Released this month on Criterion Blu-ray, Todd Haynes’ 1995 science fiction masterpiece Safe was voted the best film of the 1990s in a Village Voice poll, and it’s lost none of its relevance today. Where Haynes’ intended allegory about the AIDS epidemic—he set the film in 1987 for a reason—doesn’t register as strongly now as it did then, the vague “environmental illness” contracted by his lead character, Carol White, does well to stoke 21st-century paranoia about the damage modern life is doing to our planet and ourselves. Safe also marked the first collaboration between Haynes and lead actress Julianne Moore, who plays Carol as a wealthy, passive cipher who boldly attempts to upend her seemingly comfortable life when the world around her proves increasingly toxic. The two would reunite seven years later to equally devastating effect for Haynes’ Douglas Sirk homage/re-working Far From Heaven. Haynes recently spoke to The Dissolve about the shoestring making of Safe, its changing significance, and the similarities and contrasts between Moore’s performance here and in the new Alzheimer’s drama Still Alice.
The Dissolve: Your 1991 feature debut, Poison, won Sundance, and was a substantial arthouse hit, but it took a few years to get Safe made. Do you carry any momentum from Poison into Safe, or was it kind of like starting over?
Todd Haynes: It was still so much the beginning for me in those years. Safe was such a different kind of film than Poison. I always had fairly narrow expectations for the kind of audiences that my films might generate. If anything, I was always sort of surprised that they garnered more attention than I expected, often through circumstances that went beyond the films themselves, like the controversies surrounding “Superstar” and then the very different controversy surrounding Poison. Of course, we were hoping to get the film made more quickly than it ended up getting made in the ’90s. When I look back on Safe, it’s a miracle that it got made at all in my mind. I don’t how it could have possibly been made today in any regard.
The Dissolve: You feel like it’s more difficult now to get a film like that made than it was then?
Haynes: Yeah, for sure. Definitely. It’s an experiment, that movie. It was very much so at the time, and it remains so. It’s the kind of film that people didn’t really know what to make of initially, and it probably took a little longer…Well, all my films take a little time for some people to appreciate, and that was certainly true with Safe. Maybe that came somewhat from expectations coming out of “New Queer Cinema,” as it was called at the time, and really taking a very different course from the kind of stories and settings of films that were associated with [that movement]. But it was definitely something I conceived of fairly quickly after Poison. That it got made is really a testament to [producer] Christine Vachon’s persistence. It wouldn’t have gotten financed without her. I really was interested in doing it, and I really believed in it. It was a tough call to get the financing. All we needed was $1 million to make Safe. Even that little amount back then was tough. She just wouldn’t stop, and she was fearless, and the film owes its very existence to that tenacity.
The Dissolve: A lot of the story of Safe is told in the compositions, which are impeccable. Was it difficult to be that meticulous under the budgetary restrictions that you had?
Haynes: It was, but it just meant that like most of the films I’ve made, every single frame—and certainly every single day of shooting—had to be incredibly well-planned. We were still drawing on and exhausting all those favors that burgeoning feature filmmakers exhaust from family and friends at the beginnings of their careers. I shot some of the film in my uncle’s house in Malibu. I shot some of the film at my grandparents’ house at Laurel Canyon, and we exhausted all the possible resources that we could around us. But mostly, it just meant really careful planning and discussion with [cinematographer] Alex Nepomniaschy and myself, the designers of the film, and everybody involved. That’s really what was accomplished. I knew I really wanted that pristine, almost Kubrickian austerity to the look of the film, and the way that Carol White is set up as almost part of the mise en scene, or one of the objects that she inhabits in the film as much as the central character at the beginning of the story.
The Dissolve: Do you feel like the film reads differently in 2014 than it did in 1995?
Haynes: No doubt, it does. Certainly, everything was being interpreted around the specificity of AIDS and HIV at the time that Safe was made. That was on my mind quite specifically when I was conceiving of the film. At the same time, I wanted to bring up the behavior that we all exhibit around illness, particularly in the way we try to attach meaning and personal responsibility to illness, and how much illness and identity are mixed up with each other. Those were definitely motivating interests of mine that I felt were absolutely and totally being played out in the AIDS culture around me at the time. Since then, AIDS has faded as a No. 1 health emergency in this country, due to extraordinary developments in treatment and the great fortune of those developments for many people. I still feel like we are a culture that is continually reminded of our vulnerability to contaminants and illness. Ebola is only the latest version of that, but it’s certainly one that sparked such extraordinary and immediate panic. It was summoning up memories of the AIDS era for many people in the way it was being hysterically described at the beginning. It brought up a general sense of our fragility, even as we become more fortified by technology and knowledge, and our fragility as human beings on the planet, and the status of the planet and the lower regard the sciences are being held in nowadays. They’re all contributing factors to the sense of vulnerability and insecurity with our bodies, and that certainly hasn’t gone away. In that sense, Safe feels like this allegory about all kinds of indeterminate and imprecise notions of health, well-being, and immunity in peril.
The Dissolve: Are you comfortable with that? You set the film in 1987. As an AIDS allegory, it comes through strongly in the conception, but now as you say, it’s sort of faded.
Haynes: Oh sure. I still feel like it’s a very contemporary story. I don’t think the ways we signify or apply meaning and causality to illness, and the way it sort of undermines our sense of autonomy and freedom has gone away. I’m happy that [Safe] still triggers that, and feels like it’s maybe ahead of its moment slightly in discussing those themes in a more philosophical way, even though it also draws from very popular traditions of “disease movies of the week,” or a psychological horror film, in its structure. Those are things that hopefully make it more accessible as a film to younger audiences today. At least, the themes I think are relevant. I feel proud to have the film come out [on Blu-ray]. You know, it’s my first official Criterion release. They did a gorgeous job as they always do, and I thought Dennis Lim’s essay was spot-on and fantastic, as his writing always is. The whole thing was a great experience.
And come on, it’s funny how Julianne Moore—I’m very dear, good friends with Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, who directed Julianne in Still Alice, which is again a film about illness, early-onset Alzheimer’s, and it’s getting so much great attention, and it may be singling Julianne out in the awards shuffle, which for me is something long overdue. I just feel real excitement for all those guys in Still Alice. Safe gets mentioned from time to time in the reviews for Still Alice, and I’m just very proud of all of them. It’s a nice time to have Safe coming around.
The Dissolve: The thing that’s interesting with regard to Julianne Moore in both Safe and Still Alice is that she has illnesses in both, but her characters have such contrasting reactions. Carol is such a passive character and Alice is a character who does everything she possibly can to hold on to her memory, to the point where she’s able to cover up how rapidly she’s deteriorating.
Haynes: They’re almost mirror images of each other as characters and in narrative trajectory. In Safe, you find this women who’s almost a cipher, even though she lives the American Dream and this life of luxury. She has the lifestyle and material things that are valued in our world, but in many ways her encountering of illness is the thing that triggers her worry that maybe something is not quite right in her life. It was always true for this character, but not something that she was motivated to challenge or look at deeply until her illness. In many ways, her illness is the very thing that shakes her free from her comatose state. And obviously in Still Alice, it’s exactly the opposite. Alice is an extremely intellectually advanced and productive and professional subject at the beginning of the movie, and the horror of Alzheimer’s is the slow degeneration of all of that in somebody so vital and so intellectually engaged. Yeah, it’s completely the opposite direction. I just don’t have enough good things to say about Julianne. Of course, I’ve continued to work with her after Safe. Every experience has been extraordinary. That’s to say nothing against the other amazing women I’ve worked with throughout my lucky career, but I don’t know that there’s a better living actor than Julianne Moore. She deserves everything.
The Dissolve: How did your conception of Carol change once Moore got the part? What did she bring to it that you didn’t imagine in the writing of it?
Haynes: That’s a good question. Whether or not you write and originate your own material as a director, I think it’s always a mystical, mystified kind of process from page to screen, and how concepts on the page become embodied by real people and real actors. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of casting in films, and finding the right person for the role, but in this particular case, I don’t know if I had a bigger eureka moment than when Julianne auditioned for me for Safe. I had just been getting to know her [on screen]. I had just seen an early advance screening of Short Cuts, but I hadn’t seen her work on soap operas like some of my friends did, and didn’t really know who she was. She was starting to be discussed as someone who had a bit of buzz in the industry, and then I saw Short Cuts, and I was sufficiently blown away by her in that. It was an extraordinarily brave performance. But still, this role was so transparent. And I was impressed with how she could make somebody who is that much of a cipher into somebody who you believe is a real person, but not over imbuing it with too much editorializing or second guessing, or kind of winking to the audience.
That took a kind of bravery on her part, and an intuition that I never fully appreciated until she was there in the room doing it for me. All of a sudden, it really was a flesh-and-blood person who was speaking these lines, and that felt like a revelation. She said something similar about having read the script saying she was very excited about it, and she had never read something like it. She sensed that she had an understanding of the script that was her own, and if she didn’t jibe with the director, there’s nothing she could really do. All she knew is that she had some intuition about it. And as it turned out, she couldn’t have been more on the mark. I continue to watch that amazing ability of hers to know how to maintain restraint, and to really trust the viewer that you don’t have to do all this extra footwork to cajole the sympathies of the audience. They have tremendous powers themselves that you can respect, and you can elicit through all kinds of means. She really understands the complexity of that contract.
The Dissolve: What’s your favorite memory of making the film? Is there a moment that really stands out?
Haynes: It was a tough shoot. I’ve told this story before, but we lived through the L.A. earthquake on Safe, and it really did send shudders through the production itself. So we found ourselves shooting scenes with aftershocks still happening. in fact, this was true of all of the scenes at Wrenwood, which we shot at a Jewish day camp in Simi Valley, which was close to the epicenter of that earthquake in January of ’94. Literally, we were shooting through aftershocks, like the scene were Julianne gives that amazing, rambling speech at the end on her birthday celebration at Wrenwood. The reaction shot of Peter [Peter Friedman] and Claire [Kate McGregor-Stewart] and James Le Gros all looking at her—an aftershock actually occurred on camera, and they were just acting through it. The sense of existential uncertainty that the film does convey was only strengthened by the actual seismic conditions we were experiencing at the time. And it made everything just feel like we were really hanging from this apocalyptic edge where Christine and Lauren Zalaznick and I were all living, right off Cahuenga and Hollywood Boulevard. It’s in a really seedy part of Hollywood in a very cheap and seedy apartment house we could afford. The car wash across the street became a service center and water-resource center for people after the earthquake. Everything that was at work in that film was being played out externally around us in a trippy way. That didn’t make it easier, but it sort of resounded in what we were doing as filmmakers.