“The Velvet Underground” marks Todd Haynes’ first foray into documentary filmmaking, and with the film on the Oscar documentary shortlist, Haynes could find himself making the cut for best documentary feature come Feb. 8. But when Haynes was first developing the project years ago, one of the hurdles he had to overcome was the fact that very little footage existed of the hugely influential rock band.
“What existed was entirely within the cinema of Andy Warhol, and they had a very close relationship to the avant-garde film world,” Haynes said of the group, which came out of Warhol’s Factory scene in 1960s New York.
With that as the groundwork, Haynes told his editors, Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz, that the film needed to be visualized by the artists and people who were there. Through doing that, the audience is transported into the visual and sonic world of Lou Reed, John Cale and the other musicians and artists Haynes fused in with Warhol. Haynes says, “Our goal was really going to be to try to show that rather than tell.”
As Gonçalves and Haynes went off to work on Haynes’ 2019 film “Dark Waters,” it was Kurnitz who was left with 600 hours of licensed archival films, along with the interviews that Haynes had done for the documentary over the course of three years. Says Kurnitz, “I had to watch that all and organize it. I made a rough cut and when they had finished the film, we got together and started working on it.”
Helping Kurnitz in his editing was the idea of the Factory, a place where he says “people could go and celebrate their strangeness. As someone who came out of the punk rock scene in New York, later on, that’s what that place was for me. I could certainly trace that space back to the Factory.”
Furthermore, Haynes wanted to spend time unearthing the Velvet Underground’s sound and music. “I wanted to know where it came from. This was always a bit wishful, but I was trying to put the viewer in a position where what it would be like to have heard this music for the first time,” Haynes says.
Therefore, Haynes is proud of the fact that only one Velvet Underground song is heard for the first hour of the film. “You never hear them again until about halfway through. When I tell people that, they’re all surprised that they hadn’t been listening to the Velvet Underground,” Haynes says. “What we achieved was the feeling of listening to the Velvet Underground or somehow feeling like you’re experiencing the band enough that you wouldn’t even know that you weren’t listening to them.”