“It’s a Pretty Unambiguous Condemnation of a New Age Answer to Life’s Problems”: Writer/Director Todd Haynes on Safe
With Todd Haynes’s classic Safe now streaming on Criterion Channel (and seeming utterly prescient in its concerns), we’re reposting our Summer, 1995 cover story: Larry Gross’s interview with Haynes. — Editor
Todd Haynes, director of Sundance Grand Prize Winner Poison and the underground classic Superstar, was inspired to make his latest feature, Safe, by his visceral response to New Age recovery therapists who tell the physically ill that they have made themselves sick, that they are responsible for their own suffering.
Carol White, played superbly by Julianne Moore, is an archetypally banal homemaker in the San Fernando Valley who one day gets sick and never gets well. Her doom is first her own unique physical condition. But her “action” is to be exposed to two kinds of discourse about illness. One is a conventional discourse that tells her that since what’s wrong with her can’t be diagnosed, it must not really exist. The other, found at a New Age-styled retreat called Wrenwood, is an unconventional remedy that acknowledges her condition with a certain sentimental empathy but which further alienates her from the social reality around her, rendering her even more incapable of taking significant action in her own defense.
Safe is a political film that almost never directly mentions political issues, a horror film without any monsters, special effects, or killings, and a relationship film without any regular psychological inflection. It is on the surface an utterly traditional narrative film, but one which is also secretly a work of difficult abstractness. Working with a bigger budget and trying to reach a larger audience, Haynes has wound up making his most demanding and elaborate film yet.
Gross: It was three or four years between Poison and Safe. What were you doing in that period and when did the idea for Safe come along?
Haynes: I wrote Safe pretty quickly after Poison and anticipated that the ability to get [the film] together at that time would be easier than it ended up being.
Gross: And the difficulties were what?
Haynes: To raise $1 million for the film. We didn’t think we could do it for less, and just that minor commitment was more than people felt they could make based on the script.
Gross: What was a typical rejection like?
Haynes: “Oh, it’s really interesting. We don’t know.” Getting people to say no is what’s hard, and excluding them from your list and moving on. People weren’t sure. They wanted somebody else to take the first step and American Playhouse basically did. But that was in the midst of their restructuring their finances and getting much less money from PBS. This is before the recent move away from public funding. They’re now Playhouse International Pictures, associated with Goldwyn, and I think they may have no public funding involved anymore, but at this point that wasn’t the case. They were fully dependent on money that they expected more of. They made a commitment to Safe and then immediately said, “Oh we don’t have the money we thought we had. We’re gonna have to wait.” They eventually came back on for a portion of the budget and we went to Cannes to secure the rest. It was my first experience there and we were like, “Okay, we’re going to get the rest of the money together in three days” and we did. And a month later, everybody changed their mind again. So two-and-a-half years went by before we felt we could really begin.
Gross: Who came in with money that was real and stayed?
Haynes: American Playhouse, Channel 4 in England. And then the Kardana Company, these two guys, John Hart and Tom Caruso, who produced Tommy and Guys and Dollson Broadway, came in at the very end to kind of get us through the last notch. They had never been involved with independent filmmaking up to this point and they loved Dottie Gets Spanked, the short film I made during that time, and really liked the script to Safe. So they completed the financing.
Gross: So you began production when?
Haynes: First of the year, ’94.
Gross: And you shot for six weeks?
Haynes: Shot for six weeks in LA.
Gross: Discuss working with [producer] Christine Vachon.
Haynes: The film wouldn’t exist if she hadn’t fought the fight that I just described. It was really due to Christine’s persistence. I would’ve given up.
Gross: And the DP?
Haynes: I wanted to work with [New York DP] Maryse Alberti who had shot Poison and Dottie Gets Spanked, and who I love working with. She’s brilliant – she just shot Crumb,by the way – but she was pregnant at the time. So I started talking to people in L.A. The differences between [New York and L.A.], particularly in low-budget filmmaking, became clearer and clearer to me.
Gross: What are the differences?
Haynes: Oh, they’re staggering. The L.A. mentality is dominated by the industry in every possible way. It’s all by the money. So, we [ended up hiring] the people who work for $850 a week – basically, the L.A. sexploitation crews. The DP, Alex Nepomniaschy, had shot Poltergeist 3 and I was immediately blown away by his lighting in that film. I thought it was very unusual, very subtle and controlled and natural, but it had the appropriate industrial-chemical feel to it. I wanted a very natural feeling that would create a strong mood but not be like, green light to your face, the very obvious sort of flashy approach you see more and more of these days.
Gross: How did you describe the movie to the cinematographer?
Haynes: He read the script and immediately said, “Have you seen Red Desert by Antonioni?” And I hadn’t. I had seen the others, Zabriskie Point, Blow Up, The Passenger, but I hadn’t seen Red Desert, which is an amazing movie. So from the descriptions in the script, he already had a very specific and appropriate vision of the film; we really connected right away. But the basic, almost funny restriction that we placed on ourselves was this restrained coverage and distance from the character. The joke was, okay, let’s move in for a close-up but we never got very close. All of our proportions were appropriately adjusted from the starting point, which was wide. Minimal camera movement.
Gross: Relative to Poison and Superstar, Safe would be classified as less of an experimental film. Did you want this to be a more traditional film?
Haynes: No, not at all. And I think it’s the hardest, the most difficult film I’ve made for audiences.
Gross: I agree with that, but I believe that its extraordinary quality… as a [kind of] facsimile of a conventional film… is part of the difficulty of it.
Haynes: I think you’re right. The film creates expectations for a more linear, accessible type of film that it doesn’t fulfill.
Gross: And indeed, it employs some of the procedures of more conventional films at the same time that it turns them over in a variety of ways.
Haynes: As Poison and Superstar did as well.
Gross: But they’re more aggressive in their critical procedures. The fact that they’re engaged in critical procedures is more of an emphatic part of the experience of those two films.
Haynes: The structure and style tells you so.
Gross: The thing is, in asking for $1 million and hiring Julianne Moore and doing various things like that you were moving in slightly more “conventional” territory. Did you say, “This is going to be my version of a conventional film, this is going to be my critique of the conventions of a conventional film?”
Haynes: Actually, I was looking at movies like Jeanne Dielman by Chantal Akerman and eventually 2001 for some stylistic pointers, so I was looking at things that were extreme.
Gross: The margins.
Haynes: Yeah, strained, kind of cool presentations of stories. For me [Safe] had to do with restraint and playing with narrative expectations in very subtle, controlled ways. I was much more attentive to the structure of conventional storytelling in Safe than in Poison and Superstar.
Gross: Let’s talk a little bit about the narrative genres that are being invoked, that are being “read” by the film in a sense. I saw two strands of regular filmmaking being referred to in the movie and then a third that was more like television. On the one hand the film is linked to a certain tradition of horror film that I see in people like Hitchcock, Cronenberg, and Polanski – what I call a narrative of deterioration. Then there’s something else that Cronenberg in particular compared his film The Brood to that I’m going to call for lack of a better word, a critique of the “family values” movie: the Ordinary People movie, the Kramer vs. Kramer movie that begins with some criticism of inauthentic bourgeois life which the film then narrates the triumphant overcoming of. Now of course there’s this third genre that combines this and illness, fusing elements of the horror movie, and that’s the “disease-of-the-week” TV movie. How did you think of them when you were constructing the film?
Haynes: Most overtly, I was thinking of the TV-disease film, but the film language of horror films was also inspirational. I love that moment in Hitchcock when you know something is about to happen and suspense is created by prolonging the ordinary mundane events that precede this event.
Gross: One could argue that in Safe you’re involved in torturing Carol White in the same way that Hitchcock is involved in torturing Janet Leigh. She’s the object of the narrative’s inexorable machinery and he has a very grim view of what that machinery is doing to those people.
Haynes: He takes a lot more pleasure in that torture than I do in Safe, whatever that means. He got off on it.
Gross: Yes, absolutely.
Haynes: He makes us get off on it. It’s the most interesting thing that he did. He made the viewer get off on it and paralleled that to what is innately pleasurable in watching movies.
Gross: Talking about the “disease-of-the-week” genre. Do you see those films? Do you watch them with some degree of artistic respect?
Haynes: Absolutely. The Boy in the Plastic Bubble was an obvious starting point.
Gross: We should go back to this question of how you remain and how we remain compassionate towards Carol and interested in her fate, regardless of how the film teases her or is ironic towards her.
Haynes: Or to the genre. Getting back to what I think you’re asking about – how close I am or how uncritical I can be with regard to those kinds of TV movies. Yes, certainly there are scenes throughout that I feel absolutely sincere in wanting to develop a certain kind of affection for Carol, a sense of compassion for her that you would find in a TV movie at that particular point in its narrative. That’s partly done so that you care about her but also for you to be taken in by those expectations.
Gross: The film induces the hope or the expectation that something can turn out well which in fact can’t turn out well in the world of this particular film. It’s very interesting. I’m thinking about Cronenberg’s movies. My problem with The Fly and Dead Ringers, two very interesting films in a lot of ways, is that they’re not suspenseful enough about their negative outcomes. Cronenberg obsesses a little bit too completely on the sheer horribleness of it. You are so restrained in these terms. There’s this program of continually elongating the hope of a way out for Carol when there’s no way out.
Haynes: That’s interesting, what you said about Cronenberg, because it’s also where his films I think become kind of fun but often where the tension is lost.
Gross: Let’s talk about the wide-shot style. The film’s visual style seems exceptionally aggressive and powerful and yet it’s strongly functional. I don’t think there’s anything in your technique that’s beauty for beauty’s sake. The wide shots that dominate the film have many functions. They isolate the heroine. They undermine the rigidity of her pattern of life. They universalize the character in a way. They remind you to read the character as a kind of symbolic entity. And yet, at the same time, they’re all beautiful shots. I’m interested in beauty versus function in the conception of this stuff.
Haynes: I’m definitely drawn to minimalism aesthetically. I think it’s beautiful and so the film is beautiful to me although… what’s beautiful about Safe is also hard and rigid and cold and controlled and so it’s scary. I definitely felt the need to depict Carol constantly in relation to her environment and as part of its architecture.
Gross: And that makes a political statement right away. It says this is about a character and her environment and the environment is a meaningful component of her life.
Haynes: Right. We were trying to define her and feel her and find her as a character but we always [did] it in relation to her space. You don’t really have full access to the character, to her psychology, history – things that we’re usually pretty quickly given access to in a movie.
Gross: From an opposite standpoint, what if I want to argue that this look dehumanizes Carol? What do you say in response to a person who says the stylization performs a destructive operation on the heroine?
Haynes: I don’t think it performs a destructive operation. I think it reflects and mirrors what that destructive operation is in her world. I mean, it’s really about a person who doesn’t know who she is, whose illness forces her to look at her life and her self and her world in different ways. We could get back to the disease movie. The thing that is interesting in the disease movie is that in the guise of telling you a story about illness, these movies are really [telling] the story of people’s personal victories over the odds. The disease teaches you an “invaluable lesson” about becoming who you are through your illness. I don’t ever want to portray a sense of natural being – comfortable, unconscious, secure being. That’s what I want to exclude from the film so that the whole time you’re trying to think, “How do we get to that? How did I ever feel completely normal about myself? How could I possibly get back to that ‘not thinking about myself’ mode,” that supposedly natural mode that we know is not natural at all. And then you get to Wrenwood and it’s this parody of the natural world, of this discourse telling you how to be natural.
Gross: The New York Times mistakenly described the film as set in the future.
Haynes: I know, I love that.
Gross: You made it specifically in 1987. The futuristic side of the film does very much resemble 2001: A Space Odyssey, which also relies on a lot of wide shots. What led you to 2001 in this film?
Haynes: I stumbled upon it accidentally. Of course I had seen it when it came out but I hadn’t thought I should look at 2001 for Safe. I had considered Safe like Jeanne Dielman, but taking place in an airport. I just kept thinking that certain homes in Los Angeles have the quality of airports. All traces of human life, or natural life, have been excluded and taken over. Air is controlled and space is controlled. There’s no trace of humankind, of the mess of human beings.
Gross: You, the filmmaker, are the producer of that. But you kid Carol White for being the producer of that. In other words, Carol White freaks when things aren’t color coordinated. I could imagine Todd Haynes walking through the set and seeing the set not being the right color and freaking in a somewhat similar way. Do you identify with Carol?
Haynes: Julianne Moore and I probably share this “nice” problem where we don’t freak out on the set. We have this very nice demeanor and we repress it and so I think both of us bonded in this unconscious way on the movie because we were both traumatized while making it. She just stopped menstruating for six months. But I think my identification with Carol White is something that I don’t let myself feel very much because it’s too scary. I know what it’s like to sometimes not feel confident or know who you are or why you do what you do. I felt like I wanted Carol to represent the most vulnerable part of identity, the most uncertain and fragile part of myself.
Gross: This brings me back to Kubrick in a way. When 2001 came out, people pointed out this tough subtext of life in this denaturalized future world. The film is hard on these people. They’re very dull. Life in the future is dull. They’re not very personalized; they are people totally used up in a role that leaves their inner lives pretty much gone.
Haynes: Very much so.
Gross: But Kubrick utterly admires that world at the same time. What’s involved in constructing that reality absorbs him to such an incredible degree. That’s finally what seems to me to be true of your relationship to the world that Carol White lives in. There are some feelings of love for this cold world. Coming back to Hitchcock again, I don’t think you love punishing Carol the way that he loves punishing Tippy Hedren, but there’s a way in which this “unreal, denaturalized” world wins your aesthetic esteem. Is that right?
Haynes: Well, it’s a world I know really well. It’s my family’s world, basically. It’s quite a bit more extreme and grotesque but it’s a world that I know and I’ve tried to not hate. I’ve tried to find something very common and sympathetic about it. But what I think some people may miss in the film is a camp appreciation of that world. I think some people go expecting the same camp treatment of the nouveau riche L.A. of the ’80s that you may find in Poison and it’s not there. I think the film is a very sincere attempt to find something common and something human about these people. It’s not a happy film but I think that its sadness is an extension of its compassion. It’s not part of its critique.
Gross: I came across something today in a 1949 book of Maurice Blanchot where he’s trying to tease at the relationship between Surrealist literature and its ambition to be political: “And we can also see that the most uncommitted literature is also the most committed because it knows that to claim to be free in a society that is not free is to accept responsibility for the constraints of that society and especially to accept the mystification of the word ‘freedom’ by which society bides its intentions.”
He’s talking about the fact that Surrealism attempts to be revolutionary even while moving completely away from direct, explicit engagement with social and political questions. It tries to produce the image of freedom and at the same time reveal the mechanisms by which freedom is constrained. That sounds to me to be similar to the political discourse in Safe. And what’s interesting about it is there’s no explicit political discourse in the film. Do you worry that people won’t understand that there’s a political meaning to the film?
Haynes: It’s something I’ve been thinking about since Sundance, absolutely. It’s disappointing to me because what Poison taught me was that a lot of people out there are eager to see different kinds of films. They wanted to be challenged. Not necessarily art-film goers – people a couple of steps outside that world still want to be engaged and challenged by film and aren’t given the chance most of the time. It’s pretty clear to me what’s going on in Safe at the end. It’s a pretty unambiguous condemnation of a New Age answer to life’s problems.
Gross: I think it’s more than that. I think this is the one movie that describes the complete collapse of left-wing oppositional culture in this country.
Haynes: That’s so interesting.
Gross: Because it’s made clearly sympathetically to the criticism of conventional institutions that left-wing causes are supposed to undertake.
Haynes: And it targets left-wing audiences and left-wing expectations in a fairly nasty way. [In the Wrenwood section of the film,] the first time you see the black character, Susan, you think, “Oh, this is gotta be a cool place,” and then you see Peter, who is described as having AIDS and you think, “Oh, he’s gotta be cool, it goes without saying, Todd Haynes is a gay filmmaker.” So it’s like all these things mislead your expectations. People of color, minorities, people from backgrounds different than Carol’s in the film keep prodding you toward thinking that there’s going to be some political rhetoric or some revolution that will tell you what’s right and what’s wrong and it continues to trip you up till the end.
Gross: You could’ve addressed it more directly. You chose not to.
Haynes: I realized before we started shooting how much of a critique of leftism this film is. What did initiate it was a series of personal questions about recovery treatments and therapies in relation to AIDS. Why so many gay men seemed to be drawn to people like Louise Hay in the ’80s, people who were literally telling them that they made themselves sick, that they could make themselves well if they simply learned how to love themselves. I didn’t really care about the Louise Hays of the world, the Marianne Williamsons. But, ultimately, what was it in people who were ill that made them feel better being told that they were culpable for their own illness than facing the inevitable chaos of a terminal illness?
Gross: You’ve been the object of criticism because certain people think you agree with this character.
Haynes: That’s true. But now we’ve added a shot of Peter’s house on the hill that was not in at Sundance. [After the Sundance screening, Haynes re-inserted a shot of Peter’s opulent home to clue the audience into the character’s hypocrisy.]
Gross: And you think that helps locate Peter?
Haynes: I do think it helps clarify him.
Gross: What does Carol’s relationship to Chris [a fellow resident of Wrenwood played by James LeGros] mean to you in the movie? Is it one of those things dangled in front of the audience as a kind of way out that can’t be a way out?
Haynes: I guess I wanted it to be another red herring, where you’d think, okay there will be a romantic resolution and Wrenwood has all the potential for perfect closure and happiness. Instead, one by one, these hopes fall away and you’re left with Carol and Chris in this sort of platonic day- camp friendship. I didn’t write him as a gay character. Did you think he was?
Gross: I didn’t know. It crossed my mind.
Haynes: That’s great. Julianne told me later that [actor James LeGros] had decided that he was Peter’s boyfriend. Julianne also felt very strongly that there should be no sexual magnetism between the Chris character and the Carol character.
Gross: Wrenwood to me is a kind of mirror image of the valley. Were you conscious of trying to construct it visually so it referred back to the valley?
Haynes: Did you see that? I didn’t go overboard in doing it and sometimes I think, “Oh I should’ve made that a little more clear.” That really is what I wanted to convey.
Gross: Leaving the world of the film for just a second, do you ever feel ambivalent about making a film that’s this pessimistic? Is somebody watching the film gonna say “I should give up, there’s no hope” or do the opposite and develop a new political awareness at the end?
Haynes: If the film is constructed with any kind of target, it targets that unbelievably persistent “warm feeling” in Hollywood filmmaking that every clumsy narrative is moving towards achieving in the last five minutes, where the central character is really the director, is really the writer, is really you and we’re all the guys and we’re all in it together and we get the girl and feel so good about life. It’s so upsetting to me, I can’t tell you. It’s such a fucking lie and that’s what I wanted to dispel in most of the films I’ve made. So, to feel really sad for one fragile woman for two hours… If anything, what Safedoes is refute the sense we make of identity, the sense we make of cures, the sense we make of notions of wellness and health. I think its most hopeful place is in the middle of the film. [Carol] gets angry in the hospital and says, “It’s the chemicals that did it to me.” There’s something about saying “It’s the chemicals,” which up to that point, until you know that it may be the chemicals, all you can think of is, “It’s her. She’s a mess. It’s in her head. She’s a nut. She’s a fruitcake.”
Gross: Julianne Moore was such a key element in the film working. How was working with her and how much did she understand about the film, and how much did she think of it as her job as an actress?
Haynes: I think she understood it completely in an innate way. Her approach is not to overly theorize what she’s doing or to do tons of method preparation.
Gross: She does not condescend to the character. She finds a way to respect this character without letting you know that she’s smarter than the character.
Haynes: Her courage as an actress was in knowing how little to do to communicate Carol’s paralysis. This is something many actors don’t understand., Some people can’t open their mouths very big, can’t move their eyes very far, can’t move their necks very far. There are reasons why each of these things is blocked or limited and that’s something [for an actor] to use. But instead of demonstrating all the blockages and all the limitations she was so incredibly secure about how to approach it. It was amazing to me.
Gross: What’s your next film going to be?
Haynes: It’s funny, when you were asking me if I was ever nervous about creating such a pessimistic, dark film, or such a hopeless political statement… it’s almost the reverse. – I’m doing a film about the glitter-rock era of the early ’70s. Things have changed a lot culturally and politically since then and that’s why I want to do this film now. It was that bisexual moment in the early ’70s. You had to pretend to be gay or bisexual to make it at the time. [It was] just a very different mentality, completely different, and, in my opinion, far more progressive than the identity politics at work today. So now I find myself feeling nervous to be making a film about something I really like.