Todd Haynes '85 didn't "aim to educate or give a primer to (Bob) Dylan for people" in "I'm Not There," his film about the many personalities of Dylan. "I wanted to preserve the genuine weirdness of Bob Dylan," Haynes told an audience at the RISD auditorium Monday night. "We forget how weird (his) stuff is and how radical it was at the time."
The screened film, which refers to everything from Federico Fellini's "8 1/2" to Billy the Kid, uses six different actors to portray six different aspects of Dylan's life. These characters include such disparate examples as a young black boy who calls himself Woody Guthrie, an adult male who goes from protest singer to gospel singer and an older man called Billy the Kid living in a town in the Wild West. The characters and their storylines are intercut, creating a mosaic of Dylan's life as a whole.
Cate Blanchett was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar and won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Jude, a portrait of Bob Dylan in the 1960s.
Following the screening, Haynes answered questions from the audience, primarily about "I'm Not There."
The roots for the film came from his days in high school listening to Dylan, Haynes said, but he did not come up with the idea until he rediscovered Dylan while writing the script for "Far From Heaven." Though he knew it would be difficult to obtain the rights to make a movie about Dylan, he said he enjoyed developing the story so much he didn't care if the movie was actually made.
Dylan's son Jesse acted as a liaison between Haynes and Bob Dylan, and the elder Dylan approved Haynes' script via Jesse. "(Bob Dylan) gave me everything, basically. ... I had a tremendous amount of freedom," Haynes said. "There really were no creative guideposts."
In response to an audience member who said he felt the film was "a series of cliches," Haynes said he intentionally used genres from the biopic tradition for the film. He said that while not every genre would be to every audience member's liking, he hoped that people could latch onto some of the stories.
Haynes also said he used icons such as Billy the Kid, Arthur Rimbaud and Woody Guthrie intentionally in the film. "I wanted to honor and characterize the specific literary and cultural influences that defined parts of (Dylan)," he said. The Billy the Kid story accounted for Dylan's work that reflects an identification with outlaw ideology, Haynes said.
When asked about his use of voiceover in "I'm Not There," in light of the disdain it often receives, Haynes said he loves the technique. "I think even the cheesiest voiceover immediately situates you," he said. "It's a device. All of filmmaking is a device."
Haynes said he did not think of specific actors while writing the script for "I'm Not There," aside from Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays Claire, "a hybrid of women in Dylan's life." He also said he knew he wanted a movie star for the Billy the Kid character - a role ultimately filled by Richard Gere. "I wanted someone who carried in his face a miniature version of American cinema," Haynes said. "It was all about the past." The character was reflecting on all the other characters in the film, and America as well, Haynes said.
He said he also wanted a woman to play the male role of Jude, which eventually went to Blanchett.
"It wasn't a random choice ... It was wanting to get to the core of what made that period of (Dylan's) life so risky," he said. "I wanted the strangeness to be evident in the physical state of Jude."
Haynes also said of all the characters in the film, he was captivated most by Jude while writing the script because it was a dramatic turning point.
Associate Professor of Modern Culture and Media Lynne Joyrich asked the last question, inquiring whether Haynes would describe himself as a queer filmmaker. "Shit yeah," Haynes replied. "I'm a total queer filmmaker ... queer as two cents."
"I know that my films are unique in some ways in American film today and that they can be described in all kinds of ways as queer - in their approach, in their fetishistic curiosity with popular culture, with high and low art," Haynes said. "Formally and strategically and aesthetically, this film is still queerist."
Haynes also discussed his admiration for his producing partner Christine Vachon '83, whom he called a "queer champion."
He said he was encouraged by the fact that 2007 was a watershed year of sorts for director-driven cinema, citing the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men," Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" and Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."
"All of a sudden I feel like something broke," he said. "I didn't feel so alone and unique."
Katie Lamb '10, an organizer of the event and head chair of the Queer Alliance, noted in her introduction that the Haynes event kicked off Pride Month, which will run through April.
The event was sponsored by the Malcolm S. Forbes Center for Culture and Media Studies and the Department of Modern Culture and Media, Pride Month, and the Cogut Center for the Humanities, Lamb said.
Joyrich placed the event in the context of the Modern Culture and Media Department's Media Fetish Series. She said that Haynes' media fetish was demonstrated through his films, noting the examples of "Velvet Goldmine" and its ties to music videos, "Far From Heaven" and its ties to 1950s melodrama and "I'm Not There" and its ties to documentaries and Westerns, among other genres.