It seems like a radical idea for any biopic, hiring six different actors to play the main character, but director Todd Haynes did just that with I’m Not There, his cinematic ode to the music and shifting public personas of Bob Dylan.
From the first frame, the non-linear, hyper-stylized movie challenges the medium’s generally stagnant language. Along the way, actors as diverse as Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Cate Blanchett, and 13-year-old Marcus Carl Franklin shed light on the enigmatic motivations of Dylan in a way traditional biopics like Walk the Line or Ray didn’t dare. The Current sat down recently with Haynes — the real star of I’m Not There — to talk about making a revolutionary movie about a music revolutionary.
Can you talk about the genesis of I’m Not There?
It came in the year 2000. It was at a time when I was getting back into Dylan music with a fury. I just suddenly had to hear Dylan. It was an interesting time, too, because I had been planning to leave New York for a while and drive cross country, to write the script for Far From Heaven, and I made these tapes for the drive. When I landed in Portland … `I’d` write Far From Heaven by night, but, by day, I just kept thinking more and more about Dylan. I was encountering stuff I’d never heard before, reading some impressive biographies, reading a lot of the interviews from 1965 and 1966. It was just this great time of pure obsession, and it was in that moment that this sort of idea/concept of looking at him as a series of people, all aspects of his different selves. In that idea was the idea to make the film.
Was it his personal life that inspired the movie, or his music?
Everything came from the music, but the music and his life so closely constructed the other. They were always in this constant mirroring of the other. I decided the film should be made up of the places where that was most true, where the music and his creative imagination and the genres he was getting into were reflected in some way with his life. I really had no expectations of getting the rights from Dylan, though, and liked another film `at the time` that was really my practical focus. I just never expected it to happen, and then it did. It was just a complete surprise.
How involved was Dylan?
He wasn’t involved at all. He basically just gave the rights to the music and his life, and then he just carried on with his own stuff — which is what he does. He’s really not that interested in his own past or people’s interpretations of it. It’s no small feat that we got `Dylan’s permission`, which is something he’d never done before, but from that point on, it was all through Jack Rosen `his longtime manager`, who was always a reliable conduit for Dylan.
Did you get the chance to meet him at least?
Did that make it easier when writing the movie?
I don’t know if it made it easier or harder; it was just something I never needed to do. It never affected what I was doing, what I was after.
I’m Not There has six different actors playing Dylan, but Christian Bale’s Dylan is actually two personas — his protest era and, later, his gospel preacher. Why that juxtaposition?
The reason I wanted to sort of link the protest-era Dylan with his Christian period is I found very interesting similarities in his moral and kind of ethical drives. Both of these periods are very, very different and they have very different political implications, too, but that need to be supported by a doctrine and a following characterizes both of these periods. There was also an uncustomary lack of humor in both of these periods. He was pretty dead serious — but was still doing this incredible work. In a way, the music kind of transcended the politics, and it helped me to understand the Christian conversion better.
In the movie, Dylan panics when he’s revealed to be a Jew from the suburbs.
All of these characters run the risk of being unmasked, each of them. Because they’re all adopting a new guise, a new self, a new narrative that the artist is creating. But that means he’s remarkably vulnerable to being discovered — and that’s true for Dylan. It’s almost amazing to think of how shocked he would become when people would find him out, or reveal truths about his past he was trying to make fuzzy or more mythical than he thought they actually were. That felt like it was an important tension to carry throughout the rest of the film.
Has Dylan seen your movie yet?
I don’t know. I actually saw Jess Dylan last night — his oldest son, who’s the one who actually put the DVD in his dad’s suitcase when he embarked on his latest tour — and he said, “I haven’t heard anything yet, Todd. I’ll call my dad and ask him again.” •