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

A long-time collaborator of Todd Haynes, the great director of photography talks about his work on the new music documentary.
Abbey Bender
The Velvet Underground
Todd Haynes's The Velvet Underground
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.
NOTEBOOK: What are some of the differences in shooting documentary versus fiction?
LACHMAN: Well, in a funny way I say all films are documentation. For me, even though in a narrative film I’m controlling more of the light, every take is different where the actor ends up and how the camera moves. In some ways my part in the documentary was really just these interviews, so once I established the look I lit everybody the same way. I found the form I wanted to be able to see. In fiction I think the strength of Todd’s work is that he finds an authenticity and detail in storytelling, because he researches the subject matter through the cultural influences and the means of how those images were created. 
In a film like Wonderstruck [2017], we were referencing The French Connection and the grit and reality of '70s New York films. He had me reach out to Owen Roizman, who shot that for William Friedkin. I said, “How did you do those long dolly shots in the streets?” You can’t put a track down on the street and have cars go over it. So we used a Western Dolly. It has rubber wheels on a plywood platform. When I went to the grips they were like, “Are you crazy? That’s how we did it 40 years ago. We don’t do it that way anymore.” That was the way we wanted to do it. When you see the film, the way the movement is in the street, you couldn’t recreate that unless you used that approach. Todd’s always interested in how the images are created in themselves. On the documentary side since we didn’t have all this footage, he relied on the images that created The Velvet Underground even though you didn’t see The Velvet Underground. It situates the viewer in the world. You’re immersed in the gestalt of what The Velvet Underground was. So he has an experimental way of showing a fiction about them. 
NOTEBOOK: There’s so much media about the '60s out there. Were there difficulties in presenting the decade in a new way? 
LACHMAN: I think what’s interesting is Todd found material that wasn’t normally seen. It’s really the juxtaposition of the imagery that creates the thesis, the antithesis, and the synthesis. The idea of multiple images to create a third thing out of what you’re looking at and allowing the audience to participate in those images. That’s the brilliance of Todd and what he did with the editors, almost creating a new form, like an experimental film within the experimental film. It’s an experience in itself. 
NOTEBOOK: What has it been like working with Todd Haynes on multiple films, both fiction and now documentary? 
LACHMAN: My favorite part of working on films with Todd is his research. He does a look book. He didn’t do it as much for this but he’ll often do a look book that shows the demographics, the art world, the cinematic language, the photography, all the things that encompass the time period. Out of that I start to understand and participate in the emotional context of the story. The sexual politics were so essential in this time period for Todd, and I think all those things become references and inform the viewer of what ground The Velvet Underground was navigating.
NOTEBOOK: You previously worked with John Cale and Lou Reed when you directed the concert film Songs for Drella in 1990. How did that come about?
LACHMAN: I had done a compilation video, Red Hot +  Blue: A Tribute to Cole Porter. It was an AIDS benefit film, and I did the part with Annie Lennox. I was going to shoot it for Derek Jarman, and he became too ill to do it, so they asked me to direct and shoot it. I projected home movies that Derek Jarman very generously lent to me on her face and she sang “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” That got seen in England and I got recognition for it. Channel 4 had the idea to film Songs for Drella, this confessional homage to Andy Warhol. It was originally done at St. Ann’s Church and then it went over to BAM, and they decided they wanted to record it so they asked me to do it.
I met Lou and John and the first thing Lou said to me was, “I don’t want any camera between me and the audience. This is a performance for the audience.” So I thought about it and asked if I could shoot their rehearsals. They agreed to that and it opened up a whole other way of filming them, because then I could be very intimate with the camera and not worry about an audience. My point of view was the relationship between Lou and John, and I could set up dolly moves. So I shot with a crew for two days in rehearsals and then we shot one night of the performance with the cameras off the stage. It was quite a success in England, but it was never really shown here. I always wanted Warner Brothers to release it as a DVD but they never did. They didn’t know where the negative was. When the DuArt lab closed in New York, I told them to send all the negatives with my name on it to my loft—I didn’t know what was there, but I didn’t want to lose it. Lo and behold, during the pandemic I went through these boxes and there were the original A and B rolls after I’d been looking for them for years. With my own money and time, I reauthorized it and color corrected it. I didn’t have the sound but Warner Brothers found the original mix track that Lou and John approved for the album, and then I found someone in New York who was an aficionado of The Velvet Underground and does sound restoration and told me he could sync it up. So now I have it with the best sound and picture.
NOTEBOOK: Were you a fan of The Velvet Underground back in the day? 
LACHMAN: I liked them but honestly I’m a different generation. I grew up around Bob Dylan. I’m Not There was the film I most wanted to do. I was more involved with the visuals of the time you see in the film than the music. I was always into art and things. 
NOTEBOOK: Documentary has always been a big part of your work. What have your collaborations with other documentary filmmakers been like?
LACHMAN: I started with the Maysles brothers. I used to run their office. I did a documentary with Wim Wenders called Tokyo-Ga [1985], where he was invited to Tokyo for a cultural week of German cinema. He brought me along and we recorded images that he felt had something to do with Ozu, a kind of homage with lost images. That was the purest form of filmmaking, it was just me with the camera, I didn’t even have an assistant, and Wim was doing the sound. We just had one person as a liaison and we’d go pick things to shoot. For a long time, that was one of my favorite films I’d worked on, because it was so pure. It was just us and the subject matter. Another director that’s a hybrid between narrative and fiction that I love is Ulrich Seidl, an Austrian filmmaker I’ve worked with. I always come back to documentaries. Al Maysles always used to say, in a funny way, “Why make a narrative film? You can find it in life.” You don’t have to recreate it. Even when I did Desperately Seeking Susan [1985] I never could tell Al [Maysles] that it was a narrative film. I said, “Oh, we’re making a documentary about Madonna.”
NOTEBOOK: What are some of your artistic inspirations?
LACHMAN: The person who got me most interested in photography was Robert Frank. He showed me you can view your own subjectivity in poetics. He’s been the greatest influence for me, and we became friends. I studied art history and was interested in the Dadaists and German Expressionism, how they imposed a visualization of their ideas in a visceral way, with color and brushstrokes. I love Francesca Woodman’s photographic images, what she did in her life and work. I’m interested in people that can illustrate their world through their own personal being and find the language. They’re always looking for a language of how to show it. Images are about point of view and finding that visual metaphor. That to me is what’s so exciting, the ability to do that.
NOTEBOOK: Do you have a favorite film you’ve worked on?
LACHMAN: They’re all challenging and you always want your last film to be the best. They’re all your children. There were so many wonderful things about Wonderstruck, and that film just didn’t connect with people. The black-and-white story part was black-and-white film. Look, people responded to Carol [2015] and Far from Heaven, but I have other work I feel just as proud of, like the work I’ve done with Ulrich Seidl—the Paradise trilogy [2012] and Import Export [2007]. You invest yourself in everything you do and people either respond or they don’t. I always find this the most interesting, when you do something that you feel is very personal, that’s always the thing that people see. I was always surprised when you do something for yourself and people recognize that.
NOTEBOOK: What does it feel like seeing your films on the big screen?
LACHMAN: I enjoy the process of problem-solving in making the film, being next to the camera and operating it. It’s nice to see it with an audience, but then it’s not yours anymore, it’s theirs. My enjoyment is in the process of making the film and finding solutions to get through the day. It’s not an ego gratification when the film is finished.

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InterviewsEd LachmanTodd HaynesUlrich Seidl
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