I’m Not There, the latest film from Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven), is an unconventional biopic of Bob Dylan — unconventional in that it features several actors (including Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, and, yes, Cate Blanchett) all playing the music legend in different stages of his life. The movie recently opened in limited release, it received the most nominations for this year’s Independent Spirit Awards, and raves from critics (including an A from EW’s Owen Gleiberman) have been coming in like a rolling stone. Last summer, EW caught up with the trailblazing indie filmmaker and talked to him about Dylan, Blanchett, and how it feels to be called ”unconventional” after all.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the genesis of this project?
TODD HAYNES: I came out to Portland to write the script to my last film [2002’s Far From Heaven], and found myself getting obsessed with Dylan. I hadn’t really been that way since high school. I just got deeper and deeper into him, reading biographies and interviews, and discovering a lot of the unreleased material. I’ve heard people say that at life changes they can find their way to him, because he offers so many endless corridors of discovery, because there’s so much material, and there’s so much written about him and all that. I just found him so fascinating, and I started to get a film idea. The thing that stood out in the biographies was just how much radical change had defined his life, and maybe his survival as an artist under the spotlight. He had this almost violent need to reject the thing that he was before, that everybody expected him to be, and to start something new. In some cases, that produced famous reactions, like when he plugged in electric and his whole folk fan base revolted. And I really wanted to explore those kinds of changes. So I figured that the strongest way to do that would be to dramatize the changes by really depicting him as a series of shifting personas: literally different people in different stories that are set at different times of his life.
Then what did you do?
We took this concept to Dylan though his manager [Jeff Rosen], who suggested I write it down. I had very little expectation that I’d ever get this approved, because he’d always said no to any movie about his life. And I wrote it down, like on a one-sheet thing, and sent him my movies, and by the end of that first year — this was in 2000 — he basically said ”all right, let’s give this guy the rights.” So for the first time a dramatic film was given the full music and life rights. I think it was because it was so unorthodox that he liked it. It was certainly not going to be like the traditional biopic. It was going to expand who he is, as opposed to reduce who he is. I bet that was one of the reasons.
So you never had any words with him?
I really didn’t. If I needed to, or wanted to in the process of writing and developing it, I could have, through his manager, Jeff, who’s been really close to the production, but I really didn’t. Maybe I’m just scared. [Laughs] Also, it’s so clear that he just doesn’t want to talk about the past. I didn’t really need to pull him back into these kinds of questions, and, really, I was taking poetic liberty with all the information that already exists about him, so I didn’t need to bring it back down to reality.
How important was it to get his approval on this project?
It was essential. I wouldn’t have even ventured otherwise. I made a film about the Glam rock era called Velvet Goldmine [where we] requested some songs from David Bowie — the film was a fictionalized version of Bowie’s influence in the early ’70s — and we didn’t get that permission, and I ended up using other artists’ songs and some original songs in the place of [Bowie’s] songs. There was no way to do that with this project.
NEXT PAGE: ”Dylan’s strange look at the time [was] a very different type of androgyny…I feel the shock value of it has been lost through how well-known the image is, and I just wanted to re-infuse it with that very bizarre strangeness that I thought a woman playing a man might underscore.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you come to cast each Dylan in each different section?
TODD HAYNES: I wasn’t looking for physical resemblance; I was really looking for the best actors who could do something more interesting than a kind of superficial impersonation of Dylan, and really find something closer to the core ideas of that particular character. But I just wanted to pick among the best actors in that age. One is Cate Blanchett, who plays Dylan as a man in a character named Jude, who depicts Dylan in his famous 1966 guise, where he’s basically riddled with amphetamines, plugging in electric. It’s a totally fascinating and completely singular moment in his career that’s very well known. And I wanted a woman to portray that Dylan before I even selected Cate, just because of Dylan’s strange look at the time — a very different type of androgyny than you’d see later in the glitter era. I feel the shock value of it has been lost through how well known the image is, and I just wanted to re-infuse it with that very bizarre strangeness that I thought a woman playing a man might underscore.
How did you convince her to take this role?
It was hard. In fact, she was even more unconvinced than she let on. [Laughs] She was immediately interested in the idea, but I think she was just terrified, as she’ll probably say herself. I met with her the morning of the Oscars, the day that she would win the Best Supporting Actress award [for The Aviator]. She was in L.A., and I was in L.A., and she said we could have breakfast, so I met her that day and gave her some material…. What’s amazing about Cate — she has a really physical commitment to each part that changes radically. It’s not just intellectual, it’s not just her voice or her face — it’s really just complete body commitment to the role she plays. And I think I needed someone with that kind of understanding for this role, in addition to everything else that she brings to the role.
That photo of her as Dylan drew a lot of attention when it was released.
It was really uncanny when she first did her transformation. I kind of knew something like this was possible with her, because I watched her on stage as Hedda Gabler, and kept kind of drawing in the Dylan hair and clothes on top of her frame, and her proportions. And I was like, Oh my God, I think this could really work. But when I saw it, myself and the crew alike were completely astounded. And when she would come back at the end of the day with her normal hair, I swear to God, we didn’t know who the hell that was. We’d gotten completely used to Jude, you know? And all she was wearing were some eyebrows and some sideburns and a tooth guard to make her teeth look a little funkier. There was nothing else done to her. It was just her. What was really amazing was when she takes off the glasses, she looks more like Dylan than with them on, even. It’s really remarkable.
So is this for Dylan fans? What about those who aren’t so familiar with his work?
People who are the biggest fans have the hardest time watching it the first time, because they’re playing this eternal debate in their mind about what we’re using and what we’re not using, what choice of song, who’s doing this, where that line comes from. Whereas people who know less about Dylan just come to it with this very open excitement. And on that, the movie gives them so many angles and perspectives, and for the most part, it’s been received so well for something this unusual. Mostly, I just wanted it to have this energy and the excitement and the fun of the ’60s.
And what about the fact that people have called this movie peculiar and unconventional? Do you mind these descriptions?
Not at all. It’s not like anything anyone has seen before, and you can’t really say that a lot about movies coming out today. So if that distinguishes it from the pack, not only am I proud of that, but it’s accurate: It’s a new experience. It’s very unusual to approach a famous person’s life in this way. But I think it’s full of so much fun stuff that I think most people will find something in it that they like.