When Bradley Cooper’s sophomore directorial outfit Maestro, an ambitious and extravagant Leonard Bernstein biopic, debuted at Venice, none of the film’s stars or crew made it on to the red carpet. SAG was 51 days deep into its strike against the studios.
The experience of observing the premiere and subsequent raves from afar had “actually been better than usual,” two-time Oscar nominee and Maestro DoP Matthew Libatique told Deadline. Libatique was calling into us at Poland’s EnergaCamerimage Film Festival, where Maestro is playing in the main cinematography-focused competition.
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“It’s actually a lot of work when promoting a film. I’ve always been a fan of just putting the work out there and letting people decide whether or not they like it without me saying anything,” he added.
Maestro tells the complex love story of Leonard Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein (Carey Mulligan) — a story that spans over 30 years. Perhaps best known for his score to Broadway’s West Side Story and the classic Marlon Brando film On the Waterfront, Bernstein married the actress in 1951 and went on to share three children with her, with the couple splitting their time between New York and Connecticut. Complicating the dynamic between the duo were the affairs he had over the years, with both men and women, even as they were conducted with Felicia’s consenting awareness. The pair were separated at one point for a period of a year, though they ultimately stayed together until Felicia’s death in 1978. Netflix will release in select U.S. theaters Nov. 22 before streaming Dec. 20.
Maestro is Cooper and Libatique’s second collaboration following 2018’s A Star Is Born, and the pic solidifies the pair as one of the more interesting and daring director-DoP duos contemporary Hollywood has to offer. Below, Libatique speaks with Deadline about working with Cooper, who he said has “become quite the director,” hanging out with Steven Spielberg, one of the film’s producers, and his fears about shooting inside the real Bernstein family home.
Camerimage runs until Nov 18.
DEADLINE: Because of the strike, this is one of the first in-depth conversations a member of the Maestro team has given in public. What has it been like seeing the response to the film while being slightly removed from it all?
MATTHEW LIBATIQUE: It’s actually been better than usual. It’s actually a lot of work when promoting a film. I’ve always been a fan of just putting the work out there and letting people decide whether or not they like it without me saying anything. So it’s been great. There’s been a lot of positive feedback, and I’ve been told the reviews are good. So I’m just really grateful that people understand what the film is about and appreciate the extraordinary life of both Leonard and Felicia Bernstein.
DEADLINE: What initially made you feel like Bradley Cooper was someone you might want to work with? There’s usually a lot of snobbery around actors moving into directing.
LIBATIQUE: It was from the first time I met him, to be honest. We just hit it off. It was our first meeting for A Star Is Born. And it was the way he approached cinema. He’s a student of the game. Every time I see him, he’s learned a little bit more. He’s like an AI getting fed from the ether information on how we do this, and he’s become quite the director. He’s probably one of the most relentless people I know, so from the very beginning, I knew he was someone I would want to work with more than once.
DEADLINE: I’m from the UK, so I didn’t know much about Leonard Bernstein. Did you? And how did you get on board the film?
LIBATIQUE: I didn’t know much about him either. I knew of him through West Side Story and On The Waterfront. I wasn’t familiar with his own music. Bradley brought me on. It was right after we did A Star Is Born, and we were going through award season. He was talking to me about this new film idea he was inspired by, and it was this. He spent the better part of five or six years working on the screenplay and his voice and just starting to carve out the shape of the film until we finally started to roll on it. I was just excited. He was so inspired, and I like to be around that energy. Also, I’m a fan of biopics. I like the study of one person. So that was intriguing to me. And I was interested in the idea of shooting the different periods.
DEADLINE: The film moves through several different formats include black and white, 4:3 frame and the widescreen. Can you talk me through this decisions?
LIBATIQUE: Bradley always saw the film in black and white. The question was when would it go to color. Right now, it’s at about 70 minutes when we flash forward, and they’re married with children, but we still maintain that 4:3 aspect ratio. We shot tests on every format and aspect ratio, and I think Bradley liked the conflict. The horizontal environment of two people because it’s really a film about two people, a husband, and a wife. There’s a horizontal confinement to that frame. And then, if you notice, the film opens at 1:85 after she passes. Now there’s this lonely man inside the frame. And we shot on film. We tried digital, ARRI 66, Monochrome, and Red Monochrome, but the magic was when we rolled 5222 [Kodak film stock], and there was no comparison. It was inexplicable, a very clean, beautiful black and white in the monochrome cameras.
DEADLINE: Does it change how you work knowing you’re shooting this for Netflix and people will likely watch it at home?
LIBATIQUE: No, I still shoot for a screen. I did a film for Netflix before called The Prom, and I still shot that for the screen, knowing full well it’ll probably never see the light of day in the theatre, but it’ll probably play on somebody’s 85-inch television. That’s pretty big. I shoot for the large presentation, and eventually, somebody will watch it on the subway on a phone, and that’s just the way it is. But I think the aspiration really is to shoot and present in front of an audience of strangers.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about the standpoint scene at the cathedral when Leonard is composing Mahler No. 2. It’s an amazing scene and many people are discussing it here at Camerimage. Can you talk me through it?
LIBATIQUE: When I walked into that space, which was Ely Cathedral, very close to Cambridge, it was so massive that it felt daunting. I thought, how the hell am I gonna light this space? So there was a certain amount of fear, but I had a wonderful team out of London. We had a pretty simple lighting plan, and we shot a lot more footage compared to what made it into the film, but that’s what’s interesting. The soul of the scene is what also makes it into one of Bradley’s films. That experience was one of the highlights of my career. I had never been surrounded by an orchestra before. You had the London Philharmonic, and I was sitting in the front pew during our pre-light. They were rehearsing, and I knew I was in a special place. We were destined for something cool to happen in that scene. It’s just a powerful moment.
DEADLINE: I actually know Ely cathedral quite well. How was shooting there? It’s pretty old. And I know you also shot in the Bernstein family’s actual home.
LIBATIQUE: It’s quite old. But it’s very big. And there’s some modernizations to it. They have some rigs up there where they attach lights because, in this day and age, they have to illuminate it at night. It served us well. It was a little harder at the Bernstein summer home in Fairfield, Connecticut. We were nervous about bringing the crane on the house grounds with the big lights. But after a couple of days, the presence of the Bernstein family, and knowing that we had their blessing, there was a spirit of creativity. It felt like we were okay and had been given permission to do this by Lenny’s ghosts.
DEADLINE: With Bradley in full costume, how exactly are you working with him as a director on set?
LIBATIQUE: Well, it’s a good question. He would show up extremely early on his shoot days. If our call time was at seven, Bradley would have been there at three or two, starting his prosthetics and his process of turning into Lenny for the day. When I showed up at call time, he was typically almost ready. So he was already Lenny, and it was like I was working with Leonard Bernstein, not Bradley Cooper. We realized we just had to get used to it. And when instead of planning several shots all at once, Bradley would work on one or two. He would take a viewfinder and just walk the scene like Leonard Bernstein. And as we blocked the scenes, we would figure out ways to maybe keep the camera going. There was a very easy flow to it.
DEADLINE: The film was produced by Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. Both are known to be very hands on. Did they visit the set?
LIBATIQUE: We never saw Marty. He didn’t come by. But Steven came by numerous times. And wow, how cool is it to chop it up with Steven Spielberg. It was very cool. He’s such an icon, but was super approachable and just shared his wealth of knowledge. He talked to me about black and white films and the history of American cinema. It was a good energy to be around while making the film.
DEADLINE: What are you up to next?
LIBATIQUE: I don’t know what I’m doing next, to be honest with you. The strike just ended. So I’m in a good place being available and open to things. Ideally, I’m working with somebody I’ve worked with before. I enjoy that, whether it’s Darren, Spike, or Bradley. It’s chaotic trying to organize a film at this time. But, hopefully, I’ll be on something in a week or so.
DEADLINE: Oh, and you also shot Darren Aronofsky’s film for the Vegas sphere, Postcard From Earth. Did you get to see it at the sphere?
LIBATIQUE: It’s a space you should see if you get the chance. Just imagine sitting somewhere where the screen is bigger than your peripheral vision. It’s almost 360 degrees, and it feels pretty damn close. The fidelity of this camera MGM developed, its 16k, and the images are vivid. And the screen holds up. It looks cinematic. I was worried that it would look like a giant TV screen. But it’s actually quite cinematic. It’s going be interesting to see what plays there in the future because it’s such a large screen. Storytelling is going to change because you can’t do a giant close-up on that screen. The person will just look like a giant. So it’s gonna be interesting to see how it evolves from a storytelling standpoint because it has to fit on this massive thing. I think what we did was a good introduction to the technology.
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