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Cinematographer Edward Lachman on ‘Carol’ as a Stylistic Foil to ‘Far From Heaven’

'Carol' marks the Camerimage and critics-award-winning DP's fourth collaboration with Todd Haynes.

The season is early yet but cinematographer Edward Lachman has already picked up honors from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Boston Society of Film Critics for his work in Todd Haynes’ “Carol.” This critical recognition comes on the heels of his Golden Frog win at the Camerimage cinematography film festival in Poland, where he has been recognized in the past for his work with the director. “Carol” marks his fourth collaboration with Haynes, an exploration of repression that plays as a thematic companion piece and yet a formal foil to 2002’s “Far From Heaven.”

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Congratulations on the Camerimage Golden Frog award. That must be a great honor.

Oh, yeah. I love Camerimage. It’s such a great opportunity to meet the other cinematographers you would never meet. One year I got to meet Peter Biziou. I never would have gotten to meet him. You don’t feel like it’s competitive because you get to know each other. You’re there for a week and you go to the same movies, go to the same parties, eat at the same table. So everybody is forced to know each other as people and not, you know, “your film against my film.” So there’s a great camaraderie. And there are students there and we’re kind of the rock stars, so I try to go there every year. And now I have a Bronze [Frog, for “I’m Not There.”], a Silver [for “Far From Heaven”] and a Gold, so I say I’ve got a whole pond now!

You mentioned Peter Biziou there. I’m curious, who are some of your heroes in this field?

Well I just saw Chris Doyle there this year and hung out with Chris. I admire and I love the way he’s always reinterpreting and breaking down the walls of how one creates and why you create images. So I’ve always been a great admirer of Chris Doyle and certainly Peter Biziou. There are so many, you know? Dick Pope. They’re always evolving. And there are always new people that you discover.

I want to dive in here with the opening shot of “Carol,” which begins on a street grate and then floats into the hustle and bustle of the street. Tell me about the significance of beginning that way.

The conceit is that we’re following a character. It’s kind of a reference to “Brief Encounter,” where this secondary character leads us to who the primary characters are going to be, Carol and Therese — where we meet them at a table in the Ritz at the dining room of this hotel lobby. It’s also to situate it into an urban environment. You know, this isn’t a [Douglas] Sirkian world. This isn’t this manufactured world of artifice, of the late-’50s where Sirk was using Brechtian techniques of stylization and mannerism and saturated colors and a world of artifice to create this emotion. He was using beauty as a form of oppression. He was making a social and political commentary on the values of America at that time that saw themselves through their growing materialism and optimism of the future. He was using women, being imprisoned by their domestic, small-town notions of the values of the community outweighing personal desires and needs. So beauty became a form of oppression. And even though people have referred to “Carol” as a melodrama, Todd likes to think of it as a period love story. It’s more soiled, muted — and it’s naturalistic, not an expressionistic look at the world. It’s a period after World War II, pre-Eisenhower. It was an uncertain time. So all this worked into a much more austere look at America at the time. It was more of an urban look.

What did Todd first present in the way of referential inspiration for this look? Photography seems like it might have been a significant touchstone.

We didn’t really reference the cinema, where actually “Far From Heaven” is represented — the language of cinema through Sirk. Here we’re representing and looking at the cultural and visual signifiers of the time. So, yes, we actually looked at mid-century photographers who were photojournalists. A large part of them happened to be women, people like Ruth Orkin, Esther Bubley, Helen Levitt and then later Vivian Maier. These were photographers who were starting to experiment in color. So that gave me the idea of trying to reference a visualization of, let’s say, early Ektachrome, rather than Kodachrome, rather than color negative. And that’s why the colors have this kind of coolness/warm mixture. I play with magentas and greens. The color didn’t have a full spectrum the way color is seen today. And then later a photographer that was a street photographer and became a fashion photographer for a time, but was more an art photographer, was Saul Leiter. We visited Saul Leiter, who we used as a reference in “Mildred Pierce,” to create this layered abstraction that we felt could situate their minds, their emotional states. Our approach was to look and incorporate the subjectivity of the amorous mind, the mind of someone falling in love.

Therese being a photographer is an interesting element, with that in mind.

Originally, in the book, she was a set designer, and that was a brilliant idea that Phyllis Nagy, the screenwriter, had. She changed her to a photographer, which was another wonderful reference for me because it allowed us to use her subjectivity with her camera to evolve. For me, in the beginning, her work is more about seeing herself in abstractions and shadows and reflections, like Vivian Maier. And later she’s able to photograph things outside of herself, like Carol, as she’s able to embrace her awareness of her affection and love for Carol, and also of who she is, because she’s still in formation. She’s, to use a word, still becoming in focus of who her person is, you know? What her outlook is of life.

On the “layered abstractions,” there’s this motif in the film of capturing faces through reflective surfaces, the reflections often obscuring the characters. Tell me about that choice.

It’s not just a representational view of the world but a psychological one. I read into Leiter’s images what I felt kind of the conceit was: You’re seeing something that’s hidden, but it’s also, for Carol and for Therese, to convey what’s hidden on the surface of things. Through these layers, the camera is kind of dealing with this isolation. It’s something hidden but that you’re fracturing the world. And our approach was to look at ways to incorporate a subjective viewpoint. In a film there’s kind of a silence and moments of suspension. And this layering of the images becomes kind of a subtext for their emotional states. They’re encapsulated in these cars where we see them from the outside and the reflection on the cars are what’s — let’s say what the forces are outside of them. But what we see through the car also affects how we feel about who they are and their entrapment.

The decision to shoot in Super 16 was interesting. Why did you opt for that?

Film grain. Even 35mm negative is so grainless that it almost looks digital when you go through a DI. And the same can be said obviously for the digital world. When you shoot digitally they can add grain to the film, but it doesn’t operate the same way. In a digital world, everything’s pixel-fixated in the same place. Grain moves. It has, I think, an anthropomorphic [quality]. I like to feel, like, a pulsing of something living underneath the surface of the image. So by referencing Super 16 I felt it could harken back or it could give a reference to the way you could look at a photograph from 50 or 60 years ago, that the grain structure was different back then. And Super 16, through a DI, through a digital intermediate, would feel like looking at a photograph from the past. So that was the real idea. Then this feeling of another layer of seeing their emotions through grain captured, I thought, another emotional quality of their performance.

I didn’t actually realize until prepping for this that you went that route. I had assumed just a 35mm shoot the whole time. But it’s beautiful stuff.

It’s so interesting because films like “The Revenant” and “The Hateful Eight” are going the other way, you know? To me they’re, like, surpassing what the digital world is. They’re becoming more photorealist. It’s so interesting to have “Carol” on the other end of the spectrum and how we can tell our stories in different capacities and what fits each story to tell the emotions of the characters and of the story.

You kind of touched on this with the Ektachrome comments but what did you guys discuss in terms of a color palette for the film and representational colors?

Well, I wanted to reference early color film, and early color film didn’t have the full color spectrum that it does today, or the digital world. And even digital sees color differently than film does. So they were much more soiled, muted, which felt right for the world. There were more magentas, yellows, greens. There was a mixture of warm and cool colors. Generally Ektachrome had a feeling for me more of a cool palette. And that fit the story, too, emotionally, for the characters. I’m old enough to remember those homes and buildings and whatever. And Cincinnati was a great location to do all that because so much of it is caught in that time period. It was a film shot totally on location. Again, a totally different set of problems than shooting “Far From Heaven,” which I shot on real locations but tried to make look like a backlot, a studio, and lit with expressionistic studio lighting. With “Carol” I was much more interested in capturing a naturalistic look.

Given that these two women see the world and exist in the world in two drastically different ways, I’m curious if there was anything you wanted to do in the visual storytelling and framing to indicate that.

No, I would just say this: The framing in the film was more about the environments that they are situated in. So for me and for Todd and for, you know, the operator I work with, we always tried to situate the environment as a form of expression for the characters, even maybe as a form of oppression, that they’re not free of the constraints of the frame. You’ll see many times where the camera is moving, but it stops and the character is placed in the last third of the frame. It’s like they’re not actually able to escape the frame. You feel the frame is somehow a restriction to them, you know? That there’s something outside of them that’s impeding on them. So the framing, certainly — by shooting it through doorways, partially viewing them — is similar to what we were doing with reflections and mirrors. And since they’re not seeing themselves in totality, we allow the viewer not to see them that way. It’s really Therese’s point of view of Carol, and only does the point of view, the subjectivity of the amorous mind, change at the end of the film. So by not seeing Therese totally, we’re saying something about how she’s not seeing herself totally. And then there’s the metaphor of her as a photographer.

Finally, what has this relationship with Todd Haynes been like for you over the years in how you work together and communicate as visual artists?

Todd is a very strong visualist himself. But he brings great resources to the table with him. And then he explores the approach with you. So he’s a great collaborator and he really does his homework. I always feel Todd is pushing me into places I wouldn’t normally put myself. And even when we disagree, I always find we come out with something better than either of us had originally formulated. But the brilliance for me of Todd is the depth of his understanding of where his sources come from. And it’s not just another film. His research and ideas, conceptually, about what represents the story through images, is what gives the gravity to my work.

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