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Shooting “Wonderstruck” – DP Ed Lachman In His Own Words

DP Ed Lachman and B-camera Operator Peter Agliata. Image courtesy Roadside Attractions

By: Marjorie Galas

The pairing of DP Ed Lachman and director Todd Haynes has resulted in a string of award-worthy cinematic images.  In fact, Lachman has two Oscar nominations, 2003’s “Far from Heaven” and 2016’s “Carol”, not to mention numerous CameraImage Golden Frogs and countless other accolades for his innovate and thought-provoking work.  This fall, the viewing audience was introduced to another astounding piece of visual alchemy crafted by this dynamic duo: the cinematography of “Wonderstruck.”    The story follows two deaf children who experience New York City fifty years apart from each other.   Variety 411 recently caught up with Lachman to ask him a bit more about his experience on using multiple cameras and formats to capture the story of “Wonderstruck.”

Variety 411:   You have a long standing partnership with director Todd Haynes that’s resulted in such fine cinematography in so many films, including “Far From Heaven”, “I’m Not There” and last year’s “Carol.”   Would you say that you find working with Mr. Haynes like working with a creative equal?

Ed Lachman:  He always challenges me and pushes me to go further with the thematics of his story and the visual ideas that he has in mind.

V411:  What were your pre-production discussions like for “Wonderstruck?”  Were you able  – and are you generally able with Mr. Haynes – to bring a lot of visual ideas to the table, or did he have a very specific vision in mind for the film?

EL: Todd felt the book, “Wonderstruck”, offered an intensely cinematic idea in the form of a mystery of why two different time periods and different visual styles, set 50 years apart, are connected to tell one story.  Todd created a look book for his research that illustrated his ideas including the political, historical, demographics, art, fashion, and cinematic language of the time periods we were exploring.  For me, that creates the emotional structure of the film. I also create visual ideas along with the other department heads about the language and images that would be relevant to the story.

V411: The main focus in the film revolves around two children, both with hearing/speaking impairments.  Did you take special consideration in capturing a visual world that not only shares their perspective and wonder of their new environments but also relays the importance of visuals for someone who has hearing challenges?

EL:  The author of the illustrated young adult novel, Brian Selznick, who also adapted the script, stated that he approached Rose’s story of a deaf 12 year old girl through the silence of black and white drawings as they would mirror her deafness. This approach would also use the silent period of the 20’s cinema as a metaphor of her reality. The other story, about 12-year-old Ben who becomes deaf in the 70’s, is told in words in the book.  So the conceit for Todd Haynes was to recreate the black and white silent period for Rose’s story in which the silent period was a metaphor for her deafness.

While Ben’s story in the 70s is about a boy who hears but becomes deaf and our challenge was describing his subjective experience taking in his new world as a newly deaf person. We referenced the New York urban films where the two stories converge in the 70’s. We were inspired by 70s look of realism and raw camera movement in films like “Midnight Cowboy”, “Mean Streets” and “The French Connection”. We used visual language of moving shots, over-cranked on suspension devices to help remove the viewer from the objective experience of the hearing world, as (with) our newly deaf young character Ben. I like to think the film is listening with images.

V411:  Both children happen to be experiencing NYC for the same time.  Can you describe your process for making NYC become an important character visually?  Where you looking for unique angles, shadows and textures, for example, to really present a feeling?

EL: The cinematography tried to present each of their stories with a look that evokes a cinema of its period. The 1927 depicted in black and white, of the silent era cinema and 1977 in the chroma and hues of 1970’s neon urban street realism. The gritty 70s look of urban realism in movement and naturalistic lighting contrasted to the 20’s black and white studio chiaroscuro lighting, balance framing, and orchestrated movement of the silent motion pictures of the 20’s.

V411: I believe you used two different cameras: a film camera for the 70’s and a digital, as well as a wide assortment of lenses on this film.  Can you briefly describe your technical choices – specifically for the assortment of lenses?

EL:  For the 1920’s silent period, I shot with black and white film negative with a 3 perf Arricam with Cooke-Speed Panchro’s  lenses that could have been used then. And for the 70’s, I also shot on film with older zooms, the Cooke 20-60 mm & 20-100 mm, and Angenieux 25-250 mm. I discovered the glass in the 70s had more lead in the elements and possibly contribute to the overall contrast and feel of the image. I also used to Canon K35 primes that I used back then. These have more color shift and flare than modern lenses today. I also shot with the Alexis-Mini digital camera in the Natural History Museum because of time and equipment restrictions in the museum in which we had to go in late in the day and out in the early morning.

V411:  The color and black and white help differentiate the two distinct time periods.  I wonder, however, if you had any concerns about how the two styles would marry together to form one cohesive story.  Were there elements, such as strong shadows and certain depths of field, that you focused on to maintain a consistency between the color and B&W?  Did you have conversations with Mr. Haynes or the editor,  Alfonso Goncalves, about how they would be cut together?

EL:  Todd wanted to connect the two cinematic periods and worlds with one aspect ratio: 2.40 . The general conceit would’ve been that you frame the black and white silent period in 1.33:1, but he wanted to connect the two stories as one. So, the 20’s and 70s are connected through 2.40 which he felt gave the fluidity to one interwoven story.

V411:  An artist always grows and evolves with every project.  Are there certain lessons or revelations that you have taken from this project that you feel have helped you, as a DP or even as a film lover, grow and evolve?

EL:   I guess the past experience always informs the present, but I hope I challenge myself to explore new visual approaches in ways of telling different stories.

V411:  I believe this is the fourth film collaboration with Todd Haynes that has resulted in your nomination for the prestigious Cameraimage Golden Frog.  Can you describe how you feel to not only be recognized by such esteemed cinematographers, but also how you feel so consistently recognized for your collaborations with Mr. Haynes?

EL: Camerimage is the festival I most respect and revere. It’s an honor and pleasure just to be there to share in friendship and images with a Frog or not as we all find ourselves in the same pond there.