Todd Haynes on I'm Not There
His First DI, Outlaw History, and Six Shades of Dylan
Haynes: Yes. It was there from the very beginning. I first called Oren to the rescue when [Dylan's manager] Jeff Rosen, after giving me rights to the film, called and said "Would you consider also adapting this for the stage?" This idea would later manifest itself in the Twyla Tharp musical, which I never saw. But initially, Jeff approached me about it, and I just didn't believe I had the film rights. Then I called Oren and asked him to work on the stage script. He came to Portland, Oregon in 2000. Even then, when the very basic concepts for the film had been conceived but not written out, I knew what the cinematic references would be. We tried to find theatrical equivalents. That project faded away. I went off and made Far From Heaven and then came back to work on the film script. It was really only after trying to flesh it out that I brought Oren back. I wanted his fresh eyes. He was there at different stages. There was so much material to draw from. I knew it would take a lot of people to materialize this film.
F&V: What inspired you to use Cinemascope for the first time?
Haynes: I've always wanted to, but I really felt like a lot of films use the anamorphic format without a reason. I think you need a good reason. This is the first film I've made that felt panoramic and had an "American epic" quality.
F&V: Did you do a digital intermediate?
Haynes: For the first time ever, I did a DI. If I had more money and time, I wouldn't have. Ed Lachman and I sometimes get very purist about evoking the technical processes of the eras in which our films take place. With Far From Heaven, we did not do a DI because we were trying to follow the studio practices of the ’50s. We would've done the same [this time], but for one thing, we got an amazing deal from Cine-Byte in Canada. It became a practical solution. I loved doing it, ultimately. It helped with the technical challenge of having black-and-white and color in the same movie. You're always going to print on color stock, and black-and-white tends to shift in tint, so it helped us to control the different looks.
F&V: Starting with Poison, your films have often pastiched the styles of other directors. Do you find that particularly challenging?
Haynes: I find it challenging but exhilarating. I feel like I'm just a student of cinema, and I'm always learning. I just love the feeling of almost forgetting everything I know each time I make a film and looking and listening to the specific practices of a time. It starts with the look of a particular historical method, not so much another director. That's why the "Billy" sequence in I'm Not There isn't an homage to a single director or film as much as a series of films that used similar visual strategies. We called them "hippie Westerns."
F&V: There's a surreal quality to that segment which seems to draw on Dylan's lyrics. Even in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, you don ¹t see ostriches and giraffes running around the West.
Haynes: It draws from his lyrics, but also his real life removal from urban life and settling into Woodstock. If anything, most of all, it draws from the roots-music sensibility that he was talking about way before he moved to Woodstock. It clearly became a reservoir of influences on The Basement Tapes, John Wesley Harding and, in terms of country music, Nashville Skyline. He's always loved that stuff. It goes along with outlaw history and myth, so it's no surprise that he would end up in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid as an actor and score the film.
F&V: You ¹ve now made three films about musicians, which is half your filmography. What atrracts you to them as subjects?
Haynes: Overall, I think popular music can come to us in the most seemingly unofficial ways, just through the airwaves. You can turn on the AM radio and hear David Bowie, but something's going on that seems like it shouldn't be part of mainstream culture. Through certain moments of pop and rock history, the rules get scrambled and the possibilities for young people and their imaginations get opened. I find those ruptures so fascinating. Not to mention the fact that music moves us all and takes us places that we can't completely analyze. In the case of glam-rock and Dylan, those were two areas worth extrapolating on and investigating.
F&V: You've worked with Ed Lachman on I'm Not There and Far From Heaven. How key was he to developing the contrast between the styles?
Haynes: The references were pretty much determined in the script. They affected the writing. I'm literally quoting things from Godard in the "Robby" story. I can't remember if there are lines from Fellini, but there are scenes that directly evoke 8 1/2. Those decisions were just the beginning. How to facilitate them was an adventure that Ed and I shared. His approach is so much like an artist. He starts with a blank canvas and feels like each film has no precedent. They're not continuations from what he's done before, they're whole new adventures. I really relate to that approach.
F&V: How has the distribution landscape changed in the time you've been working? If you were a young filmmaker making films like Superstar and Poison now, do you think they'd get anything approaching a wide release?
Haynes: It would be really hard. Poison, in its day, was considered a major box-office success for the kind of film it was and the distribution it had. What was possible for an independent film has changed due to Tarantino. When Pulp Fiction did the kind of business it did, it changed what was considered successful and worth investing in. Poison would not have been considered a success after Pulp Fiction.
F&V: Did you ever consider shooting any of the segments of I'm Not There on video? You use 16mm to create a very grainy look in some parts. It evokes the ’60s, but it also strikes me that many directors would now use video to create similar effects.
Haynes: To me, they're utterly different. I would be completely interested in using video if I felt that the content of the film warranted it. In this case, it didn't. Even the documentary we created for the "Jack" story was meant to be a mid-’80s documentary, where they were still shooting things on film. I'm open to all media when they make sense to the historical specificity of the film and the style I'm looking for.