Filmmaker Todd Haynes Loves Making a Melodrama Out of a Crisis

The American director was inspired by classic love stories for his latest film, 'Carol,' which looks certain to feature in this week’s Academy Award nominations.

Store clerk Rooney Mara (left) serves Cate Blanchett in a scene from Todd Haynes' "Carol."
AP

Many of Patricia Highsmith’s novels have been adapted into films by various directors. The most famous is “Strangers on a Train,” her first book, which in 1951 became one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best and most successful films. Highsmith is considered a writer of thrillers, but just as Alfred Hitchcock was far more than just a director of thrillers, Highsmith was far more than a writer of detective stories. With considerable literary skill, she wrote psychologically ambiguous novels dominated by ambivalent moral vagueness.

Last year’s Cannes Film Festival featured another film based on one of her books: “Carol,” adapted from her second novel, “The Price of Salt,” which was published in 1952. The film, directed by American filmmaker Todd Haynes, was highly praised at Cannes, but failed to win the Palme d’Or. It had to suffice with the Best Actress award, which was presented to Rooney Mara, one of its two stars. It is almost sure to be nominated for several Academy Awards this Thursday, including Best Film.

I met Haynes at Cannes last May, and it was one of the most enjoyable interviews I have ever had with a filmmaker I admire. Haynes (who turned 55 earlier this month, but looks younger) turned out to be a very intelligent and affable artist. I have been a fan since he made “Far from Heaven,” starring Julianne Moore, in 2002. That movie is a fascinating adaptation of Douglas Sirk’s 1955 melodrama “All That Heaven Allows,” and for me it is one of the best American films of this century.

Because “Carol” also takes place in the 1950s, I couldn’t help but open our conversation with a question about the connection between the two films, both of which deal with illicit relationships in ’50s America. “Far From Heaven” showed the relationship that developed between a married woman (Moore) and her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert), after she discovers that her husband (Dennis Quaid) is gay. “Carol” chronicles the love story between Carol, a New York society woman (Cate Blanchett), and Therese (Mara), a young store clerk.

Haynes says he never planned for “Carol” to be a complementary film to “Far From Heaven.” What interested him, he says, was depicting the change that took place in the social and cultural climate in the United States between the beginning (“Carol”) and end (“Far From Heaven”) of the 1950s. He thinks the start of the decade still reflected the 1940s, and in “Carol” he wanted to present the post-World War II upheaval.

Partially autobiographical

“The Price of Salt” was Highsmith’s only novel that wasn’t a thriller. She wrote it in the late 1940s, when she was still in her 20s. Because of its subject matter – a lesbian love story – she had a hard time finding a publisher. Haynes says Highsmith’s book is partially autobiographical.

“She wrote her first novel, “Strangers on a Train,” and it was published and sold, and so she had her first success,” he relates. “But she still had no money, and as she was a young girl living in New York, she needed it. She took a temporary job at Bloomingdale’s, selling dolls. One day, this really beautiful woman – a wealthy, elegant blonde – walks into the store and asks for some advice about what to buy and Highsmith advises her. She is immediately taken with this woman and her beauty, and the woman buys the doll.

“Patricia Highsmith immediately feels sick and succumbs to a very extreme case of chickenpox and is hospitalized. She has a weekend of intense fever and in that state she imagines this relationship continuing and writes the beginning of ‘The Price of Salt,’ and basically conceived the whole story. Later, “Strangers on a Train” comes out and she is successful, but no one wants to publish this novel of hers. Her regular publishers are too afraid of the content, and so she has to go to an underground publisher and publish it under a pseudonym [Claire Morgan]. She does so, and even after traveling a little bit after the success of “Strangers on a Train,” she comes back to New York and still has the woman on her mind. She gets on a train to New Jersey to that woman’s house and stands behind the bushes, just waiting to see this woman again. She never sees her, though, and that’s really the end of the story.”

I ask Haynes whether Therese is attracted to Carol not only because of her beauty and elegance, but also because of her higher class and the possibility that Carol will offer her a chance to become part of that class. Haynes agrees, saying it was his intention to create this ideological and emotional ambivalence.

Filmmaker Todd Haynes poses at a screening of "Carol," November 2015.
Reuters

When you deal with the 1950s in your films – or even the 1930s, like in the “Mildred Pierce” television mini-series you directed in 2011 – are you observing what is happening in America today from the perspective of the past?

“Of course, although it changes from one film to the next. I read James M. Cain’s [“Mildred Pierce”] book in 2008, just when the economic crisis erupted in America and the recession began, and I told myself, ‘Wow, this book is so relevant to our times.’ I’ve always been interested in the Depression era, but it felt like this was a timely opportunity to look back at that time, to learn from that time, and also for a story so much about class divisions in American society.”

Traditional love stories

Haynes says he thought less about present-day America with “Carol,” although the issue of same-sex marriage and tolerance toward the LGBT community is undergoing a massive transition today.

“I really was more fascinated by the sort of traditional love story in films,” Haynes explains. As he watched classic love stories, he realized that audiences are always on the side of the weaker, more vulnerable character, the one that’s more in love and is, therefore, more liable to be hurt.

Like “Far From Heaven,” “Carol” is a melodrama – a genre that was scorned for many years. That attitude changed, though, starting in the 1970s, and is now treated as an ideological tool, one that has been used by many leading directors. Among them is German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who also created his own version of “All That Heaven Allows” – 1974’s “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.” Haynes notes that Fassbinder’s films were very meaningful for him.

“I love the melodrama and I love his unabashed use of artifice – and that through artifice, we almost can film more genuinely the pain of life. Ultimately, melodrama is just another word for domestic drama, stories about everyday life often inside family settings. That often means they are more about female characters. And so, in the stories of women’s lives, you are more directly confronted with responsibilities and constraints on their freedom, and the ways that desire is dictated. And the social forces that affect ordinary people – melodramas are almost always about ordinary people, they are not about heroic people.”

Haynes says he finds it funny when people say melodrama is not realistic, because the opposite is true. “Melodramas challenge us to look in the mirror and see who we really are,” he says. “We are not cowboys, gangsters or spacemen; we are those people inside houses who don’t always feel happy and don’t always know why. And even when melodramas are concerned with tragedy, often we don’t have deep insights or discover the meaning of human existence.”

He adds that he loved Sirk’s films and his unhesitating use of artifice, “through which we can record more accurately the pain of human existence, more than the belief that the truth is revealed only if we are documenting ‘life as it is.’”

I ask Haynes, who is gay, whether there is such a thing as a gay aesthetic in cinema. “No, not uniquely or consistently,” he responds.

“I think that one might have been able to identify something called the ‘gay aesthetic’ when gay culture was not accepted and integrated into society – when it had to operate clandestinely and in secret, and through all kind of marginal criticism of dominant society through irony, through all the ways in which it reread dominant society from its own outsider perspective.

“It is no longer the same kind of outsider perspective and, although that is the correct thing to do for the rights of people, and it is the direction we are all going in as we should do, and it is correct for every young kid who is coming out in the world, we also lose a critical perspective – a rich history of looking at the world from the margins. And I miss that, I miss things about that.”