Todd Haynes Got Stuck in LA During the Pandemic and The Velvet Underground Kept Him Sane

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Todd Haynes wasn’t even in Cannes yet for the premiere of his new documentary, “The Velvet Underground,” when things got emotional. During a stopover in Amsterdam, he met up with Christine Vachon, his longtime producer who had worked with him ever since his early days of “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” and “Poison.” Forced to different sides of the country when the pandemic set in, they were finally reunited to launch another film.

“I hadn’t been separated from Christine Vachon this long in our entire lives together,” Haynes said in an interview from the festival a few days later. “We just burst into tears. For people who work collaboratively, it’s hard not to be around each other.”

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That sentiment has been on his mind a lot over the past year. Haynes had been developing a nonfiction look at the history of Lou Reed’s seminal New York band for several years by early 2020, and wound up quarantined with co-editor Affonso Gonçalves in Los Angeles for several months. (Their other editor, Adam Kurnitz, collaborated remotely from New York.) Haynes couldn’t retreat to his home in Oregon (where his neighbor, Kelly Reichardt, hunkered down) because it was undergoing renovations. Instead, he spent weeks at a facility in Venice, with short breaks to watch sunsets from the beach.

“When things shut down in a big city, it’s almost more chilling,” he said. “I would probably have picked a bucolic tiny place to be where you can create your own reality, but I had this.”

Day after day, the story of “The Velvet Underground” kept him sane. “It’s just really hard to imagine getting through that crazy fucking time without this movie,” Haynes said. “How lucky were we?”

Cinetic and Submarine sold the movie to Apple from footage presented to buyers at Cannes in 2019, after the director had completed 19 of the 20 interviews, all with people who were around for the band’s legacy and witnessed the explosion of underground art in the late ‘60s. With the finished product screening to a boisterous reception at Cannes ahead of an anticipated fall season launch, Haynes said he looks back on the final stage of post-production as a lifeline. “We needed every bit of creative nourishment and a sense of vitality from what had happened in the past,” he said. “Our internet life, our digital life, disperses us. We’re not really concentrated in the same ways.”

The 60-year-old filmmaker was about a decade removed from the era portrayed in the movie, but like many generations, he was inspired by a legacy of rebel artists united by Andy Warhol’s factory as well as a wave of experimental cinema that took shape in downtown Manhattan. “It felt like the instant I landed in college it was coming at me from all sides,” Haynes said. “It’s just funny how you discover things when you’re young that are sort of out of order. I was already listening to Bowie, Roxie, and punk rock. Then you all of a sudden find the common denominator, and it is a radical discovery.”

“The Velvet Underground”
“The Velvet Underground”

Haynes adopts the language of avant-garde film to tell the story, with ample split screens and bountiful archival footage competing for space, as the movie creates an audiovisual immersion into the evolution of the band’s artistry. The late Reed’s voice is often heard on the soundtrack, but new interviews include surviving band members John Cale and Mo Tucker as well as Modern Lovers’ Jonathan Richman and film critic Amy Taubin, one of the few participants to appear in old footage from Warhol’s screen tests. Cale is especially valuable for insight into the history of the band’s dispassionate sounds (“I’m Waiting for the Man” undergoes a fairly dramatic revision), and how they drew on the work of other artists around them at the time.

The movie also features the last major interview with Anthology Film Archives founder and experimental cinema rabble-rouser Jonas Mekas, who captured much of the scene in question with handheld camera over the years, and ends with a dedication to him. “This band was formed by the avant-garde cinema and culture of New York at this time,” Haynes said. “It was happening in every conceivable way around this band, whether it was Cale living with Jack Smith on Ludlow Street or the band being asked to make music for one of Jonas’ multimedia film series at the cinematheque. Everything was just crossing these boundaries constantly.”

The research process took several years before Haynes sat down for the interviews. “I was testing instincts and assumptions and speculation, stuff that was in all the history I’d been researching that I suspected was there,” he said. “But I wanted to hear from the people who actually were there.”

The movie sidesteps the more salacious aspects of the band’s existence — there’s little talk of heroin use, or anyone’s carefree sex lives — in favor of an aesthetic deep dive. The filmmaker said he felt that the reputation of The Velvet Underground and the period as a whole had been simplified over the years as one big party. “That’s really what was projected onto The Factory over the years,” he said. “It minimizes something so much more comprehensive and across-the-board foundational to a kind of spirit of possibility, an investment in art-making and creating things.”

There are several moments throughout the movie when Haynes’ subjects repudiate ‘60s flower-power hippiedom and other clichés from the era. “We weren’t the counterculture,” Mekas says. “We were the culture!”

That distinction, Haynes added, was key to his approach. “There was a rejection of so much other stuff going on. You know Lou was interested in what Bob Dylan was doing, but it was only by necessity that he’d have to say ‘No, I’m rejecting that.’”

Even in these early days of promoting the movie, Haynes said many people have been asking him whether the spirit of innovation that surrounded the band in the ‘60s could happen today. He remains unconvinced. “It’s almost unfair to ask the question because of how distinctively unique the ’60s were,” he said. “You don’t want to foreclose the possibility of change and openings.”

Above all, he added, the band’s success was tied to its surroundings. “Artistic movements come out of geographical places, mostly, where people are physically in the same place and time for all kinds of reasons,” he said. “That’s what made New Orleans an unbelievably rich and diverse place with so many cultures intermingling at the turn of the century. It’s the same with Harlem of the 1920s, and the Paris of the teens. That was New York of the ‘60s. And it’s even what happened in the AIDS epidemic, which forced all of us into combat mode, to defend our own lives and also feel a necessity to speak about it at every level, including aesthetic and artistic levels.”

Haynes has yet to return to a film set, and may not get the chance before the end of the year. While it was recently announced that he will direct Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in the psychodrama “May December,” his next project is likely the Peggy Lee biopic “Fever,” starring Michelle Williams. With MGM set to produce the movie, Haynes initially expected to go into production this fall, but once the studio was acquired by Amazon last month, the project was pushed into next year.

“It’s a demanding movie for the budget, but we can hold onto the really great creative team I’ve put together,” he said, beaming about the work he planned to do with costume designer Sandy Powell and his regular cinematographer Ed Lachman. “I’m so ready,” he said. “It’ll be a bit later, but it’s fine, as long as I know it’s happening.”

He first approached Williams about the project years ago, but it was delayed when she committed to Steven Spielberg’s upcoming drama based on his childhood. He has yet to set up any screen tests with the actress in character as the iconic singer. “I haven’t seen the transformation, but I’m not worried,” he said. “On ‘Fosse/Verdon,’ she just took it to the whole other level.”

Haynes said he has gained access to Lee’s archives through her granddaughter, Holly, and the story would use a series of live performances as its centerpiece with several flashbacks. “When you read about her, you really read about what it was like to be in a small club with Peggy Lee at her best moments,” he said. “That’s sort of the way the film is structured around key live performances that we hope to perform live in the movie, but they’ll trigger the past and giving it a gauzy, soft focus, star filter treatment that seems appropriate.”

Sounds like a Todd Haynes movie alright. “I think it’s very me,” he said, and chuckled. “She’s complicated. She’s not the cool character that she sounds like on her records and that she performed as a person. I like that contradiction.”

Haynes said he insisted on a theatrical release for the movie as part of his contract, a demand also included in his deal with Apple for “The Velvet Underground,” at least as far as North America is concerned. (Other territories are still being sorted out.) However people see “The Velvet Underground,” Haynes was already beaming from the big premiere at the Lumiere Theatre in Cannes, where it played to a standing ovation after the band’s music filled the room for two hours.

“I know it was compounded by everybody being locked down for over a year and they haven’t seen movies on the big screen, but it just made me really want to be here and share this movie,” he said. “I think of it as a gift to young people today, the experimental spirit that produced this band in this time and place. It’s there in the fiber of the film.”

“The Velvet Underground” will be released by Apple TV+ on October 15, 2021.

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