to shooting the movie is connected to the kind of movie he wants to make — the form and content are fundamentally connected. For example, when we talk about using natural light, it’s not because we don’t want to have a truck with lights, but because what we want to capture can only be captured accidentally as it happens in front of us. So we prepped in a very unconventional way. Even Tree of Life felt very conventional — very Burbank — compared to this movie. Terry didn’t say this, but I felt that he was trying to separate To the Wonder from all the moviemaking that’s still connected to theater — from movies that feel acted, prepared and rehearsed. We were trying to find a more cinematographic approach to filmmaking and a way of using film language that was less connected to theater and literature and other art forms. Terry wants this art form to have its own way of expressing ideas and emotions, and that’s what was very exciting about the movie.
What format was the movie shot on?
Lubezki: It’s a combination of 35mm, which was used for the scenes between Ben and Olga in Oklahoma, and 65mm for several shots of Ben and Rachel McAdams. That relationship is perceived by Ben’s character as less romantic and more stable and realistic, and we felt that the 65mm expressed that stability and a kind of hyper-reality.
One of the conversations taking place on most films these days is the discussion of whether to shoot film or digital. Does that issue come up between you and Malick, or is it just assumed you’re going to go with film?
Lubezki: On To the Wonder we used digital for specific shots — we had a Japanese camera that was supposed to emulate the look of Super-8 film. It did some very strange things with color and exposure, though; it was a camera full of digital artifacts — what some people might call problems — but Terry loved it and we used it at the beginning of the film for a scene between Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko on a train. We also used a Red for some shots, such as a scene in which Marina goes back to Paris and is walking by herself at night, and that had to do with the feeling of the Red at night — it expressed modern, urban life [and] the alienation of someone in the city.
Tree of Life was shot in 1.85, here you’re returning to the widescreen aspect ratio of The New World. How do you and Malick decide on the dimensions of the frame for each specific film?
Lubezki: We always prefer the wider aspect ratio, but in Tree of Life we had kids running around and didn't want to shoot anamorphic because we knew it would give us a lot of focus problems. We really missed the wide frame, so for To the Wonder we did some tests and decided on the compromise of going 2.35 but shooting spherical— partly because I really, really love the sharp, clean Master Primes. We also went with spherical because we were shooting in a lot of houses.
I know you’re a believer in the theory that art comes out of limitations, and on many of your films you’ve created rules that you adhere to. What were some of the rules on To the Wonder?
Lubezki: Many of them were the same rules we had on Tree of Life, where we avoided underexposing the negative and wanted a lot of depth of field. Terry doesn’t tell the audience where to look in the frame — if they want to look at the actors, they can, or if they prefer they can look behind them at the trees. We want complete depth and clarity in order for that to happen, so another rule is to shoot with film that is as grainless as possible — in general, Terry prefers images that are sharper rather than softer.
Originally we wanted to finish the movie photochemically, but when we did end up doing a DI we tried to make it look as clean and unfiltered as possible. In the DI you can change contrast and crush the blacks and clip the whites, but we tried not to do any of that; we just tried to make it look as clean, neutral and film-like as possible. The only thing I was eager to do was to keep the skies from clipping. I like as much latitude as possible, to keep the highlights of the sky and sun and the lowlights of the shadows in a person’s eyes.
The amazing thing about all three of your films with Malick is that they seem to have a very precise, controlled visual style, and yet he’s famous for responding to the moment and not over planning. How do the two of you set up your shots? I’m assuming you don’t have storyboards, but do you have a shot list? How do you know what you’re going to shoot when you get to the set in the morning?