LOCARNO, Switzerland – From “Velvet Goldmine” to the Velvet Underground: Todd Haynes, director of such acclaimed U.S. independent films as “Far From Heaven” and “Carol,” is teaming with longtime producing partner Christine Vachon of Killer Films, as well as David Blackman and Universal Music Group, to direct his first documentary, on the Velvet Underground, one of the most seminal rock groups in history.
Speaking to Variety on Monday at the Locarno Film Festival, Haynes also said that he is preparing a limited TV series with Amazon about “an intensely important figure of immense historical and cultural influence.”
Haynes is in Locarno to receive the Pardo d’onore Manor award for career achievement, 26 years after the Swiss festival selected his debut feature, “Poison,” in competition, helping to launch the career of one of the U.S.’s most laureled indie filmmakers.
Confirmation of his Velvet Underground documentary comes 50 years after the release of “Velvet Underground & Nico.”
Haynes’ new project, currently untitled and in development, will “rely certainly on [Andy] Warhol films but also a rich culture of experimental film, a vernacular we have lost and we don’t have, [and that] we increasingly get further removed from,” he said.
It will also be “challenging” given there is so little documentation on the group, the director added. So he is looking forward to “the thrill of the research and visual assemblage” and “getting in deep to the resources and material and stock and archival footage and the actual cinema and experimental work.”
Haynes also aims to include interviews of the surviving members of the band and the contemporary 1960s artistic movement.
Locarno’s tribute is already sparking a flurry of articles that attempt to capture the essence of one of America’s most internationally revered auteurs, the director of only seven features and one TV series, HBO’s “Mildred Pierce.”
Time and again, Haynes has returned to characters who break “consciously or inadvertently,” as he puts it, with the prevailing ethos of their times, whether blurring gender lines, as in 1998’s “Velvet Goldmine,” an homage to the carnal energy of 1970s Brit glam rock, or bucking starched conservative morality, as in 2002’s “Far From Heaven,” which won Julianne Moore Venice’s Volpi Cup for Best Actress and Haynes an original screenplay Academy Award nomination.
His Amazon TV series will “re-examine a figure who maybe we forget how radical they were in their thinking because they were so incorporated into our culture and outlook as a modern society,” Haynes said, without revealing the subject’s identity.
Likewise, the Velvet Underground had “come out of a truly experimental cross-section of film, contemporary art, and a rejection of mainstream consumer culture at a very rich and fertile time of the 1960s in New York City,” Haynes said.
He seems attracted to paradoxes. He has said that Moore’s performance in “Wonderstruck,” which world premiered at Cannes in May, is remarkable not for what she does but for what she doesn’t do. “I’m Not There” is a portrait of Bob Dylan, embodied by multiple actors led by Cate Blanchett, which asserts Dylan’s inscrutability.
The Velvet Underground is also paradoxical. “They’re the most influential of bands – as Brian Eno said, everybody who bought [‘Velvet Underground & Nico’] started a band,” Haynes noted.
“Velvet Underground & Nico” sold only 30,000 copies. Yet it was a huge influence on artists such as David Bowie, who sang Velvet Underground tracks on his Ziggy Stardust tour. “Their influence has nothing to do with sales or visibility or the ways we portion ideas of success,” Haynes said.
Above all, Haynes has shown a fascination with experimenting with form. “Form to me is everything. It’s the first question about how to approach a story and why you are telling it and what kind of traditions you are evoking,” Haynes said.
He described his debut feature, “Poison,” as an attempt to “almost tell the same story in triplicate but with formal and stylistic differences: horror story, tabloid documentary and a more radical Jean Genet-inspired love story.” Haynes hoped that the degree of differences would encourage audiences to question what kind of cultural expectations are associated with different forms of storytelling.
The Velvet Underground documentary “needs to be an intensely visual experience,” Haynes said in an interview Monday, two days before he receives the Pardo d’onore Manor Prize.
Haynes did not talk about the style of his Amazon TV series. But both documentary and TV series will portray the past, though seeking contemporary resonance.
“I try to be motivated by what’s around me, the cultural tremblings that surround us,” he said, adding: “[But] I always seem to go to another time to draw some sort of frame around the time we are in.”