Feature photo of Todd Haynes by Gareth Cattermole via Getty Images for BFI
Todd Haynes has never been limited to one queer aesthetic.
From his bold early shorts to his genre-hopping triptych of a debut, from his radically structured music films to his controlled melodramas, Haynes has reinvented his singular voice again and again. To me, he’s proof that “queer” is a perfectly reasonable response to the question: What kinds of films do you make?
The past decade alone Haynes has directed an archival music documentary, a kids movie, a true story about environmental disaster, and a little movie some of you may have seen called Carol. Now, he’s back with one of his best, May December, a complex combination of tones and ideas worthy of its Ingmar Bergman influence. Whether or not his films have queer characters, they all have queer aesthetics and queer interests. As he said to me over Zoom, queerness is not reducible to sexual practice — it’s attitudinal. That attitude is felt in his entire body of work.
Few filmmakers have been as important to me throughout my life as Todd Haynes. Maybe that’s why I broke two of my interviewer rules: never include compliments in the final piece and limit fangirling. I’m sorry, but if the director of Safe and Velvet Goldmine and Carol compliments your hair, you tell the world.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy our conversation about experimentation, working with new collaborators, moral complexity, and queer community. Sometimes it’s good to meet your heroes!
Drew: Hi! I’m so excited to talk to you.
Todd: You have the best hair.
Drew: Oh! Wow. Thank you.
Drew: So I just rewatched Poison and I was really struck by how audacious it is as a debut feature. You recently said you still think of yourself as an experimental filmmaker. When making something like May December, how do you decide when to approach an aspect of the filmmaking from a place of realism and when to bring in more experimentation?
Todd: Well, it’s film-by-film. I can’t talk about it as a general process, because it’s completely informed by the film. But in terms of May December?
Drew: Yeah! I mean, even in the sense of directing the actors toward a certain stylization.
Todd: With this film, I didn’t really direct the actors toward a certain stylization. There are moments of excess — little ruptures in what is mostly a naturalistically performed movie — often marked by the music and meant to signal the extremes of these two women. But the tone of the performances are, in my mind, extremely restrained. People have been talking about the movie as camp and that’s not something that occurred to anyone involved in the making of it.
Now, the music has a very different register than the performances. And, in some ways, so does the formality of the frame. The music is extreme and bold and slaps you across the face and the frame is about as restrained and austere as you can get. It’s a combination of very different tones that come together.
And I might say it’s less that I consider myself an experimental filmmaker and more that every film is an experiment. But they’re all fully — even Poison — fully, even hysterically, engaged in narrative form and conventions. Film after film, in different strategies. Sometimes the style of the acting is artificial on purpose — or, rather, stylized, although I love artifice — like in Velvet Goldmine and in Far From Heaven.
Drew: I wonder how much the music in May December is informing people’s — including my own — experience of the movie and leading to a certain read of tone despite the camerawork and even the performances.
Todd: I mean, the camerawork is experimental in the sense that most movies today don’t hold for seven minutes in a static shot where the characters are looking at the lens of the camera like a mirror. I think experimental may actually be a totally apt term compared to today’s rather conventional and timid filmmaking norms. But in the 50s and 60s this kind of thing wasn’t particularly experimental — it was just something that was being explored. I was definitely looking at movies from Bergman. I was very interested in seeing how that kind of distance and uniformity and removal of the camera could work with this material and with this music.
Drew: How different is your approach to directing when you’ve written the script vs. when you’re working with a screenwriter?
Todd: It’s not that different. Once we’re making the movie, it’s about transforming what’s on the page into a visual language and casting actors who can create these characters. That’s always a subtle, mysterious transition. And whether I wrote it or not, you’ve got to leave it behind and move into the world of what you’re making in front of you — with the crew and with actors and with the camera and with the lenses and with the light and with time. It’s completely its own thing.
Drew: When you’re writing a script yourself, do you start to think of those things?
Todd: I do start to think of those things, but they’re never what you think they’ll be. You have to let them go. And my scripts for the most part all draw from existing films and genres. They draw from the ways we tell stories about artists and musicians and they reference other moments in film history. I feel like they’re already completely interpolated and appropriated from cultural language. So I never think of my films — the ones I’ve written and the ones I haven’t — as authentic personal expression. I think they’re interpretations of existing languages. That’s what excites me.
Drew: I know you worked with a new cinematographer on this film.
Drew: How do you approach working with a new collaborator? Especially when it’s in a position where you’ve been working with the same person for decades.
Todd: On this, I worked with a new DP, Christopher Blauvelt, a new production designer, Sam Lisenco, a new costume designer, April Napier, a new line producer, Jonathan Montepare.
Todd: I’d never worked with Natalie Portman before. It was all new relationships. And we did it for a low-budget and in an incredibly short schedule. At a certain point, I decided the only way to do this was to open up my communication to everybody all at once and bring everybody into what I was thinking. I mean, I do this on other movies too, but this was accelerated. We just had to all be together, in the same space, all the time, talking and communicating, and it made it so fun!
Drew: That’s so cool.
Todd: We didn’t want it to end! It was the most fun I’ve had in such a long time. Well, except cutting The Velvet Underground, because we got to work with all that existing avant-garde cinema and I could get my hands back on the editing machine with Fons and Adam (editors Alfonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz). Because of Covid, we had nothing else to do, and we were quarantined together working on it, so that was really fun too.
But, yeah, May December came at a time in my life when I needed it and it was just great.
Drew: How does your queerness shape your approach to morality? Specifically, when other people tell you that your existence is immoral, how does that shape your approach to a character who you might personally view as immoral? Or, at least, whose actions you might view as immoral?
Todd: I think you have to always hold onto conflicting systems of thought around morality, normalcy, and dominance. Even while still looking out for vulnerable people for whom some moral guidelines and legal guidelines are there to protect.
What’s so interesting to me about this script is the questions about an older person taking advantage of a younger person are persistent throughout the film even though it happened twenty some years ago. She went to jail, served her time, came back, they got married, they raised a family, they stayed together, he’s a devoted father, and the kids seem like they’re going to be okay. You hold all of these moral judgments in check against other realities and other factors and it keeps you completely uncertain.
Drew: What does your personal queer community look like? And how do you think that’s affected your work?
Todd: My connection with gay women is the through-line of my entire life. But my queer community, as a whole, is not reducible to sexual practice. It’s more attitudinal. It’s the way we look at the world and stand outside certain norms.
I have a really special closeness with men who aren’t gay in practice but who were totally formed by queer culture and the queer theory that they studied in college. It feels sort of like how I was informed by feminism. And queer theory and feminism inform each other and postcolonial theory informs both. These are relative discourses we hope keep us on-guard about falling into conventions and pre-set ideas.
But also things are so fucked up these days. The world is vile and things are so terrifying. A lot of the most interesting conversations to do with permutations of sexuality and identity and representation go out the window when you’re looking at Donald Trump or what’s going on right now in the Middle East or the environment. It reduces our complex thinking and our desire and our pleasure into an emergency mode. It’s so extreme we don’t even know we’re going through it because we’re just surviving. The cost is profoundly deep. It’s hard to even see it.
Drew: That leads well into my last question. The past few years, Hollywood has started to turn away from some of their progress in queer storytelling — at least in terms of supporting interesting work, especially interesting work from queer artists.
Your work in the 90’s and the other radical queer work made in the 90’s has always been my personal filmmaking North Star. What do you think the current generation of young queer filmmakers can learn from that time now that more people are having to return to independent cinema and the underground?
Todd: My whole career was forged under the crisis of HIV and AIDS and the panic around queerness and IV drug communities. It put you into that survival mode, but it also created a culture where we questioned and defied everything we were taught to rely on in terms of governments and systems of power.
It’s why I was inspired by writers like Jean Genet who were completely and totally aroused by and made militant by the idea of maintaining a status outside dominant culture. He understood that his very existence represented a direct threat to everything the dominant culture stood for. To me, that was like: RIGHT. YES. YES. The way you might very flatteringly look at the 90’s as an example of something, I looked to writers like Genet. We weren’t telling stories with representations of happy perfect gay people. No way. It was about criminality. It was about queerness as something dangerous that upsets the status quo and keeps people on edge.
I want gay kids to be able to come out and be safe and trans kids to have the space to explore their identities. I want all of those protections. But I also don’t want to yield to the system. It’s tricky because we want to take care of queer people but we also want them to remember the way they threaten those around them is something to be valued. We can learn tremendous amounts from our place as outsiders.
Drew: Yes! Thank you. And really just… Thank you. Your films… You and Almodóvar were the two filmmakers when I was a kid where I could get away with watching your work and be like, “I’m not queer, I’m just artsy.”
Drew: “I’m just watching art films and that’s why I’m watching gay sex.” So truly thank you.
Todd: (laughs) That’s great. I love that.
May December is now in theatres. It will stream on Netflix December 1.