The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents November 2007 Return to Table of Contents
Im Not There
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The Kite Runner
ASC Close-Up
DVD Playback
I’m Not There, shot by Edward Lachman, ASC, examines various facets of the musical icon’s persona.


Unit photography by Jonathan Wenk
Director of photography Edward Lachman, ASC was intrigued when director Todd Haynes told him his idea for I’m Not There, an unusual cinematic portrait of singer/songwriter Bob Dylan. The two first discussed the idea as they were wrapping up their collaboration on Far From Heaven (AC Dec. ’02), a modern take on the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk that earned Lachman an Academy Award nomination. During that project, they’d found they shared a desire to explore a variety of visual styles in their future work. Lachman had also been fascinated with Dylan and his music since his teen years. “During the Sixties and Seventies, I was growing up in New York and going to art school, and as I lived through those times, Dylan’s early music was always inspirational and prophetic for me. As I studied art history and painting, I became increasingly interested in the imagery in films. I was listening over and over to Blonde on Blonde, which only made me think more about images. I thought at the time that it would be impossible to create images for a Dylan song, because his words and music were the images.”

Haynes’ idea was to approach Dylan by way of a series of self-sufficient, dramatically distinct worlds that would each have an entirely different look, feel and cinematic language. “Every biopic has the same story,” the director maintains. “The personal side suffers from a public life — not really that unique.” Dylan, he elaborates, constantly pushed himself artistically, shedding a persona when it found acceptance and replacing it with one that was often met initially with rejection. After shooting to national prominence as a folk singer, he famously plugged in an electric guitar. Once accepted as a rocker, he made forays into country music and later sang about his conversion to Christianity. As he moved on, he would repudiate his previous incarnation and its fans.

Haynes wanted I’m Not There to challenge viewers in the same way. “The only true and honest way to approach Dylan’s story for contemporary viewers who seem to know most of the key events in his life was to reproduce that sense of shock,” he says. “That’s why we have different actors and different characters all representing Dylan.” None of the characters is actually named Bob Dylan, but various aspects of his biography and carefully crafted personae are represented by six people: Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin), an 11-year-old African-American boy; Jude (Cate Blanchett), a besieged celebrity; Jack (Christian Bale), a celebrity singer who becomes a born-again preacher; Robby (Heath Ledger), a hip Seventies movie star whose marriage is dissolving; Billy the Kid (Richard Gere), an Old West outlaw trying in vain to find refuge from a corrupt world; and, finally, the muse of the piece, Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), a 19th-century poet who became an icon of transgression for Sixties artists.

In creating the different worlds occupied by these characters, the filmmakers assimilated a range of cinematic influences from European and American genres of the Sixties and Seventies. Key inspirations included the early New Wave works of Jean-Luc Godard and the stylized visions of Federico Fellini, who broke away from postwar Italian Neorealism to pursue a more subjective approach to moviemaking that revealed the interior world of his characters (epitomized by 8½, which became a specific reference for I’m Not There). On the American side, they looked to experimental films from the 1970s, such as Richard Lester’s Petulia (photographed by Nicolas Roeg) and counterculture Westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (shot by Conrad Hall, ASC), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC) and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (shot by John Coquillon).

Lachman and Haynes believed that the more the various looks could be built into the negative, the more authentic the picture would feel. They eventually opted to finish I’m Not There with the digital-intermediate (DI) process, in great part because the mixture of formats could have posed considerable difficulty in the photochemical world on a compressed post schedule. However, they committed to delineating the film’s worlds by using different emulsions, formats, lighting, filtration, camera movement and framing techniques, rather than building the looks digitally after the fact.

For Dylan aficionados, the most familiar-looking portions of I’m Not There will be those concerning Jude (Blanchett), who looks like the Dylan who was the subject of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Dont Look Back. According to Lachman, this section was chiefly inspired by Fellini’s surreal, autobiographical (shot by Gianni di Venanzo), in which Marcello Mastroianni portrays an internationally renowned movie director who must look inward as fans, journalists and associates make increasingly stressful demands on him. “We specifically referenced the opening sequence of 8½, when Marcello begins to feel claustrophobic and suffocated as he’s caught in a traffic jam,” the cinematographer says. “In our portrayal, we show Jude trapped in a similar situation.”

Jude is then shown deflecting questions at a British press conference.” For this sequence, Lachman grabbed shots of Blanchett quickly, turning his Moviecam Compact on and off with ramp-ups and flash-frames included to create the oppressive feeling of an attack, sometimes from Jude’s POV. The overall impression is of an artist under siege. Outlining his motivation for this and other scenes, Haynes offers, “I was interested in the moment when Dylan was making the album Blonde on Blonde. His electric-guitar music was met with historic opposition from fans, and that fueled him further in the direction punk rockers later took: taunting the audience and trying to generate friction rather than adoration.”

Lachman filmed Jude’s story on Kodak Plus-X 5231 and Double-X 5222 black-and-white negative stocks. “I know the recent trend with black-and-white scenes in movies has been to shoot color and transform it into black-and-white through printing or DI techniques, but the thing I wanted to reference was the way films looked in the Sixties in terms of exposure, texture, grain and latitude,” says Lachman. Working in black-and-white, he continues, is about more than just getting a monochromatic image. “Kodak hasn’t improved those stocks. If I shoot Double-X in 2006, it’s like shooting it back in the Sixties; it only has about 1½ stops of over- or underexposure. Also, they haven’t T-grained it the way they have their color stocks.

“By shooting real black-and-white,” he continues, “I was able to use the same methods cinematographers used then to selectively alter tones, like, say, using a Yellow 8, Orange 21, or Red 23A to introduce tonal separations. You can change some values if you use a DI to change color to black-and-white, but it doesn’t feel or look the same in the values of tonal separation.

“By originating on black-and-white emulsion, you’re able to maintain a truer black-and-white look than if you shoot on color stock and convert the images to black and white,” Lachman asserts. “This was confirmed to me by the colorist doing the final prints at Technicolor, Lee Wimer, who had encountered this problem while converting color to black-and-white on other projects. Apparently, when you do a DI, there can be additional color shifting from your original DI negative, especially when you’re at the dupe-negative stage.”

For interiors shot on black-and-white, Lachman also experimented with Tiffen’s LLD filter, which is typically used for color photography in fading daylight when an 85 filter would lose too much exposure for daylight correction. The yellow LLD allows cinematographers to slightly warm up a shot without any stop loss; on I’m Not There, the filter enabled Lachman to create richer blacks on 200-ASA Double-X stock without losing stop.

 

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