The Jigsaw Man
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 24, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Howard Feinstein interviewed I’m Not There co-writer-director Todd Hanyes for the Fall ’07 issue. I’m Not There is nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett).
Todd Haynes’s first film, a 1985 student short called Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud, focused in a manner both engaging and Brechtian on the anarchistic French poet who scandalized the bourgeoisie in 19th-century Paris and London. Haynes was studying semiotics and art at Brown, and it’s not by chance that he is one of the few directors working today whose gorgeous images are wrapped in real but sometimes indefinable meaning.
Now 22 years later in his magnificent film essay on Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, he casts the English actor Ben Whishaw as a Rimbaudesque incarnation of the chameleon-like composer-singer, a poète maudit whose oblique responses to an unseen interrogator intentionally sidestep direct discourse. Whishaw’s Arthur (the poet’s actual first name) is a rebel living outside the system, much as Dylan, in all his incarnations, has managed to do since the late 1950s. The musician also went through a phase (following his political activism period) of doling out tangential, sometimes nonsensical, responses to queries. You can read some of these in Nat Hentoff’s revealing interview with the usually guarded Dylan in the February 1966 issue of Playboy (http://www.interferenza.com/bcs/interw/66-jan.htm), which Haynes kindly lead me to. A sample:
DYLAN: My older songs, to say the least, were about nothing. The newer ones are about the same nothing — only as seen inside a bigger thing, perhaps called the nowhere. But this is all very constipated. I do know what my songs are about.
PLAYBOY: And what’s that?
DYLAN: Oh, some are about four minutes, some are about five, and some, believe it or not, are about 11 or 12.
PLAYBOY: Can’t you be a bit more informative?
But then, all of Haynes’s cinematic studies have been about people who fall outside the margins of general acceptability: young, future-gay Richie in Dottie Gets Spanked; the eponymous anorexic in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story; each of the protagonists in the three dark segments of Poison, Julianne Moore’s environmentally allergic housewife in Safe; Jonathan Rhys-Myers’s glam rocker in Velvet Goldmine; and Dennis Quaid’s closeted gay husband and father in Far From Heaven. He has addressed celebrity culture in Dottie, Superstar, and Goldmine — not to mention Assassins. Isn’t Dylan a logical subject for Haynes to tackle now at his most mature and accomplished?
Whishaw is one of six thesps portraying characters — an überAlienation Effect —who are all aspects of Dylan, a man who reinvented himself frequently and who drove fans desperate to pigeonhole him nuts and angry. I’m Not There, from a song recorded during the 1967 Basement Tapes sessions with The Band and circulated only in bootleg copies, is the perfect title for the film, as you can see in Hentoff’s interview:
PLAYBOY: Writing about “beard-wearing draft-card burners and pacifist income-tax evaders,” one columnist called such protesters “no less outside society than the junkie, the homosexual or the mass murderer.”
DYLAN: I don’t consider myself outside of anything. I just consider myself not around. Sometimes I have the feeling that other people want my soul.
Dylan’s different personas are embodied in Haynes’s film by a young black boy (Marcus Carl Franklin, the only actor who does his own singing, as Woody), a woman (Cate Blanchett as Jude), and several adult males (Christian Bale as Jack and Pastor John; Heath Ledger as Robbie; and Richard Gere as Billy). Each represents a relatively distinct period and/or aspect of Dylan the man: the folk singer, the activist, the electric guitarist, the misogynist and failed husband, the Pentecostal, and the country-and-western aficionado. Haynes attaches particular songs sung by both Dylan himself and various cover bands to each.
If the black-and-white and color I’m Not There (The Weinstein Company opens the film in limited release November 21) needs to be categorized, I would use the term “non-naturalistic collage,” though that is misleading. Naturalistic sequences do creep in next to those constructed from artifice and fantasy. Yet the film is more than mere collage: The complexity of its construction boggles the mind. Haynes and his team utilize distinct film genres, costumes, and set designs for each of the characters, with just the right Dylan song performed at just the right moment. This is less Todd Solondz’s Palindromes, where different actors portrayed one character, than the documentaries of Holland-based Heddy Honigmann, who frequently links particular objects or songs to the people she interviews in her films.
Fortunately for Haynes, Dylan’s son Jesse, who introduced the director’s work to his dad, served well as a gatekeeper. After watching Haynes’s earlier films, the elder Dylan gave him the music rights. (One condition was that Haynes also create a stage version, which was ultimately done by Twyla Tharp as The Time’s They Are A-Changin’). It’s not surprising that one artist recognized not only the talent but the similar life passages in another. It is appropriate, then, that we begin the interview, done during the Toronto Film Festival, by discussing a makeover in the director’s own life occurring after his 2000 move from New York to Oregon.
Filmmaker: You moved to Portland from New York City in 2000. I’ve read about a connection between you and Dylan at that time — listening to his music, identifying with him. Is that true?
Haynes: It’s all really true. I don’t know what happened. I kind of crashed in New York. I was in Williamsburg the whole time I was there, for 15 years. I was basically having life disappointments and romantic disappointments at the end of the millennium. After Velvet Goldmine, I took a break from films. I read all of Proust over a year and a half. I was depressed and sick of New York. There I am recognized and can only be “Todd the filmmaker.” I thought, “Fuck it, I’m going to get out of New York.” I just didn’t know that I needed something else, really, until I saw it in a smaller city.
My sister lives in Portland, and she told me there was a place free for three months. I drove out there almost without stopping and stayed in this beautiful Victorian house. I felt good. I met fantastic people there. It’s just a fantastic place. I let go of that guarded thing I felt in New York. I took hikes, smoked pot. Then I found out I lost my Williamsburg apartment, so I stayed. More people in the world are living in second cities than ever before, apparently.
Filmmaker: So, did Dylan keep reinventing himself, or did we keep reinventing Dylan?
Haynes: That’s a good question considering how deeply Dylan’s followers invest and interpret him. But I think Dylan is the active party in the process of reinvention. Too many of his changes have been met with too much resistance or confusion over the years — plugging-in electric and converting to Christianity, to name two biggies — for me to see it any other way. I actually don’t think my concept is imposing some big interpretation on him once you really examine his life.
Filmmaker: Can you say a bit about the “Dylan” you see for each of the six main characters?
Haynes: Woody is the young, aspiring Dylan under the spell of Woody Guthrie’s music and character. Arthur is Dylan the poet, rebelling against coherent political intent and responding to his offscreen interrogators in Dylanisms from his famous ‘65 interviews.
Jack is clearly the early folk prophet of 1962-64, and Pastor John the born-again Dylan of 1979-81. Robbie is Dylan balancing fame and a private life, incorporating aspects of his early ’60s relationship with Suze Rotolo with that of his marriage to, and divorce from, Sarah Lowndes (1966-76). Jude is the electric Dylan, born at the famous Newport performance in ‘65 and dying with his motorcycle crash in 1966. Billy is Dylan in exile, which began in Woodstock following his crash, and his turning to roots-inspired music (The Basement Tapes), Bible-infused secular music (John Wesley Harding) and country (Nashville Skyline) — let alone his part in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. In many ways, Dylan’s retreat from the pulse of modern life that he experienced in the ’60s has never really ended.
Filmmaker: Can you tell me something about your deployment of artifice as a vehicle in your film? In Velvet Goldmine, the use of artifice was all upfront, but here it is kind of a mix.
Haynes: The whole question of America’s fixation on notions of authenticity is such a fascinating and delusional kind of infatuation. When you look at the pillars of this, people like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, you find at the root of it such performance, such adoption of the kind of gestures and emblems of what the grassroots experience is supposed to be. Woody Guthrie basically fathered it as a racket. You know, he was a very educated New Yorker, an intellectual guy, but he gets back on the road and he has to do the “aw, shucks” hick show for his fan base. He was aware of it and talked about it. And Dylan too, when he heard that Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s real name was really Elliott Charles Adnopoz, some [Jewish] kid like himself, but from Brooklyn, and he was the first real spokesperson of the followers of the Woody Guthrie line, he just fell into hysterics, rolling on the floor in some bar in Greenwich Village. It was like, “Bob, what’s so funny?” and he just couldn’t answer.
Bowie was the one who said, “It’s the person who does it second that counts.” I love the way Greil Marcus looks at America’s folklore and its roots [in his books]. He basically looks at America as a place where reinventing yourself is primary. It was a new world where your past, your bloodline, your caste, your class were all the things that were the first to go. It was almost required to adopt a persona. So when Marcus talks about roots music and looks at the origins of American folklore, he sees it as a process of masks, of adopting guises and personas, not as the validation of some authentic core about “who we are.” I think Dylan is the subject of such a desire for authentic justification and validation in peoples’ deep identification with him. They want to find some stable truth in the guy. But his actual practice as an artist and his lived history as this ever-changing and elusive figure suggests exactly the opposite. But he keeps stoking that desire all the more because he doesn’t fulfill it.
Filmmaker: The occasional facial blowups behind characters remind me of the concept of the dream screen. They go well with the film. Probably not many people will think consciously about this, but I see them as larger-than-life projections of dreams.
Haynes: Definitely. I just wanted the sense of the projected image of a character to start to become this oppressive and sort of autonomous commenting source, sort of looming over these characters, like when Jude is starting to turn on his cohort.
Filmmaker: I thought it was about us too, as spectators — our projections.
Haynes: Absolutely. That’s what this whole thing is about. These artists, these characters are trying desperately to escape these projections that are coming from us.
Filmmaker: I read that you watched a bunch of films from the ’60s. One you mentioned was Fellini’s 8½. Are there other films or filmmakers that you thought about when you were doing this film?
Haynes: Oh yeah, totally. I wanted each story to have a distinct look. I felt that the palette of the film, the range of references, should all belong to the ’60s, At least, I limited myself to that. It’s the decade that produced Dylan and that he defined for so many people. 8½ was a pretty easy discovery and a film that’s been referenced many times, but it seems to get to the core of something that the Blonde on Blonde era was about, that Dylan was about, stylistically and definitely in the literal, biographical predicament that he was in: being hounded for his meaning and being questioned why he was not doing what he used to do.
Jean-Luc Godard is really the keynote for the Robbie story, the Heath Ledger story, those films from the mid-’60s like Masculin, Feminin, and the color ones I love like Two or Three Things I Know About Her. They are also curiously symptomatic of a kind of male prerogative view of women from the ’60s that I found to be a really useful vehicle for talking about Dylan and his checkered relationship with women, or at least an attitude toward women, depicting women in his songs in a way that has been questioned in some places. He’s written some of the most beautiful love songs, but, as with Godard, there are the more political and complex discussions they are kind of exempt from, you know, so that –
Filmmaker: Women become commodities.
Filmmaker: In the ’60s, they were the ones bringing in the coffee.
Haynes:Totally, exactly. And then a penny dropped, and you get women’s and gay lib following in the early ’70s.
Filmmaker: It’s nice that you round him out in this way.
Haynes: Oh, yeah. He’s too interesting to not do that. The amazing thing was that Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager, who was sort of our link to everything, was open to all of this and let that coexist in the film with everything else.
Filmmaker: By the way, and I think I know the answer — which of your talking heads is closest to Joan Baez, Dylan’s ex-lover and friend?
Haynes: Julianne [Moore]. Yeah, she’s really kinda doing a Joan Baez, in her lingo.
Filmmaker: Yeah, but not a passive, victimized Joan Baez, which I like.
Haynes: Yeah, yeah. It’s probably one of the ballsiest roles Julianne has ever played in any of my movies. She’s kinda like a little resentful — she has a real ego, you know. We just cracked each other up. She had to send me out of the room when we did her scenes.
Filmmaker: When you would use a song or write a sequence in the script, which came first, or did it just depend?
Haynes: Rarely would just a song determine an entire scene. I was basically constructing the film based on the idea that it’s almost like the characters were these vials that I would be filling with references from Dylan’s work, from Dylan’s influences, from the political and literary backdrop of the ’60s, from films and visual references from the ’60s, and, of course, Dylan’s music — the starting point. But there are songs I would have preferred, for example, from his Christian period — some of his beautiful gospel songs that came out in the late ’70s, more than the one I chose, “Pressing On.” It is almost a throwaway song, but we made it something really special. It’s a song that he put on as a sort of encore during those Christian concerts. But it is a throwaway on the record that it appears on, and it was never one that I particularly knew or loved, but it made more sense – “pressing on” — as a kind of continuum for the narrative. You are kind of taking a huge chance in resurrecting [a lesser known song]. Or maybe you are taking a bigger chance when you try to cover extremely famous songs that are so well-known. In this case it was John Doe from the band X that did the cover of that particular song, and it ended up being this beautiful, really rousing cover. And what it does for Christian Bale, who walks on looking very much like the Dylan of that time in a way that people can laugh at and kind of dismiss, the song and its power somehow transcend that and take you into the emotional power of how Dylan must have been feeling about that time.
Filmmaker: How were you planning to do the stage version Dylan required as a prerequisite for making the film before Twyla Tharp eventually did it?
Haynes: We [Owen Moverman and Haynes] only got so far with the stage version, but it began as an exciting process of finding theatrical equivalents to do the various styles for each of the stories; Medicine Show carnival theater for Billy, ’60s Living Theater-style interventionism for Jude, and so on. But the stage concept allowed for all the characters and stories to coexist on stage in ways never quite possible through cinematic intercutting.
Filmmaker: How are you responding when people ask about the budget? What are you supposed to say?
Haynes: I forget what I’m supposed to say. It was really about $17 [million], under $20. It was between $17 and $20, and that’s amazing.
Filmmaker: How long was the shoot?
Haynes: Forty-nine days.
Filmmaker: Where did you shoot it?
Haynes: Everything in Montreal. Everything.
Filmmaker: How did you decide when to use archival footage and when to recreate it? It all looks so authentic that I was having déjà vu. Recreations usually look so fake.
Hanyes: Thank you. The train scene that’s in the credit sequence is one of two extended bits of archival footage, except for obvious stuff like the civil rights clips that you see halfway through. But that stuff was supposed to be scripted, it was supposed to be something we created for the film, but we couldn’t find the train station that we could use. Some things about matching New York City to Montreal were just absolutely impossible. And to find subway cars that were correct in [the Montreal subway] became absolutely undoable, so we hoped we could find something and then blend it with the street footage that we had done ourselves. It’s on 16mm so it has that extra grain.
I have to tell you that the faces of the Quebecer extras all across the film are so extraordinary. The faces that you get in the Billy section, the crazy, weird, rural stuff, and then the faces of the people at the banquet hall when Christian Bale is making his speech about [Lee Harvey] Oswald, they still blow me away — they look like they’re from archival footage. It’s also that our hair and makeup team was superb. Quebec is like a different world, it’s like nowhere else in Canada, nowhere else in North America. It’s really amazing. We lucked out with shooting there.
Filmmaker: Have you met Dylan? Has he seen the movie?
Haynes: I haven’t yet met or spoken to Dylan myself. Never felt the need to in order to make the film. The idea, in fact, seems stranger and more preposterous the more people ask me why I never did. What was I going to do, ask him, “How does it feeeel?” I look forward to meeting the guy at some point in the future. And no, he hasn’t yet seen the film. We just recently sent Jesse Dylan a finished DVD. I hope they’ll check it out together in the comfort of home.