5 Tips on Being a Successful DP From Indie Icon Ed Lachman: 'Forget About Perfection'
The two-time Oscar nominee stopped by the New York Film Festival to spill the goods.
Edward Lachman's cinematography is considered emblematic of the American independent film movement, having directed his own films and lensed for Todd Haynes, Sofia Coppola, and Steven Soderbergh. What's his modus operandi? Pick authenticity over perfection.
For the 2018 New York Film Festival, Lachman actually came upon the idea, after sitting next to renowned artist and filmmaker JR, to collaborate on with him the poster for this year's festival. In the conversation below, Lachman describes that his work with JR (like all his work as cinematographer and director) rests on the nature of collaboration.
"In the filmmaking process, I'm always collaborating with other people to create images," explained Lachman. "So for me ,there was no great step or ego to want to work with another artist to create this image."
Listen to the full conversation, and check out our takeaways below.
1. Ideas might not get you the gig, but they will get you the career
When asked about how he works with a new director for the first time, Lachman recounted that he always did a lot of preparation for ideas and visuals, but depending on the director, that preparation was not always welcome!
"When I read a script, I have a lot of visual ideas and I usually go to the interview with books. I show them my ideas. Some directors, I've found, are threatened by that. Maybe they don't have the ideas yet themselves. I'm sure I didn't do certain films because of that! I remember one interview, I said, 'Do you see the film as naturalistic or expressionistic?' And [the director] looked at me and goes, 'What do you mean?' I knew I wasn't gonna do that job! I just think you just have to be very upfront and even if they're not his ideas, at least he thinks I have ideas. I would say, if you're a cinematographer, go in with ideas. Say, 'This might not be the only choice but here's a possibility of the way I thought about it to approach the story.' You have to find your common language together."
2. Learn how to see what's in front of you
In terms of how he comports himself on set while things are happening and the camera is rolling, Lachman explained that while he goes about reaching for a certain style, he keeps his eyes open to the moment.
"You're going with obviously preconceived ideas, but then you have to relate to what's actually happening. Because film lives in the moment. I find directors that want to be rigid and hold on to an idea sometimes miss what's in front of them. So you have to be open to those moments. I think that's an important part of what you do you have—to see what's in front of you."
3. How to communicate with a director who isn't a visual director
Lachman described how important preparation is, especially if you need to find common ground with a director.
"It's all about the preparation. I always feel images are about point of view and your storytelling. Who are you telling the story through? That's a clue to how you approach the images. But I work with someone like Todd Haynes and he does so much research visually about his ideas that it's very easy for me to plug into what his images are about. I certainly add something to that, but it's his initiation. Not all directors are visual. Now, for me, cinematography is the language of cinema, not words. But that's because that's the way I see things or understand things. When you work with the director who isn't visual, then you have to find a common ground to show them that an image can be a metaphor for the storytelling. It's not going to take away their idea. For many films, the images, I call it 'icing on the cake.' The question is, what's the substance? That's what you're always looking for, what creates the emotion in the characters that you're viewing, and the way you see them."
4. Pros and cons of operating the camera yourself
Lachman explained that the size of the film usually influences whether he operates the camera himself or not, and that if there are times that a director wants to operate, he is OK with that.
"On Steven Soderbergh's last film, he operated half of that film. I think he became a great cameraman. Directors say this, but it's kind of true, that the operator is in the first audience for the actor. To see a performance through the camera is a wonderful kind of relationship between the actor and the cinematographer. In fact many times, they will look to you to get a reaction if the take was good or not. Or they'll talk. So I understand why certain directors want to operate. I've also directed and operated, and the operating does take you away from things that you should be experiencing outside of the camera. So when I've done that, I'd do it very simply so I can concentrate on the performance and not just the camera movement."
5. Don't make it perfect, make it authentic
When responding to a question about another cinematographer having said not to take it too seriously, Lachman recommended that you should not try to make it too perfect.
"Authentic, that's a better word. The images represent the story, through the emotions of what the story is about. In commercials and certain Hollywood films, they're always striving for a certain kind of perfection. But they lose the life of what the image is. That's really what you have to search for as filmmakers and imagemakers, is finding the images that translate the stories that are the metaphor for the story. That's what I'm trying to do with the director, finding those visual metaphors for the emotions of the story."