The following is a transcript of a telephone conversation I had with director Todd Haynes in 2008 about his movie, I’m Not There, a kind of fantasia about Bob Dylan. It was done for the Asahi Shimbun’s English language edition and, thus, has never been made available online. The article itself was much shorter and contained only a few brief quotes. (I have appended it to the transcript) With the recent release of Haynes’ Velvet Underground documentary, I thought people might be interested in reading what he had to say about Dylan. But, in any case, if you haven’t seen the movie you should. It really is a trip.
-How have you felt about the reception so far?
I’m happy. It’s received good notices amidst a crowded and generally high-quality movie season.
-Was that helped in any way by Dylan’s own resurgence as an artist?
There’s no question. The general interest in Dylan never goes away, but it’s compounded by the quality of work he’s put out recently, starting with his last three releases, and then the book and the radio show. He’s been conveying a crazy generosity in the quality of his work. It’s the radio show and the book to me, indicating the Dylan who is there to stand for the history of American popular music in all its various forms, and as somebody who still wants to act as a link to the earliest traditional music and even contemporary music.
-We can’t hear the radio show in Japan.
That’s too bad. The songs are so great and it’s so cool how much time he’s obviously put in, with a staff of writers, and his own taste, and how much time he’s put into talking between and setting up the songs and sharing really cool kernels of wisdom and stories about each artist. And it’s yet another character: this droll, witty old-timer. [mimics Dylan’s voice introducing Leadbelly and Blur].
-I’m sure he’s riffing on the DJs he listened to as a kid, too.
-What was your first impression of Dylan?
I don’t really remember a first time of actually hearing his voice. Those songs were in the culture of the American Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles where I grew up. I remember “Blowing in the Wind” being played in a circle alongside “Silver and Gold” and falling into that great tradition of American folk songs that became part of the new left of the 60s and was already making its way into places like that. But it was high school where I discovered the singer and the artist, and fell in love with his music and his whole persona and character and style. One of my best friends in high school was Elizabeth McGovern, the actress, and we were soulmates. And I remember her saying once, If you could look like anybody other than yourself, who would it be? And I remember picking Dylan. Because that was a cool look, even in the mid-70s.
-How did your feelings about him change over the years?
I kind of stopped listening to his music for about 20 years. I didn’t stay on top of his releases through the 80s and 90s. I never outright rejected him. I was just moving on to different kinds of music and different genres. It’s what made this strange season at the end of the 90s, at the end of the millennium so interesting and surprising, when I found myself craving him deeply, and needing to hear that music. And I know now how much that was an indicator of changes in my life that would materialize shortly thereafter. A need for a real radical change in my life and a break from my 15 years in New York City. I drove cross-country at the very beginning of 2000 to get away from New York, to go to Portland where my sister lived, just to get away to write. I was writing my last film, Far From Heaven. But my daily, hourly obsession was Dylan, and it kept growing and involving reading biographies again and discovering interviews I’d never read before. And discovering all that amazing music that had never been officially released. And it was in that new climate that I latched on to this idea of him as a shape-shifting artist, and suddenly had this craving to make a film about it, and to address that practice of constant defining change in the concept of these multiple characters.
-How much of that was pure nostalgia?
I don’t think it was nostalgia at all, unless it was nostalgia for my own adolescence. There’s something about Dylan’s fearlessness as an artist and creator that defines even his best studio recordings that there were very few examples of and which condoned a sense of change as a positive thing. And I needed that much more in my later years, when change is no longer simply the definition of your future as a young person but actually as something scary because it’s an uprooting of all that you’ve done to define yourself. I needed an uprooting and I went to somebody who’d been doing it so well for so long.
-When did you come up with the concept of the movie?
It was during that time, but I can’t put my finger on a eureka moment. My conceptual centerpiece of the film is almost banal, this idea of Dylan as someone who is always changing, particularly in the 60s and the 70s. And when you think about it, even the things for those people who don’t know much about him at all, what they do know are these events that are events of radical change and disappointment, like plugging in electric. These are the myths that never die around him, but they come from an actual practice that he was exploring in every possible way. So when you really look at it I don’t feel like I was inventing anything, let alone imposing something on his story or his biography. Just trying to get something core about him as a person.
-It’s interesting in that regard to compare your movie to this whole slew of musical biopics right now, which attempt to provide some verisimilitude.
In fact, the reason those kinds of films receive a lot of criticism, especially from critics and also from filmgoers who still go to see them, like myself, but who groan at the conventions, is that it isn’t verisimilitude at all.
-You could call it put-on verisimilitude.
Exactly. It’s putting them into a narrative package so tightly and neatly with so many predictable turns that it doesn’t feel like a real life. It’s too much like a narrative. That was definitely something I didn’t want to impose on the complexity of this subject.
-Besides getting permission to use the music, was there any involvement with the Dylan camp?
There was very close participation, but with a real sense of creative liberty that came exclusively from Dylan’s manager, Jeff Rosen. Dylan himself saw the original concept–there was no way to even begin without his approval–but his involvement ended there. The details of the production, the casting, the cutting, the script, weren’t things he cared to be involved in. Whereas with Jeff it was his job to make sure everything was going smoothly, and we were also negotiating with him to extend the rights and getting into the music and the properties and all that stuff. But he was just a great friend of the production and really set a tone of openness and he did not bear down on me to create a positive representation of his client in the film, as you can see, because there’s some pretty nasty moments in the film. And Jeff was cool about that, even if he had his own private concerns about it, he didn’t feel comfortable turning them into deal breakers.
-I want to see it again, because, well, it’s almost like Ulysses, there’s so much stuff in there to absorb. Was that completely from your research or did you get help from so-called Dylanologists?
It was really from all my research, but there’s just so much stuff out there. And it’s infinite. But most of the particles that make up the film, almost every single one of them comes from something generated if not by Dylan himself then by influences that informed him during his first great creative period in the 60s and early 70s, which the film focuses on. Or his lyrics, or his interviews, or his prose and other writings. It was this unbelievable opportunity and adventure into being allowed to traverse freely through all of that material. It’s the backdrop to one of the most amazing and dense periods of American politics, history, and culture.
-Has anyone ever tried to do a filmic presentation of Dylan before besides the documentaries?
They’ve gotten many offers over the years for biopics and passed on them.
-Did you make up the crack about the Stones being a groovy covers band?
I made that up.
-It’s the best line in the movie.
Dylan famously made disparaging remarks about the Stones but I don’t know if those were his exact words.
-What’s your opinion of the movies Dylan made himself?
I didn’t really study them. I saw Renaldo and Clara when it came out and I was in high school, and I watched it again when I was doing my research. I took a lot of notes. There were definitely a lot of ideas in my film that actually were very sympatico with the ideas in his film. I basically took that as an affirmation of what my own instincts were telling me and where my research was leading me without having to literally pull from it and insert it into my film. And similarly with Masked and Anonymous, I think there’s such great ideas in that film. It’s the execution of those films where I might have my reservations. But in the conceptual sense, which Dylan was a part of on both, they’re fascinating.
-When I first saw R&C in college I thought there was so much good material in there but I just wished someone had told him how to hold a camera.
Exactly. But it was one of a series of failed personal films by rock stars like Neil Young’s Journey Through the Past. You give them a lot of room to work things out.
-Well, it was the 70s. I’m sure you’ve gotten lots of questions about casting, but I’m particularly interested in Richard Gere, because he’s the only actor in the movie who could have been a Dylan fan during the period you covered. Did you seek him out?
I wasn’t thinking of any specific actor, and I don’t usually when I’m writing a script. The only person maybe on this film was Charlotte Gainsbourg, because I had a specific point of reference of the type of woman I wanted this character to be, and it very quickly became Charlotte in my mind. And it actually helped me to coalesce that character.
-What was it about her that appealed to you. I assumed she was as close to anyone in the movie to Sara Dylan.
Sara Dylan and also Suze Rotolo–the two defining romantic influences on the first half of his life. I think it’s just plain attraction on my part. I really felt something emotionally and romantically compelling about her as a subject, and someone who had an integrity, a slight distance, a mystery, the fact that she was French and I made her sound even more French than she sounds in real life, it helped materialize those characteristics that were recurring in the women he was attracted to. They had to stand a little outside the craze around him to maintain his interest, and provide him with a place of escape. And she had all those qualities. Also, her own DNA.
-The whole subtext of her parents might have meaning to some viewers.
Yeah. But there’s something in her physical presence that made sense for that period of time and had an integrity that I couldn’t resist. But as for Richard Gere’s character, I always wanted a famous movie star. I wanted somebody with a mini-history of American cinema etched into the lines of his face, you know? And something that’s true for Richard Gere, it would lend a secondary series of references to this performance, in that you can imagine him for a moment in Days of Heaven riding on a horse, like some past narrative embedded in his physical state. I thought that was good. He’s carried a burden of the past that this character was escaping.
-Did the actors understand your concept, or wasn’t that important?
They really did, and I don’t think it’s that hard to understand it. Most of us look back on our own lives at who we were at different stages of our lives as different kinds of people, and that change, whether you like it or not or fight it or not, is inevitable. In that way, everyone found their own way of relating to it very concretely. But we also provided all the actors with so much specific material about Dylan within that particular period of his life, which made it concrete and undeniable. Richard’s story was the most abstract, obviously, and he exhibited a kind of curiosity and interest and fascination that exceeded that of the other actors. He was just so into all my material and all the stuff I was drawing from. I think it helped him to feel that there was this solid ground. He’s also maybe the biggest Dylan fan.
-I remember reading an interview with his ex-wife, the model. Cindy Crawford?
-She implied that one of the reason for their divorce was that he was too obsessed with Dylan.
[laughs] That’s great. Of course, Richard loves Dylan and many of the same records I do, like Blonde on Blonde, but this particular period and the references–I don’t know if they were of the period that he knew or loved the best–but he got so into like it I did when researching it, like all The Basement Tapes. It’s a whole, gigantic hidden chapter in his life.
-Your last three movies have been explorations of very specific pop culture phenomena. Is this something you will continue to do the rest of your career?
In a weird way, all my films are responses to cultural phenomena, either pop culture phenomena or larger, phenomena of the age, like in Poison and Safe, and even before that with the Karen Carpenter film, which was the ultimate pop culture movie. Speaking broadly, I would say they probably will continue to deal with cultural phenomena because I think it’s the proper thing to do with such a central and powerful cultural medium. But I don’t know what they’ll be.
-You don’t have any specific ideas right now.
No. This one maxed me out.
-Was it difficult to get made?
It was beyond difficult. And sadly I kept wishing it would just fall apart so far into the process because it was so hard. It was like, is this worth it? But there were so many things that were worth it, and one of them was the actors I got to work with. Heath Ledger was one of them and somebody who I became very close to on the making of this film. And I found a real creative soulmate for the way we were going about telling this story, but also the way it was being made on set. It’s been so tragic. It’s put the whole film in a different place in my mind.
Original Asahi article for I’m Not There
Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, an exploration of the life, times, and public personae of Bob Dylan, is an entertaining movie, filled to the brim with compelling, offbeat ideas distributed among multiple narrative modes. It’s a lot like a Dylan song, in fact. Nevertheless, its entertainment value may appeal to a narrow audience, namely Dylan aficionados and rock critics. The more you know about the prickly singer-songwriter going into the movie, the more you take away from it, and the less you know the less you’ll understand.
More people know about Dylan these days than ever before, thanks to what could be called the Bob Dylan self-promotion industry. “General interest in Dylan never goes away,” says Haynes from his home in Portland, Oregon, “but it’s compounded by the quality of work he’s put out recently, starting with his last three albums and continuing with his book and his radio show. He stands for the history of American popular music in all its variety, as somebody who acts as a link between the earliest traditional music and contemporary music.”
Dylan, as both an artist and a pop culture icon, has done this by reinventing himself over and over since he first emerged on the New York folk music scene. Thus, Haynes uses six different actors to represent either phases in his career or aspects of his musical development. When Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin), an eleven-year-old Black boy, hops a freight train and starts singing his protest songs, he embodies not only the spirit of the hobo troubadour suggested by Dylan’s own hero, Woody Guthrie, but the masquerades that a Jewish boy from Hibbing, Minnesota, assumed when he arrived in Greenwich Village in the early 60s. “It’s 1959 and this boy’s singing about boxcars,” comments a matronly Southern Black woman wryly.
Haynes keeps the different storylines separate, so if you connect Woody’s tale to that of Billy (Richard Gere), the outlaw who stumbles upon what critic Greil Marcus called the “old weird America” in the form of a wild west town called Riddle, it’s because they both seem to be located in a past that Dylan only imagined in song.
“Richard’s story was the most abstract,” explains Haynes. “I wanted a famous movie star for that character, somebody with a mini-history of American cinema etched into the lines of his face. And besides, Richard is probably the biggest Dylan fan.”
Of all the principals Gere is the only actor who’s a contemporary of the singer, but it’s Cate Blanchett who, despite bending genders, gets the most conventional biopic role. The storyline about Jude Quinn, a gangly, hyperactive rock singer, is based on Dylan’s infamous tour of Great Britain in 1966. While the direction makes fun of the Swinging 60s, the dialogue parodies Dylan’s brain-twisting poetry and media-baiting attitude. “What do you care if I care?” Quinn challenges a British journalist (Bruce Greenwood) who makes the mistake of taking the singer’s songs literally.
The private Dylan is addressed in the tale of Robbie (the late Heath Ledger), a movie actor who becomes famous after he stars in the biopic of a popular folk singer in the late 60s. Celebrity puts pressure on his marriage to a French painter played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, the only actor in the movie whom Haynes envisioned when he was writing it.
“She represents Suze Rotolo and Sara Dylan–the two defining romantic influences on the first half of Dylan’s life,” says Haynes. “To me, Charlotte has an integrity, a mystery. She materializes the characteristics that recurred in the women Dylan was attracted to. They had to stand outside the craziness to maintain his interest.”
Haynes says he has never met the man, “but he saw the original concept and approved it. The details of the production weren’t things he cared to be involved in.” Dylan has received many requests for permission to make biopics of his life over the years but passed on all of them. Biography was not Haynes’ intention, and it was his freewheeling approach to the life that he believes appealed to the singer.
“But I wasn’t inventing anything or imposing something on his story,” Haynes adds. “I was just trying to get at something core about him as a person.”