To be as silly and as scathing as El Conde requires a particularly mad genius—which is, of course, where writer-director Pablo Larraín (Spencer) comes in. To execute that balance of extremes with some of the year’s most textured, beautiful, and referential cinematography? You could do worse than call Edward Lachman.
Their collaboration in this anti-biopic of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (played by Jaime Vadell) proves an ideal melding of two singular cinematic minds. The genesis for the film (now streaming on Netflix) came from Larraín’s desire to confront the way Pinochet’s terrible, violent regime continues to haunt his home country, realizing him as a literal bloodsucking vampire. Two hundred and fifty years into his reign, Pinochet is contemplating the end of his run if unwilling—perhaps unable—to truly let go. Enter a horde of greedy children, a very talky nun, and a cameo you won’t see coming and that expands El Conde’s commentary on power and legacy into something unsettlingly profound.
Also, enter Mr. Lachman. The Oscar nominee best known for his period collaborations with Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Carol) brings his unique perspective on period photography to the film, giving it a classic feel that’s also thoroughly in conversation with gothic cinema and, specifically, vampire classics like Nosferatu. This is especially the case in the authentic black-and-white lensing, which allows every shot to pack a retro punch. Larraín and Lachman joined us to discuss a handful of key moments from the film.?
Because El Conde depicts Pinochet as a vampire, the film often holds on shots of him—and other characters—flying. But the feel of such scenes is relatively practical and playful, drawing attention to the work happening behind the camera as the vampire swoops from set to set.
Edward Lachman: Pablo knew about these acrobats from Colombia that could actually do flying imagery on wire. This is on a 180-foot crane. The operator is Pablo, midway on a seat suspended in wire, and this is actually done in the environment, which makes it so unique.
Pablo 尝补谤谤补í苍: This is practical and you can feel the weight of the gravity and everything. This was shot in minus-20 degrees Celsius. It was really in the middle of the winter.
[Cowriter] Guillermo Calderón and I originally thought about the interesting blend of this dictator [as] a mix of Nosferatu, Batman and Superman. That's a cocktail that only a movie can do, could combine elements that are coming from more pop cinema with more classic cinema and with a political idea behind it. All this comes from old pictures where Pinochet was portrayed with this cape and then it was just, What if he flies? We started from there and it was a big study on the type of cape and the weight of it and a number of things, but it was important because it feels like this lost spirit flying above us in a way that we don't see him, but he sees us—in this dangerous and scary idea of eternity that the character and the vampire represents.
Lachman: Once Pablo told me that it was going to be in black and white, then the question was: Could we really shoot in black and white? He got Netflix to agree to not shoot in color and then transfer it to black and white, which is done mostly now to allow people to show it in different ways. Once I knew that it could really be shot in black and white, Pablo said he wanted to use a 15-foot technocrane—which is an inner crane that goes within itself on the set. I reached out to the camera manufacturer Aeroflex and asked them if they could make a lightweight camera that would be monochromatic, because they had made a heavier camera. In an incredible amount of time, within two months, they built us a monochromatic camera that we could use on a crane.
So the set was built for the crane. By using a monochromatic system, I could then go back to black and white filters and modify the contrast and the latitude of how we look at the image through these color filters—that respond in the way old black and white films [did]. So all things started to contribute. We had already ordered a color camera, which we had to use for some scenes that were used green screen, and that really added to the look of the film and then the art direction, knowing that we were going to shoot in black and white could really modify the set in its contrast and value to separate the characters. People look at it and say this is really a different look than we've seen in black and white because, in the last few years, there's been a number of interesting black and white films—but this one really looks like a black and white film.
Pinochet’s reluctance to actually, finally die compels his five adult children to gather and force his hand—meaning, to get their hands on the inheritance they’ve been waiting on for more than two centuries. Lachman’s photography shifts in these scenes, then, from gothic vampirism to relatively contemporary family satire.
尝补谤谤补í苍: The family must feel like a unit that’s under the power of this man that can decide their fate, whether it is the inheritance or through what the wife is asking for. Some people, you probably could see who they are, but other people unrelated to our story won’t know who is exactly who, so it was important to visually represent the unit. That’s why it was important in the shot that you have here to see them all together. You have pretty much every character of the film in that shot. It’s a group of people that have different interests but, at the same time, the same one.
Lachman: Pablo’s decision to shoot with the LF, or the large-format full frame, allows you to have a larger landscape of view where you’re able to see more people in the frame as a horizontal. Then, also, he chose to shoot in 2:1, which [Vittorio] Storaro has been harking for years—which also gave more real estate to the image, and also that was built for these images.
尝补谤谤补í苍: We built 1,800 square meters of set. It was quite massive, and then we were able to have a very high set, so Ed could really control everything. The production design made by Rodrigo Bazaes really captures the decadence of this world, the decadence of someone that is isolated to be ignored by reality, to be ignored by the past. It becomes an extension of the character, a psychological extension.
Lachman: When I look back at films like Vampyr and Nosferatu, it was so important the visual architecture of how it was framed—how they thought about the framing for the photograph. It’s one thing to make a set and then bring the camera in and just photograph the set. It’s another thing when you design the set for the image, and that’s what I felt happened in this film. Pablo was moving the camera on this crane all the time, finding the images. I had the light from sources in the set like windows, so I could give him the freedom to move around, and that affected how the people were lit in the environment—it was more like ’40s films. The characters were lit in the set.
Without much audience hand-holding, Larraín references the darkest, most bizarre aspects of Pinochet’s reign through surreal sequences. In this one, the character finds himself in a good mood, at which point a giant army-orchestra begins a kind of grand marching band performance. The theatrical setup by Lachman makes the sequence engaging enough, but it’s also drawn directly from the historical record.
尝补谤谤补í苍: During the dictatorship, Pinochet had these bands playing for his birthday, or every time he’d walk around, they would come out of his house or the government palace. It was a way of greeting him and a way to flatter him, and it’s this idea of power. There’s a moment that he feels any form of joy, and then something from the army comes up and celebrates that. That absurdity of power was represented by this illusion of this orchestra.
Lachman: I built lights in the sets that could be on a dimmer board and change the lighting values to make it feel more special—more theatrical—because this army type of orchestra shows up out of nowhere. Pinochet and his wife decide to dance to this, and then, when that happens, the light changes in the scene live and it’s beamed down, and then the dancers get a spotlight. All that happened live. You can see it in the film; it’s very evident that this is a nonrealistic approach.
I try to think of the camera as how it relates to the scene psychologically through the image, and, so many times, people’s eyes are kind of lost. It was something about these characters hiding from each other and from themselves that it worked that way. I’m always trying to search with the director as he’s placing ideas in front of me, and I always feel like the cinematographer’s another actor giving a performance—I’m trying to respond to what I feel emotionally, and Pablo knows what he’s seeing. The advantage is that Pablo chose to operate on the camera. He was responding to the image in the moment, which is the best.
El Conde is populated with strange characters threatening Pinochet’s reign, including Fyodor, the dictator’s long-loyal butler. The film imagines him as desperately hoping to don the cape, so to speak, and step into the man’s shoes. Again, Larraín and Lachman use gorgeously silly imagery to situate their characters for the audience—and bring universality to a very specific dynamic.
Lachman: This is an image that Pablo put in front of me. It was like Batman.
尝补谤谤补í苍: It’s a joke—like the butler looking at Batman, wanting to be him and trying to imitate him. He wants to be the general, and he’s only a coroner.
This historical figure of horror has a very specific meaning for most of us, so, once we decided to make a movie of him and look at his face straight on, there was the necessity also to find a way to tell the story visually in a very universal way. That’s also what Ed brought in. It’s not only the artistry and the quality and the poetry of the images, but also when I felt that he was engaging with the visual language, he was enjoying it, maybe laughing, maybe being scared of me—whatever emotion that Ed had, I felt that everyone could have it. He was the path for universality for me too.
Lachman: I’m not from Chile. I don’t speak Spanish. I was an outsider looking in, and I just responded to what I was experiencing.
The true breakout character of El Conde is Carmencita, a nun (and accountant) hired by Pinochet’s children to, essentially, kill the man and settle his affairs. But she discovers a destiny of her own through interviews with the complicit family members, a transition marked by Paula Luchsinger’s vivacious performance and in shots like this one that weave her into the film’s vampiric-cinematic fabric.
尝补谤谤补í苍: It’s just this magnetic thing and, when we cast Paula, Guillermo and I rewrote the entire character. She became more talky. She speaks more than it used to be in the previous version, and she’s-over articulated, and we thought that it was just fascinating to have her smile. You think she might not be very bright, but then she can do or say a couple of things, something really smart—you don’t understand really exactly how she does it, and then you understand that she’s actually very bright. It’s the process of the character. I think Paula is one of the greatest artists of our language, and she has all the future in front of her.
Lachman: I read the script, but being in the moment with the images and being next to Pablo, responding to the images, was what made it the most enjoyable experience I could have. In a way, when you work in a language you don’t speak, it almost forces me to see things the way I wouldn’t. I’ve worked in Arabic and French and Spanish before, and I really enjoy that because I find it a very pure experience for me to partake in the creation of what you’re looking at.
Pinochet may begin El Conde by swearing off killing, but, hey, old habits die hard. This frame captures the ingenious complexity of how Lachman and Larraín actually catch him in the act: Shots packed with detail, including reflective blood splatters and the literal consumption of hearts, captured in striking locations around Chile that the director scouted himself.
Lachman: Pablo brought us to locations I could have never found anywhere else. This is a private, exclusive club in Chile, and it was the most remarkable experience of where he put us to tell the story.
尝补谤谤补í苍: We looked for this shot for a while. I remember it really well. It was not easy to get to this composition. We came up with an interesting angle because there’s a lot in this single picture, this single framing. We knew that there were two victims. There was going to be a blood situation, there was going to be an eating of a heart. We found the reflection—you can still see him in the reflection down in the black. So, it was about composition and the perspective.
Lachman: Pablo had the idea that maybe blood shouldn’t be red just because that’s the way we see it. In black and white, it could look different, and we tested it with other colors and strangely enough, blue came out the best with the blood…. I always find every location has its own aesthetic in a way, and so, I see what makes that set or that location unique in and of itself, and then try to implement what I find interesting about it. Being in this private pool room just lent itself to this kind of gothic feeling. You don’t have to recreate it. It’s there. That was so wonderful—that Pablo in his scouting found locations and knew locations because that’s where he lives. He knew this world.
This interview has been edited and condensed.