Hearing filmmaker Todd Haynes and actress Julianne Moore talk about the “unusual synchronicity,” the “simultaneity” and the “unspoken connection” they share, it’s hard not to feel there’s some kind of shared voodoo at work -- or at least a common language.
Their latest collaboration, “Far From Heaven,” is up for four Academy Awards, including best actress for Moore and best original screenplay for Haynes. Many critics have noted that it is precisely this synergy between writer-director Haynes and Moore’s proto-feminist protagonist (“who may be far from heaven but never once out of the director’s embrace,” as one critic put it) that gives the bittersweet, weepie patterned-after-'50s melodrama its contemporary feel even in an age of cynical and frazzled post-modernity.
But the pair have worked in mysterious ways ever since they came together by chance in the mid-'90s, when Moore stumbled upon a script Haynes had written called “Safe.” She got through the first 10 pages and knew something “extraordinary” was at work.
“Unlike anything I’d ever read. I got kind of overwhelmed, and really excited,” Moore recalls. She flew to New York to make her case for the lead -- a placid Encino housewife, symbolically named Carol White, who develops mysterious allergic reactions to everything around her, from perfume and gasoline fumes to new furniture. “I really, really wanted it,” she says. “I can remember walking down Broadway thinking, ‘Now please, I don’t wanna blow this audition!’ ”
Haynes and Moore follow in a tradition almost as old as Hollywood in which a filmmaker finds his muse in a single actress -- from D.W. Griffith and Lillian Gish, and Alfred Hitchchock and Ingrid Bergman, to John Cassevetes and Gena Rowlands, and Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. In Haynes and Moore’s case, their artistic relationship and mutual admiration began almost as soon as they first met.
Lingering on details and finishing one another’s sentences in the fashion of a long-married couple (which they are not), Haynes and Moore in a recent interview described their first meeting as if it were a seance where two kindred spirits found each other.
Moore: “And I met Todd, who was the nicest person in the world. I thought he was gonna be, I don’t know, very arty ...”
Haynes (feigning offense): “I try to be arty!”
Moore: "... But he was accessible and warm, not what I expected from somebody who would write this incredibly sad, far-reaching piece -- something that you didn’t see in film at the time. But when I auditioned, he only said to me, ‘Thank you! Bye bye!’ ”
Haynes: “I didn’t say ‘That was great!’ because I was speechless. I was utterly swept away. I really haven’t had that experience, and I don’t know if I ever will again. It was just an amazing, complete interpretation of this character whom I had written but who somehow still remained kind of a conceptual figure in my head. That leap to the act of personifying what’s written and making it three-dimensional -- it’s scary. And I think that’s what any director ultimately wants.”
When it landed in theaters in 1995, just as the indie-film phenom was gathering speed, “Safe” had a disturbing and hypnotic effect, embodied above all by the curious plight of Carol White, worn transparent by the ills of late 20th century, rendered physically sick by even the most benign trappings of the modern age. (“Our beautiful new couch? Totally toxic!” is one of Carol’s most memorable lines.)
Moore said she could not help but hear Carol’s voice in the rhythms of Haynes’ language: “His characterization was so complete on page that there didn’t seem to me to be any distance between the language and the character.
“That,” she adds, “is I think the nature of our connection. I feel I can hear those people that he writes. It’s the same experience I had again with ‘Far From Heaven’ -- where it didn’t feel effortful for me because he had already done the work in the script.”
For his part, Haynes says, “I don’t know that my films would work if I didn’t have people like Julianne performing in them. What happens is that she takes an interest in the form and makes the form disappear. And then you have this experience that feels utterly and surprisingly authentic, even though you are watching something completely codified.”
The odd couple
Artistic kinship aside, the fits of giggles and playful put-downs that Haynes and Moore trade in teen-speak (She: “Freak!” He: “Shut up!”) suggest their genuine warmth toward one another.
Still, you wonder, because at least on the face of things they make for an unlikely pairing. Valley-bred Haynes is a filmmaker of ideas known for his obsession with inventing fresh cinematic idioms to address the politics of everyday life, with half-a-dozen features under his belt -- some hotly controversial, like his 1987 short-film debut, “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” cast entirely with Barbie dolls and blocked from release to this day by a lawsuit from the late singer’s brother.
Moore, who grew up shuttling among various U.S. locations, Europe and Panama, is a respected character actress favored by the likes of Robert Altman, the Cohen Brothers and Ridley Scott and the onetime star of a “Jurassic Park” sequel; she’s a bona fide Hollywood star with strong indie roots who remains impossible to pigeonhole.
His body of work has spurred as much critical support as outrage; hers has been acknowledged with four Oscar nominations since 1998, including two this year, for her “Far From Heaven” lead performance and a supporting turn in “The Hours.”
And when the two find themselves in the plush lobby of the Chateau Marmont dissecting the nature of their collaboration, you cannot help but notice that they even look a little mismatched: Haynes casually hip in a modish leather jacket and Puma bag, Moore exuding Old World chic in full Dolce & Gabbana garb and high-heel sandals fastened with velvet ribbons.
Unusual for a director-actor team, Haynes and Moore discuss the overall arc of the story and the character only at the beginning of the shoot, and never hold council before each scene; both say there is no need for that.
“There is something extremely shared,” Haynes says, “not only about the way we see things -- films and stories and conflicts that we’re drawn to, probably from different directions -- but also Julianne’s understanding of film as a visual medium of ideas.”
After “Safe” Haynes and Moore went their separate ways -- he went on to make his 1998 glam-rock opus “Velvet Goldmine"; she found her footing in a series of acclaimed projects directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and Ridley Scott -- but “there was no question in my mind that I wanted to work with Julianne again and do something really special with her,” says Haynes.
When he sat down in the spring of 2000 to write “Far From Heaven,” the long-planned homage to his favorite ‘50s director, Douglas Sirk, he wrote his quietly explosive story with Moore in mind. He says in retrospect that in Moore’s performance both the highly stylized framework of his picture and its radical examinations of the power struggles between sexes, were sublimated to devastating effect.
Though “Safe” and “Far From Heaven” are almost a decade apart, collaborating on them “wasn’t different at all,” Moore says. “There’s something incredibly relaxing about working with someone whose vision you can rely on. With Todd, I always feel like we’re on the same page.”
Even off the set, the two often find themselves in freaky synchronicity.
Asked about their age, they bring their heads together and intone in unison, “Forty-two!” Born exactly one month apart, they share the same cultural references and are known to have been hooked on the same songs: “He left this message on my answering machine, and it was Bobby Sherman singing, ‘Julie, Do Ya Love Me,’ ” Moore says. “People used to sing that to me when I was 6, so I almost started crying when I heard it.”
Their shared trajectory to increasing recognition may well reach its twin denouement at the Academy Awards ceremony. But with or without Oscars, Haynes and Moore say they will rest contented.
Says Moore: “Both ‘Safe’ and ‘Far From Heaven’ were about things I felt deeply about, and it’s wonderful to see that other people feel the same way. But the experience of making them -- that’s what I value.”