The Queerty Interview

“I made something that is outside the box” Todd Haynes on crafting a thriller with ‘Dark Waters’

Actor Mark Ruffalo (left) and director Todd Haynes (right) on the set of DARK WATERS. Credit : Mary Cybulski / Focus Features

If Todd Haynes isn’t the greatest queer director alive, he’s one of them.

Haynes’ career has spanned almost four decades, contributing classic movies like Far From Heaven, Velvet Goldmine, Carol, Safe and I’m Not There. His work ushered in the queer cinema movement of the 1990s, and helped launch the film careers of stars like Ewan McGregor, Julianne Moore, Toni Collette, Eddie Izzard, Christian Bale, Viola Davis, Ben Whishaw, Heath Ledger, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. Along the way, he also scored an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for Far From Heaven.

Not a bad pedigree.

Though he hails from Los Angeles, Haynes spends his days in Portland–when not working on a film, anyway. His latest outing, Dark Waters, casts Oscar-winners Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins and Mark Ruffalo. Based on a true story, Ruffalo plays lawyer Rob Bilott, who stumbles upon a pattern of sickness and death in a midwestern town. Bilott’s investigation uncovers a link between the recurrent sickness and DuPont chemical. the company may be illegally dumping waste and suppressing information about the hazards of its products.

Dark Waters opens in a limited release November 22, with a wide release to follow November 29 followed by a nationwide opening December 6.

Queerty chatted with the director about his new movie and the scandal that inspired it.

I have to say, this is a very different film than anything I’ve seen in your filmography before. How did you discover Robert Bilott’s story? What attracted you to it?

The project came to me as a gift from Mark Ruffalo.

Oh wow.

Very few people get to say that out loud, and it never ceases to astonish me when people I admire like that admire my work. And I think I made something that is outside the box to what people associate with me. Though I see a lot of parallels to some of the reasoning of why I do what I do. I also love this genre. I have been a real fan of some of the best examples of the “whistleblower film” as a sort of imprecise way of describing these kinds of movies.

I know what you mean.

I don’t know what it is, but I could watch All the President’s Men every week and feel like I’m learning something. I think it’s something about the process that’s being followed very explosively. We all know the outcome. We all knew the outcome when the film first premiered. You’re not watching it for that, you’re watching journalists put together the story. And you know the story. So you’re really watching how the story came into being, and what happened to the individuals involved that put a story together in the dark, the scope and scale of which they never imagined. And how that alienates the individual—that kind of experience—it’s so riveting and engrossing on a human scale. That’s what I saw in this story: the kind of pain and peril that Rob undergoes, very much like characters in All the President’s Men or The Insider or Silkwood or other movies I’ve always loved.

Bill Camp (left) as “Wilbur Tennant” and Mark Ruffalo (right) as “Robert Bilott” in director Todd Haynes’ DARK WATERS, a Focus Features release. Credit : Mary Cybulski / Focus Features

Along those same lines, this reminded me quite a bit of the environmental thrillers of the late 70s-early 80s. Movies like Silkwood, that you mention or The China Syndrome.

China Syndrome! Yeah.

Very much so. Even the prologue to the movie, with the color palate and film texture, it looks like it was made in the 70s.

That’s sweet. I’m not alone in my profound estimation of American film of the 70s, and a kind of maturity I think we reached in film in this country that we may have never exceeded. It wasn’t just the films and the filmmakers, it was the audience. Audiences were speaking to a kind of sophistication among viewers that felt suspicious about power post-Watergate and concurrent with Vietnam. That created the dialogue between audience and filmmaker that respected their intelligence and ability to read between the lines.

I like that you refer to it as “maturity.” Particularly when you compare the film climate now with the 1970s, the difference is stark. You could go to All the President’s Men or The Last Picture Show in the 70s, and now audiences flock to Avengers 29 or whatever.

Right, right.

There’s a different kind of thirst, so it’s good to see someone making mature films. This is also, if I’m not mistaken, your third film you’ve directed that you’ve not also written. How does that change your approach to the material?

Once I sign off on a project, or once I decide it’s what I want to do, whether developing or writing or if it’s coming from another source and different channel, I’m all in. Interestingly, even if it is a script of my own, the script is still just a blueprint for what the movie is going to be. I’m as disparaging, if not more so, with my own writing in the service of what the movie needs to become. As I would be with anything. Also, my scripts are reflections on cinema already. I never feel like I’m inventing the wheel. I’m interpreting a culture that exists. So I’ve always felt like that’s been my perspective as a filmmaker: an interpreter of language and culture and cinema. And I dig that. We have a lot of interpreting to do these days. I like seeing in the work of others as well.

Anne Hathaway stars as “Sarah Barlage” in director Todd Haynes’ DARK WATERS, a Focus Features release. Credit : Mary Cybulski / Focus Features

So you mention Ruffalo came with the project. Let it be said, he’s excellent here. You talk about tying this in with classic cinema: he’s like a Jimmy Stewart, a Frank Capra hero. You also—as with all your work—attract some incredible actors. Tim Robbins & Anne Hathaway, both Oscar winners. Ruffalo. Mare Winningham, Oscar nominee. Thanks for giving her a good part.

Oh God, yes.

How do you go about seducing an actor into a project like this one?

I just seduce them.

[Laughter]

No, I’m lucky man. I’ve attracted some of the best actors in my opinion from the beginning. You realize actors like to be put in a place and challenged to do things they haven’t done before. That’s really true for what Mark does in this movie. He’s like an everyman, but much more kind of blocked up than a Jimmy Stewart character.

Yeah.

He’s really buried in himself. He’s not emotionally accessible. He’s brooding. You almost don’t recognize the Mark Ruffalo that has such an emotional availability in the other parts he’s played. And I love that in his work. But Rob is cut off. That created all kinds of interesting, dramatic tension and things you want to see slowly break open. So that was a challenge. Mark will say there’s a side of him, the activist, the passionate liberal, who wants a moment where he just finally shouts his head off at the CEO of DuPont.

I don’t think he’s alone in that feeling.

But that wasn’t Rob.

Right.

We really wanted to listen to and pay close attention to the dynamics of these real people, and the pressures they functioned within. So that’s what we tried to explore.

Tim Robbins stars as “Tom Terp” in director Todd Haynes’ DARK WATERS, a Focus Features release. Credit : Mary Cybulski / Focus Features

That comes across on the screen, particularly later in the film when Rob is really paranoid and under pressure. Now, I noticed you like to use some really long takes in this film particularly in the scenes with the kids. A whole scene will play in one shot with no cut. Do you like to let your actors improvise? As a director, what is the difference you see in the performances?

Well, you know, I think most directors feel a boldness about not cutting and letting the frame contain the tensions and energies of the scene, and letting actors live in the scene. It also establishes, in this movie, a kind of perspective where the camera is going to be observing action. It’s not necessarily going to be penetrating the psyches of these characters or assuming their subjectivity. It’s going to hold back a little bit, because Rob holds back.

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Rob brings objectivity and restraint to his process and the way he views the world. Then the story he uncovers takes over and starts to break down those resistances and guards and suspicions. And he gets mad and starts to feel pain in exactly the area of the movie you’re describing. For me, that makes it mean more. You really feel it as a shock when a character like this bangs on his steering wheel and makes his baby cry and screams “It’s f*cking evil, Sarah! It’s f*cking evil!” Or he collapses in the arms of his wife.

That’s such a gift to the actors.

Oh God, yeah. They love it.

When you talk about the camera holding back, there is this voyeuristic quality to those scenes. And you see the actors—Hathaway does this quite a bit—they do little things that are so subtle but so clear as to who the character is and what the subtext is.

Yes. Yeah.

Now you may hate this question…It’s always interesting to see art in terms of the artist. In the case of Ruffalo’s character, Rob, is a character you have a connection with. He’s a man who cannot be broken no matter what the cost to his health, his family, his finances. He’s a man of passion. Thinking about that when I saw the movie, I realized he’s a bit like an artist—someone who just has to create no matter what. Knowing what I do about your career, is it fair to say you identify with that drive?

[Laughter]

That’s an interesting question David. I don’t hate it at all.

Well, that’s good.

It’s really observant and cool. But yeah. I don’t know. I think he holds his passion in or arguably, directs it into his work as I do. There is a way in which we find expression for our instincts and our drive in our work. Or we’re lucky if we do. That’s what transferrence is. That’s what sublimation is. It produces art. It produces stories. And in this case, it produces justice. That doesn’t happen every day.

Yeah.

If I’m anywhere close to that fashion, I’m proud to be so.

Bill Camp (left) as “Wilbur Tennant” and Mark Ruffalo (right) as “Robert Bilott” in director Todd Haynes’ DARK WATERS, a Focus Features release. Credit : Mary Cybulski / Focus Features

So last question, and I’ve been waiting 20 years to ask you this.

Oh God!

I need to ask about a movie that changed my life. It’s called Velvet Goldmine.

Oh wow. Yes! That’s awesome.

So people say it’s about David Bowie. I know it’s not about Bowie directly…you know. Lawsuit alert. [Bowie threatened to sue at the time of the film’s production]

Well yeah, it’s about Bowie. God, it’s a love poem to Bowie.

That’s beautiful, but I also have to wonder if the film something of an indictment of Bowie. Brian Slade, the Bowie character, passes himself as this queer alien, but then distances himself from it and denounces it. Bowie passed himself off as this genderfluid, bisexual icon, and then denounced it. He distanced himself, claiming it was all an act.

Yes. Right.

In that regard, the key character of the film isn’t Brian Slade, it’s Arthur, Christian Bale’s character who looks at Brian Slade and says “That’s me.”

Yes!

In some ways, is the film meant to call Bowie out on that betrayal? The idea that queer people craved this icon, and that he abandoned his people. He abandoned his revolution.

[Long pause]

No. It doesn’t mean to settle. Like all movies, you can replay them and find your anchor and your footing and almost forget the rest. Bowie produced all of this. [Velvet Goldmine] is kind of all the personas of Bowie, sort of what I tried to do in the Dylan film [I’m Not There]. All of the things he created become his own pros and cons.

Interesting.

He unwrites his own history. He contradicts himself. He kills himself off. All these guys that challenge the stability of identity or sexuality or gender, they are in a process of reinventing themselves. That means killing yourself off and rebirthing yourself. I saw that in the glam rock moment, but also a celebration of artifice and camp and fluidity and a kind of protean sense of self. And I also saw that in Dylan with an even bigger kind of cultural desire to make him stay put. He kept having to slap it back in the face. I love that about these kinds of artists. They question the idea that identity is natural or stable or coherent. That’s also the artistic instinct that keeps them going as artists.

Dark Waters opens in select theaters November 22. A wider release will follow November 29 followed by a nationwide opening December 6.