Although he has never made a documentary, Todd Haynes didn’t hesitate when David Blackman of Universal Music Group approached him in 2018 to direct a non-fiction feature film about the hugely influential rock band 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 his narrative feature films such as “Far From Heaven”, “Carol”, “Dark Waters” and Bob Dylan’s meditation “I’m Not There” – was not worried about the idea to embark on a non-fiction project because “at the end of the day all movies are narrative experiences and are dramatic experiences. Documentaries have to work the same way fiction movies have to work in order to reach audiences.” “
Haynes spent the better part of three years researching, interviewing subjects and sifting through 600 hours of stock footage with editor Adam Kurnitz. The result is “The Velvet Underground,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. To bring the group’s history to life, Haynes drew on experimental underground films from the 1960s, photographs, group footage of Warhol’s collaborators, and contemporary and archival interviews with the band members and their entourage.
“Unlike the subjects of other rock’n’roll documentaries, there was a lack of traditional material around this band, and that immediately steered the process in this experimental film world which is not just ornamental to this story. but really is the firmament that this band was formed from, “says Haynes.” We really had the avant-garde culture, especially in New York City, as the raw material to visualize this story, and that directed what we were doing. “
The lack of large-scale concert footage from the band’s cutting-edge era led Haynes and his longtime production partner Christine Vachon of Killer Films to license archival material, which, according to the director, was “a huge challenge for this film in terms of budget.”
Haynes and Vachon teamed up 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 October 15, will be recognized by the Academy in March. But Haynes understands that breaking into the non-fiction side of AMPAS can be a challenge.
“The documentary branch is a branch of the Academy that I respect a lot and that sometimes protects its own artists, and I understand that,” says Haynes. “It’s not my ambition to come stomp in this, but I’m proud of the film. I want it to be seen, hopefully in theaters – that’s really what I’m focusing on.