Todd Haynes' new film is a study of a musical and cultural chameleon a job that suits, since the American director is somewhat protean himself. His last film, Far from Heaven (2002), was a meticulous pastiche of 1950s melodrama that could have passed, to the last Technicolor shade, as a new film by period maestro Douglas Sirk except with a "queer" revisionist twist. Before that, the Los Angelean director paid homage to Jean Genet and monster-movie Americana (Poison, 1991), and reimagined glam-rock history as a roman à clf romance between David Bowie and Iggy Pop (Velvet Goldmine, 1998).
In his new film I'm Not There, which reimagines the multiple lives and times of Bob Dylan, Haynes, by his own admission, borrows liberally once again: "Fellini, Godard, Richard Lester's Beatles films, late-1960s hippie Westerns..." But more than a pastiche artist, Haynes is a masquerader who delves into a vast stylistic dressing-up bag to get under the skins of artists, of cultural moments.
Naturally, he likes to get close to the spirit of his themes by immersing himself in the cinema of the relevant period. "How else do you get inside the skin, the tissues of a certain era?" In I'm Not There, Haynes turns his attention to another artist whose identity is so changeful that he seems less a man than a multitude. As the title suggests, the film is about Dylan as invisible man; it is less a biopic than an idea of what a film about Dylan might resemble. Dylan is not so much played by, as represented by six actors, including Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, an 11-year-old African-American named Marcus Carl Franklin and Cate Blanchett, who brings an elfin androgyny to the tumultuous rocker.
Riddled with precise references to Dylan's career, and delving into the less obvious corners of his songbook, the film will mean very different things to non-initiates and hardline fans but Haynes says he's not really concerned about the latter. "I haven't even recently checked the blogosphere to see what they're fixating on. I'm much more interested in what people who know less about Dylan say and feel about it."
The film was made with Dylan's blessing conveyed via the singer's manager and son, Jesse Dylan but Haynes has no idea what pronouncements, if any, the man himself has made on the final product. "All we know is that he has a DVD copy with him on his tour."
After immersing himself in his topic for several years, you'd think Haynes a Dylan fan in high school who lapsed, then came back would have had his fill. But the lanky, youthful-looking director who at 46 is only just beginning to slough off a resemblance to pop jester Beck positively bubbles with enthusiasm about Dylan's current renaissance, the recent records, the memoir Chronicles, the affable radio DJ show. Dylan, says Haynes, "is still so elementally, primally in love with the popular musical form and tradition, and wants to share that whether it's through his own work or just telling you how much he loves and respects Leadbelly with the same passion that he loves and respects Judy Garland. So cool, y'know?"
Haynes' films tend to require him to immerse himself totally in his subjects. He effectively had to become a 1950s director to make Far from Heaven, and to evolve an uncharacteristically glacial style for his 1995 medical psychodrama Safe. There's a touch of Method actor in his identification with his topics: embarking on Velvet Goldmine, Haynes went glam himself, clomping around on chunky platform soles, hair in a 1970s feather cut. "I literally wanted to physically feel the air whistling up a short little shirt that doesn't meet the top of your jeans and feel a little totter on platform heels. I felt that all that stuff was important to getting into that period."
As for more studious research, "it's the most fun part of what I do. It's like I set up a tutorial for myself about a particular era." This scholarly streak is part of the make-up of a Brown University semiotics graduate whose films don't so much tell stories as use narrative to scrutinise cultural myth. Among American film-makers, Haynes is the academics' darling, inspiring essays with such titles as "Allegory, Mise-en-scne, Aids: Interpreting Safe" and "Velvet Goldmine and the unburying of queer desire".
Haynes' debut feature, Poison, a triptych of obliquely linked episodes, was one of the key films of the early-1990s wave that attracted the tag "New queer cinema" (other US proponents being Gus Van Sant, Gregg Araki, Tom Kalin and Haynes' regular producer, Christine Vachon). Poison drew fury from the American Right, which took issue with the forthright gay eroticism of the film's Jean Genet section but it grossed more than $1m in the US, momentarily making it seem that out-and-out experiment had an assured niche in the movie business. "It was a long time ago," Haynes waxes nostalgic, "if you think about the political scene and its changes."
By their nature, Haynes' films take a long time to prepare, and the director periodically disappears from view, causing admirers to wonder whether he has hit a dry patch. "People think I sit around and wait until I'm ready to start working again, but I never stop working. This new movie has been the hardest job of my life, it's taken up so much of my life."
Today, the director sustains his energies by living a wholesome-sounding life in Portland, Oregon known on the US indie cinema map as Gus Van Sant's home town where Haynes originally went to visit his sister. "I have an Arts and Crafts bungalow from 1909 with fruit trees, I grow vegetables and I see bands and swim in the rivers."
He previously lived in New York, but left when he hit a period of depression. "Now I go back and it's just like a fancy rich person's town; people buy a lot of fancy things and go to clubs, it's just gross." Portland, on the other hand, is "mostly just like funky, lefty, smart". Haynes notes that Oregon even, bizarrely, has a state law protecting live sex acts on stage, "not because it's run by radicals, but because it has a libertarian core".
Haynes' current dream is to make a political film about the iniquities of the Bush administration: "I'd like it to be really well researched, accurate and straightforward and no artsy-fartsy bullshit."
To his surprise, he's impressed by the current state of American mainstream cinema, by films such as Michael Clayton, Zodiac and Paul Haggis's Iraq drama In the Valley of Elah. "I'm like, what's going on? All of a sudden, movies from grown-ups." Given how much expectations had diminished in recent years, what's around now, he enthuses, is "radical I mean, catastrophically great". Not that Haynes intends to sign up for the mainstream. He's had offers, but turned them down to pursue his own projects. "I can't imagine doing one of those things and not putting all my blood and guts into it. I don't even know what it's like to make a film without a budgetary crisis and a sense of panic every day."
'I'm Not There' opens on Friday
How Dylan has made his mark on cinema
Don't Look Back (1967)
Dylan tours Britain, takes on the UK media and is outrageously disobliging about poor old Donovan
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)
Not known for his choice of films, Dylan finally picks a good one and out-taciturns himself as enigmatic sidekick Alias, contributing a melancholy score
Renaldo and Clara (1978)
One of Dylan's two sorties as director, and spawned by his epic Rolling Thunder Revue tour, this is a surreal four-hour ramble, part-doc, part-psychodrama
Masked and Anonymous (2003)
Variety said of this dystopian satire that everyone involved would wish they'd stayed away. Dylan had the right idea: he co-wrote the film under the name "Sergei Petrov"
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005)
Martin Scorsese offers, among other things, a portrait of the artist as the young chancer who crashed on people's sofas, then walked off with their favourite folk LPsReuse content