“These three films, they’re all masterful. They’re extraordinary films, and they’re actually quite different.” It’s mid-July in Switzerland and Todd Haynes is talking melodrama: “The three masterworks for me, and to see them at a festival like Locarno, which is very rare, are Written on The Wind, Imitation of Life, and All That Heaven Allows.” Perhaps more than even the cinema of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Todd Haynes’ films have so often intertwined with those of the late Douglas Sirk, a director whose peerless studio work from the 1940s and 1950s have been a rich source of aesthetic and emotional inspiration, most clearly seen in Haynes’ 2002 masterpiece Far From Heaven.

Imitation of Life is a film of such remarkable resonance,” Haynes explains on a warm summer morning in the Hotel Belvedere. “I think its themes of race and pretending, of passing, and misperceptions of what you are and who you are, which is as true for the Lana Turner character as it is for Sarah Jane’s dilemmas, are so thoroughly integrated in the film. It’s a remarkably modern tale that never really gets old. I love the John Stahl original from 1934—it’s really complicated and really radical for when it was made—but what Sirk did with casting Turner as an actress was just so smart.”

“You understand every person’s side,” he gushes, “You understand Sarah Jane—the world is not fair to her—and yet you love Annie, her mother, so you’re immediately divided by the emotional conflict between the two women. Fassbinder said that beautiful thing: we understand Annie and we understand Sarah Jane, and the only way to solve the problem is to change. And that’s when we all wept in the movie, because it’s so hard to change the world.” Haynes had not come to town with a new project or a recent one, but to introduce Sirk’s films in the festival’s retrospective and present the annual Pardo d’Onore award to an old friend, Kelly Reichardt.

The Film Stage: You’ve acted as executive producer on four of Reichardt’s films, all the way back to Old Joy. What is the significance of those credits to you, looking back?

Todd Haynes: The credits that Kelly gave me on her earlier films were kind of tokens. I didn’t really occupy the traditional producer role but I did introduce Kelly to Michelle Williams, who I had worked with previously, so I’m very proud that that relationship has been so fruitful. I moved to Portland, Oregon in 2000. I just went there to get away from New York and write a script—I didn’t think I would stay, but I just fell in love with Portland.

Kelly, who was my dear friend, had just come to visit me and she met all these people. She got to feel the place and, like me, she responded to it in many ways. So her partnership with John Raymond, who would collaborate as a writer on so many of her films, it all started there. All of her films are basically set in the Pacific Northwest, so she has given Portland this amazing legacy of her cinema in ways I have not. [Laughs] It’s just been an incredibly surprising, wonderful thing. We remain friends to this day, and also with each other’s films—watching, reading drafts of scripts, giving notes, really being colleagues as filmmakers.

I’ve always been interested in your connection to Sirk. It’s as if there is a kind of throughline from Carol and Far from Heaven to Sirk’s films—but also Brief Encounter, which Carol references. Each is a story about a relationship deemed socially unacceptable for its time. Do you see a lineage there?

I don’t necessarily see them as an evolution as much as each being a very distinct world that I felt like I hadn’t explored before. The difference between Far from Heaven, for instance, and Carol is that one is a domestic melodrama and the other is a love story. I felt like I’d hadn’t really explored the love story as a genre and it made me want to watch a lot of love stories. In a different way from the domestic melodrama, the love story is so much about point of view. What I felt was so interesting about it cinematically, and in narrative form, is the way you are aligned with the more vulnerable person in the relationship and that the person who seems more powerful is the object of desire.

Brief Encounter was a film I’d always loved, but I watched it again in this context and I just loved this idea of playing that same scene twice. This was not in the script, it was not in Highsmith, and it wasn’t in the original adaptation by Phyllis Nagy. It was such a beautiful thing in Brief Encounter and I thought that it could help because, through the course of Carol, Carol has to push Therese away and then becomes the more vulnerable party—then comes back to Therese with all of that vulnerability. So I thought it would be a really interesting way to show the two different sides, you know, and really make that shift in point of view clear by using the same location, in the same scene.

I think a lot of people returned to Safe during the pandemic. Why do the film’s themes still resonate today?

Safe was certainly a product of the time that I was in, which was still very much the AIDS epidemic in New York. My first feature film, Poison, approached a lot of the themes—of the outsider being cast out of society and what that sort of meant, particularly to gay people who started to feel and accept a kind of culpability for what was happening. What started to occur at the time, too, was this recovery language, the sort of ways that we could overcome feelings of subjugation through a kind of new-age recovery discourse and things like that.

So that was one part of it. Illness, in other words, was still a sort of unavoidable topic for me at the time. But I wanted to set this story in a completely different world and in a seemingly very safe and comfortable environment. In many ways, thinking about films like Sirk’s films and the ways that the female characters have such a kind of claustrophobic relationship to the worlds that they live in, and how much the objects around them and the possessions around them define who they are or contribute to questions about who they are.

And so in Safe, Carol was already in a bubble when she’s supposed to be the perfect example of upper-middle-class American wealth, but the illness starts to reveal things about her to herself, and to people around her as well. It’s a sense that something’s not right. And it’s a somewhat pessimistic film because the place she goes for the answers is another bubble, another form of being removed from the world and another language of self that she has to adopt—a language that places Carol as the culpable person who is to blame for not feeling well.

So it was trying to be somewhat critical of this discourse that supposedly empowers the subject, but actually keeps them very much in place. And yet I felt like this was not some foreign person. Human beings will tend to blame themselves for situations that are outside of their control. And that’s where I felt a lot of sympathy with Carol, you know, and felt like she was somebody that I understood.

You use the seasons so beautifully in Far from Heaven. How did you approach the aesthetics of the film?

We kind of skipped winter, but the seasonal aspect plays through it. Fall plays a certain role in All That Heaven Allows, which was the Sirk film I was looking most closely at for Far from Heaven. I chose to have the little sprigs of spring, you know, just the newest blossoms, in the final shot of the movie. I had this painter create those paintings at the end and beginning. Even the opening credits in Far from Heaven were hand-painted.

I’m particularly proud of Far from Heaven, as it was pre-digital and so everything was done through optical-timing, color-timing. So how we shot the film, we didn’t tweak it and play with all the digital tricks that you now have. The final credits sequence had something like eight separate paintings that Bruno had made. On a single piece of negative color film we did in-camera dissolves from one painting to the next all the way through to the end, and then we rewound the same negative piece of film and burned in the white titles over it.

So we didn’t even use an optical process. It was all done in-camera. I look at it now and I’m like: damn, that was really good. I mean, I love optical. I loved doing optical effects in movies. And I love the tool of digital. I mean, I love what you can do digitally. I’m not like such a prude, but I look at that and I’m like: wow, that’s really cool.

Do you see a place for that kind of filmmaking in the age of streaming?

I maintain my own stubborn ignorance to a lot of it. I want to continue to try to make each project with the same kind of practices that I’ve employed in the past. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t have an amazing experience making Mildred Pierce, which was my first and only episodic miniseries, at HBO with Kate Winslet. And, literally, I just signed on to do another miniseries with Kate at HBO. I don’t think we’ll be ready to do it for another year-and-a-half, but it’s a really fascinating story and setting. I loved working with HBO. I found them to be such an amazing studio to work with, and that experience was a generation ago, but Kate just had this fantastic experience with them recently with Mare of Easttown and she said it was still like with Mildred Pierce, so we’re looking forward to doing this together.

So I’m open to a lot of different kinds of formats of filmmaking, but my first love will continue to be cinema. When I did Mildred everybody I brought in, including Kate, had never worked in television before, so we just brought the sort of language and practice and sensibility of cinema to what we did on the small screen. I think it has the feeling of film. We shot it on 16mm, and I loved working on 16mm so much that we did it again for Carol. I am still the stubborn cineaste that I always was.

Many of your films are tied to bygone eras. Why do you continue to return to the past so often in your work?

I guess I am always learning something about cinema from those eras and the culture of those eras. I also feel that by placing things in the past you’re almost always putting a frame around the story and the experience for the viewer, and that frame asks the viewer to do a little bit of translation and reading as they watch it, and to me that’s an exciting opportunity. It’s not for everybody. Some people just want to watch present-tense, or present-day films that reflect back on the contemporary culture that they live in and kind of affirm that experience. I enjoy what happens when there is a distance and that distance has to be filled in by your own knowledge, your own expectations, your own awareness of this genre or that genre.

Of course it varies from film to film, and sometimes there are films about very exceptional artists or musical chapters in popular culture—like glam rock, or sometimes it’s from another category. I return to a lot of domestic settings where women are the central characters of the stories. I just feel like, in every case, I’m looking at the cinema from that period and I’m learning something, you know, and just even watching the Sirk films: every time I watch one it’s an education. I saw Guillermo del Toro at Cannes and he just started out of nowhere saying, “I’ve been watching Sirk, I can’t stop watching Sirk.” And I said, “I know, you’ve got to come to Locarno!“ But he’s busy; he’s a busy guy.

This interview was conducted as a roundtable and edited and condensed for clarity.

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