Entering his fourth decade of filmmaking, director Todd Haynes has only eight narrative features to his name. The Velvet Underground, his latest work, is his first documentary. He has directed several shorts and one celebrated HBO miniseries (Mildred Pierce starring Kate Winslet, who won an Emmy for her performance). But with those nine films, Haynes is one of the most respected and revered filmmakers of our time. This is in part because his films capture an alienation and longing we all feel. His movies also tend to expose so much of the bullshit in the world. He explores relationships that are—or were once seen as—taboo. And there is a constant questioning to his work, a putting forth to his audience a challenge to not just accept things as they are.
Haynes was born in Los Angeles, California and made shorts at a very early age. In 1987, as an MFA student at Bard College he made his now infamous Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story short, which used Barbie dolls as the actors and Carpenters songs on the soundtrack. Richard Carpenter sued and won, and the film was removed from public distribution (although bootlegs remain available).
In 1991, his first feature Poison catapulted him as one of the fresh voices of the New Queer Cinema movement. His 1995 follow up film Safe featured Julianne Moore as a woman who is diagnosed with a mysterious environmental illness (an analogy for the AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s). The film was wildly praised by critics.
In 1998, his love for music birthed arguably his most underrated (although it does have its rabid fans) film Velvet Goldmine that explored the world of glam rock and featured an extraordinary cast of actors including Christian Bale, Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Toni Collette. The film was initially intended to focus on David Bowie and include his songs, but Bowie declined and Haynes was able to make his central characters more amalgams. Bowie/Jobriath. Iggy Pop/Lou Reed. It’s a feast for the eyes and ears and incredibly dense. The film is also a precursor for the rest of his music-inspired work.
In 2002, Far from Heaven reunited him with Moore and took on themes of racism, gay repression, and suburban suffocation all set in a Sirkian melodrama that Fassbinder would have been proud of. The film received four Oscar nominations including Haynes’s first (and only so far) nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The film was his greatest success to date.
His most ambitious project, I’m Not There, followed in 2007 as a meditation on the great Bob Dylan using seven fictional characters played by six actors including Cate Blanchett, who received an Oscar nomination for her extraordinary work.
The sumptuous cinematic feast Carol followed in 2015. The film exists as a loving homage to ‘50s cinema infused with just enough modern awareness. The film’s messy love story between two fascinating women transfixes, and it received six Oscar nominations including two for its actors, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, although it was controversially not recognized for Best Picture or Best Director.
Wonderstruck reunited him, yet again, with Moore in 2017, and in 2019 he made Dark Waters, an homage to 1970s films like Silkwood and The China Syndrome. The film had the balls to take on DuPont and is an exciting and important work.
Haynes now returns with a hypnotic doc about the groundbreaking band The Velvet Underground. It’s a cinematic concoction that bombards the viewer in all the best ways. Haynes has crafted a celebration as well as an exploration of a time and a sound that changed the world.
Awards Daily had a Zoom chat with Todd while promoting The Velvet Underground.
The Velvet Underground is playing in theaters and on AppleTV+.