Editor’s Note: From the gritty realism of the Great Depression in “Mildred Pierce” to the lush haze of the seventies in “The Virgin Suicides,” no one recreates the past quite like master cinematographer Edward Lachman. We asked him about his secrets and he wrote us two master classes about his long collaboration with director Todd Haynes. In his first article, he focused on creating period piece naturalism in “Carol,” and in this second part his delves into the unique task of recreating the look of Douglas Sirk’s 1950s technicolor melodramas in Haynes’s 2002 “Far From Heaven” — right in time for a new Sirk retrospective launching today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Todd Haynes comes from a world of semiology and he often uses film language as a metaphor for storytelling in his films. In 2002, Todd wanted to see if he could reach people’s emotions through the artifice of melodrama, like Douglas Sirk did 60 years ago. It wasn’t just to make the film look like a Douglas Sirk picture from the fifties, but using melodrama’s heightened gestures and mannered stylization to express the characters’ stories of disillusionment in their picture perfect worlds. With “Far From Heaven,” Todd references this Sirkian world, where surface beauty serves as a form of repression, to deal with modern issues surrounding sexuality, gender and racism.
My challenge with “Far From Heaven” was that these Sirk films we were referencing — such as “All That Heaven Allows,” “Imitation of Life” and “Written on the Wind” — were shot on the Universal
Studios’ backlot and soundstages, while I was recreating their artifice and studio look while shooting on locations in New Jersey.
The Relationship Between Interior and Exterior Light
One thing I began to realize was in with those backlot studio films, you were always seeing the outdoors through the windows. In a more naturalistic period film, like we created in “Carol” and “Mildred Pierce,” when you are inside the locations it is more difficult to control the sunlight, so even when we were on a set I let the windows burn out to give the feeling of naturalism of shooting on location.
I lit the interiors in “Far From Heaven” using the effect of studio light — hard, focused overhead light — where characters are walking from one light source to another, rather than a softer, more general lighting scheme, often associated with the light emanating from the windows. Then the tricky part becomes balancing the exterior light to that interior lighting because sunlight is always changing. Generally, I let the windows go three or four stops over, but with “Far From Heaven” I tried to keep it within a stop so that it felt more unnatural, as if we were on a set on a stage.
I was fortunate in our exteriors because it was very overcast the month we shot “Far From Heaven.” The even exterior light mixed with the large tungsten lights, creating the warmth of sunlight, which helped recreate the artifice of fall colors. Outdoors, I used these big 10k tungsten lights, called big eyes. I would hit the trees, leaves and actors whenever I could and that gave the exteriors scenes an autumnal warmth.
Sirk’s cameraman, Russell Metty, lit his characters with almost portrait and noir lighting, rather than lighting the environment from motivated light sources, which is the approach I took in creating the naturalism of films like “Mildred Pierce” and “Carol.” In the Sirkian world of “Far From Heaven” I used more studio and back light than I normally would, which separates and isolates the characters from their environment.
In modern cinematography
, if you see a light on the wall or lamp in frame, you believe the light in the room is emanating from those sources. In those forties and fifties films shot in a studio, they would set up lights on a grid above and you would actually see a shadow of that lamp on the wall, because they were recreating the light with another light source. I attempted to recreate studio lighting with fresnel lights (lensed lights), which are harder (which creates shadows) than the soft or bounce lights that are more common in a contemporary films. I did my best in our location settings — which was difficult because of the low ceilings of real locations — to mirror the overhead grid lighting they used in the fifties.
The other aspect of a Sirkian world is the color palette is more painterly, being used to express the characters’ emotional states. So I usually played with a two-color palette of warm and cool colors, where the warm gel advances and the cool gel recedes. This came out of my studying painting at art school. If you use contrasting colors, they make the image stand out and give depth to the image. If someone is in a cool environment, but it’s edged by a warm light, you are going to see the person stand out against the coolness. Getting the colors right comes from working with costume designer Sandy Powell and production designer Mark Friedberg and doing a number of color tests, using different gels with the various sets and wardrobe.
Wider Lenses and Claustrophobic Framing
Today people like using longer lenses for close-ups. Sirk, however, would use wider lenses — 25mm or 32mm, imprisoning his characters against the banister of the stairs, the doorway and the architecture of the set. Todd felt the wide angles were more oppressive because everything is visible; there was no escaping the vantage point of the camera. The characters are limited by the way they are placed in the frame, almost as if they are entrapped by their environment.
There’s only one time the camera moves and frees Cathy, allowing her to be with someone alone in the frame. That’s when she meets with Raymond outside and the camera dollies in as there’s an emotional exchange and he tells her they can’t have a relationship. Then they are isolated from each other, but not encased by the architecture of the space.
Shooting on Film, Older Lens and Rear Projection
I have a set of old Cooke speed panchro lenses that would have been used in the fifties. By using this old glass and shooting on film, I was able to at least partially create the feeling you were looking at a film from the fifties. It also helped that we did not go through a digital intermediate [movies shot on film today are finished digitally] and so even the opticals and the color grading was done photo chemically, rather than being digitally manipulated.
When they were driving, we could have easily filmed that on location with period cars, but we did it with rear projection — the way it would have been done back then. The really crazy thing is we got the actual plate shots from Universal that Sirk used. When Cathy’s driving to Raymond’s gardening shop, those were plates from “Written on the Wind.”
There is no magic formula to shooting a period film. When working with a great director like Todd Haynes, each film has its own language and is referencing the past in different ways. What we did in recreating the artifice of Douglas Sirk in “Far From Heaven” is virtually the exact opposite of the techniques we used in documenting the period naturalism of “Mildred Pierce” and “Carol.”
READ MORE: Rooney Mara Explains Why ‘Carol’ is not a Political Film
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