When word first leaked out that filmmaker Todd Haynes was making a Bob Dylan biopic that would star Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, and Cate Blanchett as the folk-rock icon, people unfamiliar with Haynes scratched their heads, while Haynes fans immediately circled the film's release date on their calendars. Outside of the popular '50s melodrama pastiche Far From Heaven—which confused some with its earnestness—Haynes' work has tended to be arty and obscure, and the Dylan film I'm Not There is no exception. Yet few contemporary filmmakers have been as daring as Haynes at recombining familiar pop elements to comment on what they mean. In movies like Poison, Safe, and the glam-rock fantasia Velvet Goldmine, Haynes has advanced a style that's simultaneously intellectual and emotional, producing films that are far more engaging than mere plot descriptions make them sound. Haynes recently spoke with The A.V. Club about how he's able to convey such a personal vision while working in a medium as collaborative as film.
The A.V. Club: Between I'm Not There, Velvet Goldmine, and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, you've made three films about popular music. Is some part of you a frustrated rock critic?
Todd Haynes: I don't think I'm a frustrated rock critic; I love this music. I didn't want to be a mean old rock critic to these subjects. You always feel like rock critics are frustrated musicians. I envy musicians their ability to live their art and share it with an audience, in the moment. From a filmmaker's standpoint, that's so rare and pure in a way that I'm sure is way more complicated than it appears. The grass is always greener, right? But music—and I'm certainly not alone in this—has had such a powerful effect on my life. Pop music can get inside us and enter our memory bubbles. It provides those true Proustian moments, unlocking sensations, unlocking our imaginations. Music inspired me as a filmmaker. So no, I don't think I'm a frustrated rock critic.
AVC: But there's definitely something evaluative in the way you hold up these artists' work: analyzing it, exploring it, and explaining what it means to you personally. Isn't that what a good critic does?
TH: No, you're right. Just as I was finishing my last sentence, I was thinking about Greil Marcus, whose work was clearly an inspiration on this film, and who's now my buddy—which still gets me all excited, that we send each other e-mails. But his kind of creative imagination, and the way he's converted his own medium into something you can't even categorize, is something I do feel inspired by, and something I hope I can do as a filmmaker.
AVC: The Richard Gere segments of I'm Not There are like a Greil Marcus essay brought to life.
TH: Yeah, totally. Marcus' Invisible Republic was instrumental in the whole period of build and rediscovery I found myself in during the year 2000. I read the book before I got my hands on the five-disc Basement Tapes collection—the original recordings that include the song "I'm Not There." That was a whole free-play time for me, of discovery and excavation of material I'd never heard before. And Greil Marcus' book was part of the spell.
AVC: How much of I'm Not There is decodable? Does everything in the movie have an explicit meaning to you, or is the movie more loose and intuitive?
TH: People tell me that the more they see the film, the more complete and logical it seems, and not so enigmatic. In my mind, it isn't as complex or strange a movie as it might seem to some people. Each of the stories are fairly simple in and of themselves, and all belong to genre traditions or '60s cinema traditions—things we've all seen before. I felt it was important to have very identifiable sub-stories going on. It's the way they interact with each other that feels different, and maybe not completely clear. But I think when you see the movie a second time, it starts to have the weird logic of accumulated life. There's a lot of jumping around and zany stuff in the first half, and a lot about the freedom to experiment and try things out. Then, particularly in the "Jude" story—Cate Blanchett's section—the free play and wildness start to gain a darker shadow, as those experiments take a toll. At the same time, the marriage starts to unravel [in the Heath Ledger section] and Billy The Cowboy has to come down from his hill and confront society [in the Richard Gere section]. So there's a sense of the repercussions that life brings. And I hope you start to feel the whole piece.
AVC: At any point in the development of this script, did you consider going linear, with five separate stories laid end-to-end, or was the film always meant to be jumbled up?
TH: It had to have that feeling of interconnection. Even though the stories introduce themselves linearly and take their exits linearly, I felt the jumble was a part of the songs themselves, and the complexity that Dylan's narrative style explored over his many songwriting periods. But it's also how we experience our own lives. When we look back, nothing's ever in tidy order. Things jut out, and make connections that aren't consistent or informed by conscious logic.
AVC: Were there any aspects of Dylan that you wanted to cover but couldn't find a way to squeeze in?
TH: Yeah, there were so many. I never intended to take on his changes and stages much past the '60s era, because I felt that all of these root characters had their origins in the '60s—which to me means the early '70s as well, because I think of the whole Vietnam era as one. Dylan checked out of the spotlight he was under in 1967, when he crashed his motorcycle and settled in Woodstock and found a lot of comfort and inspiration in roots music and traditional music. And even though that would later turn into Nashville Skyline in '68 and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in 1973 and traveling like a troupe of gypsies in '76, the inspiration of those original models would continue to inspire his work, right up to now. It's all rooted in the '60s. So I addressed it all in the context of this very dense period of Dylan's life, even though I saw the strands of those characters going on and recombining as his life went on. My research involved collecting so much stuff, and fitting it into each of the characters, almost like they were these containers, or envelopes. And then it was just about reducing, distilling, getting rid of redundancies, and trying to find the best example of this idea or that idea. The whole process was basically about letting go of a lot of stuff.
AVC: Having had some limited interaction with Dylan, do you get the sense that there's a "knowable Dylan" that those close to him encounter? A Dylan that's true to who he actually is?
TH: Well, I'm not close to Dylan. I've never met him. I've never spoken to him. I'm only a person he gave everything to, for some reason I'll never completely understand, and still feel shocked by. I don't even know if he's seen the film. He's had a DVD of it with him on tour for the last few weeks, but that's the last I heard. So I don't have any more direct firsthand evidence than anyone else. But I almost think that people make too much of this "unknowable guy." I think you find him wherever he is performing, and wherever he is committed to what he's doing. And we happen to have most of those performances recorded. With every studio release, he's made a series of live performances, and he lives and dies in the moment that he's performing his music. So you have these unbelievable, concrete examples of who he is at all of these different stages. How much more can you ask of somebody than that? Especially considering how much of it there is.
AVC: You've spent a lot of time around actors. Do you have a similar sense with them, that they're only "who they are" in moments of performance?
TH: Absolutely. It's a really profound question, especially given the context of what I was just talking about with Dylan. I'll never be able to totally explain or understand how actors are able to protect this moment of absolute relaxation and spontaneity, and to do it with so much technical rigidity and reliability. Musicians have to hit the right chords and pluck the right strings and sing the right lyrics, and that's a form of technical restriction as well, so I guess there's always "technique" at the heart of any creative process. But there's also always an element of surprise and something raw, and I feel like I'm at the furthest end of that ebb. Actors are amazing to me that way, because they really do have to create something alive, which then gets recorded and captured. And they all arrive at it in a different way.
AVC: Have you acted much, beyond cameo appearances here and there?
TH: Well, I liked to act in plays when I was a kid, and then in college. But that's the last time I really acted. I always loved it. But my interests were more in looking at the whole, rather than getting completely swallowed up in a single part of the whole.
AVC: How do you direct actors in a movie like I'm Not There, where a lot of the characters are symbolic? Do they still deal with their characters like they were real people, with real motivations?
TH: Definitely. You break it down to its components and play it out, for real, in real time. And that went for every aspect, including the stylized language the actors had to deliver. In a lot of my films, from Velvet Goldmine to Far From Heaven, there's often been some stylization to the language, but it still boils down to something absolutely specific and concrete. Flesh and blood. For I'm Not There, all the actors got little packages of research, with films, and recordings of Dylan speaking, and collections of the music that inspired their stories, and images I'd collected. That all went into what they did, to provoke something unplanned and untutored. They all used it. It was remarkable to see how that material would keep coming back out, in ways the actors probably couldn't even explain.
AVC: Were you surprised by the success of Far From Heaven? You've never been a commercial filmmaker, but that film did well at the box office, and was nominated for awards.
TH: Of course. I thought it was as big a risk as any of my films, because it was such an outmoded, degraded genre. And the style of acting and the artificial look of the film, we tried to preserve from Douglas Sirk and '50s cinema. They weren't things I tried to soften or minimize for a contemporary audience. I think Far From Heaven is the film where I've come closest to making it work like a lot of my favorite movies work. Like the way Hitchcock films work, in an almost diagrammatic way, where you "get" them immediately and they're communicable to a 5-year-old child and an 80-year-old adult. But then you look deeper, and there are all of these other things that come through that only reinforce what the film looked like from a distance. It's hard to describe, but I think it's the truth about popular art, that it has to work toward emotional clarity, and there are all these layers that you can peel off, but ultimately, it also has to function in an immediate way. But I don't think all my films do that, or even try to.
AVC: Were you tempted, having had that kind of success with Far From Heaven, not to repeat yourself necessarily, but to make another film that could be enjoyed conventionally as well as on those other levels?
TH: Well, I think all my films can be enjoyed. In fact, they've often surprised me with how they're received. A film that had the hardest time, at least initially, was Velvet Goldmine, and it's the film that seems to mean the most to a lot of teenagers and young people, who are just obsessed with that movie. They're exactly who I was thinking about when I made Velvet Goldmine, but it just didn't get to them the first time around. Now we have all these different ways for movies to get to people. People can live with them over time and pass them around like special secrets. The movies all live their own weird lives, which is so cool. So no, I didn't feel the need to repeat anything.
AVC: If you could have any director's career other than your own, whose would it be?
TH: Meaning their actual body of work?
AVC: Their body of work or their skill set. What they're capable of. Living or dead—which director would you want to be if you weren't you?
TH: I immediately always want to say Rainer Werner Fassbinder, because of his body of work and his amazing ability to materialize popular art out of brutally honest social critique and historical critique. The way that work comes out almost as natural as breathing… That's just incredible. The way he lived his life, with the terrible afflictions and abuses that are almost movies unto themselves, that isn't necessarily what I would want. But his career blows my mind.