After the enormous success of both Ray and Walk the Line, director Todd Haynes (Safe, Far From Heaven) shouldn’t have had any trouble making his Bob Dylan-inspired film, I’m Not There. Especially considering that he had put together a stellar cast that included Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Richard Gere and Heath Ledger and (even more amazingly) had secured the rights to all of Dylan’s music. But as anyone who has followed Haynes’ career might have guessed, his vision of how a Dylan film should look varied from what your average studio exec may have had in mind. Not only does the film eschew all conventional characteristics of a Hollywood biopic, but six different actors—Blanchett, Gere, Bale, Ledger, Ben Whishaw and an 11-year-old African American boy named Marcus Carl Franklin—portray Dylan, or some variation of him, during a particular period in his life. Fortunately for fans of adventurous cinema, Haynes eventually found backers who believed in the project, and on November 21st his unique vision finally hits theaters.
Just days after winning a Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, MovieMaker caught up with Haynes at the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss how the experience of making this film was a difficult yet rewarding one.
Jason Matloff (MM): When did you first get the idea for I’m Not There?
Todd Haynes (TH): I started to think about Bob Dylan before leaving New York in 2000 to move to Portland, Oregon. First, I read some esteemed biographies on him, and when I was preparing to drive across the country, I made like a four-tape mix of his music to play on the road. I just wanted to be inside the car with Dylan for a long time.
Then, in Portland, I started to write it down and verbalize it and eventually I called Christine [Vachon, my longtime producer] and said, ‘I have this idea for a movie.’ I was kind of reluctant to even mention it, given our checkered history with music rights. (Haynes was not able to get permission to use The Carpenters’ music for Superstar or David Bowie’s for Velvet Goldmine.)
MM: That must have made you apprehensive about going forward with the script.
TH: Oh, absolutely. I told her, ‘This is like the longest shot we’ve ever taken on anything.’ The first thing she said was, “Don’t write it yet; let’s just see what happens.” We both basically assumed it would just be an exercise. We’d get to meet Jesse Dylan [Bob’s oldest son, whom Haynes and Vachon first approached with the idea] and that would be that.
MM: So there was no Plan B?
TH: No, because there wasn’t any way to do it without the music rights.
MM: Do you think that if you had approached Jesse (who is a moviemaker himself, having directed American Wedding and Kicking & Screaming) with a conventional biopic, we would even be having this conversation right now?
TH: I think he might have said, “Look Todd, you can give it a shot, but all I can tell you is he’s always said ‘No’ before.”
MM: After you got the okay from Dylan’s camp, how hard was it to secure the budget and find distribution?
TH: It was horribly difficult. It was the hardest thing myself, Christine and [producer] John Sloss ever set our mind to financing. When you put all of those careers together, you can tell that it was an immeasurable challenge.
MM: Didn’t you initially have more luck in Europe?
TH: We took the script to Cannes in 2005 and the European response was encouraging—we actually got really impressive foreign pre-sales. So everything just seemed so positive at that point: We had these great actors who were just dying to do this crazy-ass script that was almost impossible to read. So then we just continued to try to find U.S. backing and that’s where everything sort of ground to a halt. It was just disinterest and fear—and I understood why. Well, I did and I didn’t, because I thought I’d gained some tiny iota of creative capital after Far From Heaven. With this cast and Dylan’s approval, even if the script was totally impenetrable, I thought that they would overlook that because they do big Hollywood movies all the time with no script. But that wasn’t the case for me.
We went to every studio, every classics division and every obvious independent producer or private equity source, and they all, after some momentary interest, passed. Eventually, by the skin of our teeth, we patched together private equity from Jim Stern’s company, Endgame Entertainment. But we kept downsizing the budget so we had to try to do this incredibly ambitious film for less and less money.
MM: What was the final budget?
TH: Less than $20 million.
MM: When did Harvey Weinstein and his company come aboard?
TH: Harvey came on after we’d finished shooting. We had made a show reel and people really responded to it. Yet, there was still head-scratching and fear. Unfortunately, it’s just such an incredibly cautious time right now in the industry, and it seems more risks are being taken on television and cable than in the movies. Even when you have this incredible sort of universally known subject and soundtrack, and these unbelievable stars, there’s still cause for panic. That’s sad, because if the script had been for the most banal, paint-by-numbers biopic, it would have been a done deal before you finished the sentence. But ironically, that would never have happened, because Bob Dylan would never have wanted that to have happened. It’s a total Catch-22.
MM: Blanchett’s performance has already garnered some Oscar buzz. What was her initial reaction to the role?
TH: The first time I sat down with Cate to discuss the film was the morning of the 2005 Oscars. (Later that night, Blanchett won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator.) She was intrigued but scared; she wasn’t totally convinced.
MM: Were any of the other actors hesitant to sign on?
TH: Not really. When you look at what they were getting themselves into—this very unusual and untraditional script—they were extraordinarily game and just invigorated by the challenge.
MM: Didn’t you originally have some other ideas for casting?
TH: The first actor I went to was Colin Farrell, who said he would do the role that Heath Ledger ended up playing. Adrien Brody was my first choice for the Christian Bale character, but he was sort of hemming and hawing.
MM: What happened with Farrell?
TH: At the point where we needed a firm commitment from all of the actors, Colin was taking a break. His agent said he was no longer going to be able to honor all of his commitments, and I felt kind of lousy about it because we had to move on without even having a conversation about it with him. But I understood that whatever he needed to do was the most important thing and I accepted that.
MM: Fortunately, Heath Ledger came along.
TH: Actually, we heard Heath was also taking a break from acting for a couple of years. He had just finished Brokeback Mountain and wanted to do some of his own projects that he had been developing. Coincidently, he was considering doing a film about Nick Drake, whom he loved. But Heath was so kind of appalled by the prospect of a conventional biopic that he himself was turning it into something much more metaphoric where a girl was going to kind of be Nick Drake. So he really responded to the Dylan script, and I pulled him out of his “retirement.”
MM: For Superstar, you “cast” a Barbie doll as Karen Carpenter. Now you have a woman (Blanchett) and a young black boy (Franklin) playing Bob Dylan. Are you worried that you are going to get a reputation for your eclectic casting?
TH: Each choice is made completely based on the subject. It’s not arbitrary or meant to be flashy or clever. Take Karen Carpenter and Bob Dylan, who couldn’t be more different. The idea of just having a one-size-fits-all genre box in which you tell every famous person’s story in the same way with the same form and resolution is killing what’s unique and special about these artists. So to me, half the fun is finding a way of telling the story that does justice to the complexity and the specificity of who they are.
MM: Were there any attempts to get Dylan to record any new material or make a cameo appearance?
TH: In an early draft, there was a moment for a cameo. But I thought it might be distracting and in this case clever beyond its own need. I also felt like I was lucky enough to get his life and music rights, so I didn’t need to kind of gild the lily and have Dylan pop out of a box in the movie.
MM: What did Dylan think of the film?
TH: He hasn’t seen it yet. Jesse said he wouldn’t want to go to a screening, even if it was private, he just wants a DVD. So as soon as we have the mix and timing all done on one, we’re going to send it over.
MM: Are you at all nervous about his reaction?
TH: No, I can’t wait. I’m really excited.
MM: Harvey Weinstein has said that the audience is going to have to work while watching this film, but in a good way. Are you concerned about how it is going to be received, especially amongst Dylan fans?
TH: No, because I wasn’t making it for Dylan fans. I was making it for people who want to see a movie about Bob Dylan and are interested in the concept. There’s such anticipation for this movie because it’s not a tired old biopic. I’m sick of everyone just assuming people are stupid and can only handle one kind of movie. I think people are ready for something different. MM