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An Interview with DP Barbara Alvarez


Barbara Alvarez is a cinematographer known for The Headless Woman, The Second Mother, Whisky and Utama. I spoke with Barbara about training as a cinematographer, collaborating with Lucrecia Martel, and shooting The Second Mother.




Where did you train as a cinematographer?


I trained working as a matter of fact. I studied Social Communication in Montevideo, Uruguay. In those days we didn’t have any film school or anything so there was no specific film academic formation for me. During my last years of studies, I began working as a camera assistant. After that, I worked as a camera operator and then as director of photography.



Alvarez behind the scenes of Utama (2022)

How did you get your first break in the industry?


The first feature film I did was in 2000, it was called 25 Watts. I was friends with the directors and it was a summer movie. They didn’t have any money to shoot it, so everyone did it for free. That was my first feature film and that movie did very well in festivals. That gave me the opportunity to work in other films.


Where did you first meet Lucrecia Martel?


I met her three weeks before starting shooting The Headless Woman. They had hired another cinematographer, but it didn’t work out with him, so they started looking for someone else. I was one of the options. The producer contacted me, I was in Montevideo and a few days later had to be in Buenos Aires to meet her and the crew. I said yes as soon as they offered me the job, as I was a fan of Lucrecia’s work. She still is one of my favourite directors and I had the chance to work with her, so it was pretty great.


What initial conversations did you have with Lucrecia about The Headless Woman?


We didn’t have a lot of time to talk about the film but that somehow didn’t seem to be a big problem. I read the script. We ran some tests with the film. It was really all very fast. We talked about general stuff and how she wanted the main character Maria to be seen in the frame. Lucrecia liked a film which I had shot before that one, which was Whisky. I loved La Ciénaga and The Holy Girl. It was a very intuitive work that I did with her.

What was the process like collaborating with Lucrecia?


We would go to visit a location on a tech scouting. She’s not the kind of director that tells from a visit where she will put the camera and in what way things will happen. She would feel the space and leave it to the day of the shooting to block the scene.

During the shooting, for example, on some interior we would put the camera in the place that she told me and I would start lighting. Meanwhile, the actors would be there rehearsing the scene with her. After maybe an hour of rehearsing, she would say this isn’t the right place for the camera. The first time was shocking as we wasted a lot of time, but then we would choose another angle and do everything again, all the lighting and the rehearsing but then everything worked so much better. Every time that happened, in the end, everything worked so much better than the previous attempts.


She’s a very funny person too, that helped balance with the moments of absolute concentration from everybody that a shooting needs. Those are my memories about that process.


You were also DP on The Second Mother. Could you discuss your approach to shooting the swimming pool sequence, and why you opted to shoot the scene in slow-motion?


I’m not very fond of slow-motion, however, Anna the director was sure about it. When the director is sure about something, I don’t discuss it and if I don’t mind, then I’ll go with it, unless I really don’t think it’s a good thing to do, in that case it was ok.



Were there any creative references you looked at beforehand?


Anna has the same main reference for every movie, which is Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. We end up watching that film for every movie we’ve done together. It’s more of a spiritual thing, not necessarily influenced by the light or the camera, but it’s the spirit of the movie.


Was there a particular sequence that was the most challenging to capture?

The rain scene when Jessica leaves the house was kind of difficult in a way because of the weather. Here in São Paulo, it rains almost every day during the summer. That summer it used to begin to rain around five or six in the afternoon, so we’d have to shoot the exterior scenes as fast as we could before the rain started. That particular week it wasn’t raining much and we needed a heavy rain for the scene. The budget couldn’t afford special rain effects so we thought we would have to shoot it as it was. A minute after starting shooting a storm cracked the sky and tons of water fell intensively, we finally were able to shoot one of the most important scenes in the film and the rain gave the dramatic touch that we had longed for.



Who are your DP inspirations?


It’s more a specific film of a DP that works as an inspiration for me, I don’t remember all of them because there is a lot of amazingly photographed films but here is a short list of what comes to mind right now: Gordon Willis’ cinematography from The Godfather, Jordan Cronenweth’s Blade Runner, Ellen Kuras’ Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

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