Inside the Craft

'Wonderstruck' Cinematographer Edward Lachman on Exploring Two Different Time Periods

Courtesy of Mary Cybulski
Ed Lachman

The cinematographer describes bringing both the 1920s and 1970s to the screen in the Todd Haynes-directed film.

New York-based cinematographer Edward Lachman, the 2017 recipient of the American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award who was twice Oscar-nominated for his collaborations with director Todd Haynes on Far From Heaven and Carol, reteamed with the helmer for Amazon's Wonderstruck, which was released last month.

Based on Brian Selznick's illustrated book, Wonderstruck follows the parallel stories of two deaf children, Ben and Rose, who are from two different eras, each secretly wishing their lives were different as they set out on quests.

Lachman recently visited The Hollywood Reporter at its Los Angeles office to discuss the film.

Both stories are set in New York and include many of the same locations. Can you describe the distinct looks that you gave each era?

The blueprint was Brian Selznick’s illustrated book, and then we used filmic language of the two time periods to mirror the worlds (and points of views) of our characters. The black-and-white world — Rose in 1927 — and Ben in 1977. Todd’s conceit was to reference the film language of the time. We explored the ‘70s through urban grit, through films like Mean Streets, Midnight Cowboy and The French Connection. … We looked to a film like The French Connection because New York was in economic stagnation and the country was in a recession, and the films shot on the streets of New York had an urban realism and grit. They were using long tracking shots with a Western dolly and a lot of handheld. We tried to mimic the language and the tools that they would have used in that period as close as we can.

For the ‘20s, there was an opulence, visually, in the storytelling, mirrored in films such as The Last Laugh, The Wind and The Crowd. For the ‘20s, I shot on black-and-white negative film — not color film and in the [color grading] make it black-and-white, or shoot digital and make it black-and-white. Kodak remade its Double-X black-and-white negative film for me. We did that because the grain structure and exposure latitude of the film is totally different than modern color stocks. At the time, New York didn't have a lab. Fotokem in Los Angeles agreed to develop the film and dedicated a processor for us.

Keeping film available is important to you. Are you seeing progress?

This year Kodak opened a lab in New York to great success. Christopher Nolan, Todd, Steven Spielberg ... are still shooting on film. And a lot of young people now want the experience of shooting on film. I think there's a real renaissance to what film is. It’s another tool that we have that we shouldn’t give up. It's another paintbrush. Why should we be limited to one tool?

You shot Wonderstruck in New York. Tell us about working in some of these familiar locations.

The Museum of National History historically doesn’t allow any film crews to interrupt their daily attendance. But they were a great supporter of the book, so they agreed to let us shoot in the museum. But we had limitations. We went in at six in the evening and had to be out by six in the morning.

We also got permission to shoot in the Queens Museum of Art with the 3D map of New York City (the Panorama) built in 1964 (for the World’s Fair), which ironically my brother worked on. He was a model maker. To do those shots over the buildings and landscape, I was limited by the reach of a 15-foot Technocrane, so they allowed us to use a drone.