Todd Haynes has never been one to repeat himself; although his films often explore similar themes, they approach those themes in different ways, creating a body of work that’s as eclectic as it is oddly cohesive. And after examining the middle-class identity crisis of “Mildred Pierce,” Haynes is foraging further into unfamiliar territory with a project about conservative politics. “I’m writing a script for a film now actually with Jon Raymond, who adapted ‘Mildred’ with me, a Portland-based fiction writer and screenwriter, and good friend,” he said recently via telephone. “I’m eager to get back into movies.”
Haynes spoke to The Playlist last month in conjunction with the Blu-ray releases of “Velvet Goldmine” and “Mildred Pierce.” He said that this upcoming project will take an in-depth look at the values and opinions of Middle America, and examine them within the context of our current political climate. “It’s sort of about the great middle of this country and their sort of suspicions about government,” he revealed. “And how that keeps clicking into conservative politics and the way the right makes use of those uncertainties. There’s interesting reasons why people feel the way they do, outside of the coasts and outside of the clear liberal orthodoxy, and that interests me. It’s been too effective, that allegiance, for too many years, and I’m curious about it. So we’re kind of getting inside that process.”
Although Haynes claims to be very focused when it comes to working on each of his films, he admitted that this project was one that occupied his thoughts for some time. “I’m pretty single-minded, unlike a lot of directors who miraculously seem to be holding six projects in their hand at a given time and juggling them accordingly,” he said, laughing. “[But] the changes we saw in the Bush years, and the rise of the right over this last decade has been so profound and it has certainly affected me and many people. And I have been interested in dealing with it at some level with film, and I think this is what that sort of became after years of not knowing exactly what the angle would be and what the perspective would be.”
Previous portraits of conservative politics, such as “Bob Roberts,” offered a satirical look at the attitudes of both conservative politicians and their constituency. But Haynes said that their film would not only be dramatic, but attempt to offer as complete and unbiased a portrait of both of those groups as possible, in an effort to shine a light on a phenomenon that will hopefully prove enlightening to everyone. “It’s serious,” he said. “We want it to be something that people respect who wouldn’t necessarily be my audience, my target audience, or the audiences that I’ve accumulated in the past, because I really am looking at a different swath of the population and a different constituency.”
“I always learn a lot when I do so,” he observed. “You know, when you step out of your comfort zone and even your cynical zone, and open yourself up to what other people might experience and why they do so.”
Haynes said that he and Raymond are making a concerted effort to avoid any sort of ideas or storytelling that comes from a place of bias or preconceived notion. “That’s really our main objective at this point, to really not fall into orthodoxies or positions that could be seen and advanced as motivated,” he explained. “I mean, there are things that concern me about the connection of power to any constituency, but where those ideas originate and how is really the point, and that’s the part that I’m the most open to.” He indicated that Joe Winston’s documentary, “What’s The Matter With Kansas,” which was based on Thomas Frank’s book, is serving as a template for the thoughtful, incisive, but respectful tone he and Raymond are attempting to capture. “I think it’s a balanced and sort of open-minded look at a complicated and nuanced population of people in the middle of this country who have their own ideas and don’t always agree with each other,” he said. “I found it to be a really interesting sort of tool in the process.”
Haynes also said that he’s not trying to create an exposé of the ways in which conservative politicians manipulate potential voters, but offer an honest and in-depth look at the relationship between that constituency’s values and the way the political machinery of the country manipulates that. “We’re sort of looking at both, but we really are starting with the constituency itself,” he explained. “We’re not really looking at it from the political machine side, but sort of looking at how these genuine feelings come to form, and then how they’re used or applied.”
But despite his firm ideas about how he and Raymond want to approach their subject, he said that he’s drawing upon a wide variety of older films for inspiration, as much because of their representations of the attitudes of the era in which they were made as their cinematic or narrative merits. “I’m looking a lot at the tradition of films that sort of, in some ways, stagger the political divide,” he revealed, “starting with ‘Meet John Doe,’ the Capra film from the ’40s, and then continuing on to ‘A Face In The Crowd,’ Kazan’s film, and then into films like ‘Network,’ obviously, and ‘Being There’.”
“Films abut the regular guy who gets plucked up as a spokesperson for different interests, and what happens as a result. That’s been a very useful, generic tradition to tap into, and that’s what we’re trying to explore,” Haynes explained.
“Mildred Pierce” is on DVD and BluRay now.