MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
In director Todd Haynes' latest film, "I'm Not There," he deploys six actors to portray the many lives of one Bob Dylan. There is Dylan the prophet, the enigma, the innovator, the restless lover, the preacher and the outlaw. Young and old, white and black, male and female. Much of the script is taken straight from old Dylan interviews.
(Soundbite of archived interview)
Mr. BOB DYLAN (Musician): I know more about what you do, and you don't even have to ask me how or why or anything just by looking, you know, than you'll ever know about me, ever.
(Soundbite of movie, "I'm Not Here")
Ms. CATE BLANCHETT (Actress): (As Bob Dylan) I know more about you, right, than you will ever know about me. Slaughter me for all I care. I refuse to be hurt.
BLOCK: That was the first Bob Dylan in 1965 and then Cate Blanchett is Dylan in the movie. I asked director Todd Haynes what it took to get Dylan to give him rights to the music for the movie.
Mr. TODD HAYNES (Director, "I'm Not There"): To be absolutely truthful to myself, there was a little nagging voice that said, if you would ever have given permission, it would probably need to be something like this, something unorthodox, something that opens up his life and work, and something that has a sense of play in it. And, you know, his life has been a series of escapes, from being too worshipped, too revered, too frozen onto the pedestal.
BLOCK: Let's talk about the earliest Dylan in the movie. And it's played by a young African-American boy who goes by the name, in the film, Woody Guthrie. He's a hobo. He travels around on trains. Why did you come up with that? How did you come with that as the, the original Dylan that you wanted to portray?
Mr. HAYNES: It was almost a sight gag. The Dylan that first came on the scene in New York that left Minnesota in 1961, who is so living in the thrall of Woody Guthrie and his influences and his style and his manner and even his own specific dust ball history. That Dylan - there are just endless accounts of Dylan's stories about himself from - and saying he was an orphan and that he was raised in circuses and he came from, you know, in New Mexico, and all of these unbelievable tall tales that no one really bothered to catch him on. And basically, Dylan was passing, he was pretending he was anything but a middle-class Jewish kid from Minnesota. And people went for it. And so I wanted to play that out through this character.
BLOCK: Yeah. It's fascinating, too, because people love the myth.
Mr. HAYNES: No, absolutely. But I also think it was an era in which - as one of the interviewees in Scorsese's documentary "No Direction Home" said, it was a time when what people had to say was what mattered. You know, you hear a new singer, you'd hear about a new poet or a new writer and people would say, well, what does he have to say? And I think how you presented yourself in the exuberance of your statement and your point of view was what mattered more than the veracity of your background or who you are. People were, you know, encouraged to invent themselves and recreate themselves.
BLOCK: When it came time to create the character for the mid-60s, electric Dylan, the one who alienates a lot of fans, goes on tour in Europe and is booed, called Judas. Did you always know that you wanted a woman to play that part?
Mr. HAYNES: Yeah. The Dylan of that time was yet again another physical manifestation. And it's even - if you look at the movie, don't look back. What you see is this much skinnier, much more nervous, quivering, amphibious figure on stage with absolute androgyny. And I just feel like that moment is so well known that the shock of it, the strangeness of what he looked like and how we behaved in, let alone how loud that music was and how assaultive the entire transformation must have felt like, has sort of been forgotten. And I wanted to do something extra to bring that out.
So I thought a woman could get to the core of what was really unique about that period. But, of course, casting Cate Blanchett took it to a whole other level.
(Soundbite of movie, "I'm Not Here")
Ms. BLANCHETT: (As Bob Dylan) Who cares what I think? I'm not the president. And this (unintelligible).
Mr. HAYNES: She leaves the stunt in the dust and she gets inside this character.
BLOCK: Did you find it that you were combing through Dylan lyrics and finding imagery that you would incorporate into the filming, almost, almost feels like coded messages for people who might be really paying attention?
Mr. HAYNES: Every detail, every line, every - and in most cases, every sort of visual reference or setup in the movie came from something, came from something in the Dylan universe in the '60s, from '60s cinema, from historical references, from films that Dylan would have, would appear in or be involved in making. So yes, it was all, it wasn't necessarily like pulling a line out of a song and sort of illustrating it for people as a kind of - in joke or anything like that. And that's why I don't feel like it's necessary to get these references to fully experience the film.
Instead, I just wanted it to feel like you're inside the tissue of this time, this amazingly dance combustive but joyous times. So much was going on, and there was such an openness to exploding unconventional song, films, conventional forms and conventional ways of thinking. And the, I don't know if Dylan would have existed without coming out of that time.
BLOCK: The title song, "I'm Not There," which was never officially released, it's been, I guess, as a bootleg, what, what do you, when you hear it now, especially in the context of this movie now, what do you think of that?
(Soundbite of song "I'm Not There")
Mr. HAYNES: The song is filled of a kind of almost an utterable sense of longing and regret. It has that kind of guilt, and that's the sort of sense of trying to explain why you're not there.
(Sound bite of song "I'm Not there")
Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) Yes, she's gone like the rainbow that was shining yesterday, but now she's home beside me and I'd like for her to stay…
Mr. HAYNES: There is words you, no one can ever decipher, that he's, sort of, filling in the meter as he's singing. And in a way, because it escapes the, sort of, linguistic logic and mastery, it almost communicates more than it ever could if it was fully legible and readable. It's sort of beyond words. And the first time you hear it, you're like, yeah, that's what it's all about, okay. And then you immediately have to hear it again and again. And I chose it partly because it may be epitomizes that sense of Dylan as being something that you can't ever completely grasp.
(Sound bite of song "I'm Not there")
Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) I wish I was there to help her but I'm not there I'm gone.
BLOCK: Has Dylan seen the movie?
Mr. HAYNES: Dylan has not seen the movie as far as I know. He has a DVD with him on tour, I believe. And that's the last I heard. That was about three weeks ago. So we're curious, anxious, excited.
BLOCK: Bob, call me.
Mr. HAYNES: You should call me, Bob.
BLOCK: Well, Todd Haynes, thanks so much for coming in.
Mr. HAYNES: Thank you so much. It's such a pleasure.
BLOCK: Director Todd Haynes. His movie "I'm Not There" opens next week. You can see Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan at our website, npr.org
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.