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|In 1994, Julianne Moore gave the most passionless performance of her career. And it was completely stunning. She played Carol White, a housewife with an undiagnosable disease whose world slowly implodes over the course of two hours in Safe, a film written and directed by Todd Haynes. Several years earlier, for his faux-documentary, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, he directed a cast of Barbie dolls who watch helplessly as the anorexic singer is gradually estranged from her body. Unauthorized and rarely screened, the film propelled him on to public notoriety and his next movie, Poison. A stylistic vertigo of Genet, film-noir and after-school specials, Poison was a jarring, wondrous collection of ideas. The same can be said for all his films; they are wildly ambitious in scope as well as simple in the emotions they convey. They're as quiet as they are glamorous.
And deep in Glam is where Todd has been these days. He's just completed Velvet Goldmine, his epic tale of glitter rock, a brief pop-culture moment in the early '70s, when English groups like Roxy Music, T-Rex, and David Bowie, alongside Americans like Iggy Pop and the New York Dolls, converged on a new interpretation of camp crossed with a heady dose of cosmic irony. The film is set for release early this fall.
TODD: You're clicking in and out. I think we're being bugged. I swear to God.
STEPHEN: I don't have much experience with bugging.
TODD: I wish we could have done this in person. It's just that, with all the shit that was happening in London all the technical complications I had to stay seven weeks instead of three. I wouldn't have stayed that long if I didn't have to.
STEPHEN: Well, you've made it to Hawaii.
TODD: And how! Yeah, it's really shocking to be here. It's the most beautiful place. It's shockingly beautiful.
STEPHEN: I was just thinking how strange it is that there you are in nature's cradle after making this movie, this epic of ...
TODD: Artifice. [laughs] That thought has crossed my mind as well. My pores are devouring everything natural around me, strangely enough.
STEPHEN: I heard that you had been staying at Derek Jarman's studio in London. How did that happen?
TODD: I was staying with my friend Keith Collins. He was Derek's boyfriend when Derek died, and this place was left in his hands. Derek moved there in the late '70s or early '80s. It's right across the street from St. Martin's College, and it's tiny but an amazing place.
STEPHEN: I recently saw Jarman's Jubilee again, and I don't know why that movie got knocked around so much. I thought it was rad.
TODD: It was sort of Glam era?
STEPHEN: Well, really punk era.
TODD: With Vivienne Westwood, right?
STEPHEN: Yeah, and all the people who worked at Seditionaries. You could easily imagine Derek Jarman as part of that scene. Seeing it again made me wonder what Jubilee would be like next to Velvet Goldmine ...
TODD: A double bill?
STEPHEN: Yes. To think of the way that Jubilee happened right at that moment, while in Velvet Goldmine you've built this kind of "looking-back" right into the story.
TODD: Well, the whole retrospective quality of the film was very intended. In the music that was the most moving to me like Roxy Music, there was this ironic melancholy, mostly about the past or something lost. I think if Velvet Goldmine didn't have that, its unbelievably affirmative quality would make me really nervous. Because I've never made a film that's been so affirmative in so many ways.
STEPHEN: So that detachment in the music was there to start with.
TODD: Well, I think in the early '70s, people were uninterested in what was actually happening at the moment. They were much more interested in the past, in a sort of Hollywood-informed nostalgia, and also in the future notions of Space and Futurism ˆ la 2001. In melding those two ideas, they created what was contemporary.
STEPHEN: It seems like all the films that you've made so far play as much with film history as with revisioning the history of recent Pop Culture. All the film tricks, these little devices in Velvet Goldmine, they have a nostalgic appeal.
TODD: I remember going to the movies in the late '60s and early '70s, and even with films that were very popular at the time, like Butch Cassidy or The Graduate, you always went not knowing what was going to happen. Not having any sense of the ready-made genre that we have today, where you just plug in different actors and slightly different scenarios. Back then it was a feeling almost akin to a drug experience, where you entered into a world you'd never seen before. I definitely wanted to bring that into Velvet Goldmine.
STEPHEN: How were you able to do that?
TODD: Throughout the film, there is a real insistence on visual motifs that come from the early '70s, stuff that we haven't seen in a long time like rampant zoom-ins and zoom-outs, racking focus and swish pans, a whole different kind of camera ... Much more investigation of surface, of the grain of cinema, not the pyrotechnics of tracking and swooping into things physically.
STEPHEN: It couldn't look more different than Safe.
TODD: In both Safe and Velvet Goldmine, there were almost a series of rules played out within each film's universe. Safe had a controlled camera that was extremely removed from the subjects, that slid very subtly in space around Carol White, the main character. Whereas Velvet Goldmine is full of short, fast shots, zoom-ins and highly ornate kinds of camera movement. So they are almost jokes on each other in a funny way, they were so opposite or jokes on me.
STEPHEN: Has the style evolved from one film to another, or do you think the nature of the story demands that Velvet Goldmine look so crazy?
TODD: There are definitely parallels to Poison in the messiness of the filmmaking although I'm not a messy filmmaker. I'm an incredibly over-cognitive filmmaker. But the visual poetry of the two films comes from trying to have images that can take over the narrative machine. Of course, those films are so much more about sexuality than Safe. Safe is also about the body but it's not at all about sexuality. I'm not sure if there are two columns for the films that I make with the more intertextual, cut-up films that are often more Gay - themed and more sensual and erotic, and then the more cerebral "women's films." [laughs] Who knows? Certainly Poison had a much stricter, theoretical structure with its three stories interwoven, making you very aware of the artist's hands manipulating the different parts. Maybe I'll start to see a pattern emerge.
STEPHEN: Velvet Goldmine almost has a Citizen Kane type of story.
TODD: It does have this sort of fantastical narrative structure that's very classic Hollywood an investigator unfurling a story that his memories and his past start to mingle into. But it still has a kind of uniform narrative that's not being so completely manipulated.
STEPHEN: Do you feel a closer attachment when working on a film like Safe? Do the multiple texts of Velvet Goldmine make it harder to find your place?
TODD: I don't feel more close. Velvet Goldmine was the hardest thing I've ever done. It did not come naturally to me, neither the writing of the script nor the creation of the film. You hear those stories about Tarantino writing his scripts where the characters just wrote themselves! I probably have never ever felt that. I think I would be scared of feeling that way.
With Velvet Goldmine, I tried to incorporate what I consider to be the language and material of Glam Rock into a narrative context. And that means that the narrative is essentially artificial and stylized. My challenge as a filmmaker is to have this emotional side that draws you in and that reverberates within you, but with nothing in the material of the actual elements that announces that.
STEPHEN: And the music helped you to that end?
TODD: Completely. And again, that's what's amazing about Roxy Music. The best of their stuff, their early records, are very well thought out tropes and arch lyrics, the whole pose of the performers with their costumes like the way Bryan Ferry would snarl his lyrics and trill like a vaudevillian singer. Still, these songs are incredibly moving. They can comment on what they're doing and still be enveloping and resonant. That to me is amazing and curious, and it goes against the whole tradition of rock, which had been about authentic expression and a direct depiction of emotion. Glam rock took this strident stance against that. When it works, it's not just a camp joke, it has an emotional side as well. That's what I'm hammering myself to try to put into this film.
STEPHEN: When the film slips into the '80s, it does seem to at least toy with a naturalistic style.
TODD: I don't see anything in the film as very naturalistic. The '80s part is a fictional fantasy of the '80s a half-Orwell, half-Stalinist image of New York. Even with Safe, although it was completely icy and immaculate, the dialogue was meant to be the way people really speak to each other and don't communicate. It played with the waste of real speech, and the emptiness of the way people converse. In Velvet Goldmine, most of the dialogue, if it's not completely movie talk, it's quoting from Oscar Wilde. So there's very little direct speech in the film.
STEPHEN: Velvet Goldmine is so shockingly about Glam sex and the Glam revolution, but because your camera takes an almost childlike point of view, we see Glam as having a more unformed relationship to sexuality.
TODD: It's something that, despite all the films that have come out about that time and are continuing to come out, I don't feel has been sufficiently addressed. That is, the incredibly progressive optimism, particularly in the early '70s. Despite the fearful state of siege in most Western countries at the end of the '60s, there was courage to continue to shock and amuse and play around with sexuality and notions of gender. As the film states, the revolution became a sexual revolution in the early '70s. I love that. I think that the leaning toward bisexuality, androgyny, even a na•ve notion of integration that was very prevalent around that time, particularly within youth culture, was radical. It really was the most culturally progressive period, unlike anything we've seen since which I miss. I did want to put that in the film.
STEPHEN: It seems dangerous that in this era, everything that is nostalgic is really a means of accounting for what was once a kinetic way of thinking. With your attention to the small things rather than the big event that is Glam rock, you give people options for seeing. Your movie feels like it's resisting that nostalgia.
TODD: I hope that's true. It doesn't ever try to completely define or encapsulate that moment. It's too fractured along different experiences by the different characters in the film. They all ask for a different interpretation of what happened. And that's good. Maybe that is more realistic. Maybe it is a realist film.
STEPHEN: The further you go one way, you start appearing on the other side. Glam was all about these contradictions.
TODD: Exactly. And this was built into Glam rock as a cultural phenomenon as well, where you kept seeing within each little narrative, within what really happened, the little deaths and suicides, little endings of it all. There really was a Death of Glitter concert in Los Angeles in the mid-'70s, and, of course, the death of Ziggy Stardust an attempt to end it and move on was part of the plan of the artists themselves.
STEPHEN: It's hard to believe that Glam was ever such a huge success.
TODD: I still can't believe that it was. Or that some of its more intellectual Art School sides, like Roxy Music and some of Bowie, Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel, that any of that really was as commercially successful as it was in the U.K. I understand completely why it wasn't in the States. Glam was bitchy. It wasn't going to play the same game. It had all the swish of the little queen at the bar, the brilliant queen with his witty remarks, that everybody wanted to emulate. And suddenly, there it was on this popular mainstream platform.
STEPHEN: When you listen to the best Glam rock, those songs are already so cinematic everything you described about Roxy.
It must have been hard to think about translating that sound.
TODD: There was almost too much that could be done. I have so many drafts of the script that reached miles beyond what we ended up with, trying to incorporate numerous sub-plots, multiple characters and endless melodramas. But this script is still a very dense mini-epic, and maintains that feeling. There was something that was always in place, and it came from the music.
STEPHEN: I wonder if you're happy making a movie that's really so huge and dense, or perhaps that's just what the script really needed.
TODD: I think it did. I knew it was going to be hard when I started writing it. The vague dream in my head that I wanted to materialize was always about density, excess and richness and condensing many varied references, historical moments blurring fact and fiction all into one. So I knew that the scale of the film was going to be hard. It was the most money I've ever worked with, but everything completely and immediately was absorbed into the demands of the film.
STEPHEN: But would you be comfortable going back to the scale of Superstar if that was the kind of story you wanted to do?
TODD: I really don't have any upwardly mobile goals to keep doing bigger films that have larger audiences. The audiences that have been attracted by my work are often happy surprises, given the nature of what I'm trying to do. Up until Velvet Goldmine, I never expected my films to draw the masses. It's just not in their nature, and that's fine. But with this one, I really feel like it can be appreciated at various levels. I'm excited about that. I feel that its themes and its sexuality aren't compromised by trying to reach a wider audience. They still somehow go down very easily.
STEPHEN: Well, everyone in the movie is so cute, how can you resist them?
TODD: [laughs] Yeah, that definitely helps. They're gorgeous, and they're all such great actors.
STEPHEN: Your films are prostitutes, and they should be tarted up.
TODD: Performed. [laughs] That was almost a direct Bowie quote from an interview in the early '70s "Rock n' Roll is a prostitute." He said the most fantastic things at that time. Really just brilliant.
STEPHEN: His name tends to come up next to Velvet Goldmine in conversation. But there's also Angie Bowie, and she had as much to do with inspiring the film's attitude.
TODD: She absolutely did. In the character of Mandy Slade, there's a lot that is inspired by Angela Bowie, which I think shows her in her best light. I hope she likes it.
STEPHEN: I haven't read any of the hundred David Bowie biographies, but what did you get from Angie that Bowie hadn't revealed himself.
TODD: You know, when all of the Warhol clan met Bowie and Angie in 1970, she was the one they adored. They found Bowie to be wimpy and quiet and English and kind of a hippie. They were expecting some outrageous guy in a dress, and they just saw some long-hair with a floppy hat. But the next time they saw Bowie, he had the red hair and the makeup and the boots and everything they were already sporting, and had been for years in New York. In her book, she says that she really urged him to make sexuality one of the main issues with Ziggy, and to come out as a bisexual in his interviews and really push that.
STEPHEN: As soon as you start putting your face on, you're already performing a gender.
TODD: Oh, completely. I think I perform being a man every day of my life. It's a complete performance. All of those nuances. [laughs]
STEPHEN: With so many of the actors and much of the crew being Brits, I wonder if you ever felt that you were suddenly an "American director."
TODD: I did. But do you know what's funny? You always feel like you're faking it when you're directing. Always. That it's all make-believe, and to presume you know everything about the characters, as a writer-director, is even more to reckon with. The actors are also constructing this reality out of something that doesn't exist, and you need to help them do that ... Get them to the point where the characters start to take on a concreteness that they didn't have going in. Then ultimately, the film itself, the scenes you shoot and cut together, and watch over and over again, begins to pound something concrete into you.
STEPHEN: In your films, I get wrapped up in the images and all the oblique relationships that you create through details and all the furtive devices that you use. But they are always in tension with a really tough story. The story is the driving force.
TODD: Yeah, I think it is. Writing never ceases to amaze me. I think it's so incredibly hard, and I learn something every time I try to stamp something out. But yeah, it's something about autonomy ...
STEPHEN: For your work to be creatively satisfying?
TODD: Exactly. I had this conversation with the band Placebo, who I ran into my last week in London. We were talking about how it's always more exciting for a musician to think about making films or for a filmmaker to think about making music. We went through it step by step and I had them completely agreeing with me that to be a rock band on stage, performing a song, getting that incredible sexual charge these are their words now that you link directly into the audience at that moment.
Here I'm talking authenticity in a big way, and it sort of takes back everything I was saying before. But in that world, there is a direct creative satisfaction that blends with sexuality and the pleasure of performing and emoting and all that shit. That's something that I don't ever experience as a filmmaker. I know the power of film; that's why I make films. And I know how deeply they can enter your mind and your dreams and your desires, and change the way you see things. But still, it's not a directly satisfying job in the way theirs can be. And they agreed with me, so I'm right.
STEPHEN: I'm thinking now they should have a Death of Film festival to help you out of your Glam period.
TODD: That could be the last film ever made. That would be good.
STEPHEN: You can screen it and then go up in the mother ship.
TODD: [laughs] Ground Control to Major Todd.