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Hollywood Cinematographer goes back to his roots

Fil-Am Matthew Libatique brings his craft to Manila


By Rica Arevalo
Images Wijo Fernandez

Fil-Am Matthew Libatique

Fil-Am Matthew Libatique

“Without people watching films, I do not exist,” reflects Filipino-American cinematographer Matthew Libatique who was in town to visit his roots and share his passion to the local film community.

Nicknamed Matty, he is an immigrant’s son. “I grew up in New York.  My parents are raised and born here in the Philippines. They migrated to New York in 1966,” says the California State University graduate.

He has worked with directors Darren Aronofsky, Joel Schumacher, Spike Lee, and Jon Favreau, among others.

“I didn’t know I wanted to be a filmmaker until I was in college. I always wanted to be a baseball player or a musician.” When he joined the film club, he was inspired by a Spike Lee film.  “At that moment, I was blown away by Do the Right Thing (1989).  That film changed my life,” says the 49-year-old. “It was the first time I saw a minority has a career in filmmaking.  I was inspired to be a filmmaker.”

At the American Film Institute, he earned his MFA in cinematography. “Lucky for me, I was sitting in the first row,” he recalls. “And the guy next to me is Darren Aronofsky—Day 1 of film school. He was lucky, too!”

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It was the beginning of numerous artistic collaborations. Their first film, Pi (1988), brought them to worldwide attention. “I was very bold.  I did not play it safe.  I made a lot of mistakes with my career but I made a career out of those mistakes,” he muses.  “We had no money.  I worked for free.  I slept in somebody’s kitchen.  We all rode with the same van with the equipment.  And I will never forget that, the early beginnings. We decided to shoot in black and white because we do not have money for gels.”

His creative boldness, his will to make a good film, and making mistakes put Pi on the map at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.

One serendipitous day, Spike Lee, the director who inspired him to become a filmmaker, called him.  “I don’t care if the script sucks, I’m doing it!” he exclaims. In Inside Man (2006), their second film, Matty got to work with Denzel Washington. “In America, he’s a master-celebrity. He’s one of the first actors I’ve worked with, that I could not believe I was working with Denzel.”

His win at the Independent Spirit Award for Requiem of a Dream led him to meet jury member and director Jon Favreau. “He said he nominated me, that was very cool.”  When he was offered to do Elf, Matty turned him down.  But fate brought them together.

He was then offered by Favreau to be in the $120-million-dollar Iron Man movie. “As soon I walked into the room, I felt its independent spirit.  He said I wanted Robert Downey Jr. to be Iron Man.”  Matty found the idea amazing. “I’d worked with Robert in Gothika.  Robert and I got along really well.  At that time, Marvel didn’t want Robert Downey Jr. We had to do a screen test.”

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At that time, Downey had his ups and down in his career. “This was his first time back.  In the soundstage, Robert walks up and remembers me in Gothika.  He said, ‘Maestro, please help me.’ And I did!”

The rest was history with Downey shooting numerous Iron Man and Avengers box-office hits.

“We had to prove to the studio that the guy was young enough to make three to five films. It’s the power of the cinematography, the power of our craft that can make a change.”

His craft propelled him to work with other A-list Hollywood stars like Natalie Portman, Russell Crowe, Anthony Hopkins, Hugh Jackman, Penelope Cruz, Jodie Foster, Jim Carrey, Renee Zellweger, Harrison Ford, Julia Roberts, and George Clooney.

Years later, his relationship with Aronofsky went sour.  Egos got in the way.  Matty was not included in the 65th Venice Golden Lion winner, The Wrestler (2008).

But in Black Swan (2010), the two kissed and made up. “I had absolute freedom.  We had an understanding. We met when we were 21 years old. This marked our maturation,” he reflects. “We went back to making a small movie. I was happy!”

Matty led a cinematography workshop last June with local cinematographers as part of the American Society of Cinematographers. It was sponsored by RSVP Film Studios at the Green Sun Hotel.

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