Partitions in Negative Space: Ed Lachman on “Dark Waters”
The current discourse in film criticism cannot fit Dark Waters (2019) through its narrow funnel. Todd Haynes, a pioneer of queer cinema, has made a legal procedural with straight men in Middle America. It’s the time of content over form and the world will not have it. Dark Waters cannot just be an offbeat work by Haynes. It cannot be a Todd Haynes film.
Reduced to a short take or superlative, the discourse takes form awkwardly. With no room to articulate Haynes’ hand on the value of conservative ethos, it has swiftly removed him from the ledes by dubbing his direction “anonymous.” With the slate clean of him, critics can rate it solely for its worth as a paranoid thriller. But Dark Waters has all the fringe elements of a Haynes film and the matured visual form he and Ed Lachman have refined since Far from Heaven (2002).
Haynes recounts the life of corporate defense attorney Rob Bilott from a script brought to him by Mark Ruffalo, who plays him. Raised on Air Force bases across the US, Bilott never stayed in one home for long. Later, he was made partner at Taft Law Firm and based out of their headquarters in Cincinnati. Then a reminder of his roots crept up on him: his grandmother’s neighbor, Wilbur Tennant, showed up at his firm with video tapes that documented the decimation of his poisoned livestock. Tennant proposed Bilott to help him take down the one responsible, the chemical giant DuPont, who Bilott specialized in defending at the time.
We imbibe DuPont’s “forever chemicals,” immortal poisons bequeathed, from the water we drink and the dust we breathe. The EPA doesn’t regulate them. DuPont doled them out, testing them on unknowing human samples (in the ‘60s, their employees obliviously smoked Teflon-laced cigarettes) and turning the Tennant family’s property into a dumping ground for toxic sludge without governance. These chemicals, linked to cancers and heart disease, are found in the blood streams of 99% of today’s world population.
This immense injustice is the epitome of such man-made abstractions of “evil.” These ineffable byproducts of human machinations surmount such a grand sum of self-betrayal that they’re impossible to pin to one person. We could not have done it to ourselves; only an idea, a corporate entity, or vaguer, something Lachman, pulling from Joan Didion’s On Going Home, refers to as the “nameless anxiety,” could have instigated it. Broadening her scope in On Morality, Didion reiterated this as “some sinister hysteria in the air.” It is the alien force that works against us, that seems bigger than ourselves but only comes from ourselves.
Untranslated, these abstract self-betrayals remain impenetrable. DuPont’s record of chemical harm hides behind walls of acronyms (PFOA, PFNA, PFHxS, PFHxA, etc.) and technobabble. Dark Waters seeks to decrypt this abstraction, just as Bilott seeks to translate it into judicial verbiage — into an issue contestable by discernible systems of regulation. Both the film and the character strive to concentrate the abstraction of DuPont’s crimes to its fightable human elements so that it might be liable, streamlined, empathized with, and mended through traditional forms; Dark Waters with the grammar of ‘70s paranoid thrillers, Bilott with the language of law. But contemporary films which revise history (Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, Jojo Rabbit, Little Women, etc.) only disperse our nameless anxieties into new encryptions. They draw us further from decoding and empathizing with the domestic reality of our “evils,” under the guise of offering new and irrelevant avenues back in. Dark Waters, neglected this awards season, sits inverse to the popular and nominated erasures of our tragedies. Dark Waters’ tragedy subsists today. Fortunately too, does its dissection by a determined minority.
Lachman’s “objective” camera in Dark Waters employs an ambidextrous distance from the characters. That distance invites the audience to apply themselves rather than impose a response. Lachman then “contaminates” the negative space with foreground objects and a sickly stew of winter light and noxious sodium-vapor warmth to evoke a dread of proper collective scale.
Lachman and I convened at his home. A record of his imprints on film history were strewn across the shelves. He showed me black-and-white photographs he took of venerated DP Robby Müller (Paris Texas, Repo Man, Down By Law), a behind-the-scenes still from the set of The Limey (1999) that he had given a print of to Steven Soderbergh, and the lookbook Haynes arranged for Dark Waters.
Dark Waters was kind of awkwardly presented as an awards film. I’m not sure people know how to place it.
There have been good reviews, but a cadre of people are saying, “This isn’t a Todd Haynes film.” But it does examine social structures, class, and family. Just because it doesn’t deal with the cinematic language of melodrama, experimental, and ‘20s and 50’s cinema — he’s still dealing with characters interior worlds, people who are on the outside and the isolation of who these characters are. It isn’t only about the whodunit, or what the outcome of the discovery is.
Certainly it’s about the process and procedure, but that fits the Rob Bilott character. The sense of discovery. It’s also about the price he pays to take this on, to be committed to this. It deals with Mid-America, and not the queer community. But that’s what I find compelling about this story, that Rob sees that there’s a value system in that culture that he believes in. Being an environmental lawyer, he believes the system can work, he believes that between industry and government, regulation and profit motive, that there can be a compromise. I mean, he believes that capitalism and democracy can work because there’s some kind of safeguard. Of course, if that safeguard’s broken by dishonesty, the whole thing falls apart.
He’s dealing with class differences and social ties and domestic life. We dealt with these in Mildred Pierce (2011), and Far from Heaven. And Haynes is always dealing with characters’ interiors and their social environments. But the real story is at what cost it means for the character. What does Rob Bilott give up, what is he willing to sacrifice for his morality and ethics? Haynes is always dealing with the outsider, but now we’re all the outsiders. So it’s a question of Bilott standing up to the power system and what that does to the individual, or what price we all pay for that as a society.
Rob’s also struggling for a sense of home. He moved a lot growing up. He’s maligned by his roots in West Virginia, but some of his earliest memories were made there.
He’s not totally accepted in the law firm on a social level. He’s seen as an outsider. In truth, we don’t go into it in the film, but Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), his boss, never took him out for a drink, never socialized with him. He’s seen as an outsider. He didn’t go to an Ivy League school; he went to Ohio State University to get his degree.
Was the idea not to frame him in any setting that felt like home? He hardly feels at home with his wife and kids.
Well, I think home is the refuge. They’re living in that middle-class strata of suburbia, and he never really elevates himself because he never represented a corporate client. Once he took this on this became his whole life.
Obviously we looked at the ‘70s, and we referenced what Alan Pakula and Gordon Willis did with the paranoid thrillers [they made] from Klute (1971) to Parallax View (1974) to All the President’s Men (1976). There was kind of an elegance in constraint. The camera’s not aggressively subjective, not like The Insider (1999). That movie has an indeterminate focus which was beautiful, but went more into the subjective world of the character. What I think Willis did so brilliantly was that he layered the framing and allowed the audience to participate and put the content together.
And that again fits the character, because as he’s investigating, we’re putting parts of the puzzle together as Rob is.
Something you communicate with that paranoia is the idea that Rob fears for his life. He thinks he might be murdered by DuPont for challenging them. We’re not given any verbal information to justify his thinking that, and it’s a fairly complex idea, but it’s sold in just a few shots in the parking garage scene.
You see that guy in the distance and you don’t know if it’s imaginary. Is it real or is it not? Which is wonderful. He doesn’t have to play that up. Sure, there’s the obvious thing: he puts the key in the ignition, [thinking the car might be rigged to explode,] but up to that — have you read any of the reviews?
I read some.
I mean, some people totally get it and then other people are worried about Anne Hathaway playing the conventional housewife. Well, we’re talking about Mid-America in the ‘70s, that’s the way a housewife was. Do we create a revisionist idea of what the housewife should be? Should she be Erin Brockovich getting water samples? What’s so interesting is that Rob’s wife is really like that.
I think people are generally impatient with that character type, but I think it’s important to overcome that and empathize with Hathaway’s character. It’s like when audiences hated Skyler White for prodding Walt in Breaking Bad (2008–13). It’s like, her husband’s making meth, she’s allowed to get upset when he gets home. Anyways, at the “Ohio Chemical Alliance Dinner,” your photography effectively evokes the scale of the negative attention Rob brings to his law firm and his wife.
In the Midwest, there’s more restraint in temperament. It creates a minimalistic way of looking at the world visually. We start with a wide shot overhead, and then you get closer and closer to the characters. Then it becomes a Steadicam shot when they’re trying to get away from everybody. But you always feel the presence of people around them overhearing what they’re saying.
There is a pattern of those overheads, the camera looking directly down on the characters. What happens to a film when you present an impossible angle like that?
I would just say it was part of the objective camera. It wasn’t that we wanted to do overhead shots per se. There are certain overhead shots to see the documentation, or in the room, it’s to show the scale of what you’re looking at. But it’s also to show the psychological distance of what you’re looking at when you’re not seeing something under a microscope.
And you keep Rob at arm’s length.
Well, there’s an abstraction of negative space that creates a kind of formalism — and we were talking about the minimalism of the corporate world. You know, we looked at a painter, Robert Bechtle, who used the quotidian of suburban life. He created a formalism and minimalism that was realistic and abstract at the same time. You know, I went to Ohio University, [which is] 45 minutes from Parkersburg, West Virginia. So I was familiar with the area and, generally, the representation of the people living there is a cliché, a stereotype.
I looked at photographers that had an emotional connection to the interior life of a lot of the rural and suburban characters. Photographers like William Eggleston, Mitch Epstein, William Gedney, Joel Sternfeld, and Brian Blauser, who I went to school with in Southern Ohio. I guess I was looking for an authenticity of the people’s personal experience rather than a stereotypical view of Southern Appalachia, people being barefoot and pregnant on the front porch, hiding behind their screen doors.
When Rob visits his mom, you let the screen door shut on most of their first greeting.
Part of the style was two things. One was that I wanted the images to feel or become toxic and contaminated. There’s an overall coolness in the weather, environment, and emotions of the story. Even though it takes place over many seasons, there’s an overall cool palette that runs through the story that’s cut by warmth, a yellow green, which adds a kind of contamination. Then the world becomes more toxic. In that scene with his mother that you’re talking about, the dining room is kind of bathed in winter light, but there are candelabra bulbs above the table that give a sense of warmth. So there’s a mixture between warmth and cool that feels maybe unsettling. I’m always trying to find a visual metaphor that will encompass the emotions of the story.
When we met, you told me you had hoped to shoot Dark Waters on film so that its chemical properties could properly enable that sense of contamination.
Well, the story’s about the contamination of chemicals and how they affect our lives. I inherently wanted the chemical aspects of film to capture the image. The way color is created in a negative, and the depth of its grain, is affected by the chemical process differently than how a digital image is created. To me, [in film,] there’s kind of a cross-contamination of coloring when you use contrasting colors like warm and cold. Like when you mix paint. When you mix blue and yellow, there’s going to be a green mixture in the negative.
Whereas I find, in digital*, it delineates it. It’s either blue or warm. You don’t get the chemical mixture of the color, and I feel you lose a sense of depth in the grain. The story takes place over the ‘70s, ‘80’s, and ‘90s, and we both felt we wanted to shoot film to mirror the way images looked in earlier periods. Due to insecure and skeptical producers, even though I did multiple tests to support our argument with film vs digital, and they actually saw why we wanted to shoot on film, ultimately they came down and said we had to shoot it digitally. Well, if you ask “why?” It’s because they were worried about the turnaround, that we were in Cincinnati and wouldn’t get dailies for two days. People have been making films for a hundred years that way. I proved it was not more expensive, but they still used that as an argument. Producers are embracing the tools of digital [cinematography] to the exclusion of film. They think it’s easier and less expensive. With the additional equipment, crew, and added time in post-production, digital becomes equally or more expensive. It’s like fast food. You want that immediate gratification, but what does it taste like?
Not to say some films aren’t shot beautifully digitally, and not to say Dark Waters ultimately suffers from it. But to my eye, I would have loved to see this film and story on celluloid. I did everything possible to create texture in the film by using older lenses and playing with color temperature and exposure. Did you feel that it was digital or film when you saw it …?
*[Digital renders color linearly. In film, there are RGB layers which react to each other and mix in processing. In the digital sensor, there’s no fortuitous and organic germination of color, it’s one color or the other.]
Well, you told me it was shot digitally before I saw it, so I went in knowing. But it does have a texture some digital films lack, and you don’t run into any of those highlights that give you away. Were there any imperfections in the digital image that actually lent itself to the film or this idea of contamination?
No, I don’t think so. Digital loves low light, loves night. That opening shot with the car coming towards us was at 1600; I doubled the ASA from the native 800. I shot at 1280 and 1600 most of the time. Using the higher ASA adds texture to the image while blocking the curve on the low end [,making the gradations in the shadows fall faster into pure black]. I mean, I think the film looks fine digitally, but it would have been nice to see it on negative. [laughs]
I’m so surprised that that was a hassle. You and Haynes have done everything on film.
I know, it doesn’t make any sense, but whatever. They should have known better.
A lot of shots move through foreground objects and surfaces. Notably, the first shot in the law firm that introduces Rob behind frosted glass.
The glass partition. Again, it’s a visual metaphor for what’s around us that obfuscates us or is hidden from us. What we’re being seen through. It was another layer that he’s being broken up by in the same way the color does.
The film is mannered, but seems fairly open to play.
With each film we set up a formalistic approach. The ‘70s films of Gordon Willis gave us an approach. The camera’s always motivated, it’s not a Sirkian, unmotivated camera to create the emotions of the characters for the viewer. But ours is a motivated camera documenting the actions of the characters. The shots are moving still frames. The camera language is simple; it’s more observational than subjective.
But in the opening scene the camera has to creep up and find the kids in the water as if from the water’s POV.
Well, it’s still observational. They run out of the trees, and we pan with them as if we’re watching them. And then from the boat, when they’re yelled at, you don’t see the people in the boat first. Then the camera reveals them, then the kid holding the frog, and then the kids in the water.
I can’t figure out how you shot those office interiors looking straight out of the windows, especially that shot with the blizzard stirring in the background. You can always see way back into the surroundings so brilliantly. Nothing clips. How?
It almost looks like translights [An illuminated film backdrop used as faux backgrounds on a soundstage]. But no, the incredible thing was that those were the real law offices. When Todd visited the Taft law offices, he thought it was incredible, because it was this labyrinth. We did build the conference rooms and Rob’s office on another floor, but in the same building, because of the view from the windows. Through them you see the Cincinnati architecture, and what we loved about it was that it partly blocked and limited your visibility.
It created the sense of what the power was outside, and the curiosity of what was hiding behind those mirrored glass office buildings. For me, the frames in the hallways and the windows looking out, which kept reiterating the architecture with things like screens and partitions, formed this minimalism in the negative space. It referenced, for me, the painters I was looking at, like Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte. We used challenging juxtapositions of objects in space that provoked this labyrinth. There was something hidden, maybe a feeling of power, something outside of you. Because there’s always this tension in these films that you’re unsure about, that’s unsettling. You know, Joan Didion has a great expression for this. She calls it the “nameless anxiety.” We’re surrounded by the nameless anxiety.
Do those elements change when Rob makes his discovery and the film reveals the nature of its threat?
I think the film becomes a character study of the internal life of what he’s going through and at what price. There’s what’s happening to him physically, [something like a stroke, and] we’re not sure if he was poisoned or if it happened because of the pressure he was under. I think that’s what’s interesting about this kind of story. Todd talks about that. How does it change his relationship to his location, his family, his community? There’s this weird sense of peril that hangs over these kinds of films. Even if you know what’s going to happen, you’re watching the process, sure, but you’re really watching what’s happening to the individual. That’s what’s interesting about Silkwood (1983), her [Meryl Streep’s] character.
There’s that conference room scene that’s darker than the rest, where Rob pulls out the photo of Bucky.
That conference room is a direct reference to Gordon Willis’ lighting in The Godfather (1972). It’s all top light, the eyes are being lost. You feel like you’re in a thriller. The lighting is edged out of the background; it’s sculpted out of and against the background. It’s very chiaroscuro and dramatic lighting, but it’s just all top light.
Look, Haynes has always referenced Hollywood films. This is just a different style of a Hollywood film of the ‘70s, which is seemingly more naturalistic. Safe (1995), Erin Brokovich and Dark Waters have a certain heightened realism. The color palette in this is not totally naturalistic. I always wanted the lighting to be motivated by the light source or lack of light. Or window light. I didn’t want it to feel like there were movie lights lighting the set.
I looked at de Chirico and Magritte because of the ways they dealt with spatial relations in framing. All of our characters are in some way isolated, Wilbur the farmer, Rob, and Joe Kiger in their own world.
I was surprised that the distance was sustained even for Wilbur’s funeral. Maybe it’s more painful that way. But I anticipated a cut to a shot that’d bring us closer, that would let me feel the scene.
Well, that would be a more sentimental way. When you take on an objectivity and distance, it’s more about the intellect. The composed static frames let the audience fill in the information of what’s designed in the frame and let that interplay. Like developing the mystery of a thriller, the forces outside of yourself, seeing from the outside. The restraint of the image allows the audience to participate with their own emotions and intellect — it’s more Brechtian as an idea. There’s a German word for that Brechtian distance: Verfremdungseffekt.
[At the NYFF press conference,] Orion Lee compared First Cow’s (2019) subdued volume to public speaking. If you yell at your audience, you leave them no choice but to listen, but if you’re projecting midway to them, you’ve left it open for them to engage or not — which might be more effective.
Right. It’s kind of like this: if the camera is in the eyeline, you’re implicating the viewer. You’re placing the viewer in that position of the emotional perspective. You’re surrendering the critical perspective of objectivity. But when you take a distance off the eyeline, you’re not implicating the viewer, you’re possibly observing the social structure that configures the story. The wide shot is maybe more debilitating than the personal, [closer shots]. Maybe it’s this way, I never thought of it, maybe it puts it back on the audience. It becomes a reflection for the audience’s. It becomes our grievance, our loss, possibly.
By using the eyeline, you’re engaging the viewer to participate in [the emotions of the character the eyeline originates from].
Was there an instance where it made sense to engage us with the eyeline?
Well, look, even when he’s having breakfast in the dining room, and there’s a confrontation with his wife Sarah, there’s still a distance in their eyeline. You don’t go in for the close-up. That’s why it’s really disheartening that people haven’t made more of an effort, instead of just saying it’s not a Todd Haynes film. If they were dressed as they were in the ‘50s, would that be better? He’s not allowed to look at Mid-America?
That’s what’s so great about that speech that Tom Terp gives [about how, as lawyers, they should want to believe they can regulate big business within the system]. If a liberal said that, we’d say, “Oh yeah!” But it’s a conservative, it’s Mid-America saying that, which is so much stronger. People get caught up in their own provincial prejudice.
Popular Hollywood films tend to revise our history (Little Women, Jojo Rabbit, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood). Viewers regress to nostalgia (through sequels, remakes, pre-existing properties, and revisionist period films as much as their own memories) so often now that they bring the weight of the present with them. Our reminiscences of the past have become safer places to fall back on. Instead of following that pattern, Dark Waters culls a darker truth from our past to the present to be reconciled.
It certainly aligns with an idea of escapism and fantasy. Filmmaking is an artifice to begin with. We even have certain conventions to distinguish between naturalism and expressionism. But in the storytelling — that’s more interesting as a dialectic: Why are certain filmmakers and audience members responding to these kinds of films? Maybe people don’t want to face the kind of reality we’re living in. Todd showed me Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. It was a film I hadn’t seen, the original Don Siegel film from 1956. It was the time of McCarthyism and the Red Scare. Siegel and the screenwriters [Daniel Mainwaring and Richard J. Collins] said they didn’t see it as a metaphor or its political implications, but it ends up being that anyways.
I think there’s always certain films that become a barometer for the culture of their period, films that mirror that ennui. Body Snatchers is about our bodies being taken over by some alien force. What better thing to look at for a film like Dark Waters, where now our bodies aren’t being taken over by alien forces but ourselves.
[Ed and I perused his bookshelves afterwards. We came across his copy of Nathaniel Dorsky’s Devotional Cinema, which is heavily marked and which he often references, Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole, and That Bowling Alley on the Tiber by Michelangelo Antonioni.
Intuiting a closure to our discussion, he pulled open Tiber and read me an excerpt from translator William Arrowsmith’s preface aloud:]
“The director’s greatest danger, according to Antonioni, is cinema’s extraordinary capacity for telling lies. Its synesthetic power is so great that its capacity for falsifying the world is almost unlimited — above all in a mass society, with its industrialized entertainments, the semiotic bombardment of commercial capitalism and consumerism, competing ideologies with organized systems of ‘disinformation,’ and the increasing aversion of mass audiences to arduous complexities of feeling and thought. But the greater danger is that cinema may, by lending its powers to mass-produced falsehoods, manufactured clichés, political simplifications, hi-tech optimism, and the distortions of ideologies, forfeit its own immense capacities for registering, perhaps even revealing, the truth. Film may sell its soul. Its potentialities are extraordinary — those of the most comprehensive and complex medium ever invented by the human mind. Yet, as a consequence of its own misuse of those powers, by its prostitution to the entertainment industry and its haplessly conditioned audience, it is increasingly perceived as an immense mechanism for profitably lying, for evading all contact with reality, for, in short, maximizing and disseminating what the Italians call robbacia: junque.”
All stills and photographs courtesy Ed Lachman