Todd Haynes, director: “I have gotten into Almodóvar’s territory, but I don’t reach his level” | ICON


Director Todd Haynes poses for ICON dressed in Gucci.

There is only one thing Todd Haynes likes more than making films: talking about his films. But not with fuss or egotistical hollowness, but with pure didactic desire and for the pleasure of conversation. In each promotion, Haynes (Los Angeles, 63 years old) serves journalists with several books related to his film. In this interview, the Californian director appeared with photo books related to the landscapes of Georgia, where the action of Secrets of a scandal (it opens today in Spain), but none of them alluded to the elephant in the room, that the film is an approach to a real event that was experienced with media fury in the United States. Because the case was carried out by a teacher and one of her minor students. There was sex, prison, children and death. “All my compatriots remember it,” she explains with a mischievous smile.

In 1996, the relationship between a school teacher in Seattle, Mary Kay Letourneau, 34 years old, married with four children, and her 13-year-old student, Vili Fualaau, of Samoan descent, went around the world. The scandal broke out when Letourneau became pregnant with the child: her husband divorced her and she took her four children to Alaska, and Vili Fualaau’s parents denounced her. There was a trial, but the sentence was very light, only three months.

After giving birth to a girl, Letourneau spent a brief time in the penitentiary, came out… and one early morning in February 1998, the police discovered her with the student in a car. A month later she said that she was pregnant again. She went to prison with a sentence of seven and a half years, and behind bars she had her second daughter. Bait for the tabloids, excitement on trash TV.

Todd Haynes
Director Todd Haynes poses for ICON dressed in Gucci.Antonio Macarro

Upon leaving prison in 2004, Letourneau fought to have the order preventing her from approaching Fualaau overturned and the following year she secretly married him. In the end, in 2018, they faced divorce proceedings, although they did not separate: Letourneau was diagnosed with cancer and Fualaau accompanied the woman until her death, at the age of 58, in July 2020. That story became a script that moved the action to Savannah (Georgia) and told the relationship between an actress who is going to play the teacher and the teacher, who invites her to her house for a few days so that she can understand her life with the young man, here of Korean origins. The script fell into the hands of Natalie Portman, who in addition to playing the actress, has made her debut as a producer with this project. She was the one who called and hired Haynes: “I immediately thought of Todd because of his ability to portray suburban life. He was my first choice, a dream, and when Todd in turn convinced Julianne Moore to be the teacher my dream escalated to a higher level.”

Therefore, in this tour, Haynes understands being secondary. Sitting on the terrace of a luxury hotel in Cannes, where his film was presented last May, the Californian starts to laugh and shrugs his shoulders when he realizes that of the group of journalists who interviewed Natalie Portman, only this editor remains to chat with he. “She is the star, hers is the idea, it is only fair that Natalie is the one who provokes the most curiosity in you.” Did you give much thought to why Portman sought him out? “In my career I have shot a lot of films with characters who struggle to express themselves, to escape the constraints of society, just what happens with those of Secrets of a scandal”. He usually underlines it with a trademark sequence, when the people on the street who have attacked the protagonists of the story watch them in amazement as they carry out their possible transgressions: “That comes from my admiration for the work of Fassbinder, who used that a lot resource. In return, I debut in showing what it’s like to make films… although it is not the main focus. Returning to your question, I think this is the first time that this transgression is going to cause us a deep moral doubt. I questioned myself as a creator, because this woman got involved with a student, we understand that she did it from a position of power. In my country he was a scandal, probably because she was the oldest and not him. Women still today are not allowed the same degree of transgression as men. “I don’t go into assessing whether the relationship was appropriate or not, but rather how people see it.”

The aforementioned assures that he has enjoyed the assignment, and it shows, because he likes to “play with the actors,” and because it seems to him that they are, he explains, like vampires. “Secrets of a scandal It allows me to show how performers parasitize real characters when they have to embody them on screen. Now, who manipulates who? ”She asks, and a mischievous expression appears on her face again.

Todd Haynes
Director Todd Haynes poses for ICON dressed in Gucci.

On that hot noon on the Côte d’Azur, what bothers Haynes the most is “the curtailment of rights and freedoms” in his country. She agrees to explain: “Many of the individual freedoms in the United States were achieved by women. It scares me how States are increasingly getting more involved in controlling us and limiting, for example, the right to abortion or contraception methods. MeToo has taken steps, but so has the other side. It is curious that, if you look at the total votes, my country is democratic and supports the feminist struggle. Now, the republican power knows how to perpetuate itself, and it does so by curtailing the rights of LGTBIQ+ people, those of gay children, by deciding the books you can read, the classes you can take… Against that danger, which moves hidden, “We can only respond with more feminism and more culture.”

Haynes, director straddling transgression —Safe (nineteen ninety five), poison (1991), I’m Not There (2007)—and passion drawn with elegance—Far from the sky (2002), carol (2015), the miniseries Mildred Pierce (2011)—, confesses that ultimately all of his work reflects on the different ways of narrating: “About how I do it, or about how my characters tell their stories. I approached Bob Dylan (in I’m Not There) avoiding reductionism and the vampirization of his figure. I approached The Velvet Undeground (in their 2021 documentary) seeking to honor them even in film form. As a filmmaker you must feel that you are answering deep questions about how to show the truth of the protagonists, that Secrets of a scandalFurthermore, it was intertwined with a distant reality. How did she survive the tabloid attack? Does that deserve to be in my movie? In that search, in that journey, is my happiness.” For this reason, the filmmaker puts in the journalist’s hands a voluminous catalog from the Pompidou Center, where an exhaustive retrospective of his work was scheduled last summer. “There are many films that I had never seen again, because I started in the seventies! But I have reconfirmed the mark it left on me Safebecause it focused on people whom society looked at as if they were different, as strangers.”

As a child, in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Haynes was fascinated by two things: hippie girls (and he had them by his side, thanks to his sister and her friends) and reproducing with his super-8 camera the movies he saw on the rooms. On YouTube you can recover the mythical Superstar (1987), her vision of the tragic life of Karen Carpenter made with Barbie dolls. He studied film at Brown – thus, adding to his talent the references to the classics that dot his work – and, after decades in New York, in 2000 he moved to Portland, where he is part of a powerful film community. Curiously, someone who exudes modernity always dates his films to the past: Secrets of a scandal It takes place in 2015. “I changed the script to escape from the Trump era, and take them to the Obama years, less ideologically polarized. Why those trips? Because this way I feel creatively freer, and at the same time, you push the public to draw connections with their current events.”

Throughout this film journey, the filmmaker has been accompanied by two friends. The first is Julianne Moore, with whom he has been collaborating for nearly three decades. “My creative good fortune has been that my career has coincided with his. We understand each other perfectly, because Julianne is attracted to the edges of people, the most fragile corners of them, those that hide behind facades of firmness.” The second is Pedro Almodóvar: “In Secrets of a scandal I approach melodrama with soap opera touches through the theme, music, zooms and humor. That’s Pedro’s territory, and every comparison flatters me. I feel that Almodóvar has his own genre in cinema, like Hitchcock. On the other hand, my films cannot be placed in a special category. I don’t reach their level. They do, no matter how much they change themes or plots. You will always know, when you see a movie image of him, that it belongs to Pedro. And his humor, his actors, his sets, his camera movements… Let’s say it clearly: the Almodóvar system is a marvel.”

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