"When I was younger, I never had a good time directing," admits cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. "I suffered too much. Every time I directed, I crashed my car, because I was so concerned that the day's work had been okay, that I had achieved what I wanted." But after two decades, four Oscar nominations, and a resume that includes collaborations with everyone from the Coen Brothers to Traktor, "Chivo"—a nickname he's had since attending primary school in his native Mexico—is ready to take the helm as a director and recently signed to Station Film for commercial representation. Lubezki says that may just be because he's gotten comfortable enough as a DP that he's ready to take on the additional duties. "I don't have to be watching the guitar as I play so much," he says. "I learned how to play the guitar, finally."
Not only that, but he has jammed with the best. At film school in Mexico City, Lubezki was part of an artistic cooperative with Alfonso Cuarón—a group defined by its dual allegiances to art house directors like Bergman and Fellini and Hollywood auteurs like Scorsese and Coppola—with whom he has since collaborated on a half dozen movies, including Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men. He's also worked with the Coens (Burn After Reading) Tim Burton (Sleepy Hollow), Michael Mann (Ali) and Terrence Mallick (The New World and the forthcoming Tree of Life). On the commercial front, he's shot GE spots for Traktor, a milk campaign with Fredrik Bond, and Las Vegas tourism commercials for Jim Jenkins. "I've been shooting for a long time, I've learned from all these great directors, and I think I can bring a lot to the table," Lubezki says.
Surveying his reel, one can see both of his film school influences. There is the airy magical realism of the "Wind" spot he shot with Traktor for GE, on the one hand, and the gritty realism of Children of Men, on the other. The latter, in particular, has been hailed as both an artistic and technical achievement for which Lubezki earned his fourth Oscar nomination. Resisting film's seemingly inherent tendency to glamorize violence, he and Cuarón executed two extended tracking sequences—one a car chase, the other a seven-minute battlefield scene—that left viewers breathless and fellow filmmakers awed.
"I think what keeps me interested in what I do is that I can go from one thing to another and try not to repeat myself," he says. "One of the things that I enjoy doing is going from one style to another without imposing something onto an idea. You really have to try to untangle the secret in the script. And when you find it, everything works." Speaking of how things work, Lubezki has one interesting pet peeve—albeit an understandable one for a DP who invented a new kind of rig to capture the car chase in Children of Men: DVD extras that explain how things were shot. "I think that stuff should be forbidden," he says, comparing it to a magician who gives away the secrets behind his tricks. "The less people know about cinematography, the better I feel. When I read a review of a movie and nobody talks about me, I think I have succeeded."