Bob Dylan Times Six: An Interview with 'I'm Not There' Director Todd Haynes

It takes a half-dozen actors to play Bob Dylan in the new movie 'I'm Not There,' the story of an artist whose continual reinvention of himself also transformed the world around him

Todd Haynes
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
November 29, 2007

I'm Not There, which opens November 1st in New York and Los Angeles, is Todd Haynes' already-talked-about, argued-about, cursed and celebrated movie: a film in which different people play different aspects of different notions of Bob Dylan, without any one character embodying any literal Bob Dylan at all.

Flooded with music – Dylan's songs in his own voice on the soundtrack, his songs performed by the actors or lip-synced to new vocals by the likes of John Doe (an overwhelming dive into the depths of Dylan's 1980 gospel song "Pressing On"), Jim James and Calexico ("Goin' to Acapulco"), Stephen Malkmus ("Ballad of a Thin Man"), Tom Verlaine ("Cold Irons Bound") – the picture never sacrifices its drama. With Christian Bale as a Sixties protest singer and Eighties evangelical minister; Heath Ledger as a movie star who gets his big break playing that same protest singer, a double he will never escape; Marcus Carl Franklin as an eleven-year-old black boy in love with Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl America of the Thirties; Cate Blanchett as a pop star burning up before your very eyes; and Richard Gere as a folk hero in hiding, the Bob Dylan of I'm Not There becomes a deck of cards' worth of names and faces, shuffled to produce a sense of glee, a filmmaker's high-wire act and a sense of jeopardy. All the different figments of Haynes' Bob Dylan are flying like pinballs, and before long, the movie is tilting its own machine.

Haynes' first film, 1987's Superstar, was the Karen Carpenter story played out entirely with Barbie and Ken dolls. It started as a satire of suburbia, turned into a horror movie and ended with the viewer choking on whatever condescension he or she might have brought to it. Named for a legendary Dylan song from the 1967 Basement Tapes sessions, Haynes' new picture is as artistically adventurous but emotionally far more open. It's a fan's work: The filmmaker doesn't know how any of the stories he sets in motion end, and he doesn't want to. He wants to see those stories find their own endings – or escape them – and put an audience in motion with them.

What follows is taken from a public interview with Haynes at the Telluride Film Festival on September 1st, the morning after the world premiere of I'm Not There.

When you conceived this movie, how did you think of the audience? Was it for people who knew a lot about Dylan? Or people who didn't know and didn't care?
All I was really focused on was trying to find a narrative and cinematic parallel to what Dylan did to popular music in his era – not that it's ended and not that it's a singular term – and that is a tall order. I knew from the onset that I would fail, ultimately, because the Sixties were such an extraordinary time – there was a receptivity and openness to experimental ideas and political ideas, an intense hunger for newness, youngness, and a suspicion for things that made money, especially among counterculture or a young audience. That's not true for today's audience. There's no way a person could be as experimental and elastic with film or music or any medium as Dylan was in the Sixties. The popularity that marked Dylan's life, and ultimately propelled him to keep doing more weird stuff – it would be a real miracle for someone to experience today.

What made you choose a female actress for the primary role?
It was written and conceived as an actress to play the part of Jude from the beginning, before I knew it would be Cate. It was really just that moment in Dylan's life. What was insane about the way Dylan looked in 1966 was that emaciated body, gigantic hair, the flying hands and the sort of weird marionette figure who was obviously exploring drugs and living on the edge. After the motorcycle crash, there was no flying hands, no big hair, no tiny, skinny body. That Dylan was gone forever.

That's such a famous image of Dylan. I wanted to try to reinfuse it with the cultural shock value of seeing that for the first time in 1965, '66. So I thought an actress could be interesting, because there was an androgyny there. It wasn't a Bowie androgyny, it was more a Patti Smith androgyny he was channeling.

One of the great moments in the film comes after a sequence when Blanchett's character has reached a point of complete collapse. He's thrown up and passed out at this horrible Andy Warhol-style gallery party; he's thrown into a limousine that's surrounded by fans, people pounding on the glass. The limousine speeds off, and Jude looks out the window, and a woman stares right into his face and lights her head on fire. That seemed to be saying, "It's all over." Where did that image come from?
I can't even remember. I almost remember it like it was something I read that happened – there's so many stories and tales and weirdness. I think a waiter did pull a knife on Dylan. But to me it's about that shift into nightmare, into a dissolution of meaning, a crisis of meaning that the country and the world must have started to feel by '68. Of course, everything Dylan did was about two years ahead of what was going to happen to the rest of the popular consciousness, so this was happening in '66.

From the time that you wrote the script to the actual film being completed, how much did your vision change?
It stayed very close to the core idea, which started to emerge in the beginning of 2000. There was a different character called Charlie who was going to be one of the many stories that Woody would unfurl. Just a one-shot kind of fantasy, a silent-screen-style Charlie Chaplinesque figure who performed these feats of magic and high-wire acts, and served as a poetic mediator between the Beats and the folkies of the Village. A circus figure, but with a sort of sense of whimsy about him. I liked the idea of seven personas, but it just became too much, so he collapsed into Woody with a little borrowed into Billy. And I realized that the Christian Bale character, Jack, who had become Pastor John, really was two personas, two halves of an interesting moral instinct on both sides. So I maintained my seven personas with six lead actors.

There's so much amazing, intense material when you dive into the Dylan universe. Really, it's a matter of exclusion and trying to get the best pieces of each of the aspects. It's almost like I created seven little containers that I could just drop the pieces into that seemed to fit, and try to make them as distinct and clear and distilled as possible.

Almost all of your other movies – Superstar, Poison, Safe, Far From Heaven – drive relentlessly to unhappy endings, to the characters being left bereft, abandoned, even by themselves. In this film, there is, at the end, a motorcycle accident, and at the beginning, there's a kind of autopsy. Since we all know that Bob Dylan is alive, there's no sting there. It seems to me in every story that you thread through the movie, it does come to a resolution of liberation for that version of the character – that this is a movie full of happy endings.
My films have often looked at the whole dilemma of identity as a straitjacket for people, for societies, for cultures, for historical moments. They demonstrate different kinds of rebellions against those constraints, sometimes through the metaphor of disease – a body protesting before a consciousness is even aware of what's happening – and sometimes through strange eruptions of popular culture, like Velvet Goldmine, about the glam-rock era that was an exception to the rules of what rock & roll and masculinity were. A moment of fluidity: "You can change, you can dress up into different beings and selves."

But what's so amazing about Dylan is that each of those transitions from character to character or self to self, which come with a death – the death is built in – is also a liberation into a new self, a new identity. And whether that is due to the unique constraints of a highly coveted popular artist who needed to eke out some fresh air for himself to create new work or just constitutionally part of his psyche, it's a healthy erraticality. It's a uniquely American possibility.

Peter Travers Video Review: I'm Not There

The Sixties were the beginning of an identity crisis that you can distill down from Kennedy to Johnson, and maybe within the Johnson administration itself. The movement from a singular sense of hope and justice around the civil rights era, butting up against the beginning of Vietnam. Literally, right after Johnson signed the Civil Rights bill, in '64, the next month we began a land war in Vietnam. In '65, five days after the Voting Rights bill was passed, Watts erupted in riots that would continue for the next three years, until '68, maybe the first American berserk moment. That hope and promise and radical potential of multiple selves, multiple identities, multiple powers, competing branches of power, that whole idea – we're chasing the hope and the psychosis of that promise as a culture. That happened within Dylan's era and within Dylan's life, but ultimately, it's something you have to keep pursuing and look at as a model for freedom: the ability to escape a fixed self.

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