Todd Haynes: ‘All my movies are critical and financial disappointments initially’

The auteur on his love of whistleblower films and the legacy of New Queer Cinema

The American auteur Todd Haynes, who has presided over such intriguing pictures as Safe (in which Julianne Moore's housewife retreats from contemporary life due to chemical allergies) and I'm Not There (in which actors as varied as Richard Gere, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, and Heath Ledger all play Bob Dylan), is describing a pot. It's turquoise, and antique. He doesn't use it, which is just as well. It pops up in conversation as it's the only thing he can think of at his Portland, Oregon, home that may be coated in Teflon. And having watched his eighth feature film, I'm as concerned as he is about the trademarked non-stick coating.

Dark Waters is a terrifying new legal drama which follows Robert Bilott's real-life legal battle against DuPont over the release of a toxic chemical into the water supply of Parkersburg, West Virginia, affecting 70,000 townspeople and hundreds of livestock. Based on a 2016 New York Times Magazine long-read, The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare, by Nathaniel Rich, the film chronicles Bilott's decades-long legal battle against the chemical giant.

A corporate defence attorney at a high-profile law firm working on behalf of major chemical clients, Bilott (played by an unflappable Mark Ruffalo in the film) was persuaded to take a case on behalf of a farmer from his hometown of Parkersburg who was convinced that 190 of his cows had died as a result of drinking water infected by a neighbouring factory owned by DuPont.

After various legal scuffles over disclosure, there comes a reveal: DuPont has been testing perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA-C8), which is used in the manufacture of Teflon, on animals and on its own employees for years. Their own studies show that it caused cancer, as well as birth defects in babies of women working in the factory.


At first glance, Dark Waters isn’t the neatest fit for Todd Haynes, the director of Far From Heaven and Carol. Even he was somewhat surprised when Participant Media and Mark Ruffalo called.

“I thought, wow: you are seeing around my corners,” says Haynes. “Mark couldn’t have known it but, literally, I could watch All the President’s Men every week. It’s a great film but there’s something else going on. I think it’s because it reminds me of the present tense of the narrative format. You don’t look at what’s coming; you were completely in the moment. We don’t watch All the President’s Men for the outcome; we know the outcome. You watch it for the process. So it links the narrative experience to the process of story building. You are watching people find a story, you are watching people determine the scope of the story, and the implications of that story.”

Visual inspiration

Consulting with his long-time director of photography Ed Lachman, Haynes turned to the work of Gordon Willis and, in particular, Willis and director Alan J Pakula's paranoia trilogy for visual inspiration. Various scenes depicting Bilott dwarfed by boxes and documents and a nervy, obscured exit from DuPont's premises curtsy before Willis's compositions for Klute, All the President's Men, and The Parallax View.

“Not a lot of people know it but I’m a lover of great, dark, brooding whistleblower movies, particularly those beautiful Gordon Willis films,” says the film-maker. “It was as if I was doing Gordon Willis tutorials. I was coming back to those movies – even those Willis movies that weren’t in the genre – just to see how he was shooting and framing and what was continuous about his work in films with different directors. Even when the film isn’t as strong, you still sit there and say: oh wow; there’s the Willis factor.

“You know, every film becomes a new challenge. I really feel like I’m a student again, like I’m humbling myself before the medium, and I hope that continues. Some people like putting my films in the same category. But for every film I am trying to do something differently.”

I went to Joni Mitchell's house with drawings I had done of her when I was in high school. I  handed them over to some Joni Mitchell clone who opened the door

At 59, Haynes still cuts a boyish figure, in both appearance and sensibility. His various enthusiasms may, perhaps, be heightened by our London location. Aged three, a viewing of Mary Poppins sparked a cinematic and an Anglophilic obsession.

“The power of that experience was really formative,” recalls Haynes. “It was the very first movie I saw and it was a profound shock to the system. The combination of the British locations and this fantasy governess who was both loving and strict, beautiful but strangely sexless in a way. That was exhilarating and spectacular and erotic. It created some kind of need for creative response that immediately made me have to replay the experience of having watched the film by drawing countless pictures of Mary Poppins and re-enacting the events of the movie.”

Movie background

Movies and showbusiness were hardly abstractions for Haynes, who grew up in Los Angeles. His grandfather was the head of set construction at Warner Brothers during the 1940s. His younger sister is Gwynneth Haynes of the band Sophe Lux. As a teenager he attended Oakwood School, a private North Hollywood, art-centric faculty, favoured by the children of actors (alumni include Chris Pine, Moon Zappa, and Lily-Rose Depp). For a young cinephile who loved responding to other artists, Los Angeles was a fine environment.

"My grandfather was gone before the blacklist but we knew people in the industry," says Haynes. "They were friends of friends of friends who were in the industry. As a kid I would develop major, major fanboy obsessions with certain actors. So I met Lucille Ball. I went to see her. And I made a short movie, Dottie Gets Spanked, as a kind of response to that. I met Diana Ross when I was in fifth grade. I went to Joni Mitchell's house with drawings I had done of her when I was in high school. I actually handed them over to some Joni Mitchell clone who opened the door in a bikini with long blonde hair at her Bel-Air house."

He laughs: “‘No, she’s not here right now; I’ll be sure to give them to her.’ I’m sure they just went into the big closet that was full of poems and drawings that people sent to Joni Mitchell.”

We didn't just lose great artists during the Aids era; we lost great audiences

In the same worshipful spirit as the possibly discarded Mitchell drawings, if there's a unifying theme in Todd Haynes's oeuvre, it's Stendhal syndrome, the notion of swooning before another artist's work. His short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), which depicts singer Karen Carpenter's life and death, using Barbie dolls, was an act of fan-fiction before anyone had heard of the term. Far From Heaven, his 2002 1950s-set melodrama about a housewife (Julianne Moore) who discovers that her husband is gay and subsequently has a romance with her black gardener, is a lovely dialogue between Douglas Sirk melodrama and New Queer Cinema, a movement that allowed for Haynes's Aids-themed debut feature Poison to emerge alongside such culturally significant pictures as Tom Kalin's Swoon, Isaac Julien's Young Soul Rebels, Gregg Araki's The Living End, and Derek Jarman's Edward II.

“It’s hard to find a parallel where the sense of political urgency and cultural criticism and artistic innovation were mutually informing each other,” recalls Haynes of the movement.

“Formal and stylistic innovation was basic to those movies and for those new film-makers and the films that came out of what was obviously a life and death emergency. They asked everybody to take a stand in one way or another and to speak out. It really broadened the language of cinema in my opinion.

“We were outside dominant culture as both critics and experts of it in some ways. We didn’t just lose great artists during the Aids era; we lost great audiences, and it was the audiences who wrote the bar for media and theatre and film and music and what it should do and does do. The queer audiences of the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s and ’80s were [a] demanding and exacting group. But because they were excluded, they had to read between the lines of culture and occupy their own spaces.”

Studying semiotics

Haynes is an awfully clever chap. He studied semiotics at Brown University, where he directed his first short film, Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud (1985), inspired by the French poet, and where he met Christine Vachon, the producer who has shepherded in most of the best American cinema of the last quarter of a century, including all of Haynes's films. He can't imagine his career without her.

“I would have given up if our paths hadn’t crossed,” says Haynes. “Even by our second feature Safe, it took us four years to get a million dollars to make that film. And that film could not be made today. There’s no way. Maybe we could have found some of that money but not the comparable amount in today’s money. But she was just indefatigable. She was stubborn and she said we’re going to do this. Every time, I would have to go back and I would read the script and think: do I really want this fight? Am I really that invested in this? And I would think: yes, I do believe in this. But she was the one out there slaying dragons and not accepting no for an answer.

“I had assumed I would teach and make experimental films. There were many great examples of people like that, especially at Brown where I went to college. I would have absolutely opted for that.”

Together Vachon and Haynes have mustered the Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize and a Special Jury Prize from Cannes. Mildred Pierce, the HBO mini-series Haynes co-wrote and directed, received 21 Emmy nominations, winning in five categories, as well as four Golden Globe nominations, and a win for lead actor Kate Winslet. His 2015 period drama Carol managed six Academy Award nominations, five Golden Globe nominations, and nine Bafta nominations. It hasn't, however, all been plain sailing.

“Velvet Goldmine was the hardest,” he says of his 1998 glam rock fantasia. “It was so ambitious and the budget that we had and the schedule that we had and what I wanted out of it was very aggressively planned out. I’m proud of the fact that most of the pain I just put on to myself. The actors talk about it as a sort of delirious party and that’s great. By the end, I just made a decision: I’m going to enjoy the parties and the pageantry of going to Cannes and showing this movie. And it was one of the most celebrated parties in festival history. There were a lot of people hooking up, a lot of drugs and a lot of drinking.

“People always say: wasn’t it really hard for you when that movie was a critical and financial disappointment? And I’m like: no, all my movies are critical and financial disappointments initially. Showing Carol at Cannes was the fairytale. But Velvet Goldmine was the party.”

Dark Waters is released on February 28th