“We could have flown to Boston at this rate,” spat one late arrival to the premiere of Persol’s Magnificent Obsessions: 30 Stories of Craftsmanship in Film exhibition last night. For many of the film and art glitterati that attended the event at the Museum of Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, the trek, albeit worthwhile, seemed endless. The Italian eyewear brand, which has a storied history in cinema–it provided Cary Grant with sunglasses in North by Northwest and Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita–honored costume designer Arianne Phillips and director Todd Haynes at the event. Publicist-groomed celebs such as Zoë Saldana and Patricia Clarkson mingled alongside fashion legend Diane Pernet and creative cognoscenti.
On the second floor, John Turturro engaged guests in an intimate discussion on cinematography, while others soaked up the history and painstaking process of filmmaking through interactive installations on the third. Magnificent Obsessions is the second installment in a series of three, which boasts rare film props, equipment, costumes, sketches and footage to provide viewers with an insider perspective of some of cinema’s most acclaimed motion pictures.
The Observer caught up with Mr. Haynes to learn more about his unique approach to the art of filmmaking and to see if he actually likes Persol’s eyewear.
Tell us how you discovered your passion for filmmaking.
I think it must have started when I saw my first film when I was three. I saw Mary Poppins [and] it just blew my mind. It really was an obsession. It provoked a creative response in me, according to my mom and all the collected drawings that still remain. [I was] just drawing pictures of Mary Poppins constantly and acting out scenes from the movie and trying to dress my mom up as Mary Poppins.
How did she react to that?
Oh, she was cool. She was lovely about it. And even my grandmother—both grandmothers—were great sports.
Then there were other films I would get obsessed with throughout childhood, and they would generate similar kinds of total immersions and creative reactions. Romeo and Juliet, the Zeffirelli film in ’68, was one. One of my first films that I made was my own version of Romeo and Juliet when I was nine, so [the film] forced me to be creative in response I guess.
How would describe your style of filmmaking? Do you have directors that influence you?
Regionally I don’t know if I have a settled spot that I look to for inspiration–certainly European cinema. Postwar cinema has been a major influence on me, but so have great Hollywood directors and Hollywood cinema and experimental film too, so [my interests are] fairly broad and diverse–contradictory interests, perhaps. And I don’t know that there’s a specific style that [I lean toward] except a real delight in getting inside the universe that each film requires me to master to the best of my abilities.
Most of my films have been set in different historical periods, and you just have this amazing assignment to get to know that particular historical era: the clothes, the manners, the language, the dialects, the music, the film, the art, the culture that inspired and formed that era. Usually those stylistic traditions, as well traditions of habit and dress and manner, are relevant to the approach I want to take in the film I’m making.
And how do you immerse yourself in a time period? Obviously music you can listen to—but do you read, speak with people who lived during that period, or something else?
A variety, and it depends on when it was. The 1930s, which was the period when I worked with Kate [Winslet] and Mildred Pierce, was harder to talk to actual people, so I was reading and seeing films and references. And in that particular film, I was interested in ‘70s films actually–films from the 1970s in America that were quoting classic genres, but bringing a kind of new naturalism–breaking out of the studio style of filmmaking and bringing a sense of the contemporary culture to those classic genres, like The Godfather or Chinatown or whatever they were. That’s why those films felt so relevant and so contemporary, as if they were speaking to this cultural climate of the 1970s, despite the fact that they were set in the past, whereas [with] Far from Heaven we really applied ourselves to the specific language of the films from that time.
When the extras caster would say, “Hartford had a lot of Italian-Americans and these are the kind of faces that would have been in Hartford, Connecticut,” we were all like, “No, we don’t want people who look like they really were in Hartford in 1957.” We want people who look like they were in the studio system as extras in a film that was made in 1957. So we picked patrician white folks that looked like they were in the back line at Universal Studios. That was very specific. We were embracing the sort of artifice that was so masterfully and beautifully perfected at that time by these filmmakers, for all kinds of various reasons. So each film offers its own little strategic specifics.
Then when I was researching Velvet Goldmine, which is a film about the glam-rock era, that’s probably the time I most fully immersed myself physically in the preparation. I literally was wearing glam-rock-era-infused clothes for the years that I was writing it and learned things that you can only learn by teetering on 8” platform heels.
Do you still have those?
(Laughing) I do have most of that stuff still stashed away, and I learned, for a man, you feel so different up there and with the wind rustling up your midsection and blowing through the tops of your hair. Stuff you can’t learn just by reading and watching videos.
I’m curious about your views on gender roles, especially with the women–female characters and empowerment and authority. Can you speak to how that enhances your storytelling, or what influences you to focus on those themes?
There are themes that I keep going back to in various ways, starting probably with the Superstar film about Karen Carpenter, my short film. I love melodrama, I love domestic stories, and not necessarily because they’re about people who can overcome the problems that they encounter in their lives. [They are] often about the ways we are beaten down by society and the ways options are limited and uncircumscribed for women and men. The subjects of classic melodrama are often kind of mediocre people, they’re not exceptional people, and they succumb to suffering in a sadly noble way, seeing that they’ve failed to [achieve] the ideals that they think they should [have achieved]. I think you actually learn more about society and what it does to people when you don’t see people being victorious in the end. You actually maybe relate to them more because [these are] the kinds of things that we all actually really truly deal with in our lives. [These are] not perfect happy endings. They’re compromises and they’re tradeoffs, and I love that about these films. There’s a tenderness about these people when they’re not super heroic and they don’t have all the answers.
One last question: I see your Persols. Do you wear them and are you a fan?
These [glasses] are for long distance, but I have these beautiful frames that I didn’t get done with my progressive lenses, so I can read for both distance and reading. They’re so beautifully made and you know you feel good when you put them on, and obviously what’s so cool about Persol is how they’ve had a role in cinema, in classic cinema. They’ve almost been around as long as cinema, which I didn’t know either. So it’s pretty cool.