YOU couldn’t call it typecasting, could you? When you want a director to make you a thriller about corporate scandal and corruption and a threat to public health with more than a soupcon of conspiracy, then turning to the guy who made bisexual glam rock Bowie roman a clef Velvet Goldmine might not be your obvious first port of call. Especially as said guy is best known for his romantic melodramas Far From Heaven and Carol.

The filmography of Todd Haynes is replete with queerness, with music, with the spirit of Douglas Sirk rather than, say, Alan (All the President’s Men) Pakula. And yet, when Mark Ruffalo was looking for a director for his latest project Dark Waters, it was Haynes that he turned to.

Were you surprised to be asked, Todd? “Yes I was,” the director says when we speak late on a February afternoon during a flying visit to London. “As you say in the UK, I was chuffed. It was Mark Ruffalo coming to me, someone I’ve long admired. How cool that he could see in my work that I could bring something unique to a story like this.”

What Ruffalo didn’t know, Haynes adds, was that the director had always loved whistleblower movies; Pakula’s The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, Mike Nichols’ Silkwood, Michael Mann’s The Insider. “Films that leave you with questions about the future,” Haynes suggests.

He can now add his own contribution to the list. Based on a New York Times article “The Lawyer who became DuPont’s worst nightmare”, Dark Waters, which stars Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway, is the real-life story of one man’s fight with the chemical giant Dupont after he begins to investigate the unexplained deaths of cattle on a West Virginia farm.

What Rob Bilott uncovers is that the company is dumping unregulated toxic chemicals, known as PFAs, into the water supply, chemicals that can also be found in Teflon, which the company was using to coat non-stick pans.

Local people in West Virginia don’t want to lose their job and won’t talk. It is down to Bilott to use the law to uncover what is going on.

The film is at heart an angry expose of corporate corruption and the way the system is rigged against the individual. But it also plays out as a wintry thriller that knowingly pays tribute to its forebears. It even has a built-in homage to the underground carpark scenes in All the President’s Men.

That said, Haynes says, the scene is actually drawn from real life. It came out of a conversation he and his scriptwriter Mario Correa had with Rob Bilott himself.

“He had gone to Wilmington, Delaware, to depose the CEO of Dupont and he talked to his mom on the phone that day,” Haynes explains.”And his mom said, ‘Rob, does anyone actually know you’re there?’ And he said, ‘No, actually.’ And when he drove into that lower parking level his was the only car in the lot.”

No wonder Bilott was a little spooked. It’s life as cinema, Todd.

“Seriously, right? It was hand-delivered to us to do a homage to All the President’s Men.”

That must have suited Haynes who, as much as anything, is an ardent student of film. In a way, he says, the images cinematographer Gordon Willis conjured up for Pakula back in the 1970s are now part of the visual language of the conspiracy thriller. They have become hard-wired into us.

“The images of the parking garage in All the President’s Men become metaphors for the individual being alienated and threatened by the system.

“That’s thrilling because these are stories that come from reality, but they have also entered into cinematic language.”

Dark Waters itself is a slow-burn film that perhaps reflects the restrained, reined-in performance that its star, an almost-unrecognisable Ruffalo, gives as Bilott.

“This is the temperament of the real Rob Bilott,” Haynes explains, “his physiogonomy, his sense of almost being harnessed and burdened by what he is carrying on his shoulders, his inability to smile or stand upright, his suspicion.

“All of these things were incredibly exciting dramatic filters between the viewer and the character because they meant when he had moments of outrage, moments of breaking, I felt those would have more meaning.”

They jump off the screen. “Yeah, and the whole character and everything about him is the anthesis of the Mark Ruffalo that we expect in movies and who we know and love.”

You could say the same about Haynes’s involvement of course. The night before we talk I watch Velvet Goldmine again. It’s maybe most notable for Ewan McGregor’s outsized performance as Iggy Pop stand-in Curt Wild (naked in every sense of the word, Haynes says, “brave and passionate and really something pretty special,”) and as a reminder that Haynes emerged out of the movement that was labelled New Queer Cinema which brought a new directness to dealing with LGBT themes.

Since it was made Haynes has been increasingly taking his concerns into the mainstream in films like Far From Heaven and Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian romance that was nominated for six Oscars.

Dark Waters, meanwhile, is proof that the mainstream has embraced Haynes.

There’s a danger to conspiracy thrillers, I suggest. A film like The Parallax View suggests that in the end nothing will change, that we might as well give into the voluptuousness of despair. The conspiracy will win.

Haynes suggests there is also the danger of going to the other extreme. “A movie like Erin Brockovich makes you feel so fortified in victory that, in a way, the problem goes away and the film resolves it for you.”

How do you combat both extremes? “What was really important about this story was that you see the victories are hard-won,” he suggests.

What he hopes is that the film will help inform the public discussion and lead to increased consumer pressure on corporate behaviour.

“I guess we’re already seeing the result of that in the States where bills are cropping up in the House [of Representatives] and passing in the House and being proposed in the Senate; even bills sponsored by Republican senators about PFAs and ‘forever chemicals,’ mostly because the public has been alarmed about it.”

In a recent interview in which he talked about the conspiracy films of the 1970s that inspired him, Haynes suggested that those movies respected their viewers’ intelligence. Is that harder to do now?

“Well, we set out to do it and we trusted the audience. Look, all I know is I had the opportunity to make this movie and do it honestly and do it with nuances and make a grown-up film in a kind of infantile moment in our culture.

“And I hope and wanted it to be a movie that people are like, ‘Yeah, I need some truth. I need some relevance with all this bullshit and all these lies being circulated.’ And I think for certain people who saw this movie that’s exactly how they felt.

“I think there’s still an incredible depression hanging over the United States at least, which is where the film has opened. And people still need a bit of relief from the world, right? This movie may not give them that … I guess I shouldn’t be saying that promoting the movie, but I get it. I feel those feelings as well.

“But I also feel we really have to band together and look at what’s happening and see what’s possible. And this story does have hope, this story does demonstrate the ability to make change and the ability for people to see things differently, particularly when they’re not in entrenched partisan points of view.

“There are a whole lot of unlikely heroes who step forward and take tremendous risks in what they do.”

Dark Waters is in cinemas from Friday

Coming Soon

Todd Haynes’s next project is a documentary about the cult New York band The Velvet Underground. Here, he talks about how he got involved and what he is hoping to achieve:

“The Velvet Underground project came to me through UMG, Universal Music Group, which controls that music. They asked me out of the blue. I had never considered doing a documentary before and they said, ‘Would Todd have any interest in doing a film about Pavorotti or a film about the Velvet Underground?' And I said, ‘Yes, the Velvet Underground. That is a sure bet.’

“And we are having such a good time, such a great experience. And we are really unearthing this incredible archive of material and using the visual experimental avant garde cinema and art that was so much a part of the New York scene that produced that band and that music as a way to visualise the story. And that’s been so thrilling.

A Todd Haynes documentary about Pavarotti might have been something special too.

“Well, it came out. Ron Howard did it. I hear it’s great. My dad dug it.”