When I caught up with Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, ASC, AMC, he had just finished the final color timing for the various release formats on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. Intimately familiar with every pixel, he said he was still too close to the film to have an objective sense of what he had accomplished. His main emotions were relief and pride.
Thinking it might be refreshing to talk about something else, I asked him about the film he shot before that one: Last Days in the Desert, directed by Rodrigo Garcia. The film, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, is set for theatrical release in the U.S. in May. It depicts a portion of the Biblical story of Jesus Christ’s 40 days of fasting and prayer, during which time he encounters and struggles with Satan. Ewan McGregor portrays both Jesus and Satan.
Garcia had previously collaborated with Chivo as a camera operator, and as a director on commercials; they had also made the feature Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her together. “When Rodrigo brought me the script for Last Days in the Desert, I adored every word,” says Chivo. “It felt like a very personal story.
"Rodrigo and I went to the desert, looked carefully for locations, and found the right angles and the right times of day," he continues. "We needed to have the ability to improvise and reshoot with a very small crew. We wanted the shooting environment to be reflective of the story, and we wanted the experience to be humble — and humbling. Intimacy was important. I think sometimes the experience of shooting the movie trickles into the spirit of the film and emerges in a magical way.”
As an example, Chivo points to Gravity, wherein actress Sandra Bullock spent days on end inside a light box, perhaps tasting a bit of the isolation and claustrophobia experienced by astronauts; through her, he suggests, the audience could sense the same thing.
On Last Days in the Desert, the watchwords included “humility,” “simplicity” and “gentleness.” That mode of thinking led in part to the decision to shoot the 2.35 frame spherically. The cameras were Arri Alexas, and the lenses were Leica Summilux-C. Chivo recalls that electric lights were only used a few times, when campfires were too inconsistent and need a “cushion” of light. Most daylight scenes required careful analysis of the locations.
Lighting with natural light contributed to the elemental feeling the filmmakers desired for the images. “When we say we shot with natural light, that doesn’t mean we arrived, set up the camera and just started shooting,” says Chivo. “Rodrigo and I walked the locations many times in order to see which time of day was right for the scene or the moment, the time when [the light] would be more expressive. The Alexa allowed us to shoot at very interesting times of the day. We shot a couple of pre-dawn and dusk shots that film would never have allowed us to capture, moments that are so poetic and mysterious.”
Inevitably, perhaps, our conversation came back around to The Revenant. I asked Chivo whether the experience of shooting natural light in the desert with Garcia informed his work on The Revenant, where natural light was also key to the approach. He replied that The Revenant came along at exactly the right time in his career. Referring to some previous collaborations with directors Terrence Malick and Alfonso Cuarón, Chivo notes, “I had been doing a lot of movies with natural light, so I think I had been learning how to make those decisions — how to control that light without bringing too much equipment, and how to move fast and behave in a way that allows me to capture the elements that are important for the story, without imposing myself and without stepping on my own toes. It’s really thanks to The New World [2005; directed by Malick] and Y Tu Mamá También [2001; directed by Cuarón], and other movies where we experimented with natural light, that I was able to do The Revenant with Alejandro.
“I think I was not prepared to do a movie that was as complicated as The Revenant until now,” he adds. “All my knowledge and experience was poured into it, along with every atom of my energy as a middle-aged cameraman working in very precarious and rough environments. Ten years from now, I probably couldn’t do this movie. It’s a matter of timing, where I am in my life as a person and as a craftsman. In my personal journey, this movie could only happen at this time.”