'Carol' Cinematographer Ed Lachman Talks About Lensing an Emotional Story, Keeping Film Alive

"I think part of the reason people respond to 'Carol' is they feel the granularity, the texture and the emotion of what film presents," he says.
Courtesy of The Weinstein Company
Cinematographer Ed Lachman with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara

When the New York Film Critics Circle results were revealed Wednesday morning, Todd Haynes' Carol emerged with four awards including best picture, best director, best screenplay and best cinematography for director of photography Ed Lachman.

"It’s wonderful to know that people are emotionally connecting to this film, that this film has some universal truth for people," Lachman enthused, speaking to The Hollywood Reporter after getting the news. "It’s a film about falling in love, first love; it’s a coming of age story. And it doesn’t have to be codifed by a lesbian relationship. We all have these emotions."

An adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, the film is set in 1950s New York and tells the story of the meeting and romance between shopgirl Therese Belivet, played by Rooney Mara, and Carol Aird, a married woman played by Cate Blanchett.

Lachman, whose photography on the film also recently won the Golden Frog at cinematography film festival Camerimage, said he started his work by seeking out mid-century references "that represented the the look and feel of that period." He focused on primarily women photojournalists and art photographers. Among them were Esther Buble and Vivian Maier. "They were experimenting with early color, so I looked at ektachrome photos where the color palette wasn’t the full range we see today. Colors were much more muted, they were cooler colors."

He chose to give the film a soft, muted look. "This was the end of the war, an uncertain time," he said. "Our period was quite austere compared with the materialistic, busy environment of the later ‘50s. it mirrored their emotional feelings by creating this kind of muted austere world visually."

To convey the emotional state of the characters, Lachman added that he also "shot through windows, elements of weather, through reflections, to defuse the image and obstruct the frame. You see Rooney Mara in the taxi through the window or Carol in a diner through a window, kind of a way of visualizing what is happening to the characters. You understand that the character is seeing through the obstacles, expressing something about their emotion that’s being hidden but also visible. Their affection toward each other and consummating their relationship would have been a great taboo in that time period."

Carol, shot primarily on location in Cincinnati, was lensed with Super 16mm film. "Rather than 35mm or digital, it created a certain performance in itself," Lachman said. "I like to think of it as another skin over the character. The grain created a certain emotional quality — you're viewing the character through the texture of the grain but also feeling their emotions through the grain.”

This past year, there was a lot of attention on studios' and filmmakers' efforts to keep Kodak producing film. "If Kodak is going to make film, we also need labs to process the film. Right now, the New York Film Lab (a partnership between Deluxe and Technicolor that was created to respond to film’s shrinking footprint) is closed," Lachman said, adding that Carol was one of the final projects to use that lab.

"They were going to throw out all the equipment. I inquired about it, and the general manager let me have the lab equipment," he related. "I have it in storage, and I’m waiting for someone to come to their senses so we can have a lab in New York to develop film. We can develop film at Fotokem in Los Angeles, which is a very good lab. ...  But right now there are eight movies that want to shoot in New York on film. There's a market and [we need] a lab on the eastern seaboard of the U.S."

Saying that he sees "a trend back toward wanting to shoot on film," Lachman warned "if an infrastructure for film isn’t supported, it's going to make it harder. I don’t think all films need to be shot on film, but they shouldn't take the tools away from us. All stories can't be told the same way, and film affects the viewer in a different way than digital. I think part of the reason people respond to Carol is they feel the granularity, the texture and the emotion of what film presents."

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