Filmmaker Todd Haynes has always admired glam rock and the experimental, proto-punk scene of the 1960s and 1970s.
The rebellious, avant-garde genre of music even inspired him to make the Oscar-nominated Velvet Goldmine in 1998, which, in turn took inspiration from artists such as David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. It wasn’t until nearly two decades later that Haynes would have a chance to explore one of the film’s primary influences in fervent detail with the documentary The Velvet Underground.
From a deep well of archival footage, Haynes transports the viewer to the 1960s right in the heart of the counterculture movement, when art was less focused on narrative exposition than it was thematic resonance. From old interviews with Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, to rare footage of Nico, to new interviews with John Cale, Doug Yule, Moe Tucker, and Jackson Browne, to under-appreciated Andy Warhol films and silkscreens, Haynes reintroduces several important voices of the art world who were intermeshed in anti-establishment ideals.
At the Mill Valley Film Festival via zoom, Alex Arabian spoke with Haynes about his visual inspirations for The Velvet Underground, his love for experimental film, his filmmaking influences, the paradox of biopics, and being a queer pioneer in filmmaking.
Alex Arabian: The Velvet Underground is an amazing documentary. It’s right up there with some of the best rockumentaries I’ve seen, including The Last Waltz.
Todd Haynes: Oh wow, Alex. That’s so nice. Thank you, man.
Alex Arabian: Of course. You make image boards for all of your films, and this documentary has such a unique vibe to it. Did you make one for this film?
Haynes: That’s such an interesting question. I did not do it for this film because it’s such a different process where it really is writing as you make the film, and it’s this sort of incredibly circular experience where you keep dipping down into the well, and the language and the shape of the film is being formed by what you keep finding. And then on top of that, which is true for most documentaries, we have these archives of avant-garde film that were just this endless stream of a visual language and visual beauty and an incredible, diverse stylistic language that we were drawing from to illustrate this time and place. But, of course, this material, these films were so intrinsically bound up with this band and its story.
Alex Arabian: I could definitely sense that upon viewing. And jumping off that point, this was a time where, in all forms of art, the narrative aspect wasn’t really as important as the visual and poetic feel of it, and, like you’re saying, the avant-garde part of it. Has this idea, in general, had an influence on your work as a filmmaker?
Haynes: Well, absolutely. I mean, the exposure to experimental filmmaking actually came to me (at a) fairly young age because when I was living in Los Angeles and went to the school of Oakwood, my last few years was at a private, pretty arts-emphasized high school. And I had this amazing creative writing teacher – English teacher – who had friends in the experimental film community and showed experimental film in the context of fiction. And so that was a really early exposure. And then there was the production filmmaker who taught production at Brown when I went to college. And this was still before there was a proper department, which is now called Modern Culture and Media at Brown. It was a program within the English department called the Semiotics Program. And Leslie Thornton, who was a really remarkable experimental filmmaker, was the person who taught production. So she also provided, an example, I would say, of how to make your own work but teach academically and have the freedom to not necessarily have to make work that entered the market. And that became a model for me. It gave me a freedom at the beginning of my own career to think, “You know what? I don’t necessarily have to make feature films that get distributed to be able to express myself, and it might be cool to follow a direction like that.” And it allowed me to feel freedom at the beginning of my work as a filmmaker that didn’t follow conventions as rigidly as I might have while thinking about how am I going to get this marketed and what’s going to be the practical outcome of this kind of piece of work?
Alex Arabian: And starting out as an independent filmmaker, what were your influences? Because you started out at a time when independent filmmaking was making a huge American resurgence.
Haynes: There was a wide range of influences that were starting to percolate in my brain, and some of them came more out of overtly experimental corners, and others were more ways that Hollywood filmmakers were being reexamined after the Cahiers era of looking at classic film, but looking at it in sort of new ways outside of market value but for creative value that interested the French filmmakers from the Cahiers era. And then a slightly later version of that, for me, was how Fassbinder, from the new German cinema, was looking at the work of Douglas Sirk. So that was ways in which the post-1968 filmmakers coming out of Europe were looking back at Hollywood and trying to contextualize the political application of genres into new ways. Godard was trying to tear down traditional narrative form and really deconstruct it and did it like nobody else could in his generation. Whereas Fassbinder was really interested in the melodrama and looking at the degraded, frowned-upon, denigrated form coming out of Hollywood – the films of Douglas Sirk, in particular – that critiqued middle-class society in ways that he thought was more effective as a political statement than what he thought Godard was doing.
Alex Arabian: I couldn’t help but think of your work, both as a music video director and as the creator of Velvet Goldmine, when I was viewing this film. It’s also about an experimental rock group during the ’60s and ’70s. Was a documentary about The Velvet Underground something that you were always building towards, or did it just come about?
Haynes: No. It really, just came about. I never really thought, “Oh, I want to do a doc about a certain band.” That said, when I would do research for Velvet Goldmine and looking through all these extraordinary clips of Bowie and Iggy Pop and The Velvet Underground, who were so influential to the glam rock movement and to David Bowie in particular, you see these clips of Bowie, and you’re like, one can never improve on that. The original clips are so absolutely fundamental and absolutely original and wild and unrepeatable, that the very act of trying to recreate them I had to do it in a very subconscious way where the audience knew this was a fiction about a real history. And it made sense to do it that way because the real history was self-fictionalizing itself in the process – Bowie was creating a counter identity, alter egos, and creating narratives – little theatrical narratives about this character, Ziggy Stardust, and Jim Osterberg changed his name to Iggy Pop. And all of these people were using personas to reinvent themselves and externalize themselves into this more pliable theatrical vernacular of rock and roll.
And, similarly, when I was out conceiving the Bob Dylan movie, I wanted to do it again as a series of quoted narratives within a biography form. So it was multiple characters playing multiple Dylans who were competing with each other and discarding one Dylan after the next as he move forward as a creative being during those years. So I was always thinking of ways of trying to not [compete with] the original material, but trying to do something overtly fictional with it in my own way. And now, all of a sudden, in this story, I could use these amazing films themselves. I would never want to be in a position to have to recreate that Warhol film. How grotesque and appalling that would be? Instead, I had the real Warhol films to share with audiences who may not know this material and be spellbound by it.
Alex Arabian: And what was the process like going through all those films, these images, the archival footage? Was it overwhelming? Was it enlightening?
Haynes: It was enlightening. It was only overwhelming to the degree that you just felt like you wanted to keep looking and make sure we found what we thought was the best beat here and the best moment there. And yet, me and my two editors felt like it was such a pleasurable creative challenge that it was so inspiring to us, especially it was all the more so, I would say, coming out of the Trump era, landing in the COVID pandemic, and feeling that we were all as a culture hiding out from each other and pulled away from each other and afraid of each other. And this was about a time of such cross-pollination and such swapping of ideas and this very mobile community in New York City of artists and filmmakers and musicians and poets and all these people who were hanging out constantly and sharing ideas and collaborating. And that felt like a real survival to this time that we were in.
Alex Arabian: That’s a great point of parallel. What would you want a new generation viewers introduced to the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed to take away from both their artistry and who they were as people?
Haynes: I would hope that something vital and radical still feels modern, still feels very fresh. Because something about the way the band never became commercially viable in their time – kept postponing that way that they get appropriated by the society and drained of their original spirit and what made them dangerous and mysterious and committed to a kind of marginality. And, in a way, that’s all the things that make it still feel raw and vital. So it would be really cool to feel these experiments and this way of looking at sexual identity as not something always affirmative and not something always declarative, something that actually puts you in a state of uncertainty at times and a state of not knowing who you are, and that that’s alright. There’s a sense of ambivalence and ambiguity that’s going on in this music that’s really human and wasn’t really part of a lot of other ’60s culture and, in a way, isn’t really part of the way we talk about identity models today either. Today we’re supposed to know exactly who we are and what letter in the LGBTQX you are. In a way, this was a time where we didn’t have all the answers. And not having all the answers is alright.
Alex Arabian: That’s a great point. The Velvet Underground were queer pioneers. And you, as a director, very much have been a queer pioneer as well. Looking back, what can you say about going from having to fight the Motion Picture Association, formerly the Hays Code and the evangelicals and conservative Christians when Poison first came out, to now being able to make queer anthems on screen like Carol and have them celebrated by a much larger community instead of being met with protest?
Haynes: Christine (Vachon) says something funny – my producer. She’s from New York City, and she says, “Growing up in New York City, any time you come of age, everyone says, ‘Oh, you missed the great time. The great time was in the past.’ You come of age in the ’80s and ’90s, and you’re like, ‘Oh, you missed the ’60s. That’s when it was really happening.’ You’re in the ’60s, and everyone’s like, ‘Oh, no, the ’20s, man. It was all about (the) Harlem Renaissance.'” But I have to say, looking back at the time that we came of age and were starting to make films, it was the AIDS era, and there was a tremendous urgency about having to respond creatively to a public health crisis and a culture that didn’t know what to make of the kind of contempt that they felt for gay people as if they were causing this epidemic on purpose. But instead of the films that came out of the new queer cinema being defensive or affirmative or saying, “Oh, no, we’re just like everybody else. Don’t be afraid.” They actually were militant, and they actually were saying, “You know what? We are standing by our differences, and we are standing by the fact that we serve as a way of critiquing the status quo. And this is a time to critique the status quo when the status quo is reacting with such a reactionary fervor.” And when I think about it now, I realize that was my time. That time was pivotal and formative, and it set up a relationship of what art could do. Maybe you think art actually had the potential to make change? And that’s a unique thing today – to look back. I feel that started the process that you were describing and gave all of us a sense of courage to stick to our guns and continue to try to take risks and try to also just keep challenging oneself in the kind of work that I would do in the years that would follow that.
Apple TV+ will release The Velvet Underground on its streaming platform on October 15.
Photos: Denis Makarenko/Shutterstock; Apple TV+