Todd Haynes

Interview by Gus Van Sant 

Portraits by Danielle Mathias

“Really this movie, as much as it is about lesbian love and this 

very early, pre-Stonewall time and place, is also about an 

older woman and a younger woman; the older woman coming

from a different class and having all the complexities.”


Born and raised in Los Angeles, Todd Haynes is a critically-acclaimed director and screenwriter notable for this year’s Carol, Far From Heaven (nominated for four 2002 Academy Awards), I’m Not There (2007) and Velvet Goldmine (1998). Many of his films are considered seminal works of New Queer Cinema, a movement beginning in the early 1990s marked by themes including LGBT protagonists and rejection of heteronormativity. Haynes is also founder of Apparatus Productions, a non-profit supporting independent film.

Gus Van Sant is an acclaimed producer and filmmaker known for his films Drugstore Cowboy (1989), Good Will Hunting (1997) and Milk (2008)—the latter two earning Best Picture and Best Director nominations at the Academy Awards. He has collected many accolades and is a prominent auteur in the New Queer Cinema movement, especially for My Own Private Idaho, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Elephant and Milk.

A film by Todd Haynes, Carol is set in early 1950s New York where a love affair between a young store clerk/aspiring photographer (Rooney Mara) and an older, married woman (Cate Blanchett) is complicated by her husband’s dissent. The film is based on the 1952 novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith. Premiering at Cannes, Carol was nominated for the Palme d’Or and won both the Queer Palm and Best Actress for Mara.

American novelist and short-story writer Patricia Highsmith is known for her psychological thrillers, which have been adapted into over 24 films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 Strangers on a Train, Anthony Minghella’s 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley, and this year’s Carol.

American photographer and painter Saul Leiter is famous for his color photography that captured the charm of New York City during the 1950s, often using the reflective surfaces of mirrors and windows. Also an established fashion photographer, Leiter was published in various magazines.

A series of violent demonstrations by members of the LGBT community that began after a 1969 police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. At a time when police raids on gay bars were commonplace, it was a spontaneous uprising that catalyzed a longer trend of activism. Stonewall remains a pivotal moment in the US gay liberation movement and modern fight for LGBT rights.

A world observed through doorways, mirrors and car windows frosted with rain and cold, Carol is a stunning display of hushed longing, conveyed not so much in words as by glances and gestures between two women—a young store clerk, Therese (played by Rooney Mara) and the wealthy married woman who pursues her, Carol (Cate Blanchett). Early 1950s New York is rendered through the expertise of renowned filmmaker Todd Haynes and bears the immense weight of the societal ties which hold the two women apart. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, Carol premiered at Cannes, garnering Best Actress for Mara and the Queer Palm for portraying “a moment in history. The first time a love story between two women was treated with the respect and significance of any other mainstream cinematic romance.” And it does so without limiting its scope. Carol asserts love as something all at once urgent, beautiful and deeply melancholic, and sets the stakes high between a lovely, shy Therese and the elegant, cultivated Carol.

Todd Haynes is joined by acclaimed filmmaker and longtime friend Gus Van Sant to discuss his vision for Carol—from Highsmith’s novel to the photographs of Saul Leiter and its Cincinnati location.

Gus Van Sant: How did you find this story?

Todd Haynes: It was May of 2013, and I’d heard about this project because Cate Blanchett and [costume designer] Sandy Powell were already attached to it. Liz Karlsen is the producer, and I’ve known her forever. Carol had become Liz’s baby, even though it had a previous life trying to be financed before she came along. And so it came to me unlike a lot of my movies, sort of already underway in many ways. I read the first draft that [screenwriter] Phyllis Nagy had written from the novel. Did you know this novel? I had never heard of it before.

GVS: No, I didn’t know about it.

TH: All my lesbian friends were like, “What!? You’ve got to be kidding me!” But I read the novel right when I read the first draft and dug what Phyllis had done with it. I was floored by the novel because it’s about falling in love, but it’s completely from this interior perspective of the younger character Therese’s mind. When you’re venturing into that unknown world, trying to read every single sign and gesture of the other person, you are almost in a criminal mentality. You are cut off from the world and you are in this place of constant narrative production like, “What if this happened? And what if that happened? What does this mean?” Just reading every single detail for any information of how they feel in return. And that sense of being cut off is only made more dramatic by the fact that this is a completely incoherent kind of love to the characters. They don’t have any example of it. She barely has a syntax for describing it. It doesn’t fit into all of her life choices and expectations; it’s this totally unknown world. I love that about the book. It was like, wow, I can see why Patricia Highsmith could bring something really distinctive to that as a crime novelist.

“This is a completely incoherent kind
of love to the characters.
They don’t have any example of it.”

GVS: I know her works mostly through films that have been done from them. There seems to be this common theme where the characters come from different class structures. Rich and poor. Ripley [in The Talented Mr. Ripley] was always the poor kid hanging out with the rich people. And in Carol there seems to be this same difference between these two characters and classes.

TH: Yeah, and Strangers on a Train is the same with Bruno, the killer. Although it shifts which person is the criminal because Bruno’s the one from the rich family who has this alienated relationship with his father—wants to kill him or whatever. But in Ripley, it’s the rich guy who becomes the target, ultimately. I love the class stuff. And really this movie, as much as it is about lesbian love and this very early, pre-Stonewall time and place, is also about an older woman and a younger woman; the older woman coming from a different class and having all the complexities of a failing marriage, a child and custody issues at hand, and a prior relationship with a lifelong friend who was a woman. She comes with all the stuff, basically, the story. Meanwhile, Therese is this person in formation whose self-perception is coming into focus simultaneously with the world around her. I love how in the book you are on the side of that passive person, the person who has yet to manifest themselves. Some of that I put back into the script when I worked with Phyllis on it because I feel like this is the first time I’d really done what I consider first and foremost a love story. It made me want to watch love stories in movies, and what kept coming back to me was the point of view. In a lot of great love stories, you are aligned with the more vulnerable party—in this case Therese, the younger one—and that gives you a sense of the love being almost unattainable, beyond reach or something half-fantasized.

GVS: I’m curious in general about the concept of this film compared with your other films. When you’re developing a visual concept, it’s different every time. You want it to be different every time, and have to invent the cinematic language. There are lovely stills from Carol. Can you discuss your look for the film and also the language with camera angles and cutting practices?

TH: Along the lines of point of view and being on the side of the lover—or at least the person who’s more likely to be hurt in a relationship—what’s interesting about this story and about life is that that can change between two people. And it does in Carol, ultimately. So I wanted the camera to put a level of emphasis on observing. It was foregrounded in the way we shot it, but I never really felt like, oh, we’re going to be enacting this subjectivity. I wanted to observe the subjectivity. Rather than having point-of-view shots, there are some moments when the camera really conveyed the act of looking itself, like when Therese is in the car with Carol, going into the tunnel on her first visit to New Jersey. She’s observing Carol’s new coat and purse and gloves. But for the most part, I felt like that act of looking could be a little more removed. I was looking at those gorgeous Saul Leiter photographs and all these images from this period in New York: early color photography, foregrounds of glass and windows filtering different temperatures, weather conditions and settings in the city, and the abstract frame of those elements. To me, those kinds of images reveal the first eye, the lens, the fact that vision is always partial, always obstructed somehow, distorted by desire of things you want that you can’t get and you can’t see. That was interesting to me, and that became a language I applied—reflections. All that stuff.

“You are aligned with the more vulnerable
party and that gives you a sense of
the love being almost unattainable, beyond
reach or something half fantasized.”

GVS: And the actual lenses you chose, was that intentional as well?

TH: They were slightly on the longer side, so there would be that sense of a shallower depth of field, a sense that not everything was within reach or crisp to the lens. We shot in Super 16 again, which I’d done on Mildred Pierce, so that the grain factor was going to always be experienced. And that even contributes to the depth of field. I think it’s even a bit shallower, a bit more temperamental and less refined. But I loved all that. And it went along with these images of New York City from the early ’50s that show this really dirty, sagging metropolis. Not yet the polished chrome, Eisenhower ’50s that we think about. It felt dirty.

Cincinnati is where we shot the movie. It was a really good find because it not only offered this new incredibly favorable tax incentive, but I hadn’t been there since right after the [Robert] Mapplethorpe cultural hearings that were happening with the museum there in the early ’90s. I remember even then it had all these seedy, stinky thrift stores. It was really cool and didn’t remind me of other Ohio cities that I’ve visited. It’s right on the border of Kentucky, very close to the South. It has that weird, old Southern money combined with interesting struggling minority neighborhoods and culture, which is sort of in transition these days with redevelopment plans. People had not shot there for years. It was this architectural treasure trove. We literally shot some angles on the streets with only existing signage for 1952 New York. And the extras were really cool. They didn’t move like Union extras. They felt awkward in a human way, not like little robots. That part was really fun.

Mildred Pierce is a five-part HBO mini-series directed by Todd Haynes and adapted from a 1941 novel by James M. Cain. Kate Winslet won an Emmy and Golden Globe for her performance as the titular Mildred, a struggling single mother during the Great Depression.

GVS: I also wanted to ask about your time at Brown University. What were you studying and how did that lead into cinema?

TH: I was there right at 1980. At that time, Brown had this “semiotics” program—it later became modern culture and media departments. Other schools would adopt titles for this program, and Brown’s was just semiotics at the time. I would say it’s just the result of Freud, Marx and the linguistic movements of the ’20s, Walter Benjamin and all of the post-Freudian writers who started to write about culture.

This more structuralist, post-humanist discourse started to enter into cultural themes—art, literature and a lot of it through film—out of feminist film theory in the ’70s. Laura Mulvey. That whole movement. And the notion of the male spectator, the male gaze. All of these terms now feel extremely integrated if not outmoded or defunct, yet they still have residence and are formative. What I forget is how old I am. Those writings from the ’70s had only just come out when I went to Brown.

It was this little funky, crumbling building called Adams House that was an annex of the English department. It wasn’t a full-fledged department and was kind of frowned on by the English department as a whole. Of course, that made it feel even more cool. For us, doubt was something challenging and critical of the status-quo, educational approach, but I didn’t know what I was walking into. I just wanted to go somewhere where film production existed.

You went to RISD and I would take some classes at RISD as well, which you could do at Brown. You could take some classes at Brown as well, right?

GVS: You could take a lot of them if you wanted, and I did.

“In the quiet darkness of cultural learning,
there are also little patches of the
illicit. I hope that’s still true in academic or
cultural life. It was a factor for me.”

TH: They were great, and yet the film department was completely skeletal. They rented a flatbed once a month each semester, hauled it up to the top floor of this crumbling building, and you’d sign up for one or two hour blocks on the flatbed around the clock. I loved the graveyard shift. I felt completely alone, and there was a dubber in the other room where you could record your sound. We both remember this because you came out of editing when you started out working in film—just that crazy feeling of carrying your little sound effect from one room to the next, then taping it onto the flatbed on the second track, literally having it in your hands. That material experience of the medium is something I love that I had. I wouldn’t have traded that for anything.

GVS: At RISD we had a flatbed and it was covered by all these things, naturally. It was in the auditorium building. There was one little room tucked away up a stairway and that’s where the flatbed was. We were also working around the clock. We had to because we really only had time at night. There was a guard who was making the rounds, so we would have to hide until he passed by.

TH: Wow, that is so great. Talk about subterranean or concealed practices. There was an element of the illicit, even just in all the hours I would spend—and I’m sure you did too—in the revival houses. Me growing up in LA and you on the East Coast and then Portland, just the hours you’d spend in the dark theaters watching all these different programs, amazing double bills that changed every night. It drew cineastes, it drew people who were cruising each other. It’s like how libraries always have a perverse element in their shadows. In the quiet darkness of cultural learning, there are also little patches of the illicit. I hope that’s still true in academic or cultural life. It was a factor for me.

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