Immersed in Movies: Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki Climbs 'The Tree of Life'

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by Bill Desowitz
February 10, 2012 4:08 PM
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Emmanuel Lubezki
Clearly, "The Tree of Life" is the most artful of the best picture Oscar contenders. Terrence Malick's most personal film about nature and grace and growing up in Texas is also the most divisive because, let's face it, this is not the '70s. As Emmanuel Lubezki, the front-running cinematographer, points out, we're not as accepting of ambiguity and abstraction in the 21st century.

"Life is not filled with instant answers and neither are Terry's movies," Lubezki insists. "It seems to irritate lots of people. Some even left the theater because they had a hard time understanding the movie. This reminds me of all the movies that I loved [in the '70s] where we left the theater and discussed and disagreed. We carried the experience out into the open. Things were not over explained and you went out with your friends after and tried to either make sense of something or talk about a certain emotion or the parts that you didn't understand that reminded you of your youth."

On the other hand, Lubezki is pleased that so many people have been willing to climb "The Tree of Life," which was definitely an extension of "The New World," his first collaboration with Malick. "His movies are in 'The Tree.' It's a lot about his preoccupations. This is risky and it feels visually pure. The language of film is further and further away from the language of theater and is closer to music. It's abstract but still narrative. Everything feels less rehearsed. It's more experimental than classical."

For Lubezki, it's all about capturing the magic of the moment, which is easier said than done. How do you capture a moment that doesn't exist? 

"What is really hard is to create the moment," he continues. "We were lucky to be there as it unfolded. That to me is the magic of Terry. This is such a departure. The other thing is that it's very stressful. You can be shooting for several hours and are not sure if you've got the beats that feel naturalistic and have the emotion that Terry's looking for -- and that's scary."

That's especially true when working with kids that have never acted before. It's tricky trying to summon the appropriate emotions, trying to tap into their inner lives and memories without resorting to theatrical tricks. But Lubezki maintains that this was the blessing of working in this cinematic playground. And he's particularly proud of Hunter McCracken's performance as the young protagonist. "His performance was so natural and says a lot about Terry's direction and the editing because he's not an actor," Lubezki adds. "It was great to make all the kids feel comfortable with the whole film unit and tell them what to do and befriend them. Sometimes the camera was very close to them and they didn't seem to care. It's a little like what still photographers do: how to approach your subject and not intimidate your subject. And then to capture the energy of the kids and of your shooting and you have all these memories of your infancy and growing up and your relationship with your parents. "

Indeed, the cinematographer gets so physically close to everyone during their private moments in "The Tree of Life" that it's like opening up their innermost thoughts. It's like being a voyeur in the best sense of the word.

One of the best techniques, a holdover from "The New World," was shooting multiple perspectives of the same emotion. This was done through fragments and they would then "cubize" it (a cinematic form of Cubism). "In a way, it's liberating because if you're not getting it right, you'll be able to get it later," Lubezki explains. "For a filmmaker, it's like saying to yourself that you'll get it one day -- it'll be OK. But then when you really get it, you get all these different perspectives. The movie becomes much more layered with different emotions, different characters. It gives a lot weight. You can see it one time and get a little of what Terry is saying; and get more out of it with repeated viewings."

Lubezki, who has since made his third film with Malick, an untitled love story with Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams about a man who reconnects with a woman from his hometown while struggling with his marriage, has a new world view, thanks to the influence of the director.

"Working with Terry has changed my life," he admits. "I'm a different parent, I'm a different husband, and I'm a different friend. I see nature in a different way since I started working with Terry. I have much more respect for things that I wasn't aware of as much. He is one of the most important teachers in my life. And I'm a much better cinematographer in helping directors in a much more comprehensive way."

Lubezki's most recent film, in fact, is "Gravity" (Nov. 21), directed by Alfonso Cuaron and starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. The space adventure is a curious adjunct to "The Tree of Life," in which 3-D plays a crucial role in the visual design.

But like so many others, Lubezki longs for a longer cut of "The Tree of Life" on Blu-ray. "I've seen cuts that were the first or second drafts of the movie," he says. "There were amazing things: much more of the children and Jessica [Chastain] and Brad [Pitt]. And you could almost make a whole other movie about Sean [Penn]. There's another side to his story. It's almost unexplored in the film."

Just another branch of "The Tree of Life" that we have to look forward to.

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