The Velvet Underground” director Todd Haynes said one of the biggest challenges of making his first feature documentary, which premiered in Cannes this week, was bringing Lou Reed to life on screen.

“We used his voice from archival material a lot, but to keep having his presence be sort of imbued into the film I think was the biggest one of the challenges,” said Haynes during a press conference at Cannes.

“We’ve all seen those images of the [Velvet Underground’s] screen tests, you know, mostly in stills because the lighting is so fantastic and they all look so great and sexy. But I’ve never really – until we started to put this together – watched an entire screen test from beginning to end.”

“And all of a sudden you feel like the person is there: they’re breathing, they’re holding still, but there’s little glances that they make that seem to almost be referring to things that we are then stating and depicting in the frame beside it. And so you really feel like you’re in the time and place in an extraordinary way, with an original 60mm reel of Lou Reed sitting with half shadow and half light on his face.”

“So there were ways we had to come up with solutions to feeling his presence,” said Haynes.

Haynes and the rest of the panel, which included producers Christopher Clements, Carolyn Hepburn, Julie Goldman and Christine Vachon and editor Adam Kurnitz, also discussed how the film was shot between Haynes’ last released feature project, “Dark Water,” and edited during lockdown.

Kurnitz was tasked with turning over 600 hours of archival footage taken from Reed’s widow Laurie Anderson, the Museum of Modern Art and New York Public Library, into a more digestible feature.

“It sounds arduous but it’s fantastic to actually go spelunking to find all this stuff because you do know that it’s decaying, wherever it is,” said Clements. “And so when we decided to make a movie, you’re also participating in preserving this material for archives in the future and that’s part of what making documentaries and doing this kind of research makes very, very satisfying.”

Haynes was also keen to point out that the doc is not a salacious biopic. “It’s not a sex, drugs and rock’n’roll gossip movie,” he said. “And somebody could make that film about The Velvet Underground and it would be super fun and interesting, but we really wanted to embrace the cultural life of New York City, and the artistic integrity and how complicated and deep that is, and how rich and beautiful and how much we have in avant garde cinema to visualize that in a film.”

“The film is as much a portrait of New York City as it is this band.”