Carol: Cinematographer Edward Lachman on Visual Style

carol_posterOpening shot of Todd Haynes’ Carol: The tale begins on the street and then the camera floats into the hustle and bustle of the Big City.

Ed Lachman: The conceit is that we’re following a character. It’s kind of a reference to Brief Encounter, made in 1945 by David Lean, where a secondary character leads us to who the primary characters are going to be, Carol and Therese. We meet them at a table in the Ritz at the dining room of this hotel lobby. The shot also situates the story into an urban environment.


This isn’t a Douglas Sirkian world. This isn’t this manufactured world of artifice, of the late-1950s where Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life) was using Brechtian techniques of stylization and mannerism and saturated colors and a world of artifice to create this emotion. Sirk was using beauty as a form of oppression. He was making a social and political commentary on the values of America at that time that saw themselves through their growing materialism and optimism of the future. He was using women, being imprisoned by their domestic, small-town notions of the values of the community outweighing personal desires and needs. So beauty became a form of oppression. And even though people have referred to Carol as a melodrama, Todd likes to think of it as a period love story. It’s more soiled, muted, and it’s naturalistic, not expressionistic look at the world.  It’s a period after World War II, pre-Eisenhower, an uncertain time. So all this worked into a much more austere look at urban America at the time.

Inspirations for Film?

carol_5_blanchettEL: We didn’t really reference the cinema, where actually “Far From Heaven” is represented — the language of cinema through Sirk. Here we’re representing and looking at the cultural and visual signifiers of the time.  We actually looked at mid-century photographers who were photojournalists.  A large part of them happened to be women, Ruth Orkin, Esther Bubley, Helen Levitt, and then later Vivian Maier. These were photographers who were starting to experiment in color. That gave me the idea of trying to reference a visualization of early Ektachrome, rather than Kodachrome, rather than color negative.  That’s why the colors have this kind of coolness-warm mixture. I play with magentas and greens. The color didn’t have a full spectrum the way color is seen today. A photographer that was a street photographer and became a fashion photographer for a time, but was more an art photographer, was Saul Leiter. We visited Saul Leiter, who we used as a reference in Mildred Pierce, to create this layered abstraction that we felt could situate their minds, their emotional states. Our approach was to look and incorporate the subjectivity of the amorous mind, the mind of someone falling in love.

Therese as a Photographer

EL: Originally, in the book, she was a set designer, and that was a brilliant idea that Phyllis Nagy, the screenwriter, had. She changed her to a photographer, which was another wonderful reference for me because it allowed us to use her subjectivity with her camera to evolve.

For me, in the beginning, her work is more about seeing herself in abstractions and shadows and reflections, like Vivian Maier. And later she’s able to photograph things outside of herself, like Carol, as she’s able to embrace her awareness of her affection and love for Carol, and also of who she is, because she’s still in formation. She’s still becoming in focus of who her person is? What her outlook is of life.

Capturing Faces in Reflective Surfaces

carol_6_blanchettEL: It’s not just a representational view of the world but a psychological one. I read into Leiter’s images what the conceit was: You’re seeing something that’s hidden, but it’s also, for Carol and for Therese, to convey what’s hidden on the surface of things. Through these layers, the camera is kind of dealing with this isolation. It’s something hidden but that you’re fracturing the world. And our approach was to look at ways to incorporate a subjective viewpoint. In a film there’s kind of a silence and moments of suspension. And this layering of the images becomes kind of a subtext for their emotional states. They’re encapsulated in these cars where we see them from the outside and the reflection on the cars are what’s — let’s say what the forces are outside of them. But what we see through the car also affects how we feel about who they are and their entrapment.

Shooting in Super 16

EL: Even 35mm negative is so grainless that it almost looks digital when you go through a DI. And the same can be said for the digital world. When you shoot digitally they can add grain to the film, but it doesn’t operate the same way. In a digital world, everything’s pixel-fixated in the same place. Grain moves. It has, I think, an anthropomorphic quality. I like to feel, like, a pulsing of something living underneath the surface of the image. By referencing Super 16, I felt it could hark back or it could give a reference to the way you could look at a photograph from 50 or 60 years ago–the grain structure was different back then. Super 16, through a DI, through a digital intermediate, would feel like looking at a photograph from the past. So that was the real idea. This feeling of another layer of seeing their emotions through grain captured another emotional quality of their performance.

carol_4_blanchettIt’s so interesting, because films like “The Revenant” and “The Hateful Eight” are going the other way.  To me they’re surpassing what the digital world is. They’re becoming more photo-realist. It’s interesting to have “Carol” on the other end of the spectrum and how we can tell our stories in different capacities and what fits each story to tell the emotions of the characters.

Early Color Film

I wanted to reference early color film, and early color film didn’t have the full color spectrum that it does today, or the digital world. And even digital sees color differently than film does. So they were much more soiled, muted, which felt right for the world. There were more magentas, yellows, greens. There was a mixture of warm and cool colors. Ektachrome had a feeling for me more of a cool palette. And that fit the story, too, emotionally, for the characters.  I’m old enough to remember those homes and buildings.  Cincinnati was a great location to do all that because so much of it is caught in that time period. It was a film shot totally on location. A totally different set of problems than shooting “Far From Heaven,” which I shot on real locations but tried to make look like a backlot, a studio, and lit with expressionistic studio lighting. With “Carol” I was more interested in capturing a naturalistic look.


EL: The framing in the film was more about the environments that the two women are situated in.  For me and for Todd and the operator I work with, we always tried to situate the environment as a form of expression for the characters, maybe as a form of oppression, that they’re not free of the constraints of the frame. You’ll see where the camera is moving, but it stops and the character is placed in the last third of the frame. It’s like they’re not actually able to escape the frame. You feel the frame is a restriction to them? That there’s something outside of them that’s impeding on them. The framing–by shooting it through doorways, partially viewing them–is similar to what we were doing with reflections and mirrors. And since they’re not seeing themselves in totality, we allow the viewer not to see them that way. It’s really Therese’s point of view of Carol, and only her point of view, the subjectivity of the amorous mind, change at the end of the film. By not seeing Therese totally, we’re saying something about how she’s not seeing herself totally. And then there’s the metaphor of her as a photographer.