I’m Not There is an apt name for a bio-pic with six Bob Dylans, none of them the real one. As if to compensate, co-writer/director Todd Haynes has been everywhere talking about it. No wonder his voice sounds rougher than the Mystery Tramp’s when we chat by phone.
For Haynes fans, who tend to be almost as devout as Dylan fans, the volume of attention to the film comes as a relief. Last year’s news that the director was reuniting with mogul Harvey Weinstein, who had all but turned Haynes’s glam-rock epic Velvet Goldmine into melted wax, was cause for alarm — akin to hearing that Dylan would be forced to make an album with dumpster-diving Dylanologist A.J. Weberman. But I’m Not There got made, and the result, love it or not, is Haynes’s most experimental film since Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, his widely bootlegged Barbie doll bio-pic from 1987.
Do you feel you’ve come full circle since Superstar? Twenty years later, you’re making another iconoclastic musical bio-pic — but you got the rights to the songs this time.
Yes, and it makes me want to wag the film in front of David Bowie, who gave me not one tune for Velvet Goldmine. C’mon, dude — even Bob Dylan gave me rights! What’s your problem?
Dylan has the DVD of I’m Not There that you gave him. You’ve said you want his feedback, but does some part of the Dylan fan in you want him to remain elusive, true to form?
I think I could handle it if he never said anything. But I’d prefer to hear something eventually. I’d hope he could watch the film and have a chuckle. But this is maybe the most impossible thing to hope for. I was just talking to Jesse [Dylan’s son] about this last night. Jesse said, “He really doesn’t look back.” He doesn’t listen to his old records. He doesn’t want to be bothered with “Bob Dylan.”
So you’re the one looking back. Which of the movie’s many primary sources has been the most meaningful to you?
Well, the thing that blew me away — and I used it quite extensively in the film — is the Playboy interview from ’66. It’s one of the most remarkable documents in all of pop culture. He’s being cagy and surreal and witty and abstract — as in the lyrics he was writing at the time — but he’s also answering the questions completely, riffing on multiple levels at once. The truly amazing thing is that Dylan provided both the answers and the questions by phone to Nat Hentoff, who had to write everything on the wall with a pencil.
In another Playboy interview, from 12 years later, Dylan talks about “mass communication” having “killed” New York, having turned it into “one big carnival sideshow.” These days, “mass communication” is even more murderous. Could a musical artist with anything like Dylan’s genius and influence emerge now?
I don’t know. The thing is, we don’t have shared experiences as a culture the way we did before. The Internet and other technologies seem to be moving us away from human contact — or at least splintering us into infinite subsets of constituencies. I’m sure there’s radical potential in that, but I don’t really know what it is yet. As a filmmaker, as someone who’s all about getting people in the theater to watch something together on a big screen, I have my worries about it.
But in terms of I’m Not There, isn’t there something about our fragmented culture that would seem conducive to the success of a film that is itself so fragmented?
Maybe so. I have to say, I’m still utterly blown away by how the film is being received. I had much grimmer expectations for how it would be reviewed.
That makes me think you must’ve made the film in a state not unlike that of Dylan playing the Royal Albert Hall in ’66: they won’t appreciate it anyway, so . . . play fuckin’ loud!
I’d like to feel that way about myself, but I’ve never experienced the kind of open hostility that Dylan did. I’ve never been asked to become a punker. He was — and then he invented punk right then and there. I’ve been extremely well supported by the press and the audience throughout my career.
Dylan fans tend to be almost evangelical — in part because we could never hope to come anywhere near his level of accomplishment. We don’t feel inspiration from his career so much as pure awe. Still, do you hope the film will have some inspirational impact?
What I hope is that the film cracks open the dangerous spirit of Dylan for younger people who maybe aren’t as susceptible to that sense of awe. I’d like kids to get that Dylan was famous not because he made Dad feel cool or macho, but because he was doing something really strange and fearless.