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I AM DYLAN
- ‘I IS ANOTHER’
Cate Blanchett as Jude (the 1960s pop star)
Christian Bale as Jack (the upstart folk star)
Todd Haynes
Ben Whishaw as Arthur (the introspective poet)
Marcus Carl Franklin as Woody (the young apprentice Dylan)
Heath Ledger as Robbie (the disenchanted rock veteran)
Richard Gere as Billy (the shaman and American archivist)

Todd Haynes’s Dylan film isn’t about Dylan. That’s what’s going to be so difficult for people to understand. He was trying to make a Dylan film that is, instead, what Dylan is all about, as he sees it, which is changing, transforming, killing off one Dylan and moving to the next, shedding his artistic skin to stay alive. The twist is that to not be about Dylan can also be said to be true to the subject of Dylan.

“These so-called connoisseurs of Bob Dylan music, I don’t feel they know a thing or have any inkling of who I am or what I’m about,” Dylan himself told an interviewer in 2001. “It’s ludicrous, humorous and sad that such people have spent so much of their time thinking about who? Me? Get a life, please… You’re wasting your own.”

It might sound like a parlour game, or like cheating, but to make sense in a film about Dylan would make no sense. “If I told you what our music is really about, we’d probably all get arrested,” Dylan once said.

Todd Haynes’s Dylan project is a biopic starring six people as Bob Dylan, or different incarnations of Bob Dylan, including a 13-year-old African-American boy, Marcus Carl Franklin, and an Australian woman, Cate Blanchett. It’s a biopic with a title that takes its name from one of the most obscure titles in the Dylan canon, a song available only as a bootleg, called I’m Not There.

As I arrived at the set — a dark and cavernous and disused factory outside Montreal — and pulled into a mud-swamped car-park, disembarking and moving towards a great white light, I passed through the recreated past — namely the 1960s and 70s. There was a sign for Folk City, for instance, and a fake cover for the album Bringing It All Back Home, a mock-up with Cate Blanchett on it. There was a part of a bedroom from the 1970s and, on a nearby stand, a copy of Les Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud, the artist who seems to have inspired Dylan in his early days nearly as much as he inspired Haynes. The book, the filmgoer will learn, shows up in a scene involving the 1970s superstar Dylan, played by Heath Ledger. He was just leaving the factory; on his way back to the Montreal apartment that he and actress Michelle Williams had been staying in together for the past few weeks. Williams plays Coco Rivington, socialite, love interest of Blanchett’s Dylan, who is known in the film as Jude Quinn, the electric, rebellious Dylan.

The bright light, it turned out, was the set — a quasi-governmental interrogation scene that was, like a lot of other things in the film, never really explained — and Christian Bale was just stepping off. Bale’s Dylan is a slow-speaking folk-singer Dylan, the Dylan that seems to be searching and pondering. “In the film I’m playing a guy on a kind of fervent quest to find the truth,” Bale told me. He is one of the many people working on the film who has collaborated with Haynes before — in Bale’s case, on Velvet Goldmine, Haynes’s homage to glam rock. So he was prepared, he said, for the audacity of the script, for so many Dylans, so many different kinds of films within one film.

But back into the bright blast of white light, where Haynes stepped towards the final Dylan to be filmed, the one dressed like Arthur Rimbaud, the Dylan that Haynes named Arthur, a teenage French symbolist poet, played by Ben Whishaw. Whishaw was wearing a frayed 19th-century waistcoat, coat and cravat. “White-wall interrogation of a teenage poet,” the screenplay explains. “Weaves commentary and humour throughout the film.” This interrogation of a teenage 19th-century poet is supposed to be taking place around 1966. Bale’s scenes are shot in 16mm black and white, using old Kodak film stock, in a move for authenticity. Time is confused, mixed; the chronology is meant to be as it is in a Dylan song.

KIND OF COSMIC

But let’s focus on the camera, which Ed Lachman, the cinematographer, had lined up for a final shot of the 19th-century Dylan, a mugshot view of the head, with the same shot of all the other Dylans, a set of Dylan mugshots accumulated over the month-and-a-half of shooting.

Together these head shots will eventually become the opening of the film: all the Dylans presented as a team, a six-actor composite. Flashing on the video monitor Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale and Marcus Carl Franklin. Whishaw’s Dylan was aligned and then filmed, after which the crew broke.

“I don’t know that it does make sense,” Blanchett says of the film, “and I don’t know whether Dylan’s music makes sense. It hits you in kind of some other place. It might make sense when you’re half-awake, half-asleep, in the everyday lives in which we live. I don’t think the film even strives to make sense, in a way.”

Gere, who plays the Dylan of later years, a Billy the Kid Dylan who ran away to some other place, another time, agrees. “It has an emotional truth to it, which is what I think modern art is about,” he said. “It’s not about the narrative. In other words, without narrative, it’s kind of, well, cosmic. And that’s obviously what Dylan’s work is about,” Gere went on to say. “And I think kind of miraculously, Todd was able to tap into that.”

The standard biopic takes a musician and shows his ups and downs, with the happy music in good times, the sad music in bad; it locks him into an identity. With his biopic, Haynes was looking for another way, avoiding straight narrative and leaning towards montage: six short impressionistic pieces almost jury-rigged together. Haynes wanted to get back to what it meant when Dylan went electric, when he ran away to Woodstock and recorded the oldest, craziest American songs. “What would it be like to be in that moment when it was new and dangerous and different?” Haynes says. “You have to do a kind of trick almost to get people back to where Dylan did what he did or Mozart did what he did.”

Haynes is the first non-documentary film-maker ever to have secured the rights to Dylan’s life and music, what some people would consider a film-maker’s chance for big commercial profit, but his script, rather than a straightforward depiction of a man and his guitar, was a combination of film styles and cosmic non sequiturs. While he was waiting for cash to come through, actors came and went. Locations were chosen and then abandoned. One studio picked it up and then dropped it three years later. Haynes didn’t finally find a distributor until last December, six years in, when the Weinstein Company bought it. Then rumours swirled that he was on the verge of losing that distributor when Harvey Weinstein actually saw the first cut of the film this spring. Even Haynes himself told me last month, “This film really shouldn’t hold up.”

In 1998, Haynes had expected Velvet Goldmine, a love letter to glam rock (the film’s title is taken from a David Bowie B-side), to be both his artistic masterpiece and a commercial success. After Velvet Goldmine, Haynes went into a deep funk that lasted a long while.

Velvet Goldmine almost killed him,” says his friend Kelly Reichardt, who was a set dresser on Poison. And this is where the Dylan story begins, when Haynes is down. “I’ve heard this from other people, that he crops up in life, in times of crisis,” Haynes told me. By he, Haynes means Dylan.

DON’T CALL HIM A GENIUS

Haynes was instructed to send all his films to Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s longtime representative. Dylan was about to begin a tour. Dylan, he was told, loves watching movies on the bus. Haynes was further instructed to type up his idea. In telling him how to go about writing up his idea, Haynes recalls, both Jesse Dylan and Jeff Rosen mostly told him what not to do. “Don’t use ‘genius’, they said. Don’t use ‘voice of a generation’, they said, and don’t use ‘music’,” Haynes remembers. He was told not to write more than one page.

Haynes felt certain that he had an idea of what Dylan liked, as far as films went. “I had heard enough,” Haynes said. ‘I knew he liked Fassbinder.’ (Martin Scorsese says that in the 1970s, Dylan first told him to check out the Fassbinder film Beware of a Holy Whore.)

Haynes began his one page with a Rimbaud quote, Rimbaud being a subject he figured he and Dylan were both familiar with: “I is another.” Then came the Scaduto quote about Dylan creating new identities. Then the pitch, which ended, “The structure of such a film would have to be a fractured one, with numerous openings and a multitude of voices, with its prime strategy being one of refraction, not condensation. Imagine a film splintered between seven separate faces — old men, young men, women, children — each standing in for spaces in a single life.” (A seventh Dylan, Charlie, the ‘little tramp’ of Greenwich Village, was eventually cut.)

Haynes sent the pitch off in the summer of 2000. That autumn, he heard that Dylan had said yes.

Actors came and went in the years that passed; Colin Farrell and Adrien Brody were on then off because of commitments. Goldwyn was replaced as the head of Paramount, which subsequently let the movie go. But by the spring of 2006, his producers finally put together financing for the film with foreign sales and a large stake by Endgame Entertainment, a small but expanding entertainment firm headed by a Dylan fan named Jim Stern.

“Because of my vast store of Dylan knowledge, I was able to follow it,” Stern says.

ELECTRIC & ICONIC

The foreign sales came after Cate Blanchett met with Haynes, on the morning of the Oscars in 2005, when she won the best supporting actress for The Aviator.

“He was the reason I wanted to be involved in the project,” Blanchett told me. “And it’s very rare that you read a script that is as impenetrable as this was, because it was completely and utterly inside Todd’s brain. He’d worked out every shot, every juxta­position of image. It was really like an operatic score, there were so many instruments playing.”

At breakfast before the Oscars, he showed her pictures. “I think he was really smart in getting a woman to play Dylan,” she said.

She saw it as relieving pressure on the film. “I think it’s the most externally iconic image of Dylan — when he went electric and that tour — and if a guy had been playing, you would have been looking too closely for the Dylanisms.” How did he finally win her over to the role? “We talked about hair a lot,” she said.

Richard Gere signed on early, too. When Haynes visited in March 2005, Gere had just read about Dylan’s favourite version of Positively Fourth Street, by Johnny Rivers, and he put it on as Haynes came in, the two of them lying on the floor listening to it. Gere gave Haynes a book of pictures by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, a photographer whose mask imagery would make it into the Gere sections.

Blanchett’s Dylan was filmed in a Fellini-style black and white (slow-motion sequences to be added later on). “I said to Todd before we started filming, ‘What’s the 84 stuff?’ Blanchett told me. ‘Is it part Dylan, part Mastroianni?’ And he said, ‘No, no, it’s just a film that I thought of for each section.’ I mean, he had a film for each sort of leaping-off point. That’s what I love, the structure of the film, it dips out of the present and the past, of fantasy and reality, but in that particular sequence, within seconds, within one story.”

“It was touch and go pretty much the whole time we were filming,” Blanchett says. “Films like this just don’t get made all the time. That in itself is extraordinary. But for a film to have Heath Ledger in it and Christian Bale and Richard Gere and to be verging on mainstream cinema — that’s kind of a major achievement in and of itself.”

Weinstein decided to do a test screening in New York in May. On one side of the aisle sat Harvey Weinstein. On the other side sat Haynes. Laura Rosenthal, the casting director; Oren Moverman, the screenwriter; Jay Rabinowitz, the editor; and Christine Vachon, the producer, sat in the back, along with Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s representative. The rest of the place was filled with focus-group attendees. The film, a little shorter, was shown but without effects or credits. At the end, the industry people in the back rows were joking about an Allen Ginsberg scene in which he suggests that Dylan sold out to God. Then came the questioning. It felt like a psychic face-off: Weinstein hunched forward, Haynes leaning back.

“OK, how many people didn’t like the ending?” the screening leader said. Answers ran along the lines of “wasn’t very smooth”, “neutral”, “unclear”. The psychic edge went to Weinstein’s side of the aisle. Then a phrase caused whispers and nods on the Haynes side: “One of the best biopics ever.”

People filled out forms rating the film. Far From Heaven had scored 18 out of 100 for good reactions at its test screening, and now I'm Not There came in at 45, the highest score Haynes had ever received. Length, confusion and Gere’s Billy the Kid Dylan were all “consensus negatives”, to use the industry term. Haynes says that Weinstein predicted dire consequences for the film if changes weren’t made. (Weinstein denies this.)

Haynes went back to Portland and cut some more, eventually bringing the film down to two hours and 15 minutes. Then he headed out to LA for two weeks of sound mixing.

In LA one June morning, Haynes, Rabinowitz, Perri Pivovar, the assistant editor, and Tanya Smith, Haynes’s assistant, were all putting the finishing touches to the film — and adding the dedication, to Jim Lyons, Haynes’s former boyfriend and film editor, who had died of AIDS-related illnesses weeks earlier. “We cut this,” Haynes said, as he watched a Cate Blanchett scene of hallucinatory spectacle. “Jay and I were ignoring notes about it for three months. But we finally cut it when Cate said we should. Not that I do everything because Cate says to.”

“You kind of do,” Smith said.

“No, I don’t,” Haynes said.

“You kind of do,” Rabinowitz said.

That afternoon, they were back in the sound studio. There were details to discuss.

“They want it to say based on the life of Bob Dylan,” Smith told Haynes. “Tell them it’s inspired by,” Haynes said.

“It feels strange to be like this,” Haynes told me in July. By ‘this’ he meant not working on I’m Not There. ‘This’ meant a late breakfast at Fuller’s, an old Portland breakfast place. It meant watching Lifetime movies with his boyfriend, Bryan ’Keefe. Not making a film is not something Haynes is very good at, of course, and his friends realised that he has an idea for a film brewing, that it has to do with politics and the war.

CHEERS & TEARS

Two weeks later, on a party on a boat in Venice the night before the world premiere, Haynes was feeling queasy. Harvey Weinstein was excited; he had already announced that he would get Blanchett an Oscar nomination or kill himself. And he had already come up with a distribution plan that would start in small art houses and expand slowly. “Whatever people are going to say about this, they’re going to have to say that it’s daring,” Weinstein told me just before Venice. “Nothing’s ever been attempted like this before.”

As the credits rolled after the Venice premiere, the audience gave the film a 10-minute standing ovation. “That’s a long time,” Christine Vachon said.

Haynes was overwhelmed. “I was like, ‘Who are they clapping for?’”

“I think people don’t realise how emotional he is,” Julianne Moore, who plays the Joan Baez figure in the movie, had told me earlier. “He’s really trying to work out what it means to be a human being and what it means to live in the world.”

The next day, Haynes went to the ocean and came back with a scene description that was less like an experimental film and more like one of those Lifetime movies. “I just dived into the waves and I came up in the sea and the sky was half-light and half-cloudy and it was just amazing,” he told me. He was elated. “I can take all the I don’t really get its now,” he went on. For a moment, anyway, it was a real Hollywood ending.

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