Ryan Coogler has made two movies straight out of film school. They’re both pretty great. Fruitvale Station is his socially important film, and the oh-so-amazing Creed is his populist film. His next project will probably be Black Panther, Marvel’s first African-American led superhero movie. If Coogler does indeed end up being the man to bring us the story of T’Challa and his royal family in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, it’s a pretty safe bet that whoever he hires to be his cinematographer will be a woman. That’s exactly what he did with Fruitvale (lensed by Rachel Morrison) and Creed (lensed by Maryse Alberti).
Just in case you didn’t know, that’s not exactly normal, as indicated by Deadline’s September headline: “Female Cinematographers a Rarity in Hollywood.” There are only 14 active members of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), making up less than 4% of the group’s 360-person membership total. That makes cinematography the most male-dominated sector in Hollywood (worse than directing, writing, producing, etc.).
That’s part of the reason why so many people do a double take when you tell them that Creed was actually shot by a woman, commanding her own hand-picked crew of camera operators. It’s not so much a gendered reaction, e.g., “Well, I never dreamed a woman could have anything to do with a boxing movie” but more of a “I didn’t even know there were female cinematographers because you absolutely never hear about them.” Actually, to be honest, unless you’re a hardcore film nerd you pretty much never hear about cinematographers at all, except for scant references to Janusz Kaminski (the guy who now does Spielberg’s movies) or Wally Pfister (the guy who did all of the Christopher Nolan movies until Interstellar).
We typically focus on the guy in charge of everything, i.e., the director, but in the case of Creed Coogler has been quick to spread the love. In a recent interview with Variety, he opened up about how exactly it is that he came to work with two different female cinematographers and the surprising benefit of bringing in a female point of view to a seemingly testosterone-leaning sports movie:
Talk about Maryse a little bit. My jaw was on the ground when she told me you guys really pulled that single-shot fight sequence off in one take. I imagine “The Wrestler” is what attracted you to her for this project?
Oh, for sure. That was the work she had done that I was most familiar with. And then I did research on her other movies, because I wanted to know what her story was. I wanted to know why she did so many documentaries. So I talked to a few people that she worked with and she has such an incredible story where basically she kind of made a choice that when she had her son, she chose to do more documentaries so she could be around more, which I thought was really cool. This is before I talked to her on the phone. She’s such an interesting person. This is my second time working with a cinematographer who’s a woman. I worked with Rachel [Morrison] on “Fruitvale,” and Rachel was pregnant. She was having her son at the time [I was making “Creed”], so I got the opportunity to work with Maryse on this one. And she sees the world in such a unique way. She’s one of the most open-minded people that I’ve ever met. But at the same time very strong and always looking for story, which is always great to have in collaborators.
One thing I was interested in in crewing up from top to bottom is always trying to have as much diversity as possible. But I think diversity in gender is so important in filmmaking. Especially looking at boxing, because it’s very easy to say, “Yeah, we get a bunch of dudes in there to tell their story.” But she would see things that would happen and have ideas about things that were just so awesome, things I would never see. It was incredible. She was able to form a great relationship with the actors and it was a really incredible process working with her. I mean, look, her work ethic was amazing. We were able to pick up a great camera crew. Ben Semanoff was our “A” camera operator and he was just outstanding. And a big question that Maryse talked about was — we watched a lot of movies together. The big one we watched was “A Prophet,” which is probably my favorite movie. We watched it and we kind of talked about when are we going to use Steadicam? When are we going to be handheld? When are we going to be on tripod? Sometimes we would talk at ends about it and what was crazy about Ben was that his handheld was so good, oftentimes we’d have to tell him to breathe a little more.
He elaborated a little more on Maryse’s expertise:
Maryse really was in command of her crew. And in command of them in a way that would enable them to be artistic and creative. They weren’t just marching and following orders, which is the way I like to work as well.
Fun fact: Maryse, who was born in France, started her film career as a still photographer for New York-based adult films in the 1980s, and then lied her way into a job as an assistant camera operator on the indie movie Vortex. Flash forward to 2015 and she was the cinematographer not just for Creed but alsoThe Visit and Freeheld.
Back to Coogler, who name-checked some other female cinematographers he admires:
The thing about them is you’re going to see a lot of them transfer over into directing. You’ve got Reed Morano. You’ve got Rachel. You’ve got this woman named Natasha. I forget Natasha’s last name.
Yeah. And then you have – do you know Adam Arkapaw?
His wife, she shot “Palo Alto.” She’s incredible. She shot second unit on Arakpaw’s new movie with Derek Cianfrance, “The Light Between Oceans.” I’ve seen her work and it’s just outstanding. I mean, it’s something that needs to change fast. But the ones that are doing it are so talented I feel like they’re going to become directors. That’s the thing.
Then he went on the record with this:
I really feel like, you know — this is off the record — I feel like women are better filmmakers than men.
You really don’t want that on the record?
Yes, you can put that on the record.
I think you should put that on the record. It’s a powerful thing to say.
Put it on the record. I mean, it’s true, bro. In film school, life, whatever, they’re equipped to do this job, in many ways, better than us. They’re infinitely more complex than we are. Stronger and sharper. So, you know, we’re going to get better movies [if we have more female filmmakers]. The industry would improve. That’s the best thing I could say about that. They’ve got to be given the opportunity.
The cool thing about Coogler’s experience, to me, is that he’s not out there jumping on a trend or acknowledging the obvious, i.e., the industry should try harder to hire more women. Instead, he’s pointing to his time on Creed and admitting that his movie is better because he had someone like Maryse Alberti around to offer her point of view.
For her part, Maryse has been equally prone to throw love Coogler’s way, telling The Examiner, “I feel very lucky to be called to do Creed. I loved working with Ryan Coogler, who is smart, talented, generous and he created a really nice vibe on the set. Sylvester Stallone was great. Within the structure of a ‘Rocky’ movie, we really did a great job. It really put new life into the franchise. And we have Ryan to thank for that.”
Maybe both of them will earn Oscar nominations next week. No woman has ever been nominated for Best Cinematography, and Alberti’s work in Creed is more than deserving.