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6 Filmmaking Tips from Todd Haynes

Don’t just play it safe when you can strive to be an experimental film superstar.
Todd Haynes filmmaking tips
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By  · Published on October 17th, 2017

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Todd Haynes.

One of the most famous indie filmmakers to rise up through the ’90s, Todd Haynes has managed to be both an experimental director and a mainstream entertainer. From his mix of pop culture and avant-garde satire with 1988’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story to his latest work of nonlinear storytelling, Wonderstruck, Haynes delivers complex but accessible movies. They’re never big commercial hits, but that’s not for any difficulty of form.

Haynes initially studied semiotics at Brown University, where he met longtime producer Christine Vachon — as important as she’s been to his career, his first piece of advice should be to find someone just like her. But he does have some more practical tips to share. As he was just starting his career, he co-founded the non-profit Apparatus Productions to help support other indie filmmakers, so he’s been an encouraging voice for decades.

Here’s some of that guidance:

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Todd Haynes

1. Learn By Doing

Haynes did go on to an MFA program, but even before his undergrad studies, he was making movies as a teenager. And that was decades before you everyone had cameras in their pockets and professional-quality post-production facilities in their homes. Whenever he’s at a school and specifically asked for advice for aspiring film students and filmmakers, he always says the same thing:

“Make your work. Just make it. Any way possible. Now there are more ways to do that through digital options, but until you have gotten your hand and feet and face wet in the process, that’s how you learn what you want to do, what you care about saying. And that’s how you show other people what that looks like. Then you have something to show. Then you can take it around to festivals and studios or wherever that leads you. But it’s all about just making it.

“There are so many modes of expression, more than ever, proliferation of ways of doing things, but unfortunately there’s a lack of why we’re doing it and what we’re doing. There’s a lack of interpretive critical drive. The world is confusing, and we’ve splintered it up into sound bites and into shuffle modes and into a sort of discontinuous language, and discontinuity can be stimulating and important but also we have to remember how to put the ideas together and communicate with each other. That’s what you learn by making the stuff. Because you learn how to communicate to each other.”

That quote comes from a masterclass Q&A event during Prague’s Mezipatra queer film festival in 2011 (watch the whole thing here). Below is an interview with Drexel University’s Pretentious Film Majors, where he says that film school’s resources aren’t as vital as they used to be, and it’s just a matter of learning through the experience of creating:

2. Have Patience With Your Actors

While some filmmakers have preferred treating actors like cattle, Haynes is more respectful of actors as individual talents with different methods and approaches. Sort of a continuation of the idea of learning by doing, he talks about directing actors in the below quote from a 2011 issue of Interview magazine. His interviewer? Kate Winslet, star of his Mildred Pierce miniseries.

“I don’t think it’s until you learn, until you work with nonprofessionals, and get good stuff out of that process that I think you really understand the whole range of what’s possible and how there is no single style of acting. And there is no single approach that actors take to their craft. And the best thing you learn is that you have to really listen and respect each actor’s own process and own method, and that takes a kind of delicate, you know, non-imposing patience and openness, I think, to get the very best out of the people you work with.”

3. Hold Unofficial Test Screenings

Back in 2002, Haynes told the BBC that he does not believe in test screenings. “It’s the most artificial context to present an audience with a movie wholly unindoctrinated, knowing nothing about the film,” he said at the time. Apparently, he’s changed his mind a bit, though he primarily is interested in unofficial screenings comprised of friends and strangers alike to ask what is working and what isn’t.

Haynes told the Guardian in 2015 that screenings are a “key part of the process” for him. And here’s what he said about the importance of screenings during a masterclass event at the 2015 Zurich Film Festival, as quoted by IndieWire:

“For me, you cannot underestimate the importance of screenings starting with that handful of friends and colleagues, but broadening out to people you don’t know. We do a series of screenings and we get people to write about their experience watching the movie and it’s invaluable, it’s essential. That doesn’t mean that everything they say is a problem, a concern or something that we implement directly, but it often results in changes to your cut and the experience of watching your film. Often that means giving up or losing your favorite scene or your most cherished moment. The whole experience is really what matters.

“For example, there were some severe changes to the structure of ‘Carol,’ at least with regard to the final party scene that Therese goes to, which played a bigger role in the original script. We realized it wasn’t supporting the time on film that we had allotted to it, and it was a great note, and it was a consensus that we kept getting. So you have to be tough on it, you have to be able to hate the thing you love, and just be kind of cold-blooded.”

You continue to learn by doing it again and again, each film a different experience, and then showing your work to people. In the below video made in partnership between Stony Brook University and IndieWire, Vachon interviews Haynes and asks for him to give advice for first-time filmmakers. After telling them to just do the work, he goes into the sharing the work part.

4. Keep Discarding

Haynes admits with the screening process that you often have to lose your favorite scene if it turns out it’s not working. Expanding on that idea, he recognizes that making movies is all about unmaking them. And that goes for whether you’ve created something from its inception or taken on something written by someone else. Asked about directing someone else’s script for Carol, he told Fred.fm last year:

“It is not that different except that for just the time. It all was a little more accelerated. The films I write, I have much more time to work on, develop, research, try to get finance myself, all of those things. But even when you write your own script, you kind of have to keep discarding. And even though you wrote the words, once they are filmed it is a new thing and you have to be kind of almost ruthless with the material and be like, no, now it’s this. I have to deal with this. I think the only way to make a good film is to keep discarding what it is. It doesn’t matter really whether you wrote it or somebody else wrote it.”

Here’s something similar Haynes told The Film Stage in 2017 while promoting Wonderstruck, another movie he didn’t write himself:

“What’s funny is even when it is your script, there’s a funny way in which it becomes something other once you embark upon it. It’s an assignment that you give yourself, and then you kind of need to work yourself through it and discard, and once you’re shooting, the script is history. And even more just filming the script, what’s happening in production means that the script is just a blueprint for what you’re doing with the camera and with your actors and with your locations. Once you’re done shooting, it’s over, and you’re in the editing process and you have to be able to keep discarding and not hanging on to the imprint and the expectations and the assumptions that you have conjured at each stage. I think it’s the only way to really see what you have in front of you, and to also let it become what it is to a certain point. You can do everything you can to manage that process but ultimately it is what is in front of you.”

5. Reject Hollywood

He’s always been considered an independent filmmaker, but Haynes has worked with major distributors like Sony Pictures Classics, Miramax, The Weinstein Company, HBO, and now Amazon. So he doesn’t completely denounce Hollywood in the end. But it’s his rejection of their game during production that he sees as making him more appealing on the backend.  From the 2002 BBC interview:

“The worst piece of advice, that’s easier. It’s always stuff that you thankfully don’t do, that you see the other people doing, like worrying too much about being in vogue or striking while the iron is hot, or basically responding to power in any obedient way. I think responding to the lure of Hollywood or those realms… for me, rejecting that stuff has not only protected my work and my integrity, but actually it goes against what people tell you. They actually want you more when you don’t play their game. Not that that was my intention, but I felt like the interest in me as a filmmaker who has stayed pretty much outside of the Hollywood world has been sustained for an incredibly long time — with no box office to show for myself — based largely on my indifference.”

Earlier in his career, in a 1995 interview for BOMB magazine conducted by fellow filmmaker Alison Maclean to be exact, Haynes addressed his reluctance to compromise with the Hollywood system despite admiring those directors who could make great work and also be popular in the mainstream:

“I do admire filmmakers like Hitchcock who could, through the formulas he created in narrative, reach such an enormous audience and be absolutely mainstream and popular, but at the same time be so completely subversive. It’s always something to marvel at. And he wanted to be popular—I love that. But that’s not my main goal…

“There’s the practicality of budgets, and trying to get your film made the way you think it needs to be made, and sometimes that requires considering name stars and structures that might differ from your first choice. But I’ve learned from making what I make that I am an experimental filmmaker. I don’t need to be a feature filmmaker as a personal reward. The limitations in that world alone are so profound in terms of what you can get made—it’s always an internal debate in my head. I don’t know.”

It’s no wonder Haynes wanted to make a movie about Bob Dylan (I’m Not There). From a 2017 interview for The Talks:

“Dylan is somebody who as soon as he got beloved and accepted, he would say no and reject the audience that he created and risk alienation because it’s where the artistic feed comes. You have to sort of feel as though you’re looking at the world from the outside in. Maybe that’s something about myself as well, that you have to kind of be alone and be isolated to be inspired.”

Here’s Haynes being asked how he broke into Hollywood, to which he explains that he hasn’t and then suggests he couldn’t even become a filmmaker today:

6. Don’t Fret Over Box Office Grosses

These days it seems that box office success is more important than ever, given how much attention is put on the front-loaded grosses of movies. But while Haynes definitely wants theatrical distribution and for his work to be seen on the big screen, he recognizes that his films have often been discovered by fans later on through other platforms, and now with streaming services like Amazon there are even more outlets out there for such discovery to happen. He explained to Collider in 2015:

“I do think that, yes, one should always be receptive to the fact that there are many different types of audiences and they are not necessarily in a clean reductive demographic like they once were. That’s great, you know. I do know my own films don’t necessarily work within that high-pressure reductive moment of the opening weekend, or all the ways that many people assess the value of movies. They actually just sort of live in the past, those moments must be remembered because success for certain types of film come months and years later. Ultimately it’s when a movie makes you want to go back to and think about again, and revisit it, there are so many different ways of doing so today, and that gives films a longer life to find an audience now, than before.”

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

Haynes is a relatively accessible filmmaker, but he stays outside the mainstream as much as he can without isolating himself too much. You have to be able to collaborate with other people during production, such as actors, and you have to get feedback from other people during post-production, just maybe not in the form of cold marketing tests. Just be patient through it all, for the films to come together and for them to be appreciated.

Additional research for Filmmaking Tips by Natalie Mokry.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.