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Capone Interviews Todd Haynes About I'M NOT THERE!

Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. I’m actually jealous that Capone got some time with Todd Haynes. I’m a big fan of his work in general, and of his new movie in particular. Still, can’t wait to see how Capone digs into this rich and challenging film with this eclectic filmmaker:
Hey folks. Capone in Chicago here. Pretty much since he came to the attention of many with his heart-felt, 1987 unauthorized biography of Karen Carpenter, SUPERSTAR, (which in all likelihood, you will never be able to find legally) writer-director Todd Haynes has been one of my favorite directors. Merging experimental filmmaking, a brave eye toward exposing sacred cows in American culture, a great passion for music, and sometimes-mischievous visual style, Haynes has made some of the plain-old coolest films of the last 20 years, including POISON, SAFE, VELVET GOLDMINE, and his acclaimed 2002 masterpiece FAR FROM HEAVEN. Haynes returns to the music that he loves this week with the awe-inspiring I'M NOT THERE, one of the most original takes on the music biography film I've ever laid eyes on. To attempt and describe what it is Haynes has accomplished with his look at the many faces and personae of Bob Dylan is to rob the film of its power. I'm sure most of you know that six different actors (such as Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, and the shockingly dead-on Cate Blanchett) play variations of Dylan throughout the years. Some of what is presented here is the re-creation of well-known events in Dylan's career; some of it is pure fabrication…except it's not. I'll leave it at that. Haynes was in Chicago recently, but unfortunately I was out of town when he was here. But I was desperate to talk to the man after seeing this remarkable work, so I worked tirelessly with the help of the film local representative to get a phone interview, and we were finally able to make it happen late last week. It goes without saying that my admiration for Haynes' work is massive, and I found him to be one of my favorite interviews in recent months. Little did I know how much fun it would be to talk about music with a film director. Enjoy… Capone: First off, I'm terribly sorry I missed you when you were in town. They even asked me to host the screening of I'M NOT THERE that you did a Q&A for, and it broke my heart to miss it. But I'm glad we could do this today. Todd Haynes: Thank you. C: I think my first question is obvious. The film's biggest omission in my opinion is the “Lucky” Wilbury phase of Bob Dylan's career. I think the world wants you to examine the Traveling Wilburys period. TH: [laughs] The Wilbury Period, right. There are so many specific things that I did not take on in the movie, because if anything the Billy story [each actor who plays Dylan actually plays him under another name; Richard Gere plays an older version of Billy the Kid, who Kris Kristofferson played in Sam Peckinpah's PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID, a film Dylan co-starred in], which gets the most head scratching reaction of them all, is one that tries to do too much and tries to take on a lot of the post-'67 Dylan, which extends in some views to the Dylan of today. When he first when into self exile, I think he not only took nourishment in music from the past and performance styles and even the way he ended up performing in the Rolling Thunder Revue, gypsy style. But he would never put himself at the mercy of the media on their terms again. And when he would return, it would be on his own terms, which is why he's maintained his unbelievable un-graspability in our modern era. He just sort of does it the way he wants to when he comes back out again. And the Traveling Wilburys is another mysterious time when he shared the stage with people. But I had to stop. [laughs] I had to draw some lines here. C: I do find that phase interesting because at that time he seemed much more accessible than he had been for many years before that. More in the public eye, on the charts again. TH: Were they? C: I think so. That a time when anything Jeff Lynne touched turned to gold. TH: I suppose. C: I ask this question as someone who has occasionally become obsessed with musicians myself. Do you remember when your obsession with Bob Dylan began, more than just enjoying the music but getting into his phases and personae? Do you remember buying your first bootleg? TH: I got into Dylan in high school at first, and I think I ended up buying at an L.A. record convention the “Royal Albert Hall concert,” as they called it. But I wouldn't call myself an obsessive. I wasn't at that stage in obsessive mode that I would be in 20 years later, when I came back to Dylan with a kind of weird symptomatic force and fury, which had a lot more to do in my personal life and I was making in a change in my geography. I'd lived in New York for 15 years, and this period ushered me--although I didn't really see it at the time that way—to the west coast, where I came to write FAR FROM HEAVEN in Portland, Oregon, where I came to get away from the city initially. I found my town of Riddle [Oregon] there, and I found more and more Dylan stuff at the time, and I was just swimming in it. It was pure pleasure. And I was working on FAR FROM HEAVEN every night and dancing through Dylan every day and meeting all these new people. It was just a really rich time, and it was in that climate that this concept came to me that we first approached the Dylan camp and I finally got the rights. And I ended up staying in Portland and I'm still there now. C: I was wondering about the rights issue. Other than to secure the dozens of Dylan songs for the film, did you need to get the rights to Dylan's life to make this movie? You've done this sort of thing before, these unofficial, unauthorized biographies, where the people are called by the names of the people they are clearly inspired by. Other than Karen Carpenter, which was done completely without authorization, which is why you can't legally release that film. TH: Right. C: Not to get bogged down in the boring legal aspects of this, but do you have to get rights? TH: But it really does come down to the boring legal aspect in the fact that you need the rights to the music, which alerts the artist to the project. I am legally free to do “The Bob Dylan Story.” We have the legal right to make a film about a public figure without their permission as long as it's not defamatory. So it would have inevitably led to him, as it did with Bowie [for VELVET GOLDMINE] needed to embrace the concept before they'd grant music rights. So through their ownership of their own music, which makes a world of sense to me, they have rights to what the film is because they can say yes or no, based on just their music rights. If I didn't want any Dylan music and I wasted to do “The Bob Dylan Story” with his name all over the movie, I could have done that, and I could have had his name in the movie under these terms. [Not using his name in the film] was a creative decision; they weren't motivated by legal constraints. C: By not directly linking these six storylines, you aren't forced to give a reason why he chose to transform himself over the years. You left that part a mystery, even if certain events aren't, but the transitions are still a mystery. TH: I feel like those motivations are in the film. It's when Woody [played by Marcus Carl Franklin] is told “Sing about your own time, child” that we then introduce Jack [Christian Bale], who is singing about his own time. When Jack is feeling the pressure of success within the folk revival, under the dictates of the folk revival era based on purity and humility, he vanishes and then Jude [Cate Blanchett] emerges as this rebel to all of those constraints and takes them head on. And when Jude reaches the point of chaos and disillusion within his high-speed high-wire act that--and it's not depicted in this linear way--but there's a motorcycle crash and a rebirth as somebody in hiding, almost in another time [referring to the Richard Gere character Billy]. So, if you need to or want to, and I think those turns provide a kind of quiet logic to the movie. It's not what's being broadcast to you as a viewer, like “This is how you understand Dylan. And if you follow these steps and turns, you get him completely.” It doesn't really do that, but they're there, and I do think it's him exhausting the creative possibilities of whatever phase he's in that forces him to change. C: In more conventional music biography films about such people who have also gone through many phases, like Johnny Cash or Ray Charles, that the directors or writers have chosen to focus on just one period in the career. Your film is far more sweeping and all-encompassing. Was there ever a time when you were thinking of doing it more conventionally, or was this the only way to do his work justice? TH: No, I never did consider it. I never even thought about making a movie about Dylan before thinking of this approach to it. It's what made me want to make a movie about him. C: Are there any other musicians whose life stories could be handled this way, past or present? TH: On one general level, I think every human beings life could be handled this way. And on another level, no. [laughs] I think Dylan is unique in the fact that when he entered these phases, he is a remarkably unreflective artist for being such a brilliant artist and writer and reflector of the times. But about his own changes and choices…I mean, there are times when he seemed self-consciously creating an identity that would get him somewhere. But when he's done with it, I don't think he analyzes what it meant and what the next step will mean in relation. In a weird way, he doesn't really care what people think, and that is remarkable because all artists are vulnerable and sensitive and put a great deal of stock in the quality of their own work. And he does those things, but it's without the kind of awareness beyond his own internal clock, and that what makes these changes so total, and how they can be accurately described by different people, as opposed to the narrative desire to connect them and give them a teleological meaning to a person's whole life. C: In terms of your songs choice, this is not a collection of greatest hits. These are very particular songs that, in almost every case, really add something to what is happening in the visually. Did you have these songs in mind because they seemed to tell his story? TH: Yes, the music was as basic to the writing process as any dialog or scene concept or plot concept. The songs were the kind of mode of storytelling ultimately, so which ones to use became one of the central to determining factors in how these stories would unfold and how the narrative language would take you from one place to another and inform you about these very distinct phases. C: The more you know about Dylan going in, the more I think you're going to get from the film. That being said, what has the reaction been from people who don't know that much about him. TH: It just depends on the person, because it's just so surprising how many more of those people there are [laughs]. I never made the film for the Dylan aficionados; it was not meant to be a private winking experience for those people. All movies are made up of references; all movies are constructed from other things, even when it's completely unconscious by the director or the writer, and this one is the same, it's just that all this stuff comes from the Dylan universe, but it's stuff that ultimately has to work at a level where you're not savvy. It has to work at a physical, visceral, visual level. And each of the stories is completely understandable in and of themselves to anyone who has seen anything about western culture period. They all come out of genres; they all come out of things we've seen before. Sure, they have stylistic flourishes, but all moves do. But it's how they connect and how you might want to turn it into a kind of complete linear explication of Dylan. That's where the film dodges conventions and does not provide…so for people looking for that, no, I don't think they're going to find satisfaction in it. But for people who want to enter a time and the mind of an amazing artist through all of these different stories that are half his life and half his own creations, entering into his music and his sensibilities, to me that's the richest and most exciting way to get into an artist this unique and try to really paint his artistic contribution onto a film. What we all forget about Dylan is that he's this famous, beloved leading figure, but he went way off the conventional course in every conceivable way. He completely exploded what was possible in a popular song, and made it something that could contain everything. And yet he maintained utter popularity and fame throughout. He's weird! [laughs] He's out of his mind, and that's so awesome that somebody like that is so famous and beloved and seems so much a staple of American popular culture. C: There's nothing wrong with embracing weirdness, you're absolutely right. It sounds like you were just as interested in getting all of the facts in your film as well as his own self-generated mythology. We aren't supposed to take all of what's in your film 100 percent literally… TH: No. C: …but a lot of what's here is stuff he propagated. TH: It is and yet he keeps getting unmasked. So he sets up who he is, and then an “Mr. Jones” [personified by Bruce Greenwood] is going to unmask him, or Mrs. Alvin [Kim Roberts], the black woman in the house is going to unmask the boy. It's almost shocking how easy it is to unmask him and to strip him of his vestiges. But that's what kept happening, and I think it also contributed to him wanting to change and sort of be in control of his own engine and not let that happen as much as he got older. C: Todd, thank you so much for making room in your schedule to talk to us. TH: Thank you so much, I really appreciate it. Capone

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