Last working with Todd Haynes on Carol, Oscar-nominated cinematographer Ed Lachman found an “intensely cinematic” project in the director’s latest, Wonderstruck—a film that that would take place in two time periods, following two deaf children who experienced the world through visuals, much as Lachman does.
Based on Brian Selznick’s 2011 novel of the same name, Wonderstruck follows Rose, a young girl who was born deaf in the ’20s, and travels through New York in search of her silent film actress mother, as well as Ben, a boy who becomes deaf by way of a tragic accident in the ’70s, with the film seeking to explain what these two children coming of age in two time periods have in common, by way of a magical museum.
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Shot on film, Wonderstruck juxtaposes the rich black-and-white imagery of the silent film era with the gorgeous multicolored ’70s imagery of Ben’s world, achieved using a mix of various color temperatures typical of photographers of his period. As Lachman explains, the film’s two sets of visuals emerged from Haynes’ desire to tell the story of these two child protagonists within the cinematic language of the eras they inhabited, using the filmmaking tools and techniques on display at the time.
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Lachman gives his account of his styles for the ’20s and ’70s and his experience shooting in New York’s American Museum of Natural History.
What did Todd Hayes communicate to you when he first spoke with you about Wonderstruck?
He was excited about exploring a children’s story that he was nuanced and gave respect to the intelligence and sensitivity of children. Really, for me, the story is about how children find their place in the world and search for their identity, and how they use their imagination to survive.
He felt that Brian Selznick’s story was intensely cinematic, the idea that it takes the form of a mystery using a dual-narrative structure for why these two characters are connected. I always like to get away from the digital world.
The story deals with a deaf girl, but it’s about what you do with your hands. Even sign language is a very visual language, and you see the miniatures and what she cuts out in her room. Brian did Hugo for Scorsese, [using] the birth of cinema as language for the film, and this is really about curating and museums, how we hold on to what’s important to us in our personal relations through tactile objects.
The film’s sound is very experimental. Was the photographic process on Wonderstruck similarly avant-garde?
Todd is always playing with cinematic language. In the book, Rose’s world is framed within the silent period, so the conceit for Todd was, “The book is dealing with the black-and-white period. Rose is looking for her mother, who’s a silent movie actress, and we discover that, so what better way to see the ‘70s?” Because the stories converge in the ‘70s in New York, but through the language of the cinema—of Mean Streets and Midnight Cowboy, and The French Connection, which visually is totally different than the black and white that was the height the silent period.
There was an opulence to the images, in the sense of orchestrated camera movements and chiaroscuro lighting, and balanced formalism in the framing, in contrast to the realistic, gritty imagery of ‘70s New York, which was also going through a recession. Those films like The French Connection—crime stories and thrillers—were mirrored against the backdrop of the city and its hardship of images, which were like the deterioration of the social structure of New York at the time, because of the recession.
Were there other visual touchstones you looked at in pre-production for either period? I know you tend to look at the photographers of a given time and place.
For the black-and-white period, we looked at [F.W.] Murnau’s The Last Laugh, we looked at King Vidor, and then there’s a visual reference to The Wind and Victor Sjöström. For the ‘70s, we looked at films that were shot in the ‘70’s in New York, and I reached out to Owen Roizman, who shot The French Connection.
There was also a documented approach of capturing the reality of the city at that point—this kind of hard-boiled look. There were long tracking shots on Western dollies and wheelchairs—which we call “The Rickshaw dolly”—handheld. There was much more fluidity and a rawness to the imagery in contrast to Rose’s world, where there was a certain kind of opulence to the storytelling and the look of the period. Also the use of zooms. Even when I reached out to Owen, however many years later, he was still commenting about the way they used zooms for punctuation, and Todd wanted to mimic that, also.
It isn’t just for stylistic reasons. It also created the enticing and foreboding world that Ben is entering. He comes from this rural area of Minnesota and now he’s engaged in this heat of New York City, and its seamier side.
Given the stylistic split that’s inherent to the film, were you shooting with two separate cameras and sets of lenses?
As much as possible, Todd always wants to use the tools that existed in the filmmaking of that period. We’d do these lookbooks, referencing the art and fashion, the demographics and the filmic language of the time.
For the black-and-white period, I got Kodak to make black-and-white 35mm film again, and I had to get a lab to develop it. I used the older Cooke Speed Panchro lenses that could have been used back then. Then for the 70’s, I used the older Cooke and Angenieux zoom lenses, which had more lead in the glass that contributed to the contrast.
Then, I played with color temperature. Mixing color temperatures was so prevalent back then—when they were shooting in the streets of New York, they weren’t changing everything to make it one color temperature. They were embracing the idea of using fluorescent, sodium vapor, daylight and tungsten on tungsten film, and they were also pushing the film. They were using much slower film stock than what we use today. I’m old enough to remember all that.
So I tried to implement that in the look of the film, and I did that by sometimes using daylight stocks indoors, which would change the color temperature, and tungsten stock that you would shoot under movie lights or tungsten lights outdoors. I tried to manipulate the negative so it would have a more saturated feeling.
You mentioned still photographers—there were people like Len Jenshel, Joel Meyerowitz and Mitch Epstein who were called “medium format photographers” that were shooting with 6×9 and 2 1/4 and were experimenting shooting with color in the streets of New York.
Shooting on black-and-white film seems like the dream of many cinematographers.
We shot with black-and-white negative on I’m Not There. It’s complicated because you’ve got to get the film stock, then get a lab to develop it, which FotoKem was very open to doing for me. What I realized on I’m Not There is, the structure of the grain, the exposure latitude, and the contrast is different than if you shoot on color film and make it monochromatic, or if you just shot digitally. It’s not the same thing.
Especially because we’re referencing the cinema of the time, of the ‘20s, it was important to us to shoot on black-and-white negative. The amazing thing is the support we had from Amazon that allowed us to shoot. I would say 40% of the film is black-and-white negative.
What was it like shooting in the Natural History Museum? That must have been fairly extraordinary.
That was really wonderful. That’s the 15% of the film that was shot digitally. They revered the book, so they gave us permission to shoot in there, but obviously with many restrictions. I had to go in at night and come out in the morning with the equipment, so I had to limit the amount of equipment I could bring in and out.
Even though I had shot tests and I could have pushed the film a stop, a stop and a half, two stops and shot in the museum, we ultimately decided to shoot digitally because I would need less lighting.
The most important and most difficult part was that the dioramas had to the brightest source. The one that was the most complicated was the wolf diorama which Ben ends up at. That was like a two-month negotiation to put in six two-foot Kino Flos because those are hermetically sealed environments, and no one can go in those because it destroys the fur and the sets, with the animals in it. After that negotiation, they were put in days before and I had to go do tests. That was probably the most complicated part for me, going in and out of the museum every day, shooting with minimal lighting and creating that mysterious world for the boys.
What was involved when it came to merging these digital components of Wonderstruck with the bulk of it, which was shot on film?
I had experimented on an earlier film with something called live grain, which tracks the highlights and the shadow details, so the grain is finer in the highlights and coarser in the shadow details. The problem, up until this plug-in, was that the grain would just be laid over the digital image.
The beauty of this is that it tracks, so there’s movement from frame to frame with exposure. So if you go past a window, the grain is finer. Then, if you go in the shadow of the room, it gets coarser, which gives more of the feeling of what grain does in a film. The advantage was, I was shooting in very low light situations, and I always find the digital world is much more forgiving in low light situations than it is in higher key situations. So that all helped to merge the two worlds.
Do you have a particular methodology when it comes to working with children?
No, but they were very sophisticated. Oakes [Fegley] did Pete’s Dragon and [Millicent Simmonds] had never worked in film before, but it’s just the relationship you have with any actor. Especially for children, it’s a form of play. They have more energy than we will ever have. It’s just giving them the respect that you would give any actor.
How did you approach framing, given that it’s a film from two children’s point of view?
The film is about the objective world of hearing and then the subjective viewpoint of what it’s like not to hear, so I think that was the guiding principle of how you create this subjective viewpoint of the world of these two characters.
I always say it’s about listening with images, about hearing with images. We went on scouts sometimes with earplugs, and it removed you from the environment but it heightened your ability to see. When you lose one sense, it heightens other senses in a person. That’s what I felt the images were about, how you create this listening with the images where they had a more resonant feel to them.
Brian talks about doing that by doing these black-and-white illustrations in the book, to mirror her silent world of being deaf. But then it’s about Ben, who loses his ability to hear. So I tried to create the images that had a subjective viewpoint of what they see and to allow the viewer to feel like they’re a part of their world.
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