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How Ed Lachman re-created 1950s for `Far From Heaven'
When the title appears at the start of "Far From Heaven," a brightly painted title covers the screen over the backdrop of a street scene occupied by people and automobiles, and the music of composer Elmer Bernstein rises in a broad sweep that evokes a 1950s era Technicolor film.
That was exactly what cinematographer Ed Lachman wanted to achieve as he and writer-director Todd Haynes sought to create a movie in the style of renowned filmmaker Douglas Sirk who made highly stylized melodramas, most notably in the 1950s.
"He used lighting for psychological effect," said Lachman, who has been nominated for an Academy Award for best cinematographer. "He separated the world by light."
In order to create the Technicolor feel of the film, Lachman chose to use only the type of equipment -- lights, lenses and film stock -- that was available to Sirk 50 years ago.
"We did not want a digitally created Technicolor," Lachman said.
He said the goal was to let viewers enter Sirk's film world, a place of sharp angles, shadows and rich, saturated colors.
In fact, Lachman said, the opening title and credit scene was designed to be imitative of the opening credits of Sirk's 1959 film "Imitation of Life," a film about a white woman and a black woman and their struggle to raise their children as single mothers. It was Sirk's last Hollywood film.
"Far From Heaven" tells the story of Cathy and Frank Whitaker, played by Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid. Set in Hartford, Conn., in 1957, the film follows the Whitakers' seemingly idyllic existence. He is a sales executive, she a mother and homemaker who are raising their two children in a comfortable, suburban home.
Moore was nominated for a best actress Oscar for her role and Quaid got a nod for best supporting actor.
Things are not what they seem on the surface, however, as Cathy soon discovers that her husband is involved in casual, homosexual activity carried out in restrooms, back alleys and even in his darkened office at night. As the two struggle to deal with his lifestyle amid the manner and social mores of 1950s America, their lives shatter.
Those lives become more complicated when Cathy befriends a black gardener (Dennis Haysbert). The two become the subject of small-town gossip when they are seen together in public.
Like many of Sirk's films, "Far From Heaven" deals with controversial social issues in the context of the time. While Sirk's work dealt with the issues of the 1950s in the 1950s, Haynes takes viewers back to that place and time to present attitudes that have changed in many ways nearly five decades later.
Dealing with conflict
Sirk's "All That Heaven Allows" dealt with society's reaction to a love affair between a repressed wealthy widow and her handsome, younger gardener in the context of small-town America in the 1950s. His "Written on the Wind" was about a wealthy and powerful Texas family that ends up in ruins because of their lack of moral values.
Lachman noted that Sirk and his cameraman Russell Metty used many cinema techniques to tell their story. Sirk was once quoted as saying: "The [camera] angles are a director's thoughts. The lighting is his philosophy."
Lachman said the pair employed lighting normally associated with noir films to add texture to the storytelling, separating characters and highlighting their isolation from each other.
In "Far From Heaven," Lachman said he used the same techniques to show the growing distance between Cathy and Frank and their growing emotional isolation.
Although set in Hartford, the film was shot in a former military barracks in Bayonne, N.J. The exteriors were shot in New Jersey as well.
He said that even though on location, conditions enabled him to shoot as if he were on a Hollywood back lot, the place where Sirk made many of his most successful films.
He used lighting rigs and ceiling lights inside the barracks to create the Sirk-like effects. He used 1950s period outdoor lighting when shooting exteriors in New Jersey towns that have changed little.
"Those towns have not left the '50s," Lachman said.
Varied uses of lighting
He employed portrait lighting that was purposefully not naturalistic to create shadows. He even used artificial lighting when a character was near a lamp, something that would not be done in modern filmmaking.
"Today we would want to make the lamp light appear to light the character," he said.
Lachman said he avoided close-ups that filmgoers see today, instead framing characters with other actors, or the surrounding architecture. "People are trapped by their environment," he explained.
Lachman said he used Kodak film stock that he overexposed by two stops in order to get richer colors and greater luminosity and used different color lighting to enhance the mood as the film moved through different seasons of the year.
"I always used a two-color combo," he added, "warm colors advance and cool colors recede." Lachman added that his studies in painting while in art school influenced his work.