We check in with the director of Far from Heaven and Carol about the movement that kicked off three decades ago — and how far there is to go.
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As Pride Month comes to a close, filmmaker Todd Haynes is shaken. "It's a tough day," he says over the phone — just minutes earlier, news broke about the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, putting the future of LGBTQ freedoms at risk.

But Haynes, 61, sounds invigorated and wants to chat. He springs from an activist movement, now celebrating its 30th anniversary, when the so-called New Queer Cinema — first articulated by B. Ruby Rich in a landmark 1992 Village Voice article — was ascendant. Haynes's debut feature, Poison, a still-radical 1991 Sundance debut that combines Jean Genet poetry with sci-fi weirdness, was very much a part of that wave.

Poison launched Haynes' career. It also was met with ire from the religious right, and spurred a conversation about arts funding. Haynes has since gone on to a lengthy Oscar-nominated run touching on many genres: the disease-of-the-week movie (Safe), the '50s melodrama (Far from Heaven, Carol), the environmental thriller (Dark Waters). But at heart, he is forged from a place of intentional antagonism, a mode of confrontational filmmaking that coalesced in the early 1990s. He still has a lot to say, and do.

FAR FROM HEAVEN, from left: Julianne Moore, director Todd Haynes, 2002. © Focus Films/Courtesy Everett Collection
Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore on the set of 'Far from Heaven'
| Credit: Focus Films/Everett

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What do you personally remember about that moment, right after Poison, when suddenly there was an idea of a New Queer Cinema taking root?

TODD HAYNES: I fully appreciated the moment I was in, and the fact that it was being defined as something new. But I understood it on a couple of levels. There were always gay audiences — probably part of art-house audiences, right? But for the filmmakers who became categorized as New Queer Cinema, it had everything to do with AIDS, HIV and the crisis we were all in the middle of. That put a different kind of frame around films that were being made, and a different kind of interest and engagement by audiences.

How would you describe that new frame?

I think we were trying to make sense of an incredibly scary time, a scary lack of reaction by the government to AIDS in the United States. We felt an urgency. It felt omnipresent, and it felt like it was driving the reasons why we do the things we do, giving them specific cultural relevance.

That kind of timeliness and anger was different than what came before it. How would you describe the gay cinema that first inspired you?

It's a broad, rich, and complicated category of films. Some came out of Hollywood, some out of European art cinema, some out of the Warhol Factory culture, which John Waters and other experimental filmmakers were interpreting. Then there was Derek Jarman in the U.K. — I'm just naming a few off top of my head who were greatly influential to me as I was coming of age and being inspired by a lot of different work. Even Gus Van Sant's films felt like they slightly preceded this moment that's been demarcated by the New Queer Cinema and AIDS.

What was it about that work that moved you?

You'd see a different stripped-down erotic minimalism in Warhol, but there was still something simmering in the sexual content of those films, and how much of an underground world it was. It was both reflecting and creating at the same time. And then, there was also a lot of humor and camp irony. They were funny and edgy, but could reach different kinds of audiences in midnight-movie contexts.

Do you still self-identify as the young man who made Poison?

Probably, in the sense that those years of my life were so formative for me, as a thinker, as an observer of the world. There was this public health crisis that put a dagger point to what was going on at the moment, and underscored the volatility, the necessity of speaking out.

Would you call yourself a political filmmaker?

I would, in the sense that I'm motivated by what's going on in the world. And I do feel like there's an interaction between the kind of stories you can tell, and the attitudes you can take on them, in ways that might make the viewers of those movies think about themselves more in relationship to the world. And that things aren't so great all the time. So in that sort of nursery-school version of it, you can say I'm politically motivated.

When I think of that first wave of New Queer films — Poison, Tom Kalin's Swoon, the Pixelvision videos of Sadie Benning — there's a real sense of visual boldness. Would you call that element a part of the new wave?

I was so blown away by what was happening at ACT UP and the way activism was being reconceived, drawing from civil-rights practices but absolutely reflecting a sense of advertisement and marketing and image-making that was very queer. It felt like we were using all of our abilities, all of our ways of communicating and directing.

VELVET GOLDMINE, director Todd Haynes and Toni Collette (left), 1998
Todd Haynes and Toni Collette, left, on the set of 'Velvet Goldmine'
| Credit: Miramax/Everett

Did you want to be thought of as someone identified with a movement? Or as your own kind of filmmaker?

I wanted to see if ideas about queerness could be extrapolated more broadly — if they could be looked at as attitudes about what you did, more than content. So you wouldn't necessarily align stories about gay men with the only thing a gay male filmmaker might want to do.

Safe (1995), your amazing first film with Julianne Moore about a housewife reckoning with a mysterious disease, seems at first like a pivot away from gay content. But I watch it now and it feels distinctly about outsiderness.

One could argue — and I probably did at the time — that Safe was as queer a movie as Poison. It wasn't positing erotic or seductive examples in the story, but it was really looking at the kind of repression within mainstream heteronormative cultures, and how chilling they are.

But also, what Safe really was about was how AIDS was being thrown back onto the sufferers, the people with HIV, as something that was your fault. Some of the New Age recovery discourse I was encountering I found to be harsh and not empowering, even though it said, "You can get rid of your AIDS if you learn how to love yourself more." I was interested in the ways that we as human beings turn ourselves into the cause of why we are ill.

By the time we get to your breakthrough, Far from Heaven (2002), you've trained your audiences to look for depths below the surfaces. Is that film still coming from a place of new queer cinema?

It's about three people whose challenges were deeply intertwined. One of them is a closeted gay husband. One is a woman who was there to — particularly in the 1950s, but still to this day — maintain certain institutions of family and order. And then, there was a Black man who would be the subject of over-projection by a racist society that would be intolerant of any closeness that he might have with a white woman. All three of these people were in a kind of tangle, and I loved melodramas that did that, where the villain wasn't any bad person. It was society.

I was certainly inspired by the great traditional classic Hollywood directors who worked in melodrama, like Douglas Sirk, Max Ophüls, or Vincente Minnelli, several of whom were, in fact, gay themselves. Some of them weren't, but had a sensibility and understanding of this genre that talks about domestic life, one that touches all of us. And then [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder, who was an out activist, a militant European who decided not to follow the direction of brilliant filmmakers like Godard, but take on genres like melodrama, to talk about social systems. I love that.

Carol (2015) (L-R) ROONEY MARA and director, TODD HAYNES On Set
Todd Haynes and Rooney Mara on the set of 'Carol'
| Credit: WILSON WEBB

I think of stuff like Carol or Mildred Pierce as "traditional" Todd Haynes films, from which you sometimes stray to non-domestic fare like Dark Waters. Is that intentional on your part?

It is, to some degree, except what's so funny about Mark Ruffalo coming to me with that particular script — which has such a clearly urgent, relevant political topic about power and chemical companies like DuPont — is that it was a genre that I just love: that kind of paranoia genre, I would call it, maybe best described by the great Alan Pakula films of the '70s [Klute, The Parallax View, All the President's Men]. Almost anything Gordon Willis touched with his lens. I feel like it's a tribute to Gordon Willis, that movie.

They called cinematographer Willis the "Prince of Darkness."

Oh, totally. He's so interested in architectural spaces, interior spaces, how they isolate people, how they pull people away from each other, and how whistleblowers in general find themselves so tragically isolated to the point of their lives being endangered. Which was true for Robert Bilott in Dark Waters, and it was true for Woodward and Bernstein in All the President's Men, and it's true for people who really do take on power.

So Dark Waters was just as personal for you?

People wouldn't know it from my other films, but those Pakula films are ones I watch obsessively and revere, from an aesthetic and a formal perspective. They line up, in many ways to me, with stories that I've been telling about identity, when you're questioning who you are, and who you've always assumed yourself to be, and what your freedoms are. When you take no longer can take for granted what your freedoms are. I think that's when questions of identity often arise.

Speaking of freedoms, the journalist in me has to ask about your banned Barbie-doll Carpenters short, Superstar, which Richard Carpenter has forbidden you from showing. What's the status? I hope you don't mind me checking in.

No, I love it. Thank you for asking. There have been some legal opinions written about the film that seem favorable to a way through. But there's a lot more work that I need to do that I haven't had time to, which is annotate the film and provide all of the sources of information and so forth. It's been shown a couple of times, not announced publicly, and not for any fee, not for any ticket, under the terms of its cease and desist. But it has been remastered by UCLA and Sundance a couple years ago, and it looks so beautiful. Every time I see it now, I'm just like, Oh, man, I'm so lucky that we have this version out there.

You seem hopeful.

Yes, it'll happen. It's not something we're working on at the moment, but it's going to happen — it will happen, yeah.

Given the hindsight of 30 years, do you feel the situation has gotten better for queer on-screen representation?

Yes, of course. I think AIDS was a challenge to dominant society, and a transition that would move us — to everyone's surprise — fairly rapidly into a era of acceptance around gay representation and gay storytelling. It would lead to things like gay marriage. But I also think maybe we have retreated backward. Now we're seeing hard-right white nationalist groups that were joining Trump in the insurrection a year ago, seeming to be more focused on trans culture and LGBTQ ideas and threats. That's startling.

But there's been a general acceptance of gayness that I think one can't deny. As somebody who was formed by the New Queer Cinema, I feel like some of it has been a bit defanged, some of the political possibilities around representation and what it means, how it can critique the mainstream. So I look at it with some ambivalence — what you give up and what you gain, in movements toward acceptance in society.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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