NYFF- HBO Directors Dialogue: Todd Haynes - October 6, 2007
Hoberman opened by saying “the greatest pleasure a film journalist can have is to come across a movie you never heard of from someone unknown and to have the privilege to write about it first 20 years ago.” The film refers to was Haynes’ 1987 super 8mm movie Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Hoberman called it a completely brilliant and original movie. He then went through the laundry list of Haynes’ other film including Poison (1991), Safe (1995), Velvet Goldmine (1998), Far From Heaven (2002), and finally I’m Not There (2007). Hoberman pointed out that most of these films have multiple stories and address certain pop culture text. In each case, there is a certainty of irony. He asks Haynes if these films were made with love, and what he’s a fan of.
Haynes responded that he’s an intense, wild fan of movies, music, and even of Hoberman’s work, referring back to Hoberman’s original review of Superstar, a film that would never have been shown commercially. This review launched Haynes’ career. Many theatrical venues wanted to show the film.
Hoberman moves the discussion over to Haynes interest in Bob Dylan.
Haynes recollected his high school days. He attended Oakwood, an artsy school in Los Angeles that had a radical, mythical history founded by progressive actors in the 1950s. It was in this environment, he first encountered Dylan’s music. After graduating in 1979, he moved to the East Coast for college at Brown University, where he studied semiotics, and became interested in glam and punk rock. It was not till the end of his 30s (he had begun his film career already) when he got back into Dylan. He finished making Velvet Goldmine and took a few years off. Most of his friends were starting their lives already, having families. He didn’t have any of those things in his life. Something was missing. He wanted to enrich himself. Since he was a creative person, he had the opportunity to externalize his troubles, and was very grateful for it. At the time, he was interested in 1950s melodramas (ala Douglas Sirk) and wanted to work again with Julianne Moore (who he worked previously with on Safe).
At the end of the 1990s, Haynes drove across country to Portland, Oregon, to live with his sister. He listened to tapes of Dylan in the car. Half way there, he bought some more folk music to listen to . When he got to Portland, he read a bunch of Dylan biographies. It became inevitable that his obsession would result in making something creative.
Hoberman mentions that Haynes started writing the screenplay for I’m Not There in 2000. During this time, Dylan published an anthology, ’s documentary, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan came out, and Twyla Tharp’s ballet based on Dylan’s songs, The Times They Are A-Changin’, played on Broadway. But Haynes focuses most of the film on Dylan’s life in the 1960s up until the 70s, the end of the Vietnam War.
Haynes said he couldn’t commit to Dylan’s entire life. He wanted to focus on the core elements and roots of his origins in the 60s era. That was enough. Dylan ultimately created his own escape at the end of the 60s until he had his motorcycle accident in 1966. Then he went to Woodstock and raised a family. In many ways, he never really came back. Dylan’s access and visibility have been under his own terms ever since. That’s what the whole last story with Richard Gere’s Dylan character, Billy, is all about. Billy is the most metaphorical character.
Given how protective Dylan is, Hoberman asked Haynes how he got permission to use Dylan’s music in the film and what Dylan thought of the film.
Haynes said he’s not sure Dylan has seen it yet. He sent the DVD to Dylan’s son Jesse, because he knew that Dylan didn’t want to come to any public screenings. Before even making the film, Haynes called up producer Christine Vachon. He was very bashful about it, because he knew it would be hard to get Dylan’s permission to use the songs. There was no way he could make the movie without the music. Prior to making the film, Haynes met with Jesse, who is also a filmmaker, in Los Angeles. It’s so hard to be the kid of a famous person. One thing Dylan has been able to do all along is keep his family protected.
At that point in the script (which was then titled I’m Not There: Suppositions On a Film Concerning Dylan), Haynes had seven Dylan characters, one of which eventually got absorbed into the Woody character, making the final amount six. Dylan had been opposed to every dramatic version of his life before, until that moment. If there was ever something Dylan wanted done about his life, it would have to be something this open and unconventional.
Q: Do you see parallels between I’m Not There and Velvet Goldmine? Did you get David Bowie’s blessing for Velvet Goldmine?
TH: Artists are always changing themselves. The first person you might think of is David Bowie. I wanted the rights to Bowie’s songs, but he wasn’t interested in having his story on film. Bowie’s version of self-transformation was about dressing up and applying make up. Androgyny. I’m Not There and Velvet Goldmine are very different films. Different music genres and traditions. Velvet Goldmine is a British story, whereas I’m Not There is American story.
Q: Why do you choose Cate Blanchett for the role of Jude in I’m Not There?
TH: I was obsessed about different actresses in their age range. I looked at pictures of actresses and put them in Dylan’s hair. Saw Cate on stage in Heda Gabler in Brooklyn. Saw her scale and proportions. She’s beautiful. On a physical level, I was stunned by her proportions.
Q: How do you work with such a large body of music?
TH: It was an embarrassment of riches. The selection of cinematic references started in the script stage. Music would be telling the story, built into the film’s concept. For example, the song “Ballad of a Thin Man” had such an important historical meaning. It expressed the inside/outside dichotomy. Another song, “Goin’ to Acapulco,” was a personal favorite. It’s absurdly melodramatic.
Q: You started the script in 2000 with seven Dylan characters. What are other changes were made?
TH: I did stop everything on the script when going into production on Far From Heaven in 2001, which occupied me completely till about 2003, but at that point, I had gotten the rights from Dylan to use the music. Then started researching and starting over from scratch. The process of being a pure fan was changed. The missing seventh character was called Charlie, a Chaplin-esque figure.
Q: Did you study of semiotics at Brown influence your filmmaking?
TH: It has. The semiotics courses are now part of the modern culture and media departments. Semiotics studies post-culturalism. It’s a post-humanist look at pop culture and media.