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Todd Haynes Talks ‘Carol,’ Love Stories and Making “Radically Queer” Movies

Todd Haynes Talks 'Carol,' Love Stories and Making "Radically Queer" Movies

At the London Film Festival with his
glorious lesbian love story, “Carol,” Todd Haynes took to the stage for a Screen
Talk with festival director Clare Stewart. She introduced her guest as “a
formally daring filmmaker, an impeccable storyteller, an iconoclast of queer
cinema, one of the most emotionally perspective and intelligent filmmakers
working today.”

Haynes then demonstrated another aspect of
his character: a charming and committed interviewee. Most of the
packed auditorium had seen “Carol,” but rather than focus on the new film, the pair
took a freestyle tour through the American’s career.

On choosing

“It feels so specific to each individual film. In some ways, I try one thing then move in a very different direction. That’s certainly true from ‘Poison,’ which established me within New Queer Cinema, to my second feature film, ‘Safe.’ I remember going to gay film festivals, with people expecting overt gay content in that film and saying, ‘What’s going on here?’ They weren’t expecting a suburban housewife suffering from environmental illness. That raises questions about what is queer filmmaking. Can it be more than content, can it be to do with style and language and the way you look at the world? Detours and turnarounds keep me invigorated and challenged.  But identity is a constant presence, with some of the female characters, and the musicians—the glam rockers in ‘Velvet Goldmine,’ Bob Dylan in ‘I’m Not There,’ people who push up against the confines of identity and in many ways make that their artistic signature.”

On “Superstar:
The Karen Carpenter Story”:

“I’d been talking to a friend. He wanted to make a movie with pets. I wanted to make a movie with dolls! The idea for ‘Superstar’ was an experiment in narrative form that I fashioned out of my college film theory programs. What would happen if you followed a familiar story, carefully and lovingly, but replaced real actors with dolls? Would the same emotional reactions be evoked? Is the emotional response something we bring to a film, or is it the formal, stylistic conventions that trigger the response? I was in a café one day and heard the Carpenters. This was in the Eighties. We all used to feel somehow suspicious of that music, we felt it was manipulating us emotionally. But by then Karen had died of anorexia. The fact that she was really suffering brought more layers to the music.”

On the “radically queer” “Velvet

“Glam rock is so innately theatrical and visual. It’s about dressing up, the instability of identity—sexual identity and identity in general. I thought, this is such a radically queer movie I’m making. But it seemed like the gay community stiffened a bit, they felt it was about bisexuality and mutability and not about the pride of gay identity. The notion of sexual identity as fixed is the cleanest argument when fighting for [tolerant] legislation. But people are afraid of this idea of choice. Choice undermines the essentialist idea of sexual orientation. ‘Velvet Goldmine’ unnerves those safe absolutes. The film was in competition in Cannes. At the screening Brian Eno and Bryan Ferry were sitting behind me. Of course they had fallen out when Eno left Roxy Music. I wanted to watch my film, but I also really wanted to hear what they said behind me!”

On paying homage to Douglas Sirk:
“‘Far From Heaven’ takes place in a tightly defined social setting, where I wanted to pay homage to those extraordinary films by Douglas Sirk, in which there are no villains, no active antagonists, but all it takes is a person stepping out of the strong dictates of their environment to propel them into a series of entrapments. I wanted to create a tangle of different social minorities in a way that forces you to compare their relative status—of the wife, the black gardener, and the husband dealing with his homosexuality. There are surprising differences in the sort of mobility that’s offered to them. And in some strange way it’s the husband who has more freedom, in hiding, and more chance to pursue his desire. The African-American is over-defined by his color—even touching the woman causes panic in those around him. But he gets to leave, ultimately. The woman is at the bottom rung of the hierarchy, saddled with maintaining the institution of family and home.”

On making his first love story with “Carol”
“‘Carol was a gift. It came to me after a long gestation period. Phyllis Nagy had been working on the script for many years. Then it was brought to Cate Blanchett and Sandy Powell. So there was already a pretty impressive battalion of women involved – and I brought a few more, like Christine Vachon, Judy Becker, the production designer, [and] Laura Rosenthal, [who] cast the movie. I did not know Patricia Highsmith’s novel, ‘The Price of Salt’—to the shock of my lesbian friends. It’s a fantastic book. Phyllis’s first version of the script was a beautiful adaptation. What distinguished it from Sirk melodramas and from ‘Mildred Pierce’ is that it is rooted in a singular point of view, of the younger woman. Before it was even a story about lesbian desire, it was a story about desire, the first confusing steps we take in falling in love, and how isolated you are. The tunnel of love. The love story is a genre I had not approached before.”

On discovering the “distressed” New
York of the 1950s

“‘Carol’ is set in New York City in 1952-53. I looked at films from the period for indicators and they did not feel relevant to me. They had a codified way of telling stories at the time that did not feel conducive to this fragile love story. [Cinematographer] Ed Lachman and I looked at photographs of the time, and saw this distressed post-war city, dirty and soiled and struggling, reflecting the disillusion of the Truman era, a period of many insecurities and disquiet. We actually found that many of these photo-journalists were women. Phyllis made Therese not an aspiring set designer, as in the novel, but an aspiring photo-journalist. We were onto something here. The process in which she starts to photograph people, and photographs Carol, is the process through which she is able to see herself in the world.

On Cate Blanchett:
“Cate [Blanchett] understood that her
character was being established through the eyes of [Rooney Mara’s] Therese. So
she had to play the object of desire—and create that incandescent image—but
at the same time the complex woman behind it, the reality. She’s remarkable.”

On working with composers:

“I had the profound, amazing privilege of working
with Elmer Bernstein on the last film he scored [‘Far from Heaven’]. No experience
in my modest career will match that. That man was an inspiration to me. I’ve
worked with Carter Burwell three times now, on ‘Velvet Goldmine,’ ‘Mildred Pierce’
and ‘Carol.’ Working with a composer is a delicate and intense and subtle
process. On ‘Carol’ we found that it was always the simpler direction that made
more sense. He’s created a beautiful score, which is such an essential component
of the film.” 

On challenging his actors:
“There is always a place that they protect, which is something that has to happen in front of the camera, that can’t be talked through or theorized or analyzed. Julianne Moore is a good example. She does not like rehearsals, she really likes to keep guard around that thing. But at the same Julianne has an absolute technical consistency. She can lift the fork to her mouth on the same syllable on every take, so you can cut seamlessly. But she still gives a nuanced variation from take to take. Such spontaneity and emotional presence and technical reliability is phenomenal. But most actors understand that balance on some level. I’ve been such a lucky director. A lot of great stars, who can help get a film financed, want to be challenged and stretched and made afraid again, each time—and that much I can offer them.”

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