In the first installment of indieWIRE’s two-part interview with Todd Haynes, the director discussed his new miniseries adaptation of “Mildred Pierce” for HBO, which will air its final two episodes Sunday. Here, the director talks about his controversial first feature, “Poison,” which Zeitgeist will re-release on DVD June 21 to commemorate its 20th anniversary.
Boldly repurposing the writings of Jean Genet to reflect the concerns of an AIDS-afflicted gay community, “Poison” emerged as one of the definitive works of New Queer Cinema, toying with genre and identity and announcing Haynes’ arrival as a major film artist. The director spoke to indieWIRE about the particular climate surrounding the release of the film, why it couldn’t happen today and the way his original filmmaking community has evolved.
Zeitgeist will rerelease “Poison” on DVD in June. Based on what you’re saying, it sounds like you wouldn’t have been able to make that movie today.
There’s just no way, man. Oh my god. It’s sad but true. In some ways, it’s because the need to make a movie like that, coming out of the AIDS crisis when it did, there was a whole different regard about the lives of people who were gay that we felt at that time. That was the determination for me to make that movie and also for a lot of other filmmakers to produce work that was loosely characterized as New Queer Cinema. It’s because of that necessity, the feeling that this was a means of expression that could be made really pertinent to what was going on in our lives, made me part of that camp. That doesn’t happen all the time and creative media don’t usually have that extra fire motivating them.
The gay relationship story “Weekend,” which premiered at SXSW, was a huge hit. But a lot of people said they were just happy to see a gay movie that was actually good. Why do you think the momentum of New Queer Cinema went away?
Well, that’s interesting to hear. I have to check this film out. It’s just such a different culture today. The kind of things associated with gay people are belonging to mainstream culture, like being gay in the military. I guess, on the most basic level, that’s what New Queer Cinema was all about — legitimately feeling like this epidemic was targeted, this minority was not being seen as a priority. Very basic life-or-death issues were at stake. Along with that, there was a questionable discussion about what it means to be gay and look at the world from an outsider perspective. There’s a value in that. All of us felt this tremendous power in that marginalization. [Jean] Genet, whose work inspired me to make “Poison,” I don’t think he would have had any interest in these exclusion-based politics of contemporary gay culture.
Do you think the original inspiration for “Poison” is still alive in the world today?
I feel like it was a different time, and I was certainly a different person, because the person who was different had more to do with the critical or experimental influences that felt more validated back then. Now, it’s not simple for me to watch “Poison” because of all the people we lost as we made it. There was great emotion and tenderness in “Poison.” It was sort of this love poem to Jim Lyons, who was becoming my boyfriend during that time, and was this romantic object in the film, and was my co-editor — he passed away four years ago. That just makes it so much more intense for me to watch. But he’s so alive in it, almost unbearably alive. But that’s just my own perspective. Certainly, “Poison” meant something specific to that time. I don’t know what it would be like for younger people to see today. I’m really interested in finding out what that would be like, but I would totally understand if the connection were difficult.
There was a documentary at Sundance about the initial AIDS outbreak in San Francisco called “We Were Here” —
Oh, that’s David Weissman’s doc. I just saw him really briefly in San Francisco. We had a little premiere of “Mildred” at the San Francisco Film Society. I’m dying to see his film. I hear it’s getting a really great reaction, and it’s so simple, just the testimonies of a few people. It’s exciting to have it directed at people who need the context and the accessibility. That’s awesome.
With “Poison” coming out on DVD, do you want the discussion of the film to revolve around AIDS perceptions then and now?
It’s maybe the hardest movie I’ve made to separate from my own experience of making it, and from its time and place. My films back then were inspired by social or cultural issues, but they were also experimental narratives, and “Poison” is an extension of things I started looking at with “Superstar.” It’s a different style of storytelling from the standard biopic. I was just excited that it reached a certain level of discussion with all the restrictions around it. It also engaged people emotionally, so they could get past the intellectual experiments, and have discussions about how it’s being told with dolls. People were talking about the narrative perspective. That excited me. With “Poison” I tried it again by taking three different stories and looking at what the different social attitudes or prejudices of them are. I don’t know how people relate to those kind of narrative experiments today. I’m just happy that it turned into this beautiful new transfer on DVD.
Speaking of “Superstar,” I’m watching it right now on YouTube. The clip that I was able to pull up currently has more than 231,000 views. How do you feel about the life this movie, which could not be released due to music rights issues, continues to have?
That’s awesome. That will always be my most famous movie. [laughs] All you have to do is ban something to make sure it’s still out there. The desire for it is exponentially increased.
The “Poison” DVD includes behind-the-scenes polaroids shot by Kelly Reichardt. That was before she had even made her first feature, “River of Grass.” Do you think she could make a similar jump to the television arena?
You know, it’s funny, I saw a trailer for “Cinema Verité” the other day, that miniseries about the shooting of “An American Family.” These projects are things she herself would be interested in doing. She was an amazing creative consultant on this project, just so engaged with it. I was calling her constantly. She watched all the auditions and listened to the audiotapes of the novel. So maybe there are more surprises in Kelly’s future.
It sounds like you’ve kept the same community of filmmakers close to you over the years.
Yeah, Jon Raymond was my friend in Portland who I just met socially before I started to read his work. I met Kelly there as well, and she did “Old Joy” based on his story. Then I introduced her to Michelle Williams after we did “I’m Not There” and they did “Wendy and Lucy.” That was a real positive turn for everybody involved. The Jon-Kelly relationship is very close to me.
What else are you working on?
I have some things in my head that I’ve started to think about, stuff to read over that people have handed me. It’s too fresh to talk about. “Mildred” was hard, a real physical endurance test.