On the surface (and when you discuss this filmmaker, you simply must discuss the surface), Todd Haynes' new film Carol is the relentlessly experimental director's most straightforward film yet. Set in 1950's New York and based on Patricia Highsmith's novel The Price of Salt, Carol casts a sumptuous if removed eye on the love story between the titular character, an unhappy and not-quite-closeted divorcée played by Cate Blanchett and shopgirl Therese Belivet, played by Rooney Mara. It'll probably get nominated for a lot of awards, and if you've ever held the opinion that it's impossible to dislike Kyle Chandler, you will be disabused of that notion. (This might be the most impressive of the film's many achievements, actually.)

It's a gorgeously shot, highly-controlled love story that you don't need a minor in semiotics "to get." (If you were scared away by his 2007 "everyone plays Dylan" film I'm Not There, this might be more your speed.) But look closer and it's filled with the same obsessions (constructed identity, normalcy as pose, repression, all-consuming passion that you can neither ignore nor talk about) that Haynes explored up in his art house hits Safe, Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven and that he's been playing with since his legendary cult short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (for which he quite movingly used Barbie dolls to tell the tragic life story of the pop icon) made him a critic's darling in the late '80s. Last this week PAPER talked with Haynes at New York's Marriott Essex House about staying true to his deconstructive muse and getting the most out of minimalism.

There's a theory in art criticism that whenever an artist is making something about a different time period, they're really commenting on the current time they're in. Do you agree with that idea? If so, what were you trying to say about today with Carol?

I do think that's always implicit. But I think when you spend too much time considering that or trying to inform or code your choices, it does a disservice to the period that you're describing. It's about human nature and human conditions. I mean, yes, all love stories need an obstacle that keeps the lovers apart from each other, and so in that way, they become the sort of morality tales about social resistance or limitations or whatever. And those invariably can be compared to different times and history. I think it's why Brokeback Mountain was such a revelation when it came out. You can't think about how far we've come legislatively and all of that when you see a film like Carol today. But I think to think about it too much is to get a little too waylaid.

The film isn't out yet, but so far the coverage of the film is more about the performances and the visuals, and people are less hung-up on it being "a gay film." It's so far been a remarkable change from the way Brokeback Mountain or your own Far From Heaven were received a decade ago.

Yeah, that's what I like about it. What's really nice is that it's about a cinematic experience. When people talk about it, they talk about the performances, of course, which is a part of every great cinematic experience, but they really talk about the way it looks, and the way it feels and the details and the kind of restraints of the movie, that I think calls on a different kind of emotional reservoirs than a lot of movies do today. If that's true, that really makes me happy. I just want people to go to the theater to see the movie ( laughs) because it's meant for that experience.

You'd rather people not streaming it on Netflix.

Or on their watches.

Now how do you get the look and feel of old New York?

We shot it all in Cincinnati. The whole movie. And we all loved the experience. It was such a great choice, first of all, just as a canvas, just as a back lot for this time and place. It offered all of this rich architectural integrity in these blocks and streets. That was the first thing. The New York I kept seeing being depicted during this time was anything but this sort of shiny, cleaned-up New York or America. The Eisenhower Era was this tired, distressed city and Cincinnati had this sort of patina still on it, on its surfaces. It was really great, and the people were awesome. The extras in Carol add so much to it, and they don't... (whispers) they were different from union extras, they were like these real people who were — I thought, "oh no, are they gonna be more self-conscious because they don't normally do this? It was exactly the opposite; they seemed more comfortable in their skin.

Midwestern friendliness.

Yeah! Exactly. They were excited about it, but they didn't overdo it. There was just something about themselves; they were just secure. And it brings a sense of real believability to the frames.

How exactly do you work with your actors when you're making a film like this? With this one, one tiny gesture tells a whole lot of detail, but you have to get that little thing right.

You know, it's absolutely true. My memory is never like, "Oh, let's do the hand on the shoulder again, Cate, because it wasn't quite right." I think it's because we all had already done that kind of preparatory work and foundational work, and the thing about the visual image book I put together that kind of gave everyone a sense of what the frame was going to look like and how the camera would be filtered through and how glass would sort of intervene and how precipitation and dust and window panes would separate the looker from the lookee. All that stuff informs the actor and how they occupy space. But then all these other things keep happening, we had about 10 days of rehearsal that we reserve for the prep, which was great. Meanwhile, there's costume fittings and hair fittings and the wigs getting cut the right way and styled the right way. The girdles that are going on under all the garments inform the body, constrain the body in very specific ways. And so, I think all of those things combine to describe a very codified, prescribed manner in which you can move, and you can't move. And that helps. And also, Cate and Rooney will also both talk about this, and I think this is true too, a lot of the movie is about Rooney in her world, Cate in her world. And so they spend a lot of time apart from each other, not witnessing each other's scenes in their respective worlds. And then when Therese visits Carol's world, it's an event, and when Carol visits Therese's apartment, it's an event. And so I think that just — how the story dictated those things — made those moments heightened and meaningful.

Before you did this, your last big project was the miniseries Mildred Pierce and you'd shot an episode of Enlightened. It's a very common refrain these days that television has supplanted movies as the place for thoughtful, adult work, and a number of filmmakers, like the Duplass brothers, are heading in that direction. Is that something you've ever been interested in? Were you ever moving in that direction and then Carol came up?

No, I just wanted to try it. I thought that it would be a cool thing to try, just simply to try long-form dramatic storytelling. 'Cause (his producing partner Christine Vachon) was already exploring that with other projects and she said, "you know, I think there'd be real interest in you working with a studio and cable one day if anything ever came up that seemed right." And then, talk about the historical moment determining the past, I just happened to be reading the James M. Cain novel, Mildred Pierce, when the financial market started to crash in the summer of 2008, and it was just like, "oh my god, this is exactly what's happening then." And I just thought selfishly, like, "I just want to get into The Depression years right now." It just seemed like such an informative and meaningful thing to learn about right then and there. and so that whole project was just a way to embrace that. So yeah, I'd like to do more, I really enjoyed it. It was a really great experience overall, I learned a lot. I'm developing something with HBO and Jon Raymond, my co-writer on Mildred now with a very different thing. I guess it would be a dramatic series...

What's it about?

It's based on The Source Family. Did you see that documentary called The Source Family that came out two years ago?

I did not.

It's a true story, it's about this cult in LA in the '70s that came out of a restaurant called The Source, it was the main sort of natural food restaurant on Sunset Blvd. Jim Baker, who was the restaurateur behind all of those sort of early health-style restaurants in the late '60s, was the guy behind it. But he sort of became this spiritual guru figure and attracted all these young people, and they kept growing and becoming kind of a huge family. There was so murderous aspect to what they did, but there was a lot of sex and drugs and rock and roll.

Always works for HBO.

Right? Because they produced like 67 classic psychedelic collectible records in the basement of the Chandler Mansion that they eventually moved into. Anyways, it's a great, weird story. And I was sort of right in the midst of it without realizing it as a teenager, because I grew up in LA and was in high school during those years. So yeah, it should be really fun.

Ten years ago this fall is when YouTube first came on the scene, and literally one of the first things I looked up on YouTube was your film about Karen Carpenter, because I had always heard about it but had never seen it. So anyway, you're this guy that started making weird, experimental short films and working with Sonic Youth, and now you make these big budget, mainstream films with glamorous actresses. That's quite a career arc. How do you keep your subversive sensibility and your deconstructive, semiotics-based approach to things while working on a bigger scale?

I think I just never really stopped wanting to challenge myself, first and foremost, with anything I do. I mean, Carol, which, in some ways is maybe is the most — in terms of its stylistic language — the quietest film, in terms of the things I've done, and the least deconstructive or combustive. So it took this long for me to get to this naturalism, in a way. But I still do not really look at naturalism as anything other than a kind of constructive language, all of which are resonant and full of opportunity and exploitability and are always connected to the emotional experience of the viewer. But this was my first love story. And that was how I approached it in that regard, as something that I hadn't really done before and really hadn't committed myself to. I paid close attention to how love stories work and how they function. So I think I just tried to keep myself interested in that challenge. I'm kind of in unknown territory each time and what's really awesome is that so many great actors also want that feeling and that experience. They want to stretch themselves, and they want to try things they haven't done before. And they want to take some risks, and those are the kinds of actors I've been lucky enough to work with, and they just happened to be mainstream stars as well. But they all are interested in the same kind of thing.

So straightforward storytelling is just another option for you. It's another possibility for you experiment with. It's not like you're putting your artistic essence aside, you're trying to see if you can funnel in into a new avenue.

I think it's how I approach it, but I think we are always putting ourselves aside as we move on. I think audiences have changed, venues have changed, the kind of critical establishment that used to come to indie films or more experimental films or were people who would go see contemporary art or installations as much as they would see movies... there was that cross-breeding. Or people who were coming out of gay activism and were sort of on the margins of minority struggle around AIDS or whatever it might be, were coming to see movies... those audiences have changed. And it's not quite the same. Or they've just splintered into sort of discreet new realms, they can't always be collected and be put into the same dark theater at the same time. But of course, I miss them, I miss that they could all be in the same dark theater at the same time and what that could do.

So, I have to ask before I go. Could you tell me about what're your earliest memories of when you made the Karen Carpenter film? When I first started exploring your body of work, I became obsessed with seeing it, and it's still one of my favorite films. What was the initial reaction? How long did it take you to realize this weird thing you made had a life beyond a student prank and people were picking up on it?

Very specifically I remember, I had never really made a movie that anyone had wanted to show. I tried to get Superstar shown at the sort of hallowed venues that shown experimental films, like The Collective for Living Cinema. And they were a little suspicious of its tone, they didn't know quite what to make of it. They didn't follow the language of experimental film from that time. But I'd been working in galleries and had been putting out press releases for shows at galleries in SoHo, so I knew how to do a press release. So I put out a press release for my own movie, and sent it to like the film critics at Village Voice and ArtForum. I went on a little trip to Maine and all of a sudden, I got calls from Christine, and she was like, "J. Hoberman wants to see your movie!" I was like, "WHAT!" And he did, and he wrote the lead review of the week at the time when the Village Voice was the pulse of cultural life, not just in New York, but sort of nationally. And Barbara Kruger wrote a leading piece in ArtForum. And those came out the same month. So all of a sudden, people knew about it, and it happened as quickly and simply as that, when that kind of meaningful journalist with that kind of weight would feature something as unlikely as Superstar.

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Photography: Mateusz Sitek / Styling by Lily Bling