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Todd Haynes on Campaigning for ‘Carol’ and the Historical Appeal of ‘Wonderstruck’

Written by on August 17, 2017 


26 years, 6 movies, and 1 miniseries since winning the grand Jury Prize with his debut film Poison at Sundance, Todd Haynes remains a remarkably difficult auteur to pin down. He made his first short while still in high school but decided to focus on semiotics in university instead. That knowledge would nevertheless bleed into the fabric of his work, becoming a director of significant gestures and homage. He soon became a major — and quite radical — player in both the American independent and queer film scenes of the early ‘90s before channeling that spirit to produce experimental works on Bob Dylan and Glam Rock. His period films, those great sweeping odes to Golden Age Hollywood, were radical in their own subtle way, if less avant-garde. He recently peppered that remarkable back catalogue with Wonderstruck, his first family-oriented outing.

The Locarno International Film Festival decided to acknowledge that diversity and radicalism this year by awarding the great man with their Pardo d’Onore Manor, the festival’s equivalent of a lifetime achievement award. While it might just be a little early for that, it’s nonetheless deserved, and we had the opportunity to speak with the director during the festival.

You’ve always been a wonderfully eclectic director when it came to choosing stories; if anything, since you began making films, what has changed with regards to what you look for in a script and what you hope to achieve when you make a film?

Todd Haynes: It’s relatively new for me to open the door of stuff that’s out there in the world that I haven’t generated myself. For many years, that’s really what I did. I sort of developed and wrote my own material, and my agent would tell people, “No, he doesn’t read scripts, stay away,” and it was a great experience and process to do so. It took a lot of time to do so, to generate, research, produce, write, finance your own work one after the next, and it meant that I was extremely single-minded one thing at a time, and I would see other directors balancing different projects in different states of development, and it’s only recently that that was something that I was like “that would be interesting, I would like to do that.” I also wouldn’t mind working more, having more projects come into my life more quickly. I think it was since Mildred Pierce, which was also a different process; I did originate that and adapted it from a novel with a friend, but since Mildred I have directed two films that were not my scripts.

Have you fallen out of love with writing, temporarily?

No. I don’t know if I’ve fallen out of love with it, but it’s been a new part of the creative process, and I get involved with the scripts that I take on, like Carol or Wonderstruck, and work with the writers and make it into something that feels like it’s my work. But what’s funny is even when it is your script, there’s a funny way in which it becomes something other once you embark upon it. It’s an assignment that you give yourself, and then you kind of need to work yourself through it and discard, and once you’re shooting, the script is history. And even more just filming the script, what’s happening in production means that the script is just a blueprint for what you’re doing with the camera and with your actors and with your locations. Once you’re done shooting, it’s over, and you’re in the editing process and you have to be able to keep discarding and not hanging on to the imprint and the expectations and the assumptions that you have conjured at each stage. I think it’s the only way to really see what you have in front of you, and to also let it become what it is to a certain point. You can do everything you can to manage that process but ultimately it is what is in front of you.

What hit you about Wonderstruck? Was it the fact that it could be a kids movie, something that you hadn’t done before?

It was that; it really was that initially. I mean, it was obviously this script was so film-fluent. It had such a rich cinematic language, series of references, historical material. Brian [Selznick]’s adaptation of his book was intensely intercut on the page, so you felt the editorial rhythm of what it could be, and so it felt already like it had moved into a different medium from a book into something else, and that was enticing and stimulating from a cinematic perspective. But yeah, I wanted to feel like I could create something with as much love and attention to detail and history and character as I’ve given to my adult dramas, but something that kids could be able to experience. I went back and I saw movies that had meant a lot to me as a kid, and I found that they were mature films that weren’t necessarily catering to a different audience. The movie Sounder, I hadn’t seen since I was twelve — the age of the kids in Wonderstruck — and I thought, “oh, it’s going to be kind of manipulative.” Do you guys know that movie Sounder?


No, I can’t say I’m familiar with it.

It’s a beautiful film from 1972 with Cicely Tyson and nominated for Best Picture, but it was very well received at the time, a Martin Ritt film, and I thought it was going to be kind of a tearjerker about a dog. The dog’s name is Sounder, it’s about a sharecropping family in 1930s America, and the story of the boy going after the father once he gets imprisoned and trying to find him. And the movie is so sophisticated and so subtle, and I was so astonished at how restrained it is, and mature it is. I don’t think it was even marketed as a family film, but we all went as a family to the film and it’s a beautiful piece of filmmaking. And I was like, “Yeah, you can really treat kids like anyone else, and assume they have a range of experiences and emotions and responses that can handle complexity.”

Twenty years ago you made films like Velvet Goldmine, that were pretty wild. Is there a logical line from Velvet Goldmine at your young age then to Wonderstruck in your age now?

No, it’s funny. The last time I saw Poison it shocked me, and it had been years since I had seen the movie, and it demonstrated to me a different side of myself, of my history, of our history as a culture, as a kind of radical, fierce, almost terrorist approach to the language of movies. I think yes, we completely evolve and change as we mature and grow, and I don’t have that same radical child who made that film, is no longer who I am.

I miss that person somehow.

I do too, but I also miss a queer culture that was not getting married and wanting – I mean I appreciate and I am fully supportive of all the legislative progress that gay people have made and trans people have made, and the sense of having choices in our lives, but when you are fighting to be alive, let alone be accepted at the table of the normal status quo, you have a different kind of critique, and I think it sharpens your wits and you are more weaponized to change the world and alter the world. I don’t know that that’s sustainable through one’s entire life, and you win victories. I mean now people don’t die of AIDS. That is an uncontested victory. There’s so many people that I lost that had they survived past a certain number of years would not have been the case. So you look back at – we fought that fight, and we actually had a victory.

But I think you lose things along the way as well. I think being excluded from the society teaches you things that you don’t learn when you’re included in the society. We have big questions about what is outside the society today, what is the counterculture, what is the critique, where is the critique, where is the activism, you know, and it’s almost too easy to have the target be Donald Trump. It’s disappointing and enraging, and it’s essential to be focused on that conflict because it’s so profound and in-your-face, and extreme and verbose, but the nuance of discussions about representation are no longer the things we are discussing. We have much more urgent matters that are extremely black-and-white, as they were during the AIDS crisis. They were black-and-white, they were survival issues, and we now have nuance to deal with. I was talking to a kid in college who was coming out of his philosophy class, and he felt like, “Yes. I’m ready to take on the world” and I was like, “Yeah, that reminded me of myself,” and that’s what I want to hear. It’s something that needs to happen, and I think we get inspiration from our elders and the people who came before us, as I did.

On the next page, Todd Haynes discusses Oscar campaigning for Carol, his upcoming Velvet Underground documentary, and more.

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