By Ali Moosavi.
I think on the one hand love is the way we enter into relationships which organize and structure our lives and come with the society either condoning of those choices or social opposition to them…. But also Roland Barthes the French writer and theorist wrote a lover’s discourse and theorizes the ways the lover is sort of a crazy person, an outlaw whose desires put them outside of society inherently. That’s the truth and so that felt an interesting way to look at the love story….”
Todd Haynes is one of the most talented and respected of contemporary American directors. He has established his own unique style with films such as Far from Heaven, Carol, and now May December; all of which have women as the main protagonists and focus on issues faced by women. He has never been afraid of innovation and experimentation, from his early short film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which he made using Barbie dolls to having multiple actors, men and women, portray Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. He has tackled Glam Rock in Velvet Goldmine and made a documentary about The Velvet Underground. Perhaps his most atypical film was Dark Waters, a Seventies style conspiracy thriller. He frequently collaborates with Julianne Moore, who also features in his latest film May December, along with Natalie Portman. Like Carol, May December has two women at the centre of the story. I spoke to Todd Haynes at the San Sebastian International Film Festival, where he had come to promote May December.
You show a very deep understanding of the psyche and characteristics of women. Where does that come from?
It started with my mom and the women in my life who were formative and then it developed into a love of other film makers and films that focus on women and women’s stories and settings and a very unique and surprising history of just women on film through the history of film. In the 1930s women dominated the box office in Hollywood filmmaking and very challenging, disturbing characters were portrayed by Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and so many remarkable women. That changed in the 40s and changed again in the 50s and changed again in the 60s and so you find a unique parallel history of the way women are depicted in movies that accompanies the history of the movies and that’s just always been inspiring to me and something that I continue to learn from.
Any specific directors which inspired you?
Oh yeah! Many, but the ones just along these themes would be of course Douglas Sirk and Fassbinder and the unique way that the domestic melodrama and the films of the 1950s, which put women back in the house and suppressed their freedoms as characters. Those films also described the social constraints and created ways of talking about the society in ways that maybe women being depicted as fierce and powerful, doesn’t necessarily address. So some of that depiction of repression was something that particularly interested Fassbinder, Sirk and myself.
Is your new movie May December based on a real story?
Yes, it’s inspired by a true scandal that occurred in the United States in the 90s, the Mary Kay Letourneau scandal, a teacher who fell in love with a 13 year old boy who was a student of hers. This was in Washington State and it became a huge thing. I wasn’t closely following it when it happened but it was clear that Samy Burch’s script was kind of playing with that as the material but really making it her own version. What I loved about her script is that she set the whole story to twenty years after the scandal had occurred, because what you see is how this family has built a wall around itself to protect it from the onslaught of the tabloid consumer-culture, media culture and they’ve had to be like in a bunker. This gives Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), who’s the actress who is coming to research who Gracie (Julianne Moore) was 20 years ago, all of this stuff to navigate through, to chip away and try to find out who Gracie really was, and that creates all this dramatic tension that you have to get past. It also shows the way people fall into choices in life that they’re not persuaded to question and that’s the way we all survive.
This is your fifth movie with Julianne Moore; what are her special qualities?
She’s a genius! Her special quality is that she is a supreme master artist of cinema and she’s also a dear friend and a partner, but I still learn from her. There are things she’ll do in the room that I won’t even fully see until I see the film. She understands the lens, the camera, and she knows how to hold back and provoke the spectator to fill in the holes and it brings in the incredible powers of the spectator. It gives us something to do and it gives us a way to fill in the spaces which is also something I like to do as a director.
Some of your films were from original scripts written by you and others were either original scripts by others or adaptations of books such as Carol and Mildred Pierce. Is there much difference in how you turn these different scripts into movies?
You know, in the end it’s not that different. Of course, when you’re writing a script and developing the script, you are visualizing it as you go, but you’re still on the page, and there’s a point where you have to go off the page and really commit to and materialize what images are for the film. That process is a dividing line from the page to images and to planning a production. I’ll show you, I brought it because it’s a nice tool. (Brings out a photo album filled with photos from a number of movies, including Sunset Boulevard, The Graduate, Persona, Manhattan, Le Femme Infidele). This is what I do for every movie. I make an “image book” and this the May December image book. Whatever the film is, it’s drawing from other films, photographers, painters, and then even just the way the images develop visually becomes a template for how the film will be visualized and the progression of the story. I had a retrospective at the Pompidou Centre in Paris this May before Cannes and they asked for an original film, an original work, and Goddard died right in pre-production on May December, and I already knew we’re going to do something that would be kind of a meditation on the making of May December for the Pompidou film, and we had very little time to shoot May December, and so my film is called Image Book and it uses this as a sort of structure for the short film bringing in passages from the two women from Bergman’s Persona, the story that Bibby Anderson tells about having sex with the two boys on the beach and the three Asian actors recite a passage from Godard’s Two or Three things I Know About Her, such a fucking gorgeous passage, so we shot all those things while we shot the movie.
It’s always about finding a visual language, whether it’s an original script or somebody else’s script. That exists in a world of images. When I’m looking for what images seem to make sense to me, I’m looking at films that feel relevant or feel like they’re part of a continuum. With Carol it was really looking at the tradition of the love story in movies, how they’re structured, how famous love stories work, on the different ways you feel aligned with the more vulnerable person in the love story and how that can change. In Carol that changes from the Rooney Mara character who’s in the more vulnerable position to Carol (Cate Blanchett) at the end of the movie who’s in the more vulnerable position and that’s why I was inspired by Brief Encounter which begins and ends with the same scene but seen from the outside in and then later from the inside out. That was a change in the script of Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation of the book that made sense to my desire to bring the love story back. I’m always learning, I’m learning every time I want to be in a place I haven’t been in before and learn new things. So for me it was like studying the love story as a genre in that case.
You deal with different types of love and different aspects of love in your films.
I think on the one hand love is the way we enter into relationships which organize and structure our lives and come with the society either condoning of those choices or social opposition to them and you watch how individuals have to navigate their love around the society. But also Roland Barthes the French writer and theorist wrote a lover’s discourse and theorizes the ways the lover is sort of a crazy person, an outlaw whose desires put them outside of society inherently. That’s the truth and so that felt an interesting way to look at the love story, and Carol in particular. But many of my films are about the entrenchment of family and the domestic life in which love has gone away and what you’re left with is the structures and the choices that you’ve made as a result of trying to find love and maybe not finding it where you thought it would be.
It is interesting though to keep looking at the same theme but in different ways.
Yeah, totally. Fassbinder said all the greatest film makers just make the same movie over and over again. There is a way of course I could say that about things about my movies too. Hitchcock made the same film over and over again but every adventure for Hitchcock was new and so he was focused on what was different about each movie. The different setting, the different locale, the different way to play with the camera, the different way into the protagonists’ relationship to being made culpable, being made to feel like a criminal. So sometimes the very thing that makes an artist work feel coherent is the thing they themselves don’t see in their work.
Can you talk about your working relationship with Christine Vachon, which has continued from your first movie to now?
She studied films and we were at college together. One of the reasons why I was exposed to Douglas Sirk in relationship to Fassbinder was that there was a feminist analysis of cinema that was emerging in the 70s and we went to college right after that. So it was very fresh and it put a framework around how certain films and genres were being looked at, like a second generation of auteur theory. We started to look at directors like Sirk who had not been taken particularly seriously by critics, but were taken very seriously by directors like Fassbinder and reexamined, particularly by feminist film critics in the 70s. So we both came with this. Christine was already making films herself in college. We were both making films, but she was making short films after she graduated. But when Christine saw my short film about Karen Carpenter, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, my Barbie film! The real Barbie, let’s be very clear here!, she said that’s the kind of movie that I want to make and I want to produce your movies, starting with your next film. Our next film was our first feature film, Poison and we’ve directed and produced every single film since.
Have you seen Greta Gerwig’s Barbie?
I haven’t seen it yet. I just haven’t had time, I’m going to two-month tour right now that’ll turn into a six month one. I really want to see it. I just saw Natalie Portman in at Paris and she loves it more than anybody I’ve talked to, because she is like a little girl who says: mom, what’s patriarchy?! I love Greta Gerwig and I’ve such regard for her. Between Taylor Swift and Greta Gerwig, women are infusing the economy and taking control of the discourse and that’s great!
What a single movie experience does, it’s almost like a dream that you have and that your unconscious is packaging in your head and compressing ideas and desires into signs and symbols and having things have double and triple meanings. In a way the form is more apparent in a single movie than an episodic series where the form loosens up.”
In May December one of your main focuses is duplicity, in some ways also multiplicity just like I’m Not There, why are you so interested in these concepts?
It’s hard to be too general about that. I guess models of identity are often very singular and we’re asked to find who we are and stay there and stick to it and become that thing or fit into that category or that label. I’ve been interested in ways that identity as a singular idea is disturbed and challenged and sometimes in ways that the character does not feels it’s destabilizing and painful like some of the domestic stories that surround female characters. In other cases, breaking open the idea of singular identity has been liberating like in some of the artistic subjects about Glam Rock or Bob Dylan for instance. But I think all the way through there’s an interest in breaking open the idea of singular identity and sometimes singular sexual identity and racial identity.
What’s your relationship with Glam Rock and that era?
Watch my movie, and you’ll know my relationship! In England it was more of a mainstream pop thing.
I interviewed Jonathan Rhys Meyers and he said: Glam Rock was an antithesis to the post war England that was still full of drab, burned out and broken buildings. People were thinking that these people are weirdos but the kids loved it because it was the antithesis to the boring black suit. Basically, art has to shock people to progress.
Yes, for sure. That’s absolutely true. That’s beautifully stated, I couldn’t improve on that. I think that androgyny has always played a part in popular culture and in music culture and film culture from Valentino and Josephine Baker and Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley and The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. All of those artists used androgyny to attract, and I think it’s the androgyny of The Beatles and the Stones that made little girls go completely crazy. It came from another planet and David Bowie made coming from another planet literally part of the idea. So teenagers already feel like they’re on another planet and what was really cool about Glam Rock is that it invited the fan, the teenager, into the process. So you had to put on the makeup and dress up too. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a product of the Glam era, the Glam moment, totally, and it was the only movie we can imagine that you dress up and you go to the theater and you act it out with the screen on the theater. It’s completely participatory so that was also part of Glam Rock. That’s what Velvet Goldmine is about. It’s how the fan, the Christian Bale character is brought into the story.
How do you compare the original Mildred Pierce which was made in the studio system of the Forties, to your Mildred Pierce made in 2011 as a limited series?
I love the compression. What a single movie experience does, it’s almost like a dream that you have and that your unconscious is packaging in your head and compressing ideas and desires into signs and symbols and having things have double and triple meanings. In a way the form is more apparent in a single movie than an episodic series where the form loosens up. I don’t consider one more modern or more superior to the other. I just think form is lost a bit in the episodic. That said, I read the book of Mildred Pierce right after the recession and the fact that the book was really about the entire decade of the 30s and the John Crawford / Michael Curtiz film not only compressed it all into a single story, but it reimposed a murder theme to it and made it more like James M Cain’s other prior books. He was trying very hard to do something different and tell a third person that narrative about this woman and her daughter, like Madame Bovary tell a bourgeois story of the middle class woman struggling to maintain her family life and that was changed by the compression of the Curtiz film and I think James M Cain saw it and didn’t like what they had done to it. But I think it’s a fantastic film. It’s a great film and it’s a product of all of these powerful forces which Hollywood imposes on the form and I like that. I think that’s really interesting.
Does having backers like Netflix make any significant changes to the way you make your film?
We were very happy with Netflix’s offer. It’s the first time I’ve ever gone to a festival without a distributor, and this is also a film that we made for very little money. We shot May December in 23 days. It’s probably the shortest schedule I’ve ever had on a movie. We just did it with a few foreign presales and equity investors. But in a funny way it felt liberating to do it with such limited time and money. It meant everybody who was involved had to just come and give everything to the movie. I also worked with a lot of new people on this movie. Chris Blauvelt shot the movie, I’ve never worked with Chris before, Sam Lisenco designed the movie, first time for me, April Napier did the costumes for the first time and that brought a lot of fresh energy to the experience. We had such a good time making the movie that I’ve didn’t even care if the movie was going to come out.
You’re always fitting into a schedule, into a budget. I’ve never been in this situation. I hear people talk about doing Marvel movies where there’s no script and there’s millions of dollars pouring in and you just making it up as you go along. I’m like wow, I wouldn’t know what that would be like. It’s always very planned, very organized, very hectic, intense, whether it’s been with Amazon or it’s been completely independent filmmaking. The most freedom and the most pleasure I’ve had was when I made my Barbie movie with three people in a college where everybody had left and it was just us just putting together the dolls and plugging the arms in the bodies and making all the props and sets and doing the lighting and playing music and smoking a lot of pot! (laughs). It was great fun, but I had great fun on this too.
Have you ever been pressurized by your producers to change things in any aspect of your film making?
Not really, no. The distributor Harvey Weinstein, yes: he said you have to cut out the Richard Gere part in I’m Not There, or you should cut this or you should try this cut. I would say thanks but no thanks and then he would be like OK we’re just going to dump your movie; we’ll distribute it but we are not really going to get behind your movie. That’s just like what happens; I’m not going to change my movie for Harvey or anybody. What I’ll do is I’ll listen to audiences. When we’re cutting a movie, we have a lot of screenings and we get notes and I read them and they impact the cut of the movie. Then we make our choices. But you still have to interpret what people are saying. They might say something I don’t really agree with but there’s something behind what they’re saying that matters. So we’ll find our own solution and it’s important to listen.
What can you tell us about your next film, which you are making with Joaquin Phoenix?
It’s going to be different and it’s hard to talk about it to too much right now because it’s still in its early stage. But it’s a love story. There’s a strong sexual component to it. It’s about two very unlikely people in an interracial relationship, at very different stations in life, but it ultimately it is a love story or it takes them almost the whole movie to get to the love part.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).