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
Todd Haynes
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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.

[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.


From The Archives Issue 1040: November 29, 2007
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