Some view Todd Haynes' latest film, the environmental docudrama Dark Waters, as a departure for the director of Far From Heaven and Carol. In careful collaboration with his longtime cameraman Ed Lachman, Haynes conveys the steadfast conviction and desolate isolation of his hero, Robert Billott (Mark Ruffalo), who engineers a yearslong class-action lawsuit against DuPont while fighting parallel battles against his own law firm and his skeptical wife (Anne Hathaway).
While it’s true that the material was developed at a studio and came to Haynes later in the process, there’s a sincere auteurist case to be made for Dark Waters, which is, to me, a paranoid thematic bookend to Safe. It is as subtly revealing of the behavioral codes contriving our society—and the singleminded courage it takes to break through the status quo—as any of his masterful melodramas.
I spoke to Mr. Haynes ahead of Metrograph’s Members Only preview screening of Dark Waters.
Austin Dale: I’m not sure if you know, but at Metrograph, we show Carol every year at Christmas, and we show it on 35mm. I heard that it’s the only print that was ever struck.
Todd Haynes: Is it looking like shit?
Austin Dale: No, no! It’s always well received. I spoke to someone who said watching it on 35mm is like watching an entirely different movie.
Todd Haynes: The DP, Ed Lachman, and I paid to have the print struck, so there would at least be one print for people to screen in the US. I think there was one other print struck over in the UK. It must live over there somewhere. Unfortunately, I'll probably be on the west coast for Christmas, but I'd love to see it.
Austin Dale: You grew up in Los Angeles. What were your first memories of the movies?
Todd Haynes: Mary Poppins was the first movie I saw, and it completely blew my mind. It was the movie but it was also "the movies.” It was the experience of seeing a movie, no doubt. There was a delirium that set in that instigated an obsessive reaction to that film, wherein I had to kind of replicate the experience in my own hands. I had to. I was three, but I just kept drawing pictures of Mary Poppins and acting out the songs, and dressing up my mom and my grandmother as Mary Poppins. I just had to. It was a repetition compulsion, where I had to keep kind of replaying it, but it triggered a visceral creative response that I had to replicate, and that would continue with other films that would demarcate phases of my childhood, I guess.
Austin Dale: What was the next phase after that?
Todd Haynes: Romeo and Juliet, the Zeffirelli film, when I was seven in 1968. I think it also touched some erotic, fantastic kind of sensual shock. You see Juliet's bosom for a moment, and you see Leonard Whiting's naked buttocks.
In those days, kids would walk up and down the streets of a city barefoot. They were hippies. And I remember there were girls who were sitting in front of us, with long dark hair parted in the middle. It was a source of pride how black the bottoms of your feet could get walking the city streets, and they were barefoot in the movie theater with their feet up on the chair. When Romeo kills himself, they were just in convulsive tears. There was something about that movie that connected it to the counterculture of the time, apparently, at the time, but it also made a big impact on me. I got very obsessed.
I made my first film as a kid when I was nine years old: a version of Romeo and Juliet where I played all the parts. I finally got a friend to play Juliet, but I did a test that my mom shot in Super-8, in double exposure, where I am first dressed up as Romeo in one side of the frame and then pop on the other half of the frame as Juliet.
At that stage I wasn't yet understanding the cinematic language, and the ways that I would want to partake in that. A little later, other films would start to describe the power of the frame: what's excluded from the frame, what's included in the frame—The Graduate or something—and the way that film works and the kind of minimalism of reduction of what's visible. And how that describes the subject and the characters in that movie in the really cinematic way that excited me to a degree of almost inconsolable kind of itching about what the frame could do. It made me want to make movies, it made me want to make art, it made me want to make things.
Austin Dale: Do you still have these old films that you made when you were a kid? Are they somewhere?
Todd Haynes: You know what? They are somewhere. I have to find it. I mean, it had a cassette tape soundtrack that you'd play with the Super-8 movie, right? I assume I just used some of the Nina Rota score, because what else could you use at the time? Then there would be my own voice reciting Shakespeare, and the music…
Austin Dale: We could have the premiere at Metrograph. We could do a whole run.
Todd Haynes: That would be crazy. I'd love it. I'll be there, man, in my plum tights.
Austin Dale: To talk about Dark Waters... Why do you think people are talking about this as a sort of departure for you? You’ve never worked in the same style from film to film.
Todd Haynes: Well, because they like to put people into boxes and be able to tag those boxes, and identify them easily. You know people are lazy about the way they do so, and so even to put Far From Heaven and Carol in the same box is strange to me. Because they're so very different in style and draw from different traditions in movies, very consciously, and to talk about my work as, like, ironic and stylized and stuff? I've experimented with style and irony and tonality, and played with genre. But there's such restraint in Carol and it’s very different from Far From Heaven, you know.
Maybe what people connect, in all my work, is that there's an emotional component that cracks through—even through the most austere intellectual experiments in narrative form. I think that has made them into something else, or made them into my kind of movies. I think people found themselves surprised by their emotional connection to them, given the sort of ways I might obstruct easy access to character in some of those films like Safe or Superstar, or any number of examples.
Austin Dale: Wonderstruck.
Todd Haynes: Or Wonderstruck. Yes. There's all kinds of ways I take issue at simple reductive ideas of the content determining who you are, and what you are.
Austin Dale: That being said, I keep finding so many ways to think of Dark Waters as a classical melodrama. In my experience, one of the connective tissues in your films, and then through the history of the Hollywood melodrama, is the subtext of a protagonist’s isolation and lamentation, as they try to convince other people that they can all share in this lamentation together and make something better together, you know? There’s always the surface-level story, but I do see the same elegant duality in Dark Waters.
Todd Haynes: It's why I go back to some of these kinds of movies as a viewer of film and a lover of cinema, in a way that I don't even entirely understand. Maybe you're helping explain it to me, in terms of melodrama and lamentation as you say — but I also think there's something very much about process, that you're watching a process unfold in a linear medium. I don't really listen to the plot. I watch it, but I don't really follow it. I mean, I've seen All The President’s Men a million times. We all know what the plot is, we all know what the outcome is. That's not why you watch that film.
A movie like this is about how isolated these people are from the world, and you see that described visually in these films, because the spaces are so memorable. You almost can't think beyond certain frames of All The President's Men: the parking garage scenes of course, you know, but even those shots that start to hover overhead following the car out of the Washington Post building as they start to comb the streets, trying to interview people who were on the Committee to Re-Elect, and all the doors that've been shut on them. I love the camera ascending over them in the White House library, you know? That's a circular room and the camera's hovering over them, and even when you get distance from them, you feel real claustrophobia when you’re looking down over them.
In a weird way, the bigger these stories get, the smaller these people's worlds become, and the more contained they are. You can think of the spaces in The Insider when Russell Crowe is skulking out of the lobby of the corporate offices of Brown & Williamson. Or you can think of Meryl Streep at the plant in Silkwood, when she gets cooked again, and she's alone at night and she slides down along the wall, and the sirens are wailing. The corporeal experience of that movie is so real, because when you get the radiation contamination they scrub you down. And then, at the very end of the movie, her house gets radioactive, and they literally start scrubbing the house.
In movies like this, the spaces become like the body, you know? And you can't escape the body. And you can't escape the contamination of the body in corrosive systems of power and dominance. And so space, and interiors, and the isolation one feels with very familiar spaces, was definitely something I was thinking about a great deal in this movie, and wanted to bring to the film. This film is about that loneliness and isolation that these people feel, and the pain that they experience, and the sense of futility that hangs over them. Even while the process is moving us forward, you sort of feel like you're colliding with the sense that all could come to nothing. That's a curious thing that kind of keeps happening, even on repeated viewings of these films. A sense of doomfulness. This is all going to fall apart, and we're all going to be left completely rudderless, you know?
Austin Dale: My next question is maybe sort of a tricky one. Are there things that used to be really challenging that are getting easier, and vice versa: are there things that are getting harder? And this can be a question about the industry as a whole.
Todd Haynes: Well, the industry as a whole is hard, although I kind of take each project one at a time, and I have the most indefatigable partner in Christine Vachon, who won't rest until we figure out a way to get things going. This continues to this day, to figure out a way to get our films financed and made the way we want, as best we can, and each one is a different battle. Different troops, different obstacles. And now my passion project is an episodic series about the life of Freud.
Austin Dale: And you would be making a project like this with, presumably, these enormous streaming services that are eating each other alive.
Todd Haynes: There's so much money circulating, that I don't think anyone knows what their own mandate is, and it keeps shifting, even at Netflix. Amazon is completely reconfiguring its goals, and what it’s doing and why. It’s not an easy time, but we’ll figure it out. Something as good as Fosse/Verdon can be made right now. And that was an incredibly special and unique thing, with a lot of ambition and a lot of ideas and this incredible narrative structure that I found so stimulating. Michelle Williams’ performance? I adore this person and have worked with her and have been a friend of hers, and I was very close to both her and Heath Ledger. I was bowled over, I was completely astonished by her. Anyway, we'll figure out how to get Freud done. You know? And we'll get the most amazing cast, and there'll be many different Freuds of different ages, and it has to have a fluid and rich and layered structure that plays with time and memory and dreams. Hopefully it will happen somewhere. I mean, if Fosse/Verdon can happen!
Austin Dale: I should ask you for your response to the Martin Scorsese op-ed. Because the cinema he’s sticking up for is the kind of cinema you make, in a landscape that is presenting new powerful challenges to your life and your work.
Todd Haynes: He speaks truth to franchise. And you have to. You have to be honest and say "Look, this is my taste! This is what I was brought up with. This is the cinema that I came up with." That's sort of what that editorial seemed to say: I’m concerned about this overtaking of the financing motivations of movies, and the risk-taking. There have always been these big, successful, splashy movies that Hollywood has always made, but you always felt that they helped support the smaller movies.
I used to think there were the movies for the awards, the movies for the critics, and the movies for the money-making. And there were three sort of distinct categories, and sometimes they would kind of overlap, on rare occasions like The Godfather, let's say, but usually they maintained some separation that was healthy. The success of the money-making movies could underwrite and invest and balance out the other movies. Studios would want the prestige of the awards movies and the critical movies and then the money from the blockbusters. Things all started to shift when Jaws decided to open the way it did, and you saw what kind of money could be made in a single day of a movie, and it started to even shift the balances that could distinguish these categories.
That’s not to say that I don’t find these corrosive, impure narrative movies to be feature filmmaking. Those movies reflect the impurities of our culture, and the passions, and the sort of inert desires and wishes and fantasies of our culture. There's a constant tension between the commercial and the artistic. But that was the impurity that I elected to exploit and investigate as a filmmaker. That’s there. I like that. I think that says more and reveals more about who we are, and the complex relationship that audiences have to spectacle and narrative.
I don’t consider it, “No, this is a pure art form!” That’s not really what has motivated me. I’m interested in traditions in language and narrative and social meaning, and how constructed that is, and how coercive that can be at times. But you have to fuck with it.