Heaven Sent

Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore Reopen Douglas Sirk's Melodrama Fakebook

Moore, it turns out, had a hand in the chromatic choices as well. Haynes, who conceived the film with Moore in mind, had written Cathy as a redhead. But the actress, thinking of "Doris Day's voice and Lana Turner's blondness," convinced Haynes that she should wear a wig. "A redhead is marginal," Moore explains. "We're 4 percent of the population. We're the best friend, the sexy one, or the funny one, but Cathy's the classic American ideal. I wanted her to be the perfect blond with the perfect family. I wanted to see that person transform. Watching it, I realized I've never smiled so much in a film—I smile all the way through. I thought, oh my god, Cathy is the ultimate American optimist—and Todd has made a movie about the failure of American optimism."

Velvet Goldmine, the most optimistic and celebratory of Haynes's films, left him "bummed out and exhausted," he says. "I tried to take a break and paint and travel—I went to Hawaii alone and finished Proust. But I wasn't very inspired." He embarked on Far From Heaven "almost as a last resort—going back to film as a way of working through other things in my life."

Artificial ingredients: Haynes and Moore cook up a Techni-color weepie.
photo: Ted Soqui
Artificial ingredients: Haynes and Moore cook up a Techni-color weepie.

After he lost his Williamsburg apartment in the summer of 2000, Haynes moved to Portland, Oregon—"a great physical, emotional, psychological change," he says. With "the absurdity and innate arrogance" of the film world at bay, what was intended as a rest cure ended up being a highly fertile work period. The writing process proved unusually painless: "I did a sketch of Julianne as Cathy, in sunglasses with a scarf and a little basket, pinned it up, and I wrote it in 10 days. I was listening to a lot of sad music, like The Thin Red Line soundtrack, but it was almost like I was in this . . . playland. I hate when people say, 'The script wrote itself,' but I felt like I was a bit of a spectator to my own process.

"Constraints are the most inspiring things in a creative process if you trust them," Haynes continues. "A set of rules can be exhilarating." The challenge was not merely to adopt Sirk's rococo style but to wholly internalize his brashly synthetic tone—in other words, to imitate an imitation of life. "From the outset, I think it was about embracing this beautiful, almost naive language of words, gestures, movements, and interactions that were totally prescribed and extremely limited—not condescending to it, but allowing its simplicity to touch other feelings that you can't be over-explicating."

Moore concurs: "There's a trend now of a so-called naturalistic acting style, with content that's less emotionally realistic or is somewhat heroic. But I prefer it the other way around, like it is in this film. I love the artifice of filmmaking. I love nothing more than working inside, on a fake set. I always think, Why do we have to be in somebody's house? Just build it if you can." (And build it they did: Heaven is a soundstage in New Jersey, where a quintessentially overappointed Sirk home was re-created, complete with split levels, strategically placed mirrors, and a curved staircase.)

The Far From Heaven diorama induces a vertiginous disorientation—what Haynes calls "an ignited, electrified distance that can happen with a certain kind of representational experience." He likens it to watching performance artist John Kelly as Joni Mitchell: "He sounds just like Joni Mitchell, he imitates her stage banter, he's in drag and looks like a ghoulish version of the little pixie Joni Mitchell from the '60s. You're laughing, but you're laughing at yourself, at your own intensely serious investment in Joni Mitchell when you were in high school. But you're also crying, at the beauty of the music, and for that person in high school who loved those songs and who you feel rekindled. There's this freedom to go from one emotion to the next, neither one undermining the other. If the real Joni Mitchell was up there, you'd be going, oh god she's older, oh she can't hit that same note—you get caught up in all the discrepancies of the real. There's something about a beautiful surrogate that opens up this wealth of feeling that you wouldn't have with the real thing. And to me, the best kind of cinema is not about the real—it's about a distance that you fill in, participate in with your life experiences, your memories, and your associations."

Viewers haven't always been willing to bridge that gap. Though he has long been a critics' favorite (Safe was voted best movie of the '90s in the Voice's poll of film writers), Far From Heaven is his first release to premiere amid a crescendo of ecstatic, across-the-board acclaim. Moore won the Best Actress prize at the Venice Film Festival, and a media mob descended on the film's Toronto press screening the following week (causing irate shutout Roger Ebert to throw what the Canadian press termed "a hissy fit"). An L.A. Times Oscar odds article last week ranked it among the early front-runners (Moore is already a two-time nominee for Boogie Nights and The End of the Affair). Haynes seems somewhat bemused by the decidedly alien notion of award-season prospects: "Maybe I'm not enjoying it as much as I should be." He adds, a little nervously, "I don't know what all this is going to do to me."

« Previous Page
Next Page »