Ask the Expert: Cinematographer Edward Lachman Answers our Questions on “Carol”
ScreenPrism: Could you speak about the decision to shoot Carol (2015) on 16mm?
Edward Lachman: Todd and I had shot Mildred Pierce on Super 16, and a large part of the reason was we wanted to reference the texture of how film looked in an earlier time period. You know, our story takes place in the late ‘40s - early ‘50s, and the grain structure of film was different then than it is now. And now in the digital world it’s almost grainless; there is no grain – it’s pixel-fixated. Even though now we layer grain on digital format to give it texture, it’s not the same thing. And [with] film grain, depending on the size of the grain, determined by the exposure (let’s say highlights have finer grain, lower lights have larger grain), each frame is changing. I like to think of it [as] anthropomorphic, in the sense of it’s a living thing. So, the reason we felt it fit this story is that it created a sort of emotional quality to the image. It wouldn’t seem so like a photorealistic painting, the way the digital world creates a certain flatness to the image.
In film there’s more depth to the image, for me, and the grain separation is different. But also the color separation is different in film than digital. So that’s why we chose to shoot film, and especially 16mm, because as film stocks have evolved, they have become almost as grainless-looking, almost digital. And when you are going through a DI, a digital intermediate, we’re showing it digitally that by shooting in super 16, you still can reference the feeling of what film is.
We wanted to create… not the [film] photography of the ‘40s. We didn’t reference films of the ‘40s or studio filmmaking of the ‘40s, per se, melodramas of the 40s. We wanted to reference more. We wanted to look at imagery of the ‘40s and early ‘50s, but outside of cinema. We looked at mid-century photographers, women photographers like Ruth Orkin, Esther Bubley, Helen Levitt, and later Vivian Maier, which tied into Therese’s character. Therese’s character originally in the book was a set designer in theater, and I thought it was a wonderful idea that [screenwriter] Phyllis Nagy had to change her to a photographer, so we could see the evolution of her emotional state through her images. In the beginning she’s only able to photograph things outside of herself, and as she comes to terms with herself and her emotions towards Carol, she’s able to photograph other people and photograph Carol in relation to herself. So, we referenced these mid-century photographers that were photojournalists and did do early color work, early experimental color work, which was more in the artistic photography world. And so we want to reference kind of a soft, soil[ed] look because, you know, this was a time period after the war under McCarthyism, and it was between the war and Eisenhower. It was an uncertain, unstable time in the American imagination. It was the beginning of the Cold War paranoia about the Soviet Union taking over the Eastern Bloc countries. And it created this kind of great insecurity in America, seen through what McCarthyism was, but we want to reference kind of this soft, soil[ed] kind of intermediate color temperature of warm and cool colors because it was mutable, and we are dealing with just the love between these two women, something neither of them can define or proclaim. As in all of Patricia Highsmith’s books, she deals with homosexuality as a crime, but in this story—she’s always dealing with this criminal mind that’s this over-active, over-productive process—and so in this story, the crime is love. What was radical about this novel was that it had an optimistic ending for a lesbian novel. At the time, there were all of these self-punishing kind of narratives that would end in suicide or sanitariums, and this story had the possibility that maybe this relationship would endure.
SP: Even nowadays you don’t see many gay and lesbian films with optimistic endings.
EL: Well, that’s what was radical about her book, and what was embraced by lesbians at the time.
SP: You’ve said before that you don’t fall back on one style in your films, and that you like the storytelling to guide your cinematography choices. What guided you most strongly with Carol?
EL: A lot of people say Carol is a form of melodrama, but really we like to think of it as a period love story. And so the visual references we went back or looked at were obviously Saul Leiter— he was a street photographer, but he was a photographer who dealt with imagery more as, let’s say, a painter would.
It wasn’t cinematic language or period films of the 40s or 50s; it was more a look at the social and cultural influences of their own time—and it was also the historical, looked at the time not through the cinema imagery or style, but through the period time of the 40’s and 50’s and its social-cultural fabric, and that’s why we were looking at these mid-century photographers. And Todd, he always sends me a paragraph or two of visual ideas for the film, and he wrote, “The best love stories reside in the side of the lover, steeped in their over-productive minds. If we are rooted in one point of view, as Therese’s, at least until the end of the film, but the camera need not overstate this. The film needs eyes, fingers, to be more instructive than aggressive angles, moods or lighting.” In other words, what he’s saying is we’re not doing an expressionistic look of this period. We are not doing film noir of this period. And then I say it here, “The soft and soiled look of period photography (rather than its cinema) should both soften and soil the emotional content of the story. Not that the camera should be stoic – it should move with the characters. I just reframe with intention but motivated by visual directives, which could make the camera feel both organic and suturing.’”
SP: You and Todd have worked together extensively over a number of films. Do you have a shorthand with him by now?
EL: Well, each film is different, so the wonderful thing about Todd is the references he brings in. And like I say, his references aren’t only cinematic references, but they might be references in painting or references of the social milieu of the time. We like to go back to reference different sources for the storytelling for those kind of visual details and then create our own language, certainly. You know, the camera has this kind of subjective objective viewpoint—it’s always shifting. Are we seeing these people from the outside, and then we’re seeing them from the inside? So the camera is always in flux, the way the characters are always emotionally in flux with themselves.
SP: That’s interesting that you say that because I was going to ask you to speak on how voyeuristic the film is. (Much of it is shot through windows.)
EL: Like I say, [on] the idea of the imagery, I wrote this, too: “In Carol, the camera moves with them, even when it’s still. We’re trying to evoke their emotions by shooting them through doors, windows, reflections, so that by seeing Carol and Therese partially obscured, we’re expressing their mental states, their fragmented romantic imaginations.”
SP: Do you or Todd direct the actors to move with the camera, or does the camera move with them?
EL: No, no, absolutely not. More and more, I find, which is wonderful, Todd can be much freer. We set up the situation with the actors and the camera has a certain fluidity because it’s allowed to move and respond to the acting.
SP: So much of the camera movement is improvised depending on the scene?
EL: Exactly. And it’s not something we are dogmatic about. It’s something we try to discover in the scene, and by doing that, you discover the kind of emotional sensitivity of the scene. Because I always feel like the camera is another actor, another performer, and so we want that sense of discovery with the camera.
SP: Emotionally, what was the most surprising scene for you when shooting?
EL: Well, honestly, there are scenes where you never know quite what you’re going to get. One of the craziest shots in that film for me is that shot when Cate [Blanchett] goes in the motel office and gets the telegram. We’re shooting through the window, and I could not say definitively how much I was going to be able to see inside. I never like to over-light. Thankfully, I like to under-light a situation, but the reflection was so strong outside, I was afraid I wouldn’t see what I needed to see inside or where they would line up in the image with the reflections. That’s something you couldn’t even see on video playback because it blew out the playback, but still I had it. And so that’s what’s so wonderful about shooting with Todd is that he takes these kind of chances. It was one shot. It’s not like we were covering ourselves and also shooting through the car—while the two of them are on the road after they leave that scene where they discover that they’ve been recorded, and Therese is having her breakdown to Carol—it’s all shot outside the car. When you’re not quite sure how it’s going to turn out, that’s when I find you have the best imagery. If I knew exactly how I was going to do something, it wouldn’t be as interesting, and that’s part of my problem with the digital world. People will now think they can create images because they know exactly what they’re getting on the monitors, what they’re going to get later. So, for me, you lose that sense of happenstance, that sense of possibility that you [might] fail, but when you do things like that and don’t fail, they’re always the most elevated kind of imagery. Now you can do anything with post. I mean there’s some street scenes that they had to clean up because of buildings in the background and whatever, but those are like walking shots and way in the background.
SP: What happens if one of these shots doesn’t work, like when you were shooting through the motel window? Is there a plan B?
EL: I don’t know, Todd always says, ‘Don’t worry. If we haven’t had a problem before, don’t worry about it now.” I’m always on the edge with shots like that, whether it’s going to work or not. You would have to reshoot it, I guess. We had a very tight schedule, but so far I haven’t had to reshoot anything for Todd. I go in, and I know where I’m placing the exposure to the image, but still there’s always happenstance. There’s always things that are beyond your control. Even the driving shots through the window. Those reflections, the image is just on the edge there.
SP: The most striking image to me is when Therese is driving in the car with Carol in the tunnel, and you see the reflection of the street lamps. How did you create that scene?
EL: We had a whole lighting rig, but I was trying to implement what the tunnel looked like. I wasn’t trying to create movie lighting. I was trying to implement for me the way I felt it looks like when I’m in the Holland or Lincoln Tunnel. I think that’s what makes our period film different from most period films. Most period films that I look at are always trying to create the cinematic language of that period. They’re using the visual grammar of the ‘40s or the ‘50s. And I think what Todd and I try to do is, we’re not interested so much in that. We’re more interested in what was the realist in that period [creating], you know, say we were documenting a certain time and place. Not look at it through cinema but look at it through some other means.
SP: There have been a few period movies in the past couple of years that have shared that sense of realism, such as Selma (2014) with Bradford Young’s cinematography.
EL: Yeah, I like that.
SP: And Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre (2011) as well. It was so gritty, so much dirtier and more realistic than most period dramas.
EL: Which I think creates the emotion in the characters. We’re not trying to create a manneristic Sirkian world. It works for [earlier Haynes and Lachman collaboration] Far From Heaven (2002) because of the melodrama, and its mannerisms create another kind of psychological state for the viewer, but that was about a beauty of something that the characters couldn’t participate in. It was like beauty was a repression for the storytelling. But in our rendition of Carol, it’s a different kind of story. We’re not kind of trying to play that game.
SP: How has your approach to your job changed over the years?
EL: Because of the digital world, now if somebody sees an image on the monitor, they think you’re ready or that’s good enough. What it takes away (maybe which is good) is a certain mystique of what we do as cinematographers. But what’s more difficult for us is—even in the post, in the grading—I now have someone that’s sitting over me that can make a change in what we did in the original photography. Or that everybody thinks you can change how you captured the original images, so you lose some control. The other thing is I now have more people between me and the image. I have someone on the set, a DI [digital intermediate], colorist, and now in the post I don’t have that one-day delay where I can sit and talk about an image, work with the colors, then reevaluate it the next day. Decisions are being made instantaneously, so I find it becomes a more difficult process because of the immediacy of the feedback.