Cinematographer Ed Lachman and production designer Mark Friedberg break down Todd Haynes' mesmerizing historical drama

By Joey Nolfi
October 20, 2017 at 08:01 PM EDT
Mary Cybulski/Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions
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Between now and the Oscar nominations on Jan. 23, EW will speak to numerous contenders in below-the-line categories about their work and craft. This week, longtime Todd Haynes collaborators Ed Lachman, director of photography, and production designer Mark Friedberg discuss crafting the singular look and feel of the renowned director’s Wonderstruck, an emotionally moving, time-hopping saga of the heart about a deaf boy, Ben (Oakes Fegley), searching for his missing father in 1977 New York, whose path crosses with a young, deaf girl, Rose (Millicent Simmonds), who scoured the same city streets in search of a big screen idol (Julianne Moore) at the height of Hollywood’s transition from silence to sound 50 years prior.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How do your respective crafts compliment character and the overall story?

MARK FRIEDBERG: Todd and I have worked together for 20 years. We’re kindred spirits in terms of our approach… we’re both curious not just about our art, but our culture. Todd usually has an intellectual construct in mind — a prism or point of view. A lot of times it’s about the sociopolitics of the period, but seen through the prism of cinematic language… What’s special is that Todd takes all of that [research] and makes it relevant to the story, in that Rose is frustrated that she’s living in 1927, because sound is making its way to movies, and that directly impacts her… she escapes from home to see her [idol’s] movie, and as she leaves the theater, she sees that [sound film] is coming soon [on the marquee]. A second before, she was just like everybody else in the audience, but all of a sudden she’s very different.

ED LACHMAN: You’re hearing with images. Around 35-40 percent of the film unfolds without words. There are some natural sounds and the music works like punctuation. When you lose one of your senses, your other senses are heightened, so that became the [emotional] trigger for us.

The heart of this story is about the characters’ access to language and imagination, be it through hearing or deafness… The black-and-white [images] of Rose’s world mirror the silent age of cinema, which is a perfect metaphor for deafness [and] on a sociological or historical level, from roaring ‘20s up to the Great Depression, the period was about prosperity and opulence, as was the cinema [of the time]; at the height of the black-and-white period, the camera work was opulent, it had chiaroscuro studio lighting, and orchestrated camera movements.

Mary Cybulski/Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

When sound came in, cinema actually took a step back, because the cameras were larger and much more laborious to move, and its contrast and counterpoint was cinema of the 1970s. We looked to films like Mean Streets or Midnight Cowboy, but the touchstone for me was The French Connection, because that dealt with the urban reality of the streets. New York was in a recession, a kind of deterioration and hardship, and, visually, that was depicted in the street look of those nonrealistic films of the ‘70s, which captured real locations using long tracking shots in the street… they used a Western Dolly, which is four tires on a piece of plywood that holds a camera on a tripod, so they weren’t restricted by tracks. There was a suspension and fluidity to the shot, so we used the same tools of both time periods to capture worlds that mirrored the characters’ deafness.

FRIEDBERG: Ben was the easy one for me, because Ben gets lost on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1977, at about 12 years old, and I, like Ben, was a kid who was curious about nature and making things, and I’m kind of a loner [like him]. But for me, that was a personal story, here I was recreating the neighborhood of my childhood… I teased Brian that he wrote the story for me.

How did you avoid simply mimicking cinematic styles of the era to find something fresh and new, specific to this film?

LACHMAN: I didn’t try to imitate 1970s styles shot-for-shot, I tried to understand the methodology and logic behind what they were doing [at the time]. Then, [I focused on] the color balance of the film. Color negative was different in the ‘70s, as the color stocks were different, so we made the choice to shoot on film and not digitally. I tried to do things like shoot tungsten film outdoors, daylight-balanced film indoors, played with color temperature in the negative, and pushed the film to gain more grain to enhance the emotion [of the story].

Mary Cybulski/Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

So, shooting on 35mm, black-and-white negative was vital to telling this story? I bet that was a challenge.

LACHMAN: I went to Kodak, I saw that they still had the negatives in their catalog, and they were gracious to remake it for me. Then, I had to find a lab… at the time there was no lab in New York. Not only did I have to send the color and black-and-white to Los Angeles, but I had to get Photo-Chem to set up a developer to develop the black-and-white. I don’t know of any film right now that’s shot on black-and-white negative. From my experience with Todd shooting I’m Not There, where we also shot black-and-white negative, the contrast, grain structure, and exposure latitudes are different, even if you shoot in color and make it a monochromatic image in the eye.

Mary Cybulski/Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

I think the most stunning sequence in the film involves the miniatures that bridge the gap between Rose and Ben near the end. What’s the story behind those?

FRIEDBERG: When the script was written, it was going to unfold in flashbacks of each of those scenes taking place as Rose describes the world that led up to her son meeting Ben’s mother. We had a budget problem initially, and the solution targeted that section of our schedule… and as the movie got greenlit, the idea was that this section would be animated… as we talked about it, I didn’t like the idea at all. It would have been a third cinematic style at the moment of emotional revelation… We’ve grown so close to these characters, and now we’re going to see them in Claymation, a style that seemed arbitrary to the story.

We then chased down the idea of telling it through miniature dioramas. I wanted it to be in a language inside Ben’s head… Ben has a very emotional connection to tactile things. We know that he feels that way, and we know he makes things, and we know he spent a lot of time in a museum in the movie, so the palette of information that we gave to Ben was so he could construct a vision of what was being told to him, to the point where in the miniatures, I used toys from Ben’s room and other little connections to the live action film, because those were things he knew. When a pickup truck pulls up, in his mind, it’d be the pickup truck that he knew that he had, which is the one by his bedside table; when they were in the whale room funeral for his father, in the miniature, the whale was the thing his mother puts on his shelf when she’s giving him his birthday present.

Mary Cybulski/Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

LACHMAN: I had a second unit DP who was well versed in shooting miniatures, but I was there to translate the lighting so it’d match what we did on the bigger sets. We used the snorkel lens for macro photography.

Part of this story is honoring the imagination of a child, and for Todd it’s a tribute to what children can do with their hands. The worlds that Rose and Ben come from, the things in their rooms belong to the tactile things they’re creating [in their imagination], culminating in Ben’s nightmare, which unlocks the mysteries of the movie. The mini dioramas become of his mind, and help us connect to his memories and imagination. Those were all live-action, and weren’t manipulated digitally. So much of what Todd was drawn was that it could encapsulate the imagination of a child… We’re losing that in our digital age with computers, so he wanted to look at what makes children so wonderful: it’s what they can create.

FRIEDBERG: The real art is if you can put your heart into a film, not just your craft. It’s hard, but it’s fulfillingly hard and if you’re with people you’re comfortable with… there’s a forum to be brave, and we wanted that from each other. We assumed the craft was already there, so if we added emotion to the craft, that’s hopefully what gives the movie its resonance.

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  • Todd Haynes