Despite having never made a documentary, Todd Haynes didn’t hesitate when Universal Music Group’s David Blackman approached him in 2018 to make a nonfiction feature about the enormously influential rock band the Velvet Underground, which was initially mentored by Andy Warhol and launched the careers of Lou Reed, John Cale and Nico.
The Oscar-nominated director — known for narrative features including “Far From Heaven” “Carol,” “Dark Waters” and the Bob Dylan meditation “I’m Not There” — wasn’t worried about taking on a nonfiction project because “ultimately all films are narrative experiences and are dramatic experiences. Documentaries need to work in many of the same ways that fictional films need to work in order to reach audiences.”
Haynes spent the better part of three years researching, interviewing subjects and sifting through 600 hours of archival footage with editor Adam Kurnitz. The result is “The Velvet Underground,” which made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. To bring the band’s history to life, Haynes relied on underground experimental films from the ’60s, photographs, Warhol collaborators’ footage of the group, and contemporary and archival interviews with band members and those around them.
“Unlike subjects of other rock ’n’ roll documentaries, there was a lack of traditional materials surrounding this band, and that immediately directed the process into this world of experimental film that is not just ornamental to this story but is truly the firmament from which this band came together,” Haynes explains. “We really had the culture of the avant-garde, particularly in New York, as our raw material for how to visualize this story, and that directed what we were doing.”
The lack of full-scale concert footage of the band’s peak era led Haynes and his longtime producing partner, Killer Films’ Christine Vachon, to license archival material, which the director says was “a considerable challenge for this film in terms of budget.”
Haynes and Vachon teamed with documentary producer Julie Goldman of Motto Pictures to guide them in the task of funding, editing and producing a doc.
Apple TV Plus is hoping that “The Velvet Underground,” which debuts on the streamer and in select theaters on Oct. 15, will be recognized by the Academy come March. But Haynes understands that breaking into the nonfiction side of AMPAS can be a challenge.
“The documentary branch is a branch of the Academy that I respect a great deal and is at times protective of its own artists, and I get that,” says Haynes. “It’s not my ambition to come stomping in there, but I’m proud of the movie. I want it to be seen, hopefully in theaters — that’s really what I’m focusing on.”