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Writer-director Todd Haynes (above, with Charlotte Gainsbourg) first attracted attention with Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which was staged with Barbie dolls. He later did a fanciful treatment of glam-rock, Velvet Goldmine. His new study of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, is no more conventional in its approach. The film, which opens today, splits Dylan into six characters, an approach that baffled Hollywood studios when they first encountered the screenplay: “I knew if it if was conventional biopic script, with these actors, and Dylan’s approval, it would have been no problem,” he says. “But there would never have a script that was conventional, because Dylan would never had said yes to it, and I would never have wanted to write it.”
And you wouldn’t gotten the cast.
Well, we wouldn’t have needed six Dylans anyway. It would have just been Adam Sandler.
Have people complained that you don’t explain Dylan?
So much less than I thought I would get. All my films have a strong conceptual or experimental element to them. Usually when you market them, that’s the thing you hide. With this one, it’s the concept that sells the movie. Everyone knows that, [whispers] ‘Oh, it’s the movie with all those people playing Bob Dylan. Cate Blanchett’s playing Bob Dylan! There’s a black kid playing him!’ That’s actually what’s drawing people to the film. Anyone who goes to see it is going to know that.
How does your interest in Dylan compare to that in other musicians you’ve treated in your films?
I was never a major Karen Carpenter freak. I loved those songs, but they were like little time capsules of when I was a kid. But glam-rock and David Bowie, and Dylan, were instrumental in my psychic, creative, and emotional development. They showed that identity is protean, mutable, and open. People say Dylan is like, an elusive series of shadows. He’s not! He’s mighty and ferocious. He’s just ferociously being this thing today, and then he’s ferociously being that thing tomorrow.
Do the film’s various cinematic styles reflect Dylan, or your own interests?
My own taste was always determining my choices. But the determining factor for me in the styles was always the music at that particular time in Dylan’s life. Like the Jude story, that Cate stars in, I wanted to be black and white. I thought immediately of Dont Look Back, which is a beautiful documentary that I love. But I watched it and I was like, ‘Wait a minute. This is about the music of Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. And yet this movie is cinéma vérité, and that couldn’t be further from what the music is doing at this time — it’s not social realism. I was looking at all the cinema of the ’60s, so I watched 8 1/2 again, and I was like, ‘Now that’s getting close. The baroque, urbane wit and distortion. The collapse of an artist at the peak of his insanity of fame, and his own dream and desires. And the film is about a director being hounded by the press to explain why his movies are weird, and they aren’t the way they used to be.’
Did you follow Dylan’s whole career?
I checked out for a lot of it. I first found Dylan for myself in high school. That was already the mid- to late-’70s. I definitely remember the release of Street Legal and Slow Train Coming. But I loved Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks and Bringing It All Back Home, and those films, uh, those movies —
Records! That’s it! But they were like movies, right? Those records, and that voice, will always be associated for me with the thrill of being young, and excitement about the future. Every adolescent should be exposed to that fearlessness in Dylan’s voice. And feel like they discovered it themselves.