PORTLAND, ORE. — Three years ago, writer-director Todd Haynes found himself depressed and burned out from the life in New York City he had known for the last 15 years.
"I never found a really comfortable setting for my life there," he recalls. For most of his time in the city, Haynes hadn't even fully unpacked, and his possessions collected in boxes.
As he gained prominence as a filmmaker with the critically acclaimed "Safe" and "Velvet Goldmine," Haynes recalls, "I just started to feel reduced by that experience. Every time I left my apartment, that's what I was to friends and strangers, and I didn't know where to go for something else."
It turns out the something else that Haynes sought was in Portland, Ore., where the filmmaker first went to write a script (his sister lives there), and he wound up staying.
"This place engendered a real change in me," says Haynes, clad comfortably in a vintage shirt. "I started to enjoy myself again."
Haynes joins Gus Van Sant, who recently moved back to Portland after a brief stay in New York, as the city's most famous filmmaking émigrés.
Born and raised in the Los Angeles area, Haynes says relocating to outside America's traditional entertainment capitals has helped bring a new perspective to his work.
Ironically, though, the movie that resulted is the independent filmmaker's closest in spirit to Hollywood albeit one that exists only in the past.
"Far From Heaven," opening in theaters Nov. 8, is a melodrama set in the prim-and-proper 1950s, about an upper-middle-class Connecticut housewife (Julianne Moore) who, upon discovering her husband (Dennis Quaid) is a closeted homosexual, confides in her African-American gardener, much to the chagrin of her gossiping community.
Haynes's film recalls director Douglas Sirk's Hollywood work of the 1950s with Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, such as "All That Heaven Allows" and "Magnificent Obsession."
At the time, these were referred to as "women's pictures," and proved very popular. Although Sirk's pictures have today gained greater critical praise than upon their initial release, that genre has largely died out.
"The hardest thing about getting this film made was simply that it's about a woman who's not being played by Julia Roberts," recounts Haynes. "I actually think it'd be easier to get a film made about a woman in the '50s than it is today."
What Haynes could do that filmmakers of the 1950s couldn't, however, is explore themes like homosexuality and interracial romance in a melodramatic context with a sincere, non-satiric approach.
"Far From Heaven" follows 1995's "Safe" as Haynes's second collaboration with Julianne Moore, for whom the lead role was specifically written.
"She's so unusual an actor because of what she's drawn to," the filmmaker explains. "You turn on the TV and you hear actresses going, 'I want to play strong women.' Julianne doesn't have those instincts. She's a star who's very well liked by the public, but what she's drawn to as an actor are these very mute, difficult, and sometimes extremely inarticulate characters."
Perhaps a more surprising choice is Dennis Quaid, known for more masculine portrayals in films like "The Right Stuff," where he played an astronaut, and last year's "The Rookie," where he portrayed a baseball player.
"I kind of suspected that he had the chops for it," the filmmaker says of Quaid's performance, "but I still am so surprised and impressed. Dennis is a very likable actor, very charming. But in this film his character can be difficult and takes his problems out on the people around him. Yet it's the very human reactions to his predicament that make you feel for him. Dennis never goes for easy sympathy."
Haynes also says Quaid immediately shared the desire to present "Far From Heaven" in a style that, like Sirk's films, forgoes a realistic tone in favor of more expressionistic lighting and sets to evoke the characters' feelings.
"It was liberating to actually get away from the rules we impose today," he says. "There are these strange, bizarre colors and intense shadows, and yet you don't really remember that when you're seeing the movie. It serves the story."
But realism was employed in smaller ways. This is a movie that goes to great lengths to capture the 1950s accurately.
"There was a real curious, almost academic, study of the language, the colors, and the textures of that specific moment," Haynes says. "I think the constraints that this film uses are what make you feel more strongly, not what gets in the way of it."
Although written before the events of Sept. 11, "Far From Heaven" arrives in an era Haynes says mirrors the conservatism of the 1950s.
"I was conscious of the kinds of attitudes we bring to movies set in the '50s," he explains, "which is a sort of innate superiority over that era, based on that myth that history is progressive and we're always moving forward as a society. It's just not true."
Nevertheless, it's clear Haynes has indeed moved forward with his life, rejuvenated by a change of scenery to make what many are calling the best work of his career.
"You just want to be in a place where you like yourself the best," Haynes says of life in laid-back Portland. "That's the best thing you can ever hope for."