Todd Haynes is nothing if not versatile. He made his name in 1991 with his Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner “Poison,” a highly stylized queer activist hybrid told in three unconnected strands. He’s directed only five more projects, but each has been more ambitious and unexpected than the last.
Before exploring the mythology of Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There” and paying tribute to Douglas Sirk with “Far From Heaven,” Haynes made “Velvet Goldmine,” a passionate and messy love letter to the 1970s glam rock era.
The 1998 film, starring Christian Bale, Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Toni Collette, world premiered to rave notices in Cannes where it netted a Special Jury Award. However, it failed to translate that early hype into critical praise and box office success stateside where it opened to lukewarm reviews and tepid grosses. Nevertheless, “Velvet Goldmine” has gone on to garner its own fanbase over the years, as evidenced by today’s anticipated Blu-ray debut of the film.
We caught up with Haynes’ longtime producing partner Christine Vachon, to talk about the experience of revisiting “Velvet Goldmine” many years later, and why the film didn’t initially catch on the way she had hoped.
Looking back, what does “Velvet Goldmine” represent to you?
Well, it was the third movie I made with Todd Haynes, it was the first film that we made overseas and it was such an extraordinarily big production on so many levels in terms of the demands of costume, production design, and hair and makeup. And the musical element was just huge. I’d never attempted anything like it before. It was kind of like producing a film and a music extravaganza at the same time.
Todd had never attempted anything like this before. Were you surprised when he came to you with the project?
The great thing about Todd is that he really doesn’t make the same movie twice. It wasn’t like “Safe” bore any similarities to “Poison.” And “Velvet Goldmine,” in a way, was like the anti-“Safe.” “Safe” was so controlled and was about these stark and stale surfaces, and “Velvet Goldmine” was so explosive.
What gave you the confidence that he could pull it off?
I think it’s more what gave me the confidence that I could do it. Todd’s so good at what he does; I don’t think I ever hesitated for a second whether or not he would be able to pull this off. I was more concerned about whether I’d be able to support him the way that he needed to be supported.
Did you see the film’s cult potential when you optioned the script?
I don’t know if anyone ever goes into a movie saying, “I’m going to make a cult film.” When the movie came out and didn’t do terrific, it was right at the time when the Internet was really starting to take hold. I was just starting to go online and look for things like mentions of my movies and stuff like that. I started to notice that “Velvet Goldmine” was being written about and talked about online. Todd’s movies have always had their fanbase, but they were always very much about Todd. The fans that I was seeing building up around “Velvet Goldmine,” they didn’t even know who Todd was. They were all about the movie and the characters and which lines came from where. The way they wrote about it and the fan fiction that they wrote; it was really quite extraordinary.
Were you surprised at how it didn’t fare well with the majority of critics Stateside, or audiences for that matter, after premiering so successfully at Cannes?
At Cannes it did very well. It was awarded a Special Jury Prize. Martin Scorsese was on the jury, which obviously meant a lot to Todd. And he made a point to come up to Todd at the end of the movie to tell him how much it meant to him and how inspiring it was.
You know, look –it’s been a long time and there’s no point in rehashing. No filmmaker thinks that his or her film didn’t do well for any other reason than some mistake was made along the way. So the idea that a movie didn’t do well simply because people didn’t want to see it, is unheard of. I felt like Miramax bought the movie and didn’t quite realize what they were buying. It didn’t go out very wide. I went out on about 75 screens I believe. I think for whatever reason, its core audience didn’t know about it.
What was it like attending the Oscars with this film and having your nominated costume designer, Sandy Powell, win for another movie (“Shakespeare in Love”)?
That’s right. But she thanked “Velvet Goldmine,” so everyone thought she won for that. I’ll take that, my ‘not really’ Oscar win.
What was it like doing the audio commentary for this release with Todd by your side?
You know, it was just really great. I hadn’t seen the movie in a long time. Todd had really prepared, as he always does, and it’s so rich as a result. He felt like he owed a lot to the fans of the movie that have really stuck with it for so long. He talked about why certain scenes were constructed the way they were. I was really remembering a lot of the physical production, because it was a very difficult film to make.
But also, what an extraordinary cast. It was amazing to look back and see Christian Bale when he was 19.
A lot was made about the fact that David Bowie declined to have his music featured in the film. Do you know if he’s seen it since?
I have no idea. We tried to get his music and he refused. So it goes. But I believe he was vocal on some of his websites about not liking the movie, but I don’t remember at this point.