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.
Earlier this year Moonlight became the first LGBT movie to win best picture at the Oscars. Do you think that, with the triumph of Moonlight, there is something changing within Hollywood?
I hope so. I don’t know how much I want to look to Oscars as a marker. I mean, we can talk about the world of the Oscars, but it’s a limited domain that I think reflects back on itself perhaps more than it once did, and doesn’t necessarily define where our culture is. And so it’s kind of playing catch-up to the culture all the time. It doesn’t mean we don’t look to those kinds of designators as placeholders in our progress as a culture — what’s permissible, what’s commendable, what’s meaningful — but as we all know the Oscars do not define what great movies are. There’s way too many examples of films that have had no relevance to the Oscars whatsoever that are the true – like, the Velvet Underground is an example of a musical band that had so much influence but had almost no commercial visibility at the time. I mean, it had no commercial visibility at the time, but the way influences are marked is a whole different kind of narrative or history. So yes, it’s one way of looking at a kind of progression of visibility. Uh, I don’t have much more to say. [Laughs]
Did it bother you, not getting nominated for Best Picture or Best Director for Carol?
Yeah, I thought we should have had nominations for Best Director and Best Picture. [Laughs] But mostly, I hated – you know, I think the process that directors and artists go through to go down that campaign, which I know can help the marketing of the film. I mean, for me, my goal was to do all the work in promoting Carol as possible; to get people to go see the film on the screen as much as possible, because that is a diminishing practice today. It’s a film, like all the films I make and the films that I respect, that I want to see them on the screen before they go away. So I would do everything Harvey [Weinstein] said I should do for promoting Carol. It wasn’t to win prizes, and if he said, “We should do this for the Oscar campaign,” I said “Okay, if it’s going to draw attention to get people out there to go see the movie before it goes onto people’s phones, I’ll do it.”
But the diminishing returns of the process… I mean look, I remember going to the Miramax party in 1998, because they were distributing Velvet Goldmine, and it was the year that Shakespeare in Love and Life is Beautiful, two Miramax movies, won more Oscars than they ever dreamed. It was the sort of cumulative moment of the Weinstein machine, and I remember going to that party and you think it would be just filled with joy and a sense of absolute victory – I shouldn’t say this [Laughs] – but I just didn’t feel that, and maybe I missed it, but I know the awards those films won did help the box office of those films, and did encourage people to go see those films on the screen. It was a different time, when films weren’t moving off the screen as quickly as they do today, so in that regard, way to go, but I did feel like even winning is a strange commodity that has to be held separately from the film itself and the experiences we have seeing films.
With Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There you explored the border between reality and fiction. Can you talk a little bit about your conception of fiction and reality and the relationships between fiction and reality?
I try in my music-based dramas, I really tried to find a formal and stylistic strategy to get to the core of what these specific artists were doing in their music. And the first question you have to ask in tackling any historical subject, however interesting, is why it should be a film? Does it need to be a film? Is there a visual language that is suggested by, or a cultural kind of legacy that this person’s work justifies in a medium that I consider a visual medium, and certainly a musical medium as well? Maybe all great biographies are not necessarily made for the movies. And so, in both those cases, I really tried to bring the unique characteristics of each subject; they’re very different movies so it’s hard to generalize about that, but a sense of the artificial, of the theatrical to Velvet Goldmine, and a sense of creating the parallel narrative that is all drawn from real events from the Bowie era, and the Lou Reed, Iggy Pop love affair with Bowie and so forth, but have it be a fictional truth, a fictional narrative, because they themselves were turning themselves into fictions, and creating hybrids and fictional icons out of their own creative drives as musicians.
With Dylan, who I kept just seeing as someone who was serially creating and killing off his various personas, and his interests that he would get incredibly, deeply engrossed in a particular moment, and almost have to by necessity destroy it in order to have the freedom to move on to something else. And also the freedom to withstand the success and freedom and burden of his own fame that I think he always had to manage as someone who’s fundamentally a creative being. He has to create fresh air to create each time, which necessitated a death of the prior era.
And now that you’ve announced the documentary about the Velvet Underground, can we expect something as original as Velvet Goldmine or I’m Not There?
I don’t know. The Velvet Underground is a new project. We haven’t even put together a structure for the production itself, how it will be financed. I’ve never done a documentary per se, and to me documentaries are written in the editing room, so it’s about compiling information and interviews. In this case, the images do need to tell the story, so it’s about finding what those images are for a band that is notoriously undocumented. Given its influence, there’s hardly any footage of the Velvet Underground performing, so we’re gonna have to find different ways of visualizing what that moment felt like, and that time and place felt like. The thing is, what’s very relevant and unique to the Velvet Underground is how much it came out of avant-garde cinema and music, at least where John Cale was concerned. Andy Warhol’s films were concerned obviously, but so many of the sort of cross-pollinating elements of that time were informed by the avant-garde. And it’s a lost time, it’s a time that feels further and further away from our contemporary culture, and experimental cinema in general feels so remote. But it’ll be great to get into all that stuff, have it all in front of us, and start to really see how it speaks and how it relates, and I think the form is gonna come out of that. It needs to have that fluency and that freedom of invention, and not have a set plan from the outset.
You mentioned that you felt less radical now as a filmmaker. The Velvet Underground is certainly no less radical than glam rock. Do you think you can be as radical making this film as you were when making Velvet Goldmine?
I’m not sure, because the Velvet Underground has become canonized and known. It’s why Universal Music Group now came to me to make a documentary that Laurie Anderson said, “We would love Todd to do this documentary,” and she would turn over the Lou Reed archives to me, which was a tremendous honor. It wasn’t something I sought out to do. This sort of came to me as an invitation. And I’m working on another project that’s the focus of my creative work right now, but I definitely said I would love to do this project. But to me this is definitely about going back to that time and learning from it, as I did with Velvet Goldmine, and learning from that time. There’s a reason why Velvet Goldmine is described as a lost moment, a time that is bracketed in that film as something already gone by a sort of fictionalized 1984. It already is gone, and in a way I think I felt the only way to tell that story is to not pretend that I could give it to you. It’s something that’s already gone, that you already have to find yourself, that it’s up to you to find your own Velvet Goldmine.
Speaking about “finding yourself,” Far from Heaven was very close to the cinema of Douglas Sirk, and now Carol recalls the photography of Saul Leiter. Can you talk a bit about your creative processes and how your influences affect it?
I am first and foremost someone who is inspired by, moved by the history of this medium, and each film that I undertake assigns me the task of looking back to the past and learning as much as possible about that moment from my predecessors and great works and influential works from that period. I mean this is so general because you’re asking about many different films, but it was true for Wonderstruck as well, and to go back and look at the cinema of 1927 is to look at a period that we all too often discard as something that is naïve and that we have improved upon. In fact, it may be one of the most sophisticated moments in the history of film, before sound came in, at the height of the silent era. So it’s an opportunity to be humbled by what came before me, and that you find — and maybe this goes back to your question — radicality in places that we think are naïve or finished or that we have superseded or that we are much too jaded and cynical to open ourselves up to, and in fact, if you look back, we will be humbled by what has come before us, and it should keep raising the stakes of what’s possible.
Wonderstruck opens on October 20. See our complete Locarno 2017 coverage.