Todd Haynes on His My Morning Jacket Concert Film, Poison at 20 and Himself at 50
It's been an unusually prolific year to date for Todd Haynes, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker who will soon follow one of the year's most acclaimed films -- HBO's five-hour Mildred Pierce -- with one of the most radical directing experiments of his career. And this one won't be found in a theater either.
Haynes is the latest helmer to sign on for Unstaged, the Webcast concert series that has previously welcomed the likes of David Lynch, Terry Gilliam and Spike Lee. Haynes will collaborate with the band My Morning Jacket to stream what he estimates to be a three-hour show from the ensemble's hometown of Louisville, Ky., complete with longtime collaborator and director of photography Ed Lachman and an arsenal of influences, instincts and techniques hinted at in Haynes's earlier rock-themed features like Velvet Goldmine and I'm Not There. Haynes spoke about some of his plans for the show, what takes him so long to get big-screen projects off the ground, and the bittersweetness of turning 50 years old.
Where are you at with the planning of the show?
We have sort of all been conversing about the various elements of this particular production. But we're getting there. My D.P. [Ed Lachman] was able to have a tech scout and check out the Louisville Palace Theater last week; I was in Europe for a previous engagement. But what an amazing place. I've been seeing photos of it from the beginning, and Jim has been shooting their little viral preview spots from the venue. It's like this insanely gorgeous Spanish baroque relic from the '20s that's been kept up up beautifully and kind of surreally. So yeah. We have some narrative elements that we're going to bring to the experience of this live-streamed concert thing -- something I've never done before. But really, it was just in the last couple weeks that I got a set list from them, and I've been getting to know this batch of songs. A lot of them I know from the past, and this new record, Circuital, is featured. It's just a really solid line-up. It's gonna be a great, beautiful evening of music.
I'm interested in how you and Lachman are developing this against that narrative. For Last Waltz, for example, Scorsese and his D.P. Michael Chapman lined up lighting cues and camera angles almost by the lyric, solo or vocalist. How interactive do you want to be with the musical compositions themselves, and how resolved are you to just let it breathe?
I think it's going to be a real balance between the two, and for me, mostly it's going to be a live experience. It's going to be shooting and cutting a movie in the moment with the material -- with the music. And film is a musical medium -- it's temporal, it's emotional. But in a way, I'm always grouching that it's musicians who have a more immediate connection to their work than almost any other art form because they're playing tin the room with their audience. And the director -- or every other sort of digital or representational media -- has all these gaps between the two. And in this case I'll be closer to that experience than I've ever been, where you're really dancing with the music visually in the moment. We'll try to get to know it as best we can, obviously. But it's 30 songs, basically -- almost three hours of music. So we'll be living in the moment and making some decisions and not planning it all out the way I would with a film.
Going into it anyway, where do you think this concert fit as a quote-unquote Todd Haynes film? You've got Ed Lachman guiding a team of nine cameras, but it's produced for the Web.
It'll be another experiment for me. Or at least that's the excitement for me about it technically. For me it'll be a challenge to bring as much "film" into the experience of a digital format and venue as possible. To have as much richness, darkness, grain, color, saturation -- we're thinking about double-exposure images and stuff that may have gone out of style in how bands are covered these days. We definitely want to cut that overbright televisual cast that these things often have -- but have that determined by the songs themselves and by the moods of the music, obviously. But that'll be the fun part. I also get to have three amazing [camera] operators working with us, two of whom worked on Mildred Pierce with me. The third, Bobby Altman, worked with Ed on A Prairie Home Companion. They're fantastic. I trust these guys.
A Todd Haynes film is kind of an event -- a new one every four or five years. Is that just selectivity on your part, or is that a natural gestative period for your projects and how you work?
Well, it depends. Sometimes there are moments of figuring out what's next. But for the most part, regardless of how much time elapses between the films, I usually know what I'm doing. It just takes that long to get these kinds of films off the ground. That still hasn't changed: It's still really hard to get financing for dramatic films, let alone dramatic films that are trying something a little different or venturing into unknown territory. I've been lucky to have support from incredible people like Christine Vachon, my producer, but also amazing actors who sign on for these unknown events who sign on and go for it and really give me their full commitment. I've been very lucky that way. But usually it just takes that time to develop them and develop them the way I like -- to be involved in every aspect.
After this project, you'll have directed two projects consecutively for non-theatrical release. Are you comfortable with that? That something as acclaimed as Mildred Pierce is intended for the small screen?
Mildred Pierce was that kind of new experience. I loved the experience of working with HBO. I felt a kind of security and a kind of foundation under which we could work that was really rare for the kind of films we make, which are usually joint equity investment films with financing from different countries or companies. And doing something for long form was really interesting to me. It was much more of a novelistic experience. So I'm interested in maybe other projects that might be suitable for that kind of broader, more dispersed treatment. But I'm missing the big screen, and the next thing I'm going to do is plan for that -- which I'm just starting to get into the writing of this summer.
You turned 50 a few months ago. Did that feel to you like the personal and professional milestone we always assume it will be for ourselves?
You know... It felt like a milestone, but it more felt like something I need to deal with -- to do something for, to not try to ignore. But I was still in the middle of making Mildred, and even more significantly, my mom had passed away in the summer while we were shooting. That was unexpected, and she was quite young. So there are certain things that take precedent as you get on in years that exceed your own little milestones sometimes, and you don't really know when they're coming, and they change the way you look at things. They make something like that a relatively less meaningful experience.
Except I'm proud to be around! I lost so many friends over the years -- mostly to HIV and stuff, or even other unexpected things -- and you feel extremely lucky. It's hard to complain about it.
When Poison caused such a stir 20 years ago, where did you foresee yourself going at the time? Creatively, anyway, how has what's transpired matched up with that vision?
That really was unpredicted -- the fact that I would have a career as a feature filmmaker whose films could actually enter the marketplace and actually produce any sort of revenue whatsoever. I came out of a critical theory program at Brown, and I was interested in more experimental kinds of projects. My great examples were all these teachers who might be filmmakers but were teaching for their living, and then they had full freedom to do whatever they wanted creatively. There were also many more venues for films like those back then. So happenstance sort of put me on this line of being able to direct feature films. It sort of woke up an audience in the '80s and '90s who were open to and interested in different kinds of work. And then things just started getting more successful, even within independent films. As soon as Pulp Fiction made the money it made, it changed the game, and it made it harder for smaller and maybe more weirder work to get produced. It's almost as if its own success limited its own development as a medium or something -- at least in certain strains. But I've been really lucky. I've figured out a way to continue to do stuff that interests me, first and foremost, and be able to bring people along for the ride.