On the occasion of the screening of his latest film “Carol,” starring Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, Todd Haynes was invited by the Zurich Film Festival to participate in a masterclass.
Since his directorial feature debut, the science fiction drama “Poison,” garnered the main award at Sundance in 1991, Haynes has earned more than 46 international awards, including the Special Jury Prize at Cannes for his glam rock homage “Velvet Goldmine” (1998), the Special Jury Prize at the Mostra in Venice for his Bob Dylan biopic “I’m Not There” and an Academy Award nomination for “Far from Heaven” (2002).
During the discussion at the Zurich Film Festival, he answered questions about his varied and illustrious career as well as about “Carol,” which is widely considered to be an awards contender. Here are some of the highlights:
1. He’s ventured on the other side of the camera too.
“I did do a little acting in high-school and college, and that was pretty much it. I did a couple of commercials when I was a kid, three in fact. For McDonalds.”
2. His early years led him to think he’d pursue a career in academia.
“There were many phases to my evolution towards being a director,” he said. “I think as a young person I was immediately affected by the power of movies, especially by certain films I saw in my pre-teen years such as ‘The Graduate’ and, a little later, ‘Midnight Cowboy.’ The sort of films imbued with an extremely strong directorial point of view, in which the camera is used in interesting ways, editorially as well. My college years then exposed me to more experimental traditions or avant-garde traditions, and by the time I finished college, I think I was assuming that my work and the kind of things that interested me would not necessarily equate with a career as a director, even less in narrative film. I saw certain teachers who were more experimental filmmakers, who worked in academia and supported their livelihood that way, and that seemed to me like a more than viable outcome.”
3. Technical advancements have allowed directors to be lazier when setting up the camera.
“I do feel like the fact that so many visual mechanisms and technical advancements such as CGI are at our disposal as a director has made us think less about where the camera is and why it’s there at all. Strangely enough, when there’s such a panoply of technical options available to directors today, instead what you find is almost a lack of consideration with regard to the camera. Most movies today are shot handheld, on digital, where you just keep the film rolling, you let the actors improvise, and you move around the room and make all the editorial decisions in the editing room later on. That’s true for singular and well-considered movies that you see on the arthouse circuit as well as dramatic schlock television, sort of across the board. I think it can be done with consideration and thought, but far too often it is the go-to recourse: a pre-set mode of how you visualize cinema.”
4. Unprecedented access to cinema has led to a disinterest in film history.
‘[Disinterest in cinema] is distressing, it’s distressing to people who love film, for people who love film history, and see film history as a continuum and a series of reactions to and from various modes of filmmaking and periods of film, especially when you consider the plethora of information available to young people today. I remember being a kid and having a fantasy, that you could go to a store and it would have all the movies in the world and you could say, ‘I want to watch that movie’ and they would hand it to you over the counter. That was to me a fantasy of unrivalled proportions, it was an amazing dream. I feel it does something about desire when there is no scarcity and it does something about curiosity. It’s exactly the opposite of what you would think, because instead of stoking a hunger, it’s a vertiginous feeling of not knowing where to start, and so we don’t.”
5. … and the solutions lies with critics and tastemakers.
“Remember I grew up in the era of revival cinema where you got a printed schedule for the next month and every single night was a different double bill. Somebody else was making those choices, there was a curatorial aspect sort of like when we go to school and the teacher gives you a syllabus of books to read. It helps you orientate your own taste and your own exposure in the form of a guide. I lived in those theaters, that was the beginning of my cinematic education, and it’s just not the same thing when you have to do it yourself.”
6. He has little time to watch films and his guilty pleasure is middle-brow.
“No god no, I’m so behind the mass of stuff everybody’s supposed to watch and all the dramatic shows that everyone recommends. I try to watch a portion of what’s new and because I like to feel engaged in the contemporary discourse about film, but just as important is catching up with classics, historical films and great art cinema. My partner is a film buff fanatic, cineaste, encyclopedia so he’s always showing me shit that’s amazing and what’s great is his preference is for the very high-brow and the very low-brow, so he’ll watch the most experimental cinema from Japan in the 1960s and then he’ll watch the Kardashians, whereas my weakness is middle-brow, so we cover all the ground.”
7. He thinks actors and actresses appreciate him because he gives them complex roles.
“A lot of actors want to stretch themselves, challenge themselves, seek the sort of roles they may not find in mainstream, bigger budget productions. That, I feel, is more often than not what I’ve been able to offer a lot of extraordinary actors, men and women. I’m incredibly lucky because it’s been a mutual relationship where the participation by some name actors has helped my films get financed, has helped progress and expand their catalogue of performances and what we think they’re capable of. One example is my film ‘I’m Not There’ for which we needed six actors to play all those central roles, but there was no way to get a film that experimental made without Richard Gere first saying: ‘I want to take part in this film.’ And then also: ‘yes I’ll do it for that little amount of money.’ It takes an extraordinary leap of faith, but I think they all benefited from it. Cate Blanchett got to play a role the likes of which she might never be asked to play again, and it was scary for her. That’s what all challenging and fruitful endeavours are: scary.”
8. Haynes is a meticulous planner when it comes to the look and style of his films.
“I would say that in all my films there’s a process that I go through of trying to find the visual language for the film and most of my films are stories that I’ve developed myself from the onset, unlike ‘Carol.’ But in that developing process, there’s a point where if I can’t see it, then I am not there yet, I haven’t really done my work yet. Usually that coincides with a fairly ambitious process of culling images and references, from photography, painting and largely other films that help to specify the look that I’m going for. I put together an image book for all my films, and it’s a painstaking process with which I tend to get a little nerdy about, a little preoccupied. But it helps me, it’s part of the working-out mechanism that helps me be as specific as I can. That’s really what all the creative departments are looking for: specificity. So with ‘Far From Heaven,’ that book reflected largely on the work of Douglas Sirk, melodramas and the 1950s in America, the Eisenhower era, In ‘I’m Not There,’ it was a sort of catalog of cinematic references from the decade of the 1960s, which became a template for each of the different stories in the film, so that they could be distinguishable, unique in look, tone, and style. References for ‘Carol’ were more documentary photojournalistic, early ’50s NYC, and a lot of the color photography being done at the time. In other words, not filtered through the cinema of the time as much as the research, and photojournalism and art photography being done by photographers in NYC in color.”
9. He thinks Rooney Mara is the bomb.
“I’d seen all these remarkable performances in this fairly young career, but she often played pretty tough characters. The first that comes to mind is ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,’ which couldn’t be further from the role of Therese in ‘Carol.’ Sodebergh’s movie ‘Side Effects’ with her also showed that, but you’re watching her under a compromised state, under the influence of medication, fighting depression, and I started to see a glimmer of this character [Therese] who’s virtually an unformed subject at the beginning of ‘Carol’ and you kind of slowly watch her coming into view, into focus, mostly to herself let alone to us viewers. By the end of the film she really changes, you watch this transformation quite remarkably in the space of the four months that the film covers. I had some feeling that she knew exactly what to do with that role, and yet when I watch it now I think: how did we know that? It’s something that I hadn’t seen her do it before and I was just floored by the experience: what she brings to the preparation process, and to the set. Very much like Cate, she is prepared and intelligent, conscientious, hardest on herself, kind to the people around her. She’s a great creative partner on set.”
10. He thinks test screenings are invaluable.
“For me, you cannot underestimate the importance of screenings starting with that handful of friends and colleagues, but broadening out to people you don’t know. We do a series of screenings and we get people to write about their experience watching the movie and it’s invaluable, it’s essential. That doesn’t mean that everything they say is a problem, a concern or something that we implement directly, but it often results in changes to your cut and the experience of watching your film. Often that means giving up or losing your favorite scene or your most cherished moment. The whole experience is really what matters. For example, there were some severe changes to the structure of ‘Carol,’ at least with regard to the final party scene that Therese goes to, which played a bigger role in the original script. We realized it wasn’t supporting the time on film that we had allotted to it, and it was a great note, and it was a consensus that we kept getting. So you have to be tough on it, you have to be able to hate the thing you love, and just be kind of cold-blooded.”
11. He’s interested in female-led movies because…
“I tend to find ‘normalcy’ and how we’re expected to succumb to limits more interesting than people who break them and cross them. That’s perhaps what interests me in melodrama and stories that often employ female characters is that they are almost by definition non-escapist stories. They are burdened with the constraints and pressures of culture and that, I feel, speaks more to all our experiences than genres more associated with male characters, who often come across limitless territories or live in complete freedom.”
12. He can’t believe Carter Burwell hasn’t won more awards.
“I first worked with Burwell on my film ‘Velvet Goldmine’ in 1998. Then I worked with him on ‘Mildred Pierce’ for which he won his only major award, believe it or not. Carter has scored every Coen Brothers film and many, many other remarkable films. He’s never put himself out into the publicity world of all that crap, to his credit, but this time he’s really going to do it. He’s hired a publicist and it makes me incredibly happy because I feel it’s such a beautiful piece of work and he deserves the attention that his whole career justifies. His scores for the Coen Brothers contain a lyricism and a melodic component that creates a counterpoint to that cold, brilliant, acute way of the directors have of visualizing those films. I love that about them. With ‘Mildred Pierce’ and ‘Carol,’ that lyricism innate in his work doesn’t serve as counterpoint to the same degree. ‘Carol’ is filled with a lot of repressed emotions and desires and the music gives voice that can’t always be said in words or actions.”
13. He’s constantly experimenting.
“All my films have been experiments, things that I haven’t done before in terms of form and style, even if they repeat some generic interests like female characters or suburbian settings. For the most part, they’ve all been things I felt hadn’t been done or seen before in such a way. I recently realized that it’s taken my whole career to just get to naturalism, which I explore in both ‘Mildred Pierce’ and ‘Carol.’ Most people probably start there, but it’s never really been my stylistic approach to telling stories. It took all of those bigger experiments to trust a quieter narrative language.”