Making The Wrestler Real

Cinematographer Maryse Alberti on creating a documentary-like fiction
by David Schwartz  posted February 13, 2009
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Like the wrestling fan who knows that the action is contrived but willingly pretends that it's real, most moviegoers seek a blend of artifice and authenticity. This is why The Wrestler, built around a fearless performance by Mickey Rourke that merges actor and role into a saga of self-abuse and redemption, is such a captivating experience. The fascination comes from the way that Mickey Rourke is going through a real physical ordeal, along with his character, Randy "The Ram" Robinson.

The realism of The Wrestler is the result of an extraordinary level of craft. Darren Aronofsky's casting of Rourke was, of course, the essential choice. But his decision to hire Maryse Alberti as his director of photography was also critical. Based in New York, the French-born cinematographer is prolific and versatile; she shoots narrative films, documentaries, and fine-art projects. Her filmography includes a wide range of provocative films by such directors as Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Poison), Todd Solondz (Happiness), Terry Zwigoff (Crumb), and Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room). She talked with Moving Image Source about her work on one of the year's most acclaimed movies.

How did you get involved with The Wrestler? Did you know Darren before?

I knew of him, but I didn't know him. I got a call. My agent put my name in the mix because Darren was looking for someone who does documentary and fiction. I talked to Darren on the phone, met him, started to work with him, and never stopped.

What did he tell you he was going for in the movie?

In our first conversation with him, he told me that a very strong influence for the style of The Wrestler would be the Dardenne brothers, who made Rosetta and L'Enfant, so right away I had a strong image of the camera style. I knew the camera would be handheld. And it would be grounded in realism. It was not going to be as radical as the Dardenne movies, which have no music and very little lighting, but that was a good base to start.

So what does that mean when you're shooting the film? You're working with professional actors, and Aronofsky is such a cerebral director.

He decided to do something different. He told me that he usually storyboards everything. Here, we had no storyboard at all. We went on location with an idea of what we were going to do, but he wanted me to give a lot of room for improvisation, to him and the actors. He wanted me to light 360°. So we worked like that.

And with an actor like Mickey Rourke, you don't give him marks, you don't tell him, "Go there and do that," so in that spirit we didn't approach the film in the traditional sense, where actors come on the film and they block, and the actor goes away for makeup, and then we light and shoot. No. We came to the set, we sort of lit the set, Mickey was in his trailer in full wardrobe and makeup, and he came in, and we shot. It was a different way of working where everybody had to be on their toes.

How do you feel you fit into the equation of helping to get that performance?

It's about how ready you are on the set and what kind of atmosphere you create on the set. Part of the job of the director of photography is to do the image that you have envisioned but also to give the space to the director and to the actor to give the performance.

What are some of the things that help with that? Does it have to do with the size of the crew? Your mobility?

It's the size of the crew, of course. And we shot in 16mm, so it's a small camera. So to move the camera and change angle is very quick. The best cinematographers can do really beautiful images but also give everybody time to do their work. Because if the performance isn't there, the image can be there but there's no movie.

What was it like being in the front row with Mickey Rourke? Was he always in character?

No [laughs]. Mickey is not the kind of guy who's always in character. Mickey is Mickey Rourke. But then again, the character he plays is a little bit like Mickey Rourke—but he's not flamboyant like Mickey Rourke!

The film reminded me a bit of Crumb because it is an intimate portrait of a misfit. What connection did you see between this film and your documentary work?

One can say that the handheld camera is documentary-like, but not all documentaries are handheld. All the wrestlers that you see in the movie are real; they're not actors. All the wrestling matches that we shot were filmed within real events. So in that sense there was a strong documentary element. You had to be prepared to jump in and deal with the rowdy crowd.

The scene with the guys talking before the match about how they're going to approach the fights: "Oh, I'm gonna take the head....You're going to take..." I think that Darren told these guys, Just talk how you would talk before a match, and prepare yourself. Tape your hands. I just went in and followed the action. We really tried to go into that world with as little interference as we could. Darren would go into the ring and explain to the crowd that we're making a movie, so once in a while we're going to jump into the ring and film a scene, and then come back. And the crowd was really into it, so that was an element of documentary. Once the show started, you had to go with it.

What about your approach with the other scenes? Aside from using handheld?

I like to use a minimal amount of equipment. If it was a $25 million movie, there would have been many more lights and reflectors. I basically had a little handheld light and a white card. Darren was interested that I could do a movie like Velvet Goldmine, which was all about style, and I could really light, but also do a documentary, which I could light with very few tools. So applying that, I could really light a sequence if I had to, like the strip club. But the exteriors, I was not afraid to go with minimal lighting. In the supermarket, or the autograph signing, I just changed a few bulbs. That comes from the world of documentary. Sometimes you're in a place and you say, it looks good, you just have to change a bulb there, or turn something off there, and that's it, we're ready.

There's a lightness, you're less encumbered by machines, so it's easier to go with an idea.

What has your feeling been about the response?

It's always great to work hard, and then see that people like what you've done. I'm proud of the film. It's always good to have a pat on the back. But in terms of filmmaking, the most important person for me to please is me!  


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Courtesy Niko Tavernise
The director Darren Aronofsky and the cinematographer Maryse Alberti on the set of The Wrestler


David Schwartz is the Chief Curator at the Museum of the Moving Image. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor in Cinema Studies at Purchase College.

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