Telluride: ‘Wonderstruck’ Lenser Ed Lachman Reflects on His Career

The Telluride Film Festival has held tributes for but a handful cinematographers over the last 44 years. The names are titans of the form: Karl Struss (“Sunrise,” “The Great Dictator”), Sven Nykvist (“Cries & Whispers,” “Fanny and Alexander”), John Alton (“An American in Paris,” “Elmer Gantry”), Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now,” “The Last Emperor”). This year, on the heels of a lifetime achievement prize from the American Society of Cinematographers earlier this year, Ed Lachman joins their ranks.

Oscar-nominated for “Far From Heaven” and “Carol,” Lachman is a frequent collaborator of director Todd Haynes. This year’s celebration of his work is pegged to their latest, “Wonderstruck,” which is part of the festival’s main program. But Lachman’s career outstretches those three movies alone, from working with icons of pop (Madonna) and humanitarianism (Mother Teresa), to collaborations with artists at the beginning (Sofia Coppola) and end (Robert Altman) of their careers.

Lachman spoke to Variety about his career to date and a momentary pause to look back.

Variety: Congratulations on receiving a Telluride tribute. How does it feel to get that kind of treatment and to look back on your career?

Ed Lachman: I’ve been going to Telluride since around 1979, and I’ve had six to eight films there, I can’t remember. One I even co-directed. So for me Telluride has become a kind of sanctuary that embraces film as an art form, both past and present, with known and unknown artists and their films. This award, and I should say the ASC award earlier this year as well, might seem like closure to my creative life, but it’s a way of revisiting my memories, friendships and images.

They’ve only honored a handful of cinematographers. And it’s pretty heady company.

I’m more than frightened by it! I was fortunate to have worked with Sven and Vittorio, who I gained many exceptional insights from.

During your career so far the biggest shift has probably been from photo chemical to digital. What do you foresee being the next big shift?

Industry or marketing always thinks technology drives our stories and images, but if you see what’s happening, people are actually embracing film again because they know there’s a different aesthetic and look to it. Not all stories should be told the same. There are certain stories that I think lend themselves to the digital media and certain stories that lend themselves to film, so I don’t think technology is the thing that’s going to change our stories. We can look at holographic imagery, you know, or virtual reality, but ultimately it’s about storytelling and the stories that I’m interested in are not stories that are video games and amusement rides but stories about what makes us human or vulnerable.

So the VR world isn’t something you’re caught up in.

I’ve seen some work. I think right now visual artists are doing the most interesting things with virtual reality. The technology isn’t there yet, to tell you the truth. What I’ve seen is pretty primitive.

You’ve done quite a lot of documentary work over the years. How do those experiences shape a DP’s personal aesthetic and work flow?

It’s been essential. I always say even the narrative fictional form is really a documentation in space and time. No performance is ever the same. The light is not exactly the same. The camera responds to the action. I feel it’s like another actor because it’s engaging with the performance. So actually documentary has always informed my work. When I walk into a location, I’m always interested in how that location responds to the light, where the light fixtures are, where the windows are. Even if I stylize a film like “Far From Heaven,” I’m still looking at reality to create the fiction.

You’ve worked with a wide array of artists and filmmakers. If you’ll indulge a speed round on some of them here, just to get your recollections of those collaborations — let’s start with David Byrne (1986’s “True Stories”).

Wow. Here we go. The interesting thing is I just re-authorized “True Stories” for Criterion. The most incredible thing about David was how he used images as ideas. David was very much involved with the process. He’s a musician but he’s also a visual artist, so “True Stories” was kind of a collage of re-appropriation. He said he based it out of stories from newspaper articles that were so-called true stories. I felt it was way ahead of its time in the way he told his story with visual irony and metaphor.

How about Madonna (1985’s “Desperately Seeking Susan”)?

What can I say about Madonna? She was very young and open and I thought “Desperately Seeking Susan” captured a certain period of time. I looked at a film like “Midnight Cowboy” and I thought, “How could I capture New York in the ‘80s the way ‘Midnight Cowboy’ captured New York in the ‘60s?” And so the downtown East Village, which is so prevalent in the film, is kind of this enticing and foreboding world and she embodied that. I think that performance is a strong statement for that time period.

Mother Teresa (1986 documentary “Mother Teresa”)?

She was the real thing. I’ve read now that certain books have tried to discredit her. I find that totally erroneous. Her compassion was always remarkable. While filming with her in Beirut, I witnessed what she did. She went into West Beirut and pulled Muslim children out of a hospital that was being inadvertently bombed, and the senior priests were resistant to her going into that because they were afraid for her well-being. They were also afraid it would be used politically against the Israelis. But she made it very clear that these children should not be seen as Christian or Muslim, that they were God’s children. She knew her mission was to go and protect them. So I only have the greatest admiration for her.

You were the last DP Steven Soderbergh (1999’s “The Limey,” 2000’s “Erin Brockovich”) hired before he started shooting his films himself.

Well, Steven, I think he got bored just directing. I think he wanted more of a physical activity. I always say the camera operator is the first audience for the performance, and I think he wanted to be part of that experience and the immediacy of the image. Actually on “The Limey” he did “B” camera. So I don’t think it was such a big leap. And believe me I’ve done both and each job takes its own amount of energy. It’s hard to do both. So I’ve always been a great supporter of Steven and he’s always been a great supporter of projects I’ve worked on. In fact, he was instrumental in helping us get “I’m Not There” off the ground. I always have the greatest admiration and respect for Steven, not only because of his work, but how he supported other filmmakers in the industry.

You helped Sofia Coppola (“The Virgin Suicides”) develop her aesthetic early on.

In my career I’ve worked a lot with female directors and I’ve always found that working with women, the ego didn’t get involved with the work, and so my collaboration with people like Susan Seidelman, Mira Nair, Stacy Cochran, Deborah Kampmeier, Sofia — I’ve always had a positive experience. Sofia knew her story. She had written a script and she had visual ideas, but she was very open to everyone’s contribution. I remember visually we looked at “Badlands” and we were looking at kind of the pop photography of Japan at the time. It was a very wonderful collaboration.

You worked with Robert Altman on his last film (2006’s “A Prairie Home Companion”) and you were in pre-production on his follow-up, “Hands on a Hardbody,” when he passed.

Robert Altman wanted the audience to feel a sense of discovery with the camera. So he would shoot with two or three cameras on a dolly all the time, and he told me it came out of his experience in television. He knew he could cut around if the one camera saw the other camera, but he wanted the immediacy of the image and of the performance. And another important point was he loved jazz. So he saw the camera as kind of improvisational, like jazz music. I came on and did a scene for “Dr. T and the Women,” with Richard Gere, where he’s in a tornado. This is what kind of cemented our relationship because they didn’t know exactly how they were going to do it, but he wanted to use rear screen projection. So I had, in commercials, used this thing called the Roundy Round, where the camera could be placed in this device. You could rotate the camera on axis and it would spin around. So I used that and then when they blew all the debris in and out and we moved the camera around against the rear screen projection, it looked totally realistic. That’s what I loved about Bob was he would always set up the visual problem, but then he would give you the freedom to solve it.

And finally, Todd Solondz (2009’s “Life During Wartime,” 2016’s “Weiner-Dog”).

With Todd, it all comes from his writing and the performance and his casting. He always questioned that he didn’t want the image to supersede the thematics of the story. So I have a really great relationship with him in the sense that I can try to articulate visual ideas of how we can reinforce his stories. We complement each other very well that way.

Let’s move on to Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck.” It’s a film split into two eras, the 1920s and the 1970s. The ’20s section takes its cues from silent-era cinema. Were there any films of that period that were a particular influence visually?

Absolutely. We looked at a number of them, but the three that come to mind are “The Last Laugh,” “The Wind” and “The Crowd.” When that portion of the film takes place, that was really the height of the silent era. They were experimenting with a very sophisticated way of using a camera with orchestrated movement and German expressionistic lighting.

And how about for the ’70s portions?

We reference the films that were coming out of New York in the ‘70s, like “The French Connection” and earlier films like “Midnight Cowboy.” They were shooting on the streets, kind of an urban grit. They were mirroring the economic and social times of New York, which was going through economic hardships and kind of a physical deterioration. There was an authenticity to the image.

Ultimately this film feels like a slightly different direction for Haynes. It has an unusual energy. Did it feel like a departure for you in your ongoing collaboration with him?

Todd’s always worked in the different cinematic languages of time periods. In this film you could say the ‘20s is the black-and-white silent era, which becomes a visual metaphor for the two characters’ deafness. The ‘30s, we worked on “Mildred Pierce.” The late-‘50s, we worked on “Far From Heaven,” and the early-‘50s, “Carol.” So I don’t find it such a departure. Maybe the subject matter, dealing with a child’s imagination, but if you look at his films like “Superstar,” it really tracks the same ideas. I do think this is very experimental in the language it uses with these miniatures and using silence. But for me, Todd has honored the imagination and the intelligence of children. He felt Brian Selznick’s book and script offered a chance to do something sophisticated, nuanced and mature for kids, showing how children gain access to their imagination and the language of communication. The interesting thing about this film is it needs the audience to be active. He tested it on numerous occasions with children at different ages and they got it. They don’t need the same kind of construction of narrative that I think we grew up with, because they’re much freer in their ability to receive and experience information. I think that’s what’s unique about the film. It works on another level.

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