Audiences have been hooked -- and provoked -- by Todd Haynes ever since his stunning debut in 1988 with "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story." Using Barbie-like figures to portray the characters, the film became the target of Barbie's manufacturer, Mattel Toys. When the film's release was enjoined by the Carpenter family, the film became an underground cult classic. Haynes' first feature film, "Poison," premiered at the Sundance Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize. Its commercial release made headlines when critics pointed out that the film -- and its adult subject matter -- had been supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. His next film was the short "Dottie Gets Spanked," part of ITVS's "TV Families" series which is currently airing nationally on public television.
Haynes is back with his follow-up feature, "SAFE," a stylish modern horror story where the enemy lurks in the very air we breathe. His bold visual style, by now a trademark to his fans, is set against a haunting musical score, evoking the horror that encroaches on us all.
Environmental illness is a condition which is the result of the body's reaction to myriad substances that have become a part of our environment, especially the 60,000 chemicals that are part of everyday life. These cause the breakdown of our immune and enzyme systems which results in a wide variety of symptoms. Traditional doctors dismiss the illness since its cause and effect are unproven but anecdotal evidence from individuals and the investigation of such substances in the workplace support the existence of chemical sensitivity.
"For me, living in New York City in the '90's has meant witnessing on a daily basis the disintegration of the American 20th century," says Haynes. "Poverty, homelessness, and the AIDS crisis have all contributed to a climate in which the notions of safety, immunity and survival have taken on a new meaning. And the more I learned about environmental illness, the more I was struck by its many parallels to AIDS. The difference is that environmental illness has a known origin -- chemicals. It is a disease that is imbedded in the very fabric of our material existence."
Production began on January 3, 1994 in California's San Fernando Valley, which is also the setting for the story. According to Haynes, "'SAFE' is purposefully set about as far outside the present day 'war zone' as I could imagine, in a world as protected and insulated as you could hope to find. The central character, Carol White, is not your typical dramatic subject. Basically she's far too ordinary -- the kind of person you could speak to at a party and not recall the following day. But it is precisely this aspect of her that fascinated me most, exciting in me the urge to 'protagonize' her and prove her worthy of our attention and concern. For despite the film's cool depiction of the day-to-day routines that define Carol's life, we do not judge her. By the time the film has ended, our sympathy will be total."
Carol White is portrayed by Julianne Moore, who was immediately drawn to the part. "The script was exquisite -- the best I've ever read. Todd has a way of writing that is very specific, very direct and spare. It is rare to find such a talented director who is both literary and visual. It led to great communication -- Todd could show me a storyboard and I'd immediately know what he wanted. I also really felt that the character of Carol was someone that I understood. She felt so real to me. She wants so desperately to be safe. She wants everything to be safe, but she denies herself and is always fearful. When she finally encounters who she is, it is when she is the least safe, but it's a place she can't stay for very long and so she retreats, searching for safety in a place where she will never find it."
"Carol's understanding of herself is fully determined by the world in which she lives. Her increasing intolerance to her surroundings is experienced as a crisis of identity," comments Haynes. "If she can no longer drive on the freeway or perm her hair or buy new furniture then who is she? And more importantly, who are we? What kind of identification can we expect to make in a character with no identity?"
Until the film came along, Moore had no concept of environmental illness. But once she began her research, the reality of the disease could not be overlooked. "I watched several of videotaped studies in which children and adults were injected with a particular chemical and then monitored to record their reactions. It's amazing how varied the reactions can be. Some are quite extreme; in fact, Todd and I made a conscious decision not to use some of the reactions because they were so extreme they almost don't look real."
Playing the part, says Moore, was much scarier than she first thought it would be. "I lost ten pounds for the role and throughout the filming maintained an extremely strict diet. I felt myself drained of energy and I realized just how debilitating illness can be. After filming, it took me a while to shake the character. People often have a tendency to take their health, both physical and mental, for granted -- this role really offered me a chance to test the limits of how far an actress can go."
One ironic incident that occurred during the filming of "SAFE" was the earthquake that struck the Los Angeles area during the third week of production. "We would have aftershocks during a take," comments Moore. "It definitely was unsettling, but it also underscored everything we were trying to put across in the movie. I was watching news coverage of the quake and I saw a man who was shaking uncontrollably from shock. It was an image I couldn't put out of my mind and I ended up using his reaction for one of my own in a particularly climactic scene.
Moore continues: "I really hope that this film causes audiences to walk away thinking about their lives. It's so easy to be trapped by the way we live and, in Carol's case, she is trapped voluntarily. She has such a strong desire to be safe but she denies everything she is and could be."