El Conde is the fulfillment of a promise that was made more than a decade ago.

In 2010, the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín was taking his third film, Post Mortem, around the festival circuit when his path crossed with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Edward Lachman. "We connected right away," the New Jersey-born DP recalls. "We continued to meet periodically at different festivals, until he finally said to me, 'Someday, I want to bring you to Chile so you can work on a film with me.'"

In the years to follow, Larraín continued making films in his home country, but he also pivoted to English-language efforts with the Oscar-nominated biopics Jackie (2016) and Spencer (2021). Lachman, meanwhile, lensed films for longtime collaborators like Todd Solondz and Todd Haynes. (The cinematographer has received two Oscar nominations for his work with Haynes, first for 2002's Far from Heaven and then for 2015's Carol.) At a certain point, Lachman began to lose faith that he would ever have the chance to work with Larraín.

"He came to New York and shot a TV series [Lisey's Story] with a wonderful cinematographer, Darius Khondji, who's a friend of mine," he explains. "I thought, 'Well, he came all the way to New York and didn't give me a call! I guess I'll never get to go to Chile with him...'"

Shortly thereafter, Larraín proved him wrong.

"For me, films are always about adventures. We travel within and outside of the images, so I gladly accepted his offer. And then it just got more and more interesting from there," Lachman says of El Conde, a satirical horror film that imagines an alternate reality in which Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (played by Jaime Vadell) is revealed to be an immortal vampire. Shot in stark black-and-white, the film earned Lachman his third nomination for Best Cinematography at the 96th Oscars.

With their collaboration in Chile in the rearview, Lachman and Larraín are already working on another film together, a biopic about the opera singer Maria Callas starring Angelina Jolie. This time, they're headed to Budapest.

Ed Lachman and Pablo Larraín behind the scenes of 'El Conde.'

A.frame: How were you introduced to Pablo's films?

I've known Pablo's work for the past 15 years or so. I saw his early film, Tony Manero, and then Post Mortem and No and Neruda. His films set in Chile have always dissected the nation under Augusto Pinochet's regime and examined how his reign affected all strata of society, from the poorest people to those in the middle class. I've long thought he's one of the most interesting filmmakers in South America, and I've always liked how he's able to find visual metaphors to tell his stories. I'm usually attracted to directors who care about the visual language of their films. His visual world has always been so clear, because he's created it through his own personal experiences and those of his family members. We became friendly fairly quickly.

Beyond getting to work with Pablo, what was it about El Conde that intrigued you?

To me, it seemed to be a film about how justice is a collective desire, not a reality. It's about how horrible crimes happen throughout history that don't get their due justice. I really think that’s what Pablo is saying in this film. Through satire, he's revealing how the families and individuals that were crippled and murdered by the 17 years of Pinochet's regime never got justice. He died a multimillionaire and free of his crimes. He got total impunity from the rest of the world.

Pablo also got Netflix to agree out the gate to let him shoot the film in real, monochromatic black-and-white images, and that really set the tone for me. I knew that it was a film about a vampire and, therefore, a gothic form, so I obviously looked at early films like [F. W.] Murnau's Nosferatu and [Carl Theodor] Dreyer's Vampyr. The amazing thing I realized when I looked back at those films and the time period in which they were made is how much was created in camera. They didn't have all the tricks that we do in our digital world to create images, so they were doing it in front of the camera. Even the way they created shadows on the opposite side of the wall with canvas — so that the person would walk one way and their shadow would go another way — all that made my mind start thinking about how I could capture that feeling in a film made in a digital, electronic era: How could I make it cinematic, even though I wasn't able to shoot on actual celluloid film, because there isn't a film lab in Chile anymore?


The look of the film is incredibly cinematic. How did you achieve that?

I reached out to Arriflex in Germany, because they were thinking at that time about making a monochromatic large-format camera. But we needed a smaller camera. We'd made the decision to shoot the film largely using a 15-foot Technocrane, and we actually built the film's central set so that the crane could fit in it without any walls needing to be pulled out. That gave us flexibility in finding our shots, but that also meant I had to find a lightweight, medium-format camera. To my surprise, Arriflex informed me that they were interested, but that was at a time when they were just coming out with their new Alexa 35 4K camera. They ultimately had a camera for me in two months, but they told me, "You're going to have to test it yourself, because we don't have the time to do all the testing for you!" I was pleasantly surprised to discover that what we call native, which is basically 800 ASA, was really 1280. The camera was actually three-quarters of a stop faster than what we would typically consider normal, and that was a godsend. That meant I could shoot in lower light situations, like night exteriors, and use real fire and real light sources.

It's interesting you mention that the film's sets were built to fit a Technocrane, because one thing about Pablo's film that has always struck me is how visually precise they are yet how freeform they feel. What was your process of actually composing the images with him?

Well, another reason I wanted to work with Pablo is that he finds it on the set. He actually operated the camera on this film, because he wanted to operate it. I know that many cameramen get upset about that, but I welcomed it because Pablo did study cinematography before he became a director. He has a real passion for the image, so while we would talk about framing ahead of time, he always wanted it to be found in the moment with his actors. That was another reason to use a Technocrane, because the camera could then move in such a way that allowed him to discover the shots as we went along. We would discuss it, but many times we'd find it on the go. That's his language, and that's also how we shot Maria, which was very inspiring.

For my part, I would light the set and then let the camera move freely through it. I wasn't trying to light specific things, and that’s a different approach than usual. It was more about lighting the area itself and then letting the actors play in that space. Obviously, the camera is the thing that gives you the timing and the rhythm and the composition, but Pablo has a great eye and he's not afraid. If a take isn't right, he knows it, and he'll say, "Let's do another one." He's very giving that way, and we had a great rapport. I like to operate myself, but if I have a good operator, that also allows me the time and space to do other things and be aware of more, whether it be the lighting itself or preparing for the next shot. It made the whole process very efficient.


Another dichotomy within the film is that it feels both timeless and contemporary at the same time, which is fitting given that it's a vampire movie. How did you approach blending those different sensibilities?

The first step was considering how we were going to frame Pinochet as a vampire, which is an obvious metaphor for how he sucks the blood out of the culture, society, and economy of Chile. Then it was deciding on the use of black-and-white photography, which becomes more of an observational way of analyzing him and keeping Pinochet at a distance so that you don't have to deal with him as a constant reality. It's a satire, and I thought about it the same way that Stanley Kubrick did with Dr. Strangelove, which is that it's a way to not identify with the character. Obviously, where you stand on Pinochet's regime is a very political position; the film is ultimately a cautionary tale about greed, but it's done in a way that makes fun of Pinochet.

It also asks us to look at ourselves, because the mere act of looking at someone we consider to be a very obvious kind of buffoon inherently forces us to wonder how we let someone like him come into power in the first place. How could any society let this happen? If we look at him from a distance, we can really see how ludicrous he is. Pablo even says that he saw images of Pinochet wearing a cape and always thought, "That's the way a vampire would look."

You received your third Oscar nomination for El Conde. What does it mean to you to be recognized and recognized for this film?

Well, that's exactly what it is. I was recognized by my peers. This is a smaller film. It's a non-English-language film, so it was a great honor for me that people actually took the time to watch it. To me, the most important thing is that I got the recognition and acknowledgment of my fellow cinematographers, and I have to say that it's a wonderful space to be in this year with four other nominees whose work I really respect and admire. Matthew Libatique was a camera PA for me 30 years ago, so I'm as happy for him that he got nominated and recognized for his beautiful work on Maestro as I am for myself.

I've given awards to Robbie Ryan at Camerimage, and I did a workshop with Hoyte van Hoytema, and Rodrigo Prieto was one of the first people to call and congratulate me. I just have the greatest admiration for his work; I've known about him since Amores perros, and he just keeps hitting it out of the ballpark. We all reached out to each other, which I really thought was quite nice. We all took it upon ourselves to congratulate each other and say what an honor it is to be in the same category together. It's great to be nominated with all of them.

By Alex Welch

A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.

Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best Cinematography category for an interview.


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