Todd Haynes loves period films, and capturing the look of the eras’ movies, but he doesn’t stop there; he’s obsessed with the visual languages as well. And all of that would be impossible without Haynes’ longtime cinematographer Edward Lachman, who takes a forensic approach: If you want the look, it makes sense to use the tools and production modes that created it.
In “Far From Heaven,” Lachman figured out how to recreate the manufactured studio look of Douglas Sirk’s 1950s Universal melodramas, while shooting on real locations. For “Carol,” he mirrored the color palette and sense of composition of mid-century color photographers like Saul Leiter.
Lachman and Haynes’ latest collaboration on “Wonderstruck” – which just premiered at Cannes to rave reviews and is in the early poll position for the Palme d’Or – presented Lachman with two distinct challenges. The film interweaves the stories of Rose and Ben, two characters living in New York City during two very different eras: the 1920s and the 1970s.
Before Lachman left for Cannes, IndieWire talked to cinematographer to learn he shot “Wonderstruck.” The following are his words, very lightly edited.
1920s Silent Films
What lent Brian Selznick’s book so well to being adapted was it deals with the deaf culture and this deaf girl, Rose. Sign language is a very visual language. The silent movie aesthetic really worked toward telling her story. In a weird way, I say she hears with images.
The first third of “Wonderstruck” is almost like a silent film, which in a way is a metaphor or mirrors the world Rose lives in. She immerses herself in the city, but you are seeing the city in silence, which helps the viewer become part of her perception of the world she’s living in.
The story takes place in 1927 and the filmmakers we were referencing came out of German Expressionism; they were moving the camera and much more experimental than the other black-and-white silent directors. These were the apex of the best silent films. Specifically, we referenced F. W. Murnau’s “The Last Laugh,” King Vidor’s “The Crowd, ” and Victor Sjöström’s “The Wind.”
Black & White 35mm
Rose’s portion of the film was shot on black-and-white negative. I got Kodak to make Double-X Negative and I shot with the Arricam. We wanted to shot on 35mm negative rather than shooting digitally and transposing that into black and white, which a lot of people do. But Todd and I both realized in our work on “I’m Not There” that the exposure latitude is different in black and white negative than color film, or digital; the grain structure is different, and so for all those reasons we wanted the texture of what film could have looked like back then. So I used filters, older lenses — my old Cooke Speed Panchros, which could have been used back then. I tried to use the technology of the black-and-white period as close as I could, including using tungsten lights outdoors, rather than HMIs.
Ben’s 1970s New York
Both stories take place in New York. Ben comes from Gunflint, Minn., and like Rose his is a search for what is missing in his life, but where we created the viewer’s point of view for Rose through the language on 1920s silent film, Ben’s world is one of colorful prose of thoughts and feeling through words. He’s someone who hears, but becomes deaf.
There was economic prosperity in 1920s in New York, whereas the city was bankrupt in the ’70s. There was suburbanization of the culture and the flight of the middle class. New York didn’t have the money to fulfill the social services, so we needed to feel this paucity in the film. The streets Ben finds himself on are very foreboding.
For this portion of the film, we looked at the Owen Roizman film “The French Connection” [Roizman was the cinematographer, William Friedkin the director]. That gritty ’70s look, the naturalism and raw movement of the camera was the perfect contrast to black and white expressionism.
Up next: Going against the grain, and looking for advice from the “The French Connection.”