MARYSE ALBERTI, the iconic face behind the camera

Sarah Hurtes
Sarah Hurtes

Maryse Alberti needs no introduction. One of the most pioneering cinematographers of her time, she built her own place in a world of DPs which was at the time largely dominated by men and still remains one of today's most leading-edge DP as more women have entered the field. Since the 1980s, she has shot a wide range of films, ranging between fiction and non-fiction, having worked with the world's biggest names, including Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler”), Todd Haynes (“Velvet Goldmine”, “Poison”), Amy Beg (“West of Memphis”) and long-time collaboration with Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “The Armstrong Lie” and “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks”). Maryse has won awards from the Sundance Film Festival and the Spirit Awards as well as being the first contemporary female cinematographer featured on the cover of American Cinematographer for her work on Todd Haynes' “Velvet Goldmine”.

Her three latest films are extremely exciting: M. Night Shyamalan's “The Visit,” which came out this September and garnered very positive reviews, Peter Sollett's “Freeheld” starring Julianne Moore, Ellen Page and Steve Carell which just hit theatres at the beginning of October, and Ryan Coogler's “Creed,” a spin off from the “Rocky” film series starring Sylvester Stallone, which Warner Bros. will release on 25 November.

Maryse, I've been told that you are unafraid to talk about the hot topic of gender equality!

Well then, let's go for it! All three movies that I recently worked on, each very different in terms of style and content, were all directed by men. And all three great directors were keen to have their film shot by a woman. To me, just this simple fact means that in the world of DPs, there's been huge progress. I've been doing this for more than 25 years now, and at the time when I began, there were very few of us. We're growing in numbers despite still being a minority. Besides, I don't get the same bullshit that I used to get 25 years ago: “can the little lady handle the big lights?” I don't see that happening today. I actually see more people in the cinema industry increasingly interested to work with women and I think many directors now take the conscious decision to work with female DPs. So in my field, and this is just my personal opinion, I think there's been tremendous progress.

What about in other fields?

In the field of female directors, it's terrible. That's something I fully agree with and I see it when male directors can have a couple of bad movies yet they're still going strong and can direct many more. A woman director, if she has one movie that doesn't do well, it will be harder for her to direct another one in the future. Studios don't seem to trust women directors. I've mostly worked with men in features and commercials in my 25 years – goes to show. So I believe in that field, there's still a lot of work to be done and that this clear gender divide urgently needs to be addressed. This also goes for women actors, it's crazy that still today we expect all female love interests to look and act like twenty- or thirty-year-olds embracing their male onscreen leads that are all in their fifties. I guess it's a reflection of our own society, which is sad. As for women producers, they seem to be growing in number, but that's just an observation.

Would you call yourself a feminist?

What's your definition of feminism?

To me there's not one single definition of feminism, but I don't want the eradication of men from this planet and I don't burn my bras on a daily basis as a political standpoint. I consider myself a feminist in the way that I want women and men to have equal opportunities and equal access to all kinds of things and for sexism to stop.

Well then yes I am a feminist. I believe that women and men should have equal rights, but I also believe that women and men are different and we should accept that and work around it. In the film industry, it's clear that women are constantly being denied opportunities and much of their work is barely recognized, in features as well as in commercials. To be honest, I was myself greatly surprised to have been approved by the studio to work with Ryan Coogler for the movie “Creed”. It's amazing that they combined an indie filmmaker with an indie cinematographer and it was definitely the right choice. I think Ryan Coogler himself was interested in working not with the usual DP for action movies. So that's progress. It's important to talk about the various inequalities that exist in the film industry but it's equally important to recognize the progress that has been made.

What about when you became a mother? Did that have a big impact on your career?

Absolutely. My career wouldn't be the same if I hadn't been a mother. Though I was lucky to have a husband who was a freelancer and we could take turns working. But sometimes both he and I felt like he missed out on great opportunities and I missed shooting many films I wanted to do. But I have no regrets. Though women have to make more choices because of the unequal way the family-sphere is structured, I think men should have to make these choices as well. I do believe that there are ways for women and men to have a more balanced life approach to these choices.

Can you talk to me about your film “Freeheld”?

“Freeheld” tells the story of a female detective lieutenant and her girlfriend who battle elected officials to be recognized as legal partners. It's through stories like this that we witness individuals standing up for their own rights and who end up changing the rules, also inspiring many others along the way. It was great to work with Ellen Page and Julianne Moore, who portrayed these strong female leads. They have an incredible presence on set and were great fun to work with. They also truly liked each other as human beings, which makes it easier to act! It was a very pleasant experience; Peter Sollett the director had a very calming presence on set and was a very nice guy to be around. I feel very lucky.

Do you think this movie will inspire people today?

Well yes, it's very political. On an interesting note, I wanted the sex in the movie between the two women to be less shy and more honest than it has previously been in the majority of films portraying lesbian couples. However, the producer aimed for the movie not to have an R tag so that it could be shown to a young audience, therefore reaching that teenager in the middle of nowhere and make him or her think about the message of the film. Even though I fought for this, it didn't work out and you still respect the choices of the people you work with. “Freeheld” remains an extremely powerful movie where you can truly feel the love both women share for one another.

What was it like working with the two other directors?

Working with Ryan Coogler on “Creed” was quite the experience. He's 29 now, and has a tremendous amount of talent and smarts. He's also a great collaborator with constant innovative thoughts. I think with “Creed” we did an amazing job, and I have a lot of respect for him tackling such a big project, “Creed” being a spin off from the “Rocky” film series. Many watched him closely. Working with M. Night Shyamalan was also wonderful because it was so different. I loved shooting “The Visit”. The film is funny and scary at the same time, I'd call it more a dark comedy rather than a horror movie.

What's your style as a DP?

So my style is – for one, I read the script, and then imagine and choose the styles that are going to suit the story best. You don't shoot “Freeheld” like you shoot “The Visit” or “Creed”. You discuss with the director – or so to say the artist or author – the palette of the film, the locations, trying to get a sense of the film itself. Sometimes there's more of an intellectual process – sometimes it's just instinct. Naturally you debate with the director at times, and I like that. I've always had a very collaborative relationship with all the directors that I worked with, I've never done a movie where I didn't like what the director was doing. And sometimes when I feel strongly about something I really stick up for – in life as in work!