The American Society of Cinematographers

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ASC Close-Up

Ed Lachman, ASC, taps Super 16mm for Todd Haynes' period melodrama Carol.

Unit photography by Wilson Webb, courtesy of The Weinstein Co. Additional photos by Ed Lachman.

Shot by Ed Lachman, ASC, and directed by Todd Haynes, Carol is adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, which was written in 1949 (under the pseudonym Clare Morgan) and published in 1952. Highsmith’s reputation is largely based on her crime fiction, and at first glance, Carol, about a love affair between two women, seems to break with that tradition.

In an email to Lachman while prepping the picture, Haynes wrote, “To me, it does line up with all of her classic work because the traditional Highsmith stories — Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley — [go inside] the subjectivity of the criminal mind.” Lachman, in turn, tells AC, “Carol is a crime [story]. The crime is their love for each other.”

The setting is New York in the late 1940s. The winter holidays are coming, and a young, introverted department-store employee, Therese (Rooney Mara), is smitten with an unhappily married older woman, Carol (Cate Blanchett). They become emotionally involved, but with Carol’s husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), determined to save his marriage at any cost, the two women are forced to take their love on the lam.

Carol is Lachman’s fourth collaboration with Haynes, after two features — Far from Heaven (AC Dec. ’02) and I’m Not There (AC Nov. ’07) — and the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce (AC April ’11). “Todd is highly visual, though our conversations are usually more about the approach to the image, rather than what the image will be, finding it [instead] on the set,” says Lachman. A deep trust has developed between the director and cinematographer over the course of their 13-year collaboration. “Even when we disagree, the result is something better than what either of us had first conceived,” Lachman adds.

Lachman and Haynes began to visualize Carol by studying the works of past masters of melodrama, such as George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (photographed by William C. Mellor, ASC), for its strong narrative language and use of point of view, and Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte and L’Eclisse (both photographed by Gianni Di Venanzo), for their use of abstraction and spatial relationships to enter the characters’ minds.

Like Far from Heaven, Carol references life in mid-20th century America, but this time the filmmakers chose to avoid referencing the high-gloss studio melodramas of the late ’50s. Lachman notes, “Melodrama is a film style that observes social forces confronting people’s lives, [a genre] in which you’re watching relatively ordinary people suffer under forces of social mores that they’re not able to overcome, confront or change. In the films of Douglas Sirk, there is mannerism in the performances, and there’s artifice in the studio lighting and color and camera movement. It’s a description of a picture-perfect world that could be, but is never allowed to be.

Carol’s form of melodrama observes people from the outside, but situated in a world of naturalism,” he continues. “The camera moves with [the characters], and even when it’s objective, we’re still trying to evoke their emotions by shooting them through doors and windows and reflections, so that by seeing the characters partially obscured, we’re attempting to express their dislocated and fragmented identities.”

Haynes collected his thoughts on this subject in a preproduction email to Lachman that the director titled “Flung Out of Space: Thoughts on a Visual Criteria for Carol.” Haynes wrote, “The film needs eyes and fingers to be more instructive than aggressive angles, moves or lighting. [The camera] should move with characters, adjust and reframe with intention but motivated by visual directives, which can make a camera feel both organic and suturing. Most shots in Sugarland Express have stillness, panning or zooming and movement, in some combination or succession, but they rarely feel boastful.”

Carol’s opening shot leads the audience directly into an encounter between Carol and Therese. We fade up on a sidewalk grate. The camera rises and tilts up to follow commuters’ feet coming out of a nearby subway station, then picks up its subject — a well-dressed man — and follows him to the other side of the street, where he purchases a newspaper; the camera follows him around a corner and finally booms up on a 30' telescoping crane as he enters the high-end hotel where we meet our protagonists, seated together at a table in the restaurant.

In a departure from the book, Therese no longer decorates department-store windows but instead develops an interest in still photography. Haynes and Lachman used this conceit to map her emotional development. Her early photos are abstract snapshots of urban landscapes and inert objects; when she photographs herself or other people, her subjects are in shadow or reflected. As her affair with Carol develops, Therese is able to take photos outside of herself, of her lover, and she begins to embrace her life more fully.

Lachman reveals that Therese’s early photos were in fact shot in the 1960s by photographer Brian Blauser, and her later work was shot by Carol's set photographer, Wilson Webb. The filmmakers wanted Therese’s photos to share the same sensitivity and gritty realism found in the work of mid-20th century female photographers like Lisette Model, Berenice Abbott, Ruth Orkin, Esther Bubley, Helen Levitt and Vivian Maier. Haynes wrote to Lachman, “Women played a much more relevant, central role in depicting and documenting those times, but it also wavered between art photography — like many of their careers did — and photojournalism. And so it was both artistic and aestheticized …. The soft, soiled look of period photography (rather than its cinema) should both soften and soil the emotional content of the story.”

Lachman elaborates, “Our approach to the look was to incorporate a subjective viewpoint of the amorous mind — the mind of someone falling in love, when you read every sign and symbol of the other person. [To support] the emotional content of the story, we rejected the high-gloss Douglas Sirkian world of melodrama in favor of the soiled and muted color palette of 1940s color still photography. We also revisited Saul Leiter, whose photographs and paintings we first used as a reference for Mildred Pierce — for creating layered compositions, [with] subjects that are obscured by abstractions and seen in reflections and partially visible space. By using Leiter’s approach, we were not only creating a representational view of the world, but a psychological one.”

Lachman and Haynes briefly discussed filming on 2-perf 35mm film, but based on their experience shooting Mildred Pierce on Super 16mm, they opted for the latter, as well as a final aspect ratio of 1.85:1. “We wanted to reference film stocks of a previous time period,” Lachman explains. “Their grain structure and color separation were different than that of today's digital photography, which is pixel-fixated on one plane. The grain structure in film, and its movement, is affected by exposure: finer grain in highlights, larger in low light. That can’t be represented digitally, even if you add digital grain later.”


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