INTERVIEW: Imitation of Film; Todd Haynes Mimics Melodrama in "Far from Heaven"
by Anthony Kaufman
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published in indieWIRE on November 1, 2002. Focus Features’ “Far from Heaven” is currenly in theaters.]
Any director can make Barbie dolls tragic knows how to tread the delicate line between stylization and sentiment. From his all-doll debut “Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story” to his sophomore masterpiece “Safe” to his most recent “Far from Heaven” — all in a sense heartfelt stories of Barbies gone awry — Todd Haynes has created stories that straddle the poles: on the one hand, you have dolls singing pop songs, an absurdly phobic L.A. housewife, and a laughably perfect ’50s homemaker, and on the other, you have the ravages of anorexia, millennial paranoia, and the sexism, racism, and homophobia central to American society. Even in his 1991 Sundance winner “Poison” and the 1998 glam rock extravaganza “Velvet Goldmine,” Haynes shows a deep affection for the worlds he creates, no matter how seemingly surreal or superficial.
Along with longtime producing collaborator Christine Vachon, Haynes’ name is synonymous with American independent film. And looking back at the last 10 years of his career is to see how far the movement has traveled — and in many ways stayed the same. (James Schamus, one of the producers on “Poison,” will now distribute “Far From Heaven” as co-president of mini-major Focus Features.)
The day after presenting Julianne Moore, his self-described “muse,” a special acting prize at New York’s Gotham Awards, Haynes met with indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman to talk about his latest film “Far from Heaven” (opening November 8), a 1950s-set melodrama that remarkably reproduces the style and feel of the “women’s weepies” of the period, in particular the color-saturated, enamel-coated work of Douglas Sirk (“All That Heaven Allows,” “Written on the Wind,” “Imitation of Life“). Here, Haynes speaks about finding emotion in artifice, overcoming low budgets, and taking risks.
indieWIRE: I feel that “Far from Heaven” may be one of the biggest, most experimental mainstream films of all time. Do you think it’s fair to call it experimental?
Todd Haynes: Yes, because it refuses a lot of familiar narrative touchstones that makes us feel like we’re watching a genuine drama: contemporary codes of naturalism, psychological realizations, redemption, and any sort of heroic victory. So it refuses all of those things and maintains a completely synthetic language that comes directly out of the world of film. And yet it’s done in complete faith that that language in some way embodies more potential for emotional feeling than anything that mimics what we think of as reality. In other words, people talk about this film in relation to sincerity verses irony. And I think it’s different. I think it’s about the intense feelings that only come from synthetic film language, that only come from artificial experiences that we know from film, but we nevertheless invest with intense feeling.
iW: How do you see irony not coming into the picture? Just the fact that it’s made today makes it quite self-conscious.
Haynes: I think one of the reasons why it comes across as having emotional integrity is that we were enjoying it while making it. There was an amorous feeling towards the material. Even when there are lines like “oh, jiminy,” it was with incredible respect and I think that comes through.
iW: There is this line, “Do you think we can ever see beyond the surface of things,” which I think again brings the issues of the film to the forefront. Do you think it’s dangerous to put a line of dialogue like that, which in a sense broadcasts your project?
Haynes: I am not sure if it is anymore obvious than most of the lines in the movie, which are always on the verge. It’s movie dialogue. Movie dialogue has always showed its thematic thesis statements.
iW: Financially speaking, this project could not have been made earlier in your career.
Haynes: All of my films mirror each other economically, because we’ve never really had enough money to make any of them. It always takes a huge amount of work, if not criminal acts, to make it look like it was shot for more. “Safe” cost just under a million dollars. “Velvet Goldmine” cost around $7 million and this cost $14 million, so these are incredibly low budget movies for what they are. Big budgets come with bigger unions, so it often feels like when you have more, you have less.
iW: So how did you do it for such a low budget?
Haynes: It was really, really hard. When I’m working, I work harder than anyone I know. I’m obsessive, I’m self-abusive, and I don’t sleep. In this case that working style was supported by so many successful creative alliances. I remember one day when we were knocking stuff off pretty quickly the first week. And it was Cathy’s angle, and we did one take; it was perfect and we did a second for a backup, and I was like, “We got it!” And Julianne was like, “Yeah, let’s go!” And the whole crew picked stuff up and we ran to the backyard for the next shot. It was just this great, exhilarating feeling and everybody — no matter what their production background — got into the crazy speed of it all.
iW: Your opening shot seems to exactly recall the beginning of “All That Heaven Allows.” How many hours of close shot-by-shot study did you do of Sirk’s films?
Haynes: Some of the parallels are evoked more than they are literal. In “All that Heaven Allows,” it’s just a simple pan, but it has a similar feeling. Whereas when Cathy cries on her bed in the end, it’s the only shot that’s literally a facsimile of the shot in Max Ophuls‘ “The Reckless Moment,” when Joan Bennett breaks down and cries at the end.
iW: After I saw the movie, there were some people in the audience who had never seen a Sirk film and some who had. How do you see these two different audiences experiencing your movie?
Haynes: I am eager to know that as anyone. In Venice, there was a very well-attended press screening and we heard afterwards it was filled with a lot of appreciative laughter. I realized in the laughter, there is some interaction with the codes that we’re obviously playing with — and ultimately embracing. And then we had the official screening and they were dead silent through the entire movie. It was weird. And then they all stood up afterwards and applauded and then Julianne won the best actress award, so it’s beginning to dawn on me that for certain viewers it’s possible to watch the film with absolutely no framework whatsoever and get right into the content immediately.
iW: Perhaps those who aren’t familiar with Sirk appreciate it in a more primal, emotional way?
Haynes: My favorite classic Hollywood films have always been the ones that play at a popular level at the time they were released — with some exceptions like “Night of the Hunter” and “Ace in the Hole” — like Hitchcock‘s and Billy Wilder‘s films. They were absolutely popular, but they also have so many layers. Hitchcock is the best example, because he was dismissed as a purely popular filmmaker, but only later, received a following for cineastes. But I’ve never made a film before that was ever eligible for that possibility.
iW: The lighting of the film, of course, is so incredibly vivid. How much were you relying on gels verses getting those lights right in post-production?
Haynes: It was all in production. We didn’t have any money to do any fancy stuff in post. If we had any money, I would have struck one Technicolor print of the movie. I had meticulous conversations with [cinematographer] Ed Lachman and Ed’s team. I made color charts for every scene in the movie. There was a spectrum of about 20 different colors for each scene to describe the mood that I was looking for. And then all the departments would gather around my swatches, and then we had tons of stills from Sirk’s films to discuss, in regard to framing, color, angles, clothes, sets. We’d sit and talk about colors for days, literally.
iW: How do you feel that the color creates emotion?
Haynes: In the Sirk films, you realize how extreme the color palettes were, and how complex they were, in terms of warm and cool spectrums. Many movies today are dumbed down, in terms of color — a whole movie will be honeycomb gold colors if it’s set in the past or all icy blue if it’s a suspense thriller. But these films use complex interactions of warm and cool in every single scene. And emotions are multi-colored. Color, lighting, costume, all the visual elements are supplementing what can’t be said in these films.
iW: When making movies, one can think they’re doing something over the top when you’re doing it, but to the audience, it doesn’t seem over the top.
Haynes: There can be a fine line; I agree with you. But we never thought we were going over the top when making “Far from Heaven.” I kept saying to Ed, “I don’t want to look at the Sirk films and say they were bolder than we were.” They were radical. I wanted that to open us all up to things. You know why I wasn’t so panicked about pulling this off? Because the people who read the script got into it emotionally, and that’s without the visuals and the performances. We know these forms so well and they have resonance.
iW: Now that you’ve made a few films, do you feel it’s easier or harder to take risks?
Haynes: I think the worry is you get older, and you stop taking risks. That’s more of what you see in the world, politically and creatively. Successes, especially, fuck you up. But I’ve always felt successful because I’ve always made the films I wanted to make and I’m really lucky to have a body of press that’s been interested in my work. They’ve never made money and they’ve never reached a large audience, but that’s not why I made them.
iW: Do you know what you’re next project is going to be?
Haynes: I’m going to do a movie about Bob Dylan, but it’s going to be weird, not a traditional narrative by any means. I’m still writing it, I’ve had a bad career acquiring music rights, from Karen Carpenter to David Bowie, but [Dylan] was pretty receptive, which has never happened before. So it’s exciting. And I bet it won’t be what people expect from me after “Far from Heaven,” such as something suddenly very accessible.
iW: I see super 8mm.
Haynes: Maybe. Yeah. Could be. (Laughs)