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Navigating “Dark Waters” With Todd Haynes and Ed Lachman’s “Observant Camera”

Director Todd Haynes and cinematographer Ed Lachman make waves with their fourth feature film collaboration, this time exposing the DuPont Corporation.

Shot by Ed Lachman, Mark Ruffalo stars as Robert Bilott in director Todd Haynes’ ‘Dark Waters.’ Images by Mary Cybulski/Focus Features.
Shot by Ed Lachman, Mark Ruffalo stars as Robert Bilott in director Todd Haynes’ ‘Dark Waters.’ Images by Mary Cybulski/Focus Features.

Director Todd Haynes has been making waves with Dark Waters, which tells the shocking and heroic story of attorney Rob Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo), who risks his career and family to uncover a dark secret hidden by one of the world’s largest corporations and to bring justice to a community dangerously exposed for decades to deadly chemicals.

Writing for NPR, Mark Jenkins calls Dark Waters the singular director’s most “conventional” film. “The director of such films as Poison and Safe, Todd Haynes has a well-established interest in contagion. But in his films, illness has always been partly a metaphor, standing for the potentially asphyxiating nature of ‘normal’ life,” Jenkins notes, adding:

“That’s not true of Dark Waters, the most conventional movie of Haynes’ career. The threat here is as literal as, well, cancer. It’s an open secret that doom courses through the water in Parkersburg, W. Va., where people have long suffered from ‘the Teflon flu.’ It’s just that some people, both bosses and workers, have a strong financial interest in feigning ignorance. Those people work for DuPont, the company that promised ‘Better Things For Better Living … Through Chemistry.’”

In the leadup to the film’s release, Haynes was the subject of a profile in The New Yorker, written by John Lahr, which trumpeted that he was rewriting the Hollywood playbook. (Listen to the audio version here.) “In film after film, including his latest, Dark Waters, the director asks viewers to contend with ambiguity,” Lahr writes, “All investigative stories, he told me, when we met in Los Angeles in June, have the burden of revealing a truth. ‘What I love so much about the genre,’ he explained, ‘is the cost of revealing the truth. The drama of that, and what it does to people. That is the part that kills you.’”

Appreciating the singular look of films like Michael Mann’s whistleblower movie The Insider and Erin Brockovich, Haynes sought a similarly distinctive look for Dark Waters: “I love The Insider,” he tells Vanity Fair, “It’s a beautiful, muscular, stylistic, impressive, very dark film with these really bright kicks of light almost in every scene. It has that moving, shifting camera and that indiscriminate focal range that keeps you in a myopic internal space with the characters, which made utter sense for the parallel subjectivities of the Al Pacino character and the Russell Crowe character. Whereas that aggressive subjectivity was not appropriate in my mind for a movie like [Dark Waters]. It needed to have an emotionally cooler palette and a more observant camera, a more formal visual landscape.”

The visuals for the political thriller, which was shot by the director’s longtime collaborator Ed Lachman, were influenced by the work of The Godfather cinematographer Gordon Willis, Haynes tells Vanity Fair writer K. Austin Collins, “Of course, Gordon Willis became my tutor through the process of preparing for the movie. Literally as I shot the movie, I was just revisiting film after film of Gordon Willis’ cinematography, which are tutorials in elegance and in resistance and in constraint and in thinking about the viewer and handing the viewer this sense of faith or belief. This certainly comes out of the sensibility of ‘70s American filmmaking, where there was a dialogue between incredibly bold and smart cinema and an audience that was there to receive it and could interpret what was being told to them, rather than it being shoved down their throat.”

Read more: Dark Waters: How Todd Haynes and Ed Lachman Created a Masterful Nightmare

IndieWire’s Chris O’Falt writes that Lachman is one of the “craftspeople shaping the art of cinema today,” in his profile of the prolific cinematographer, who collaborated with Haynes on Far From Heaven (2002) and Carol (2015), earning Oscar nominations for both films, as well as I’m Not There (2007) and Wonderstruck (2017):

“Walk into an event at the yearly gathering of cinematographers at Poland’s Camerimage Film Festival and you are likely to find Ed Lachman, the unassuming DP with his trademark hat, tucked away in a back corner holding court as a collection of his celebrated colleagues hang on his every word. They aren’t simply there to hear how Lachman created the look of a chemically-tainted light on his most recent film, Dark Waters — or one of the dozens of his peers’ ‘how the hell did Ed do that?’ queries — but also how a master like Robby Müller sculpted low light, or Sven Nykvist studied natural light, or Vittorio Storaro manufactured his chiaroscuro light. Lachman serving as a common thread to these three diverse pillars of the craft, each of whom he considers a close mentor, having studied under and worked for them as he learned the craft himself.

“Lachman’s knowledge, though, far pre-dates the great European art films of the ‘60s and ‘70s. His longtime colorist Joe Gawler tells the story of being brought in to supervise Criterion’s remastering of Douglas Sirk’s 1950s technicolor melodramas with Lachman. ‘It was incredible how Ed knew everything about what they did to shoot these films back in the day,’ Gawler told IndieWire. ‘He’s like a mad scientist, this encyclopedia of film history, lenses, lights filters, technique and practices.’”

“It just sounds so silly and banal, but Ed is such an artist and he’s such an art nerd,” Haynes said to IndieWire: “We both love the image, we love collecting the references, watching the movies, thinking of photography and painting and just purely a visual relevance to what we’re doing, but this is of course in a way the most non-intellectual part because it’s purely about color and form and composition. It’s beyond maybe even narrative emotion, because it’s sometimes just gut emotion where you respond to a warm palette over a cool palette.”

In another story for IndieWire, O’Falt writes that “Where so many films simply desaturate, or turn the digital dial to give the film a lifeless palette, Lachman instead played with color temperature to create his toxic world. Like in the ‘70s footage in his Wonderstruck, he’d partially expose images for tungsten lights when outside, and visa versa when inside. But he also didn’t make the common mistake of leaning too far into the coolness.”

“There’s overall coolness in the film, be it weather, temperament, or environment, but also in the emotions of the story that are cut somehow by warmth against the coolness,” Lachman tells O’Falt. “I’ve always said this, if you use one color, one palette, you lose the feeling of seeing that color. Colors are always seen in relation to each other, even in relation from one scene to the next. That warmth isn’t a friendly, inviting warmth. It’s more of yellow-green look rather than a red-orange look.”

Although Haynes originally intended to shoot the project on film, Dark Waters marks the first digital collaboration between the two filmmakers, Lachman tells Daniel Eagan in Filmmaker Magazine:

“This is the first film Todd and I filmed digitally. We wanted to shoot it in film, because the story is about contamination of chemicals and how they affect our lives. We did tests and I proved to Participant Media that film was cost effective, but there was such pushback. The depth of grain and the way colors are created in the negative I find very difficult to recreate in digital capture. The story also takes place from the ‘70s until today, which was another reason we wanted to shoot on film, the way the world would have been seen back then. Today most studios, maybe because the people who are in control are younger or don’t want to deal with the film process, will give you excuses like, ‘You could have scratches,’ or ‘You’re going to have a delay in seeing the dailies, getting them from Cincinnati to New York and back.’ Which is maybe a day. I mean, people have been making films for a hundred years that way and it’s always worked.

“I wanted, and Todd wanted, to shoot the film through photochemical means, because we’re saying something about the chemical makeup of the world. Ultimately, Todd didn’t want to make this his fight, and he trusted that we could film digitally.”

Haynes’ storytelling primarily concerns how our culture treats insiders and outsiders, Lachman relates to Filmmaker Magazine:

“The difference is now we’re all the outsiders. He was drawn to the project by how we’re all being contaminated, both figuratively and literally, by political, social, and ecological issues, and in our health. It was something that Mark Ruffalo brought to Todd. Todd usually originates his own projects, but he felt connected to the story. Todd had previously made Safe, about a woman whose life is debilitated by symptoms of an unexplainable environmental illness. I had done Erin Brockovich, which dealt with caustic damage to the environment and people’s lives. So this was the project we both felt committed to.”

In researching the film, Haynes and Lachman looked at “whistleblower” films from the ‘70s, including movies like Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974), All the President’s Men (1976), directed by Alan Pakula and shot by Gordon Willis, and Silkwood (1983):

“Interestingly, Todd also exposed me to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the original version directed by Don Siegel. What I found interesting about the narrative idea was that Siegel and the writer Daniel Mainwaring said that they didn’t see the film as a political expose or metaphor of Communism or McCarthyism at that time, however you might see it now. The movie tracks in a similar way how our bodies are being invaded or taken over by some exterior force. Today it’s no longer fiction: our bodies are being taken over by Teflon, or, in Brockovich’s case, the insidious contamination by PG&E to a community.

“It was interesting to look at Dark Waters as a modern-day horror film, and then look back at how visually Pakula and Willis would let viewers fill in what they saw observing social systems. Willis’ static proscenium, his layered frames inform a visual landscape of observation much like our character, lawyer Rob Bilott, is in the process of doing.”

Vadim Rizov, writing about Dark Waters for Filmmaker Magazine, notes the cinema tropes the film employs:

“In the 1975-set prologue, a group of night skinny-dippers dive into local waters adjacent to a DuPont plant only to be chased off by company patrol. The camera bobs and weaves just under the lake’s surface, raising connotations of another archetypal image of 1975: this time, the camera isn’t the shark but the water itself, a toxin-clogged reservoir waiting to poison everyone in town.”

One of the biggest challenges in filming Dark Waters was crafting compelling visuals for what were essentially office environments, so Haynes and Lachman were particularly attentive to the way light entered through windows, and how it changed as it filtered through the interior rooms. In one of the first conference room shots, the camera tracks from left to right very slowly, creating a strobing effect with the shades hanging on the windows. “The architectural elements we shot in Taft Lofts,” Haynes details in the interview:

“We built the conference room and Rob’s office. We found a gutted floor, like 10 floors above the actual Taft offices, which was like a miracle. It was like having a soundstage that looked out onto the same skyline, that had the same jagged right angle façade of the building, the same weirdly dissimilar window sizes. Those triangular rooms had the frosted glass striped partitions, that had little window strips at the top of floating walls which broke corridors. Sometimes it’s hard to actually read it in the movie, but with these 45 degree angles, there were no 90 degree walkways in much of this place. You turn around in a revolution and see five different angles coming at you. So, there’s this labyrinthian thing going on, and it created surprising pockets of really dark shadow and then shafts of light coming from windows, and a sense of never being able to see around the corner. That was true even through the views of the skyline itself, where buildings in the way would block and reveal glimpses of the Ohio River.”

Driving sequences also demanded a special touch, Haynes shares in the same interview with Rizov: “There are a lot of driving scenes in this movie, and we were shooting through winter and thinking, ‘Oh god, the movie takes place through all these different seasons through all these different years.’ People were starting to say, ‘You really should do it digitally. It’s the best way to shoot car scenes,’” he relates, continuing:

“For literally, like, a second, Ed and I considered it and talked to some digital guy. Jarmusch had just done it [on The Dead Don’t Die], Fonzie [Affonso Gonçalves] had cut [it], and it had problems with the registration of the images that were collected to be placed green screen through the window. We said ‘fuck it’ and shot it all live. You get this unbelievable play of light on faces. Those shots of Rob that we used at the very end of the movie in super tight profile, when he’s hearing the news of the medical monitoring result — we’re at dusk and stayed in extreme close-up. The shadows, the reflections from the outside cutting through, the color on his face and the light hitting him through the windshield, and what was happening behind him was a subtle, muted, gorgeous dance of dusk color. We have so much of it in the movie and it’s really beautiful, so I was so glad we stuck to the real and ended up having the sets that looked out onto the actual skyline.”

In another interview with Todd Gilchrist for Nerdist, Haynes likens the DuPont Corporation’s resistance to addressing the problems it created to the invasion of social systems on par with capitalism and patriarchy:

 “I think the obvious final act of the film is this extremely trying waiting period for the massive class action suit and the medical monitoring the science panel that analyzes the blood results of 70,000 participants It was historically the biggest class action study in history, and that it takes seven years to identify the links between PFOA and six illnesses. But what I find so heartbreaking, and there’s no other word for it, is that the good news is such bad news. The victories speak of a global condition where this chemical began in local water districts in the Midwest and spread throughout the United States and now through the entire globe to 99% of all living species.

“So that is a daunting and overwhelming outcome with only 60 years in the history of the production of Teflon. But when I first heard that information, I felt like this is almost on a par with something like patriarchy, capitalism, these invasions that occurred without our permission. And then it’s up to each of us to identify, to call out and stand up to them. They’re not going to go away. They’re part of the imperfect system that we live in. So are we going to bury our heads back in the sand and return to the ease of nonstick cookware? No, you take knowledge over ignorance and you live imperfectly moving forward and fighting against the battles that come your way like these guys did. And it’s one small battle after the next, and that’s what we have to do as a society. There’s not a silver bullet to make it all disappear, but this is a primer for how to live imperfectly in this world.”

Want more on Dark Waters? Listen to directory Todd Haynes’ interview about the film with Perri Nemiroff for Collider:

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