“The Grain of Super 16 Gives the Film Another Layer”: Edward Lachman on Carol
If cinematographer Edward Lachman was inclined towards chasing golden statuettes, he would shoot nothing but ’50s-era forbidden romances for Todd Haynes. Lachman’s initial film to match that descriptor – 2002’s Far from Heaven – earned his first Oscar nomination. This morning Lachman landed his second nod for his work on Carol, another ’50s-set romance, this time between an unhappily married New York housewife (Cate Blanchett) and a budding young photographer (Rooney Mara).
Carol marks Lachman’s fourth film with Haynes, highlighting a five-decade career that includes collaborations with Robert Altman, Steven Soderbergh, Todd Solondz, Paul Schrader, Sofia Coppola, and a sizable portion of the German New Wave. Lachman spoke with Filmmaker about growing up in movie palaces, replicating Ektachrome with Super 16, and why the thematically similar Far from Heaven and Carol are so visually diametric.
Filmmaker: Both your grandfather and father were in the movie exhibition business. What do you remember about the theaters they owned?
Lachman: My grandfather was a Hungarian immigrant on my mother’s side and he had vaudeville theaters. When the vaudeville theaters went out, they became movie theaters. He had theaters in northern New Jersey. I never got to know him, though. He died the year I was born. And then my father owned a movie theater in Boonton, New Jersey. The strange thing about my father’s theater was that it was an opera house, so you walked in underneath the screen and then you would turn around and sit down and see the movie. He was also a distributor of arc carbons, which are the lights that were used in movie theater projectors. They were also used as lights in Hollywood before HMIs. He later was the first one to bring Xenon bulbs into the United States, which replaced arc carbons.
Filmmaker: Did the easy access to movies turn you into a cinephile at an early age?
Lachman: Not really. I never took film very seriously then. I remember as a kid I used to put the popcorn in the bags [for customers] and I still can’t go near popcorn now. (laughs) I really wasn’t someone that was well versed in American cinema or someone that from early childhood was moved by Citizen Kane or some film. Only when I was in college — I went to Columbia and Harvard and then, believe it or not, I ended up in a film program at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio — did I become interested in film. At Harvard I took this film history survey course and a course in Italian neorealism taught by Gideon Bachmann. That’s really when I started to get interested in film and it was Vittorio De Sica that did it.
Filmmaker: When did you get your first camera?
Lachman: My father was an amateur photographer and I can remember as a child kind of abhorring photography. I had this weird idea, like people in the east believed, that it steals the soul. (laughs) When I traveled to Europe as a teenager I finally started to play with a camera. The first camera I really picked up was a Super 8 camera. I would make my own little films that were kind of portraits of people. People always liked the way they looked photographically and then I started getting asked to photograph other people’s films. I thought that would be an inexpensive way to learn how to make films because it was such an expensive proposition back then. And then I found out, “Oh, I can actually make a living at this.” But to this day, I still make my own films.
Filmmaker: Your first feature as a cinematographer was The Lords of Flatbush (1974), which is sort of an East Coast variation on American Graffiti starring Henry Winkler and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone. You were only in your mid-twenties. How did that job come about?
Lachman: I was back in New York after school (at Ohio University). The movie had been started as Sexual Freedom in Brooklyn and they had run out of money. When they got enough money together to finish the film, they hired me to take over as cinematographer. I got in the union through that movie. It was just by chance. They put the union seal on the film, so then the union came to me to join.
Filmmaker: So after Lords of Flatbush, you’re a twenty-something DP who’s in the union and who’s just shot a fairly commercially successful movie. But instead of following with a Hollywood studio film, you spent the better part of the next decade working with people like Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, and Nicolas Roeg. What led you to that path?
Lachman: I was always interested in European filmmaking, and then I met Werner Herzog at a film festival in Berlin. He hired me to shoot — sight unseen of any footage I ever shot — La Soufrière, which is about this volcano in Guadalupe and people fleeing the island. From there I kind of got passed into the German New Wave. I worked with Wim Wenders and Robby Müller on The American Friend, and then I shot a few films with Wenders — Lightning Over Water with Nicholas Ray and Tokyo-Ga. Then I went on to work with Volker Schlondorff and did a project with (Rainer Werner) Fassbinder.
Filmmaker: Carol marks your second ’50s-era film centered on a relationship then considered societally taboo. Yet Carol’s aesthetics couldn’t be further from the saturated Technicolor lushness of the Douglas Sirk-inspired Far From Heaven. What were your visual reference points this time around?
Lachman: Far from Heaven was inspired by the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the period, but with Carol we weren’t referencing the cinema of the late ’40s and early ’50s. We instead looked at the photojournalists who were documenting the time. Many of them happened to be women, people like Esther Bubley, Helen Levitt, Ruth Orkin, and later Vivian Maier. Another reference was Saul Leiter, who we also referenced in Mildred Pierce. The idea was to create these layered compositions that were like obscured abstractions, images seen in reflections and in partly visible spaces through car windows, diners, apartments, doorway glass spattered in raindrops, urban steam and the night’s condensation. All these ideas are about creating an emotional language in a story through the images that represents who these characters are and their emotional states. In a book, you can enter the interior world of the character, but it’s much harder to show place. In cinema, it’s just the opposite. You can show place in one shot, but it’s much harder to enter the interior world of the character. The character of Therese (Rooney Mara) is still in formation and slowly coming into focus as who she is. By shooting her through windows and doorways, we have Therese entrapped by things in the frame. And by the viewer looking at a character that is trapped by their environment, they get the idea psychologically of what the character is feeling. The window, or whatever we’re seeing the character through, becomes a mirror in a way for the viewer to look in while the character looks out.
Filmmaker: You’ve compared Carol’s muted, desaturated palette to the look of early Ektachrome color film. Why was that color space right for the film?
Lachman: It was a much more muted and austere time. America was coming out of (World War II) and so it wasn’t the saturated, expressionistic look of America through Douglas Sirk’s cinema of the late ’50s. It wasn’t the Life magazine covers, with their optimism through materialism. It was a much more uncertain time for America.
I looked at Ektachrome because that’s what the photographers I mentioned earlier, these photojournalists, were experimenting with at the time. Color film then wasn’t representative of a full color spectrum the way it is now. The colors had this soft-soiled, indeterminate kind of temperature to them — both warm and cool — and we felt by shooting in Super 16 we could reference the way stills film looked back then.
Filmmaker: The consensus among the cinematographers I’ve interviewed who’ve shot Super 16mm seems to be that 35mm film has gotten so clean that the differences between 35mm and digital capture are increasingly difficult to differentiate. However, Super 16 still possesses grain and color rendition distinctive to film.
Lachman: That’s correct. In film the colors mix and there’s a contamination between the colors when you work with gels and play with color temperature that I can’t reproduce digitally. I think that gives the image much more depth. We also felt that the grain structure would reference the way photographs looked in that time period. The grain of Super 16 gives the film another layer that almost feels like something breathing or pulsing, like there’s something beneath the surface of the character, and that felt right emotionally for the film.
Filmmaker: On Far from Heaven you shot in the controlled environment of the sound stage. How did shooting outside of the confines of the studio affect the look of Carol, which was shot on location with Cincinnati standing in for New York?
Lachman: In Far from Heaven I was trying to recreate the expressionistic, chiaroscuro lighting that would’ve been used when those Douglas Sirk movies were being made in 18 days on the backlot at Universal Studios. Carol was a different conceit or sensibility. In Far from Heaven, I was creating a world of mannered artifice. I was creating this abstraction more like German Expressionism, where the colors aren’t naturalistic but what’s real is the psychological state of the characters. In Carol, I did everything to make the light and the feeling of the images naturalistic. Everything was motivated from windows or light sources.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the array of lenses you used on the film. I was surprised to hear you used zooms as frequently as you did.
Lachman: With maybe one or two exceptions, we never used the zooms to actually zoom. They were primarily used for efficiency reasons and being able to move around more easily. I used the Cooke S2 Speed Panchros for the primes to, again, reference how things from that time period would’ve looked through older glass. I also had two short zooms — a 20-60mm Varapanchro that’s been reworked and a 10-30mm Varapanchro that was a T1.6 — and a 16.5-110mm Arri/Zeiss Master Zoom. I used a lot of 35mm lenses rather than 16mm lenses partly because the markings are better for the camera assistants, but also because I’m then using the center of the lens, which is the best part of the glass. I also find the 35mm lenses give more of a spherical feeling to the image than 16mm lenses.
Filmmaker: To finish up, let’s talk about a specific shot from the film — the opening tracking shot. For those who haven’t seen Carol, it begins with a close-up on a sidewalk grate that slowly booms up into a high-angle shot that tracks a man across the street into an upscale restaurant where we find Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese.
Lachman: That was a reference to Brief Encounter, where a secondary character brings you to the main characters. We just felt this was a way as a framing device of taking us into the world of these two women and immediately showing the place. At first we don’t know that it’s going to be Carol and Therese’s story, which is like life in a way. You don’t know you’re going to follow a certain person in your life or that person, but things happen by chance.
Filmmaker: How did you pull off the shot? Is it a Steadicam operator stepping onto a crane or did you use a remote head?
Lachman: It was a remote head on a 30-foot telescopic crane. We shot maybe six or eight takes, but believe it or not we had it at about the third take. It was a very complicated shot — we had to orchestrate the traffic and have this crane moving across the street — but sometimes the most complicated shots end up being the easiest to pull off and vice versa.