I'm Not There–Todd Haynes

In 2000, seeking a peaceful place to write the screenplay for Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes left New York City and headed up to Portland, Oregon, where his sister lived. Around that time, he was increasingly preoccupied with Bob Dylan. “My love for his music started in high school, but I didn't listen to him for many years,” says Haynes. “And I found myself curiously coming back to him at a moment in my life where I was looking for change, though I may not have known it yet. I've heard that people at crucial times in their lives can turn to Dylan to either lose themselves or find themselves again. And I did change my life. I gave up my apartment in New York and moved to Portland.”

Dramatizing Dylan's Metamorphoses

“As I started to dig deep into Dylan's biographies, I kept confronting this theme of him being this artist who continued to unnerve his following again and again by changing who he was” sometimes to such a degree that the people around him described it as literally shape-shifting in front of their eyes.” As Haynes began to think about turning his Dylan obsession into a film, he decided that the only way to tell the story was to dramatize Dylan's metamorphoses and make them the foundation for the story he would tell. “I wanted to have the film be composed of different actors in completely different stories and genres, each one based on the musical themes and characteristics of a particular period in Dylan's life.”

Haynes was skeptical about getting the music rights, as Dylan had never given permission for a dramatic film on his life. Since he had not been able to secure permission for David Bowie's music for Velvet Goldmine or Karen Carpenter's for Superstar, Haynes and his producer, Christine Vachon, agreed that Haynes shouldn't proceed with the script until the issue was resolved. They began by approaching Bob's oldest son, filmmaker Jesse Dylan (American Wedding, Kicking and Screaming).

Meeting in Los Angeles, Haynes and Vachon described the concept to Jesse and (by telephone) Dylan's long-time manager, Jeff Rosen. Intrigued, Rosen told Haynes to write it out in a one-sheet description. “He told me to avoid mentioning 'Voice of a Generation' or 'Genius of Our Time' or all those tired accolades that make him wince,” says Haynes. The title at that time was “I'm Not There: Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan.”
“I wrote it up and I tried to describe it in a way that made clear that it wasn't going to be some sellout version of his life and times.” Haynes sent out his brief treatment with minimal expectations. A few months later, he was stunned when Rosen called and said that Dylan had looked at the proposal and watched his films and agreed to give the rights. But there was one unexpected condition: Dylan also wanted Haynes to do a stage version. “I thought, 'I just wanted the movie rights and all of a sudden I have to do theatre and film rights at the same time” says Haynes. “And I realized I couldn't do it alone.”

Haynes invited old friend, screenwriter Oren Moverman (Jesus' Son, Married Life) to Portland and collaborate on the theatrical adaptation of I'm Not There. “We talked about all the cinematic styles for each of the stories, and tried to find theatrical equivalents. It was inspiring and exciting, because it kept forcing me to distill what all these different characters and their stories would look and sound like.” Eventually, Dylan's interest in turning I'm Not There into a theatrical property was redirected to Twyla Tharp's Broadway show, The Times They Are a-Changin” and Haynes went to New York to make Far From Heaven.

Haynes went back to the script but found the responsibility of the project extremely daunting. “I didn't want this film to just be about who Dylan married or what drugs he did and all those things that biopics relish,” he says. “I wanted to do it right. Once I was talking with Jeff Rosen and I said, 'This is a big honor! I feel I have to represent Dylan to the world and I want to do it accurately and carefully!' And Jeff just said 'Todd, don't even think about that. This is your own weird interpretation of Bob Dylan and that's all you have to worry about.' So I was given permission by the gatekeeper himself to explore and invent freely.”

Blending Facts and Influences

After he was three-quarters through a lengthy script, Haynes invited Moverman back to Portland to help him pull it into a final shape. “At this point he was closest to the material and somebody I really trusted personally,” says Haynes. “I usually write my scripts alone, but it was a joy to bring him into the process. It made finishing the script great fun.” Some of the Dylan personas featured in I'm Not There correspond to a recognizable period and look in Dylan's life, whereas others are more metaphorical, blending influences, passions, and imagery that extend over his entire career.

Haynes gave free reign to his imagination in how he represented the various selves, and the diverse set of cinematic styles to film them. “I wanted the film to be something that could, at some level, approach what he did as an artist,” says Haynes. “His kind of writing, his kind of imagination, and all the tropes that continues to influence him throughout his life. It was a tall order, but it was my goal.”


The character of Woody (played by Marcus Carl Franklin) in the film represents Dylan's early years as an interpreter of folk music, and in particular, his fascination with the music of Woody Guthrie.”Listening to Woody Guthrie had a huge transformative influence on Dylan,” says Haynes. “Not just his amazing songs, but the entire attitude and persona that emerges in his book Bound for Glory. And Dylan immediately began to impersonate him in the way he spoke, the way he sang, and the way he dressed. The early accounts of experiencing Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village are filled with hilarious accounts of Dylan's yarns about his past and where he came from. And I thought, let's really take that to heart and have Woody be this person that literally claims to be Woody Guthrie' and let's make him black. And let's have everybody comment on how young he is and how unlikely he is to be Woody Guthrie, but never even mention that he's black, the way Dylan was never really caught in his lies. So the character of Woody's all about the sheer force of persuasion and Dylan's first intense aspiration and desire to become something else.”

Jack Rollins

The character of Jack Rollins (played by Christian Bale) depicts Dylan in his first breakthrough years as a singer-songwriter of protest music, when songs like The Times They are a-Changin” and “Blowin in the Wind” changed the face of American folk music. Haynes presents him through a 1980s documentary that looks back on the legendary figure of Rollins, who walked away from his career at the height of his success. “I wanted to accentuate the mythic qualities of Rollins,” says Haynes. “So he's only seen in photos and film clips, and described by the people who knew him. He's a figure of high moral instincts who allies himself with a very clear political consciousness driven by the events of the civil rights movement. And I knew that Christian would give furrow-browed intensity to Jack Rollins, something that could almost eclipse our memories of Dylan's face at the time. And I think he really fulfilled that.”

Later in the film the documentary discovers present day Jack Rollins had converted to Christianity and become the pastor of a Pentecostal church in Stockton, California. Haynes spotlights the character's transformation by giving him a new name, Pastor John (still played by Christian Bale). The church seen in the film is very closely patterned after the actual church that Dylan joined in the late 70s, but Haynes heightens John's transformation by making him a minister who sings and performs for his congregation. Pastor John also sermonizes, as Dylan did at many of the concerts he gave at the time. “I saw Dylan's later turn to Christianity as a moment in his life that was similar to his folk period,” says Haynes. “They were both periods when he had the answer. It was a very different answer and a very different moment, but it maintained the same kind of moral imperviousness. And thinking about the connections between those two moments helped me understand his Christian conversion.”


Arthur (Ben Whishaw) is a manifestation of Dylan's interest in Arthur Rimbaud, something that first emerged with his 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan, where he began to move away from songs that addressed large social issues and started writing about more personal things. “That record and particularly the ones that followed it, Bringing it all Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, made use of a much more ornate, complex and hallucinatory use of lyrical material and references,” says Haynes. “And Dylan spoke of the influence of Rimbaud and symbolist poetry and the Beats. And interestingly, in 1965, Dylan started to give interviews where he answered the questions with the same kind of ironic wit, absurdist humor and poetic imagery that you saw in his lyrics from the time. At first you think he's evading these questions from the press with a lot of silly talk about watermelons and umbrellas and light bulbs, until you realize he's actually answering them at a whole other level. So in the film, when you see Arthur, dressed as Rimbaud, being interrogated by an unknown body of government agents, he responds exclusively with all these great Dylanisms from 1965.”


Cate Blanchett's character, Jude, springs from a very specific chapter in Dylan's career, dawning with his explosive first electric concert at Newport in the summer of 1965, moving through his notorious concert tour in England in 1966, and ending with his motorcycle crash later that year. It was a period when Like a Rolling Stone supplanted Blowin' in the Wind as the anthem of his artistic development, and the time of the first backlash from his fans. “When Dylan plugged in his electric guitar, and garnered such hostility from his adoring folk following, it was a test,” says Haynes. “What does an artist do when people start booing him for the first time Some of them will lose their grit and go back to what people liked before. Dylan used it–he used the hostility to push him further. And you can see that in the extraordinary amount of work he was producing, pushing himself to the limit with endless creative output and amphetamines.”

The Dylan of that era, the tangle-haired rebel gazing from the covers of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, is for most people the quintessential mental picture they have of Dylan to this day. “That image of Dylan is so well-known and so woven into our cultural fabric now that I felt that the sheer shock of it that people must have experienced at that time is gone,” says Haynes. “I wanted to find a way to re-infuse it with true strangeness–the eeriness and sexual uncertainty and diffusion. And that's why I wanted to have a woman play the part. And it took Cate Blanchett to transform that tall order into something more than a cinematic stunt.”

At first Haynes considered D.A. Pennebaker's documentary Dont Look Back as a reference for Jude, but that film documents Dylan's last solo acoustic tour in England the previous year, a juncture when he was greeted by worshipful audiences as a beloved poet. “It was a different time,” says Haynes, “I wasn't sure that Don't Look Back was the right cinematic equivalent to the style and feel for this particular Dylan and his work. I started watching a lot of 60s films, and it didn't take long to discover Fellini's 81/2, the perfect cinematic parallel. It's a film about a director being besieged by his fans, followers and critics, and being asked continually: 'What do your films mean' Why aren't you doing films like you used to do' And although there are still scenes in backstage rooms which will be invariably compared to Don't Look Back, the Jude story is in fact a very composed, baroque and churlishly overt tribute to mid-60s Fellini.


The character of Robbie (Heath Ledger) focuses on Dylan's personal life and the central relationship reflected in his own love songs. Set against the Vietnam era, the failures of love and war are compared, as Robbie, a counter-culture movie actor falls in love with Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a painter. But, as the decade ensues his constant absences and his lack of respect for her needs gradually fractures their relationship. As he had with Jude, Haynes sought inspiration from another 60s cinema legend to tell this story. “I looked at the mid-60s work of Jean-Luc Godard,” says Haynes, “and in his films there's a great romanticism towards women, but with it, at times, a quiet condescension. The women in these films are treated with a poetic camera, but they are exempt from the political discourse that drives them. And this double standard has been a point of discussion in some of Dylan's songs as well. Because of this, I wanted Charlotte Gainsbourg's character to be something more than just one of the women in his life, but someone who really is a testament to the cost of a high-profile career and its output. I wanted to have a compelling woman in the film, someone that you could have a competing sympathy for. And I reference Godard as a way of expressing that visually and cinematically.

The Robbie section was also a place where Haynes could speak to Dylan's faults and present a more layered portrait. “We all know he's brilliant,” says Haynes. “I didn't need to paint a puff piece of Bob Dylan. And I thought that the conflicts and the contradictions of his personality were more interesting than just patting him on the back. And what was remarkable was how Dylan's management allowed me to do that.” Through the oldest Dylan, Billy (Richard Gere), Haynes was looking at another current that moves throughout Dylan's career: his interest in Country and Roots Music and American folklore.


“With Billy, the myth of Billy the Kid having survived his run-in with Pat Garrett mirrors Dylan's own escapes from public life, as well as his famous appearance (and music) in Sam Peckinpah's 1973 film Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid,” says Haynes. “But it's here, cast in the tobacco haze of a late 60s hippie Western, and comprised of references to Dylan's Basement Tapes, his Rolling Thunder Revue, and the old weird America so much of his work draws from, Billy is discovered in a self-imposed exile from the world. The strangely looming disturbances he senses, just over the hill, suggest a teeming nation just beyond the hills of Woodstock. In the end, Billy is forced out of hiding and back into the world. With the discovery of Woody's guitar, the cycle of shape-shifting comes full circle. And as Dylan's own thunder continues to roll, through his memoirs, radio-show, more definitive recordings, and his”never ending tour” Dylan's creative shape-shifting continues as well.