With Far From Heaven, cinematographer Edward Lachman, ASC and director Todd Haynes craft an elegant and compelling homage to the films of Douglas Sirk.

When writer/director Todd Haynes set out to create his own take on the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 1950s, he wasn’t interested in giving the genre a hip or ironic twist. As a result, Far from Heaven, shot by Edward Lachman, ASC, is as earnest and straightforward as Sirk’s Written on the Wind or All That Heaven Allows (see December 2002 Wrap Shot).

Sirk was among many filmmakers who emigrated from Germany to the United States between the two world wars. Like other artists whose roots were in German theater, Sirk used a theatrical visual style to convey political messages, but his Hollywood creations were designed for mass audiences – they were studio melodramas, the "chick flicks" of their day. His films illuminated the social, racial and sexual tensions that defined post-war American life, but the stylistic conventions he employed were mocked by some for their artifice.

Haynes had no intention of joining in the mockery. "People attribute to me a kind of gay brand of easy irony," he says. "But what always surprises the people who like my films is that they find themselves very emotionally engaged."

Haynes says that in some ways, Far From Heaven resembles his first film, the short Superstar, in that it has all the trappings of satire but is actually something quite sincere. Superstar used Barbie dolls to tell the story of self-destructive 1970s pop singer Karen Carpenter. Haynes observes, "The only way Superstar works is through an enormous trick: it makes you think you’re about to have a laugh riot watching a condescending story, but in fact, the goal of the film is to make you forget you’re watching dolls and form a weird, unexpected emotional connection to what is an incredibly sad story."

Set in 1957, Far From Heaven stars Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid as Cathy and Frank Whitaker, an archetypal suburban couple plagued by the kind of dark secrets and hidden longing that per-meate Sirk’s most famous films. Cathy discovers that her husband has been a closeted homosexual throughout their marriage, and in her confusion and loneliness, she develops an emotional attachment to her African-American gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), causing a scandal in her segregated town.

Haynes says he wasn’t interested in creating an "issue-oriented" film in which strong, admirable characters confront unfair social forces. Like Sirk’s characters, the people in Far From Heaven cannot rise above their circumstances. "Sirk’s films do have artificial elements – exquisitely rendered lighting, the clothes, the décor, and all of those things we think of as archly fake," Haynes observes. "But they tell incredibly simple stories about domestic crises that concern people are very ordinary, despite how gorgeously they dress and move. They’re not heroic; they don’t overcome their problems and change the world. They’re really victims of their society, and that makes them shockingly real."

Far From Heaven was Haynes’ first collaboration with Lachman, who is known for taking on offbeat projects (including Ken Park, The Virgin Suicides, Light Sleeper and The Limey). Lachman’s work on Far From Heaven earned a special jury prize for cinematography at this year’s Venice Film Festival. AC recently asked Lachman and Haynes to discuss their collaboration.

American Cinematographer: Why did you want to recreate a Douglas Sirk melodrama in 2002?

Todd Haynes: I think the best movies are the ones where the limitations of representation are acknowledged, where the filmmakers don’t pretend those limitations don’t exist. Films aren’t real; they’re completely constructed. All forms of film language are a choice, and none of it is the truth. With this film, we point out at the start that we’re aware of all this. We’re not using today’s conventions to portray what’s ‘real.’ What’s real is our emotions when we’re in the theater. If we don’t have feeling for the movie, then the movie isn’t good for us. If we do, then it’s real and moving and alive.

Did you try to work within the limitations that Sirk had?

Haynes: We tried to. We used old-fashioned back-projection for the driving shots. Dissolves and effects were all optical, not digital. We wanted to get the rich color his films had. Some people asked me if we got this look using the newest digital technology, but the answer is absolutely not. Ed did it in camera and with gels, the way it was done on the Sirk films.

Edward Lachman: We wanted the audience to enter Sirk’s world, so we decided to be true to the means he used to create this world of total artifice. We decided not to use any techniques that Sirk and his cinematographer, Russell Metty [ASC], didn’t have. We wanted to create a saturated ‘Technicolor’ look, but we didn’t want to use digital methods. I exposed the film stocks one to two stops over the recommended exposure to create a dense negative.

Haynes: I also think the lighting style helps to create a kind of intense foreboding and a sense of danger.

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© 2002 American Society of Cinematographers.