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Describing the visual language of Todd Haynes’ documentary The Velvet Underground for Apple TV+, Haynes’ longtime cinematographer Edward Lachman contends that the director “found the visual metaphor for the art, the counterculture” of the New York underground during the ’60s.
This feature-length look at the influential band is a collage of archival material, including Andy Warhol’s silent video shorts known as Screen Tests of such band members as Lou Reed and John Cale. The historical content is presented in the split-screen style of his 1966 film Chelsea Girls, and is deftly combined with new interviews — including with band members Cale and Moe Tucker — all lensed by Lachman with echoes of Warhol’s style.
“Because of the limited material that existed from the time that they were putting out records, [it] was a complete and total opportunity … to use the Warhol films but also so many other examples of avant-garde cinema,” says Haynes. “A lot of the film is about this very specific moment in New York’s cultural life in the mid-’60s. We’re watching these documents from the past that were conducted by Andy Warhol, and so many of them are these sort of ‘cataloging’ of faces — living portraits — in his Screen Tests. What we were doing [in the interviews] is sort of our own contemporary versions of that. It was really all indebted to the Warhol films.”
Unlike the black-and-white Screen Tests, Haynes turned to Warhol’s silk-screen paintings to create backdrops for the interviews. “They all are pastels, sort of candy colors, but they’re all slightly dirtied colors, or musty versions of those kinds of colors,” Haynes says. “And we put some texture, almost as if it were a tenement wall that had been repainted.”
Notes Lachman, “I knew that Todd wanted to do something like Chelsea Girls, where there’s multiple [images] in the [split-screen] frame,” adding that he composed the interviews and used the 1.33 aspect ratio so that they could be edited into this format. Says Haynes, “Ed, who also operated the camera, would zoom in and reposition for different parts of the interview. And that would be completely intuitive when he would decide to reframe and go in tighter on a subject.” While the interviews were lensed with a digital camera, underground filmmakers of the time were using Super 8, and so Lachman additionally shot some B-roll in that film format.
While The Velvet Underground is Haynes’ first documentary, his longtime collaborator (who earned Oscar nominations for Haynes’ Carol and Far From Heaven) does have a documentary background, having worked with the likes of the Maysles brothers. “For me, all films are documents in time and space,” Lachman says. “For me, all films are documentary.” Lachman — who directed a live performance of Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs for Drella in 1989 — also had a personal connection to the subject. “I was on the periphery of that world at the time — I had been to [Warhol’s] Factory, but I really wasn’t part of that scene,” he says. “I hadn’t seen [Cale] since the ’90s. So for me, it was like revisiting a page in a diary.”
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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The Harder They Fall