Poison's Todd Haynes
The filmmaker looks back on his breakthrough movie.
Tue Nov 9 2010
When Todd Haynes first showed Poison at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival, people didn't know what to make of it. Here was a transgressive triptych that blended a black-and-white '50s-style sci-fi movie, a mockumentary about a suburban boy and a prison parable based on the works of Jean Genet into a cri de coeur about gay life in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. But after it won the fest's Grand Jury Prize, this little film became both a lightning rod in the censorship culture wars and one of the most successful, influential indies of all time. On the cusp of the film's 20th anniversary and its weeklong revival at IFC Center, Haynes took a break from production on his upcoming HBO miniseries, Mildred Pierce, to speak with TONY over the phone.
Does it feel weird to you that Poison is almost 20 years old?
[Laughs] Yeah, it actually does! Although it's a bit of a time capsule, in terms of the politics behind the film. I'm curious to find out what someone seeing Poison for the first time today would make of it.
The idea to break it up into three stylistically different sections was there from the beginning, right?
Right. I'd done a film right before that—Superstar, the Karen Carpenter film I made with Barbie dolls—that ended up making a bigger splash outside of the downtown art world than I'd anticipated. I thought, This is so cool; filmgoers will actually accept something experimental like this. The protest activities with ACT UP inspired the content [of Poison], but in terms of playing with storytelling ideas, it came directly out of feeling empowered from Superstar.
I have to ask: Is it true that when you shook Roger Ebert's hand and told him you'd made Poison, he pulled it back like you'd bitten him?
[Laughs] Something like that, yeah. He was not a fan of the movie, though I have nothing but respect for him. But I think I knew Roger had been put off by it before that, so when I introduced myself to him at Sundance, I said, "Hi, I know you don't like my film, but I love yours!" By which I meant Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. [Laughs] I was admittedly being a little cocky with him at the time.
How much of the controversy directed against the film contributed to its success?
Oh, God, it helped a lot! The whole thing with Donald Wildmon and the NEA did draw tremendous publicity to the film that was perfectly timed to its release, and put me in this crazy arena of going on TV and defending the film against the future architects of the conservative Right, like Dick Armey and Ralph Reed. I know we benefitted from these debates, but I'll put it to you this way: Having my feature film debut get so much attention was great; listening to the conversation about the movie become so completely distorted was not. I was happy when we finally started doing press in Europe, because people actually talked about the work, as opposed to debating whether it should even exist or not.
So you won the battle...
...though we lost the war, in a way. I mean, with the whole debate on New Queer Cinema and who controls images of gay culture, I'd say that certain steps were advanced. But they totally succeeded in killing artistic grants in this country for anything even remotely experimental.
You brought up the "New Queer Cinema" tag...did you feel like you were part of a movement?
More in terms of what was going on in the streets than in the theaters, but I did feel like something was happening around us. The one thing I never shirked away from regarding that label was that I was challenging accepted ideas of gayness. The films that we're talking about here—Poison, Swoon, The Living End—had points of view that weren't just self-affirmations about being gay. They opened up whole ideas about strategies of resistance to homophobia, and how you depict the concept of "difference." That was exciting to be a part of.
What was the gay community's reaction to the film?
For people who were making documentaries about what was happening in the hospitals, I think they thought Poison was too coy. But the general feeling overall, especially when those other New Queer Cinema movies started coming out, was that my generation was making art that reflected our points of view much more than previous films about gay life had. We were all very snobby about movies like Longtime Companion—which I now look at with such affection and appreciation. But at the time, it felt like "How conventional! Bah!" [Laughs]