Acclaimed filmmaker Todd Haynes is no stranger to the experimental.
Having studied art and semiotics at Brown University, Haynes’ first short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988) depicts the life of singer Karen Carpenter through the use of barbie dolls and artistic footage. This alternative choice made the film a cult classic, with Haynes continuing to explore the boundaries of conventional cinema across his career. His first feature film Poison (1991), inspired by the novels of Jean Genet, earned him the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. This was shortly followed by Safe (1995), feminist counter-cinema starring Julianne Moore that metaphorically addressed the AIDS crisis. Haynes continued to explore both sexuality and gender within his works Velvet Goldmine (1998) and Far from Heaven (2002). Haynes’ 2007 nonlinear biopic I’m Not There portrayed Bob Dylan’s life through seven fictionalized characters, all of which were played by different actors. He directed the mini-series “Mildred Pierce” in 2011 before returning to feature films in 2015 with “Carol” (2015), “Wonderstruck” (2017) and “Dark Waters” (2019).
The Velvet Underground is Haynes’ first documentary yet somehow remains faithful to his unconventional storytelling method. The film embodies the bands experimental spirit, offering unseen footage and talking heads in an artistic experience opposed to a linear narrative. The documentary honours the band in a captivating display of not only their talents, but of the 1960’s New York landscape that shaped their career. 1883 Magazine joined Todd Haynes in London during the BFI premiere weekend of The Velvet Underground to discuss creative permission, Lou Reed fangirling and his advice to aspiring filmmakers.
I want to go back to the beginning in regard to your connection with The Velvet Underground – to dedicate your first documentary film to them is a big deal! Where did your interest begin?
It was an incredible opportunity and experience. I first heard their music in college, but I was primed for it because I’d already been hearing the music that they inspired. I think that’s usually the way most people discover The Velvet Underground – through music that is related to their music, but you don’t know it yet. You don’t know that it’s the common route until that happens to you. I think that’s partly what kept this sense of it being a discovery for the listener each time and makes it a little more special than music that is more widely available, known and accepted.
You feel like that journey is your own process. I think it might contribute to how I felt that sense of creative opportunity or permission in their music – that inspired me. It made me feel like “Yeah, you can do something of your own”. It lets you conjure that possibility.
The musical score comes crashing in at the beginning and really sets the tone for the rest of the film – it completely immerses you into the New York cultural landscape of the time. What was your intention with the sound design?
That was the intention in every aspect of so many of the decisions we were making. That’s so interesting to hear both from someone who is so young as yourself and can only imagine that through the film and then to hear it from Amy Taubin, for instance [A film critic who was both a talking head and subject of one of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests in the documentary]. I saw her in New York, and she said the same thing to me – she said that it really felt like she was back there, and she was actually there! So that’s incredibly gratifying to hear because that definitely was the goal or the ambition.
Did you know about all the experimental archived footage that features in the documentary before you began the process?
I knew that the Velvets pretty much only reside in the films of Andy Warhol, many of which I’d seen and loved. It’s such a massive archive of work that he created. I learned more about how ornately they were involved with other Avant Garde and experimental filmmakers in New York. I learned that John Cale lived with Jack Smith, and Piero Heliczer lived in the same building!
This very close community of people were in each other’s company, going to events that were musical, cinematic, art shows, parties, and poetry readings. They were really stimulated by each other and that just creates a possibility for the kind of movements that are unique in our in our history. They become very important, and we look back on them with a lot of interest.
You mentioned you have been a fan since college – did you ever get to meet Lou Reed?
No! I never met Lou Reed. I never met David Bowie. I’m yet to meet Bob Dylan. I could meet him If I just got it together and went to a show – I really want to meet Dylan before we lose him, although he seems to be going strong!
There are some celebrities that seem immortal, right?
I know! That record he [Dylan] put out last year is just extraordinary, so profound and beautiful. But yes, I’d had sightings of Lou in New York. Not that many. I never had the guts to go up, introduce myself and say “Hi, I am such a fan!”.
Did he make you nervous?
(Laughs) Oh yeah! Because people were scared of Lou, you know? He had a reputation for being tough. I knew that much, and so I was no fool. But I will say: I would have given anything for him to have been around while I made this movie. To interview him and to bring him into the process to the degree that he would want to be brought in. It would have made for a different film because documentary is the result of what you can find and who you have.
I don’t know how different it would be with it with him in it, but it would be different. It would be worth all of that, of course. Even if it was a… process to interview him. I heard tapes of him talking with Danny Fields. He was a friend and someone he trusts and it’s a very different Reed than you hear in recorded interviews. What comes out is the most brilliant, witty, excited, infectious creative person. Especially around some of the things that they would talk about and would listen to together. It was it makes you really just have a whole other layer of regard for him.
This is your first documentary film – why did you make the decision to create a documentary and not make a biopic on their story?
Well, it’s so much in what we’ve already been talking about – Avant Garde filmmaking is the only place this band really resides in, in terms of moving images. This collection of films and filmmakers were so relevant to the band that it just felt like this is an extraordinary opportunity. The idea of replicating the band, finding people to play them and then the idea of trying to recreate Andy Warhol films – oh my god, that just sounded hideous to me. Way more importantly, this is a really unique cultural collection of artefacts and artwork that exists, and that people don’t get to see very much! So, it was an opportunity to share it with audiences in a relevant context. All these filmmakers were also doing very different things to one another, even if they were all working outside of conventional filmmaking.
As you said, the film has an Avant Garde style to it – I’m wondering how you think the film will be received by people that perhaps don’t know much about the band?
I’m so eager to hear what happens and how it travels beyond people who already know and have a relationship to the band. The film is being enjoyed and so that helps to spread interest and awareness in such a crowded media culture that we are all in; to know what to watch and what is worth looking at. I think because they’re Avant Garde it makes their music still feel modern and fresh, and not just because people are still influenced by it and maybe even trying to repeat it. The energy behind the music is vigorous and it doesn’t feel dated to me – but I’m but I’m an old guy, so what do I know? (laughs).
Your previous works have focused on some pretty big names that have had massive impact within the music world (Bob Dylan, David Bowie etc). Each film is paired with its own distinct aesthetic that expresses the music culture of its time. Will your upcoming project about Peggy Lee called Fever explore her legacy in the same sense?
In each case, their aesthetics determine a different approach in the filmmaking and how you would find a visual counterpart to the music. Looking at what they’re doing musically and how distinct that is culturally. Peggy brings up a whole set of themes and issues that are relevant to what she was doing. I don’t think it calls for an aggressively formalist approach like I’m Not There used. It has to be something specific to her language – to the styles that she wove together, and to her performances. That’s what I’m excited about!
Trying to tap into that, particularly the time and place which is the really incredible mid-century America jazz era before rock took over everything. She’s just this remarkable woman and the way she expresses her sexual desires and her own perspective within her music is so distinctive and singular. She combines theatricality with something very palpable. A lot of it is based on what I’ve read and researched about from her live performances and engagements. The spell she casts in the room with an intimacy and a sense of quiet; a sense of understatement that she knew from the very beginning was a more powerful strategy for grabbing an audience’s attention – making them lean into her. All of those things I want to try and explore in the filmmaking.
So many of your previous films also break classic Hollywood cinematic models – was this always something you wanted to try and escape?
I think it was an instinct I felt early on. I was interested in what people were doing outside of dominant filmmaking and more experimental traditions. I was interested in the theoretical framework that I was exposed to in college, thinking about the formality and conventions of cinematic language; how they position all of us as spectators and as subjects. That all made sense to the way I was already reading the world – feeling myself in some opposition to things around me. I was also really interested in genre and Hollywood language. Language that we all share. Finding ways of using it but working against it at the same time; trying to deconstruct it to some level in the filmmaking. As I think is evident in a lot the films I do, they’re not interventionist films. They really do employ the use of genres and language that come from Hollywood traditional filmmaking. Familiar tropes that I think we all share that link us and bind us together.
Finally, what is one piece of advice you’d give to aspiring filmmakers?
The most important thing to do for aspiring filmmakers is to make start making stuff. Rather than trying to write a script, get financing and build a bigger model based on how maybe more conventional films are made – try to get your hands dirty. Today there are so many ways that people can do that. Ways that I didn’t have when I was growing up. There are always ways to do it yourself.
I figured out ways of doing it myself in the era I grew up into, and I know people have all kinds of resources to do it themselves today. Play around with all of the technology that we have. It means that you can try stuff out, see what it looks like. Share it with your friends and then think maybe I could try to get this into a film festival. Take those steps. See what that experience is like. Then see how people respond! There is no way you can learn anything more than by making it yourself.
The Velvet Underground is in select cinemas and on Apple TV+ globally from today.
Interview by Lucy Crook