Though we first met back in 1991, when the NEA-funded homoeroticism of his first aboveground feature, Poison, was rattling the halls of Congress, Todd Haynes and I “bonded” (as the saying goes) in April of 1995, when we served as jurors for the short-film competition at the USA Film Festival in Dallas. On our day off from jury duty, we went downtown and visited the spot where John F. Kennedy was assassinated — Dealey Plaza and the Sixth Floor Museum created out of the erstwhile Texas School Book Depository — and came to the immediate conclusion that not only did Oswald “do it,” but that shooting fish in a barrel would have presented a greater angle of difficulty.
As excited as I was by Haynes’ prospects then, I never could have imagined they would take the shape they have or move so swiftly into the sightlines of a large public. Released two months after our Dallas confab, Safe, his drama about a woman suffering from an “environmental illness” that does double duty as a metaphor for AIDS, had no gay “shock value,” but shocked many who hadn’t suspected this heretofore fringe figure was so cinematically accomplished. Starring his soon-to-be-muse, Julianne Moore, as a San Fernando Valley housewife, the film was in many ways Haynes’ own nightmare of becoming a San Fernando Valley housewife, for he hails from that fabled L.A. region — home of middle-class tranquillity and hardcore pornography.
Three years later, Velvet Goldmine picked up from where Poison left off in detailing the polymorphous perversity of the glam rock era, complete with a nod to the man Haynes saw as its patron saint: Oscar Wilde. But things got queerer (if also more accessible) still with his next feature, Far From Heaven (2002), a full-blown re-creation of the melodramas of Douglas Sirk that dealt frankly with subjects Sirk couldn’t have touched: interracial love and gay husbands bursting out of the closet. Another showcase for the talents of Moore, with great support from Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert and Patricia Clarkson, and the last film score by the great Elmer Bernstein, Far From Heaven won the hearts and minds of critics and discerning art-house audiences, and picked up four Oscar nominations in the process.
But rather than move further into the mainstream, Haynes has taken his most radical leap to date with I’m Not There. Initially subtitled “Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan,” but now more modestly labeled as “Inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan,” it features six different actors playing six differently named characters that either embody or reflect aspects of Dylan’s life and art, ranging from Christian Bale as the Dylan of early fame and born-again Christianity to Ben Whishaw as an enigmatic Dylanesque who calls himself Arthur Rimbaud to Heath Ledger as an actor who plays a Dylan-type character in a film-within-the-film. That’s not to mention Marcus Carl Franklin as a black 11-year-old who calls himself “Woody Guthrie,” Richard Gere in a period setting as Billy the Kid, and, most queer-radical of all, Cate Blanchett as “Jude,” a ’60s-era pop star whose frizzy hair, sardonic manner and controversial penchant for electric guitar plainly represent the Dylan of his most artistically aggressive ’60s period. Add Julianne Moore as someone not unlike Joan Baez, Charlotte Gainsbourg evoking both Dylan’s important girlfriend Suze Rotolo and his first wife, Sara Lowndes, cinematography that veers from black and white to color and back again, and a host of Dylan covers by a raft of contemporary artists, and you’ve got yourself two hours and 15 minutes of rich and strange filmmaking that’s seldom been seen before.
I’m Not There is an instant classic of the most experimental end of the rock-movie genre — which is to say, Peter Watkins’ Privilege, Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance, and a little-known film called Renaldo and Clara made by Dylan himself (see “Dylan by Dylan” sidebar). Above all, it’s a film by Todd Haynes, capped by its dedication to the memory of James Lyons, Haynes’ editor, frequent actor (he starred in Poison) and, until their 2000 breakup, his lover. Lyons, who died this past April of AIDS-related causes, is what semiotician Roland Barthes would call “a structuring absence of the text.” And being that Haynes majored in semiotics at Brown, this was bound to come up when we spoke recently by phone.
L.A. WEEKLY: Coming after Far From Heaven — your My Own Private Idaho, as it were — this is the point at which you should be making your Good Will Hunting. But you’ve gotten more experimental rather than less.
TODD HAYNES: [Laughs.] Well, [with Dylan] I had quite a standard to live up to in terms of not shying away from challenging the popular form. And I took that very much to heart with this film.
It might be described as an “anti-biopic.”
Yeah, I guess it could be. Yes.
You were born in 1961, so you were a toddler during most of the years the film covers. I remember New York very, very well from back then, and I’m amazed at how much of it you got right. 1961 was my freshman year at the High School of Music and Art. I remember Bob Dylan from back then. He dated a Music and Art girl.
Before Suze Rotolo?
Around that time. There were women all over the place. He was a babe magnet. He was an incredibly romantic figure. But we Music and Art–ers were very, very snotty: “Oh, his real name is Zimmerman, and he’s just this Woody Guthrie imitator.” Laura Nyro was going to Music and Art right at that same time, and we didn’t like her either.
Was there a point when you guys started to feel differently about Dylan after he got over his Woody Guthrie act?
Oh yeah, certainly with Bringing It All Back Home. Just like the Beatles, he was the soundtrack of that period. “The voice of a generation” sounds terribly pretentious, but it’s apropos. Because if you want to know what was on people’s minds in that era, the best way is to listen to some of those songs. And [D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary] Don’t Look Back was quite the deal. There are little bits of Don’t Look Back in I’m Not There, but you don’t really use it as a template. The main movie you’re “sampling” is 8½, which strikes some people as truly odd.
The reason for 8½ in that part of the film is that, basically, I was looking for cinematic references for getting to the root of each of these little stories and what they were about — how to differentiate them. And usually that had everything to do with the music that was defining that particular period of Dylan or phase of Dylan or psyche of Dylan. And in the “Jude” story, I knew I wanted to do it in black and white. The very first movie proposition that came to mind was Don’t Look Back, of course. But when I was thinking of the music of that period — Highway 61 and, especially, Blonde on Blonde — I very quickly realized that Don’t Look Back, a cinéma vérité masterwork, is far from the sensibility of the music at that point in Dylan’s career. It didn’t take me long to come up with 8½ and find in that film, and in Fellini in general at that time, what I thought was a beautiful parallel to that sensibility of Dylan’s — baroque but utterly urbane.
To me, the “Jude” section is the “most Dylan” because it deals with when he “went electric.” The backlash was quite pronounced from a lot of people who saw him as a simple folk/protest singer, and you re-create that. We see people coming after Jude in the same way they came after the Guido character in 8½. And the journalist played by Bruce Greenwood is a bit like the co-screenwriter character played by Jean Rougeul in Fellini’s film.
To some degree, they’re alike. I think the demands people make on Jude in my film come across a bit more gently than what goes on in Fellini.
And you rebuilt that chair from 8½ — that enormous curved white thing that Barbara Steele sits down in at the spa to put on her shoes.
Yes, we did — we absolutely did. That was the clincher for me. It wasn’t just a stylistic sensibility that was involved. The language of Fellini’s film made perfect sense in relation to Blonde on Blonde. For it also had at its center the story of an artist being besieged by the media, and questioned as to his motivations: Why was he making these weird movies that nobody could understand anymore? That’s why 8½ just seemed absolutely inescapable.
Your film seems to be directed at an audience that knows a lot of things, like about Dylan’s novel Tarantula, and therefore will react when you show an actual tarantula onscreen. On the other hand, the extreme Dylan may be very upset by what you’ve done. Of course, you don’t go through his garbage like [Dylan to English Dictionary author] A.J. Weberman, but I can imagine some people seeing you that way.
I didn’t intend it. I wasn’t tailoring the film to people who would pick up on every single reference. They’re all there to be found, to be discovered — if you choose to do so. But to my mind, the film doesn’t rest on that extra knowledge, that secondary level. All films are made up of references, whether they’re conscious or not, whether they’re generic returns to certain forms, or references to other films we’ve seen before. The audience is “reading” all the time, but not cognitively. This film just takes that further, and has every component of it come out of the Dylan universe. But if it doesn’t work purely on a sort of graphic and gut level as well, then it isn’t really working.
To me, the film is 50 percent Dylan and 50 percent the ’60s.
Well, that was a conscious choice. I realized that all of these core characters I’d settled on had their roots in the ’60s. This was the era that defined him and that he defined. There was so much going on in that period at the same time Dylan was becoming a star, so making this film was a chance to do a film about that period — and do it in a different way.
The other part of I’m Not There that really stands out are the sequences with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Heath Ledger, which you can say relates to Dylan’s marriage and relationships but is also about other things about the ’60s, like the first stirrings of the women’s movement.
Yeah. It’s an extrapolation of things I collected in my research about his relationship to both his girlfriend Suze Rotolo and his marriage to Sara Lowndes. My criteria of how I put together the pieces of the film is that I tried to pay as much attention to his life as to his work. So the love songs themselves, which are outside the specifics of his relationships, are the product of those specifics. But they stand on their own, which is, of course, why we all can identify with them. So it was the love songs themselves that ultimately formed that particular story. In other words, not just the marriage but all sorts of things about the women he was attracted to. It made me very happy to hear that Suze Rotolo saw the film and really loved that section of it — and actually felt it was all about her.
Where is she now?
She actually just finished a book — her own memoir of the period. Finally, the woman speaks! I don’t know a lot of what she’s done over the years, but I know she’s maintained various careers in the arts. She was a visual artist at the time she and Dylan were going out. And she really did provide him with that sort of political involvement. Her interest in Brecht, Rimbaud and the other poets — that totally informed Dylan.
Where did you find Marcus Carl Franklin?
Isn’t he amazing? [Casting director] Laura Rosenthal found him in New York. He was the little boy in Lakawana Blues. I met him before I saw that film, and then I saw it and met with him again. He just floored us all.
Did you conceive the character as being a little boy, or did you make the character a little boy once you found the actor?
It was always an 11-year-old black kid.
Because it’s hard to get an 11-year-old kid who can act that knowingly.
Oh, I really lucked out. Every impossible demand this film made on me, I lucked out. It was only after I found what I needed that I was able to look back and consider the ways it could have failed — and get terrified in retrospect. But I guess that’s part of being a director — you’re just in a state of fright all the time and you keep marching forward. If you look back, you’ll turn into a pillar of salt.
The other cinematic disparity that’s really interesting is that the Richard Gere/Billy the Kid sections aren’t like Peckinpah’s movie Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, which Dylan acted in and wrote the score for.
No, they’re not. It’s not the most beautiful film, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. I was much more taken with films in the same category, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and McCabe and Mrs. Miller — and Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara.
In watching the movie, there’s a kind of generalized logic to why we’re moving from one story to another and one style to another. But there are many people who will have never seen anything like this before. I think there are going to be a lot of people very angry with you over this for reasons that they can’t quite explain. There’s a kind of sneaky audacity to doing a movie like this — an “art movie” for a general public. You’re prepared for a backlash, I trust?
I am, but I was prepared for a lot more of it than I’ve been receiving. You may have encountered resistance in conversations with some people you know, but the general reaction to the film has been good. I’ve been stunned at how positive people have been and that they’ve just let it all flow. But believe me, I was prepared for the contrary in today’s market. I was resolved to not care, to just let it be in the world and take the time it takes to be appreciated. Instead, starting with the premiere in Venice and the awards we got right away, the reception has been open and warm. I don’t mind trying to talk to people about it and helping them relax a little bit. But again, as you say, it’s the kind of movie people aren’t prepared for today. That doesn’t mean we were at other times — particularly the time the film’s reflecting. When I went to see 2001 with my dad at age 7 or 8, you went to that film, and so many other films, to not understand it. That was the excitement — to go and have interpretations, to see it again and basically go on a trip that was not cognitive, that was not rational, but that was so ultimately cinematic that you couldn’t look away.
Well, that was the big ’60s film experience. You went to see L’Avventura to argue about what happened to Lea Massari and why she disappeared. Blowup even more so.
Exactly. But there were a great many films like that then. And those are the kinds of films, when you’re young and you have a creative sensibility, that blow it wide open and make you want to make things like that yourself. But the key — what people forget ’cause Dylan is so famous, and so successful — is how unbelievably radical and “unclear” and untraditional a popular artist he was. What he did to the popular song was inconceivable before he entered the scene. And the amazing thing is that he was actually popular.
“When you’re lost on the road to Juarez and it’s Easter time too” — what in hell was that?
Exactly. And you don’t question it — you go with it. That’s how music works. I don’t understand all of Dylan’s lyrics or sources or references. That’s not the point. You just got to hope people are open to this.
When did you first come across Dylan?
In high school. I’m sure I heard “Blowin’ in the Wind” as a kid. I also have a memory of singing it in Hebrew school, along with “Silver and Gold” and other true traditional folk songs and not knowing that one was a contemporary song that had been written only a few years before.
Do you remember when Dylan first really grabbed you?
Blonde on Blonde was my favorite album. It probably still is. It’s one of those astounding pieces of work that is both popular and so much more. But I remember loving Blood on the Tracks and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan too. I vaguely remember Desire and Street Legal, but I definitely remember Slow Train Coming. Then I really stopped listening to Dylan for about 20 years. Not out of rejection, though I’m sure “Oh, he’s gone all Christian now” was part of it. But I was going to college, and it was time for David Bowie and Roxy Music and Iggy Pop and all that stuff.
Blonde on Blonde was as big a “concept album” as Sgt. Pepper, and to me, everything Dylan related will always center on that. It was a two-record set . . .
The first of that era.
Right. And these songs just went on forever. “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” was a whole side of a record. That really blew everyone’s mind.
It’s incredible to think that something so sophisticated, elegant, rich and complex could be that popular. It was an instant classic. Minds were ready to be opened at a certain point in our recent past, and we really haven’t been that kind of a culture in a long time.
Well, now we’re getting into the stuff where I wish I was right there instead of talking to you over the phone.
Yes, it would be so much easier to talk in person, and hang out.
I would rather be looking at you face to face right now because — well, let’s cut to the chase. The film is dedicated to James.
Would you say there’s a lot of you and your relationship with him in the movie? Some of it?
[Pauses.] I don’t think it ever occurred to me.
Well, among other things, this is the first movie of yours he hasn’t edited.
That’s right. But I hadn’t really thought about it . . . maybe I should have . . . it wasn’t part of any conscious thing.
I’m not talking about in a literal way. I’m talking about echoing or relating to, for example with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Heath Ledger’s characters having this big tumultuous relationship. I was thinking that there might be something there that was you guys back in the day.
Yeah, there probably is. It’s funny how little I “identify” with Dylan on conscious levels. But I am a fan. I love his music. I was utterly obsessed with him when I returned to him in 2000. He entered at a transition point in my life as a kind of guide for positive change at a time that I really needed to be reminded that change was possible. It coincided with my leaving New York and going to Portland. I made Far From Heaven there. And then I decided to stay.
How is Portland?
I love Portland. I love it every day.
You’re there. Gus Van Sant is there. If a bomb drops on Portland, that kills off half of the New Queer Cinema.
It’s great here. It’s a creatively vital place.
Do you hang with Gus much?
Oh yeah. As much as I can. We knew each other before, of course, before I moved there. But we’ve become closer. Not like every day. We’re both very busy. We see each other whenever we can. But it’s been so cool ’cause he’s been doing such great work during the years I’ve been living there in Portland. He was so excited when he saw I’m Not There.
Well, it’s right up his alley.
He dug it, and you never know how people are going to react to stuff.
Scorsese says the audience has an advantage that the filmmaker doesn’t because “They’re going to see my movie for the first time.”
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Completely. When you hear from a viewer, it’s one of those rare moments when you really see your own work.
WEINSTEIN CO. PUBLICIST: I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to wrap up the interview now.
Okay. Todd, I’ll see you next week in L.A. and we’ll hang.
Yeah, we’ll hang!