Todd Haynes has never had more fun on a movie set than he did in 1987—taking eight hours to film a single shot while sitting underneath a table, pulling little sticks attached to modified Barbie doll parts.
The 43-minute project was called “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” a cult classic removed from circulation in 1990 after the director lost a copyright infringement lawsuit filed by Richard Carpenter, brother of the film’s muse, who was played by a “Karen” doll that subtly lost weight as the film progressed—Mr. Haynes slowly carving away the Barbie’s face and arms while depicting the pop singer’s struggle with anorexia and bulimia.
He took a risk, both creatively and legally, considering he never obtained music licensing. But it paid off. Mr. Haynes—then an MFA student at Bard College in upstate New York, now a world-famous writer-director—was officially on the map.
“I knew I was walking out on a precipice for most of those earlier films, because they were experiments for myself, first and foremost,” Mr. Haynes explained during a recent talk with young filmmakers participating in Stony Brook Southampton’s summer shorts intensive production workshop. “They were narrative experiments. Things that interested me or things I was curious about.”
His fascination began with the first film he saw as a child, “Mary Poppins,” which awakened an obsessive-compulsive, mind-blowing absorption.
The toddler drew pictures and painted scenes from the Walt Disney musical incessantly. He reenacted poignant moments from the film. He even dressed his mother up as Mary Poppins, all to re-experience that sensation—an “intense, creative, reactive relationship to what I saw,” he said.
Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” in 1968, was Mr. Haynes’s second fixation—and it had an erotic component to it, seeing Olivia Hussey’s half-revealed bosom and Leonard Whiting’s “perfect little buttocks,” he said. He was 7.
But it wasn’t until watching “The Graduate” at age 12 did the young boy really consider the visual narrative, telling a story through the frame. In the years that followed “Superstar,” Mr. Haynes would go on to write and direct “Poison,” “Safe,” “Velvet Goldmine,” “Far From Heaven” and “I’m Not There,” all of which he collaborated on with Christine Vachon, who teaches at Stony Brook Southampton and has produced his every feature to date.
Their most recent is “Carol,” starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s book “The Price of Salt” by Phyllis Nagy, which revolves around two women from different backgrounds who form a relationship in New York, circa 1950s.
“It was sort of like a baton being passed over time,” the director said of the first project he hasn’t written himself, “between these two formidable female collaborators.”
Ms. Vachon nodded, sitting opposite Mr. Haynes in front of their audience of filmmakers and fans alike—artist Roy Lichtenstein’s widow, Dorothy, among them. After a half hour of discussion, she came to her inevitable final question.
“It’s the question I hate the most when I get asked it,” she smirked, “so I’m gonna ask it to you happily. I get asked it with ‘producer’ instead of ‘director.’ So: What is your advice to a first-time director?”
Mr. Haynes leaned back in his chair, unaffected, and genuinely considered the question before answering.
“It’s so simple and it’s so obvious, and it’s not really words of wisdom—and it’s what you guys are doing right now,” he said. “Make your work. And then show it to people. Every time, it’s sort of new. It’s never any less meaningful. It’s never any less essential to the finishing of the film—what other people have to say about it. I don’t care how many films I’ve made or how many people know my work, I’m still captive to how that film plays to other people.”
He smiled out to the room, every student in the audience looking eagerly back at him.
“So, when you’re doing it, it’s what I do,” he reassured them. “It’s the same process. But I learned something radical every single time.”