“Don’t Worry Darling” is certainly one of the most talked about movies of 2022, but in a parallel universe somewhere, the conversation is about the actual film instead of the controversy surrounding it.
For cinematographer Matthew Libatique, the drama that engulfed Olivia Wilde’s second directorial effort was frustrating though not entirely surprising.
“To be honest with you, after four years of Donald Trump, nothing surprises me about the power of the internet,” the lauded DP told TheWrap in a recent interview when asked about the rumors surrounding Wilde and the film’s star Florence Pugh. “This is just the extension of the idiocy that happens when things fall out of hand and stories just spiral out of control. But I just tried to focus on the positivity of the film and the experiences I had. I can’t speak to any of the controversies because I didn’t experience any of the controversies. I didn’t experience anything that would lead to controversy.”
Libatique first heard about “Don’t Worry Darling” – which tells the story of a group of people living in a seemingly idyllic community in which one housewife, played by Pugh, notices not all is right with her husband (played by Harry Styles) and their town – when working with Wilde on a short film with Margaret Qualley. But the “Black Swan” and “Iron Man” cinematographer wasn’t available at the time to offer his services. When the pandemic happened and production pushed, however, Libatique suddenly had an opening and jumped at the chance to work on the “Booksmart” filmmaker’s second directorial effort.
“I’ve always loved her energy. She’s just so effortless and creative and that creativity is so contagious around the people that she likes to surround herself with,” Libatique said of Wilde.
Their early conversations were about how cinematography could contribute to a world that was largely already designed by the time Libatique signed on.
“The house that Jack and Alice lived in had been designed and the community in which they lived, Victory, which was in Palm Springs, was already chosen and wardrobe and colors were there already as a sort of foundation visually,” he explained. “The most important thing was getting us into that world, and when you look at the first scene, it’s sort of that Rat Pack feeling of these people are living their best life and there’s a drunkenness and fun and there’s this element of sex and eroticism she wanted to have in the film that harkened back to movies of the 80s and 90s, the ‘Basic Instincts’ or the ‘Devil’s Advocates,’ these genre movies of that time that we don’t see much anymore.”
While exteriors can be tricky for any cinematographer, Libatique says shooting in Palm Springs in November meant there was ample opportunity for immaculate lighting for outdoor scenes.
“At the end of the movie [spoiler alert], when Alice comes out after Jack dies, she comes out and this sort of happy accident of a low sun and these long palm tree shadows happened,” he said. “Palm trees, to me, are some of the most useless trees on the planet, they provide no shade, but in this instance the sun was so low that I had these long shadows and if you look at the movie, we really took advantage of it. We were shooting and I’m like, ‘Look, the women are in light and the men are in shadow,’ like it just happened that way in the blocking and we started to lean into it.”
The film reveals a twist midway through in which we learn that this community is actually a virtual, metaverse-like AR that’s being operated by the men, who are keeping these women (some of whom are their partners) in a comatose-like state with no memory of the “real world.” In these scenes, the true version of Styles’ character is revealed and he’s far less appealing than the debonair iteration we see in Victory.
So how does one make Harry Styles look unattractive? Libatique said it was a challenge, but they ended up using screen test footage in the finished film.
“It’s not easy with him,” Libatique said with a chuckle. “We were doing tests to see what we can do with his hair, makeup, what he’s wearing and it’s in the movie where he’s interviewing to be part of the Victory Project. We used that footage of the test because it was very honest, and it ended up being usable in the movie.”
Libatique continued, “It wasn’t hard to contrast the shininess of Victory that we were introduced to at the beginning of the film, but it wasn’t easy to try to make him unattractive. I’ll tell you that. Literally the color of the light and the amount of light in the room, the hair, the makeup, the glasses, the wardrobe, everything, I mean he’s still Harry Styles under there (laughs).”
The cinematographer admitted that as the release loomed and Warner Bros.’ “Project Popcorn” was announced, they were fearful the film might be released on HBO Max at the same time it was in theaters, despite it being crafted as a theatrical experience.
“While we were shooting, the HBO Max deal came out and everybody was like, ‘Oh wow, we’re gonna be on HBO right away,’ so it’s been great because people who’ve texted me or emailed me or called me, they’ve seen it in the theater,” Libatique said. “I’m just enjoying it, because who knows if it’ll ever happen again. Hopefully it does. But how incredible, in this day and age with everything that’s happened, people went to the theater to see the film. I couldn’t be happier about it. I’m enjoying it because I know that on the next film it could be completely different.”
And while the film opened solidly at the box office, reviews were largely unkind – something Libatique attributes, at least in part, to the controversy surrounding the film.
“I think some critics are just really smart at diagnosing why a film works or doesn’t work and what’s wrong with it, why it could have been better. But when the criticisms lead into sort of a personal attack, I’m just like, you’re dumbing down all the smart people that do this for a living, and I think that that’s a disservice,” he said. “It’s too bad. Because there are a lot of smart critics out there. People should go read Pauline Kael’s book and stop being gossipers.”
Next up, Libatique has Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale” opening in December and he just wrapped a reunion with “A Star Is Born” filmmaker Bradley Cooper on his next project, the Leonard Bernstein biopic “Maestro.”
“Don’t Worry Darling” is still playing in theaters and is now available on Digital.