March 31, 2008

Spotlight On: Todd Haynes

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Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan biopic, I’m Not There, which features six (count ’em) different actors as the legendary musician, was one of the most fascinating films released last year. So naturally The Sun jumped at the oppurtunity to speak with him as he visted campus this past Saturday for a Cornell Cinema retrospective of his work. We sat down with the film director in the Statler to talk about art, his film and, of course, Bob Dylan.
The Sun: So, you went to Brown. What did you study when you were there?
Todd Haynes: I studied art semiotics. When I went to Brown there was no production … I mean there was production but it was in the English department. Semiotics was a program in the English department.
Sun: So you weren’t a film major, but that was basically Brown’s film program at the time?
T.H.: Yeah. My interest in semiotics was ultimately to be able to make films and study film, but I didn’t know it was going to be this sort of theory based program that had more to do with post-structuralist writing and post-Freud and post-Marx.
Sun: And what exactly is art semiotics?
T.H.: Well, semiotics is just their term for … modern culture and media [the current title of the major] is a better name for it. It’s really just about all the writers that turned from a 19th to a 20th century perspective about cultural production. So they started to look at how things were starting to be constructed by new technologies, like cinema and photography — and it would affect writing, it would affect every aspect of popular art and fine art. And [the perspective] moved against sort of naturalist, humanist ways of looking at things, and more towards constructivist ways, where a sort of sense of ideology and the way power works its way down into popular culture, the way certain ideas sort of continue, are invested in depictions of men one way and women another way; of black people one way and white people another way. There are reasons why those things happen there are prejudices and it looks at how they get depicted in art.
Sun: When did you first become interested in studying and making films?
T.H.: I think I was just powerfully affected by movies from the very first ones I saw as a child. They just had this very huge, seismic, enormous sort of powerful effect. And they provoked in me a creative response — they made me draw thousands of pictures and paint and act out the movies and they instigated that kind of reaction.
And then by the time I was in high school, and even before, I think I made my first version of Romeo and Juliet when I wase nine, based on my love of the Zeffirelli production that came out when I was seven [in 1968]. So it had always been that kind of a part of my life.
Sun: How do you choose what films you do? Where do the story ideas come from? How do you figure out “that’s the one that I want to do next?”
T.H.: I’ve written all of my films so far, so they’ve all been things that I had some interest in exploring for one reason or another. It’s hard to say though. Certain ideas get fixed in your head, and then there’s a sort of … for me there needs to be some level of experiment — something that I haven’t seen before and I’m curious to see what would happen. And that often has alot to do with how viewers come into a certain kind of a movie with certain expectations about what it’s going to do to them and where it’s going to take them. And when you respect that, but don’t necessarily want [the movie] to have the same outcome, then you can use the power of the spectator, the film viewer, to do something different and follow genres, but do certain things that change them so the viewers are drawn in and then they maybe have to go, “Wait a minute! This isn’t exactly the kind of movie I expected.” And they maybe wake up a little bit and become more involved in the process, think a little more. That interaction is interesting to me, so all my films have some sort of project, or some plan or some experiment at their core.
Sun: Had you always wanted to do a film about Bob Dylan?
T.H.: It really came by surprise. It took me totally by surprise. I’d been into Dylan in highschool, and then I sort of stopped listening to him for like 20 years. And [in 1999] I was sort of burning out on New York, and not feeling inspired. I planned to drive to Portland, Oregon, to where my sister lived and had a house, to write my melodrama [2002’s Far From Heaven]. And all of a sudden I just started craving to hear Dylan. I made all these cassette tapes, one of the last times in my life I’d ever make cassette tapes. And I drove cross country with my Dylan tapes. By night I would write Far From Heaven and by day I would just obsessively listen to Dylan. If you’re in an obsessive state of mind, Dylan will give you everything you ever need, because there’s endless amounts of stuff.
We had met with his son and his manager [about getting the rights to his songs for I’m Not There]. And I didn’t even really care if we got them. I was having such a good time just being obsessed. It’s so great to be obsessed, so inspiring. And Far From Heaven was finished, and I fell in love with Portland, so I was fine; I didn’t even need Dylan to say yes. And then that fall, we got a message back that said “OK, let’s give the guy the rights.”And that’s all that ever transpired between me and Dylan.
Sun: Any response to the film?
T.H.: Nothing official, no … But I think he’s happy.