Fall 2017

Recreating the Past with Light, Texture and Tone

Director Todd Haynes and DP Ed Lachman liken their relationship to dance partners, in step to the same emotional rhythms


Director Todd Haynes and DP Ed Lachman (Photo: Mary Cybulski/Amazon Studios & Roadside Attractions)

When Todd Haynes was an up-and-coming filmmaker with a couple of celebrated indies to his name, he saw Light Sleeper and marveled at the shots of Willem Dafoe being driven around a nighttime Manhattan, "shadows skating over his face slowly," he recalls. "It was so sensitively achieved, so beautiful and specific, I thought, 'If I'm lucky, someday I'll get to work with this DP.'"

That DP was Ed Lachman, a veteran of documentaries and indies who shot for Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders early in his career, and later burnished his reputation on movies with Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides) and Steven Soderbergh (The Limey). For Haynes, "someday" came when Lachman signed on for Far from Heaven, the director's painstakingly embroidered, color-rich homage to Douglas Sirk melodramas. The acclaimed release earned them both Academy Award nominations.

Lachman has been Haynes' cinematographer ever since, including on I'm Not There, the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce and the sumptuous period love story Carol. Their latest collaboration is Wonderstruck, an adaptation of Brian Selznick's dual-narrative novel about children from different time periods on separate adventures in a wide, wonderful, universe-expanding New York. The partnership is one steeped in respect for research, curiosity about the power of cinematic language, and dedication to the prep work necessary to bring whole worlds and complex emotions to life. In conversation with DGA Quarterly, the pair elaborate on what drives their teamwork.

(Top) Carol; (Bottom) Mildred Pierce (Photos: (Top) Everett; (Bottom) Photofest)

DGA: How does your collaboration on a given project usually start?

HAYNES: Since Ed and I share a love of movies, photography and art, and for the historical backdrop of whatever period we're exploring together, I spend a lot of time putting together an image book. It's really my first way of communicating with Ed in a fully nonverbal, visual method. It opens up the conversation.
LACHMAN: His look book really creates an emotional structure for me, and for all the departments. It illustrates a lot of his ideas, the politics, the history, the demographics, the art, the fashion—even the cinematic language of the time periods Todd's working in. And when you look at the films we've worked on—Wonderstruck in the '20s and '70s, Far from Heaven in the late '50s, Carol in the early '50s…
HAYNES: Mildred Pierce throughout the 1930s, and I'm Not There, which is the era of the '60s and early '70s…
LACHMAN: …each one brings its own language. It creates the authenticity to the world. I always feel like the audience feels they've experienced the stories as if they were in that period themselves.

DGA: How did that style immersion manifest itself on Wonderstruck, which captures the New York of the silent era and the city's funky street vibe 50 years later?

HAYNES: I had heard forever about The Crowd by [DGA first president] King Vidor. It's a hard film to find these days, but it's a masterwork. It's lyrical, but very naturalistic, shot in New York in 1927, using a lot of location photography mixed in with this personal narrative. For the '70s, there was no film I latched onto more explicitly than The French Connection, and [cinematographer] Owen Roizman's remarkable color palette and camera movement. Ed, you talked to Owen.
LACHMAN: He related to me how they did those shots in the streets, because they weren't using track. They used western dollies, which are pneumatic tires on a [platform], like a cart. So there was a fluidity to the image, but also a roughness. Todd very much wanted the feeling of the camera being suspended, so we had to figure out all these different ways of giving the camera a raw feeling, almost in a documentary sense.

DGA: That's a far cry from the glamorous, smoothly rendered Technicolor moods you recreated for your first film together, Far From Heaven. How did that movie cement your partnership?

LACHMAN: We both came from, well, Todd from semiotics, and myself from art school, so that was the perfect film to explore how color creates a psychological effect in a storyline. Todd was so open to exploring that artifice, a mannered look at the world the way Sirk did.
HAYNES: The Sirkian language and the world of compressed melodrama gave free rein to expressionistic, visual language, which was pretty cool for both of us. I remember we were talking on set about lighting a scene, and the practical motivation for where light is coming from would be, "where is the window?" That's where the light source should be. Then I reminded Ed that we were in a world where none of that matters. It was something I had to teach myself.
LACHMAN: And we were on real locations, and I was trying to make it look like a backlot soap opera. Generally, windows burn out on real locations. So we did everything to make sure that the exteriors looked like they were the same exposure level as the interiors.
HAYNES: All these rules were liberating. If you're looking for extras, and it's New Haven, Connecticut, in 1957, usually you would look at the real ethnic makeup of people at the time. In this case, it was no, we want everybody to look like they're coming off a backlot in Los Angeles in 1957—these patrician, blonde, tan artificial bodies walking the streets of Hartford. We also did not do a digital intermediate on Far from Heaven. We did it all optically. It was sort of a holdout at that time.

(Top) Far From Heaven; (Bottom) Wonderstruck (Photos: (Top) Photofest; (Bottom) Mary Cybulski/Amazon Studios)

DGA: The fact that you've shot all five of your features together on film, as opposed to digital, is notable.

HAYNES: It's been a passion for Ed and me.
LACHMAN: I keep singing the praises of why film is a better medium than the digital world, and it's slowly coming back. Big-budgeted films, special effects films, and now low-budget films want the experience. And it's not more expensive.
HAYNES: Even when we switched to the small screen for Mildred Pierce, I thought downgrading to 16mm would be a smart way of countering HDTV. I didn't want to lose the grain content, because the sophistication of lenses and film stocks these days are such that beautiful stuff shot on film and broadcast in HD, you can't even tell. We really wanted to feel the texture of that era, the dust and atmosphere of the West Coast. Then we loved it so much, we stayed in 16mm for Carol, and it really brought out that sense of a slightly degraded image, an image where you had to adjust your eyes to focus on the subjects. You were really aware of the glass and the windows characters were often looking at each other through, the frames within frames.
LACHMAN: It felt like another layer, the distancing between them.

DGA: Is there a myth about the relationship between director and cinematographer you'd care to dispel?

LACHMAN: They always say it's a marriage. But I think of it more like dance partners, where you're hearing the same music, and hopefully you're in the same rhythm in your steps.
HAYNES: Nice! Well, you've had way more dance partners, Ed.
LACHMAN: It's getting to be like Ozu and his cameraman. I'm only working for you from now on! [Todd's] always a challenge. He puts me in situations I never would put myself in, so I come up with solutions I never would have come up with. [On Wonderstruck], there's an image of Rose [the young girl played by Millicent Simmonds] coming off the boat, walking toward the city. The sun came out at a certain moment, and I was riding the exposure, and I missed it. It was overblown. I thought I blew the take. Then, when we were timing the film, I thought, I can correct it now. But Todd came to me and said, "No, I want it that way!" And I thought, "Oh, it's like she's in the spotlight of the city."
HAYNES: I remember you talked about that exposure. But it wasn't until I saw the dailies that it blew my mind. It really is a stunner. When you do low-budget films, when you have very ambitious aesthetic criteria, and you've put a lot of thought into the references and reasoning and color palette, they require tremendous planning. But one needs to maintain that flexibility where you're allowing for things that are completely unplanned.

DGA: It sounds as if your trust in each other is at the core of your success.

LACHMAN: Generally, I'm yelling about how I'm losing light, and Todd comes over and says, "It's all right, Ed, it's going to be all right." And then at the last moment we get the shot, and that's the most beautiful light.
HAYNES: We absolutely are kind of nerdy, in that we both prepare a great deal, and don't just think we can wing it. In a way, every movie I do, and I've learned this from Ed, is that no matter how experienced you are, you still feel like you've never done it before, each time you embark on a new project. You feel naked, stripped to the core. And in a way, that is the thing that takes you to new places and pushes you forward. It makes you learn more.


Our new series involves a three-way conversation between the interviewer and a director and his or her frequent collaborator—whether it be a cinematographer, composer, editor, costume designer or production designer—about their creative alchemy and the process by which they bring out the best in each other’s artistry.

More from this issue
Check out the latest DGA Quarterly, featuring interviews with Kathryn Bigelow, Joe Pytka, Jordan Peele, Todd Haynes, Errol Morris, Alex Gibney, Marc Webb, Erin Ehrlich, Aline Brosh McKenna Brian Helgeland Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.