It is sometimes hard to remember how young a medium moving pictures are compared to other art forms. When taking into account how films incorporate sound, music, movement, color, composition, design, visual effects, acting and narrative, the possibilities can seem overwhelming. Yet we live in a time when too often the films that fill our theaters feel derivative.
“Godard once said to me, ‘you know why all films look alike?’” said cinematographer Ed Lachman in an interview with IndieWire. “He said, ‘Because they have a 1000 foot magazine [the light-tight chamber that holds film stock]. If they were only a 100 foot magazine, films would look different.’ I understand what he was saying. The means that we have today in the digital world we can shoot forever, that’s going to change how we use our shots.”
How the filmmaking tools of different eras shaped those movies is something Lachman and director Todd Haynes study and research like historians while preparing to shoot their own films. And what’s fascinating about the collaborators’ period work is that in their conscience effort to mirror the tools, mode of production and visual language of their story’s era, they end up creating something incredibly exciting and new.
“I think what period films do in general – and what I think I probably as a director take further – is it puts up a frame around the story,” said Haynes in an interview with IndieWire. Haynes wants to call attention to the filmmaking apparatus and force the viewer to be conscience of his relationship to the past on screen, while at the same time participate in the emotion of the story. “To me that’s the sweet spot in great movies, is that you aren’t emotionally neutered, you’re also not just intellectual, both things are happening.”
With “Far From Heaven,” Haynes first collaboration with Lachman, the cinematographer allowed the director to apply these ideas and approach on a far bigger, richer and cinematically believable canvas. For “Heaven,” Haynes wanted to use the language of Douglas Sirk’s 1950s technicolor melodramas, but while shooting on location in the modern suburbs of New Jersey. Somehow, Lachman nailed the look of an overhead grid light scheme of the old sound stages (despite working with 10-foot domestic ceilings), a dazzling saturated color palette (despite the limitation of 2002 film stock) and even found a way to control the sun to give the exteriors a backlot feel. Haynes wasn’t just able to reference Sirk, he could step into his shoes and create the gorgeous images from a different era.
In preproduction, Lachman becomes like a foresic scientist dissecting older films and locating the tools to recreate them. For their latest collaboration, “Wonderstruck,” half the film is set in New York in the early 70s. In his prep, Lachman unearthed the lenses, dollies and talked to cinematographer Owen Roizman to figure out how exactly he shot “The French Connection,” which was a principal reference point for “Wonderstruck.”
“Everybody in Hollywood right now is into the 70s because there was a certain experimentation, a freedom of the story telling in Hollywood at that moment, but what I remember distinctly about those films is they were sort of ugly and had this different color balance,” said Lachman. “So I did some research and discovered many of the larger films were shot on Kodak, but for cost savings they were printing it on Fuji print stock and I found many of those films had a green, magenta balance in the shadow and the highlights had a tendency to go green. So I played with shooting tungsten film outdoors, and only partially correcting it, then I’d do the same thing using outdoor film indoors.”
The result is footage that looks and feels like 70s stock footage. There is zero sense of a painted on period feel. Haynes frame becomes this magical world where the viewer enters the emotional and visual world of the young boy wandering the foreboding streets of the economically depressed city in the ’70s, but through the gritty filmmaking of the era.
“Todd understands how cinematic language is used as a mirror of the society and he creates images that give emotional context to the story, which is different than just creating period style and not connecting it to the narrative like so many films do these days,” said Lachman. “What Todd is so brilliant about is he goes deeper into understanding why it was created that way, and that becomes the essence of the images. You can intellectualize it, but it has to be felt emotionally.”
Whereas most directors and cinematographers have distinct and individual styles, Lachman and Haynes enjoy creatively figuring out how to visually tell their story by adapting the language of the period. Once the forensic and research part of the job is over, Lachman, the rare cinematographer with a fine arts background, transitions into the mindset of a painter.
“It just sounds so silly and banal, but Ed is such an artist and he’s such an art nerd,” said Haynes. “We both love the image, we love collecting the references, watching the movies, thinking of photography and painting and just purely a visual relevance to what we’re doing, but this is of course in a way the most non-intellectual part because it’s purely about color and form and composition. It’s beyond maybe even narrative emotion, because it’s sometimes just gut emotion where you respond to a warm palette over a cool palette, or maybe something we end up going to a lot, the combination of a warm and cool palette, so you feel almost the friction between warm and cold.”
Haynes jokes he once in awhile on set needs to remind Lachman where they are in a scene, because the cinematographer dives straight into color and form in the most abstract sense. Haynes adds, after a beat, “He really is like a painter, more so than any other cinematographer I’ve ever met.”
The other half of “Wonderstruck” is set in the 1920s, for which Lachman adapted the formalism, composed images and chiaroscuro lighting of the late masterpieces of the silent film era. But when it came to the 1970s Haynes wanted the urgency in the images and the city’s nervous energy that was captured in movies like “Midnight Cowboy” and “The French Connection.” In that sense, like he would with an actor, Haynes put Lachman in situations where he would get a certain performance.
“Todd put me and the camera operator in situations where we have to respond,” said Lachman. “A lot of the time we shot two cameras. So you aren’t over manipulating the image to create the image. Almost like a documentarian, you’re letting the camera respond to the performance, so that has a certain roughness or rawness to it. He accessed the character’s subjectivity and emotional state through the filmmaking of the era.”
For Lachman, Haynes creates a framework that allows him to constantly experiment with the medium and push himself in utilizing his vast technical knowledge and every painterly instinct he possesses. Lachman, on the other hand, enables Haynes to fully execute his ideas about storytelling by transporting the director to a rich and authentic cinematic palette of the past. The result are films that use form in ways that are as emotionally poetic as they are layered with meaning.
“Ed is a lover of what he does and he’s just essentialist, really, although he studies,” said Haynes. “I think we both always feel like we are studying as we’re also passionate.”
In the first 60 years of cinema there was a strong connection between pioneering film movements and film theory. Increasingly, the two worlds continue to drift apart. Haynes and Lachman both think about the medium and its possibilities like theorists, but both are very much artists and emotional storytellers who together have forged a forgotten balance between the two. As a result each of their visually stunning films feels like the opening of a door at a time when too many are closing.