Ed Lachman is nominated for Best Cinematography in Carol. This is the fourth time Lachman has worked with director Todd Haynes. Two of those collaborations resulted in Lachman’s two Oscar nominations (the other time was Far From Heaven, 13 years ago). Those two films and HBO’s Mildred Pierce represent his three ASC nominations. I sat down with Lachman as he described three key scenes, walking us through the film from his mind’s eye — discussing colors, ideas, and influences in each scene with his insightful narration:
“The first scene is Todd’s idea, which wasn’t in the book, of a framing device to tell the story like Brief Encounter, the David Lean film, and where a secondary character brings you to the main characters of Carol and Therese. So it was meant to situate the world that they lived in. We thought up this incredibly complicated, at the time, idea of traveling from the subway grates that are so prominent in New York on the street, and then moving up past people’s feet coming out of a subway exit and going across the street and then, following them inside. It was visually complicated because we’re moving across traffic so we necessarily couldn’t have track. The way we worked it out, with the brilliance of my key grip, James McMillan, is we had a camera car with a 30-foot Louma Crane, and we kept it in the flow of one take. That brings us into the world.
“We just felt that the opening shot could encapsulate the world that situated New York in the late ’40s and early ’50s which wasn’t the high gloss ’50s world of Life Magazine, but a much more austere time where color and light, with us just coming out of the war, was much more minimalistic — which felt right for the emotions of the story because there’s a certain repression for people who express themselves openly about their life and their sexuality as these two characters are. The significance of this book, as I’m sure you know, is that this was the first book written that offered the possibility that two women could have a relationship that could succeed. Most lesbian novels at the time ended up in a sanitarium or suicide and they were written to result in some kind of punishment for their love for each other.
“This bookend device was a way for us to come back at the end [for the resolution], and it was a visual way of encapsulating the story. That was the purpose it served. One, for me it served to visually show the streets of New York with a certain somberness and also the color palette that we play with — a much more muted color palette. Not the saturated richness of the mid- or late ’50s. Also, we weren’t referencing the cinema of the late ’40s or early ’50s which would have been melodrama or film noir. We looked at mid-century documentarians and photojournalists. Many of them were women, like Ruth Orkin or Helen Levitt or Esther Bubley and later Helen Levitt. That was really kind of emblematic for the character of Therese because she was a budding photographer and looking at herself through her images a lot like the way Vivien Maier did. The color palette, we looked more at the chrome slide. The way they used and experimented in color in their photojournalism, they were just starting to look at color as an art form.
“We were referencing what I call Ektachrome film more than color negative that we look at today. We’re now in the digital world. Then, the grain structure was again referencing the way film could have or did look back then if you picked up a photograph. Today, 35mm film is almost grainless so you don’t get the feeling of a past time. We also felt the grain created a certain way of externalizing and visualizing how the subjectivity and desire becomes more pronounced through the opticals that you’re looking at through the grain and reflections and mirrors. I said it this way: “It situated and structured the subjective viewpoint through these new framing devices of doorways, windows, cars, enclosures, textures and reflections, the rain, the weather. It helped to find the outside world that we’re looking through that equated something about their own emotions.”
Lachmann on the scene where Carol and Therese have lunch for the first time:
“The framing device is we call short framing where there are a lot of spacial relationship. I feel like they’re not inhabiting the frame, they don’t own the frame. It lets something outside be seen, but hidden. In other words, you felt there are some forces outside of them, like what was happening in their lives. The frame isn’t only about them, it’s about the environment they’re found in and it was a way of externalizing or visualizing what was happening to them from the outside world. Those relationships, for Patricia Highsmith, always equated homosexual desire couched in terms of a criminal act. Todd likes to say the criminal act in this book was love. This was the only book she wrote that wasn’t a criminal story. Their lives are defined by Therese’s boyfriend, the husband, the law, the lawyers and, again, it was a way of showing something about the environment that they lived in by letting the frame have a certain openness, I like to think. It’s creating a kind of an emotional isolation.
“And, I wanted to say before, that we tried to create a stark, lived-in reality. A lived-in period reality rather than a picture on a postcard manufactured in a cinematic world of noir and melodrama. We were incorporating the subjectivity viewpoint of the mind of someone falling in love. Saul Leiter, a photographer who was really a street photographer, but also an art photographer, shot through these windows and precipitation, and obscured the images through doorways, windows, and partly seen images through frames. It almost makes the desire more pronounced between the obstacles in this state of realism and where you are and what you want to see. Possibly, a way of externalizing or visualizing what’s going on in their subjective minds.
“For me, its something seen hidden on the surface of things. Therese is young and still in formation and then comes the realization that she wants to be a photographer and that she can become one and the realization that she’s in love with this woman. Patricia Highsmith equates a kind of criminal existence to desire from Strangers on a Train to The Talented Mr. Ripley where love is a crime and homosexual desire gets expressed as criminal acts. Love is defined from the outside world as criminal. Love becomes a crime in Carol.”
Lachman on the tunnel scene:
“The same idea of shooting them through the car, but shooting them all from the outside. Somehow, it’s always like a voyeuristic approach of looking at them. Like they’re being maybe judged visually or maybe could be judged, insofar as they’re not able to have their own frame, if you want to look at it that way.
They’re not allowed their own world. There’s always this visual distance that always blocks or obstructs or hinders the view for us as viewers, of forces looking in at the characters as the characters are being looked at. The characters become hidden and seen at the same time. Layers incorporate what’s hidden on the surface of things, dealing with your emotional isolation, the silence and moments of suspension. That fits what’s happening in the tunnel scene.
“What’s so interesting in that scene is how in the book there’s a passage for which Todd was trying to find some visual equation. What it says, if I can paraphrase it, was how Terese feels that she wishes that the tunnel would come crashing down on them. Her affection for Carol would have been suspended in time and as their bodies were being taken out of the tunnel, that they would be together in death. That idea of the affection someone feels and how she doesn’t want to lose that. She wanted their love and affection to be frozen in time. That’s what that tunnel was, with those reflections. And the color, playing with that fluorescent yellow/green and, again, it was something being seen from the exterior world, of Terese and Carol being inside and encapsulated in this world. Frozen in this world together. Isolation of desire and romantic imagination, the unsettling solitude of the amorous mind. Not just creating a representational view of the world, but a psychological one, a view of the amorous mind.”