“I’m Not There:” Director Todd Haynes talks about his fractured biography of Bob Dylan’s personas

Todd Haynes’ fractured Bob Dylan biopic “I’m Not There,” now in theatres, leads the nominees for the Independent Spirit Awards. Haynes talked with the audience after a preview screening at AMC River East, moderated by New City’s Ray Price.

Haynes casts six actors portraying different elements of Dylan’s persona, each shot in a distinct cinematic style inspired by the era.

Cate Blanchett plays electric Dylan in a world that echoes Fellini and Richard Lester, Christian Bale plays the folk singer and born-again Christian, Heath Ledger plays an actor portraying Bale’s character, Ben Winshaw plays the romantic poet at a press conference, Richard Gere plays a Western recluse, and newcomer Marcus Carl Franklin plays an 11-year-old hobo.

Ray Pride: Has he seen the film yet?
Todd Haynes: He? Dylan? Dylan has a DVD of the film on his bus on tour. That’s the last I heard. Whether he’s watched it yet, I don’t know.

Audience: Who did you make the film for?
Haynes: I didn’t have a specific constituency in mind. When I make a movie, I think about what the viewer’s emotional experience will be, even when I’m doing something new and different.

I think about how Dylan broke all the assumptions about what popular music could be, so it could never be reducible again. I tried to do something similar in narrative film, include [experimental elements,] poetry, politics and human relationships.

Dylan took root in an era where the audience was hungry to have their minds exploded. I don’t know if that’s true about audiences today. I didn’t try to tailor the film to the audience of today.

Audience: Did you write with these actors in mind?
Haynes: The only actor I had in mind was Charlotte Gainsbourg. I don’t like to think of an actor when I’m writing. What if I don’t get them? Charlotte was a composite of different women in Dylan’s life. Knowing her beauty, mystery and integrity, that role was meant for Charlotte.

I knew I wanted a woman to play Jude [Blanchett’s role]. I knew I wanted a young black actor to play Woody. For Richard Gere’s role, I wanted a famous American movie star who carried his own history in the lines of his face.

Pride: Who did the singing? I saw Chan Marshall of Cat Power’s name in the credits.
Haynes: Cat Power is not in the film, but she’s on the soundtrack. Stephen Malkmus [of Pavement] sings Cate’s songs, backed up by a band we put together called the Million Dollar Bashers. Mason Jennings sings the folk songs of Christian Bale. John Doe [of X] did the gospel songs. Jim James [of My Morning Jacket] did “Going to Acapulco,” with members of Calexico.

Audience: How did you pitch this movie to studios?
Haynes: That was the hard part. I felt I had the wind in my sails when we took the multi-character approach. We took it to Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen. We wrote a one-sheet description and Dylan said yes. We got life and music rights. Then the actors signed on. In Cannes 2005 we did robust European presales.

We came back to the U.S. in ’06 for domestic financing. Everyone was very polite when they shut the door. We went with a private equity source, which provided enough for us to shoot in Montreal. I took a reel of what we had shot around to key people.

Harvey Weinstein stepped forward, took the risk, and made a handsome offer. We had worked together before on “Velvet Goldmine.” It wasn’t always easy. We had different ideas. But the thing about Harvey is that he’s passionate about what he does. He knows film. So many people out there don’t. They aren’t going from their gut. He really cares. He’s been with the film every step of the way.