The Ideas Behind the Image: Cinematographer Ed Lachman Discusses “The Velvet Underground”

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A long-time collaborator of Todd Haynes, the great director of photography talks about his work on the new music documentary.

By Abbey Bender

In his decades-long career, cinematographer Ed Lachman has brought an artful eye to dozens of films across a diverse array of directors and genres. One his most fruitful collaborations has been with director Todd Haynes, with whom he’s worked since 2002, when he shot the sumptuous '50s-set melodrama Far From Heaven. Their latest collaboration, The Velvet Underground, is a documentary that fully immerses viewers in the bohemian world of '60s downtown New York, showing the origins of the iconic band and capturing a distinct time and place without the typical rise-and-fall cliché and aesthetic blandness often found in rock docs. While the film is Haynes’s first documentary feature, Lachman has shot a variety of documentaries throughout the years, working with directors like Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Shirley Clarke, and The Velvet Underground gives Haynes’s passion for musical mythology, previously seen in films like Velvet Goldmine (1998) and I’m Not There (2007), a new poignancy.

I spoke to Lachman about his creative approach to documentary and the challenges of capturing an era.

NOTEBOOK: What was the process for coming up with the distinctive aesthetic of the documentary?

ED LACHMAN: The problem became the strength because there wasn’t a lot of footage of The Velvet Underground in performance. We’re giving all these cultural references of the imagery of the '60s and '70s, but there wasn’t a lot of the band. This gave the opportunity to reference the cultural influences that surrounded The Velvet Underground at the time—certainly Andy Warhol and his pop art, but also how important Jonas Mekas and the Film Cooperative was, and all the experimental filmmaking that was coming out of New York at the time, like the Kuchar brothers and Shirley Clarke. All these people gave a visual context.

Todd always does research and is interested culturally in why images and stories are told the way they are. That gave us the idea of showing it in multiple images. There was the filmmaking of Andy and Paul Morrissey with the screen tests, that are about duration and portraits of people’s faces, and I was also inspired by Warhol’s silkscreen images of media phenomena like Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Onassis, Elvis, Debbie Harry—all these things became a collage of how you create the world. So it became an immersive experience of who The Velvet Underground was, and also Todd was interested in showing how queer cinema was coming out of it and culturally how sexual liberation, the antiwar moment, and the hippies were all a way to situate who The Velvet Underground was. Also, in shooting these interviews I off-framed them, like people were in the right quadrant or the left quadrant so I knew that we wanted to use multiple images. The storytelling situates the viewer in the times, while I guess most documentaries are just trying to reference the group, the concerts, the backstage. I did films like Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll [1987] with Chuck Berry, but this was really more about the whole cultural movement of the '60s that Todd was interested in.

NOTEBOOK: The documentary has a very warm, nostalgic look. Did you shoot on film? 

LACHMAN: The synced interviews were shot digitally because we had to shoot so much and it would’ve been prohibitively expensive to shoot on film. But I shot with older lenses and I implemented those interviews with grain later. So those were shot digitally but we tried to marry those to all the other visual elements in the film. Since one of the references was Warhol’s silkscreens, each one would have its own color palette behind it, and I would light them in a gel that was close to what the wall looked like, so you would feel like the colors were emanating from the environment that they’re part of. 

NOTEBOOK: What has the shift from shooting on film to digital been like? 

LACHMAN: It’s funny that there’s a trend now back to film. I always hear “How can we make digital look like film?” but never “We should make film look digital.” I can say honestly in a photographic way, I understand why a lot of directors love the digital world, because you don’t have to be a slave to nine and a half minutes of a film roll, you can just keep rolling. But I think there are some disadvantages. Being able to film everything, all over, forever, you lose a point of view sometimes. On a photographic level, when you shoot on film, you have to prefigure how something is going to look, your light, your film stock, your development. So there’s a lot of things you’re interpolating but not seeing. Now, digitally, you don’t need all those things. What you see is what you get to a degree.

I think photographically things have become much more adventurous in some ways because now people take greater risks, like, “Oh, it’s dark but I can see an image so I can go that way,” and people do it. What I think happens is what I call “the machismo of darkness.” Now everything is dark just because it can be dark. Even Gordon Willis used to say—and he was “the Prince of Darkness”—“When I make it dark, I do something in the frame that’s a midlight and something that’s a highlight. It isn’t just all dark.” So when I see a lot of work now, every scene is dark. Your eye tires. There has to be a fluctuation of how you use light and darkness to create images. It isn’t just darkness. When we went from film editing to digital editing, things changed because the rhythm of cuts could be different. You could experiment more and have confidence to do things differently with time. All these things have their advantages but if they get overused, you miss what it is. Nothing will replace the ideas behind the image, I don’t care if it’s digital or film. It’s the idea that creates the image, it isn’t just the image in itself. I’m not oppositional or regressive, thinking everything should be shot on film. Some things are wonderful digitally, especially documentaries, because it gives you a certain flexibility and low-key ability to shoot. It’s like a different paintbrush. Things have different feelings and we shouldn’t be limited to creating in one way. We don’t have to give up one for the other.

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