Todd Haynes reinvented the music biopic not once but twice, first with the controversial glam rock epic Velvet Goldmine (1998), a pastiche of the life and times of David Bowie, and then with 2007’s I’m Not There, a dazzlingly surreal look at the many faces of folk poet Bob Dylan, sanctioned by the man himself. His latest, bankrolled by Polygram Entertainment and acquired by Apple TV+, might seem tame by comparison; a documentary about The Velvet Underground, it traces how Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker—four disparate Manhattan musos shepherded by pop-art legend Andy Warhol—changed rock and roll forever.
DEADLINE: What do The Velvet Underground mean to you personally?
TODD HAYNES: It’s hard to overstate their influence as a band. I discovered them at a particular time in my life, probably the very beginning of my college years, and [in them] I located the roots of a lot of other music that I was already getting deeply influenced and inspired by—artists like David Bowie, Roxy Music and Brian Eno.
I think it’s true what Brian Eno famously said about The Velvet Underground, that hardly anybody bought a Velvet Underground record at the time, but everybody who did started a band.
DEADLINE: You’ve made films about music before, but in a fictional way. Was that an option here?
HAYNES: No. I think pretty early on it became clear to me, when looking at this period in New York culture, that the amazing, remarkable thing about The Velvet Underground is that they came into being at the time when Andy Warhol was giving up visual arts for filmmaking. And that was just the tip of the iceberg, because there were so many other avant-garde filmmakers working and inspiring each other and participating in each other’s films. And what that meant to me, with regard to what a film about the Velvets could be, was that I wanted to use the visual language of these films, as a foreground/background template for talking about this music, and how the band came into being, because it was all around them. The visual language of film, of art, and of that time was something that you wouldn’t ever want to have to recreate. You wouldn’t ever want to have to turn it into a fiction.
DEADLINE: How did you start? Did you have a very clear idea of where you wanted to go?
HAYNES: I did, to the degree that I knew I didn’t want a movie with a lot of later generations of artists or musicians telling us how great The Velvet Underground were. I wanted to go back to that historical and cultural time and place, which by today’s standard, feels even more completely alien to artistic practices today, even in the movies that are being made in marginal places. There was just such an explosion of art and experimentation. So, I immediately wondered how we could make this the visual language of the movie. And, by the same token, I thought, OK, the rule will be, we only interview people who were there. And then it was really about accessing archives, which is the process that took the longest. I now know how documentaries can take so long to be built, because you’re really writing them as you’re making them.
DEADLINE: Did you ever meet Lou Reed?
HAYNES: I wish I had. I would see him around New York at events, like the Biennial at the Whitney, and I was always too fucking terrified to ever thrust myself upon him. And I was probably wise, from all the stories you hear from people who did. But I have a feeling he may have been aware of my work. He let us use “Satellite of Love”, for instance, in Velvet Goldmine, when he was still around.
DEADLINE: How does he feature in the film?
HAYNES: He was a structuring absence for the film, and we addressed that in a variety of ways, certainly by putting people in who knew him well growing up and could talk about his evolution.
John Cale is really our centerpiece interview through the film, and Maureen Tucker was an amazing person to talk to as well, because, when things got volatile between the two men, she was just this recurrent peacemaker and someone who Lou just adored and had put in a place of safety and trust—something he didn’t often do with people. So, we were able to really hear about him. Also, his voice and his interviews are there. His presence is really felt in the film, and his voice, of course, is in the music.
DEADLINE: How about the likes of Nico and Andy Warhol—are you looking at all the people in the band’s orbit?
HAYNES: Oh sure. Well, the story is about how this unlikely collection of people came together. That’s probably built into the stories of most bands, but in this case, there were just unique and strange circumstances. And once the Velvets really coalesced, Andy Warhol’s Factory was a magnet for creative activity. It had to be a part of the story that he was their first “manager”. He was the reason why people went to see these shows, initially. No one knew who The Velvet Underground were, they went to see an Andy Warhol happening, so he was the driving force. In fact, it’s a topic in the film, that they almost started to feel they were a little experimental exhibition of creatures who were being put on stage. Warhol famously wanted to put Nico in a plexiglass box, which she of course refused.
DEADLINE: And what about Nico?
HAYNES: The band was really interested in Nico around the time [New York socialite] Edie Sedgwick was starting to fall out with Warhol. And Nico, who Warhol had met two years before, but was spending more and more time in the Factory, was this astonishing-looking woman and strange dark personality. No one really knew what her musical abilities would be, and in fact, initially, her limitations were worrying. But John Cale and Lou Reed really figured out what to do and how to use her, in a way that was so specific and so perfect, really. You can’t imagine anybody else singing the songs that she sang in the band.
DEADLINE: The Velvet Underground’s official albums are endlessly being repackaged. Is there any rare or unheard music?
HAYNES: There is. Most of the material of live performances and demos have been released over the years, but there were rehearsal tapes we got from [Reed’s widow] Laurie Anderson that are remarkable. We use some of that in the film. There are live tapes of Lou Reed performing his lyrics at poetry readings in 1970 in New York that are so beautiful to hear. And then there were recordings of conversations that Danny Fields, a colleague of Lou Reed, gave us, where he was talking with him, somebody he really trusted, which was different to how he would behave with journalists. And we also found some videotape footage of the band in 1968, performing after John Cale had left the band. Stuff that has never, I don’t believe, ever been publicly seen before.
We tried to integrate everything, I guess, in a way that feels like it flows and moves emotionally through the course of the band, and the changes in the band. Because the music is so well known, possibly because there’s not that much of it, I wanted you to feel you were hearing it afresh, so you’d feel what it might’ve been like to hear it then and there.
DEADLINE: How does it feel to be bringing the film to Cannes?
HAYNES: Oh, it’s so exciting. Especially after all of us being so locked up and wondering if we’ll ever see a movie on a screen again… seeing it big and, of course, hearing the music at its best in a big theater, is an extremely powerful way to experience it. There’ll be no better venue on the planet than the Lumière theater in Cannes.