Cinematographer Ed Lachman’s resume is clear-cut evidence of where his sensibilities lie, beginning in Europe, where he apprenticed with Sven Nykvist, Robbie Mueller, and Vittorio Storaro, as well as shooting films for Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Bernardo Bertolucci. Throughout his career, he has successfully straddled two worlds: documentary; including La Soufriere , Stripper and Mother Theresa ; and fictional films, from art films and independents to Hollywood features like Desperately Seeking Susan , True Stories , Less Than Zero and Backtrack .
At any given time, Lachman has a host of interesting options and calling his answering machine becomes a game of figuring out what continent he’s on at the moment. Since my own resume intersects with his on quite a few projects, I was able to track him down in his Manhattan loft one Sunday afternoon.
Lynn Geller Let’s talk about Less Than Zero, I did some music consulting on that, too, on the East Coast. I had the impression there was a bit of controversy going on out there.
Ed Lachman Well, let’s say my last two feature films in Hollywood were a bit disheartening. Not in the process of the filmmaking, I had a very good rapport with both Marek Kanievska with Less Than Zero and Dennis Hopper on Backtrack. But both projects took a different path from the actual filming experience: they were meddled with after the fact. I don’t think anyone at the studio read Less Than Zero, but because it was popular and a bestseller, they optioned it. When they saw their own neighborhoods, kids, and lifestyles depicted, they got very reactionary about the project. It was all right to show the Robert Downey character as a male prostitute in Palm Springs, but it wasn’t all right to show him doing the same thing in downtown L.A.
LG At what point did the story start getting less than real?
EL In the editing process. The studio never allowed Marek to have his final cut. They believed when they saw the film that it was an attack on their own lifestyle and depravity. They couldn’t separate themselves from it. And they didn’t want to be perceived as emotionally corrupt.
LG Did you see Marek’s cut?
EL I did, and it was totally different from what was released. What we tried to do filmically was to take a nonjudgmental approach towards the subject matter, to show things as they were, without moralizing, the way the book did. They didn’t understand that to get inside the material, they had to show the way these young people saw themselves. The way the kids allowed things to happen was the tragedy.
LG The passivity, you mean.
EL Ultimately, who cares about privileged kids in Beverly Hills? The film had to go further. It had to go over the edge.
LG What were you trying to accomplish in the way that you shot it?
EL I was trying to invert day and night, because these kids lived at night. Plus, it dealt with cocaine and drugs so I wanted the film to have a real edge. I wanted the images to have a heightened reality, the way things look when you’re high or coming down. And there was always tension in the frame: the camera was always moving in on these characters to be unsettling—the characters weren’t stabilized in their environment—so that was the visual approach as well.
LG Your last feature was with Dennis Hopper and Jodie Foster, Backtrack, he directed it?
EL Yes, but again, the film as it is now is not Dennis’ cut. That’s the root of the conflicts about its release. Dennis describes Backtrack as a gangster film that deals with the art world. It deflates the male machissimo trip, film noir stereotypes. Also, the casting was very innovative—everybody from Jodie Foster and Vincent Price to Bob Dylan, Dean Stockwell, Neil Young, Joe Peschi, John Turturro—a real ensemble. We shot in a lot of locations that for Dennis had emotional resonance from his past: in his neighborhood in Venice, at his log cabin in New Mexico, so, the project had an autobiographical quality to it.
LG What did Jodie Foster play?
EL Jodie Foster plays an artist and we use Jenny Holzer’s art as her work.
LG And Dennis Hopper?
EL Dennis Hopper plays the lead character. He’s hired by the mob to find the Jodie Foster character who’s changed identities because she’s witnessed a gangland murder. In his search, he falls in love with her, like a modern day Out of the Past.
LG He was directing and starring? Did that make your job harder?
EL No, we had a trust between us and a very good working relationship. Once Dennis trusts you, he really gives you the space to do what you do. When I first talked to Dennis, he said, “Oh, let’s not intellectualize, let’s just fucking do it.” Then the week before, he invited me over to his house and showed me On the Water Front. That was the only thing said. For him, the camera is always motivated by the performance. Once I understood his approach, he gave me the freedom to work within my own stylization of film noir. Plus, there were all these references to the art world for me to play with as a cinematographer, from Hieronymous Bosch to Georgia O’Keefe to Jenny Holzer.
LG Given your background, especially your early work, working with auteur European directors, do you want to go back to situations where the director has more control?
EL Of course, that’s always the ideal situation and you just have to keep trying and to keep working with people and projects you believe in.
LG What did you do after Backtrack?
EL It’s strange, since then, I’ve worked on my own smaller projects: Basically, I’ve been involved with the exploration of images, because I wanted the hands-on process of making a film where there was some control of the outcome. I did an experimental project on Route 66, for Imagining America (PBS) with a British producer, Leigh Blake. Leigh and I originally met to do a film about CBGBs and the music and art that came out of the ’70s surrounding punk. Ed Pressman is now producing that project, which we’ll film next spring.
LG Which I’m also involved in, but let’s talk about Route 66.
EL It’s really about lost images, the folklore behind the road, its mythology. Only 70 years ago, there was an interstate highway that ran from Chicago to the Santa Monica pier. This road depicted the uprooting and major changes in American life that happened in the first part of the 20th century. After the Great Depression and the Dustbowl, it symbolized the hopes and aspirations of the farmers to travel West to find a better life. And in the war years, it was the way to find employment. Now, the towns along the road are dying towns. Route 66 was designed to bring tourism to some of the most remote areas in the United States. It followed the natural contours of the more romantic countryside, like the Painted Desert, the Grand Canyon.
I used a stop motion camera and shot two frames every second as we were traveling on what was left of the original Route 66. I wanted to show how images were passed by and became lost. I used another camera to document the people whose memories were the collective experience of the road. We ended in California with Bobby Troup singing his “Get Your Kicks On Route 66,” and reminiscing about the road.
LG Your earlier documentary work was more traditional documentary, not historical documentary. But both Route 66 and the CBGBs project seem to be combining historical facts with what’s happening now.
EL It’s a way of documenting things that won’t be seen or experienced anymore. So at least we have some memory of it. After that, I did a project with Lou Reed and John Cale called Songs for Drella. Now I’m involved in a project called, Red, Hot and Blue, a 90-minute musical special where contemporary artists reinterpret Cole Porter songs with the proceeds going to worldwide AIDS education and research.
LG Right, the list of artists involved is amazing, U-2, Fine Young Cannibals, David Byrne, Neneh Cherry. . . Then the directors for the films—Wim Wenders, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, etc. Which artist are you filming?
EL Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera. He’s from Scotland. Edinburgh has a lot of AIDS because there are so many intravenous drug users. So I want to go out and capture images, in the city and in the surrounding area, to contrast to the love song, “Do you Love Me?”
LG In these projects where you’re the director, do you enjoy being in the editing room?
EL More and more. . . and it’s interesting because I always say the camera is the additive process and the editing room is the subtractive process. It’s always painful because when you shoot you want everything to work and, in the editing room, you have to make sense out of it for some larger picture. It’s kind of back and forth to get to that point. The most important thing in creating a style or an attitude in a film is understanding how it’s going to be cut. I always discuss with the director the way these different shots are going to connect in the storytelling. It’s not just about the singular image but about how these images connect.
LG As a cameraman you’re adding, as an editor, subtracting. Does overseeing the whole process as a director make you feel more responsible to what the images are saying?
EL Yes. More and more images are being appropriated. Look at MTV or how most films are put together. We’re barraged by all these images speeding around us and we never have a chance to think about what they really represent. It’s not enough just to show them. We have to take some position. In other words, you see people starving in Ethiopia next to the Pepsi Generation. We feel powerless and the danger is our loss of subjectivity. It’s not enough just to show things. If you’re bombarded with art, pop culture, commercials, video and film, that are just references to each other, whose voice is saying these things?
LG Give me the most basic example of what you’re saying.
EL All right, look, we sit in front of our TVs, fax machines, telephones, tape recorders and we all become isolated, we become our own terminals of information. We don’t have to travel anymore, we’ve lost the immediacy of contact. Our technology shouldn’t isolate us.
LG Some people would argue that all of the technology and flow has made the world smaller.
EL If we take responsibility. But it allows us to relinquish our responsibility. We see a documentary about the homeless in the streets of New York and think now that we know what it is, we don’t have to deal with it anymore.
LG Are you talking about taking in information versus action?
LG You don’t think that seeing something can ever have a profound enough effect for somebody to want to take an action?
EL We have to allow the viewer to participate in the images we create and not just be overwhelmed by them.
LG How do you do that?
EL By making images that have a humanistic quality. By not making fast, facile images, that only create needs for success, to get the girl, to acquire things. What’s important is that we don’t just objectify human needs whether in art, commercials, or films.
LG Certain films are really subversive, in that they go against the existing order, or what people accept as being reality, like Salaam, Bombay, which is almost semi-documentary, showing life from the point of view of a completely powerless person.
EL Yes, and that’s only one of many forms. Another danger now is that we’re so much into form over content. People talk to you about a project and they’re constantly referring to other films. You can’t develop content through style. You have to look at what makes that story or those individuals unique to find the world that they live in, in a visual sense.
LG In that way, the Lou Reed and John Cale Songs for Drella piece was very cohesive.
EL It was two people on a stage, the only other visuals were some slides. I wanted to keep the film very minimal so you would really have a chance to listen to the music. I wanted a portrait of Lou and John as artists, portrayed through the music, so I made it a study of their faces. I’m not always on the person when they’re playing, sometimes a reaction shot is as important and will say just as much. It’s a tribute to Andy Warhol and the relationship between themselves and Warhol is in the music. But it was a revelation for me to see that you could capture that on film by being true to a minimal approach.
LG Has that aired already?
EL No. It was done for Channel Four in England, and it will play in Germany, France, and Italy. And I hope it will it be shown at midnight screenings in theaters here.
LG So, in these last projects, you’ve been the director, do you want to continue in that direction?
EL There are certain projects I want to direct, but I never want to give up the camera. I’ve accepted Mira Nair’s next film, Mississippi Masala. She directed Salaam, Bombay. The new film is going to be shot in Mississippi and Uganda. In the early ’70s, the Asian population of Uganda was expelled by Idi Amin and many ended up in the Deep South. This traces one emigre family’s experience living in a black neighborhood in Mississippi. And in the fall, I’ve accepted Hanif Kureishi’s film, which will be his directorial debut. He wrote My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. London Kills Me is a comedy about disenfranchised youth in Thatcher’s London. They don’t know if they want to be inside society or not. The main character spends the entire film trying to get a pair of shoes so he can get a straight job in a restaurant. Since this is a film by Hanif Kureishi, there’s a triangular love relationship, a wise hip older woman and drugs.
LG All these locations you go to, do you enjoy that?
EL Filmmaking is about entering different worlds. The very nature of the process of making a film is taking a journey. So one is always traveling, either figuratively or literally. I’ve worked in Colombia, Lebanon, Russia, and Africa and I love the experience of working in different cultures. It allows me to see things with a fresh eye.
LG How do you choose the films you do?
EL I’ve always said that I never want to shoot a film I wouldn’t go pay to see. By making films, we have the chance to question the world we live in. If we don’t take that opportunity then we’ve failed. But we also have to be willing to fail. Maybe the problem with image-makers is that we’ve been too protective, we’re afraid of failure. What’s interesting for me is the possibility of failure.
We all have to take chances in our storytelling and the stories we choose to tell. The audience really wants to discover something about themselves, not some idealized image of who we are. People are hurt by that, because they can’t live up to the expectations we create. It’s important that we make people feel that they are a part of some greater community.
—Lynn Geller writes for the HBO comedy channel as well as music supervises on films.