Todd Haynes
Photo by Natalie Behring © Getty Images

Todd Haynes: “You have to be alone to be inspired”

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Short Profile

Name: Todd Haynes
DOB: 2 January 1961
Place of birth: Portland, Oregon, United States
Occupation: Film director, screenwriter

Mr. Haynes, what drove you to make movies?

I was lucky enough to be exposed to film, art, literature, culture, and then told, “Yes, you can do that too.” It’s not something that everybody's circumstances allow for. Everybody has their own unique hurdles and boundaries to achieve that, but I do think it takes somewhere, some fairy Godmother or somebody, telling you that you have the right to try and to give it a shot. I came out of a sort of experimental background and I didn't ever really expect, or even desire a career as a feature filmmaker.

What were you going for?

I felt I would have the most creative freedom making experimental films and teaching; I had many good examples of people around me who did just that. Feature filmmaking just seemed like it wasn’t a practical ambition for the kinds of work that interested me at the time, but what pushed me in the end was circumstance and the kind of events that you find yourself confronting that are both obstacles and challenges.

“It ignited a cultural moment. It’s not always the case that that's why films get made but it certainly was at that time.”

Like in the case of your first film, Poison, the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Right, it created a crisis that forced a lot of artists and filmmakers and activists to take a stand and speak out and do something. It was about saving your own life and making your life matter, saying, “My life matters to the government.” It ignited a cultural moment. It’s not always the case that that's why films get made and art gets made but it certainly was at that time. I was in the company of other people who felt the same way, who were also making movies, and so it got dubbed the “New Queer Cinema.” People might have looked at that term cynically at different times but there was a reason for it.

You mean because of the government’s reaction to the genre early on?

With Poison, I’m sure some people just hated the movie, but it also got caught up into a debate about arts funding because it was a film that received a National Endowment for the Arts Public Grant and it won the prize at the Sundance Film Festival. And so it made headlines. The headline read: “Gay Film Wins Prize at Sundance Film Festival Paid For by Your Tax Dollars.”

And this was during a very hostile point in the American experience around queerness, right?

Right, this was during the height of gay panic around HIV. So the Republicans came on board and Don Wildmon of the American Family Association made a big stink about a series of public arts issues — the NEA Four, the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition — and in almost every case it was gay representation that was really at the core of it. He was saying that American taxpayers should not have to pay for the arts because it’s paying for this kind of “controversial material” to be promoted. All the more so, in a film that could be shown in in theaters across the country.

So the impact was much greater.

Exactly, and so it brought a great deal of attention to Poison right away, which the publicists loved and the distributors were happy about. I knew that this was an important debate so I had to keep on going on TV and debating Republicans about arts grants and arts financing.It was a fine discussion to have and I was happy to have it, but it wasn’t about the film. The film had a lot to say about AIDS and gay people and gay bodies and being cast as an outsider in your society and what that meant — that’s really why I made the movie, of course.

A scene from Todd Haynes' Safe starring Julianne Moore (1995)

Many of your other films, like Safe, and Far From Heaven take on similar themes of loneliness and isolation.

I think I've been drawn to characters who have to confront isolation, who have to confront obstacles or barriers, who are being sort of excluded from their societies in various ways, yeah. And yet sometimes that isolation is completely in the comfortable bosom of middle class life, where you don't expect to find isolation.

What about your pop culture films like your Bob Dylan biopic, I’m Not There, or Velvet Goldmine, which is about the glam rock era. Would you say that those fall under a similar theme?

Those are really films of defiance! And maybe that’s raising the flag of isolation, saying, “We are different!” Even Dylan is somebody who as soon as he got beloved and accepted, he would say no and reject the audience that he created and risk alienation because it's where the artistic feed comes. You have to sort of feel as though you're looking at the world from the outside in. Maybe that’s something about myself as well, that you have to kind of be alone and be isolated to be inspired.

Is that how you feel in Hollywood?

Well, it requires a certain amount of resources to get a film made, especially when it’s not it's not a franchise movie or it's not going to be a big studio production. My new film, Wonderstruck, for example, fit into this strange in-between that only Amazon could provide.

“I'm a lover of cinema, and I don’t want that to completely expire.”

Were you worried about working with a corporate company when your career has been mostly independent?

I know that they want the best for Wonderstruck. They are part of this new era but they are also devoted. Their mandate at the moment is that they really believe in creating film, drawing from that independent world of filmmakers — in fact, their staff are all people from indie movies, whom we know them very well. So, it's really, really cool smart people who are very film literate who are running the show right now at Amazon. And you don't know how long these things are going to last, but it's a good moment to be there. They want to keep the theatrical window as part of that experience.

It must be interesting to see how the seeds you’ve planted over the years with independent filmmaking has influenced wider American cinema.

I think there are things you can locate for good or bad, and we all have our feelings about it. If we are talking about today, you see a lot of independent filmmakers ending up in the world of cable and streaming and television. I myself have explored long-form television on HBO and I hope to continue to do projects like that. But for a while it felt like the only place you could tell darker stories with more sinister central characters was on cable not on the big screen. Now we have a much more competitive landscape, where a lot more is possible. So, I think when creative vitality can exist, that’s all really good. I'm a lover of cinema, and I don’t want that to completely expire.