NEW YORK—It was in the year 2000 that filmmaker Todd Haynes rediscovered Bob Dylan all over again.
“I had always admired Dylan—I was a fan in high school—but then I kind of stopped listening for 20 years,” Haynes says. “It wasn’t until the end of my 30s—the end of the 20th century—that I found myself suddenly craving Dylan again. I was at a point when I had run out of steam in New York. Not creatively, but more in my personal life: All my friends had started to settle down, they had decent apartments, babies were coming, and I hadn’t really worked any of that stuff out—hadn’t worked out my life outside of my work.”
I'm Not There
Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Michelle Williams, Julianne Moore, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Ben Whishaw, Marcus Carl Franklin, David Cross, Bruce Greenwood
(Weinstein Company; US theatrical: 21 Nov 2007 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 21 Dec 2007 (Limited release); 2007)
At that point, Haynes had already started working on the screenplay for “Far From Heaven,” the movie he would direct in 2002 about a 1950s housewife (Julianne Moore) who rebels against tradition and societal pressures. So Haynes decided to change his surroundings and relocate to Portland, Ore., where his sister lived, to finish writing the script.
“During this whole series of decisions, I suddenly wanted to listen to Bob Dylan music,” Haynes says. “So I drove cross-country listening to Bob Dylan; arrived in Portland and listened to more Dylan, found stuff I had never heard before, read books about his life.
“Meanwhile, somehow in this fresh new city I had arrived in, everything felt new and exciting again. I felt all these new people and I felt accessible in a way that I hadn’t felt in New York, because there you get stingy with your time and space and everything always has to be planned.”
It was in this new, more liberated spirit that Haynes says he first started thinking about a movie about Dylan’s life—but not a movie that would bear any resemblance to traditional biopics such as “Walk the Line” or “Ray.” In “I’m Not There,” which opened Wednesday, six different actors (including Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Richard Gere and Cate Blanchett) play characters based on aspects of Dylan’s personality at various stages in his life.
Although much has been made about Haynes’ unusual approach to his subject, the director says “the idea of multiple characters came out of everything I read and saw about Dylan, which reiterated this concept over and over again. I hardly thought it was an original take on him.”
Whatever it was, it worked. After a meeting with Dylan’s oldest son Jesse, himself a filmmaker (“How High,” “American Wedding”), Haynes decided to send Dylan a one-sheet proposal of his idea for the film, along with DVDs of some of his previous films (“Velvet Goldmine,” “Safe,” “Poison”). A couple of months later, Haynes had the go-ahead to turn a decade of Dylan’s life during the turbulent 1960s into a near-experimental film starring some very big names.
“We were shocked,” Haynes says. “I’m still shocked. I still can’t believe it. There is probably some fine print I didn’t read that I should probably check out.”
Haynes says he was obligated to make “Far From Heaven” first, so the Dylan project was put on the back burner until 2003, when the other film was completed, released and shepherded through film festival and Academy Award seasons. By then, when Haynes returned to Portland to start working on the Dylan movie for real, he admits a bit of that initial excitement had subsided.
“By the time I came back to it, I wasn’t in that obsessive state toward Dylan anymore. Or maybe it was just that it had become a job. This happens with every movie I make and I always forget this: You trade in your love for labor. And basically you’re not functioning in some pure state of inspiration. You have a job to do. And because you don’t feel as connected to that electricity, my resolve is to do extra, harder work, because I feel like I’m faking it now, it’s not genuine, so I have to work double hard.”
And even though the nature of the script was somewhat bewildering to many people who read it, Haynes says none of the actors he approached for the project turned him down (including Blanchett, who is the early favorite to snag an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the “Don’t Look Back”-era Dylan).
“They all said yes right away,” Haynes says. “That made me feel like we were in it together and that they somehow trusted something about the project, even though it wasn’t all clear from the script. But they were up for the challenge.”