Cinematographer Maryse Alberti’s career is like one of those old Mickey Rooney movies where a seemingly impossible dream comes true after the hero overcomes daunting odds. She was born and raised on a farm in southern France and didn’t see her first movie until she was 19 years old, on the first leg of a journey to the United States. There, she found a job as an au pair in the New Rochelle suburb of New York City. After several months, she decided to hitchhike across the country. Alberti took her first still pictures with a Kodak Instamatic camera during that three-year odyssey. She broke into the film industry as a still photographer on X-rated movies, which eventually led to work as a camera assistant on documentaries around the world, including Central and South America, the Soviet Union and China.
Most recently, Alberti won her second Spirit Award for Best Cinematography for her artful imagery in The Wrestler. The film takes audiences on a journey behind the scenes into the world of Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), a (barely) fictional headliner on the professional wrestling circuit during the late 1980s. The Ram is eking out a living as a clerk in a grocery store while desperately trying to make a comeback on the independent wrestling circuit in generally down and dirty, and often makeshift, arenas. He is motivated by a dream of getting one last shot at defeating The Ayatollah, his arch rival during the 1980s.
Alberti didn’t know director Darren Aronofsky before he sent her the script for The Wrestler. “I think Darren sent me the script because of my documentary background,” she says. “In our first conversation, we spoke about shooting in documentary style.” Alberti shot her first documentary in 1990 and quickly won two Cinematography Awards at Sundance; in 1990 for H-2 Worker and in 1995 for Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb. Her other memorable documentary credits include No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side.
They made an early decision to compose The Wrestler in 2.4:1 aspect ratio, because the wrestling rings, fans in the arena and other backgrounds are integral elements of the story. Aronofsky and Alberti also agreed that they would mainly cover the action with a handheld camera for a more tactile and spontaneous feeling.
“We briefly considered shooting in HD format, but Darren and I agreed that film was the right medium for this story,” she says. “It’s a different look that felt right for the settings and emotions. The decision to shoot in Super 16 format was mainly an aesthetic decision. We embraced a slightly grainy, edgier look.”
Their timing couldn’t have been better. The Arriflex 416 camera and Kodak Vision3 500T color negative film 7219 had both just been introduced. The compact Super 16 camera weighs only 12 pounds and features a 35mm-quality viewfinder and comfortable shoulder brace. The new 500T film offers a finer grain structure and enhanced exposure latitude, which enabled Alberti to under-expose images by as much as two to three stops, and record natural looking details in the brightest highlights and darkest shadows.
While Alberti witnessed various real-life wrestling matches during pre-production, there were no storyboards and only a few rehearsals. “Our testing with Mickey was limited to about 15 minutes,” she recalls. “He is a great actor with natural instincts, and turned out to be a convincing wrestler. I can’t say enough about Mickey’s talent and endurance. He is in every scene but one.”
They had a seven-week production schedule at practical locations in New Jersey with the sole exception of one wrestling match staged in a Pennsylvania warehouse.
Aronofsky gave the actors freedom to improvise, and Alberti and her crew gave him the flexibility he needed to make decisions about how to cover scenes, including staged wrestling matches, from any angle. “Peter Nolan, my camera operator, is amazingly talented,” she emphasizes.
Most wrestling scenes were filmed in professional arenas with a few exceptions, including a match that was staged in “a box-like place where they give tango lessons,” recalls Alberti. “There was no video village,” she says. “Darren was always next to the camera. We both had six-inch-wide portable monitors. That allowed us to move faster and respond to spontaneous things as they happened. It begins with knowing what you want the images to look like. We lit scenes with everything from an 18K to a flashlight that Mickey was holding when he entered a van. It was the only light in that scene.”
PostWorks, in New York, did the front-end lab work. Alberti timed the DI and put final touches on the look in collaboration with Technicolor colorist Tim Stipend.