Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
Todd Haynes on I'm Not There
Expanded Edition of 11-14-07 Windy City Times Interview
by Richard Knight, Jr.
Haynes on the set of I'm Not There, Cate Blanchett in character as one of the Dylan hybrids, Haynes directing Charlotte Gainsbourg
who plays Dylan's wife in the film
Todd Haynes, the openly gay filmmaker who spearheaded the queer cinema movement with his revolutionary film Poison and last
made Far From Heaven, has returned with a fascinating film centered on musical icon Bob Dylan. Haynes’ film, titled I’m Not There is
less a bio-pic and more a movie valentine to Dylan. Inspired by Dylan’s music and life, the film, told in a non-linear style, weaves
together biographical and artistic elements and features Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw, Marcus Carl
Franklin, and Cate Blanchett all playing different versions of Dylan – who is never referred to by that name. Haynes, wearing a
cream colored western style shirt and black pants was relaxed and full of passion as he talked with Windy City Times about his latest
WINDY CITY TIMES (WCT): You came at Dylan’s music in such a different way. I loved how you told the story through his influences
and through the viewpoint of his fans and the people around him. I couldn’t help wondering – this passion that you have for music –
because it’s been the basis of other of your films – do you play?
TODD HAYNES (TH): Not really. I wish I did. I’ve fooled around with music a little bit but given all the people that I know who do it
for real it’s hard to even cop to but I don’t feel unique in how much music influences me or inspires me or connects to me in ways
that go beyond thinking or your views of the world or your belief system. It can inform those things, it can introduce those things to
you but then can somehow completely contradict them.
WCT: Your movie really caught the sensory thing that happens when you really connect with a piece of music or with a particular
writer. What was it about Dylan that suddenly opened the door for you?
TH: It happened at the end of my 30s. I really hadn’t listened to Dylan seriously or regularly for 20 years and it was definitely
some kind of a signal or urge. I think it had mostly, initially, to do with a need to just help move myself from one place in my life to
another. That was really geographic as well as everything else. I moved to the west coast after living in the east for 15 years after
college but it was mostly my needing to shake up my life and get my life back in a place of inspiration and excitement and give it
forward momentum. I felt like I was just not taking care of my life part; I’d put everything into my work and I’d ended up with a nice
environment for myself in New York. All my friends had their apartments and they were starting to have kids and long term
relationships and all these nice things and I didn’t have any of those things. I could blame it on New York but it was my own choices
and focus and Dylan all of a sudden became this reminder, I think, of a time when the future was full of all hope and promise and
potential when I was a kid. There’s something about that voice – a sort of fearlessness in it and a kind of total commitment to the
thing he’s singing about at the time and that’s the only way I could really explain it. But it definitely helped moved me. I was
planning to go to the west coast to write Far From Heaven and get away from the city but it was all on the kind of positive steam of
WCT: When you decided to make the film it must have been amazing to get the letter or the phone call saying you’d gotten the
rights to his music.
TH: Yes, yes, it was.
WCT: Did you feel like you could be true to your voice or did you feel like you needed to follow some of the traditional bio-pic rules
– at least at first?
TH: Not really. The idea to make a film was the idea to do it in this way. It was never, “Oh, I want to make a movie about Dylan
and how shall I do it?” The idea was the incentive to do it and that concept, which again was one and the same with wanting to
make a film. That’s what I eventually took to Dylan’s manager. All of this was just free play; there was no reality attached to it. I
had no expectations of getting rights and I was not going to begin to do this project without them. So it was really just pure love and
freedom and then it got validated and made official and then it was like, “Oh my God!” I was completely blown away because all
these things were happening through a kind of new burst of love and openness. I was really into being in a new city; I was meeting
all these new people; my whole life was new. All these things suddenly became concrete – I lost my apartment in New York, I
bought a house in Portland, I finished Far From Heaven, Julianne (Moore) wanted to do it; I got the rights to Dylan’s music. It was
an amazing year – this was all in one year and everything turned around and it all came after a dark year and a half of depression.
WCT: Did you feel a sense of responsibility to Dylan’s life or music at any point? Was that a pressure at first?
TH: The responsibility I felt was to Dylan’s weirdness.
WCT: (laughs) I love that you said that because that’s so true.
TH: Yes, it’s really true. That’s what’s amazing about Dylan. It’s not that he wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It’s that he wrote
everything else and that he’s still Bob Dylan and that he would never compromise or change what he did for an audience or for a
place on the Top 40 or whatever. And he’s one of the most beloved and worshipped popular artists of our country because of that
weirdness and I had to honor the fact that he didn’t do any of those things in his career and to honor his complexity. The thing is I
knew that basically all of the pieces of it were fun. I think people forget. They think that Dylan is “all these words” and “he must be
really heavy and dark and serious.” No, it’s fun and it’s funny.
WCT: Well, it’s music – so it’s glorious. Even if it’s the darkest stuff it still feels good to sing it and to listen it.
TH: Absolutely, absolutely. It’s emotional and it has to work at that level first and foremost or it’s not going to work. So I knew
that I wanted to find something complex in a film that would parallel that but it also had to be fun and beautiful and moving. It just
had to do it in a different way.
WCT: Has he responded?
TH: No, not that I know of. He has a DVD in his suitcase and I’m happy just knowing that. I think I could just go on thinking,
“That's cool – Dylan has a DVD of my movie all about him in his suitcase on his never ending tour and maybe he’ll never get to it.”
(laughs) No, I wanted him to watch it and tell me what he thinks but it’s been about three weeks now since I’ve heard back but we’ll
WCT: Let’s talk about the cast for a minute. I can see Ben Whishaw who was so good in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and
Christian Bale and Heath Ledger but what clicked in your head to say, “Cate Blanchett must play Bob Dylan?”
TH: I wanted an actress to play that part from the very first formation of the concept. I knew I wanted to have a woman play Dylan
in the ’66 period and mostly because, again, it was trying to unlock the weirdness of that moment that he really was some hybrid
gender, some creature that was not by any stretch of the imagination traditionally masculine or male looking, acting and some
people will still just associate that time with Don’t Look Back, the Pennebaker documentary and that I’m even zeroing in on is the fact
that when he plugged in electric which had not yet happened when Don’t Let Back takes place was a different guy. He was much
skinnier; he was in that amphetamine haze of the times, the hair was bigger, the gestures were completely dandified and
extravagant and strange; just bizarre.
WCT: But strange and bizarre and aware of it. A friend of mine who saw the film with me, another film critic, said, “It’s so great how
you’re constantly reminded that you’re watching a movie; that there’s a movie within the movie within the movie.” There’s all those
levels, those mirrors, which of course is captured so great in your homage to Fellini.
TH: (delighted) Yes, yes.
WCT: So he must have been aware, too. There had to be a bit of posing on his part.
TH: I think so but I don’t know what was in his head saying, “Oh, I should lift my hand up off the piano every time I finish a chord
like this” (demonstrates) the way Cate does in the movie which you see in the footage of him in the Scorsese doc because he used
a lot of the outtakes from a documentary being shot during that tour. You see it’s a Dylan that existed for one year with an
eccentricity that you never saw again and an effeminate kind of hipster thing that must have freaked people out – especially little
innocent boys and girls who were still wearing little ties and suits when they went to the concerts.
WCT: What is he doing?!
TH: Totally, their heads must have been spinning round and when you see pictures of the kids you think, “My God, this is really
early in our innocent 60s era.” We forget that the 60s as we think of them didn’t happen until 1968 for real.
WCT: Well also, any individual like that – anybody who was speaking out against the establishment spoke to a lot of subgroups –
speaking to my gay readership here.
TH: Absolutely. And if he was a little impatient when girls he’d go out with once expected a call afterwards and it was like, “That’s so
establishment, man, to expect something afterwards” when actually it was sort of sexist. On the other hand, he was so enamored of
Allen Ginsberg and queerness and that kind of gay New York of the mid 60s. That aspect of hipster queerness was cool for Dylan
and he vocalized it at this one time of his life as well. He said things like, “Oh yeah, I hustled when I first came to New York in
1961.” He was just flaunting a kind of “cooler than thou” attitude that who knows the veracity of every word? But it was in the spirit,
WCT: That’s also the one time in the movie when he gets excited – when he spots Allen Ginsberg.
TH: Completely. It’s so romantic. He had a crush for sure.
WCT: Okay, going back in your career for a moment. Poison really sparked the queer film movement but with each subsequent
movie you’ve seemed to move away from that identification. You’ve become Todd Haynes, filmmaker, not Todd Haynes, queer
filmmaker. Is it demeaning now to think of movies in that genre? To be linked with that?
TH: No, not especially for the time when Poison was made. New queer cinema was a really apt and necessary category to describe
all these movies that were coming out of a kind of fresh, political necessity in the AIDS era and coming out very closely aligned with
activism around AIDS and questions of identity representation that came out around that time. I feel incredibly proud to have been
part of that time and those films.
WCT: Is it relevant again now with our country having swung back into a conservative mode?
TH: Yes, absolutely.
WCT: Do we need those queer voices even more now?
TH: We do it’s just that we’re in a much more complicated place. Not all in a bad way. I mean, on the one hand, the big issues
among gay people getting the most attention are gay marriage and gays in the military and these couldn’t be more “conventional”
or conservative wishes. On the other hand, “Ugly Betty” is like the hit show of the country and I just saw Hairspray on the plane here
and I was thinking, “These are huge hits and these are incredibly queer, gay products” which I think is just fascinating and they also
both have their cool, ethnic awareness. One of those is because it’s coming from John Waters, who is just a genius and an
originator. But I just find the “Ugly Betty” phenomenon really interesting. Obviously there is a much more complex cross-pollination
in mainstream society today of what we at once called an underground gay sensibility. There isn’t the same sense of that kind of
counter-culture that new queer cinema could be. I wish there was; I wish there were young radical gay filmmakers doing edgy films
that didn’t look like anything else but I haven’t seen that happening in a long time.
WCT: It’s kind of hard as a gay film reviewer to recognize that.
TH: I would imagine. Well, the issues now are more subtle. I guess what’s at stake for me personally is what does it mean to not
want to be assimilated and to not want to be accepted and not to be totally woven into mainstream culture. To me that’s where I
came to a lot of knowledge and creative energy. I work from a more dissonant idea of gay history and people like Genet and
Pasolini and filmmakers like that.
WCT: Karen Carpenter, David Bowie, Bob Dylan have been the roundabout subjects of three of your movies – please tell me that
Laura Nyro is next. You’re the filmmaker that could do her justice.
TH: (laughs) I love Laura Nyro.
WCT: You’re going to hear this all through your press tour – reporters and fans telling you to do the life of their favorite musical
TH: (laughs) No doubt.
WCT: So what is next?
TH: I don’t know yet. I’ve been really flipped out about the results of the Bush-Cheney era. It’s been overwhelming and
incomprehensible and profound and so big that words seem weird; they seem evil and silly. How we get out of it; how we move
forward and how we reckon with it are big questions that I’m thinking about. I’m happy to see all kinds of films coming out this year
about the war, about stuff but I don’t know what mine will be yet exactly but it’s something I can’t get out of my head.