With years of working with a diverse pool of directors from Wim Wenders (Lightning Over Water) to Robert Altman (A Prairie Home Companion), even co-directing Ken Park with Larry Clark — Ed Lachman is simply one of the best. Lachman's love for grain and the ability for images to reinforce the interior world of a character drives his passion for celluloid, which he discusses with Amy Taubin at NYFF 2015.
"Images are about ideas. They're not just about aesthetic pleasing images. It's the idea that creates the image."
On Shooting On Film
I've worked with a gaffer for 30 years, a grip and an operator, and we've all worked with Todd before. We were trying to hold onto film, I've always shot film with Todd. So we told HBO that it would be cheaper (which it is) to shoot in film that digital. So we got the chance to shoot in Super 16. We wanted to reference this story that happens during the depression, and we wanted it to feel the hardship and the film grain would capture that world in its soiled way. Not in this high gloss way. We referenced early photography, we looked at a lot of Farm Security Administration. We were so astounded by the feeling that Super 16 has, it has a greater range. The way colors mix in film can't be reproduced digitally. Digital world is pixel fixated on one plane, your lights shadows and colors are all on this one electronic plane. For me film is like an etching, RGB 3 layers, and these layers are etched by light. Even if you go through a DI to complete the film, you still capture the feeling of how colors mix.
I discovered when you look at film, and there's a focus at some place in the frame, the way it falls off in focus is much more pleasing to our eye. What happens digitally, it makes everything look sharper. I find that by the focus not being as sharp I feel there's more depth to the image.
On Acquiring a Film Lab in NYC
All films are gonna end up as a DCP. We made [Carol] prints right from the DI and to my demise those would be the last two prints ever made in that lab. The Lux and Technicolor merged, and they decided there wasn't enough work at that moment in time. I asked them what would happen to that equipment. They said they were gonna have to throw it out, and that was horrifying. So I was able to procure the whole lab. I did it out of altruistic reasons and I think there will be a lab back in NY, but the one I have is there for anybody else. I don't think film is going to die. Right now 15-20% of Hollywood films and big budgeted films are being shot on film. So I think more than ever there's a trend back to film now because people really do see there's a difference.
On Digital Intermediate
For me I have a harder time manipulating a digital image than a film image. When I go into a color correct and I have a director trying to change. The whole idea that you can change the look of a film is a mistake. One: it's expensive. And two: you can never create something that you didn't originate in the inception of the idea. Because if you do one thing, it affects the other. So say I'm playing with a warm and cool color, they're merging and fighting each other, so they affect the look. If I did it all one way, I couldn't get that contract, that merge.
On Blow-up / Film choices / Using 35mm Lenses on Super 16
You go from the negative to the digital file. There's no longer a blow-up, that's what's so wonderful about 16. I used to push 35mm because you lost the grain, Kodak made their stocks so good that they're grainless. So I like to reference the feeling of grain, so that's why I love shooting 16. We had a discussion about shooting 2-perf, but Todd was resistant. It's 4-perforations to one frame because they used to shoot 4:3 or a bigger format. But now we see our films at 1:85 so you don't need those 4-perfs, you need 3-perfs or 2-perfs and they can blow it up. Or if you show it at 16:9 you only need 2-perfs. The advantage of shooting 2 or 3-perf is that the lenses in 35mm have more of a spherical feeling, roundness and shape than what you get from 16. I use 35mm lenses when I shoot Super 16 to maintain that.
On Digital Latitude
Shooting digitally is like shooting film 20 or 30 years ago. I find as much as they tell me it has a 14 stop range -- that's nonsense. They tell me 2 stops over I gotta hold my highlights. With film I can be 5 or 6 stops over and hold my highlights. The great part about digital is shadow detail, like at night, lowlight situations, but you have the same problem. Maybe you have 3 stops, in film maybe it's like that too, but I feel I have more control over my image on negative that digitally. But maybe someone who is more versed digitally wouldn't feel that way. Young people coming up working in film or digital, if they learn how to control their negative by using film they will be a better cinematography when they shoot digitally. A big part about what we do is controlling the image in different situations.
On the Period Look for Carol
Visually we're trying to reference the late 40's early 50's. Before melodrama was considered Circean, so going to the Eisenhower era. We're somewhere between black & white and color, so the colors are more muted in this film. I shot it more like a noir-ish film. But not with a naturalism or a heightened realism. It was shot more like we're documenting these people in their world.
On Working with First Time Directors
I generally don't have problems with first time directors or women. I [also] have a great experience with seasoned directors. It's the directors in the middle that want to change their path based on what they saw last weekend, or they're questioning themselves. I like working with first time directors because they are more open to trying things.
On Aspect Ratios
The aspect ratio I like the best we don't shoot in anymore, except in Europe, 1:66. I think 1:66 is more human for the body. 1:85 was about getting people away from their television sets in the 60's. It's harder for closeups, I don't like cutting into heads, I like to show the whole head. Everyone likes 2:35 or 2:41, they like it wider. But it's funny, even in The Assassin he went back to the 4:3 or the 1:33 frame. If you wait long enough it comes back.
On Framing / Eyeline philosophy
I'm always trying to experiment with compositions. I'm always trying to break closeup, medium, our camera operator has this incredible sense of framing. Letting people come to the left side of the frame in a pan and not letting them leave the frame. We call that offset compositions. Why? I don't know, it's just kind of an intuitive thing trying to play with visual grammar in a way that connects the audience to the characters. For me the spatial relationship in the frame has a lot to do with the space we're shooting them in, I'm very interesting in the composition of what's around the person, rather than situating them in a specific frame no matter what the environment is. In the scene where Carol goes with Rooney to that restaurant, the compositions are offset. We partly did it because we love the way the extras look in the background and the painting on the wall. We just played with it.
On using modern stock to create a period look / Shooting through glass
That's why we used 16mm. I limited the color palette of the film. We shot with a lot of magenta and greens and yellows. I was trying to shift the color spectrum of the film. Kodak has a much more saturated palette. We've lost Fuji, I used to like Fuji for certain parts of films when I want the more muted colors. I never like to put anything in front of the lens, because if you put a filter in front of the lens it changes everything, but if I do it in lights and in the set then I have modulation of different color and looks in the same frame. A lot of times we're shooting through glass or Plexiglass, but when Carol is writing at the coffee shot, that was a dingy scratched plastic storefront and we just shot through it.
On American Scripts vs. European Scripts
The design of the shots and lighting and the mood is creating for the viewer what the emotional impact is for the character. That's the strength of images, they can create a world for the view to respond to the emotions of the characters. In Europe, many scripts are written much different than our scripts. Scripts are written here purely by dialogue, and many directors I've worked with in Europe, Bertolucci, Wim Wenders, Eric Seidl, Werner Herzog, they write description. It's not based on dialogue. Not to say that dialogue doesn't play, but they'll write pages about where the location is, what the setting is, how it should feel. I've thought about it a lot why our culture is so rooted in the word, I think we come out of 19th Century novels, and we don't deal with irony very well. But until abstract expressionism, we didn't really have a visual code that was recognized internationally.
I just think Europe has a longer tradition visually through painting that creates the language of them telling their stories. When I was younger I think I only saw films that had subtitles, I didn't know they spoke English. [Todd Haynes] writes another script talking about imagery. He does visual references, a wonderful look book, he's so knowledgeable about imagery and ideas about images. You're only as good as the references you use.