It was perhaps predestined Todd Haynes would one day make a film about the Velvet Underground. Predestined since Velvet Goldmine, at least, which—in a time when this music was still rare, odd, and with an influence that had yet to fully reveal itself—mythologized Lou Reed’s badboy persona in some fantastic constellation of actual music, imagined stand-ins, and tales known by acolytes for years.
One of the tales mythologized in Velvet Goldmine gets struck down in The Velvet Underground, Haynes’ documentary on the New York group who’ve since gone beyond legendary—to a point, maybe, where one wonders what’s left but the classic stories, lines, and songs. As our review gets at what Haynes does so brilliantly, I’ll cut to the chase and open on my interview with him. Whatever the impression of his brilliance—the great reach of his cinephilic, literary, cultural, and formal knowledge—few interview subjects are as accommodating or willing to follow a conversation where it might go.
The Film Stage: I saw the movie theatrically—just in a regular screening room, but I had to get it somewhat big and hopefully loud. Then you open with “Venus in Furs,” maybe the most iconic Velvet Underground song, and one I’ve of course heard a thousand times—but never that goddamn loud.
Todd Haynes: Was it too loud? We’re still trying to find the right starting point. Every theater’s different and I’ve heard some people say “my ears are still ringing from two nights ago.”
I have a fatalistic streak and figure my hearing will go as I get older, anyway. So rather than suffer years of degradation… I mean, I don’t think it’s damaged. But were it to be from hearing “Venus in Furs” in 7.1—that’s a pretty good excuse.
Yeah. I know. I just don’t want it to be too painful. I want it to be pleasurable and exciting. Not painful. I mean, a little painful. [Laughs]
Sure. Well, as one who wanted to see a VU doc in a theater, wanted to hear it loud, and wanted to talk to you, I like a bit of pain.
All right. It makes me feel like what you’re saying is a decibel point down might just be fine.
Oh, please don’t turn it down because of me.
Well, it’s not just you. But I appreciate it. This is a helpful deliberation—seriously.
Which leads into a bit more of a prepared, bullet-point question: of course your films are aurally rich. The sound mix of a fiction feature bears plenty—dialogue, diegetic and non-diegetic sounds, foleyed-in cues, maybe Carter Burwell music blending together—whereas this has the feel of a crazy sound collage. I wonder if you felt a difference in the edit suite, looking at the sound mix for a documentary like this—if it seemed you had to approach something for the first time.
That’s an interesting question, but I would say… no. Because it wasn’t that different. Leslie Shatz has been my sound designer since Far from Heaven, and increasingly, in other films… in Wonderstruck it was just such a magnificent thing that he did. It was before Carter’s cues were all coming in, and Leslie was creating these beds of effects and tonal elements and nuanced, almost unconscious sonic mixings that would lay over scenes. And you never know. It was, “Well, we’ll see how it works with the score.” Then the score came on—which was largely symphonic; it was all acoustic instruments, very little synthesizers—but it worked. And Carter loved it. Carter loved the slight coloration that it brought to what he was doing with acoustic instruments.
Leslie did the same thing with this film—more so in the first part with the drones and all that—but it felt like all these subtle things. But then there were times where he did too much and I’m like, “No, I don’t want too many bells and whistles during ‘Waiting for the Man,’” even though we have all these great elevators opening and weird things he was giving little kicks to. But then I was like, “Mmm, let’s pull it back.” In that same way, there’s all these upfront, conscious things you want to be readable—you want the voice to come through, you want to understand the words, you’re playing with music at different pitches and levels of force—but then there’s all these other things.
Foleys can reside in that level as well. Usually I’m just someone who kind of hates them all—always hates them and just wants them to go away or just take them way, way, way down. Other directors don’t feel that way; they love those crisp, clinking footsteps and that chomping chew sound. All that shit. But there’s all the larger and smaller decisions you’re making all the time, whether it’s narrative… and in general I would just say the differences between narrative and documentary feel more tenuous to me.
Documentaries are constructed, subjective, completely artificial. Feature films can enter your life and experience like bigger truths and more indelible reality than your life itself. [Laughs] So I don’t know where one thing begins and another ends.
When you start with split-screens—screen tests, archival footage, voices, and music all at once—I try not to have a left-brain / right-brain thing, but when it kicked in I thought, “Oh, he’s going for it.”
This is not a talking-head, Behind the Music episode—which I don’t constitutionally oppose, either. If I’m interested in the subject I’ll watch it. But it was a kind of let’s-go moment where I thought, “This is a real movie.”
But of course it’s not my place to say what is or isn’t.
Right. And when people say, derisively, “Oh, it’s not a Ken Burns movie,” I’m like: I’ll watch a Ken Burns movie over and over and over again. Because of the unbelievable—he has amazing interviews in his movies—but the archival work that he does is historic. And astonishing.
I’ve seen all your movies, TV work, etc., and one thing that fuels my interest is the sense of you being an artist with an omnivorous cultural palette. I sat through the end credits because, first, you don’t walk out on “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” but also because I saw this wave of citations—books, movies, poems. I felt exhausted just looking at it.
The last 18 months changed what a lot of people prioritize in watching, listening, reading. Has it happened for you?
A bit. I’m almost always—not always, but largely—organizing my intake of books and films and music by what my projects are. It’s exciting because it’s always a big category in and of itself and there’s always more to read than I can or want to see. But I was really having a hard time watching episodic television and new stuff. I just took refuge and a kind of comfort in watching TCM and old movies. I think it was really, simply out of a kind of terror of the moment, and wanting to feel the sustenance and vitality of the past. It’s not new, too—it’s what I often am drawn to in my films—but in particular it was… look, this has been taking care of yourself. Coming out of the Trump era and COVID overlapping with that, I think we have a lot of managing—psychic managing—and reckoning to do after this time.
Mostly we’ve just been in survival mode and denial mode, to a large degree. And in retreat. But I also feel like things about climate change and digital culture, and ways we read and perceive the world—and do it more in isolation from each other, particularly around digital media and the Internet—are also things we can barely assess the effects of. But we all are aware that there are many effects that are not all good. Mostly not, in my opinion. The way we concentrate. The way we analyze. The way we interpret the world around us.
It seems like you’re very busy. You finished this dense documentary and have at least a couple of other films in development.
So do you find—and maybe this has always been the case—in your recent work some conscious attempt to push against digital cultures and modern attention spans? Your films tend towards the slow, methodical, careful mode. Is that on your mind?
It is. It was definitely on my mind on this film. This film we really made through the first stages of the first peaks of COVID, which put me and Affonso Gonçalves—one of my two editors—in quarantine with each other. I was just talking to journalists and friends last night: one of the first questions while cutting the movie was about the first hour. Friends, people, would say, “It’s really cool but I’m wondering if it’s too long, or takes too long to get to a real Velvets song. People will start to lose interest.” You know.
And I just have to say—and this is interesting, because it’s counterintuitive to what one might think about the very things we’re talking about—is that of all the reviews and comments I’ve been getting on the film so far, even those that have been mixed, no one’s mentioned that. No one’s mentioned being bored or too lost in the first hour. They mostly focus on other things, like about not getting enough information. Maybe they say, “I wish things were being cited or I don’t quite follow what’s going on a little bit,” but for the most part I’m like, “Wow, people really enter that zone and don’t fret about it.” I consider that to be… I’m a little surprised by that. I definitely thought that would be part of the resounding, “It’s cool but takes too long to get to the story thing.” That hasn’t been happening, which has been cool.
I felt genuinely hypnotized by the drone music, the split-screen.
At some point somebody, maybe Cale, has a line about “the vibe was changing” or whatever, and that constant drone—
Shifts! As someone who tries practicing mindful meditation and time in solitude, it was that same experience of limbic movement.
That’s fantastic. That’s really cool.
Like I was saying: I wanted to see this in a theater and I’m glad I did. So I have to ask about any trade-offs, difficulties with the fact of the movie premiering at home. You are rather precise, so you must have concerns about home set-ups, sound, picture.
Of course I do. It was a condition for the deal we made with any company—and it ended up being Apple—that this had to have a theatrical release. And it will have a theatrical release; they’re working with Magnolia and the number of theaters committing to the theatrical release is only growing, which has been great. It’s a pretty robust arthouse release in the United States; then they’re working with Dogwoof in the UK. The bigger overseas release will be in the UK, so select countries will also have theatrical. I do recognize that, in the midst of all this—as we’ve all been holding our breath and biting our nails—that COVID makes everything uncertain. And whether people really go is another thing.
But when I saw the film premiere at Cannes, at the Lumière theater, I was not going to have seen it on that exquisite a screen before. But it was the sound that just floored me. We had tested the mixes in theaters in Portland and long-distance, because Leslie was here and I was there, but fuck, man—that was the revelation. Sound is three-dimensional and it envelops you; a screen is two-dimensional. Why we feel the screen is three-dimensional sometimes is largely because of sound. It was palpable and it went up your butt and it was just, fucking, so beautiful. I was like, “That’s really why I want people to see it.” Some people have big screens in their homes, a lot of people don’t, but no one has sound systems like that.
I have these noise-canceling, wireless headphones I can connect to a TV. That’s great.
That is great.
But if you’re watching with someone else, it’s that weird psychic transference: you want to turn up the volume and they do it at the exact moment the thought enters your head.
That’s better than the person who’s like, “Could we turn it down a little bit?” [Laughs]
Well, per Dylan: “Play it fucking loud.”
That’s what we say at the start of Velvet Goldmine.
Because nobody in this hotel has spent more time than you or me listening to Bob Dylan, I have to ask what you thought of Rough and Rowdy Ways.
Oh, God. I was… I was really… I was astonished by it. And I found the JFK, what’s it called—
“Murder Most Foul.”
“Murder Most Foul.” I mean, I started by hearing that, and I was just like: how can he just continue to do work at that level? Is what I felt. What did you feel?
Among my friends it was the cultural artifact of 2020. Obviously we had a listening party the night it came out, I made a cake, we sat around and listened…
On Election Night we played the vinyl.
And put on Alex Jones’ Infowars stream…
Oh, my God.
…and soundtracked it with that.
Oh, my God.
To have that rambly “False Prophet” guitar score Alex Jones screaming that they’re stealing the votes… Adam Curtis could not come up with something that good.
Right. Right. [Laughs]
We danced to “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” while they claimed victory for Trump.
What a great New Year’s Eve concept party.
One of the great nights of my life.
Man. That is fantastic, Nick. Wow.
You have to score insanity with something beautiful.
Yeah. It’s true.
The Velvet Underground opens in limited release on October 13 and on Apple TV+ on October 15.