In an alley behind Montreal's Musee des Beaux Arts one afternoon in September 2006, Christian Bale leans against a wall plastered with artfully distressed music posters, posing for a mock album cover. Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg sit on a low wall across the street, smoking cigarettes. Julianne Moore emerges from a mini-van balancing a plateful of salad. She's fresh from a wig fitting, and sports the hair -- long, straight, brown and middle-parted -- of mid-1960s Joan Baez.
All the actors are shooting the same film, I'm Not There, written and directed by Todd Haynes of Safe (1995) and Far From Heaven (2002), but it's appropriate that they're intensely engaged in separate pursuits. I'm Not There is nominally the story of Bob Dylan's rise to and rejection of fame, but it's a rarified, fractured biopic. Some of the events depicted come from Dylan's life, while others are metaphorical. Six different actors play aspects of his character, none of them called Bob.
Newcomer Marcus Carl Franklin plays Woody, the youngest Dylan persona, who invents himself by emulating Woody Guthrie. Ben Whishaw is Arthur, a teenage poet. Bale is Jack, a folk singer who later turns Pentecostal Christian. Moore plays Alice, a fellow folk singer whom Jack loves and abandons. Ledger is Robbie, a movie actor who personifies Jack. He's married to Claire (Gainsbourg), a French painter based on Sara Lownds, Dylan's wife from 1965 to 1977 and the mother of four of his children, including the singer Jakob Dylan.
Cate Blanchett plays Jude, the character who most resembles Dylan and whose story parallels his most literally, as he trades acoustic folk music for electric rock and resists being vilified and deified in equal measure. Finally, Richard Gere plays Billy, an aging outlaw who escapes to find peace in pastoral anonymity.
Ledger, whose costume this afternoon is a green turtleneck and a corduroy suit so tan and wide as to look like corrugated cardboard, says that the fact that the film is far from a literal biography was actually liberating.
"It's comforting knowing how detached we are, and free because of that," he says. "In conventional biopics, no matter how hard you try or how good the performances are, you're always defaming that person. You're always taking a little bit away from them and not giving them anything. So I think this film is attempting to honour Dylan in some way, as opposed to capturing him."
Shooting resumes inside the museum, which is standing in for New York's Metropolitan Museum Of Art in some scenes and for Paris' Louvre in others. Haynes, who resembles a boyish Mark Hamill (the original Luke Skywalker), sits in a high director's chair, chatting animatedly with Ledger, who sits in a much lower chair, long legs bent so that his knees are level with his shoulders.
"This was the hardest location to secure," Haynes says. "We had to pull every string, use every connection. We finally got the OK after Heath posed for a photo with the museum director."
When the museum corridor is lit, Dylan's song Visions Of Johanna (1966) plays over and over as Robbie walks past copies of the Mona Lisa and Winged Victory. The mood is shadowy, sad, artful. Haynes shoots slowly, taking as many pains with wordless, atmospheric scenes as he does with dialogue.
In every scene in which a Dylan tune plays, and there are more than 30, Haynes wrote the lyrics directly into the script. Each scene is filmed to the music, Gainsbourg says, "even a few takes of scenes with dialogue, so we can have the feeling of it."
Each section of the film revolves around a different Dylan album, and each is shot in a different style. The Woody section recalls leftist, late-1950s cinema.
Arthur's section is shot in static black and white, like a taped interrogation. Alice's section is a recreation of Baez's interviews in Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005).
Haynes shot Moore's section in a single day, including some black and white, spot-lit concert stills of her singing with Bale.
"Julianne actually kicked me out of the room for those," the director says, "because we crack each other up too much. But she could still hear me laughing outside.
"The stills that made it into the movie are the only ones where Julianne could hold a straight face. In all the other shots, Christian's always in character but Julianne's mouth is wide open, in fits of hysteria."
Blanchett's section, also in black and white, echoes Fellini's 8½ (1963). "It's such an apt metaphor for what Dylan was experiencing in 1966, the height of the media assault on him, the constant barrage of questions about why he wasn't doing protest songs anymore," Haynes says. "It's exactly what Marcello Mastroianni's character is being assaulted with in 8½."
The actors received their sections of the script bound separately, accompanied by a CD of the pertinent Dylan music.
"So I've been listening to the Robbie and Claire CD for months," Gainsbourg says. "Sara (1976), Lay Lady Lay (1969), I'm Not There (1967), Corinna Corinna (1963). Sad songs. Music is so powerful, it was very, very helpful. I usually listen to music on a shoot, but on this I really feel I can't listen to anything but Dylan."
Ledger, too, found the music helpful, though he hadn't been familiar with much of it previously.
"As an Australian, I always have to do an accent," he says, "so it's the first thing I start with. Once I have the voice, that's the line, and at the end of the line is a hook, and attached to that is the soul. Then the wardrobe and the fake beards are the icing on the cake.
"Apart from Cate, who looked and sounded and breathed and probably smelled like Bob Dylan -- I was blown away by what she did -- I think the rest of us are just trying to let him bleed through subtly."
Ledger is clearly jazzed by working with Haynes. "This is so refreshing," he says. "You get a sense that he's really reinventing film. The crew is working 20-hour days and they don't complain, and afterward they all meet up in the camera truck for an extra hour to drink beer and watch the dailies, because they're so blown away with what he's doing. They're saying, 'Fellini's been resurrected'.
"It's really sweet; everyone's trying to pour themselves into it, for free, because they believe in him. It's feeling like the world's most expensive student film, in the most beautiful possible way.
"I wish I could work like this every time with a director like Todd. It's amazing that he's got away with it so far. We have a bondsman on set who's running the show, but even he lets it go til three or four in the morning, because he's loving it as well."
The sun goes down, the shadows in the museum deepen and the smokers outside now huddle in the cold. But Haynes takes his time, shooting the extras in a party scene chockablock with bell bottoms and Frye boots, curly perms and moustaches, as precisely as he shoots his stars.
"I think all biographies are fractured like this," Haynes says. "Don't you look back at who you were as a teenager or young adult, and it's a different person? This film is an invitation to make that not just all right, but something to encourage.
"What's so funny about Dylan is he's the subject of such an intense desire for identification. And that only contributed to him needing to change, to reject that and to disappoint people's need for that. The way he survived as a creative person, I think, is due to his ability to change, to duck out, to deflect."
As if to prove his point, when Haynes and his crew gather with Bale, Gainsbourg, Ledger and Moore on the museum steps for the official film photo, not a single passer-by recognises the stars.
A hardy photographer scrambles up a ladder and wraps himself around a light pole as some of the crew wave hand-lettered signs reading "GOVERNMENT" and "PAVEMENT", words from an early Dylan music video. Three hold signs reading "I'M", "NOT" and "THERE".
There's lots of catcalling, whistling and cellphone photography, and a small crowd assembles on the street to watch. But so effective are the transformations -- Bale and Ledger with their wonky Afros, Moore as a brunette and Gainsbourg in a thrift-store suede jacket -- that they hide in plain sight.
"Oh, this is that Bob Dylan movie," one passer-by says. "I guess the actors have all gone."
I'm Not There is released next Friday
2007 Premiere (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)