Todd Haynes on Bob Dylan

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Todd Haynes‘ experimental biopic, in which Bob Dylan is played by six actors, has divided critics. But what does the rock icon make of it all? ’I‘m intensely curious,‘ the director tells Dave Calhoun

We’re meant to be talking about ‘I’m Not There’, Todd Haynes’ new film about Bob Dylan, but our conversation starts with Karen Carpenter. That’s not so strange: earlier this year, here at Time Out we elected to put Haynes’ experimental and outlawed 1987 student film, ‘Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story’ at the top of a list of impressive films about musicians. ‘That was awesome, I was very proud,’ Haynes says now, happy to know that we directed our readers to watch the film on the internet, where it still has a life. ‘The film exists, whether they like it or not,’ he says, referring to how the Carpenter clan intervened to block the film back in 1989, apparently aggrieved by what it might suggest about their dysfunctional family.

Like ‘I’m Not There’, ‘Superstar’ is a movie with a single, captivating concept behind it: in the first, six actors play seven incarnations of Bob Dylan; in the second, several Barbie dolls play Carpenter and her family. There are twenty years between them, but there’s a clear line to be drawn between the two films that looks beyond their focus on musicians. It’s a line that confirms Haynes’ continuing and probing desire to find a form of biography, however radical, that ideally suits his subjects. ‘Not one strategy will ever fit all, which is what the classic biopic refuses to admit,’ offers Haynes. And if that means casting a doll as Carpenter or Cate Blanchett as Dylan, then so be it.

‘When you bring up a comparison between my earlier film and this one, one thing that occurs to me, that I haven’t thought of before, is that it’s the concept that draws people to both,’ considers Haynes, who is now 46 and lives in Portland, Oregon, having abandoned his adopted home of New York at the beginning of the decade. ‘The concept is a point of discussion even before you go to see the films, right? In a way, I hope both films fulfil and exceed the gimmickry of what the concept might suggest.’

He’s right about the discussion: there’s been much chit-chat over the casting of his film, which sees Blanchett, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw and a 13-year-old African-American called Marcus Carl Franklin all play ‘aspects’ of Dylan. At one point the rumours suggested that Beyoncé, Adrien Brody and Colin Farrell would all star. Now, the talk continues over the finished work, opinions of which are divided. This critic, not a Dylan nut but also not ignorant of the man and his music, left Venice in September convinced that he’d seen an exceptional film whose flights of experimentation, dipping in and out of various periods and themes of Dylan’s life, perfectly suited the life and the music. Moreover, in an era when the formula behind such biopics as ‘Ray’ and ‘Walk the Line’ has even spawned its own spoof, ‘Walk Hard’ (out early next year), Haynes’ approach is surely more necessary than ever. Others strongly disagreed, though, when ‘I’m Not There’ screened at the London Film Festival in October: there were walk-outs and even boos at the film’s gala screening. Interestingly, among the film’s detractors, it doesn’t seem to matter whether or not they know much about Dylan: some find the film too obscure, others find it too obvious. Intriguingly, for a film in which both a black child and an Australian woman play Dylan, some even think it’s not experimental enough.

But what does Dylan think? He’s been supportive of the project since the start and allowed Haynes to use whatever music he wished. But all contact with him has been indirect and via his son, Jesse Dylan, and his manager, Jeff Rosen, who suggested to Haynes in 2000, on hearing of his idea, that he send Dylan his films and a succinct, one-page pitch that didn’t use the phrases ‘genius’ or ‘voice of a generation’. Taking heed, Haynes forwarded Dylan a letter that included the thoughts: ‘The structure of such a film would have to be a fractured one, with numerous openings and a multitude of voices, with its prime strategy being one of refraction, not condensation.’

I ask Haynes whether the star’s co-operation was essential. ‘There was no possible way of doing it without his songs,’ he says. ‘And I wouldn’t even have tried. That said, I had absolutely zero expectations or hopes that it would turn out this way, given everything I’d been reading and learning about him by that point in 2000, when we approached them.’

By the time that Haynes and I speak, Dylan hasn’t seen the film. ‘He has a copy on his tour right now that his son Jesse slipped into his suitcase before he took off two weeks ago and that’s all I know. Come on, the guy’s got to check it out, right?

‘But Jeff Rosen has warned me that you never know what will happen with Bob. He told me that he literally never watched “No Direction Home” [Scorsese’s documentary]. He told Jeff that he saw a second of “Marty’s film” on Spanish television and couldn’t understand it as Joan [Baez] was saying something or other in Spanish. But then why would he want to watch himself in old interviews? Why would he want to watch people talking about his life? That, I get.

‘Still, I hope that the curiosity about watching Cate portray him or Marcus Carl Franklin portray him, or aspects of him, would mean that he’d want to check it out eventually.’

And, of course, he must be curious to know what Dylan thinks? ‘I’m Not There’ has occupied a decade of his life: he began writing in the late ’90s and already had a first draft in 2001 when he took a two-year break to make ‘Far From Heaven’.

‘I’m intensely curious. I started off feeling optimistic. The film is funny and not over-reverent and over-worshipful and laden with that whole…’ – he adopts a serious voice – ‘…Dylan thing. It has a spirit that I feel Dylan would appreciate. But the longer I wait, the less sure I am.’

‘I’m Not There’ opens on Dec 26.


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