Pick a period and he’ll nail the look; choose an emotion and he’ll layer it visually. Over a 40-year career, cinematographer Ed Lachman has developed a story-driven approach to the films he’s shot, stemming from his beginnings in European cinema with Wim Wenders, Jean-Luc Godard, and under DPs Sven Nykvist and Vittorio Storraro. He’s also joined with American auteurs, like frequent collaborator Todd Haynes (“Far From Heaven”, “I’m Not There”), Steven Soderbergh (“The Limey”, “Erin Brockovich”) and Sofia Coppola (“The Virgin Suicides”), each time delivering occasionally experimental period pieces.
The Playlist’s recent feature on Lachman’s work acknowledged his influence, as did the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: his latest film, Haynes’ drama “Carol” (our review), earned Lachman his second Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography (after “Far From Heaven” in 2003). Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt,” the films is a stunning rush of elements, from Haynes’ lush direction, to Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara’s performances, and to the textured Super 16 look devised by Lachman. He wrote about the process for Indiewire in two parts, yet Lachman spoke with the Playlist about “Carol,” his other work with Haynes, and just how he ended up on the side of a volcano with Werner Herzog.
You’ve said that while making “Mildred Pierce” leading into “Carol,” you didn’t realize how much people saw color differently in the ‘40s and ‘50s. What was that realization?
Before starting “Mildred Pierce,” we looked at color chips from that period for reference, and we found they were much more muted and grey. So we looked at color, clothing and the way people decorated their homes. Everything was going toward the war then; there wasn’t this optimism in the late ‘50s that came out of commercialism. When you look at the early color photography of still photographers experimenting in this period, like Ruth Orkin or Vivian Maier, you see that it wasn’t “color” photography per se. It was Ektachrome, so the colors weren’t a full color spectrum the way they are now. I tried to equate this look in “Carol” to find some kind of representation for the characters’ emotional state through the texture of the grain.
Another reference coming out of “Mildred Pierce” was this photographer that worked in the ‘50s named Saul Leiter, who used street photography as his art. It was more about the textures and charged reality that he was creating, almost like abstract expressionism. He was documenting subject matter, but through expressionistic terms. In “Carol,” we weren’t trying to over-romanticize the world. We tried to create this sort of isolation of desire through the characters’ own views: diner windows, department stores, glass splattered with raindrops, street reflections, street lights, winter weather.
What projects have held your favorite working memories?
There’s this director, Ulrich Seidl, who’s not very well known in this country. I think working on his films [“Import/Export,” the “Paradise” trilogy] is great; I love the way he plays with fiction and reality. I certainly like working with Todd Haynes as well, so I’d say in the European context, I like my work with Seidl, and then Todd over here.
How did you come to travel with Werner Herzog to an island with an active volcano for [the 1977 documentary] “La Soufriere”?
I was too young to know any better. In film, you always feel kind of invincible, as if having the camera between you and the world gives you a certain license, and that you can control the world that you’re part of. But that isn’t necessarily true. On that film, there were two of us, myself and a German cameraman, Jörg [Schmidt-Reitwein]. I was in New York at the time, and Werner called me very early at five in the morning. He said that he had read about people that were living on the side of this volcano that was going to erupt. My reaction then was simply "what film stock are we shooting?" It was totally on a pragmatic level.
Werner told me he would meet me in Guadaloupe. So I got to the island, got my camera, and… no Herzog. Meanwhile, they were evacuating people, and the island’s shaking like a butterfly. So I’m thinking, “Oh my God, this German got me all the way to Guadaloupe, and now I’m gonna die here.” But soon enough, Werner arrived and off we went to find this group of people. The island had this incredible peacefulness, and the city was totally evacuated. One day, Werner went up the mountain with Jörg to look for this man, leaving me in this town. I asked Werner as he was leaving what was going to happen if the volcano erupts. He said, "go to the harbor and there’ll be a boat there to pick you up." But right after he left, I thought "what boat? How are they going to know I’m here? " Obviously though, being with Herzog gives you a certain strength. So you don’t question it.
On “The Virgin Suicides," you had the opportunity to help lay the groundwork for Sofia Coppola’s career. What ideas did she present to you working on that film?
Sofia is very talented and very intelligent. She has her own voice, and I think that’s the film where people realized it. She wasn’t someone else’s protégé or just the daughter of a great director. She saw her script and her actors, and she was able to implement a visual language to tell that story. I was aware of the tone she was aiming for —a difference between the male and female worlds, and of what’s unobtainable and unknown. That’s why I tried to create the two worlds visually: one of the girls inside being locked in their house with magentas and blues, and then one with the boys outside in this more austere sunlight and stronger saturated color. I also used a film stock that was created for television, a lower-contrast stock at the time, Kodak 5277, that had a more muted tone. I had to find what was left of that stock, because it was discontinued.
How often have you worked in television?
I actually haven’t really worked in television. I did “Mildred Pierce” for HBO, and then I did one pilot called “Tribeca” years ago. I always have great respect for people who work in television because of the schedule that they have to work under. But I just finished a film with Todd Solondz, “Weiner Dog”, which we had a very limited budget on. You give up one thing for another. He’s a very talented filmmaker, so I opt to give up money and time to work on films that are very admirable for what they’re trying to achieve.
As the last DP to work with Steven Soderbergh before he turned into his own cinematographer, have you seen his approach to period filmmaking on “The Knick”, and how do you see his shift into a DP?
I guess I made it look too easy [laughs]! I haven’t seen “The Knick,” but I really respect Steven’s work and I strongly support whatever he does. He has a great eye and I think he has always made his own films, like “Schizopolis.” I think he missed the physical part of making a film. Being a director, for instance watching the monitor, I think he loves the engagement. A lot of people say that the operator is the first audience for the actor, and I think he likes that participation in the experience of making a film. I think he’s bored with directing and he enjoys the process of creating the images.
Who are the crew you call first when you start a project?
I’ve worked with the same gaffer for 30 years —John DeBlau is an artist in his own right. He’s retired but he comes out to work for me. What’s wonderful is he feels light the way I do. He understands that creating an image isn’t just about using lights; it’s how you use lights to create an image. I don’t like to necessarily go in and create an environment that doesn’t account for where the windows are, where a door is, or where the lamp is. I think a lot of “Carol” has a certain naturalism in its aesthetic. It’s not referencing period films of the ‘40s or ‘50s, and it’s not expressionistic lighting. It’s what I call a “lived-in reality.” I also have a grip, Jim McMillan, who I’ve worked with for 15 years. He’s an incredible dolly grip and crane operator, and now he’s a cinematographer doing second unit on “Daredevil” in New York. And these are all good friends; I see them as much off the set as on it.
A film like “I’m Not There” is so technically dense in its period-jumping approach that it must’ve taken such a unified crew to stay on the same page.
We had to break down all of the different visual approaches. Todd had a lookbook and I had a booklet. One of the first decisions was to actually shoot in B&W instead of shooting in color and transferring it. We could still get B&W negative then, and there was a lab in Seattle that was developing B&W. So we shot Super 16, we shot 35mm —every other week I was in a different format. The difficulty was trying to change different film stocks, as well as different visual styles and lighting, because we were talking about the evolution of Bob Dylan‘s creative life through cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s, like Nicolas Roeg’s films, “Petulia,” Fellini, Antonioni, early Godard.
I imagine even a creative choice like referencing D.A. Pennebaker in the “Don’t Look Back” period of Dylan’s career didn’t come easily.
Actually, the D.A. Pennebaker stuff was something that Todd eschewed. “Don’t Look Back” wasn’t the best representation of Bob Dylan, because it was being seen from the outside. That’s why instead we referenced stuff like “8½,” where the character is going through all these doubts, running from his fans and the responsibilities of his professional life. The part that is often called the “D.A. Pennebaker section” was really referencing a film that I had done called “Say Amen, Somebody” about gospel music, directed by George T. Nierenberg. In the film, it’s the part where Dylan becomes born again, and that took me back in the fundamentalist and black gospel churches.
The film you shot after “I’m Not There” was Todd Solondz’s “Life During Wartime,” another ensemble film about fragmented identity. When you’re in the middle of production, can you easily imagine these thematic elements playing off one another?
You set up certain visual styles and limitations to what you’re doing, but you don’t really see the totality of it until it’s all cut together. You just have to know you’re trying to be true to what your stylistic approaches are. You can’t say emphatically whether it’s working or not. I try to put myself in the process, so the process hopefully speaks back to me. I’ve always said that one of the hardest things about being a cinematographer or director is being consistent in your stylistic approach. What I don’t like is when people see a film one week and think “that film looks cool, so let’s try that.”
Speaking of the process, I feel like something like [Larry Clark’s] “Ken Park” sprang out of frustration with the studio treatment and recut of “Less Than Zero” —is there any truth to that?
[Laughs] I’m afraid that might have been partly true. Marek [Kanievska’s] original cut of “Less Than Zero” was a wonderful film, very different to what eventually came out. It came out during a very moralistic time in Hollywood. Can you believe they took out a scene with the Red Hot Chili Peppers simply because they didn’t have their shirts on and were sweaty? It was an incredible Steadicam shot that started from a roof all the way down into a club, and they took it out!
“Carol” is in theatres now.