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

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[From the audience] How does I'm Not There expand the ideas of queerness you've explored in previous films?
I love Dylan's attitude toward queerness in '66. He talks a lot about it in the No Direction Home book, by Robert Shelton. People think of Dylan as an überheterosexual icon, and in many ways he is. But in the New York of the Sixties, the Warhol scene was very queer, and the Dylan scene, you might say, was much less so. I think Dylan found that to be a sort of marker of cool. In fact, women he'd go out with who expected something after a night of sex, that was seen as old-fashioned and conventional. Whereas the queerness of Allen Ginsberg and people he was surrounded by, that was a cool thing. So Dylan used to say he hustled in New York when he first came in 1961, that's how he made his first money. He never repeated it, it was only said in 1966. And then there's this great long quote where he said, "I don't get this thing, men and women" – the speech in the film that he's saying over the stairwell came directly out of it – "Love and sex really mess you up, and I don't know why." And the full speech goes on to say, "It's not about man and woman, it's not about the fact that women are the thing that men want, it's not about that. There can be man and man, and woman and woman, and man and woman." He's really trying to be above the classic categories at that point.

One thing we haven't tallied much about is the music. How did the music inspire your writing?
Oh, the music was everything. I would make these obsessive collections of songs that avers based on each character. And I knew I wanted Dylan recordings in the film. It was essential to have his voice as a binding element for this potentially chaotic structure – that voice carrying us through, songs that we know and that we have our own histories with. But I also knew that any time an actor would be performing one of his songs, it would need to be a new version created for the film. I wasn't going to have anybody lip-syncing to Dylan. So that was another opportunity – to draw from traditional artists from the Dylan era and blend them with newer artists and create a zone where this music continues to live on and he reinterpreted as, of course, Dylan music has ever since he penned it to begin with. "I'm Not There" is the only actual Dylan recording on our soundtrack album.

This is a real coup. "I'm Not There" was only taped once; it was never fully written. Half of the time, Dylan is just mumbling to get from a half-written verse to a half-written chorus. Maybe because it's so open in its unfinished state, it has always struck people as the most magical of all of his recordings. And it's never been officially released.
We'll have it on the soundtrack, and a cover that Sonic Youth did for the film that appears in the final crawl of the film. Again, because it's an unfinished, almost unborn song, for anybody to cover it means they have to do what folk music always demonstrated, which was re-enact it and fill it in with their own perspective. Fill in those indecipherable syllables with something else that's decipherable. Thurston Moore makes it his own, but it continues this process of hand-me-down music.

How did you become interested in Bob Dylan?
In high school – that's when I first fell in love with his music and his voice. Blonde on Blonde above everything. I vaguely remember Desire coming out, I definitely remember Street Legal and Slow Train Coming. The first time I saw Dylan was on that tour: '79 in L.A.

Then for about twenty years I just traveled different routes. It was at the end of my thirties, after having lived in New York for nearly fifteen years, that I found myself suddenly, systematically, hungering for Dylan again. Now I can make some teleological sense of that – as this need for some genuine change in my life. I was remembering how much that voice had registered: the glamour of your future, the possibilities around every corner that I associated with being an adolescent. I needed a little bit of that juice at this point in my life.

I was planning to drive cross-country, to go to Portland. I was going to get away from the city to write the film which became Far From Heaven. It was probably the last time I made a collection of cassette tapes; I put on most of all the records that I had of Dylan's music in order. I couldn't wait to be alone in the car with those cassettes. But in Kansas City, I bought the Anthology of American Folk Music – and then I just kept borrowing deeper. I managed to get a collection of the whole Basement Tapes recordings. I got the Colombia Bootleg Series, the first three discs. I was bowled over by that collection – "She's Your Lover Now," "Blind Willie McTell."

I also discovered Eat the Document. They had this at Movie Madness in Portland. I was astounded by that film.

I'm Not There Photos: Heath Ledger and Richard Gere as Bob Dylan

The film that Dylan made about his '66 tour.
What a crazy, irreverent, unorthodox approach to a rock doc that was. I would copy some of the constructions in that film. There's a part where he's performing "Tell Me, Momma," and suddenly it's interrupted, and there's an altercation. This is all done in edits. He's pulled off the stage by two guys in suits, the spotlight is following them out, the curtains are billowing closed, and kids are jumping onto the stage. It's an exquisite, simple series of cuts. There's no sense of organic continuity or living through a single performance. When you do see a single performance of Dylan from that time, as in parts of No Direction Home, they're these hugely dramatic, lived experiences. But Eat the Document doesn't allow that. It feels like it's driven by amphetamines or by a kind of restlessness, almost a refusal to ever be content.

And then finding collections of all of the interviews from '65, '66, intensely dramatic, like transcripts of performance art – radical, creative, but lived performances, that, to me, just screamed to be performed again. I wanted to hear them be performed aloud, I wanted to fill them with flesh again, and that also triggered kind of a creative urge. With all of the stuff brimming my head, the ideas of the film emerged.

This story is from the November 29th, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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