BORN INTO A creative family, Haynes produced his first domestic dramas beneath a table in his Encino, California, home. With a stage made of blankets and desk lamps for lighting, he’d put on elaborate plays for his younger sister, Gwynneth, with her toy horses and dolls. He made his first film at age 9: a version of Romeo and Juliet in which he played all the roles but Juliet. (He wanted to play her, too, using double exposure for her scenes with other characters, but it didn’t hold up so well in the test reel.) His first serious film was about a young boy who had a fantasy of killing himself. Called The Suicide, it debuted at the local art house theater. Haynes was in ninth grade.
“He was one of those kids who seemed possessed by a knowledge of what he felt passionate about and what he wanted to do with that passion,” says Haynes's sister Gwynneth, now a psychologist living in Portland who also fronts the theatrical indie-pop band Sophe Lux. “And he was a Renaissance man—a wonderful writer, storyteller, actor, and painter”—skills he held fast, as he’s now almost legendary among casts and crews for his comprehensive grasp of all aspects of his productions, from art direction to costumes to music to how a shot is framed.
“Most filmmakers have strength in one thing or the other, but they don’t have quite the vision to pull it all together,” says Vachon.
Haynes studied art and semiotics at Brown University and then started an MFA at upstate New York’s Bard College, where he made his first film to catch the public’s eye, Superstar, a faux-documentary that chronicles singer Karen Carpenter’s rise to fame and struggle with anorexia. The film uses meticulously handmade sets and Barbie dolls as actors, with Haynes whittling away the plastic face as Carpenter’s anorexia progresses. The short became an underground classic, one of the top 50 cult films of all time according to Entertainment Weekly, even after legal threat from Richard Carpenter and Mattel nixed Superstar’s circulation. It also previewed the themes of female identity creation, repression, and isolation that Haynes would return to again and again.
Todd knows so specifically what he wants—about the music and the color and the timings and the pacings—that he’s way more involved than any other director I’ve worked with. —Affonso Goncalves, editor
Haynes moved to New York City in 1985 and went on to direct Poison (which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and is credited with inaugurating the New Queer Cinema movement), Safe, and Velvet Goldmine. As his acclaim grew, his love for the city waned. “What the world of success brings in terms of scene or celebrity has always been something Todd’s been humble and sheepish around,” says his sister. “It kind of creeps him out.”
So when he wanted to escape the city in 2000, she found him a place to stay in Portland. It was a misleadingly dry, beautiful spring, evoking the settings of the Douglas Sirk melodramas Haynes was emulating with a twist as he wrote Far From Heaven. Portland, thirsty for the celebratory he sought to abandon, quickly claimed him as half of our queer filmmaker duumvirate, along with Gus Van Sant.
“I thought it was the end of his creative life,” director Kelly Reichardt, a close New York friend since working with him on Poison, said of the move west. “Instead, it opened a whole new world.” He finished Far From Heaven, began I’m Not There, and developed an intimate circle of friends, including his assistant, Tanya Smith; local author Jon Raymond, who co-wrote the screenplay for Mildred Pierce; and honorary Portlander Reichardt, whom he introduced to Raymond, prompting them to collaborate on Reichardt’s Oregon-based, critically lauded features: Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and Meek’s Cutoff.
“My whole life changed in that one year,” Haynes says, “and I’ve been happy ever since.”