Todd Haynes has come a long way since self-distributing his unauthorized cult classic “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” in 1988, but he’s still grateful for the people who helped him turn the short film into the foundation for one of the most celebrated careers in independent filmmaking.

Haynes, whose Cannes hit “May December” is one of the most acclaimed movies of 2023, was honored with the Vanguard Award at the 2023 IndieWire Honors. When Haynes took the stage to accept the award at NeueHouse Hollywood on Wednesday, December 6, he reflected on the initial boost that he received from influential New York film critics and the ways that critics continue to shape his career.

Haynes recalled his attempts to screen “Superstar,” which used Barbie dolls as puppets to tell a satirically biographical story about pop music legend Karen Carpenter, in New York after graduating film school. He credited critics with responding to his initial press releases and helping him generate enough attention to screen the film around America “until the cease and desists rolled in.”

The auteur explained that he was able to make his early features “Poison” and “Safe” due to the attention that “Superstar” generated in the New York entertainment press. But while those films established him as a provocative leader in the New Queer Cinema movement, Haynes is even more appreciative of the critics that were willing to revisit and re-appraise films like “Safe” as nuanced works of art.

“Critics that year saw ‘Safe’ and they were like ‘Hmm, New Queer Cinema.’ They didn’t quite understand what it was. But the film critics came back, and they saw it again, and they were talking to each other about ‘Safe.’ And they were engaged in a culture of cinema that we all grew out of,” Haynes said. “I wouldn’t have the career that I have, I wouldn’t have made the films that I’ve made, without the critical community.”

Speaking to IndieWire ahead of the ceremony, Haynes reflected on the difficult process of making independent films and expressed gratitude toward his longtime collaborators such as producer Christine Vachon and his ensemble of regular actors for accompanying him on the journey.

“Every film has been a tremendous challenge in terms of resources and time and financing. I’ve always felt that I have the team around me that has the movie’s best interest at hand, and that starts with Christine Vachon,” Haynes said. “That’s played out with the actors I’ve worked with, who are so insanely committed to delivering something and going somewhere they haven’t gone before, and the creative teams I put together, where you really feel like you’re all in the adventure together.”

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Veronica Flores conducted all interviews for IndieWire Honors social media videos.

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