Todd Haynes’ new movie, “I’m Not There,” is, well, kind of tricky to explain.
The film is the story of Bob Dylan. But, this is no ordinary biopic. Haynes (“Far From Heaven,” “Velvet Goldmine”) uses a shifting timeline and six actors to tell Dylan’s story.
Playing against a backdrop that includes the Deep South during the 1950s, the Vietnam War and the Old West, each actor (Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw and Marcus Carl Franklin) represents a different Dylan personality or time period.
Luckily for us, Haynes, calling from Los Angeles, checked in recently to discuss “I’m Not There,” its inspiration and construction, as well as Hollywood’s response. And the reaction of Dylan himself.
What was the impetus, the jumping-off point, for your idea?
It was around 2000 when I found myself getting back into Dylan’s music in a serious way. It just kind of came out of the blue - this hunger to hear his music. I’d been into it in high school, but that was 20 years earlier, and suddenly I was just really wanting to hear all his stuff.
Any one album in particular?
Mostly the stuff I knew from his classic records in the mid- to- late-1960s. I also started reading biographies when this idea of Dylan as this shape-shifting artist started to present itself to me.
What was the reaction when you started talking to other people about this idea - did you encounter any difficulty from Hollywood? Or did you find that people were pretty open?
(Laughs). Oh no, we found all the difficulty you could imagine - (and) that was after we got Dylan’s permission and full rights to the music and life story. After I had a (completed) script, all the actors came on board and we went to Europe in 2005 and got full distribution there. So the wind felt like it was really in our sails until we came back to the U.S. in 2006 and tried to get domestic financing and that’s when the (resistance) started.
How did you get around that?
We never got a U.S. distribution deal until we finished the movie. We got private equity investment - which meant that the film remained independent. That was the good part, but the bad part was that so much money and energy had to go into managing the deals and business side of it.
Going back to Dylan’s involvement, how hard was it to get him on board?
That was really easy - I would have never expected it to have happened at all, let alone as easily as it did. We just approached his manager with a one-sheet (synopsis) of the idea and he OK’d it.
Did you hear what his reaction to the proposal was?
Just what his manager told us - he just said that Dylan called and said, “Well, you like these guys? Let’s give them the rights.”
Are you interested in what Dylan thinks of the movie itself? Or is there a part of you that just wants to keep that separate?
That’s how I felt throughout the making of the film, but now that it’s done and it’s really the film that I meant it to be and people are excited about it and the performances are something I’m so proud of - now I want him to see it. But, I also have a feeling he’s seen it but he knows that anything he’s going to say is so weighted down with expectation. You know, how does he even say what he thinks without it being blown out of proportion?
Where did you get the idea for so many different incarnations, in addition to them all going by different names - none of them “Bob Dylan”?
It was really just practical - each character needed to have his own life story and, in many cases, they were incarnations of his direct influences, most notably Woody Guthrie.
Did you feel an affinity toward any one particular personality or era?
I did have a real appreciation for the (1966) “Blonde on Blonde” era in that it was one of the most complex times (in Dylan’s life) - I think it’s reflected in a certain emphasis in the Cate Blanchett storyline. But, I wouldn’t have been able to give it that much time (in the movie) if it didn’t also inherently contain such dramatic impact.
That’s really the turning point in the film, where the sense of free play and experimentation and trying on new guises takes a turn - where it starts to become fraught with a kind of danger and human cost.
What came first - the idea of a woman playing one of the Dylan roles or the idea of Cate Blanchett?
The idea of a woman was one of the original ideas in the one-sheet I gave Dylan. It even said that this Dylan would resemble the real Dylan more than any of the other (characters) in the film.
That was basically just a way to get to the physicality of Dylan at that point and how strange it was and to remind audiences that, even though it’s one of the most famous chapters in Dylan lore, there was something really wild and bizarre about him in 1965 and 1966. It had a lot to do with a different view of masculinity that we’d never seen before – it was an androgyny that was completely of his own making. It was fascinating and shocking and completely unprecedented. But the fact that Cate played it, and what she did with that, was completely her doing.
There’s a scene where Dylan’s frolicking with the Beatles and it’s all very childlike, but then he’s called away to talk to the media. It’s like he has to stop playing with the kids and be serious while the Beatles get to literally run off and have fun. Did you see this as a Dylan-imposed thing or a media-imposed thing?
I didn’t necessarily mean that Dylan was more important than the Beatles - it’s just that they both had to go off into their insane relationship (with) being stars.
The Beatles get chased down the street by girls while Dylan gets assaulted by all these bourgeois rich folks. But, I do think he was called upon to be this voice of wisdom, and when he became absurd and started to play around with meaning and topical themes, he got pounced on in a way that the Beatles never would have been.