(Published in Cinematography World – Issue 017 September/October 2023)
HEART OF DARKNESS
By Ron Prince
Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
El Conde, the latest film from renowned Chilean filmmaker, Pablo Larraín, sees the country’s brutal fascist dictator, General Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006), reimagined as an old, ailing and disenchanted vampire, brought to the screen in a bloody, satirical comedy-horror genre, that is couched in suitably-brooding B&W cinematography by the widely-admired American cinematographer Ed Lachman ASC.
As a British narrator explains the backstory at the opening of the film, Pinochet, now 250 years old, was once an orphan, abandoned on the stairs of a nunnery by an unwed peasant girl in 18th century France. Later, as a young Royalist with an insatiable lust for blood, Pinochet licks the blade of the guillotine that severs the head of Marie Antoinette, as he is revealed as a vampire.
Absconding to distant lands, Pinochet emerges as the rising star of Chile’s military takeover, but has since become world-weary and now wants to die as a vegetarian due to the lack of honour and respect for his efforts to create his country’s prosperity and for himself. This, however, does not deter him from flying around Santiago to sink his fangs into fresh young blood, gulping down smoothies made from human hearts with a splash of tequila in the underground lair at his remote ramshackled ranch.
To make things worse for the poor old devil, his grown-up children congregate to discover the extent of their inheritances, his wife Lucía longs to become a vampire, and a beautiful young nun has been sent to investigate his ill-gotten finances and exorcise the spirit of the devil.
The Netflix film made its world premiere at the 2023 Venice Film Festival to acclaimed reviews, which, along with Larrain’s direction and central performances, included the highest-praise for Lachman’s atmospheric, immersive and funereal B&W expressionism. The film stars Jaime Vadell as Pinochet, with Gloria Münchmeyer as Lucía, Alfredo Castro the veteran White Russian butler, Fyodor, and Paula Luchsinger as Sister Carmen.
Principle photography on El Conde took place over 40 shooting days, commencing on June 24, 2022, before wrapping at the end of August, at locations around Santiago, Chile, including exteriors that doubled for Paris during the French Revolution. Two stages at a local TV studio housed sets for the bedroom, living room and subterranean den at Pinochet’s ranch. Production also took place at remote location in Patagonia, where the exteriors of the ranch was constructed, including a graveyard with tombstones and guillotine.
“Pablo is one of the most original and brilliant voices in Latin-American filmmaking”
Lachman, who lives in New York, has typically worked in independent film, serving as the DP for prominent directors including Werner Herzog, Jean-Luc Godard, Ulrich Seidl, Wim Wenders, Steven Soderbergh, Paul Schrader and, most notably, perhaps, Todd Haynes, with whom he has made six features to date. Lachman is a double Oscar-nominee for Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2003) and Carol (2016), earned the ASC Lifetime Award in 2017, amongst many other accolades.
Offering some insight into his background with Larraín, Lachman says, “Pablo is one of the most original and brilliant voices in Latin-American filmmaking. I have followed his career from Tony Manero (2008, DP Sergio Armstrong), and more recently Jackie (2016, DP Stéphane Fontaine AFC) and Spencer (2021, DP Claire Mathon AFC).
“He’s been supported by Telluride Film Festival and the New York Film Festival in the US, and whenever he’s been around we’ve managed to see each other. He knew my work and always said one day that he’d bring me to Chile to work on a project together. I never knew if that was ever going to really happen or not, but we ended-up shooting a commercial together in LA, and afterwards he invited me to film El Conde in Chile.
“Of course, I am always up for an adventure, and I accepted Pablo’s invitation without hesitation. For me, filmmaking is about taking different journeys, and this was really out of my comfort zone. I’ve worked in melodrama with Todd Haynes, but I’d never shot in the genre of horror and never a vampire movie. So I was really intrigued.”
Speaking about his initial reaction to Larraín’s script and treatment for El Conde, Lachman remarks, “The best directors I’ve worked with are ones who are always exploring how you tell stories uniquely visually, who think about how the content shapes the form.
“El Conde was not the traditional, romantic perception of a vampire movie, but one that looks at how politically, culturally and socially our blood is taken, literally and figuratively by complying, yielding and being seduced by fascism, but in a dark, satirical comedy form.
“I’d never shot a vampire movie, so I was really intrigued”
“What is so interesting to me about Pablo’s films is that he approaches his subjects and stories as allegories inside a social and political context. Many of his films in Chile are about the impunity or exemption from punishment, such as Tony Manero, The Club (2015, DP Sergio Armstrong), Neruda (2016, DP Sergio Armstrong) and now EL Conde. Chilean families and individuals were physically hurt or murdered under the Pinochet regime, but never found justice or relief, yet Pinochet died a millionaire, free of his crimes.
“I liked Pablo’s simple metaphor for this film, casting Pinochet as a vampire, an eternally dark and depraved figure, and the idea that evil feeds on itself like a vampire in order to exist.
“It presented a paradoxical opportunity for beauty in the image, without condoning or redeeming his murderous actions. I believe the film can expose his malevolence for us to exorcise, knowing we could have the same capabilities of being immoral, corrupt, and diabolical anywhere in the world.”
“From the inception of the film, Pablo had approval from Netflix to shoot in actual B&W, not in colour followed by desaturation in post, but to originate in real B&W. The abstraction and distant nature of B&S gives us a way of seeing the world differently than the way we do with our own eyes.
“That was a great place to start. I had experience shooting in Black and White with Todd Haynes on I’m Not There (2007) and Wonderstruck (2017), shooting on Kodak Double-X 5222 film negative.”
Lachman says B&W visual references for the film, although old in cinema terms, were fundamentally important for the production. These included the silent productions of Nosferatu (1922, dir. FW Murnau, DPs Fritz Arno Wagner & Günther Krampf), Vampyr (1932, dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer, DPs Rudolph Maté & Luis Née) and Shanghai Express (1932, dir. Joseph Von Sternberg, DPs Lee Garmes & James Wong Howe).
“Along with the different physicalities of expressionistic and atmospheric styles lighting, and the use of textures in the sets, what I also loved about those films was how much they incorporated in-camera effects – ingenious ways of creating imagery, such as flying effects, creating silhouetted characters through the use of shadows on muslin walls lit from the reverse side – as well as optical effects using mattes to remove shadows from the vampiric characters.”
“The flying scenes with the nun on El Conde were all shot in-camera off a 160-ft crane with the actress and an acrobatic stunt double. They were suspended in the air on wires on the crane with the camera operator following the action over the ranch on a suspended seat on the same crane.”
When it came to selecting the camera and lenses for the shoot, Lachman reveals he initially explored the possibility of shooting on B&W 35mm film, “but unfortunately, Kodak currently only makes Double-X which is rated at 250ASA for daylight and would have been too slow. Also, there were no operating film labs in Chile, so I started investigating digital options.
“I reached-out to my friend Marko Massinger, a German DP and image-scientist, who introduced me to ARRI’s head of camera rental, Manfred Jahr, and contacted Stefan Schenk, ARRI’s general manager, so see if they could develop an ARRI Mini LF with a B&W sensor. ARRI was releasing the new Alexa 35 camera, so I had my doubts if it could be done. But, to more than my surprise, ARRI got in touch with me ten days before principle photography and said they had a prototype, although I would have to evaluate the sensitivity of the camera myself.”
“In my tests, I discovered the Alexa Mini LF delivered lovely crisp blacks, and that all the pixels that go would normally go towards creating the colour were going into increased sensitivity. The camera was at least 3/4 of a stop faster that the regular colour Alexa Mini LF – 800ASA was really 1280 and 1280 was around 2000.
“This was a blessing as that extra speed gave me the ability to express the naturalism of the light sources, such as in our French Revolution scenes, and other low-light scenarios where I lit with candles and fire. We retained a colour Alexa Mini LF camera to film the greenscreen night scenes of Pinochet flying around the city.
“Pablo wanted to shoot pretty-much everything using a 15ft Technocrane, as that would help us find frames with great fluidity and help us move between different takes and set-ups more efficiently. So these were other reason to shoot with the Monochromatic Alexa Mini LF because of the size and weight of the camera,” Lachman explains.
DPs love lenses, and Lachman is no exception. El Conde presented him with the opportunity to marry the Alexa Mini LF Monochrome camera with a set of vintage optics, the original Bausch & Lomb Baltar lenses which had been used in the 1940s on several Hollywood classics.
“I’m not talking about Super Baltars, which were created in the 1960s for reflex cameras and were totally different in design and coatings,” he enthuses, “but the original Baltars, developed in 1938 and used in primarily the 1940s and early 1950s, for rack-over (non-reflex) cameras, on B&W films.”
This vintage glass was legendarily used on The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, dirs. Orson Welles, Fred Fleck, Robert Wise, DP Stanley Cortez), parts of Citizen Kane (1941, dir. Orson Welles, DP Gregg Toland ASC), Touch Of Evil (1958, dir. Orson Welles, DP Russell Metty) and The Godfather (1972, dir. Francos Ford Coppola, DP Gordon Willis ASC).
“I became interested in the original Baltars several years before shooting El Conde, after Alex Nelson from Zerø Optik, a lens housing specialist in LA, first turned me on to them. So, I had bought sets from vendors in the Far East and New York, and had Alex rehouse and reconfigure them to cover the sensor area on large format/full frame digital camera sensors, which I call the ‘Ultra Baltars’.
“These Ultra Baltars really complimented the monochromatic Alexa Mini LF Monochrome that ARRI in Germany had supplied specially for us. They have a similar look to Cooke Speed Panchros in the sense that they have sharpness in the centre and beautiful fall-off on the edges, but the field curvature, single-layer coatings and hand-polishing techniques deliver a different look.”
El Conde was framed in the 2:1 Univisium aspect ratio, pioneered and championed by Vittorio Storaro AIC ASC, principally for its rendering of faces/mid-shots with appropriate depth in the image.
Another element Lachman used was the EL Zone System (www.elzonesystem.com), which he developed and patented himself in 2021, to assist in the purpose of determining optimal zones of exposure from the camera’s sensor. The EL Zone System allowed Lachman to place his exposure values based on 18% grey with F-stops translated through the camera sensor, rather than IRE values which are incorrect linear units of measurement, and unlike logarithmic values that light meters and lenses are calibrated to. Hence, Lachman could use the camera monitor as a light meter or even his own meter on-set as if he were exposing on film.
“I felt like Ansel Adams, placing my exposure to set the range of detail in the highlights and shadow areas”
“This was an important factor in controlling the imagery for the film, and we were the first theatrical feature to use it,” he says. “As a cinematographer, I felt like Ansel Adams, placing my exposure to set the range of detail in the highlights and shadow areas and define the latitude of the images. It also helped considerably when I came to do the final DI grade with my esteemed colourist, Joe Gawler, at Harbor Picture Company.” (See below)
Filming El Conde also allowed Lachman the opportunity to use his own set of vintage Harrison and Harrison black and white filters.
“I was able to variously work with yellow, orange and red filters to marry foreground flesh tones with backgrounds, or to enhance the contrast in the clouds and sky. When I was losing light at the end of the day, I had to forego using the filters because of the loss of stop with the filters,” he remarks.
“Of course, you can attempt to push the grade in post to extremes to get contrast in the skies to match, but I discovered that it presented a negative impact on the actors’ faces and bodies against the sky, producing an undesirable edge-glow. In this instance, I realised filming in B&W with filters can be a preferred method than trying to do everything in post-production for the desired effect.
“When it came to the final grade, Joe utilised his Baselight system on the Patagonian farmhouse location interiors to effectively pull-down extra brightness in the windows and not to adversely effect the exposure in the room without having to use extensive windows and keys.”
During production, Lachman worked with a local crew in Chile that Larraín knew and trusted, who he says proved to be “reliable and supportive.” These included Daniel Miranda Bianchini on Steadicam, Jonathan Maldonado as focus puller, key grip Manfred Menzel, and Rodrigo Ramirez as gaffer.
“I went with Tungsten lighting, such as Molebeams, Fresnels and Parcans, because of the quality of the light and it was more cost-effective to deploy across several sets.
“In the interiors, the lighting was mostly motivated from the windows and practicals on-set, foregoing the more expressionistic lighting of the horror genre, which I think helped give a credibility to the world we created. The difficulty in shooting on the stage before shooting on the actual location is matching the consistency of the light.
“We had to shoot the interiors in Santiago months before the exteriors in Patagonia, which I knew would be during the winter and how radically the light could change throughout the day. Although I had this concern, I was always checking the weather in Patagonia and asking Pablo what time of the day the scene could be taking place. I think I ended up with the right decisions, but you can never totally be sure.”
“They say the eyes are the windows to the soul, and generally on most films I would try to help out the eyes of the characters with light. With this film, I purposefully allowed darkness around the eyes, as I thought this would reinforce the idea that these characters were hiding something from each other and from themselves.”
Lachman concludes, “Healing comes with justice, but Chileans were never able to take Pinochet to trial. Possibly we can’t change evil, corruption, or the misuse of power, but perhaps we can be helped to understand it.
JOE GAWLER, SENIOR COLOURIST, HARBOR, NYC
“I’m very fortunate to be a frequent collaborator with Ed Lachman. With each project, he aims to try something unique and push his images to new heights. It’s exciting to know that so many DPs from around the world will check out this film to see what Ed, one of the masters of cinematography, has done this time.
Ed always shoots a well-exposed image. But El Conde had the tightest continuity I have ever seen pre-grade. Using his EL Zone system allowed Ed to know where his exposure and contrast sat on every shot throughout the whole production. This paid out dividends during the colour finishing as little pre-balancing was required before we addressed the more detailed nuances of the grade.
The well-balanced reels provided Ed, Pablo, and me with extra time to intricately refine every shot. We could craft custom vignettes to subtly darken the frame edges, track faces and eyeballs meticulously to enhance sharpness and exposure, and thereby establish a deeper connection with the actors.
Ed shot some breath-taking exteriors in the Patagonia region and was keen to push the contrast as much as possible in the skies. So, we spent a good amount of time creating a top-grad in Baselight to make the skies as graphic as possible, whilst holding-out actors faces and buildings that crossed into the sky correction.
Grading in Baselight, we employed the texture tools to soften the sharper frequencies present in the digital image, aiding in authentically capturing B&W period we aimed to emulate. The texture highlight tool in Baselight played a pivotal role as well by introducing a delicate glow around light sources and by mitigating any elements that felt too digital. Additionally, we integrated two custom Livegrain film grains into the visuals, invoking a more pronounced setting during the flashback sequences.”