The 1950s-set world of Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven is all about rules: rules of appropriate deportment and behavior; rules about emotional expression and its limits; rules governing what racial and sexual lines can and cannot be crossed. Taking his inspiration from the era's Hollywood melodramas, particularly those directed by Douglas Sirk, Haynes set himself guidelines that were no less strict. “The melodrama of the 50s was a specific cinematic world with a language unto itself,” says the writer-director. “I think for creative people, working within limitations and rules can be very inspiring — this is your language, now you apply it to your story.”
The rules control every aspect of the film, “from the writing to the design to the actors,” Haynes continues. “It was as if there were only available to us a certain range of gestures, of phrases, of colors, of angles, of ways of framing an actor that we would use. Then we would try to find the meaning behind them. It's about restraint, and about how small things can be big.”
One thing it's not about is parodying the 1950s “woman's” picture. “I've always loved these films, and I've thought about them on other films I've made,” says the director, whose previous, highly regarded independent features include Superstar (starring a Barbie doll as Karen Carpenter), Poison, Safe, and Velvet Goldmine. He elaborates that unlike movies with amazing, heroic women played by Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis, Sirk dramas like All that Heaven Allows or Imitation of Life “are about very ordinary women. They don't look ordinary — they're dressed to the nines. But they don't save the day; they basically cave in. I find that very poignant.”
The story of Far from Heaven starts out as vintage Sirk, then ventures into areas that could be, at most, implied during the 50s. Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) is a model housewife and mother in suburban Hartford, CT. Her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) is a successful executive with the Magnatech TV sales company; he's also beginning to act on desires for other men. Feeling isolated and inadequate, Cathy finds comfort in the friendship of Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), her black gardener. Tongues wag, and most of the characters' longings are suppressed.
Particularly echoing All that Heaven Allows, in which well-to-do widow Jane Wyman falls for much-younger gardener Rock Hudson, Far from Heaven also nods to the racial issues raised by Imitation of Life, and mixes in some elements from Written on the Wind. While Haynes was well acquainted with the Sirk oeuvre, some of his key collaborators had to get up to speed. “I didn't grow up on Sirk, so it was a big education for me,” says production designer Mark Friedberg, who worked seamlessly with director of photography Edward Lachman and costume designer Sandy Powell to create Far from Heaven's hermetic, intensely hued universe. “This is an aesthetic that is foreign to me in every way: The architecture, the furniture, are things I've never paid attention to except to avoid them. But once I spoke the language of the world Cathy lives in, her environment started flowing out of me naturally.”
Friedberg, whose previous credits include The Ice Storm and Pollock, found the experience of working with Haynes, who majored in art and semiotics at Brown University, to be stimulatingly unique. “What you usually do is chip away at the block of granite that is the director, and try to expose what the forms are,” says the designer. “But Todd had a very clear sense of things. Maybe because he started as a painter, the way the film looks was written into the script. You clearly saw the places where it was happening, and what the characters were wearing.”
Where Far from Heaven is happening is not really Hartford in the 50s, says Haynes, “but backlot, soundstage Hollywood, and its interpretation of Hartford in the 50s. We looked at what would be real about Hartford, but always adapted it to what Hollywood of the 50s' vision would be.”
The film was shot in neither Hollywood nor Hartford, but in New Jersey: interiors on a military base in Bayonne, exteriors in the prosperous community of Ho-Ho-Kus. The Whitakers' two-story house, with its open views from front to back and its staircase and wraparound balcony, was the most important interior set, and since Haynes had so clearly imagined the scenes to be staged there, the matching exterior had to meet a number of requirements. “I started out thinking the house should be a New England colonial,” says Haynes. “But doing location scouts, we very quickly found that the interiors of more traditional homes were little boxes of rooms, with no views that went through the whole house. Mark helped me to adjust those initial ideas, and expand it to a combination of colonial and modern ranch”: more like an L.A. house of the period.
The exterior eventually settled on met the set's needs perfectly: The house had the big picture window in front providing a frame for looking in and outside, and it was on a block the production designer describes as “preplanned, pristine, looking like a set.”
According to Friedberg, a guiding principle behind the movie's design was, “We wanted to make the locations feel more like sets, and the sets feel more like … not locations, but a constructed reality, a perception of reality seen through artifice.” Such is the unity of the look that one assumes the vivid autumn leaves in the film's opening shot, and which figure throughout, were created by the art department. In truth, the shoot was carefully scheduled (over two months in 2001, not long after 9/11, which effectively cut two weeks off the preproduction period) to take advantage of the fall foliage. “People think the trees are fake, and they think [the interior of] the house is real,” says Haynes.
In addition to the aesthetic parameters he was stringently following, the director also found the film's budgetary restrictions — it cost $14 million, a pittance for a period movie — to be beneficial in ways. “We wanted the locations to be as controlled as possible, and we wanted a sense of claustrophobia that didn't exist just in the house but also out in the world,” he says. “The economic limitation actually contributed to that — we couldn't see past storefront number 3, because we couldn't dress beyond storefront number 3.” Adds Friedberg, “Almost all of the work we did is in the movie, which is unusual, and which makes it seem more expensive. We dressed to the edge, and we shot up to that edge.”
Interior decoration was more challenging. The designer says, “In this highly controlled world, everything has to feel it's of a time. On top of that, we're dealing with a relatively high economic level, so the stuff has to be good. That's fine, except that we had very little money or time.” Avoiding the pricey vintage shops in New York City, set decorator Ellen Christiansen went “deep into New Jersey” to troll the thrift stores and antique malls. “We bought old furniture that had the right shape, and refinished it or recovered it, so that it looked new, and we could control the palette and the kind of fabric we wanted,” says Friedberg. “It was almost building it from scratch, to the point where we couldn't use our normal vendors, because of what they charged. We actually used a local Bayonne upholsterer.”
Even the techniques of set dressing conformed to the 50s Hollywood model. “The set dressers would do what they usually did,” says Haynes. “The characters have just gotten out of bed, so they'd have the sheets crumpled, a cigarette in the ashtray, a glass on the edge of the table. I'd go, ‘Wait a minute, this is all about Hollywood: It has to be neat and tidy. The bedcovers need to be fake open.’ What's great is, you don't learn only about this particular type of filmmaking; you learn about what you always do. Naturalistic filmmaking is a set of rules unto itself.”
From set decoration to costume design, everyone kept in mind that “Cathy is the person that made her world look the way it looked,” says Friedberg. “She chose the colors, bought the furniture. We decided to never put down her world, that it has to feel great to her.” But Cathy is a woman both comfortable in her environment, and uncomfortable because of what she's not allowed to do and say. Powell's costumes for the character reflect the dichotomy: Moore looks both beautiful in and confined by the form-fitting bodices and full skirts. The latter had one side benefit — they helped hide the actress' progressing pregnancy during shooting.
Palette was a crucial part of the universe being created by the filmmakers, as it was in the Sirk melodramas. “One thing we did in preproduction was, Todd and Ed and Sandy and I translated the script into color,” says Friedberg. “Where it says, ‘Cathy walks down the hall and opens the door,’ we said, ‘Cathy walks down the amber hall wearing a navy blue skirt and lit by a warm light.’” Powell dressed Moore primarily in light tones (a lilac scarf is her talisman), then dramatically contrasted it with a burgundy lace and taffeta number she wears while hosting a party. Complementary colors and an interplay of warm and cool color temperatures are used as consistently as in All that Heaven Allows. “One reason we lit and painted the living room warm,” says the production designer, “was the predominance of night” — a deep, periwinkle blue night — “outside the window.”
Far from Heaven's extremes of color, like the florid tones of Elmer Bernstein's music, work in stylistic counterpoint to the film's emotional restraint, and perhaps express the feelings the characters can't. DP Lachman gelled his lights to a much stronger degree than is seen in most contemporary movies, and contrasted them with shadows of a near-noir hardness. The lighting is particularly striking in two settings that serve related functions: the gay bar visited by Frank, and a black restaurant where Raymond takes Cathy. “The lighting for both scenes used a green and purple kind of contrast,” says Haynes, “yet they have opposite effects. The gay bar uses a vibrant magenta and a kind of acidic green, while the black bar has warm green and deep purple. One is scary, the other romantic.” Friedberg observes, however, that both environments are “places where emotional restraint is not present”: where the rules break down.
Haynes says that smart viewers can bring a lot of preconceptions to his film. “People ask me, ‘How did you make it turn from the funny part at the beginning to when it gets serious?’” he says. “But it's you who's doing that. The only camp moment I can think of experiencing was during the Christmas sequence — just seeing that Christmas dress Sandy made, and the fire going and the snow falling and the eggnog, made me laugh.” Otherwise, he says, “The fact that it's moving has everything to do with the fact that we had tremendous respect for the characters and their world, even if it wasn't to our taste.”