Todd Haynes


The two sorts of Todd Haynes films:
Genre-based, linear, and driven by female characters
(Superstar, Safe, Far from Heaven)
Musical, heavily researched, and driven by male characters
(Velvet Goldmine, Poison, I’m Not There)

Over the past decade, Todd Haynes and I kept almost meeting, introductions recurrently planned by mutual friends, notably the novelist Jon Raymond. I heard about I’m Not There—“Todd’s Dylan film”—from Jon perhaps five or six years ago, and the concept sounded at once irresistible and unimaginable. Famously (or notoriously) fragmenting Bob Dylan across seven characters and six actors, I’m Not There arrived last fall as not only the slyest and smartest movie of 2007 but also the most touching, even soul-stirring. As another friend who saw the film during the opening Thanksgiving weekend in New York proposed, “I’m Not There reminds you why we all wanted to be artists in the first place.”

From the outset—Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)—Haynes’s films mixed formal brilliance and sensory intensity, ultimate mystery and everyday candor. His early feature Poison (1991) projected one of his cinematic grids: collaged, male, tilted toward music or literature, and perhaps most spectacularly realized in Velvet Goldmine (1998). Safe (1995) and Far from Heaven (2002) devised another Haynes template: the female melodrama. I’m Not There audaciously crisscrosses—concentrates, and then extends—his prior filmmaking styles.

Todd and I started the interview at the bar of the Hotel Gansevoort, continued talking the following week in the garden of an Italian restaurant across the street, and finished up a few days later by phone.

—Robert Polito


ROBERT POLITO: Where did I’m Not There start for you?

TODD HAYNES: It really started as a symptom of something else, where I was reaching the end of my years in New York without knowing I was reaching the end. Velvet Goldmine was an incredibly hard and exhausting production. A lot of my friends and peers in the city had, by the end of the ’90s, found a piece of real estate, a long-term relationship, a baby, things that rooted them. But I didn’t have any of those things, and I didn’t have a good domestic life. So many of my first years in New York were spent working. I had a boyfriend, Jim Lyons, who was HIV positive, and whose health was always in question. I was still living out of boxes in my apartment in Brooklyn, Williamsburg, a really uncool end of Williamsburg, where I’d lived at that point for thirteen years. I think I was feeling all the results of that when I decided I’d take some time off to travel, but it didn’t get me out of my funk. I decided, OK, almost begrudgingly, I’ll do a Sirkian melodrama. I knew it was something that I was destined to approach in some capacity because of my love for Sirk, and how much I learned from Fassbinder about the radical potential of maternal melodrama, and how much I wanted to work with Julianne Moore again. And so I had a plot, a kind of diagrammatic structure in which through a certain discovery all the central characters would be hurt in a kind of domino effect, without anybody intending to do so. But I wanted to get out of Williamsburg, I didn’t want to be tethered in New York.

And I had just been in Portland, where my sister lives, on my way to the West Coast, and had an amazing massage and a lovely couple of days there. And I was like, I think I want to go back there. I called my sister, “You think there’s a place I could write, you know, get away.…” She asked around, and called me back and said “my friend Joan” had an empty Victorian house in northwest Portland right off Twenty-third Avenue on Johnson Street, “empty and free, if you want to come and write in it for three months.” I thought, What the hell?

So in the beginning of 2000, as I was making plans and deciding to not stay in New York, I just started to crave listening to Dylan in a way that I haven’t felt since I was in high school, the first time I was really a major Dylan fan—a lover of Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks, etc. But this time it was really powerful and all-consuming. I think I started reading the Tony Scaduto book again, which I had read when I was younger. I started thinking about his life and listening to his music, and then I wanted to make all these tapes for my drive. It’s always something I really relish, being alone in the car, and having that music. So in this case it was going to be an all-Dylan-all-the-time voyage. Maybe I’m oversimplifying it, but when you’re young, change holds all the glamour of your future. Change is everything about leaving the comfort of your suburban life behind and being on your own, and of course it’s full of danger and apprehension, but that’s good! That’s exhilarating and promising, and Dylan’s voice and irreverence and fearlessness as a performer, let alone a songwriter, come through on those records. As John Lennon said: you don’t have to understand a single word that he’s saying to understand what he’s talking about. And that’s the sheer force of the performance.

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Robert Polito’s most recent books are the poetry collection Hollywood & God (forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press) and The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber (forthcoming from Harvard University Press). The founder and director of the graduate writing program at the New School, he is currently completing Detours: Seven Noir Lives.

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