The Universal Language of Film Has a Mexican Accent

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is proving that images speak louder than words with his work in such acclaimed films as The New World and Children of Men

By Bob Fisher

Whether he’s raising $7,000 to shoot an indie film in Mexico with a group of friends or helping alfonso Cuar?n spend a $70 million budget on Children of Men, for cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, it’s all about the images.

“Maybe it has something to do with the way my brain works,” offers the four-time oscar nominee. “I have always found it easier to communicate with images than with words.” of course, it doesn’t hurt that film is quickly becoming a universal language, affording the Mexico City-born Lubezki the chance to spend the last two decades traveling the world- and transcending language barriers-working with some of cinema’s most distinguished directors. it also doesn’t hurt that the “group of friends” Lubezki started making movies with as a film student included directors alfonso Cuar?n (Y tu mam? tambi?n) and alfonso arau (Like Water for Chocolate) and fellow DPs rodrigo Prieto (Babel) and guillermo navarro (Pan’s Labyrinth), each of whom Lubezki continues to collaborate with to this day. after an awards season whirlwind, during which Lubezki took home several prizes for his work on Children of Men-including the american society of Cinematographers award and the BAFTA-the man known as “Chivo” to his friends spent some rare downtime with MM to discuss his eclectic body of work so far as he prepares for his next two projects: another collaboration with Cuar?n and Martin scorsese’s upcoming rolling stones documentary.

Bob Fisher (MM): How did you first get interested in cinematography?

Emmanuel Lubezki (EL): My parents took me to see movies when I was a boy. I remember watching Italian movies and films from America without reading the subtitles. I was always interested in watching the images, even if I didn’t understand the words.

The first adult movie that I remember seeing was Soylent Green. That imagery has stayed with me forever. It is ironic, because Children of Men is also about the end of the world. It’s funny that I ended up doing my own version of Soylent Green.

MM: It sounds like you got to see films from around the world as a youth?

EL: During that time they were showing a lot of movies from around the world, films made by Fellini and Pasolini, Scorsese and Coppola… a lot of Italian filmmakers. I also saw rock and roll films with Bob Dylan and The Beatles. I couldn’t understand the lyrics, but the images captivated me.

MM: When did you shoot your first movie?

EL: I was in high school. All the people in one class spent a full year working together on the production of a documentary that dealt with everything from social classes to natural science. We went to Vera Cruz and made a documentary about workers in the sugar cane fields. Other people were interested in doing the research and journalism; for me, the magic moment happened when I was looking through the viewfinder on a Super8 camera and shooting the film.

MM: Did you go to film school?

EL: I started out studying history at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. There was a still photography department at the university, so I started shooting short films and abandoned studying history. There were maybe three kids at the school who wanted to be cinematographers, so we shot most of the films for different directors. That’s where I met Alfonso Cuar?n, Xavier Grobet, Rodrigo Prieto and Luis Estrada, who directed my first couple of movies.

MM: What was your first professional movie?

EL: At that time it was practically impossible for a young person to find work on movies. The industry was very small and the unions were completely closed to new people. There was a rule that only allowed seven cinematographers in the union, so you had to wait for somebody to die or retire before you became an operator-and then you waited for another cinematographer to die or retire.

A group of maybe 10 friends decided that if we wanted to be professionals, we would have to make our own movies. We put all our money together and produced our first feature film-I think it was something like $7,000. I was one of the producers and Guillermo Navarro let us use his ?clair camera for free. Our idea was to make a movie for the Hispanic-speaking market in the United States. The picture was called Camino largo a Tijuana. We were going to distribute it on VHS video and use the money to make more films. We didn’t have big aspirations-we just wanted to make movies.

We were lucky that the director, Luis Estrada, and one of the other producers were friends with some famous Mexican actors who knew how to make movies. We sold that movie to the Mexican Institute of Cinematography.

MM: That was in the early 1990s. What happened next?

EL: We used that money to produce our second film, Bandidos, which was the first film I shot. It’s a story about three children who are searching for their parents during the Mexican Revolution; Luis Estrada was the director. We got a lot of energy out of everybody working together, including the writers, cast and crew. We didn’t make our money back, but Bandidos was relatively successful. Afterwards, I started getting calls. Everybody who worked on that movie works in the film industry now. The union also realized that they had to give new people a chance. Once new people came into the industry, it started to change the way movies were made in Mexico.

MM: Your next film was S?lo con tu Pareja, which was directed by Alfonso Cuar?n. You earned your first Silver Ariel nomination, the Mexican equivalent of an Oscar, for that effort. Is that what led you to Like Water for Chocolate?

EL: What happened was Alfonso Arau, who was already a famous director in Mexico, wanted a cinematographer from Europe to shoot that film, but that person wanted more money than he was willing to pay. I had met Alfonso during the filming of Camino largo a Tijuana in 1991 (he was one of our actors). He called and asked me to shoot second unit for Like Water for Chocolate. I was an admirer of his work, so it was a big compliment for me.

Time went by, and when he couldn’t get the European cinematographer he wanted, he asked, “Why don’t you do it?” I remember saying that I wasn’t prepared to do the first unit photography-and gave him a list of cinematographers who I wanted to be around so I could watch them light!

MM: But you did shoot it!

EL: It was almost a $1 million budget, which was a lot of money. It was a period film with beautiful actresses and an incredible wardrobe. The furniture and all the dressings for the film didn’t arrive on time, because somebody didn’t pay for the trucks that were coming to deliver props from Hollywood. Arau couldn’t push the movie any more. He said he wanted to start shooting, and asked if I could find a way to use photography to hide what was missing from the sets. I asked them to paint all the walls almost black and I lit the beautiful women, so you don’t see the sets; that set the style of the movie. The big thing that I remember is that we had an incredible amount of fun.

MM: You won your first Silver Ariel for that film (beating out yourself for S?lo con tu Pareja, actually). Did the award change anything for you? Were you a star?

EL: No, it didn’t change anything. I didn’t even know I was nominated until someone told me-and then my brother went to the ceremony to pick up the award. What changed things for me was the fact that my friends who were directing-like Luis Mandoki and Alfonso Cuar?n-were calling me to work with them.

MM: What was your first American film?

EL: Jeanne Tripplehorn saw and liked Like Water for Chocolate. She was going to perform in a little movie called Reality Bites that was being directed by Ben Stiller, so she recommended me to him. At that point, my English wasn’t good enough to understand the script or the humor, but I liked Ben and Jeanne and he wanted me to do the movie.

MM: Was working on an American film very different?

EL: It was completely different! I guess I was na?ve; I believed too much in film as a form of art. In Mexico, every project was a labor of love. I remember scouting in Los Angeles for a movie called Twenty Bucks; I didn’t tell the location manager about the need to close down a street. I just assumed you could do it, because that wouldn’t have been a problem in Mexico. I could do anything I wanted, including asking my crew to tent an entire block with all the neighbors helping us.

There were also different culture shocks. In Mexico, the actors are there with you when you are talking about the movie, planning the next shot and even talking about your next project. It’s more like you are a family making a movie together.

MM: You won your second and third consecutive Silver Ariels for Miroslava and ?mbar in 1993 and 1994, respectively. Two years later you earned your first Oscar nomination for Cuar?n’s A Little Princess.

EL: A Little Princess was my first big studio movie. We were nervous, but we had very specific ideas. I planned to use really big sources with very soft, directional light. We shot a lot of tests and planned how we were going to use contrast and a very specific color palette. There were gigantic sets on stages and scenes calling for layers of light. We also shot scenes from the little girl’s point of view with a wide-angle lens on the camera, which was at a low angle looking up.

It was a challenging movie at that moment in my career, but I truly loved it. I think everything worked together to create a special world, including the actors, music and the cinematography. You can have wonderful performances, but if the music, camera movement, choice of lenses and lighting aren’t right, the movie doesn’t work. Everything and everyone has to work together.

MM: A few years later, you shot Martin Brest’s Meet Joe Black, which was a different type of film.

EL: Meet Joe Black was another big movie with a lot of big sets. Brad Pitt played the angel of death, so we wanted a specific look that was right for his character. We wanted it to look as if the light was emanating from him rather than from lamps or other sources in the house. It was the opposite with Anthony Hopkins, who was lit with sources, including lamps and sunlight. There are dark places in this film and a distinct color palette. I think we achieved some of what we wanted, but every picture is different, so you have to keep experimenting.

MM: You seem to give the audience credit for being visually literate enough to recognize, at least on a subliminal level, differences in the way you light characters.

EL: I believe that is true, because I was part of the audience before I studied film. I can look back now and understand that the photography affected how I felt about characters, even if it wasn’t something I knew on a conscious level.

MM: You earned your second Oscar nomination for Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow in 2000 and your third in 2006 for Terrence Malick’s The New World, which included some interesting 65mm work.

EL: There are about a half dozen 65mm scenes where we wanted deep depth of field, so the audience feels as though they are in “the new world.” There is more definition and resolution that the eye sees and the mind absorbs on 65mm film. It is a universal visual language that audiences everywhere understand emotionally on a subliminal level.

MM: You earned your fourth Oscar nomination this year for Children of Men, your sixth collaboration with Alfonso Cuar?n. When did he first talk about his intentions for this story?

EL: He called me and told me that he had a very early version (continued on page 118)