Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground (2021) is more than a documentary about the band. It is an evocation of a now legendary moment of creative exploration in the New York art scene, formed through an impressively dense assemblage of film, music, and art, contemporaneous with the Velvets’ ascendance in the 1960s. The Criterion Collection’s recent home media release of the documentary includes extensive outtakes and full versions of several of the avant-garde shorts excerpted in the film. I spoke to Haynes about the film’s meticulous split screen and montage, New York’s queer culture in the ’60s, and the “structuring absence” of Lou Reed. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Hyperallergic: When did talk start about adding the film to the Criterion Collection?
Todd Haynes: It’s kind of a blur now. I was moving into pre-production on the film. We just wrapped shooting and had to jump on an accelerated schedule to get it out before the holiday. Fonzie [Affonso Gonçalves], one of my two editors, was available to do the additional interview clips that are such a great part of it. And of course I wished that we could have like 10, 12 avant-garde films in their entirety. But licensing these films, which are in different archives with different controlling rights and issues, and mastering them and all of that, it just took too long. So we put in everything we could get.
And then we did these annotations. Every single film that appears — and there are hundreds of titles — are named, dated, and attributed to their artists. There’s an option to toggle it on or off at will. It was something I wanted to include; I just felt it was so important. It took a lot of time and clerical work to organize it. The section with the grid that fills the frame with 12 images [from avant-garde films and art from the time] … even that is annotated. I have such gratitude for everybody who worked so hard to make that possible.
H: This multichannel panoply you create out of these materials, how do you craft and balance the arrangement? Is it more instinctual or intellectual?
TH: It was such a wonderful place to be, where the research and the history yielded to instinct. Once we put together all the materials that had historical reasons for being there, we could forget about that. Adam Kurnitz, the other editor, started work on the first cut while Fonzie and I were still working on my previous feature, Dark Waters. He was drawing intuitively from the bank of images, which we organized into various formal categories, topical categories, visual categories. He knew what he was playing with, but at a certain point it was going to be more effective to let the sheer visceral quality of these many stylistic voices lead us.
For instance, when we were talking to La Monte Young about the evolution of experimental sound, we were looking for very specific kinds of images, ones that would help give voice to that endeavor. When we were dealing with Jack Smith and the Ludlow Street apartment, and all the people who were there, we were drawing from the films and images that he produced. Criteria would come and go, but really it was the music, this non-intellectual, nonverbal expression, leading the creative process.
H: This is just as much a movie about a cultural scene as it is about one band. How much of this scene did you experience firsthand?
TH: I moved to New York after college in ’85 and lived there for 15 years. This particular cultural moment for New York in the ’60s was and continues to be a driving force in everything I do, because it was also the origin story for a certain queer sensibility that affected film, music, arts, and culture. That was always evolving, but it reached a certain concentration in the ’60s. We try to underscore that with some humor, comparing it to the West Coast counterculture’s outlook versus this urban story in New York.
It was so different, the gay culture of the time. The terms they used really aren’t appropriate now. I remember talking to Mary Woronov, and at one point she said, “Can I just say fag?” And I was like, “Yeah, of course, say fag.” We reappropriate the meaning and nomenclature around what was happening. It’s almost that our way of describing it preceded our understanding, and the understanding came in some weirdly organic, reactive energy to the times around it. There’s a great story of Warhol, before Pop really took off, wanting so bad to hang out with Rauschenberg and Frank Stella and Jasper Johns. Johns and Rauschenberg were both gay and starting to move out of that spectrum of expressionist art, finding detritus on the streets of New York and putting it in their work, recycling the feeling of the streets into the work itself. But Warhol felt shunned by them, and he asked a mutual friend, “How come Jasper and Bob don’t want to hang out with me?” And they were like, “Andy, you’re too swish.” He didn’t see how boldly he was going in a certain direction, and that even [notions of] queerness from a couple minutes before him [were] already feeling alienated and challenged by it. That’s the speed with which things were changing in the 1960s.
H: When did you talk to Jonas Mekas?
TH: Almost all our interviews were shot in 2018, and we started with Jonas. He had just turned 96, and there was nobody more urgent to get. Even John Cale had to wait for us to get Jonas on film. When I look back at the clips Fonzie pulled from the interview, because at a certain point you get used to what’s in the final cut, I’m so astonished by how incredibly clear-sighted and vivid and specific and acute he was. It was his last filmed interview before he died, and it was a treasure to get.
But that was true for all of the people we were interviewing, they were getting on in years. There were some we wanted to get who became unavailable because of illness or just not feeling up to it. There were a couple who simply didn’t want to participate. It did take us a little time to connect to Mary [Woronov], since she’s not always easily available. But for the most part, everybody we reached out to ultimately did participate.
H: No matter when you’d made the film, it would have been the last opportunity to capture one thing or another — to say nothing of the opportunities that have already gone by. You called Lou Reed a “structuring absence” in another interview. How did you build around this absence?
TH: That question was formative in the process of making the movie, how to bring Lou into the narrative and the psychology and emotions of the film. This is a story about the creative process between these musicians who found themselves in this uniquely collaborative culture, with Reed as the instigating voice, if you will, of the band. We didn’t want to just have him present through a hodgepodge of video clips; I wanted to maintain the integrity of our new interviews. We explored everything Reed ever said on tape about the band, and found that it was a limited amount of material, but that was what we used. Of course, there are photographs of all of them, and none more so than of Lou, from some of the most amazing photographers.
But I do feel like we never capture him. We never absolutely define him or fix him in any way. I feel like it’s appropriate that Reed remains unattainable, that there’s just too much to him. To presume we could attain him even if we could interview him would be a lie. And of course, movies are always lies, but they give the audience the possibility of constructing a truth themselves and feeling like they are filling in those pieces. And I think we gave the audience all these pieces of Lou for them to wrestle with.