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The Vision Behind the Lens: An Exclusive Interview with Cinematographer Ed Lachman

Over his multi-decade career, artist, director, and cinematographer Ed Lachman has had the chance to work on a huge range of films, from documentaries to features. 

He whet his teeth working with the leaders of the New German Cinema in the 70s, before working on documentaries and films like True Stories (1986) starring David Byrne of the Talking Heads and Less Than Zero (1987)—loosely based off the novel of the same name.

He then went on to work with Steven Soderbergh on The Limey (1999) and the critically-acclaimed Erin Brockovich (2000); Tod Hayes on Far From Heaven (2002) and I'm Not There (2007)—the Bob Dylan biopic in which six different actors portray the many lives of the musician. Not to be overlooked is his eye on Sofia Coppola's cult classic The Virgin Suicides (1999), a film that even made teenage suicide seem beautiful. 

The films and projects Lachman has worked on conjure up words like noir, emotive, raw, addiction, and mystery. What Lachman always seems to discover is the beautiful moment or the glimpse of hope that carries a story inside a narrative often ridden with despair or struggle. 

But Lachman's always been drawn to music and the way it has the ability to communicate without words, much like film. He worked on one of The Village People's first music videos, documented the Rolling Stones' 1974 tour, and did Madonna's screen test for Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), among other projects.

We recently had the opportunity to work with Lachman on The Collaborators series, a behind-the-scenes look at the collaborators behind Daft Punk's new album Random Access Memories shot entirely on 16mm film, the last of the film's stock. In the first video in the series, directed by Lachman and The Creators Project, we talk to legengary record producer Giorgio Moroder (watch the video here). 

We spoke with Lachman who talked to us more about working on The Collaborators series: 

The Creators Project: So what references were you using in coming up with the look for this series?
Ed Lachman: 
Well, I tried to use the stylization of how we approached music and interviews in the 70s and 80s where I would always use a moving zoom to give emotion to the interview and respond to what was being said. I tried to keep a kind of minimalistic look that actually Jerry Schatzberg was creating in commercials, and also in fashion photography. We reference different visual styles that were prominent in the 70s and 80s, but also visual styles that came out of Europe, independent foreign films, and American independent cinema in the 70s. The 70s were like the most fervent and productive period in Hollywood filmmaking because there was such a kind of confusion about where to go in storytelling, and the gates were wide open for experimentation. 

Why are you attracted to the intersection of film and music?
Music has always kind of been the brother to film. I haven’t always been a great proponent of music in films to be just the emotional underpinning of the storytelling, but how when music is used properly, film has a natural progression. Film has a rhythm, images have a rhythm, and I always felt that film can be a non-verbal way of communicating feelings and ideas the way music can. So in that sense I feel that music and film have a symbiotic relationship. I’ve always felt that if I wasn’t a filmmaker or a cinematographer, and if I had the ability, which I don’t, music would have been the form that I would’ve wanted to be part of because of this ability to connect with a person’s emotions through a non-verbal means. And I always felt images had that strength to communicate on a non-verbal level. 

If you were a musician, what advantage would you have as a filmmaker?
Well I like the immediacy of what music does, and I love the immediacy of what the camera does, so even in [The Collaborators'] interviews, I’m always slightly moving the zoom, and I don’t use a motorized zoom, or a mechanical zoom, I’m doing it by hand. I want to respond to what the storytelling is, and moving in and out creates a certain kind of emotion, in that you feel someone’s response to what they’re talking about.

In the same way, which I think has been overused, is hand-held camera work, where we’re supposed to believe that this is emotional realism because we’re seeing something in real time, but I think that’s been overused, and especially if it’s not done well. There’s other ways to do that—on a tripod, with a zoom lens, with lighting, that can be as effective. So for me, the camera is giving a certain kind of performance, and I’m interacting with that character, with that person that we’re interviewing. Also I’m helping to create an environment for that person to perform in, in the lighting, in the way we move the cameras—the camera motivated by the actors. Is the camera motivated by the actor? Or is the actor expected to be motivated by the camera? The language of what the world is that you’re seeing the character in also creates an emotional context for that character. We really create the world for the character to discover themselves in, and that’s partly what music can also make.

What makes good music?
I think music is something that creates a certain kind of emotional feeling. It can make one reflective, it can make one proactive. That’s the interesting thing about music, I might have a different emotional feeling that’s different than you, so how can one thing create different things in different people?

Can you tell us a story about one of your earliest experiences working with a musician.
I did Blondie's first film Union City, that was a strange story. I’d come back to New York from Bora Bora, it was there for a year working on a terrible Hollywood film Hurricane, and I went to this party downtown. There was this girl there with this bleach blonde hair, and I guess I was trying to come onto her and she gave me her number. We were casting for Union City, and I said, 'Well I met this girl, at this party, I think she’d be perfect for the part.' And they said 'Who is it?' And I said, 'It’s Blondie, or something.' And they go, 'Blondie?! You can get Blondie?' So I called her up and she said, 'Ah that would be nice, so I’ll come over and read for the part.' So of course she got the part, and we became friends later. I never actually went out with her, but we became friends. 

What about working with Lou Reed?
I did a video, it was for "Berlin"—and years later I did a concert film that I directed and shot called Songs for Drella that Lou Reed and John Cale did at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and I’m reminded of this story. But of course it was a period of his [Lou Reed's] life that I don’t think he remembered too much. But he came into the room when we were shooting—he came up to my camera and he kicked the tripod, and said, 'Do it like Andy [Warhol].' I was like horrified! I just grabbed my camera, it was plummeting to the floor. I thought that’s really weird.

What do you think he meant?
I think he meant just like do it offhand, don’t be so controlled, be experimental. I reminded him of [the incident] later, but he didn’t have any recollection of it…

What was it like working on I'm Not There?
My gaffer and myself were the only people old enough working on I’m Not There that were around in the late 60s and 70s. So the references that the director Todd Haynes was referencing, he understood, but we actually lived it [laughs]. 

I went to art school in New York at the time, so I was very much in that world. But the other aspect of I’m Not There that was engaging for me was that we referenced the independent or European cinema of the 60s and 70s, of the Goddard's and early New Wave films like Breathless and My Life to Live. And later from the Neo-realists to directors like Fellini that were breaking away from Neo-realism and reality towards more subjective, personal cinema. So we actually, literally, referenced that specifically. The scene where Cate Blanchett is one evolution of Dylan who’s trying to escape his stardom and fame, and his fans, and the responsibilities that come with being a rock star references the scene in 8 1/2 where Mastroianni is escaping, or trying to find his next film and feels the pressure of his creative process and things that are being imposed on him.

Todd referenced not only the world that Dylan was living in, and how he influenced culture, but also how culture was influencing Dylan through cinema, through the politics of the Vietnam War. So these were all elements in the film that underline the storytelling, because how do you tell a story of a mythological story like Dylan? Not one character can portray who Dylan was, because Dylan was always reinventing himself through each album.

Working on a film like I’m Not There mirrored my own evolution as understanding cinema, or what I loved about filmmaking. 

Do you feel that way as a cinematographer, like you have to reinvent yourself?
The one thing that a director like Todd has said about me, is that I don’t fall back on one style. That I try to reinterpret the imagery through the storytelling, through the script of what makes that script unique in itself. And I think that partly comes out of art school because I studied different forms, and thinking about how different movements in the art world created whatever they did. And so I understood that, or tried to understand that images are created out of a certain political, social, and even economic means. So for me, what’s fun is how I reinvest my ideas through the script, or through the storytelling, to try and find its own language. Even music has different effects, and different ways of telling a story.

This piece we’re doing now on dance and techno music and working with the different ideas that Daft Punk has about what their influences were, brought me back to the same ideas of how to construct images in a very simple, pared down way that would reflect another time, but could also reinterpret that time. There were certain conventions in the so-called disco world, but that wasn’t the only world they were influenced by, so this album is really a reflection of music over the last 20 years, and it’s interesting to try to find some of that language to reinterpret what that world was. 

All photos by Jordan Kinley

@creatorsproject