‘The Prom’ Cinematographer Matthew Libatique Talks Improvisational Approach To His First Musical And Blending Its Two Distinct Visual Styles

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Matt Grobar
·12 min read
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Marking Matthew Libatique’s entrée into the world of musicals, The Prom required the cinematographer to develop two distinct visual languages, in concert with his fellow department heads, which would meld over time.

Based on the acclaimed musical of the same name—with music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin, and a book by Beguelin and Bob Martin—Ryan Murphy’s star-studded comedy centers on a group of narcissistic Broadway actors who have found themselves at a low point in their careers. In an attempt to generate publicity that will put them back on the map, they travel to a conservative Indiana town, advocating on behalf of a high school girl who has been banned from attending the prom with her girlfriend.

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The languages in question were designed for the contrasting worlds of Broadway and Indiana, and while the film featured over a dozen visually distinct musical numbers, Libatique would have to engage in constant improvisation on set, with regard to both camera movement and lighting, in order to pull them off.

In conversation with Deadline, the two-time Oscar nominee breaks down his visual approach to the film, and why it initially “terrified” him. Additionally, he touches on the highlights of his first collaboration with Murphy, and the exciting pair of projects he’s tackling next.

DEADLINE: How did you get involved with The Prom? And what excited you about taking on the first musical of your career?

MATTHEW LIBATIQUE: Over the summer before we shot The Prom, I was prepping Akira with Taika Waititi, and literally the day we found out that they shut it down, I get a call from my agent saying that Ryan Murphy wants to meet with me. I ended up meeting with him, having lunch, and I didn’t know anything about why he wanted to meet with me, to be quite honest.

But he starts to describe The Prom—more about the Indiana portion, the story about this woman that has been excluded from her prom because of her sexual orientation. Then, he starts to describe the Broadway aspect of it. And then he tells me Meryl Streep’s in it, and James Corden, and Nicole Kidman, and I’m like, “Wait a minute. This is sounding pretty good.”

So, we wrap up lunch and I’m like, “Ryan, I’m really interested. I’d love to see the play.” He gets me tickets to the play, I fly to New York and see it, and I’m just completely blown away at how entertaining it is, and the sentiment.

At the same time, I was just sort of terrified, after watching the play. Like, how do you translate a musical into a movie? I know it’s been done, and I previously wasn’t really a fan of musicals, except for maybe Bob Fosse, and what Fosse had done. He’s a supreme filmmaker, and he’s always been a reference. But then I started to delve into everything from Chicago, in a more modern sense, to Gene Kelly things, where there’s more dance, and things break into song within a scene, trying to piece together how this actually works.

DEADLINE: How did you come to define visual styles for the film’s primary settings of Broadway and small-town Indiana?

LIBATIQUE: There was a built-in language there, visually. What we called “the prom palette” was defined largely through Lou Eyrich’s work in costumes and Jamie Walker [McCall]’s work in production design. The magenta, pink, aqua green, all those colors came from that. So, we knew we had that.

In contrast, you look at Indiana, and a lot of the palettes had to come from the sets and the clothing. What’s nice is, every high school already has a palette dictated to them. The color scheme of a high school is like the color scheme of an NFL football team, so we had that.

Then, in the Broadway prom palette, a lot of the light can sort of be a representation of the color, along with the costumes. But in Indiana, when we “color block”—which is a term that Ryan likes to use—we will have most of that color come from the design, and let the light be more naturalistic.

So, defining all that was a large part of our prep, from a visual standpoint. Then, it was about just digesting each and every one of these numbers. There were like 14 numbers in the film, and it’s like, how do we distinguish them all from each other, and at the same time, do service to the narrative? I think that was a challenge that I struggled with the entire time.

DEADLINE: How would you describe the approach you took to blending the styles you mentioned, over the course of the film?

LIBATIQUE: Well, we start in Broadway, and see the performance of Eleanor!, some doomed musical that [Meryl Streep’s] Dee Dee and [James Corden’s] Barry are in. It moves all the way through Sardi’s and into the streets, so they’re kind of defined by a Broadway language. But then the very next performance you see in the movie is “Just Breathe,” Emma’s performance—and that, we played straight. We wanted to create that contrast, right off the bat, at the beginning of the film.

Ryan wanted the film to start quick, and fast, and entertaining, and so the camera moved a lot at the very beginning. In even the first move, we’re pushing into the world. We’re starting wide, we’re getting the marquee, and we’re pushing straight into this world, and the camera doesn’t stop moving from there, all the way through the end of their Broadway time, when they’re on their way to the bus.

Then, the camera ceases to move at the bus, and barely moves at the high school. It just sort of steadicams back and moves along with [Jo Ellen Pellman’s] Emma in a very banal way. Those things were designed for contrast between the two worlds, and then after that, it was like, “Okay, when do we start to bleed in some of this fantastical prom palette?”

There’s a number at the very beginning, after the PTA meeting, called “Dance with You.” We’ve already had the arrival of our characters, and then we introduced, because of their arrival, just a little bit of the color, mixed in with some of the more urban color. Then, we slowly start teasing it in. And finally in “Zazz,” with Nicole Kidman in the house, we just go full Fosse, and make an otherwise naturalistic house look theatrical.

DEADLINE: How did you approach the design of the film’s song-and-dance numbers?

LIBATIQUE: What’s important to know is that I didn’t have the benefit of rehearsals where we could choreograph specifically in our space, with our lighting cues. What we had to do is create lighting scenarios that were largely LED RGB, and what that means is, you have units that could change color and do the color mixing involved, to create the palette that we established at the beginning of the film. So, when you think about a performance like “It’s Not About Me,” at the PTA meeting, and a performance like “Zazz,” where we’re using a lot of LED sources, and a variety of different manufacturers, each lighting scenario was designed to give the maximum flexibility to react to how the blocking turned out, in each and every one. Because we never got the chance to really rehease in space, in set, in situ.

The greatest example of this is the very last prom. I thought what was brilliant about that, from a design standpoint, is that Jamie incorporated, in large part, a set that could accommodate the lighting that would reflect the palette, and that allowed me to be able to just extend the color for Barry, extend the color for Hawkins and Dee Dee, and then something different for Emma and [Ariana DeBose’s] Alyssa.

Then, each character, in each verse, created a transition. You went from something really soulful, at the very top, and meaningful between two people, and then you turn it into a celebration of all these other kids coming in. But that’s basically just having the tools up in the air, and being very clever, in terms of working with a great lighting team and a great programmer, where I could just call out cues and invent things on the day, to create every chapter, moving to a next chapter, in a scene that long. That’s where I think it’s pretty tough when translating a musical into a narrative, because that was largely a musical scene, yet it still stays in the context of our narrative. [That] was a challenge, but it’s really gratifying when you see the movie and have that scene work.

DEADLINE: What was the collaboration like between your department and McCall’s, given that much of the film features large, in-camera light sources?

LIBATIQUE: Well, it’s working with them, and it’s probably the most challenging film for us, from a fixture standpoint. Especially in digital technology, the fixtures have become so important, and that’s our liaison between my cinematography department and the production design.

So, that was huge. The New York street at the beginning of the movie is the best example of that. Then, beyond that, it was having the flexibility inside the high school, or inside the house, during “Zazz,” or [with] the tunnel in the final prom. We worked off of a reference from Jamie, and the lighting department came to me every other day like, “What about this kind of thing?” Then, it’s just “No, it’s not good enough. No, we can’t do that. No, I’ve done that.” And they finally found these lights that they were able to control, that gave me some flexibility, in terms of giving the modulation, and giving a different vibe to it, for different parts of the scene. It’s got one vibe when Kerry Washington walks out; it’s got a different vibe when all the kids walk out, and that’s the kind of flexibility we needed to create a language out of that.

DEADLINE: Tell us about the Broadway strip seen in the film’s opening number. How much of that space was actually built, and what was your approach to lighting it?

LIBATIQUE: You’d be surprised how much of that was built. The marquees were built. The Shubert—the main theater that they walk into—is built. Sardi’s was built. The Majestic [Theatre] was built. They did about a quarter block of a build in a parking lot in Downtown Los Angeles, and time and time again, as we were building it, and shooting it, and starting with that stuff, people were like, “I haven’t seen a set this big in LA since…” Because it just doesn’t happen that often.

All of the references that Jamie and Ryan were poring over were like Sweet Smell of Success. It was tungsten lighting, and of course, that [film] was black and white, but it was this old school, incandescent feel of a Broadway street. So, that’s what we [created]. There’s not too much LED, modern lighting in that particular space because he really wanted the warmth of incandescent light. So, that sign that says Eleanor!, when you’re inside Sardi’s, that’s a real sign that we made, and I have to credit my fixtures guys. They found a way to make that happen with regular, incandescent globes, and then also a way to circuit it, in a way that I had complete control, and could spell out different names, and do everything that Ryan was asking for outside of LED technology.

So, that was a bit of a win and an effort, to be able to have LED capabilities and control—to spell out, say, a name—but at the same time, using incandescent globes to do it. It was a melding of old technology and new.

DEADLINE: What did you enjoy about working with Murphy? And what were some other highlights from your time on this film?

LIBATIQUE: He makes a lot of bold choices, and at the same time, he gives you some room to work, but he has no fear of calling you out on something that may be a little anachronistic for what he’s trying to do. So, there’s that aspect. But I think what I really loved is some of the more emotional scenes. As a director/writer, he has the ability to translate something through camera movement that he really wants people to see. But at the core, he’s a storyteller through words, and he could pivot, based on the gravity of what an actor’s bringing, and strip it down to what the essence of the scene is. So, I learned a lot about that, just sitting there during rehearsals and watching him work with actors.

[Another] grand highlight was just watching this cast work. [It] was kind of a bucket list moment, being able to photograph Meryl Streep, and watch her do her thing. It was special. The cast was exceptional, all across the board, and it’s something I’ll always remember, the power of these performers, just being at a point in my career now where I don’t have to stress out about the next lighting cue, [where] I could enjoy what I’m seeing before me.

DEADLINE: What’s next for you? I know you’re reteaming with Olivia Wilde on her anticipated second feature, Don’t Worry Darling.

LIBATIQUE: I’m in the midst of that right now. I’m maybe a little less than halfway through, and that’s amazing. Again, it’s exercising different muscles. The production design is so stellar. It’s basically making me do something that I haven’t done before, and that’s always, always the thing that makes me excited about what I do. I think Olivia’s really got something special, as a storyteller and moreover, as a filmmaker. I’m looking forward to finishing this thing and seeing what the end result is going to be. And then after that, I’m on my way to do a small film with my old friend, Darren Aronofsky.

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