Deconstructing Bob Dylan

By Silberg, Jon | American Cinematographer, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Deconstructing Bob Dylan


Silberg, Jon, American Cinematographer


I'm Not There, shot by Edward Lachman, ASC, examines various facets of the musical icon's persona.

Director of photography Edward Lachman, ASC was intrigued when director Todd Haynes told him his idea for I'm Not There, an unusual cinematic portrait of singer/songwriter Bob Dylan. The two first discussed the idea as they were wrapping up their collaboration on Far From Heaven (AC Dec. '02), a modern take on the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk that earned Lachman an Academy Award nomination. During that project, they'd found they shared a desire to explore a variety of visual styles in their future work Lachman had also been fascinated with Dylan and his music since his teen years. "During the Sixties and Seventies, I was growing up in New York and going to art school, and as I lived through those times, Dylan's early music was always inspirational and prophetic for me. As I studied art history and painting, I became increasingly interested in the imagery in films. I was listening over and over to Blonde on Blonde, which only made me think more about images. I thought at the time that it would be impossible to create images for a Dylan song, because his words and music were the images."

Haynes' idea was to approach Dylan by way of a series of self-sufficient, dramatically distinct worlds that would each have an entirely different look, feel and cinematic language. "Every biopic has the same story," the director maintains. "The personal side suffers from a public life - not really that unique." Dylan, he elaborates, constantly pushed himself artistically, shedding a persona when it found acceptance and replacing it with one that was often met initially with rejection. After shooting to national prominence as a folk singer, he famously plugged in an electric guitar. Once accepted as a rocker, he made forays into country music and later sang about his conversion to Christianity. As he moved on, he would repudiate his previous incarnation and its fans.

Haynes wanted I'm Not There to challenge viewers in the same way. "The only true and honest way to approach Dylan's story for contemporary viewers who seem to know most of the key events in his life was to reproduce that sense of shock," he says. "That's why we have different actors and different characters all representing Dylan." None of the characters is actually named Bob Dylan, but various aspects of his biography and carefully crafted personae are represented by six people: Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin), an 11-year-old African-American boy; Jude (Gate Blanchett), a besieged celebrity; Jack (Christian Bale), a celebrity singer who becomes a born-again preacher; Robby (Heath Ledger), a hip Seventies movie star whose marriage is dissolving; Billy the Kid (Richard Gere), an Old West outlaw trying in vain to find refuge from a corrupt world; and, finally, the muse of the piece, Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), a 19th-century poet who became an icon of transgression for Sixties artists.

In creating the different worlds occupied by these characters, the filmmakers assimilated a range of cinematic influences from European and American genres of the Sixties and Seventies. Key inspirations included the early New Wave works of Jean-Luc Godard and the stylized visions of Federico Fellini, who broke away from postwar Italian Neorealism to pursue a more subjective approach to moviemaking that revealed the interior world of his characters (epitomized by 8 ½, which became a specific reference for I'm Not There). On the American side, they looked to experimental films from the 1970s, such as Richard Lester's Petulia (photographed by Nicolas Roeg) and counterculture Westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (shot by Conrad Hall, ASC), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC) and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (shot by John Coquillon).

Lachman and Haynes believed that the more the various looks could be built into the negative, the more authentic the picture would feel. …

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