Nowhere to hide: Todd Haynes on [Safe]

As Haynes’s May December comes to cinemas, we look back to his first collaboration with Julianne Moore, which he discussed with Amy Taubin for our May 1996 issue

[Safe] (1995)

Todd Haynes makes experimental films. He admits it openly and without hesitation. Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story (1987), his 43-minute biopic of the 70s popstar who died young of anorexia, was shot on miniature cardboard and contact-paper sets with a cast of Barbie dolls. Poison (1991) is a stubbornly structuralist feature: three stylistically dissimilar fables of “transgression and punishment”, intercut and glued together with much spit, blood and semen. Dottie Gets Spanked (1993), for a PBS series innocuously titled ‘TV Families’, is a lucid and tender portrait of the artist as a gay seven-year-old obsessed with a Lucille Ball-like sitcom star and fascinated by spanking.

That the establishment’s wrath quickly descended on Haynes only enhanced his position at the forefront of gay film-making. When A&M Records (the Carpenters’ label) won an injunction to keep Superstar from being screened publicly, bootleg VHS copies became fetish objects. And when the religious right used Poison to mount an attack on the National Endowment for the Arts which had partly funded the film, the publicity boosted box-office grosses to unexpected heights.

Compared to these three earlier films, [Safe] (1995) seems almost conventional: it has linear narrative; a name actress (Julianne Moore) plays the leading role, Carol White; it’s shot in 35mm, and although produced for a mere $1 million, has the glistening look and sound of films costing ten times more. But it introduces Hollywood conventions only to throw them coolly into disarray. It’s the most subversive of his films, a subtle match of radical form and radical political content.

Its material is similar to Superstar’s. Set in upper-middle class Southern California suburbia, it’s the story of a woman with a mysterious wasting ailment without a cure. Even more than Karen Carpenter’s anorexia, this environmental illness (or multiple chemical sensitivity) can be read as an Aids metaphor because, like Aids, it is an immune deficiency disease.

[Safe] (1995)

The film opens with an extended travelling shot; the point of view is from the passenger seat and through the front windshield of a Mercedes cruising through the SoCal night. Streetlamps cast a greenish glow, throwing into silhouette the meticulously landscaped houses on either side of the road. The music under the image swells ominously, as in an upscale horror or sci-fi film, adding to the sense of free-floating anxiety. The car passes through a wrought-iron gate, up a driveway and into a garage. A man and a woman get out, backs to the camera, and we hear the sound of a discreet, half-stifled sneeze. “It’s freezing in here,” says the woman in a breathy, childlike, apologetic voice. There’s a cut to an overhead, medium shot of her opalescent face. She’s lying on her back amid peach and aqua sheets, a passive participant in the act of marital sex. Above her, the man pounds and grunts, oblivious to faint flickers of confusion and pain in her eyes. Freezing indeed.

This is Carol White, the not-quite Stepford wife saved from banality by her inchoate sense that all is not right in her perfect world. For the next 45 minutes, the film follows her through her daily routine: exercise class; the dry cleaners; lunch with a woman friend; the hairdresser. Driving on the freeway behind a fume-spewing truck, Carol begins coughing uncontrollably. She pulls into a deserted underground parking garage. The car spirals wildly and finally stops. From a distance, the camera watches as Carol coughs and coughs. From then on, her symptoms worsen rapidly. Looking in the mirror at her newly permed hair, she panics as she sees blood slowly dripping from her nose. The sequence teeters on the edge of camp, loaded with horror-film tropes. In fact, the entire first act follows the form of a horror film. The protagonist knows that the monster is on the loose, that the plague has descended. But no one believes her. Carol’s husband, friends and doctors prefer to think that the problem is only in her head. After a brief middle section where Carol attempts to investigate and take charge of her illness, she winds up at Wrenwood, a New Age retreat where she’s once again isolated – as in her suburban cocoon.

Keeping Carol at a distance, a fragile, almost paralysed figure in repressive, chill environments, Haynes nevertheless locates the film within her subjectivity. Rather than alienating us from her, the measured, wide-angle, hyperreal mise en scene becomes an expression of the alienation she experiences. From the moment Carol has her coughing fit, we begin to read everything in her environment (which is our own environment) – and the very fabric of her identity (which is not very different from the fabric of our identity) – as lethal. “It’s scary,” Haynes has said, “for me to think about how much I identify with Carol White.” This tension, between identification and remove, gives [Safe] (or at least the first half) an extraordinary gravity. Every frame in the LA section seems simultaneously charged with the push/pull of desire and loathing.

The Wrenwood section is stylistically quite different, with an almost casual documentary look. Meaning is located (or undermined) in the dialogue rather than the images. The similarities between Wrenwood’s repressive and disengaged culture and that of LA suburbia are suggested but not quite realised on-screen.

Nevertheless, from beginning to end, [Safe] is a film that demands to be read by the viewer. There are signs in abundance but no answers or messages. Nothing could be further from Haynes’ own politics than the New Age platitudes of Wrenwood. [Safe] is above all a critique of a passive society in which people ignore the ecological disaster all around them, or else, if they can’t, wait helplessly for someone else to tell them what to do about it. Haynes is not interested in being that someone else. ‘Do you smell fumes?’ is the headline on a flyer that catches Carol’s eye and that leads her to a meeting of Environmental Illness activists, a fledgling resistance movement against the disease of the twenty-first century. [Safe] alerts us to the fumes and that no one is immune to them; the rest is up to us.

[Safe] (1995)

Haynes grew up privileged in various LA suburbs. With his blond hair and snub nose, he could have passed for the all-American boy, but in fact he was Jewish and gay. At 18, he fled to the more congenial East Coast environment of Brown University where he studied semiotics, read Freud and made Assassins, a super-8 film about Rimbaud and Verlaine. After graduating in 1985, he moved to New York where, with classmates Christine Vachon and Barry Ellsworth, he set up Apparatus, a low-budget production company that was a linchpin in the indie film movement. Superstar put him on the downtown map; Poison made him the gay filmmaker to be reckoned with. [Safe], a box office disappointment, had more critical success than expected, though less than deserved. Haynes is currently working on a Glam Rock movie set in 70s London and New York.

Amy Taubin: I remember you saying that all your films are about illness. Why is that?

Todd Haynes: Aids. Though none of my films are specifically about Aids. It’s too easy for people to separate themselves from Aids, to compartmentalise it as a gay disease. So I wanted to make films about these end-of-the-twentieth-century diseases without limiting those vulnerable to gay men and junkies. Instead, I located them in the safest, most protected places on the planet.

The San Fernando valley you grew up in is the setting for both [Safe] and Superstar.

Yes, although Superstar was made in New York. After I graduated from Brown, I came to New York and wrote the Superstar script with my friend Cynthia Schneider. I enrolled in the MFA summer program at Bard College and we shot it there. I knew I wanted to make a film using dolls. I didn’t know what it would be about, but I wanted it to follow a certain narrative form, a particular genre closely enough, only with dolls instead of actors. It would be a kind of experiment about identification. I was pretty certain people would identify with dolls as if they were actors, but on some level, you would become aware that you were cathecting onto this plastic object.

Did you play with dolls as a child?

Not really with Barbies. My sister didn’t get into Barbies; she had (toy) horses. We were very close and still are; she’s three years younger than I am. So she had horses and a lot of international dolls that my parents bought on trips. We would do little shows for each other under her bedroom table with a blanket on top and a desk lamp for the light source. Mine always would be really sad stories about girls and their horses and the horse would die and come back to life and she’d cry. And so we’d play with dolls in that way. And I also had a friend, who was more of a femme girl. She had a Barbie and a Ken doll so I got to play with them. So I knew the film had to be with dolls. And then I heard a Karen Carpenter song on a lite-FM station one day and I said, “Oh my God, we have to do the Karen Carpenter story.” At the time, there was no glimmer of a 70s re-examination; you weren’t hearing that music or seeing those images as you do now everywhere. It felt truly like something I hadn’t thought about in a long time.

When were you born?

ln 1961. But I remember the last time my parents and I agreed on popular culture, when we shared the same love of a pop song on the radio. I was in the bath and I remember my Dad walking in, and he said, “Oh Todd, I’ve just heard this groovy new song on the radio,” and he started singing ‘We’ve only just begun’ [the Carpenters’ song]. And I remember in 1970 going on vacation with my family and meeting a teenage brother and sister at the resort in Laguna Beach. The girl had long dark hair and bangs and wore a crocheted bikini and she loved Karen Carpenter, I thought she was so cool, that she was Karen Carpenter. But there’s also this funny thing: I was close to my sister – she was the star of all my productions – and the Carpenters, as a brother/sister team, had this weirdly sexual asexuality, this weirdly romantic but pure quality about them. They were like all the great fantasies about brothers and sisters. And when I did research on them later, I discovered that journalists actually questioned them very aggressively about the incestuous element.

[Safe] (1995)

But did you do the Karen Carpenter story, in part, because of her anorexia?

Oh yes, I thought about what had happened to her since the early 70s, mainly her anorexia, and how that early moment in the 70s was changed a few years later with Watergate. There had been all these pure images of America – the Brady Bunch, the Partridge family and the Carpenters – that had been almost aggressively fostered onto youth culture in an attempt to get out of that nightmare of the late 60s. It was very closely aligned with Nixon’s revisionist view of America. Not that my parents ever supported Nixon, but nevertheless, that stuff was all around. But it was turned inside out by Watergate. And what I loved about Karen Carpenter’s lyrics and that quality in her voice was exactly what, at that time, made people roll their eyes and ask what does this 19-year-old girl with a deep voice really know about love and pain. So it seemed like rich material to explore in film.

And it’s easy to see the connection between Carpenter and Carol White, women who have these inexplicable illnesses.

That you think, in both cases, they brought on themselves.

Do you think they brought it on themselves?

That’s one of the questions that haunts [Safe]. There’s no easy way for me to answer that. No, I don’t think Carol brought it on herself simply to get attention or in some false way. I think, if it was self-induced, it was at a completely unconscious level. Or that there’s a susceptibility to being made vulnerable by the world that she carries with her, that some people carry with them. But I do think that the illness in [Safe] is the best thing that happens to her. It’s the thing that kicks her out of unconsciousness, out of this unexamined life, and makes her begin to think about things in a completely different way and take some steps toward changing her life. And I’m interested in how disease can do that, can force you to look at things in a completely different way.

When you talk about her susceptibility, do you mean something along the lines of the way some people would claim schizophrenia is a logical response to an insane world?

Yeah, I do. And that’s why in both films ([Safe] and Superstar) they’re women. There’s a history of inexplicable illnesses, that established medicine can’t confirm as absolutely physiological, that have affected women. I think they are diseases of identity that force you to see that identity is a fragile and basically an imaginary construct that we pretend to carry around. The more unexamined it is, the more vulnerable you are.

I’m still trying to understand the level of responsibility you place on her. You are not, I think, saying what Peter, the Wrenwood guru, says: that she could cure herself by loving herself more.

Definitely not. Peter’s cure is to adhere completely to these very basic ideas about self that affirm the society as it is. His kind of New Age philosophy comes out of a 60s ideology, using Eastern traditions to re-examine the West. It claims to change the world through self-esteem or a softening of basic structures of resistance, but I see it as a reiteration of basic conservative arguments about the self, which are closely aligned with masculinity and patriarchy. Post-modern gay theory has tried to chip away at them; the cyborg generation is looking at less Freudian models and claiming those models are already in us. But I’m not sure I agree with that either. So that’s why ultimately the illness and its chaos is where hope lies in the film, not where it’s tied up and organised by Wrenwood philosophy in the end.

So while I don’t think she’s responsible for being ill, I don’t think the illness just came from chemicals in the world. I can’t turn it into a simply materialist explanation for the illness. And in a way when I think about whether it was chemicals that make her ill, or living the kind of insulated life she lives as a woman in the world, both are cultural not psychological problems. They’re not internal problems that can be solved by loving yourself more. You have to look out in the world to solve them, and that’s the big difference between the Wrenwood perspective and mine.

[Safe] (1995)

The popular view of anorexia says it’s about women trying to look like models and being really sexy and really thin. But that didn’t account for the extremes to which this diet takes them and the profound misrecognition of the body – how anorexics look in the mirror and think they’re fatter than someone next to them who weighs 30 pounds more. So we were more interested in the theories that claimed anorexia was a resistance against femininity and a denial of one’s breasts and menstruation and those sexualised aspects of the body. Why else would it hit women so often at adolescence when their bodies are changing? So I found the most poignant and interesting way to approach Karen Carpenter’s anorexia was as a kind of unconscious resistance. Disease as a kind of resistance to notions of healthy identities and selves is what recurs in my films.

I think what [Safe] is really about is the infiltration of New Age language into institutions. And about the failure of the left; how it imploded into these notions of self and self-esteem and the ability to articulate and share emotions in the workplace or whatever. And it’s such a loss because what was once a critical perspective looking out, hoping to change the culture, is turning inward and losing all of its gumption and power. It’s time for the left to look at itself and how it’s losing any effective voice politically or culturally.

Do you think someone seeing [Safe] would conclude that because Carol’s insularity – at the beginning in rich SoCal suburbia and at the end inside her plastic bubble in Wrenwood – doesn’t work for her, the only thing is for her to be more directed outward toward changing her situation in the world?

No, I don’t. I’ve made a film that gives you that answer. But it’s particularly sneaky in that it is a film directed toward the left, maybe because I know that’s the constituency that will go to a Todd Haynes film. So it plays with your leftist expectations, making you think that Wrenwood has got to be the answer. After all, it’s at Wrenwood that you see a black woman character for the first time in the movie. And because the Peter character has Aids, it’s implied that he’s gay, so how could he possibly not be telling the truth or not be a sympathetic character? These are little internal messages I think we look to: “Oh, it’s a film by Todd Haynes so the gay character can’t be a jerk, he has to be reliable.” So the film purposefully draws you in only to pull the rug out from under you slowly. It tries to trick you into thinking it has an answer.

Until Wrenwood, you haven’t had the kind of character that most movies give you. So it’s like, wow, Peter has a whole philosophy. He’s engaging, manipulative, charismatic, all the things you expect from characters in the movies. So I think you are kind of lured into believing what they’re saying. What I really wanted to do is frustrate your narrative expectations. You want her to be healed, and you want to have some understanding of the illness, and those narrative desires drive you to wanting her to be in a place that you also know is wrong and cruel. Your narrative expectations commit her to oppression. I think that happens in almost every movie you see, but it’s painted as some sort of personal victory and affirmation of identity and you walk out of the movie thinking, “Yeah, everything’s just fine.” But how could it be fine to be closed up in that plastic bubble? The Wrenwood answer to Carol’s damaged immune system is quarantine – no newspapers, no books, no television, no sex, no contact with the world. How could that be someone’s idea of a happy ending?

The characters in the first part – the husband, the doctors, her women friends, even the guy telling the dirty joke in the restaurant – are much more familiar to me, and complicated. Their confusion is right on the surface. They can’t articulate what’s going on but they haven’t learned to do the Wrenwood denial thing. I don’t know who the Wrenwood characters are except that they’re the people who turn up on Oprah.

I didn’t really care to do the story of the people who dominate these movements. I don’t really care who the character of Peter is. I remember trying to get funding from Zenith for [Safe]. The script wasn’t getting through to the people there. But then one oft hem said “One project we’re really interested in doing is the L. Ron Hubbard story.” And like, wait a minute, it’s exactly the same theme but about the powerful side. I’m interested in the people drawn in.

[Safe] (1995)

One of the things that initiated [Safe] was my own questions about Aids therapy and recovery treatments. I read the Louise Hay book (The Aids Book: Creating a Positive Approach) and I still don’t have the answer to why people with Aids would want to turn to that. I know it’s about control, some sense of control, but to be told you wouldn’t be sick if you had loved yourself right and if you learned to love yourself right, you’ll be cured – it puts the person in this impossible situation where they’re continually blaming themselves for their illness which just won’t go away no matter how much they love themselves, whatever the hell that means. There’s this beautiful quote I found from this cancer patient who said, “We humans would rather accept culpability than chaos.” That’s why people are drawn to places like Wrenwood.

And yet I know intelligent gay men who saw the film and came out thinking you believed in Louise Hay. Do you think that’s because they can only identify with the gay character? I don’t have that problem because I’m totally identified with Carol.

I don’t get it. When Peter says things like “I’ve stopped reading the newspaper,” I mean, especially in such an understated film, it shouldn’t take a sledgehammer to get the point across. I always look for those moments in movies when there are messages to disagree with. Even when they’re unintended, when they think they’re saying one thing and they’re saying the complete opposite. I love those moments. They give me a way into things that otherwise would be too horrifying to deal with. I would be excited to see a film where they’re trying to show you this negative philosophy not by attaching a villainous handlebar moustache, but showing it in a subtle way, the way these things are in the world.

I know it’s hard and mean to make a movie where there’s no escape, but just walk around. But there are markers of resistance. There’s Nell and Lester [two of the characters at Wrenwood]. And there are the women in the middle of the film who are talking around the table about their illness without all this bullshit. That’s when Carol seems the most alive – when she’s talking with them, and then when she’s telling her friend everything she’s discovered. And it is all about this illness. And yes, people do take on illness as an alternate identity. And it does give them the sense of who they are for a time, and there’s a sadness about that, but it’s also the first time Carol is motivated to look around and take some action in her life. She acts independently, and sadly that takes her to Wrenwood where all the lines are cut and she’s sealed up. So it’s not as if the film is completely without the indication that there are other ways of dealing with it.

Why did you set it in 1987?

I wanted to set it at the height of the Reagan/Bush 80s. Now it doesn’t matter because we’re back in it with a vengeance, but there was a slight moment when Clinton was elected, when it seemed a little less necessary to make the film, but God, that was a fantasy, a mirage.

[Safe] (1995)

Can we talk about your directorial choices? The film was made for only $1 million.

Yes and it was very difficult. I could never do it again.

How did you choose the locations?

Most of the LA interiors were shot in my grandfather’s and my uncle’s houses. The exterior of Carol’s house, where we shot the garden scenes, doesn’t belong to anyone I know, but it’s in my parent’s neighbourhood. It wasn’t there when I was growing up, but when I was writing [Safe] I would smoke a little pot and get in the car and drive up to the top of the hill overlooking this house. And I’d put on a Sonic Youth tape and picture this movie about this woman who’d be getting sicker and sicker in this huge house, this bizarre fake Tudor manor. And we ended up getting that exact house for the exterior.

I was looking for these single-level expansive houses. I was trying to force architecture into every frame and always show Carol in relation to her environment. And certain architecture gave us a way to divide up the frame and segregate different characters into different boxes. I wanted there always to be this empty frame and she’d enter it and be this little figure in the corner. I wanted the frame very wide, with very little movement, and this enormous sense of off-screen activity – vacuum cleaners and Spanish television shows and Lite-FM – like the house was alive but that Fulvia [the housekeeper] was running it and Carol was just one of the objects inside it.

You mentioned Kubrick.

I saw 2001 again while we were raising money. And I thought that’s what I want. We should feel we’re in a world where nature has been completely overcome by man and there’s no trace of it. It should feel like space but it’s really LA. It should feel like an airport where you never touch real ground. You’re just in this carpeted, air-controlled systems world where people just glide by.

The isolation also reminds me of Antonioni’s Red Desert.

I hadn’t seen it when I wrote [Safe] but Alex [Nepomniaschy, Director of Photography] talked about it. I just loved the way Alex shot Poltergeist III. The lighting he did – it wasn’t just ‘turn on the green gels’. He looked like he was using real light and real reflections and allowing them to be green naturally. He uses muslin and mirrors. He has his own system of diffusion that’s soft but not pretty. We used a very restrained palette and camera, so, in a way, it’s about what we’re not doing. I was thinking about the way the film literally obliterates Carol, blanks her out.

How did you decide on Julianne Moore? Her performance is fantastic; she deserved to win every best actress award and, instead, she’s been almost entirely overlooked.

Julianne does something that few actors do. She disappears before your eyes. It becomes a ‘Can you find the woman in the picture?’ puzzle. It’s an amazingly selfless performance.

A lot of very talented name actors read for the part. But they loved the dialogue, so they indulged in all these naturalistic tics, that made you just hate the character. I got really worried because Carol seemed like Little Orphan Annie. Then my casting director persuaded me to read Julianne. I knew the part had to be played in a very restrained way. And Julianne understood that instinctively and intellectually. Unlike actors who are trained to show you every nuance of emotion, Carol can’t do that. Julianne understood Carol was more limited than most people. So her performance is exactly the opposite of what a personality actor like Jennifer Jason Leigh’s or Meryl Streep’s would have been. But paradoxically, you’re drawn into her blankness. You want to know more. I don’t think she was having fun doing what she was doing. It’s a denial of the actor’s pleasure, especially the method actor’s. But we both knew that [Safe] was somehow about refusing pleasure.

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