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Collaboration: Far From Heaven

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By Bill Desowitz
Director Todd Haynes and Cinematographer Ed Lachman pulled off a coup last year with Far From Heaven, recapturing the visual essence of the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 1950s. The exquisitely artificial use of light, shadow, décor and clothing – all of which convey the claustrophobia of the characters played by Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, and Dennis Haysbert – was intended to have contemporary resonance. Lachman created a rich palette with warm and cool colors, mixing gels the old-fashioned way and lighting characters in their environment rather than lighting the environment. He made the film look as though it had been shot on a back lot with many hard lights, but refrained from shooting on Vision Premiere stock in order to lower the contrast. The picture was a resounding critical success, with Lachman receiving an Oscar nomination.

Below the Line: What was the plan in recreating the look of the Sirk films?
Lachman: We didn’t want to use any techniques they couldn’t [have used] back then: even [Todd’s] decision – it was financial but it also worked [creatively] – to use film opticals. There are no digital opticals. So even though [back then] they were trying to get it the best they could, we said to ourselves, “It’s all right if it’s a little out of focus, because that’s the way it was.”
BTL: What was it about the Sirk films that immediately struck you, visually?
Haynes: I think it was Sirk who said you have to think of color films first in terms of black and white; in terms of density. The beautiful thing about his films is the way they’re offset by these incredibly inky blacks and foreground objects that are often not lit at all – the backs of people go pitch black. The colors are etched in intense darkness, and at times it’s like a film noir strategy imposed on Technicolor.
Lachman: But he used color on a psychological level… Shadows and light were used to separate the characters and isolate them in their own loneliness. Photography should always be about the idea behind it rather than just a pictorial quality.
Haynes: And complementary strategies of color in almost every frame of the film, as opposed to today’s use of color, which is the dumbing-down of color to the degree where an entire film set in the past will be golden, honey colors. Or suspense thrillers will be all cool, blue colors. [Sirk] would bring warm and cool colors into almost every frame. And the palette was more muted, more subtle. It wasn’t like the stoplight color of Written on the Wind, or [the] intense acrylic yellows and pinks in Imitation of Life. And we love that. It’s just so rich, and so much more evocative of the range of human emotion. That became our mandate: contrasting and complementary strategies.
BTL: So how did you apply this to the film?
Lachman: We worked closely with [Production Designer] Mark Friedberg and [Costume Designer] Sandy Powell. [There were] color palettes of ideas… actual paintings of the sets. Those were all references for us. And then I shot tests – which I always do, because what you see isn’t always what you get. So we painted 3×3 panels, and I experimented with different color gels to see how they would bring out the colors in the set. I’ve experimented with that since Union City. So we played with color that way, and then we played with color – like we said, in contrasting the color. Going from lavender or periwinkle blue at night in the beginning, to aquamarine or green-blue as their relationship deteriorates. The hard thing to deal with is knowing how far you have to go with one color not to lose the other color.
Lachman: Todd actually pushed me in the timing further than I could’ve gone with someone else; like how dark the film is. Every cameraman has asked me, “How did you get someone to let you go so dark?” They’re all like in awe. I was afraid to go darker because you wouldn’t be able to see what’s important. But Todd kept saying to go darker, go darker.

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