An Interview with Todd Haynes

Over the past decade, Todd Haynes and I kept almost meeting, introductions recurrently planned by mutual friends, notably the novelist Jon Raymond. I heard about I’m Not There—“Todd’s Dylan film”—from Jon perhaps five or six years ago, and the concept sounded at once irresistible and unimaginable. Famously (or notoriously) fragmenting Bob Dylan across seven characters and six actors, I’m Not There arrived last fall as not only the slyest and smartest movie of 2007 but also the most touching, even soul-stirring. As another friend who saw the film during the opening Thanksgiving weekend in New York proposed, “I’m Not There reminds you why we all wanted to be artists in the first place.”

From the outset—Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)—Haynes’s films mixed formal brilliance and sensory intensity, ultimate mystery and everyday candor. His early feature Poison (1991) projected one of his cinematic grids: collaged, male, tilted toward music or literature, and perhaps most spectacularly realized in Velvet Goldmine (1998). Safe (1995) and Far from Heaven (2002) devised another Haynes template: the female melodrama. I’m Not There audaciously crisscrosses—concentrates, and then extends—his prior filmmaking styles.

Todd and I started the interview at the bar of the Hotel Gansevoort, continued talking the following week in the garden of an Italian restaurant across the street, and finished up a few days later by phone.

—Robert Polito


ROBERT POLITO: I’m curious about your childhood. I know from listening to your commentary on the DVD for your earlier film Safe that your parents, your grandparents, your sister, they all supported that film in various ways—turning over their house for locations, or showing up as extras. I noticed, too, that your family is among those thanked during the end credits for I’m Not There. I wonder, were they always so supportive?

TODD HAYNES: Yes. They always were. They were always remarkably supportive, almost embarrassingly supportive, isn’t that nice for a problem? And it’s true for my parents, and it is true for my grandmother who is still alive—my mom’s mom—but I’m very close to both of her parents. They were extraordinarily supportive. They were from a different generation than my parents, and I felt almost a deeper identification with their greatest generation’s sensibility. My parents were a little more material driven than my grandparents. Whatever—they were just all wonderful people with a lot of different tendencies and characteristics. My grandfather was a union organizer, worked at Warner Bros. in the ’30s, and he was a head of set construction. He was not an educated man, but self-educated, self-cultured, and he left Hollywood when the blacklist period changed almost everything, and many of his friends were directly affected by it. He started a business selling military communication devices that made him prosper in the ’60s in California, but he always maintained his progressive politics, and he was just an incredibly loving and supportive man. He gave me money for Poison….My grandfather lived to see—I guess he died while I was making Far from Heaven, which I dedicated to him—so he saw Poison, Safe, and Velvet Goldmine, and Poison was his favorite of my films.

RP: You came east to Brown for college. If you can tell Mona Lisa had the highway blues from the way she smiles, I guess you can sort of tell from your films themselves that you studied semiotics in college. Do you see connections between what you read and studied and your life and work since then?

TH: Well, even though it was called “semiotics,” I can’t think of a single example of my actually studying signs and symbols per se. It was just the term they used to delineate a program that was not yet a full-fledged department at that time in Brown, a program within the English department committed to poststructuralist cultural studies. But it happened to be where film production classes were located, and you had to take prerequisites in theory before you could get into the production courses. I had a wonderful high school teacher named Chris Adam who was a poet, but she taught classes at Oakwood during the three years I spent in private school, growing up, classes in film and autobiography, and she showed experimental films to us, and basically turned me on to the idea that film was not about reality, and that films shouldn’t be judged accordingly. I remember she was dating Thomas Elsaesser, the writer of New German Cinema: A History. I met him when I was about to go to Brown. Mary Ann Doane was one of his students, and she was a professor at Brown. So just due to this turn of events, I was able to advance in the ranks of the semiotics program, and skip some of the prerequisite courses. The first class I took was on sound theory, and it was taught by Phil Rosen, who was Mary Ann Doane’s husband. I remember sitting in a class with him talking about the classic Hollywood text, and he said, “Of course it comes to the obligatory heterosexual closure.” And just hearing the words heterosexual closure was so radical to me, it was so meaningful, because it named something that our society basically suggests is natural and inevitable, and doesn’t need a name, and doesn’t need to be distinguished as a choice. And there are so many more examples of how through post-structural film theory I found a parallel language to things that I was already feeling and thinking. And ways that I might already have applied them in my work, but found an academic tradition and theoretical tradition to articulate it. So I just think it helped me mature, and be able to clarify things. But really, if it doesn’t come to you from your gut, through your own life and experience—it’s meaningless. It’s a trend, it’s fashionable. It may have been that for some of my peers at Brown. But when it connects to your own experience and way of seeing the world, then you’re set free.

RP: Is that questioning of traditional aesthetic paradigms one of the ways in which you would see your films to this day as political?

TH: Yes. Definitely.

RP: I’m glad you say that. Because as sharp as I’m Not There is about Bob Dylan, it seems to me this isn’t just or even mainly a film about Dylan, or even the 1960s, for all the specific references to civil rights, Johnson, Nixon, or Vietnam. Of course I’m Not There is about Bob Dylan, but watching it the other day for the second time I started thinking, This is a film about now, about a country during a terrible war, and how you—someone, anyone— keep your art alive amid that war, and all this incessant media saturation, and how you sustain your politics.

TH: It’s a desperate attempt to remember other ways of keeping your politics alive, and your creative voice alive, against a war, against political policies that one begins to find abominable, deeply flawed, and helplessly persistent. But I also felt I was trying to conjure up a lost consciousness or distant planet of existence in looking at and studying the 1960s during the height of the Bush Cheney years. So it was and wasn’t—it was sort of an antidote to where we were on so many levels as well, but I think obviously I was fueled by a lot of contemporary rage and helplessness from our era.

RP: Is that “conjuring up of a distant world” one of the links between this film and, say, Far from Heaven, and Safe, too, in a different way, in terms of encountering and recreating a historical period for Far from Heaven, and also in summoning up someone’s—Julianne Moore’s character’s—own individual remoteness in Safe?

TH: Yes,it’s maybe a bigger stretch for me to apply to Safe that definition of conjuring up a distant world, but I definitely think it’s true for Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven, and this film. In fact, Velvet Goldmine dramatizes the distant world of glam rock against a kind of weirdly false reconstruction of the Reagan-era ’80s. But it’s definitely with these strong senses of worlds being foreclosed and not fully accessible to us today, and that’s often where all the yearning or desire for them is summoned.

RP: I think it comes out in the different looks of all those films. What’s astonishing about all three of them is the vividness and particularity of the historical re-creations at every stage. You obviously have an amazing crew!

TH: So much so. You can tell when directors are deeply interested in all of the details of a certain historical period, and then the people that they find to work with them and make all those details, and put such care and thought into them, but I think it has to start with a director who knows that’s important. The smallest thing, the font you use for a poster, how close-cropped the back of a man’s hair is cut for every extra on a scene, it has to be right, it has to comply with your research, and that’s just so much fun, too. The additional effectiveness of all of that in I’m Not There has a lot to do with the fact—and this was an accident— that we were shooting in Montreal, and the kind of faces and extras that were available there—and all the day-players, all the small roles, were cast locally—are unlike any pool of extras and faces that you would find anywhere else in North America. Hands down. The range of them, and the unrefined looks of them. I look at certain scenes in the film—and not just the faces in Riddle, which were more extreme, but the faces of the people in the banquet scene with Christian Bale, and how starting with the extras that we cast, and then the way their hair is styled, and the way they’re dressed, it looks like stock footage to me. I’m so pleased with the results, but it’s working with really topnotch people, and then having the sort of luck and accident of casting out of that.


RP: Where did I’m Not There start for you?

TH: It really started as a symptom of something else, where I was reaching the end of my years in New York without knowing I was reaching the end. Velvet Goldmine was an incredibly hard and exhausting production. A lot of my friends and peers in the city had, by the end of the ’90s, found a piece of real estate, a long-term relationship, a baby, things that rooted them. But I didn’t have any of those things, and I didn’t have a good domestic life. So many of my first years in New York were spent working. I had a boyfriend, Jim Lyons, who was HIV positive, and whose health was always in question. I was still living out of boxes in my apartment in Brooklyn, Williamsburg, a really uncool end of Williamsburg, where I’d lived at that point for thirteen years. I think I was feeling all the results of that when I decided I’d take some time off to travel, but it didn’t get me out of my funk. I decided, OK, almost begrudgingly, I’ll do a Sirkian melodrama. I knew it was something that I was destined to approach in some capacity because of my love for Sirk, and how much I learned from Fassbinder about the radical potential of maternal melodrama, and how much I wanted to work with Julianne Moore again. And so I had a plot, a kind of diagrammatic structure in which through a certain discovery all the central characters would be hurt in a kind of domino effect, without anybody intending to do so. But I wanted to get out of Williamsburg, I didn’t want to be tethered in New York. And I had just been in Portland, where my sister lives, on my way to the West Coast, and had an amazing massage and a lovely couple of days there. And I was like, I think I want to go back there. I called my sister, “You think there’s a place I could write, you know, get away….” She asked around, and called me back and said “my friend Joan” had an empty Victorian house in northwest Portland right off Twenty-third Avenue on Johnson Street, “empty and free, if you want to come and write in it for three months.” I thought, What the hell? So in the beginning of 2000, as I was making plans and deciding to not stay in New York, I just started to crave listening to Dylan in a way that I haven’t felt since I was in high school, the first time I was really a major Dylan fan—a lover of Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks, etc. But this time it was really powerful and all-consuming. I think I started reading the Tony Scaduto book again, which I had read when I was younger. I started thinking about his life and listening to his music, and then I wanted to make all these tapes for my drive. It’s always something I really relish, being alone in the car, and having that music. So in this case it was going to be an all-Dylan-all-the-time voyage. Maybe I’m oversimplifying it, but when you’re young, change holds all the glamour of your future. Change is everything about leaving the comfort of your suburban life behind and being on your own, and of course it’s full of danger and apprehension, but that’s good! That’s exhilarating and promising, and Dylan’s voice and irreverence and fearlessness as a performer, let alone a songwriter, come through on those records. As John Lennon said: you don’t have to understand a single word that he’s saying to understand what he’s talking about. And that’s the sheer force of the performance.

RP: One aspect your film seizes, and that people very rarely talk about, is Dylan’s whole constant punk side. He was a punk during the folk period, he was a punk in 1965, in 1966, even during the Rolling Thunder Revue. The live music from 1976 is a swirl of anger.

TH: Yes, it has an ugliness to it, it has a brutality to it, that people often just associate with a lack of virtuosity or a bad voice, but there’s so much more to it than that, and I think that means something so identifiable at a visceral level when you’re young.

RP: When did you know you were going to make the film?

TH: That didn’t really happen until, I think, I landed in Portland. Because it was just pure love for a while—it was hunger, love, and obsession that kept taking me. Halfway across the trip, I bought the Anthology of American Folk Music, in Kansas City—I got a really good deal on it—and then I landed in Portland. I was a block away from Music Millennium, which is no longer there now, but I could go there and just get everything—OK, I want the three-disc Columbia release of the bootleg series, so I got that. I was just shocked. I think it was “She’s Your Lover Now” that first sent me over the edge, because that period was always such a favorite. Then I started to look for The Genuine Bootleg Series collections, because I wanted to find the song “I’m Not There,” which I kept reading about—I was reading Greil Marcus. Then Jim Lyons, who I was still very close to, although we hadn’t been lovers for several years, sent me the complete basement tapes in five discs, and I was just overwhelmed by this stuff. It was one of the most amazing times of my life, because I was writing Far from Heaven at night—I like to work at night, and I got to a draft in ten days, which is not like me at all—and every day obsessing with Dylan, and meeting new people, some of the best people I will ever know, every day. I’ve always had the most amazing women in my life, always. Women have always been my closest friends, teachers, peers. But I never had comparable men in my life, I think, and I found them all in Portland. And most of them would really become friends, even though I sort of fell in love with each one of them. I felt like the second Proust book, Within a Budding Grove, where he is overwhelmed by this group of girls who were so fascinating and tantalizing, and he can’t tell what their sexuality is. And he is obsessed, the desire to fall in love with one versus another is almost like a random flipping of a coin. You could just become obsessed with any of them. So I was having this amazing time that was incredibly productive, creatively nourishing but also socially richer and more open than I’d been in years—I remember feeling at the end of my years in New York that if somebody came to your door and buzzed you, without telling you they were coming, it was the rudest thing you could do to anybody, and you cower in anger that your time and your space have been presumed upon. And I thought, I hate that in myself. I don’t want to live in a city, or be that kind of guy. I mean, you can’t always be available, but at this moment in my life I became totally available. So somewhere in those first weeks or months in Portland, I started to get that itch, and it was due to just confronting this idea of Dylan as somebody who was in constant change. Those eureka moments are as constructed as the biopics they embellish. But I do remember the moment of calling Christine Vachon [Todd’s close friend and his producer since Poison], almost bashfully, and saying,“ OK, I’m getting this urge, I’m thinking about a movie about Dylan with multiple actors playing him,” and I was almost like, “I know, I know,” anticipating her laughter. Because with Superstar—the film is banned forever because of no music rights, and the tough time we had with David Bowie and Velvet Goldmine—my record with getting music rights was obviously spotty, to say the least. And here I was, just even fancying the idea of getting music rights from the scariest, most unpredictable, at times most ornery and protective artist probably living today. And the idea of doing it with faux Dylan songs was ludicrous. So she said, look, don’t write anything yet. Let’s just see. The optimist—she really is. We’ll meet up with Jesse Dylan, Dylan’s oldest son, let’s seek him out, he’s a filmmaker. We were both in L.A. in the summer of 2000, so we set a meeting with Jesse at his office. Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager, was on the phone. I told both of them about the idea, which at the time was seven characters—there was a Charlie as one of the seven Dylans, who was sort of inspired by the accounts of Dylan as a Chaplinesque tramp boy, when he first arrived in Manhattan. And the Charlie story was meant to unfurl from one of Woody’s tales that you’d cut to as an all-in-one, silent-film-style piece, humorously depicting Charlie as a kind of trapeze artist performing all these feats of magic, and serving as a kind of bridge between the beats and the folkies.

RP: There are little echoes of him in the movie, no? Woody in the Riddle section, and earlier in the London hotel, where Cate Blanchett paints on a Chaplin mustache?

TH: Yes, exactly, I never thought of that. So they both listen to the idea, and they both said, it sounds kind of interesting. And Jeff was on the phone from New York and said, this reminds me of something Ginsberg said about Dylan—and I thought, We’re in, Christine!—describing Dylan as a series of American archetypes rolled up in one artist. And they both proceeded to make brutally clear whatever they thought was absolutely immaterial to Dylan, and that they were incapable of even predicting what he would say. So Jeff said, write it down on one sheet, a piece of paper, and we’ll send it to him on his tour with some DVDs. And then they both proceeded to elaborate this list of don’ts: don’t use “voice of a generation,” don’t say “genius of our time,” don’t talk about his work, and don’t even use the name Dylan. It was really funny, they couldn’t stop. And I thought, How am I going to do this?

RP: It’s like one of those old philosophy exercises, describe a table without using the word….

TH: Yeah, after you cut off its legs… And so I struggled and wrote this one sheet, which at the time was called “I’m Not There: Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan.” Clearly, the tone of it had a sophomoric vagueness. It did not sound like a blockbuster movie of the week by any means, and I think I at least fulfilled that commitment. This had the seven characters, including Charlie, and it had Woody, described as an eleven-year-old black boy who calls himself “Woody Guthrie” in it, and in the Jude section this character will be portrayed by an actress who will actually resemble the real Dylan more than any of the others. So some of the basic concepts were there, obviously, and stayed. And two months later we got a call from Jeff Rosen saying, I showed it to Bob, he said, “Well, you like these guys? Let’s give them the rights.” A few months later I was signing legal papers for the life and music rights of Bob Dylan. I don’t know if we even asked for life rights, but I think it was probably required for us so we could use quotes from interviews, or any other quotes Dylan ever gave.

RP: The whole “plot” of his life?

TH: Yes, it’s so loose. I didn’t think we’d legally need that. But it just facilitated everything to happen. Jeff Rosen described the film to Greil Marcus as a jazz composition riffing on an original melody that is Dylan’s life. Really apt and cool way to describe it.


RP: Where does Dylan stop in this film and Haynes begin—or the other way around? This is such a canny, resonant investigation of Bob Dylan, but so many of its styles and concerns dovetail with your prior films— identity, bodies, censorship, art, parallel worlds, fans, media, secret lives. How did you see your own interaction with him, and the themes of his life?

TH: I didn’t really see a lot of that self-consciously as I was making the film. I think what I’ve learned about artists I admire is that what characterizes them maybe the most, or the things that people often love most in what they do, are exactly the things they don’t see in their own work. They don’t really recognize their own unique thing, it’s almost something they just do unconsciously. The things that they consciously do, or the things they focus on, and the things that just come out in their voice, are maybe the things they don’t see, and maybe that’s true for me, too. I was aware that we had a kind of Far from Heaven moment in I’m Not There, and I was very aware by the end that the collection of things I was putting out there included many occurrences that did remind me of some of my other films. But it wasn’t a conscious pointing to my own work that motivated it. In a weird way, this movie contains multitudes, this subject contains multitudes, and I guess my body of work will ultimately run out of new ways of expressing that. Basically, Robert, I have run out of ideas….

RP: Well, you could have fooled me! But I was also thinking, you are someone who has been attacked, the way you were after Poison, and you’re also someone who is constantly reinventing himself—after Velvet Goldmine particularly, but also as the styles of one film shift to another. Was that also a part of this unconscious flow that only got articulated, if it did get articulated, later?

TH: I think so. I think I was drawn to this concept and this subject of Dylan, and saw in him this multicolored will, and for me, always when I finish one film that has a certain style and feel to it, I just elementally crave doing something that is of a different era and different rhythm. What this often results in is two very different approaches to filmmaking. The first is a more generic approach which focuses more on female characters— films like Superstar, Safe, and Far from Heaven, which have a more consistent, almost grammatical form to them, often more linear, and as I said, generic. And then these other films that derive more from male subjects, from musical subjects—they find their form in the process of writing and researching them, like Velvet Goldmine, or Poison, or I’m Not There.

RP: It seems to me that all your films focus on what— to lift a phrase from my freshman English teacher—you might call a crisis of identity. You focus on that so persistently, and so variously. Do you think about the sources of that for you, and what keeps that so alive as a concern for you?

TH: Yes, I guess I just feel like that is the thing to take a stand against. Basically it’s taking a stand against an entire humanist tradition, where this sense of being one with your identity and your prescribed sense of self is supposed to be experienced in perfect compatibility with our identification in popular narrative form, and the images it condones, that health equals being a man in this way, or being a woman in that way, and complying with the social requirements built into those worlds. And from an early age I guess that never felt completely natural or healthy to me. And I think it can be felt without having a non-happy upbringing, or parents who were Republicans when you were liberal, and be felt persistently. And perhaps you just begin to find empathy for other people and their situations because you understand your own discomfort in being prescribed to be something, and so it becomes a way of also feeling for other people and their own struggles that might be a lot worse than yours.

RP: Continuing on from this, I’m also wondering how you think about genre, because it seems to me that all your films play with, and play against, genres. Obviously there’s a sense that I’m Not There is a biopic, the way that Far from Heaven was a woman’s film, or Safe a disease film. How do you think genres operate inside your films?

TH: I think they are both utilized and then pried open. But they have to maintain enough of their original shape and form to be able to excite and activate the reactions in a viewer, and that’s what I am most interested in. What the genres do to the viewer, and the kind of expectations that they set in motion. So you have to excite them and get them going, and then hopefully broaden them and redirect them in ways that draw a different kind of consciousness to those expectations. Safe is maybe the cleanest example. The resolution in a disease film is one that is sort of antagonistic, or has an antagonistic component that I think most disease movies mask over, because disease movies basically ask their subjects to identify with their illness, and come to some kind of acceptance and acquiescence to their state. That often puts them in a very rigid box, one that reifies our whole cultural way of thinking of illness as at some level something that the subject is responsible for. And so, in this film, you’re supposed to accept your illness, and become a cancer survivor, or become an advocate for this or that. And when Julianne Moore does that at Wrenwood, it’s basically asking her to say, “I really hated myself when I first came here, and I’m going through this process of accepting culpability for my illness.” And you both want that because that’s what the narrative expectations and the generic expectations require. But then you watch that basically crush this fragile person into acquiescence and self-hatred. So what you want on a narrative level, you have to question on the human level.

RP: Do conventional biopics operate along those same lines here?

TH: Yes, I think so. They kind of crush and belittle the great artist, whom we’re supposed to comprehend in a line, or a brief summation. They reduce the person while also aggrandizing them.

RP: I’m guessing that this is the biggest budget you’ve worked with?

TH: Yes, but by 2 million dollars more than Far from Heaven, 15 million. It felt like less money than I’ve ever had to work.

RP: Because the demands were so large?

TH: The demands were so large, but, sadly it was a double-edged sword. We would have been happy to do a deal with a studio and get financing for the film before we went into production. Without that deal, we had to find independent financing and private equity to complete the budget, and sell it afterward, and that’s what we ended up doing. What was great about that is that it was a truly independent production, and I retained complete creative control, and had final cut for the first time in my career. I’ve had a kind of negotiated final cut in other films, but this time I absolutely had final cut myself, which was great. What was really rough about that is that the cost of the money—the financing fees, the bank fees, the film funds, the insurance—all of the money that it cost to get the money, meant that so much of the money went away, and wasn’t stuff we could work with to make the film.

RP: My question was headed toward whether you saw yourself in transition from making one kind of independent, almost guerilla film, to another kind of larger-budget film, but it doesn’t sound like that from what you’re saying.

TH: No. It felt brutal. And it kept Christine in a room full of shouting and weeping and begging and squeezing, which made it even harder for her than it was for me, and made her less available for me. I mean, I was fine, I had my hands full. But it’s incredible the amount of monetary waste that was built into that kind of independence.


Megan Milks is the author of Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body (Feminist Press, 2021), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in transgender fiction, as well as Slug and Other Stories and Remember the Internet: Tori Amos Bootleg Webring.

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