Maestro spans nearly 50 years, two different aspect ratios (1.33:1 for certain scenes and 1.85:1 for others), and both color and black-and-white film stock. Yet, the heart of the film is the relationship between the great American composer, Leonard Bernstein (Best Actor in a Leading Role nominee Bradley Cooper), and his wife, Felicia Montealegre (Best Actress in a Leading Role nominee Carey Mulligan). For Oscar-nominated cinematographer Matthew Libatique, that meant any cinematic flourishes that might distract from their love story were a no-go.

"For Bradley and I, our mantra was basically to keep things as real as possible," he explains. "It's a biopic, and they're dangerous. You can do Elvis, for instance, the way that Elvis was done, but that's because it's Elvis Presley, you know? If Maestro was only about Leonard Bernstein, perhaps I would have taken a more overtly theatrical approach, but it's really about his relationship with Felicia."

Maestro marks Libatique's second collaboration with Cooper. He previously lensed the director's 2018 debut, A Star is Born, and received an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. (He was previously nominated in 2011 for Best Cinematography for his work on Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller, Black Swan.) Maestro is more narratively and stylistically ambitious than A Star is Born, but Libatique says his approach was more or less the same: He wanted to ensure that viewers felt as close to Maestro's central couple as they did to Cooper's Jackson and Lady Gaga's Ally in A Star is Born.

"One of my favorite parts of Maestro is when Lenny and Felicia meet. That's everybody's favorite part of a relationship, because that's the best part," Libatique tells A.frame. "I wanted that moment to feel like something we all could relate to, which meant there couldn't be a barrier between our reality and the movie. We were shooting it in black and white, which meant we were already making it harder to achieve that, so I just felt that the black and white had to at least be natural in its own way."

At the 96th Oscars, Libatique received his third Best Cinematography nomination, amongst Maestro's seven total nominations. "To be nominated is the highest accolade one can receive — except for actually getting the Oscar!" he tells A.frame. "I really couldn't be happier."

A.frame: What is it about your collaboration with Bradley that you find so rewarding?

It's almost meditative, to be honest with you. Working with him isn't about the nuts and bolts. It's about feeling and emotion and being open. It's kind of wonderful. You feel like an artist when you're working with him, because it's purely emotional and intellectual. The choices are made from a desire to communicate certain feelings to an audience, and I get a lot of gratification from that. I always walk away from our collaborations a different person.

Bradley Cooper and Matthew Libatique on the set of 'Maestro.'

This is the second film you've made together. What was it like to go in a totally different direction stylistically from what you had done on A Star is Born?

It really was different. We both did different things. Bradley, specifically, approached it in a different way, and I began to realize that was going to be the case before pre-production even began. While we were doing makeup tests for the film, we ended up shooting some scenes in a multitude of formats, and we learned through doing that what the film required. We shot and tested a lot, and we discovered that Maestro required different things than A Star is Born. Bradley was also always working on Lenny.

When we did A Star is Born, he worked on becoming Jackson Maine and then he got it. He was the director, and he had Jackson Maine figured out. With Bernstein, he was working on it and working on it. It was a monumental task for him just to do that. I think the focus he had as an actor while working on becoming this character created a different kind of focus within him when it came to the directorial aspects of the film. He was more focused on different things, so the camera had to act a different way than it did on A Star is Born. We had to do different things stylistically, and it was really the content of the film that drove the decisions we made. It was always about what each scene was telling us to do.

You've worked with quite a few actor-directors, including Bradley, Jodie Foster and Olivia Wilde. As a cinematographer, do you think they approach filmmaking differently than filmmakers who don't have that experience in front of the camera?

That’s a good question, and the funny thing is that I don't. I think every director works a different way. Olivia Wilde has some similarities with Darren Aronofsky, for instance, but she's also very different from him and from Bradley. The actor-directors I've worked with, whether it be Olivia, Bradley or even Jon Favreau, are all very different people. Jon, at this point, is more of a director than he is an actor, but he's still a performer, too. He has an ability to understand performance and character at a certain level because of his upbringing as an actor. It's wonderful to watch him work, and Bradley possesses the same thing. I always consider all of them directors first and foremost. Whether they're in front of the camera or behind it, they're still the person whose vision I'm trying to articulate, and they're all different.


What early conversations did you have with Bradley about the look of Maestro?

We talked a lot about story and character and creating the reality of the film. We wanted it to feel real, so I think any style that's gleaned from it is just our interpretation of what the reality of Maestro is. We're doing black and white in it, so we're already taking the audience out of our own reality a bit when they sit down to watch the film. While there are moments of Hollywood convention throughout the film, though, I wasn't looking to evoke that. I was inspired more by people like [French cinematographer] Raoul Coutard and photographers like Elliott Erwitt, Saul Leiter, and Roy DeCarava. Those guys form my bible when it comes to black and white photography, so I wanted to create a kind of naturalism that could carry over the entire film.

The film's Ely Cathedral scene has understandably received a lot of attention. What was it like putting that together?

We oddly shot a lot of that scene the day prior. We'd already shot a lot of the coverage, so we were feeling pretty good about what we had accomplished going into the second day. But Bradley woke up wanting another shot at the conducting, and he came up with this shot involving the Technocrane that would float over the orchestra and then get to him, and be with him and his emotions as his intensity rises and his passion is exuded. Then we pull back out at a certain point so that we can bring in the point of the story and be over Felicia's back as a button to the scene. I'd say the shot itself brought us back to some elements from A Star is Born.

When you look at A Star is Born, when she's performing at the end and she's singing her song for Jack — it's one shot. In Maestro, it feels like one shot, even though we do cut to the orchestra. It still feels like one take, because when you cut back to the orchestra, they match the intensity of the conductor. I think that's why that shot is really successful and feels like a oner. It was a oner when we shot it, but it was cut into in the editing process. Luckily, the feeling wasn't lost.


The film is very technically virtuosic. Is there a shot or sequence in it that you're particularly proud of?

There's so much to be proud of, to be honest with you. I love the opening. That was a tough shot. That was a difficult one to work out. It wasn't done exactly as it was planned, either, but it was what Bradley wanted in the end. The blending of the shot on the stage to the shot at Carnegie Hall and working all the logistics of that out was particularly difficult and anxiety-ridden, so I'm proud of that scene. I also love the transition to the Jerome Robbins ballet on the St. James stage. I'm proud of all of the transitions that we did in the film. At one point, we transition in from Tanglewood and the luncheon with Koussevitzky into the theater aisle where they're running, and then we're inside this ballet that turns into everybody on the stage and everybody hugging at the end in the shape of a mountain, and that turns into the shape of two feet under a blanket and yet another transition happens.

The beginning really brings you in, and I am proud of that, but I'm also proud of the color stuff we did. I love the way the color of the film is so honest, in terms of the colors that were put before the camera, but they also give a nostalgic feel. There's plenty to be proud of really. I'm very proud of the movie.

How does it feel to then be nominated and recognized by your peers for this film you're so proud of?

I couldn't be happier, and I'm really going to try to enjoy this as much as possible. I think 2023 was a strong year for cinema. It started early with the success of Barbie and Oppenheimer, and it never really let up. Looking at the quality of films, it's one of the strongest years I can remember in recent memory. Just to be part of the conversation is a great honor. I'm so proud of my fellow cinematographers, of every single person who was also nominated, and a lot of people who weren't. I'm very proud of the state of our craft. There's a lot of great people working in the field right now. Only five could get nominated, but I think the list is pretty strong.

By Alex Welch

A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.

Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best Cinematography category for an interview.


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