Part gothic horror allegory and part political allegory, director Pablo Larraín’s new “El Conde” is a story told with imagination, anger and grief. Playfully, the film suggests that Augusto Pinochet – who led a military coup 50 years ago that made him Chile’s brutal, fearsome leader – was, in fact, a vampire. Having faked his death, the 250-year-old creature now lives out his days in isolation as his grown children squabble over the hidden spoils of his years as dictator.
Larraín described his film’s Pinochet as “an absurd superhero of evil” and said he knew from the start that he wanted to shoot the film in black-and-white.
“It’s a more theatrical image,” says Larrain. “It invites a different perception of reality.”
For this, he turns to veteran cinematographer Ed Lachman, who, for Larraine, creates unmistakable images of Pinochet in his ornate military uniform and formal cape, etched in vivid detail with a dazzling razor. The film is somehow rare and eloquent at the same time; The audience can feel the conflicting emotions of being fascinated and repelled.
The film premiered at the Venice and Telluride film festivals before a limited theatrical release. It’s now streaming on Netflix.
The Chilean-born Laren is best known for her biopics “Jackie,” starring Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy, and “Spencer,” starring Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana. Earlier films such as “Post Mortem” and “No” (the latter nominated for an Academy Award for Foreign Language Film) often dealt bluntly with the cultural decline of the Pinochet regime.
When pressed, Lachman can describe his personal style of shooting, though he’s quick to stress that sometimes it’s not work.
“It’s like your fingerprint — I know there are things that are important to me,” Lachman says. “I have a certain tendency towards certain framing, the way I use color, the way I light. I don’t like to make you feel the movie lights. I want you to feel the light emanating from space, the light’s relationship with the environment.
“But I hope that my vision is different in every film,” he continued. “And that’s what excites me. I don’t want to impose a style. It is not my interest. My interest is to find out what visual grammar is that The story, what makes those images unique to that story.”
Lachman and Larraín have known each other for several years, but this is the first feature they’ve worked on together.
“Ed can create a very specific visual poem, but he never loses focus on the narrative,” says Larren. “It’s very important because sometimes you see beautifully photographed images that don’t have a strong and powerful narrative The images he was creating were often very moving to watch.”
Lachman, 75, calls herself “kind of semi-retired,” but she still has a full work schedule. Towards the end of the production of “El Conde” he broke his hip and missed several days of shooting. Due to his injury, he was unable to shoot his long-time collaborator Todd Haynes’ latest film, “May December”.
Born in New Jersey, Lachman literally grew up around movies: his father owned a movie theater and distributed projector parts. “As a kid, I’d put popcorn in the bag,” Lachman remembers, “and that’s why I couldn’t go near the popcorn.”
Yet it wasn’t until he took a film appreciation course while at Harvard that a true passion for film and storytelling ignited in him. Already a painter and photographer, Lachman started making his own pictures – and eventually other people asked him to shoot for them too.
An early breakout was Susan Seidelman’s 1985 NYC comedy “Desperately Seeking Susan,” co-starring Roseanna Arquette and Madonna. Lachman’s long list of credits includes David Byrne’s “True Stories,” Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides,” Steven Soderbergh’s “Erin Brockovich” and Robert Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” His ongoing collaboration with Haynes earned him two Oscar nominations for “Far From Heaven” and “Carol.”
“It feels like I’m plugging into their world, a world I’m not a part of,” says Lachman, who sees himself as an ally. “It’s kind of an adventure. I like to find out why people make films the way they do. The language of how you tell the story is as important as the story itself.
To conceptualize the look of the film, Laren and Lachman refer to landmark silent horror films such as FW Murnau’s 1922 “Nosferatu” and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 “Vamipro,” as well as the work of photographers from various eras, including Sergio Laration. , Fan Ho and Maura Sullivan.
Knowing that Laren wanted to shoot in black-and-white but also had the mobility of a light camera that could be used on a crane (here’s the flying scene), Lachman reached out to his contacts in Germany at the camera company ARRI and discovered they had a digital camera with a monochrome chip. was working which was not yet publicly available, but which they were able to provide him with.
Based on his vision, Lachman used lenses retrofitted with vintage glass from the 1930s and modified to work on secret ARRI cameras. This unique combination of tools was then used with Lachman’s own patented EL Zone System, which employed concepts used by photographer Ansel Adams to control different exposure values across an image. The rich textures of “El Conde” come from Lachman’s unique combination of technique and artistry.
“I was surprised,” says Laren. “I didn’t know he was going to go this far with this specificity.”
As much as Lachman is busy talking about the technical aspects of how the film’s look was achieved, he is equally passionate about exploring the thematic ideas of the scene.
“It’s not a traditional romantic perception of a vampire movie,” he suggests. “It is literally and figuratively idea What is a vampire. Pinochet died rich and freed from his crimes, but the pain for the people is eternal. Bad ideas are always feeding themselves. So this is a much better way to think about a vampire. History repeats itself, so even if we can’t change it, at least we can understand why it happens.”
Unusually, director Laren himself manned the “El Conde” camera for the entire shoot.
“It helps me get closer to the actors,” says Laren. “I am very anxious to sit on the monitor. Even when I’m not working, I’m standing and working and walking. I just can’t see the world created before me. I will be right there. You are part of the process.”
Lachman recalls, “He wanted to handle the camera, and that was fine with me. The wonderful thing about operating is that you experience it as the first audience and almost the first person the actor responds to you. And he’s a great operator. I can understand why directors like that. It’s like a painter who doesn’t want anyone else to hold their paintbrush.”
Of working specifically for Lachman (no slouch), Laren says, “It was a beautiful collaboration. And I learned a lot being his cameraman.”
For Lachman, that sense of shared experience is important.
“I think the reason a lot of directors like to work with me is because I bring so many ideas,” Lachman says. “I’m not like a cinematographer who just shows, tells me what to do. I have an opinion on how I think you can do something. If they have a vision, I can plug into that vision and help them figure out what they want to do And if it’s something I don’t agree with or don’t think is best, I’ve found the best way to approach it is, ‘What’s important to you? Why do you want to do it this way?’ And even if I don’t always agree, what happens between us makes it interesting.”
He reached the perfect comparison. “They say it’s a wedding, but I say it’s a dance partner,” he added. “How you complement each other in how you make your moves.”
Following “El Conde,” Lachman and Lahren will move on to a project starring legendary opera singer Maria Callas Angelina Jolie. While both are reluctant to discuss any details about the look, you can expect them to be in lockstep.