Lubezki: Every day we arrive on location in the morning and Terry gives the crew an intense briefing of what he wants to shoot that day and what he wants to capture. And then something better comes up and we just change our approach!
I know that on The New World and Tree of Life you relied heavily upon natural light. Was that the case again on To the Wonder?
Lubezki: I didn't use any lights. It’s funny, because sometimes I talk to other cinematographers and they say, ‘Oh my God, Terry doesn’t let you use lights,’ but it’s not that he doesn’t let me — I don’t want to use them. On Tree of Life we really tried to do combinations of scenes with light and scenes without, and when you add movie lights they doesn’t have the complexity of natural light. You’re putting one light that has one tone and one color through some diffusion, and it doesn’t have the complexity of natural light coming in through the window from a blue sky and clouds bouncing green off the grass. Some would call that kind of light imperfect, but it’s more accurate to call it more complex. That complexity of natural light and the way it hits the face is amazing, and when you start to go that way it’s hard to go back and light [things artificially]. The less you use artificial light, the more you want to avoid it, because the scenes feel weak or weird or fake. Often we would be inside a house and it would be cloudy and we would know that we’d probably have to rewrite the scene and shoot it outside or come back another day, but that would be better than the option of lighting the scene and not liking it.
Can you talk a bit about how you collaborate with production designer Jack Fisk? I’m assuming certain kinds of considerations have to be taken into account when it comes to color and architecture and all sorts of factors that can make it easier or harder to shoot in natural light.
Lubezki: Absolutely. You know, the only real preparation we do on the movie is during scouting, when Jack is picking the houses and locations. He’s aware that we’re not lighting, and that if a house is facing north, we’re only going to have light for a brief period of time. He’s very attuned to what’s needed for us to shoot interiors — I joke and say, ‘Jack, can you get me a house that lights itself?” and he knows exactly what that means. Sometimes he’ll say, ‘I couldn’t find a house that lights itself, but I found two houses — one that’s great for the morning and one that’s great for the afternoon, so we can combine them.’ He combines locations and says, ‘You can shoot in this house from 10 a.m. to 12, and then you’ll have to move to the other one from 3 to 6, and then you’ll be out of light.’ He carries a digital camera and shows me photos, and he’ll tell me what stop they were taken at and at what time of day. So, in a way, he does the lighting and I just cannibalize what he does!
Does the costume design play into that as well?
Lubezki: Yes, it’s the same process. In fact, the whole crew is attuned to it. When you shoot this way, everybody is very aware of color and weather and anything that affects the light — the best boy or grip will often come running and say something like, “Right now the grass in the prairie looks red,” and we will all run to capture it.
You shot most of the movie in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and there’s a real sense of small-town authenticity that permeates the entire film. What was it like shooting on location there, and how did you interact with the community?
Lubezki: When Jack Fisk is scouting, he makes everyone in the community part of the movie. As a result, they’re very kind to us and they let us use areas of the town where we can walk and shoot like it’s a back lot. Then Jack gives us menus of locations. We can pick from these menus, and often we shoot the same scene in multiple locations. If an interior is good at a specific time of day, maybe we’ll go to the park first and shoot the scene there, and then move to the interior, giving Terry two options so he can pick the best one in the editing room.
We shoot really fast — we shoot constantly, and there’s never a moment when we’re not shooting. We can shoot much more than on a normal movie, where you’re moving lights and equipment and cranes. On a normal movie you’re dealing with the management of your own crew and your own gear all the time, but that doesn’t exist on our productions. We can truly use every second and have the option of reshooting a scene if we don’t like a take or if the actors felt uncomfortable or want to try something else.
We don’t put marks down for the actors or anything like that. It’s a fictional movie shot like a documentary, allowing us to explore and reshoot during the shoot. In a normal movie, an actor does a shot and then has hours in their trailer to get out of character and make phone calls; then, when they come back, they have to get back into the scene. With Terry it’s not like that — they're always on set and always in character. I’m not saying that approach is better; it’s just different, and for me it’s a very exciting way of working. In a way I feel more like a still photographer. It’s really liberating.
Many people who appear in the movie’s scenes are not recognizable actors. Are they just locals that Malick put in the film?
Lubezki: Yes, the whole community becomes part of the production — it’s not just the architecture, but also the people themselves. As we’re walking in the street, if Terry meets someone interesting he will write something for that person or ask them to play one of the parts. Sometimes we’ll shoot scenes multiple times with different people playing the parts and, again, Terry will pick the best performance in editing. And sometimes with non-professionals we’ll shoot a scene a couple of times with the same actor, using the first take as a sort of test, so that when they return they’re more comfortable with the crew, the camera and performing in general.
It sounds like the most important thing for you is capturing spontaneous, even accidental moments.
Lubezki: You’ve got it. The key is to react quickly to an unexpected or unrehearsed moment in the acting or in the weather. We’re all looking for those ephemeral moments, and they’re what end up in the film. There’s a shot that I love of Ben walking down an empty street in Bartlesville after Olga has returned to Paris and left him by himself; there’s a little fence and a dog barks at him. Suddenly Ben kicks the fence and the camera tilts down and catches that little moment; we didn't put the dog there, or any of the other element — they just combine to suddenly tell us something about the character and what’s going on inside him. Yet it’s not a shot that was written. Terry didn’t tell Ben to kick the fence — maybe he even kicked the fence because he was tired or exhausted by our methods. I don’t know why he did it, but it became quite expressive, and the movie is filled with those little moments.