Todd Haynes’s film I’m Not There is the wildest mainstream film you’ll see this year. It’s about Bob Dylan, but Dylan is played by six different actors, including Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, and Cate Blanchett. The film goes about capturing the essence of Dylan-mysterious, chameleon-like, and utterly intriguing-and it also does a great job re-creating the feel of the ‘60s. Last Saturday, I sat down with this Academy Award-nominated writer/director to speak about his enigmatic movie.
What inspired you to tell the story in this expressionistic way? It was really just the work and life of Dylan that I found myself getting back into-with a real fury-at the beginning of 2000, toward the end of my thirties. : I’d been a real Dylan fan in high school, but I had not listened to him for about 20 years, and then found myself getting back into his work. : When you look at his work and you look at his life and all the accounts of him in the 1960s, this concept of him as someone who continually changed and went into these phases of his life intensely and exhausted them and then moved on to something else is just sort of an inescapable observation. So I just felt like that was getting to the core of who he was and what he was about.
It’s hard to get permission from Dylan to use his music and to write about him. What was that process like? It was shockingly, insanely simple, given the history and the odds and the person that he is. I basically came up with the concept of the multiple-character approach and talked to my producer, Christine Vachon, about it. But I had absolutely no feasible expectations that we would get the rights to use Dylan. And there was absolutely no way to do the film without the rights to the music. So we approached Jesse Dylan, Dylan’s oldest son, who’s a filmmaker. : This was the summer of that year, 2000, when we were both in L.A. I sat down with Jesse, and Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager, was on the phone from New York listening to the meeting. I just described the idea, and Jeff was intrigued and said, “Listen, I think you should write this down on one sheet of paper, just a one-line description about each of the characters, and we’ll send it to Bob, with some of your films. : And, I like it, but there’s just no way to know.” So I did what he asked, and two months later, we got a call from Jeff, who spoke to Dylan, [who had] said, “Well, you like these guys. Let’s give them the rights.” And that was it.
Was there any stipulation about what you could and could not use? No, none whatsoever. There were no stipulations like that, and the terms of the legal agreement did not provide Jeff or Dylan with final say in the scriptwriting process. Jeff trusted something about us guys, and he established a really close relationship with John Sloss, the film’s other producer. And Jeff hired John to be his own lawyer, and they’ve become really tight.
You sample or recall a lot of ‘60s films in your movie-like the look of Fellini’s 812. Why did you do this? This to me was an amazing opportunity to get inside the fabric of the 1960s, its culture, its sensibility, its cinema-it’s obviously through the vehicle of one of its most important figures. When I get into a period as a filmmaker, I really feel like the traditions of the cinema from that time in history are more useful and more meaningful to getting inside the tissue of an era than any other aspect. : This one was an opportunity to look at all of the cinematic voices that were happening at the time and try to apply different references to the stories. : Not because I wanted people to be like “Oh!” and having to get this reference and that reference. : It’s not really about that. It’s just if it happens to happen completely unconsciously, if it just makes you feel for a reason you can’t even really describe that you’re there, that you’re inside it. : That was my hope and my ambition.
Was your intention all along to cast a woman to play one of the Dylans? Was that to make him androgynous? From the very beginning, the way that character, Jude, was going to be depicted [was] through the chimera of a female body, trying to get to the root of what that particular Dylan looked like and how strange he was for an audience in 1965. It wasn’t just the music and the volume of the music and the loudness of the band and the sense of betrayal to the folk ethic. It was also just his physical being, you know, that was also just like nothing anybody had seen before. And, of course, Cate took that concept and took it so far and went so deep inside it that it disappears and you get inside this amazing character.
Did you think of Cate Blanchett immediately? I asked Tanya, my assistant, to make xeroxes of some of these actresses in black and white and I would color them in as Jude, with the hair and the clothes to sort of see how they would look as the character, and Cate won out hands-down.
How did you convince Cate Blanchett to play a man? It wasn’t hard at all. That would be a pretty hard thing for a lot of actresses to turn down, actually. It sounds crazy, but that’s just too interesting and too fascinating from the outset. That didn’t mean : she was immediately interested, but then she was immediately terrified. And while we were out campaigning, trying to raise money on her name and the other actors attached, she was secretly cowering in fear and not absolutely certain she was going to do it. But she did.
How did you approach each actor about attacking the role and the segment they were given? I shared with them all the research and the material I’d used to write the stories. I had these mixed CDs that I’d made for each character and these image books of collages and every possible visual reference to their stories and to Dylan in the years their stories pertained to. And the books and the clips from the documentaries and the materials from that time that were out there-there’s a lot of it. Actors like having that material to draw from. But, ultimately, it was not ever going to be about simple impersonation of Dylan. The smaller, more subtle cadences and changes in face, hair, clothes, and gesture were far more interesting to focus on than the kind of broad stroke, nasal voice, drawling delivery, you know. Those approaches we pretty much ruled out, and I really let them get inside the subtleties of his changes. And they’re vivid when you’re looking at them.
I’m Not There opens in Santa Barbara theaters this weekend.