Todd Haynes Rewrites the Hollywood Playbook
At 7:30 A.M. on a frosty March Saturday in downtown Cincinnati, the director Todd Haynes was on the sixteenth floor of the corporate law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister, and he was already, as he puts it, “in the weeds, dealing with every little piece in every shot in every scene.” The firm’s lawyers and secretaries had been banished for the weekend, and the maze of cubicles and passageways was cluttered with cameras, cables, extras, and a drowsy crew. Haynes, a trim, boyish fifty-eight, with dishevelled brindle hair, was standing at the epicenter of his newest drama: a small corner office, whose west-facing windows looked out on skyscrapers and a sliver of the Ohio River.
It was from here, in 1999, that Robert Bilott, a partner in the firm and a specialist in helping corporations negotiate environmental regulations, switched sides and sued DuPont, a chemical leviathan, whose plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, was thirty-five times larger than the Pentagon. In what became a class-action suit on behalf of seventy thousand residents of West Virginia and Ohio, Bilott pursued the company for having knowingly dumped in those states more than seven thousand tons of perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, a toxic, nonbiodegradable chemical used in making Teflon—thereby poisoning hundreds of acres of land, deforming and killing hundreds of animals, contaminating the water supply, and doing long-term, irreversible damage to the health of the community. Bilott’s fight pitted him not just against DuPont but against his own firm; he was the legal insider turned outsider, a poacher turned gamekeeper. A herculean, eighteen-year legal struggle followed. In 2017, Bilott won a six-hundred-and-seventy-million-dollar settlement for thirty-five hundred of the people who had filed claims relating to illnesses linked to the PFOA in their drinking water. (Additional personal-injury claims against the company are still in progress.) For Haynes’s eighth feature film, “Dark Waters,” Bilott’s battle had been broken down into a two-hundred-and-forty-six-scene jigsaw puzzle that the director was now painstakingly piecing together.
Haynes, in T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, sat down on the office sofa to discuss the morning’s scene with his stars: the towering Tim Robbins, who plays Bilott’s boss, Tom Terp, the head of the firm’s environmental group, and the shortish, stocky Mark Ruffalo, as Bilott, the saga’s unlikely hero. Ruffalo was not only the film’s marquee attraction; he was its lead producer, and he had initially sought out Haynes to direct and deepen the screenplay, by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, which was inspired by Nathaniel Rich’s 2016 exposé on the subject in the New York Times Magazine, and which Ruffalo felt had been written too strictly as a procedural thriller. “You’re trying to find the balance between character and story,” Ruffalo told me. “If you go heavy on the plot, you lose character.” He added, “I love the inner space of Todd’s work with actors and characters. I always feel he’s interested equally, if not more, in what’s happening below the lines.” Haynes, who is a gifted screenwriter—he was nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay for his movie “Far from Heaven” (2002)—made sure that Bilott’s wife and his family relationships were given a real presence in the shooting script.
As a student at Brown University, in the mid-eighties, Haynes studied painting and semiotics in a program that, he said, “kind of combined Freud, Marx, and feminism.” He emerged, as he wrote in the introduction to an edition of three of his screenplays, with “a strong interest in popular form, combined with a strong desire to invert it.” In earlier films, he played on the bio-pic (“Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” 1988), the horror movie and the tabloid documentary (“Poison,” 1991), the “disease of the week” film (“Safe,” 1995), the melodrama (“Far from Heaven” and “Carol,” 2015), and even the silent film (“Wonderstruck,” 2017). “Dark Waters” subverts by taking the legal thriller—a form that traditionally concludes with the triumph of good over evil—into areas of psychological complexity and ambiguity. All investigative stories, he told me, when we met in Los Angeles in June, have the burden of revealing a truth. “What I love so much about the genre,” he explained, “is the cost of revealing the truth. The drama of that, and what it does to people. That is the part that kills you.”
On the set, the camera perched on the threshold of Bilott’s office, and a scrum of technicians outside formed a second barricade, so I watched the filming from a conference room, where a large monitor had been installed for the production staff. “I have no actual time beyond the shoot itself—every day is a mortal trial,” Haynes had warned me before I flew in to watch him work, but I had no idea then just how fiercely he inhabited his imagined worlds. “He’s got himself in a bubble,” one of the film’s producers, Christine Vachon, said of the laser-like focus that he exhibited on the monitor. A co-founder, in 1995, of Killer Films, Vachon is the doyenne of independent producers; she and Haynes met at Brown, where she, too, studied semiotics, and she has produced all his feature films. She sat across from me, working the phone, in her customary getup—black T-shirt, pants, hoodie, and combat boots (which gained some notoriety when she wore them on the red carpet at Cannes for the première of “Carol”). “He’s always very passionate,” she added. “He’s not good at juggling a lot of balls in the air.”
I was thinking of myself, sadly, as one of those balls when Haynes’s director’s assistant, Lucas Omar, suddenly materialized with a large black leather portfolio. “Todd wanted you to see the Image Book,” he said, and disappeared. The incident was proof of Haynes’s attention to detail; even in the early-morning hubbub, he’d kept my presence on the set in mind. Haynes is renowned in the business for his preparation: rigorous shot lists, hundred-page editing notes, and his Image Books, which remain close at hand throughout his shoots. These books are key, Haynes has said, to his “psychic process.” Before beginning each film, he distributes a magazine-size version to the head of each department, to insure that all his collaborators have a sense of the film’s emotional terrain.
The “Dark Waters” Image Book consisted of forty-six laminated pages that followed the linear and thematic trajectory of Bilott’s crusade, a sort of map of Haynes’s ideas for the movie’s visual language. The images, many of which were shot with foreboding lighting or from unsettling angles, included derelict West Virginia landscapes, DuPont billboards, and screen grabs from other movies (“Silkwood,” “The Insider,” “The Parallax View,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and “All the President’s Men”—a primer for the postures of fear and frustration in Bilott’s battle against corporate corruption). Into this visual stew, Haynes had mixed photographs of Bilott as a boy, and of his family (his grandmother lived in West Virginia, not far from DuPont’s most toxic dumping site); a wall of boxes holding the hundreds of thousands of pages of relevant correspondence and documentation that Bilott had extracted from DuPont; the worn faces of West Virginia farmers; the severed head of a wild-eyed contaminated cow; polluted streams. The album also included a list of the painters and photographers Haynes had chosen to inform the film’s palette and perspective, among them Gerhard Richter, Gordon Parks, Andreas Gursky, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, and Joel Meyerowitz. Haynes’s visual challenge in “Dark Waters” was to elevate the legal offices, storage rooms, and middle-class homes where most of the drama of the movie takes place to an expressive backdrop for Bilott’s internal struggle, which, he said, was infused “with anxiety, dread, futility, and despair.”
Around noon, while Robbins and Ruffalo were horsing around between takes—Robbins: “You were horrible.” Ruffalo: “Wait till I’m off camera. I’m gonna be horrible to you”—a slight middle-aged man, in a plaid shirt and jeans, slipped into the conference room and took a seat against the back wall. It was Rob Bilott. I introduced myself. Ruffalo, in his round-shouldered, restrained performance, seemed to have uncannily captured Bilott’s trout-lipped solitude, a standoffishness that made him seem permanently braced. The one physical quality that no actor could capture was his sunken, forlorn eyes. Bilott said that he was nervous about the next scene on the schedule. I asked why. “Neurological issues,” he said.
In the scene in question, which takes place thirteen years into Bilott’s legal battle, Bilott’s boss tells him that he has to wrap up the suit and take a pay cut. “Tom, that’s my fourth. I’m down a third now,” Bilott replies quietly. Terp says, “You don’t have any clients. No one will take your calls. What am I supposed to do here? Now, I’m on your side, but, Rob . . .” At this point in the script, Bilott starts to stand up, his legs give out, he grabs at the desk and collapses. Haynes went to work on the choreography of the fall.
During the next four hours, with the three-page scene in hand, Haynes kept popping out from where he was crouching behind the door, to explain the motivation of the moment. “You think he’s going to get up,” he said to Robbins at one point, then, turning to Ruffalo, “You’re fighting waves of nausea.” They explored the scene’s dynamics, then, satisfied, moved on to the next beat. Systematically, Haynes ramped up Bilott’s tension: his blinking eyes, his twitching hands, his juddering feet, his fumbling for the chair, and his flailing spasms on the floor. By the fifth take, Ruffalo’s portrayal of Bilott’s psychological struggle to contain his collapse had become as sensational as the physical one. Afterward, in the conference room, I turned to the real Bilott, who had been joined by his wife, Sarah (played by Anne Hathaway in the film), to ask what he thought of it. “Hard for me. Disturbing,” he said, adding, “I’m not being very articulate.” He scratched his forehead, searching for more words. “Never realized I didn’t smile,” he said.
The caravan of lights and cameras moved down the partitioned corridors to the next location. The dark passageways, the contrasting bright sources of light, and the outside vistas with no direct horizon all served Haynes’s effort to create a landscape of obfuscation and menace. “Barrier upon barrier upon barrier. It’s so smart,” Ruffalo said later of what he calls Haynes’s “geometrics,” as he waited to be filmed from another disconcerting angle, below a stairwell. “He’s laid the music down, and I’m the piano player. I can move within the structure. It’s a complex game. He’s challenging you, and he won’t walk away until it’s impeccable.”
The first of three children, Haynes was born in 1961 to Allen and Sherry Haynes, who had married at nineteen. Haynes grew up amid the suburban buoyancy and abundance of Encino, California, just a few miles from Hollywood, during one of the industry’s most vital periods. At three, ravished by the movie “Mary Poppins,” he fell into what he called “a total imaginative rapture”: he didn’t just want to rewatch the movie; he wanted to enter the story through “a fanatical, creative, obsessional response where I had to replicate the experience,” he said. He drew hundreds of pictures of Poppins, performed the “Poppins” songs, even persuaded his mother to dress up as Poppins. (“You gotta put the flower hat on, Mom.”) “I had to satisfy the hysteria I felt for this experience creatively,” he said. In “Dottie Gets Spanked” (1993), Haynes’s remarkable thirty-minute map of his boyhood inner world, he depicted his spellbound self, sitting cross-legged in a bathrobe in front of the TV with a pad and colored pencils in hand. In the background, his parents contend sotto voce with his fixation. “I could feel my parents behind me, worrying about what this might mean, or worrying whether they should be worried, and I always felt defiant of their concerns,” he said.
Haynes was a kind of prodigy, who was lucky enough to have been born into a cultured and progressive extended family, presided over by his liberal-thinking maternal grandfather, Arnold Semler, “the Almighty Bompi,” as Haynes called him, and his charismatic, artistic wife, Blessing, with whom Haynes sometimes painted. Sherry, whose own ambitions were deferred until her later years, when she studied theatre with prominent teachers, including Salome Jens at the Stella Adler Studio, encouraged all her son’s art-making. Within the family, Haynes’s constant engagement with creativity turned him into a “child of God,” according to his father. (In “Dottie Gets Spanked,” the boy is depicted as a little king, complete with paper crown, ruling over his imaginative domain with his superpowers.) “We’d come home from a movie and my wife and I’d be fixing dinner, and he’d be sitting at the piano and playing one finger, one finger, one finger,” Allen told me. “Forty-five minutes later, we’d come in and he’d be playing the whole melody from the movie. Now, where that came from I don’t know. I mean, he was a little scary to me. I was awed by the multitalents that were part of his everyday being.”
When Haynes was seven, his grandfather, who had been the head of set construction at Warner Bros.—until the late forties, when the HUAC investigations and the blacklisting of his friends made the position untenable—arranged for him to meet his TV idol, Lucille Ball, and watch her rehearse. (That event became the erotically charged inciting incident of “Dottie Gets Spanked,” in which the boy sees the aloof, no-nonsense Ball preparing offscreen for a scene in which her ditzy, caterwauling alter ego is spanked by her husband.) In addition to taking Haynes to concerts, plays, and museums, his grandparents took him, at age nine, to New York and to Washington, D.C., and, at fourteen, to Asia. Their support extended into adulthood. Bompi invested more than a hundred thousand dollars in “Poison,” Haynes’s first feature.
In 1968, the seven-year-old Haynes appeared on “The Art Linkletter Show.” In response to the inevitable question “What do you want to be when you grow up?,” he replied, “An actor and an artist.” The same year, his parents took him to see Franco Zeffirelli’s film adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet.” It was a seismic experience that “absolutely changed my life,” Haynes said. At nine, he made his first movie: a fifteen-minute Super-8 version of “Romeo and Juliet” in which he played almost all the parts. “I made the tunics out of towels, tied a rope around the middle, got tights,” Haynes said. “My dad would run the camera, and hold the sword offscreen when I was playing Mercutio. And then we’d do the other side and I’d dress in Tybalt’s outfit.” Haynes drew the backdrop for the Capulet ball with crayons on a big piece of butcher paper. The Nurse was played by his six-year-old sister, Wendy, who also performed in the after-dinner plays that Haynes regularly conceived and staged. When Wendy was very young, he would drape a blanket over her bedroom table and light the space with a reading lamp, creating a mini-amphitheatre in which he acted out melodramatic tales with her toy horses. “She was my audience,” he said. “I remember just loving to make her cry.” Wendy Haynes, now a therapist as well as the lead singer of the glam-rock band Sophe Lux & the Mystic, was charmed by her brother’s mind. “Who was this creature?” she said. “What’s going on in there? It wasn’t stopping. It was a train. It left the station when he was born. It’s a beautiful thing to see someone who knows his destiny.”
For a decade, Haynes attended weekend classes at Virginia Rothman’s Art School, in Studio City, and he used his art to make contact with the show-biz icons he adored. When he drew a picture of Diana Ross with six arms, according to his father, he managed to deliver it to her backstage at the Universal Amphitheatre. When he was in high school, his mother drove him to Joni Mitchell’s home in Bel Air so that he could give her his illustrations of some of her lyrics. “I knocked on the door, and a sort of Joni clone came to the door, in a bikini with long blond hair,” Haynes told me. “And she said, ‘Oh, that’s so sweet. Thank you. I’ll give them to her.’ ” The actress Elizabeth McGovern, who was Haynes’s best friend at the progressive Oakwood School, in North Hollywood, remembered him being indignant that Mitchell never responded. She added, “He had that sense of himself—to think that it was rude of her. He was just a high-school kid.”
“Eyes should be seen not hid” are the first words spoken in “Dottie Gets Spanked,” and the phrase seems to hold a clue to Haynes’s obsessive art-making. “I know that I enjoyed being seen—performing and putting on shows for the family, impressing people with my drawings and paintings,” he said. “But there may have been something beyond that, where what I was really interested in was replaying my own pleasure in seeing: returning to that moment of seeing ‘Mary Poppins’ on film, seeing ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ The rapture was in the process of re-creating it, over and over.” Other films, including “The Miracle Worker,” “Anne of the Thousand Days,” and, especially, “The Graduate,” fed his excitement at how a lens could tell a story. “I remember feeling stimulated through my entire body. I would walk around looking at the world literally through frames,” he said.
From the outset, Haynes was a sort of escape artist, compulsively immersing himself in art. But to escape to is also to escape from. Haynes was, in part, fleeing his parents’ “absolutely terrifying” arguments, which left him in “a constant anxiety that the family unit was imperilled.” One brouhaha spilled into Haynes’s bedroom while he was asleep. “She was pulling her ring off, and she threw it into the yard from my upstairs window,” he said. “I remember them looking through the ivy the next day on hands and knees. Never found it.” Sherry, whose public manner was genteel, “knew how to get what she wanted,” Haynes said. Allen could be moody and had a temper. Haynes’s relationship with his father as a child, he said, was sometimes “distant and competitive,” but these days he refers to him as a “mensch.” The transformative event was a nearly fatal aortic rupture that Allen suffered when he was in his forties and Haynes was in his twenties. For a month, Haynes and his brother, Sean, slept on the floor of their father’s hospital room. “He wanted me there more than anybody. More than my mom—he wanted me there,” Haynes said.
Haynes’s immersion in art was also the result of a kind of apprehension of his own otherness, an undertow of estrangement that he felt long before he understood it. Sherry was a perfectionist, both in her personal style—“She always had perfect hair, perfect nails, perfect, perfect, perfect,” McGovern recalled—and in the clean lines, white walls, and spotless, plastic-covered furniture of her home. “My mother would literally pour Clorox bleach on the kitchen tiles each night,” Haynes said. He, on the other hand, “desired contamination. I wanted it.” As a boy, he was constantly drawing women: “I loved doing the lips and the eyelashes or the cleavage.” When he badgered his father to buy him a new sketch pad, his father said, “I’ll buy you a drawing pad if you draw men.” “It was the most remarkable thing, because it was so clear and precise,” Haynes said of his father’s request. On another occasion, while playing Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother in one of his after-dinner performances, Haynes made a limp-wristed gesture that earned him an immediate, unexpected rebuke. “They were, like, ‘Don’t do that!’ I was, like, ‘I’m playing the Fairy Godmother, you guys.’ I was angry. I wasn’t ashamed. It stirred up a kind of revolt in me,” he said.
At Oakwood, which placed a strong emphasis on the arts, Haynes was a class star, and he and McGovern were inseparable. “He was my first experience of loving,” she said. When they weren’t staging their own performance pieces, they were acting in school productions. After school, at Haynes’s house, they played theatre games, improvised sketches, rehearsed scenes from plays. “He was a work machine,” McGovern said. “You’d never see Todd just hanging out. If he was sitting down, he was drawing or writing. Seven days a week. Every waking hour he was making something.” In one of many poems he wrote for McGovern, he envisioned a joint future:
. . . I will be the
Famous film director and you will be
The actress. I will write scripts for you.
Ingmar and Liv, she smiled. Someday,
McGovern often slept over in Haynes’s room, but they were never together “in any remotely physical way,” she said. “He had a fairly clear idea that he was attracted to boys, although not exclusively.” Haynes’s parents maintained “a fantasy for happy heterosexual closure” with McGovern, he said. He didn’t come out to them until he was in college and in his first relationship with a man. “My dad assured me that it was all right with him,” Haynes said. But his mother found the news hard to accept. “She freaked out,” Wendy said. “She had a meltdown. She was concerned about what the world would think. She was concerned about him being hurt in the world. It shattered her dream.” Later, however, according to Haynes, “she would say that my being gay made her grow as a person and rethink the world.”
At Oakwood, Haynes’s intellectual “exceptionalism,” as he called it, was matched by his exceptional appearance—he kept his hair in a long blond mane. “He did look like a girl. Everybody thought he was a girl,” McGovern recalled. “It never bothered him.” Haynes’s androgynous look was the outward sign of his increasing ambivalence toward middle-class convention. “I always felt identification with the outcast, fragile, vulnerable people in the classroom,” he said. “I had an empathy for kids who had a harder time fitting in.” In a high-school-era letter to McGovern, Haynes spelled out his own sense of separation:
Sometimes my life is so desperately alone and full of sorrow. It sounds self-centered to say, so pretentious, but I feel so truly different from anyone I’ve met. Sometimes I can barely imagine seeing things the way people do. I do not feel better or worse than them, but apart.
In ninth and tenth grades, he made a twenty-two-minute film, titled “Suicide,” which depicted a similarly troubled outsider, Lenny, who is terrified of making the transition from junior high to high school. He is “enraged at the world for making him feel so afraid and subjugated and minimized, and uses his body to exorcise his rage,” Haynes said. The film grew out of a humanities assignment to write a hero myth. Haynes wrote the competing voices in Lenny’s head with different-colored pens. Lenny’s first words, written in red, were “I carefully and intricately began cutting myself into several pieces”—a prescient line for the incipient filmmaker. “The teachers were quite impressed with the method, the style, and the sort of Modernist construction” of the written piece, Haynes said, and he and a few friends decided to turn it into a Super-8 movie. The film crosscut scenes of Lenny stabbing himself with scissors in an all-white bathroom with scenes of schoolyard humiliation and maternal consolation. Lenny’s last voiced-over words are “Really hard to live.” Although Haynes maintains that “Suicide” wasn’t his story, some of its motifs have endured in his work: the montage structure and the idea of a derangement of identity as a form of liberation.
The movie looked good but didn’t sound good. Through connections to a Hollywood producer, Haynes and his cohorts were able to get the sound remixed on a soundstage at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio. “We were the session booked after ‘The Last Waltz,’ ” Haynes said. “We brought our little Super-8 projector and synched up to a mixing board, with all our tracks of 35-mm. sound, the music, the effects, the dialogue. We did it in a real way. It was crazy.” When the movie was done, they staged an ersatz Hollywood première at a theatre in Westwood, with a limo hired by one boy’s parents. The experience, however, gave Haynes second thoughts about the template of studio filmmaking. “I kind of turned against that in my head,” he told me. “I said, ‘I don’t want to replicate that system. I want to make experimental films, and I want to do them alone.’ ”
When Haynes was in eleventh grade, his film teacher, Chris Adam, told him “that films shouldn’t be judged on how they conveyed reality, that films were not about reality,” Haynes said. Cinema was a trick, almost like Renaissance perspective: a two-dimensional event that represented three-dimensionality; it created the sense of direct, unmediated life, whereas, in fact, everything in it was mediated. The notion, Haynes said, was “a revelation to me.” He began to interrogate our “endless presumptions about realness and authenticity. It started to make me think about stylistic and formal changes and deviations.”
Haynes’s graduation project at Brown, in 1985, was “Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud”—a forty-three-minute rambunctious mashup of artifice and anachronism, in which glimpses of the libertine lives of Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine are crosscut with scenes of the film’s construction, all set to the sounds of Iggy Pop and Throbbing Gristle. In voice-over at the end, Haynes reads the last line of Rimbaud’s “Morning of Drunkenness,” a salvo directed at bourgeois stability: “Now is the time for assassins.” The words are a kind of aesthetic battle cry against cinematic convention. “I was never going to crawl into the Hollywood world of feature filmmaking,” Haynes said.
The world of experimental filmmaking, however, was changing. In the wake of such groundbreaking works as Sally Potter’s “Thriller” (1979) and David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” (1986), narrative began to leach into experimental films, and experimental technique was leaching into narrative films. Haynes’s first major offering, which he produced in 1987, while he was in the M.F.A. program at Bard College, was the forty-three-minute “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” (co-written and co-produced with Cynthia Schneider, another friend from Brown). The film set out to tell a straightforward story of the singer’s life, tracing Carpenter’s trajectory from her early success to her slow death, of anorexia, at thirty-two—but dramatized it all with modified Barbie dolls. As Haynes wrote in the introduction to his screenplays, the question he was trying to answer through this radically artificial conceit was: What would happen “if the narrative gears subsumed by our identification were quietly revealed”? Would viewers’ “desire to identify even succumb to an ensemble of plastic”? Haynes made meticulous sets and props for his Lilliputian world, and structured his story using documentary tropes—talking heads, newsreel footage, performance clips, laxative ads. Of the first screening, Vachon wrote, “When it began, there were gasps and laughter from the audience, because it was so funny and perfect to have Karen Carpenter played by a Barbie doll. But at the end, when the doll turned around and half her face was gone, carved away by weight loss, it wasn’t so funny anymore, and some people burst into tears.”
“Superstar” was a success at the 1988 Toronto International Film Festival, and played at a few venues in New York, getting unexpectedly good notices in the Village Voice and Artforum. Another unexpected indicator of its impact was a cease-and-desist order served by Karen Carpenter’s brother and musical partner, Richard Carpenter, the estate of Karen Carpenter, and A&M Records. Haynes had failed to acquire the rights to the Carpenters’ songs. “My orientation was that of guerrilla filmmaking, where music rights were historically ignored, never assuming a film would have a commercial life of any sort,” he said. At first, he tried to deflect the demands, but the lawyers prevailed. In 1990, “Superstar” was ordered withdrawn from exhibition and all copies destroyed. Nonetheless, bootleg copies still circulate; and in 2003 the film made it onto Entertainment Weekly’s list of the Top 50 Cult Movies.
In 1988, Haynes, Vachon, and another college friend, Barry Ellsworth (who had collaborated on “Superstar”), set up their own company, Apparatus Productions, in New York. The goal, according to Vachon, was “to change people’s perception that ‘experimental’ was synonymous with ‘excruciating.’ ” In the late eighties and early nineties, the aids epidemic in New York was nearing its peak. “Our lives were so defined by that kind of death and fear,” Vachon recalled. “It felt like we were constantly going to memorial services.” Haynes became a founding member of Gran Fury, a group of artists who devised visual campaigns for ACT UP, and he was acutely aware, he said, “of how gay people with H.I.V. were being depicted by the media.” He started to examine the cinematic tropes of other forms of “deviant” behavior—the outcast, the castigated, the criminal. He was trying to locate “the ways that our culture orients the insider and the outsider through our storytelling,” he told me, adding, “These are not benign practices.”
The result of this inquiry was “Poison,” which Haynes co-edited with his then lover Jim Lyons, who also acted in the film and later edited and co-wrote the story for Haynes’s “Velvet Goldmine” (1998). A daring, irreverent triptych, “Poison” is organized into discrete segments—“Hero,” “Horror,” “Homo”—in each of which society rejects the main character and destroys his sense of belonging. “Hero,” which is shot in faux-documentary style, tells the story of a troubled seven-year-old, who killed his father for abusing his mother, and then apparently flew out an open window. His escape plays as an ironic daydream of romantic transcendence, elevating him from the stigmatized to the sanctified. In “Horror,” filmed in black-and-white, a scientist invents a sex-drive potion. When he drinks it himself, he becomes an incarnation of contagion, his skin mottled with oozing pustules, a walking embodiment of alienation who disgusts himself and others. Rejected, spat on, enraged, and enraging, he is hunted and finally cornered in his apartment, where he jumps to his death from a fire escape in front of a gawping crowd. “Homo,” which is shot in color, reverses the angle on otherness. Drawing on Jean Genet’s work, it depicts a lyrical, elliptical gay prison romance in which transgression is embraced as a weapon against cultural convention, “the ink that gives the white page a meaning,” as Genet wrote.
At the 1991 Sundance Film Festival, “Poison” beat out movies by Stephen Frears and Richard Linklater to win the Grand Jury Prize. “He has restored my faith in youth,” John Waters said of Haynes, who at thirty became the poster boy for the budding queer-cinema movement. Haynes said, “The thing I dug about New Queer Cinema was being associated with films that were challenging narrative form and style as much as content. It wasn’t enough to replace the boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-then-gets-girl with a boy-meets-boy version. The target was the affirmative form itself, which rewards an audience’s expectations by telling us things work out in the end.” He went on, “Queerness was, by definition, a critique of mainstream culture. It wasn’t just a plea for a place at the table. It called into question the table itself.”
Inevitably, a graphic rape depicted in the “Homo” chapter of “Poison,” and a “gobbing scene”—a ritual humiliation in which prisoners spit into another inmate’s open mouth—got the movie into political hot water. The Reverend Donald Wildmon, of the fundamentalist Christian group the American Family Association, brought it to the attention of some members of Congress, who then protested the twenty-five-thousand-dollar N.E.A. grant that had made it possible for Haynes to finish the film. Haynes found himself drawn into an ongoing congressional debate about government funding of the arts. He appeared on “Larry King Live” and other talk shows to defend himself and artists in general against the right-wing outcry over taxpayers’ money being used to fund art that offended public sensibilities. A special screening of “Poison” was held in D.C. for senators and their spouses. An editorial in the Washington Times afterward declared Haynes “the Fellini of fellatio.” “A proud moment!” Haynes said.
Despite his new acclaim and the fact that “Poison” turned a profit, it took Haynes four years to raise the million dollars he needed to make his next feature, “Safe.” A restrained, masterly tale about a rich San Fernando Valley housewife, the well-named Carol White (played by Julianne Moore), who finds herself allergic to her environment, “Safe” was Haynes’s attempt to take on the discourse of recovery. As a heroine, Carol is sensationally uncharismatic: thin-voiced, remote, desireless, a stranger to herself. Her identity is defined by the bourgeois perfection of her material world. Unlike traditional “disease movies,” which, under the guise of teaching about illness, as Haynes put it, “are really the story of people’s personal victories over the odds,” “Safe” provides no clear explanation for Carol’s malaise. Is it chemical? Biological? Psychosomatic? “I was coy, I was tricky,” Haynes said. “I wanted to touch that little bit in everyone where you just aren’t convinced that who you think you are is really who you are—that moment when you feel like a forgery.” “Safe” also refuses the moral certainty and the redemptive narrative resolution of the genre, which, according to Haynes, would have been “contingent on the central character coming to accept her illness, ‘finding herself.’ ” “There’s no achieving perfect health,” Haynes said. “There’s no resolving the conflict of desire and oppression. There’s no resolving the individual and the civilization.”
“One of the things that’s interesting to me about Todd is that he’s always examining our position within certain social structures,” Julianne Moore told me. “Is identity purely your own? Or is it something that you’ve assumed?” Carol ends up at a ramshackle New Mexican community of fellow-sufferers, who purvey the mantra of self-love. (The film does not explicitly address aids, but does wink at the New Age recovery language adopted in such books as Louise L. Hay’s 1988 “The aids Book: Creating a Positive Approach,” whose argument Haynes summarizes as “If you loved yourself more, you wouldn’t have gotten sick.”) At her birthday celebration, Carol, surprised by a cake, is asked to make a speech. In Haynes’s script, she is not only lost for words; she is entirely lost. Her sentences are a scaffolding that holds up a nonentity:
I don’t know what I’m saying, just . . . it’s true how much I . . . (she stumbles, her eyes filling unexpectedly) hated myself before I—came here, so I’m . . . trying to be more—aware . . . seeing myself more as I hopefully am. . . . More positive, like seeing the pluses—like I think it slowly opens people’s minds, it’s like educating and AIDS and other types of disease—and this is a disease. . . . ’Cause it’s out there. It’s just making people aware of it and even our own selves. I mean we have to be aware of it . . . reading labels . . . going into buildings. . . . (Carol stops, suddenly forgetting what she was saying.)
At the finale, Carol, cut off from all connection to the outside world, sits inhaling oxygen in her white, ceramic-tiled “safe room.” It’s a moment of almost lunar loneliness. She walks over to a mirror and stares into it. “I love you, I really love you,” she whispers. Then, a little louder, “I love you.” She waits in front of the mirror for something to happen, as if her words will somehow inflate her into being. “Nothing happens” is the last line of the script, before the film cuts to black. In that devastating moment, “Safe,” which won the Village Voice’s 1999 poll for the Best Film of the Decade, becomes a coruscating metaphor for the negative.
In “Safe,” the chaos is internal; in Haynes’s subsequent works, including “Far from Heaven,” “Mildred Pierce” (a 2011 HBO miniseries adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel), and “Carol,” the battle between social norms and repressed desires is filtered through the external tumult of the melodrama, a much criticized form that he has enthusiastically adapted to his own expressive needs. “We don’t live in Westerns, noirs, murder mysteries, and shit,” he said. “We live in families and we have relationships that come and go; we suffer under social constraints and have to make tough choices. And that’s really what all these stories are about.”
In “Far from Heaven,” Haynes put a semiotic shellac on his homage to Douglas Sirk’s rococo fifties domestic weepies, which featured lush, saturated color, claustrophobic décors, and attractive stars in gorgeous clothes speaking in vapid full sentences, who nonetheless played ordinary people struggling to be happy and stand up to society. “From the outset, I think it was about embracing this beautiful, almost naïve language of words, gestures, movements, and interactions that were totally prescribed and extremely limited—not condescending to it, but allowing its simplicity to touch other feelings that you can’t be over-explicating,” Haynes told the Village Voice. In his meta-melodrama, the beautiful Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore, playing the flip side of Carol White) is living the Populuxe dream in Hartford, Connecticut. But her paradise is soon lost to the conflicting desires of those who inhabit it. Her husband, struggling in vain with his homosexuality, divorces her, and she falls for her African-American gardener only to see him forced out of town by bigotry.
“To me, the most amazing melodramas are the ones where, when a person makes a tiny step toward fulfilling a desire that their social role is built to discourage, they end up hurting everybody else. It’s like a chess game of pain, a ricochet effect where everybody gets hurt but there’s nobody to blame,” Haynes said. The pragmatic restaurateur Mildred Pierce (Kate Winslet, who earned an Emmy for her performance in the miniseries), for instance, wins wealth and social standing in the midst of the Great Depression by turning her domestic skills into a business, but it costs her her relationship with her daughter. Likewise, in “Carol,” an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel “The Price of Salt,” the suave Carol (Cate Blanchett), who is going through a difficult divorce, and the jejune Therese (Rooney Mara) act out a kind of Kabuki of normality, while the signs and signals of their attraction are being sent, received, and returned. In the aftermath of their connection, Therese loses her fiancé and Carol loses custody of her daughter.
Haynes calls his melodramas “assaults” in which “identity as a natural and stable property is the target.” By contrast, his music films celebrate the protean self. Haynes’s goal in the glam-rock fantasia “Velvet Goldmine” (1998) was to construct a “parallel universe in which the self-created fictions and high camp of glam rock become the raw material of a ‘Citizen Kane’ structure, in which no depiction of the ‘famous subject’ is unchallenged.” His Cubist interrogation of Bob Dylan, “I’m Not There” (2007), shows how Dylan turned the strategy of shifting identities into what Haynes calls “a glorious life’s work.” A sort of patchwork of Dylan’s transformations, the movie has six actors playing different personae, including an extraordinary Academy Award-nominated performance by Cate Blanchett of Dylan’s tousled-hair sixties folk “ramblin’ man.”
Haynes hit upon the subject of Dylan’s shape-shifting as he himself was facing an identity crisis. “Velvet Goldmine” had been a critical and commercial disappointment. He had also been unmoored by the collapse of his long-term relationship with Jim Lyons and by other romantic tribulations. He was, he said, “bummed out and exhausted”: “I tried to take a break and paint and travel. I went to Hawaii alone and finished Proust. But I wasn’t very inspired.” Haynes’s Brooklyn apartment, on the outskirts of Williamsburg, was so seedy and messy that, in thirteen years, he never invited his parents to visit. By his own admission, he lived those years “mostly out of boxes,” in a room that he’d turned into a workspace, dominated by a flatbed editing machine. “By the end, there were rats,” he said.
In January, 2000, Haynes took a road trip to visit his sister in Portland, Oregon, where he planned to work on a script. As he drove west, he found himself craving Dylan’s music, which he hadn’t listened to seriously since he was a teen-ager. He was looking, he said, for “a great physical, emotional, and psychological change.” By the time he reached Portland, he was filled with the kind of excitement “that makes me want to make something,” he said. “I wrote ‘Far from Heaven’ in two weeks, started work on the Dylan movie, and by summer the landlord had taken over my apartment in Williamsburg.” Portland gave Haynes “a kick in the pants in every possible way,” and he began to envision a different life.
“I think Todd arrived in Portland at a good moment both for himself and for the town,” the novelist and screenwriter Jon Raymond, who worked with Haynes on the screenplay for “Mildred Pierce,” told me. “Portland was still a relatively undiscovered enclave, with a lot of good, bohemian energy.” In this laid-back world, where, according to Wendy, “everybody gets to let their freak fly”—signs and bumper stickers proclaim “Keep Portland Weird”—Haynes blossomed. Although, for a long time, a portrait of him hung in Portland’s city hall, the low-key rhythm of the place allowed him some respite from the burden of acclaim. When Haynes arrived late to a huge Halloween party in 2002, he was refused entrance. “He was so delighted to be turned away,” Raymond said. “That would never have happened in New York.”
An old friend, the director Kelly Reichardt, was also living in Portland, and she and Raymond formed the collegial core of Haynes’s new creative life. “Just being friends with Todd is like being in a seminar sometimes,” Raymond said. (The two nicknamed him El Creador Seminal.) In 2002, when Haynes threw an Oscar party, he met his current partner, Bryan O’Keefe, then an aspiring writer. (He is now an archival producer on one of Haynes’s projects, a documentary about the Velvet Underground.) Portland’s other great gift to Haynes was to put him back in touch with nature and his own lightheartedness. Raymond remembers him “romping around the woods in a Bigfoot costume,” during a photo shoot on Mt. Hood, and “slathering himself with mud to scare his friends by some creek.” During the summer, Haynes swims in the Washougal River almost every day. He and Wendy often hike to Wahclella Falls, in the Columbia River Gorge. “You see the intellect fall away,” she said. “You see the creativity fall away. You see a peace come across him. He’s a very innocent human being on a lot of levels.”
Eventually, Haynes settled into a 1907 gray-blue Arts and Crafts cottage with boxed beams and dark-wood panelling; his furniture was salvaged from the set of “Far from Heaven,” which gives the place a cozy mid-century flavor. On the wall of his study, he keeps a gallimaufry of images—among them Dylan, Freud, David Bowie, his mother, and Brian Eno. Since 2005, he has shared the house with O’Keefe.
In 2010, Haynes’s mother, Sherry, choked on a cheese sandwich and couldn’t be revived. Within half an hour of her death, in Los Angeles, Haynes, who was in New York, had a stroke. “The whole thing was inexplicable. I had no real symptoms,” he said. (He later discovered that he had antiphospholipid syndrome, a hypercoagulable condition.) “The event was uncanny and frightening, but the loss of my mother is what survives,” he said. “He doesn’t like to talk about his losses,” O’Keefe said. “It’s not easy to know what’s going on with Todd emotionally a lot of the time. He is very careful about public display.”
At work, however, Haynes’s emotional radiance—what Raymond calls “the golden thing inside him that is untouchable and unvanquishable”—is palpable. There is no grandstanding: Ruffalo refers to him as “the consummate collaborator.” Fairness and equality are core values; in his mind, as Raymond put it, “we are all children together, we need to play fair, everyone deserves their turn.” On the set, Raymond added, “he creates environments where people don’t feel harmed. He’s very strict in his gentleness.”
Kate Winslet remembered that, while shooting “Mildred Pierce,” “his energy would never fail.” At one point, she added, “he had salmonella, and he just carried on working. We would do a take and he’d throw up. We would do another take, and he’d throw up again. He would sit in his chair, sweat for a bit, stand up, throw up again, and do another take. This lasted for four or five days. He was very, very unwell.” Winslet went on, “Then there was another day—oh, my fucking God. He had to have a dental surgeon come to the set and pull a tooth out. ‘Thank God, that’s out. O.K., let’s go!’ ”
On a stifling New York morning in mid-July, Haynes was sequestered in an editing room at a postproduction facility in Chelsea with his burly, bearded Brazilian film editor, Affonso Gonçalves, whom he affectionately calls Fonzi. They were down to the wire editing “Dark Waters” for an early test screening for the studio, Focus Features, and they worked away with the kind of steady intuitive understanding that’s usually reserved for a quarterback and his wide receiver. This was their fourth collaboration. Fonzi was hunched over the Avid console; Haynes sat on a sofa eight feet behind him, his production notes at his side, staring at a large monitor as they applied a fine filigree of rhythm and clarity to the scenes. The dizzying speed of the production schedule and the fact that “Dark Waters” was Haynes’s first film developed by a studio had him on edge.
They were tweaking a scene in which Bilott first tells his wife about DuPont’s dumping drums full of toxic sludge into the Ohio River and the Chesapeake Bay which soon began to wash up onshore. “So DuPont starts digging ditches,” Ruffalo’s Bilott says. “Huge open pits on the grounds of the Washington Works plant. And, in those pits, they dumped thousands of tons of toxic CH sludge and dust.”
“I don’t know if this is gonna track, Fonz, but try ‘started digging ditches,’ ” Haynes said. “We’re cutting out ‘huge open pits.’ It’s not much, but try it.”
Fonzi reran the scene with the few words scrubbed out. “He’s emphasizing ‘ditches’ so much,” Haynes said. “You could do ‘so DuPont started digging huge, open pits on the grounds of their plant, Washington Works.’ Try that.” Haynes thought for a moment. “Maybe ‘ditches’ is better. He says ‘pits’ in the next sentence.”
“Let me show you,” Fonzi said, swivelling back to the console.
“No, no, the other’s better.”
“The way we just had it?” Fonzi said.
“Yeah, I think that’ll work.”
Fonzi reinstated the previous trim, then briefly left the room. “I have more fun with Fonzi than I ever do on set,” Haynes said. He compared the intimacy of editing to the process of painting together. “You’re producing results. You’re problem-solving,” he said. “You have to be surrendering all the time, letting go, looking at what you have in front of you, which is not what you imagined.” Haynes, who is concurrently editing his documentary on the Velvet Underground and developing a twelve-part TV series on Sigmund Freud, has contrived to keep himself almost continually in that climate of surrender.
As part of their process, Fonzi first edits a version of the film without consulting Haynes. Meanwhile, Haynes assembles his detailed notes to form a sort of outline of the film as he sees it. “What’s really interesting is that he and I find our own favorite takes separately, and they’re often the same,” Haynes said. Once the two are in the editing room, they start again from Scene 1. From then on, the collaboration is more or less a mind meld. “Are you feeling what I’m feeling?” Haynes asked at one point. “Uh-huh, uh-huh,” Fonzi said.
Haynes subscribes to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s contention that revolution belongs not on the screen but in the world. “To provide an audience with a solution—to give them the revolution—is to deprive them of creating their own,” Haynes said. His films ask viewers to contend with ambiguity, which is part of their sly subversiveness. In “Dark Waters,” Bilott is not only an unlikely hero. He’s an unlikely messenger for one of Haynes’s most deeply held Freudian convictions: “There is no resolving of conflict. The conflict is the process of life.” Haynes considers the movie “a primer on how to live with as much knowledge and awareness as possible.” He added, “There’s no silver bullet, no magic solutions. There’s no way to just end corporate greed and corruption. But there are steps to take, and we just have to keep taking them.”
Bilott’s struggle to take those steps was what Haynes and Fonzi were trying to punch up next, in a terrifying scene: after deposing DuPont’s C.E.O., Bilott walks slowly through a brightly lit underground parking garage to get to his car—Haynes’s homage to the Deep Throat garage scene in “All the President’s Men.” As the camera tracks Bilott through the concrete pillars, for a split second a stranger appears against the back wall. “I don’t think Rob literally had death threats,” Haynes said. “But he really did have that experience in the parking garage. Rob said that, once the New York Times article came out, in 2016, he knew that he would at least not be killed. The cat was out of the bag.” On the screen, Bilott sits at the wheel of his car, looking around with dread in his eyes, as he cautiously inserts the key into the ignition and turns it.
“Stay in the same low angle of him, intercutting with the key,” Haynes said. “Going to another angle then back to the first angle breaks the tension for me.”
“I think the tricky part is where he’s closing his eyes,” Fonzi said. “Because once he closes his eyes it’s done. I’m using an extra shot to stretch the moment, delaying that action.”
Haynes’s cell phone flashed with a “Breaking News” alert, and Haynes, a news junkie, couldn’t resist peeking at it. “ ‘The E.P.A. will not ban a widely used pesticide associated with developmental disabilities in children and other health problems,’ ” he read. “There you go!” He tossed his phone on the sofa and got back to work. ♦