A Look Back at Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s First Hollywood Movie, Gen X Classic ‘Reality Bites’

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According to legend, before us hyper-ambitious, underemployed, multi-hyphenate millennials came around, there was a generation of coffee-drinking, directionless slackers with relatively ample job opportunities known as Generation X. Their story has been passed down to us through grunge music, Richard Linklater, and a small movie directed by a young man named Ben Stiller. Yes, before Zoolander and The Cable Guy showed off Stiller’s — eh — unique sense of humor, producer Michael Shamberg had handed him a screenplay by an up-and-coming 20-something writer that for many has come to define a generation.

The film was 1994’s Reality Bites, and aside from a 28-year-old Stiller — who in addition to directing, acted in a supporting role — it brought together some of the brightest stars of 90s Hollywood: including Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, and Jeneane Garofalo. The story of a group of four friends finding their way after college seemed to capture the spirit of a generation innately skeptical of mainstream success, but unclear about its alternatives. And true to form, Gen Xers initially rejected the film as corporate studio pandering only to embrace it as the years went on.

In addition to kickstarting the cinematic careers of Stiller and Garofalo, few realize that Reality Bites was also a milestone for Latino Hollywood. No, Winona Ryder is not a quarter Chilean, nor was the Latino experience even mentioned in the film’s screenplay, but the man responsible for the film’s subtle, atmospheric cinematography was none other than Emmanuel “El Chivo” Lubezki, in his first U.S. production. Of course, we all know El Chivo as the innovative, Academy Award-winning eye behind some of this generation’s most groundbreaking films (Gravity, Birdman), but in 1994 he was just a thirty-year-old immigrant with a couple of Mexican productions under his belt, trying to make a name for himself in la gran industria.

Naturally, the experience wasn’t without its culture shock. In an expansive oral history of the production compiled by the magazine Hitfix, Lubezki recalled being taken aback when Ryder was treated as a sort of demigod by the crew — a fact that didn’t really jibe with her down-to-earth persona. Also shocking to El Chivo was how dispersed American families were: he found that many of the crew had left home for college and lived far from their families, with divorced parents residing in different cities or even states.

But luckily for him, El Chivo had a little slice of Nuestra América as his right-hand man in the form of Colombian camera operator Rodrigo García. Recognize the name? Sure, García is pretty run-of-the mill as far as far as Hispanic last names go, but this García also happens to be the son of one Gabriel García… Márquez. But despite his father’s monumental shadow, Rodrigo has made a respectable name for himself in the U.S. film industry — first as a camera operator and cinematographer, and more recently as a celebrated indie filmmaker.

So could we say that Latin Americans working in the U.S. are responsible for giving a voice to an entire generation? It would be a stretch, but we’re going to say it anyway. So post up at your local coffee shop, tune out the folk singer-songwriter chugging away in the corner, and enjoy this look at some of El Chivo’s more glorious moments from Reality Bites.

In this deceptively simple clip Winona Ryder’s Lelaina Pierce comes home to find Troy Dyer, played by Ethan Hawke, moving onto her couch after losing his apartment. The scene’s dynamic movement is captured by an effortlessly moving camera that favors longer tracking shots over quick cuts. The interior lighting scheme is rich with depth and texture, as Lubezki let’s a backlight pouring in through the window illuminate the actors with an ethereal halo.

Here El Chivo takes on an early date scene between Lelaina and Stiller’s character, Michael Grates. The static situation and classic setup allows Lubezki to focus on the romance of the situation, with soft, warm lighting punctuated by cool blues. Despite the tight frames and dim lighting, he makes masterful use of props like lamps and a fishtank to create a sense of depth. Who would have thought Ben Stiller could ever look so dreamy? Only El Chivo…

This climactic scene between finds Lelaina confronting Troy about his go-nowhere lifestyle and in a strange way, revealing how much she truly cares about him. Lubezki let’s a series of practical lamps fill out the room with moody pools of light and intelligently keeps the camera fixed squarely on the actors.

Yes, this is the obligatory and self-explanatory romantic comedy scene. El Chivo takes on an exterior location and uses a hazy dawn light and angelic backlights on the characters to give this emotive scene just the right understated mood.