Sitting in a hotel room during the Toronto International Film Festival, Todd Haynes looked at ease with himself as he reflected on his experimental Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There. Despite strong budgetary assistance from The Weinstein Company, Haynes's latest work is no less eccentric than his multilayered debut, Poison. With seven different actors portraying different aspects of Dylan's personality at various times in his life (including Cate Blanchett, who won't see the finished version of the film until it screens this week at the New York Film Festival), I'm Not There raises the discourse on the enigmatic pop culture icon to fresh levels of existential engagement. Which makes the end result at turns brilliant, pretentious, and confounding -- but never less than provocative.
The Reeler talked with Haynes about mythology, identity and the perils of YouTube in anticipation of I'm Not There, which has its NYFF premiere Oct. 4 and opens Nov. 21 at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
THE REELER: For younger audiences, most of the events in the film are only familiar through the mythology of Bob Dylan. When you designed the film, did you take the perspective of those viewers into account?
TODD HAYNES: Very much so. With artists as famous and canonized as Dylan or the Beatles, what you forget about is that something happened in their time that made it, at first, like a rupture. Usually, those things are met with some ambivalence, if not opposition. So the challenge with someone like Dylan is trying to reunite those events with their initial shock value -- their fresh sense of being alive. That was one of the reasons why I cast Cate. I always wanted a woman for that role. The physical strangeness of Dylan from 1966 is something we're used to seeing from the images, but it was bizarre at the time. He was strangely androgynous in a way that nobody had seen in popular music before. It was dangerous and queer, but not in the gay way. I think that helps for young people. It makes it exciting and not just somebody already famous and in some record collection.
R: The movie works as a series of symbols, in that each Dylan represents something on a non-literal level. Did you map out the entire conceptual framework of the movie at once, or did you piece it together over time?
TH: I always knew that there would be an interweaving structure to it, and that the stories would engage in a discussion with each other. But I also knew that each story had to have its own linear logic, and have events that would propel it forward, and make you feel satisfied with the events and their repercussions within each story. I also knew that, for a film like this to work, one story had to become the background for another. They had to fill each other in. The western interface toward the end [with Richard Gere] is like an old guy in exile, looking back. He's haunted by memories of a failed relationship. That's still informing him, even if they're in completely different times and spaces. You feel like the past and present are dancing with each other.
R: Was there a point when you decided to make one storyline more prominent than the others?
TH: Maybe Cate's, in a way. We stay in it the longest. It functions as a breakdown of a sense of overload and things reaching the point of critical mass. Most stories need that kind of excess before the break or final change. It functions in that way -- collecting the tensions of the other stories and pushing them to an extreme.
R: Did the actors playing different versions of Dylan have a sense for what the other sections of the film were going to look like?
TH: They were pretty much just in their scenes, since, practically speaking, we had to just shoot the actors [individually]. I remember when Heath [Ledger] had just come on the film. The camera crew would love watching dailies in their trucks. They'd work these long hours and watch dailies in their camera trucks. Heath went and joined them, and I remember that he was one of the first of our actors to see the other footage. He got really excited seeing some of the stuff, like Cate and her story.
R: When that scene where Cate's Dylan meets Allen Ginsberg (David Cross) came up, I felt like I'd seen it already -- because I had, when the clip was leaked onto YouTube earlier this year.
TH: I always hate that, man, because that's sort of a surprise in the movie when he comes in like that. I guess it's good, because it stirred up some interest and people wanted to see more.
R: In this movie, you give us plenty of Dylan music, but you never tell us his name, as you do for Ginsberg and several others. Did you ever consider shrouding other characters in anonymity?
TH: It's a good question, because there's Michelle Williams' character, who's clearly a riff on Edie Sedgwick, but we give her a fictional name…
R: Which is ironic, if you compare it to Factory Girl...
TH: Exactly, where Bob Dylan has a fictional name ["The Musician"]. I think it's almost like I had to give the real names to the characters that are so well known, if they had an autonomy outside of the Dylan universe. Whereas those, at least in our story, who are known solely in relation to Dylan characters, became a part of the fictional framework of it. Like "Alice Fabian" is really Joan Baez, since they're completely known and discovered through the "Jack" story [where Christian Bale plays a Dylan-like character named "Jack"]. They don't really have a life outside of it.
R: How do you feel about people seeing this movie without knowing anything about Dylan?
TH: I actually think that it's easier for people who know less about Dylan to go with it, if they're up for something different. Clearly, that's the first thing: Whether you know Dylan or not, you have to surrender to the movie to have a good time at all and get anything out of it. If you have a lot of Dylanisms in your head, it's kind of distracting, because you're sitting there with a whole second movie going on. You're annotating it as you go. It's kind of nice to sit back and let it take you. I think people get it: Even if you don't know which are the true facts and which are the fictional things, and when we're playing with fact and fiction, from the tone of it, you know that it's playing around with real life. In a way, that's what biopics always do. They just don't tell you that they're doing it, and they don't make it part of the fun. You have to follow the Johnny Cash story and just sort of think, "This is what really happened." Of course, you know it's being dramatized, but you're not in on the joke. You're not in on the game of that. In this movie, at least, you get tipped off to it.
R: The Weinstein Company is releasing your movie at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas prior to its national roll-out. What are your feelings about this unique distribution strategy?
TH: I always knew that this was a film that should be platformed. It's not the kind of the movie that you're going to put on a massive number of screens on the first day. In that way, we were always on the same page. We start it small, let people talk about it and generate interest. Now, because of the amount of interest -- some of the awards we've already gotten -- Harvey [Weinstein] and I are thinking, "Is it too small to start this way?" We might make some variations on that plan, but I still think it's the right way to go. Just to start smaller and build it. I love Film Forum. I think it's an amazing institution.
R: Looking back on the last decade, what's your feeling about the way that whole so-called "movement" was perceived?
TH: I never had a problem with it. In fact, I was proud to be a part of it. There were people like Gregg [Araki], myself, and Tom Kalin, with a real diversity of film styles. None of those films looked like each other, and they were all different from mainstream movies like Longtime Companion that were trying to tell stories about the AIDS-era in more traditional ways. There's a place for that, but I felt like at least the New Queer Cinema band of filmmakers and films were experimenting formally and stylistically with the content. By the time I made my second feature, Safe, which challenged the question of content as it pertained to queer directors and their points of view, we had already broken the mold, and it made me think that maybe it's not all about content. Maybe we don't even need to define people as queer in order to have points of view to be queer. I don't know. The ease of categorization became harder. Sexuality and identity are so mysterious that nothing holds in a category. Gregg had a long relationship with a woman since I knew him in those days, and we've never talked about it, but other gay friends would be like, "That's so weird," and I'd just be like, "That's awesome." I mean, sexuality is always a surprise. And so is identity, and...
R: This movie?
TH: And this movie!
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