Todd Haynes has been making films for more than 30 years, but he took on a new challenge with his first documentary, “The Velvet Underground.” A chronicling of the ’60s art-rock icons and their work with Andy Warhol in the Factory, the film is Haynes’ experimental foray into the nonfiction world.
In a Q&A with IndieWire Editor-at-Large Anne Thompson as part of the International Documentary Association’s annual screening series, Haynes said that there were two major components of the film that had to be secured in order for the documentary to be successful. First, as Andy Warhol was the band’s manager, Haynes and his producers needed to secure the participation of the owners of Andy Warhol’s films from the ’60s, which are controlled by the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Andy Warhol Museum.
“There’s no way we would have been able to make without an agreement without the Andy Warhol Museum, with the Warhol films in their archives,” Haynes said. The institution’s cooperation also helped secure the many, many other pieces of art and films and music that [are] showcased in the documentary. “It also established the terms and the costs and the issues of how we pay for it, because we wanted to establish the initial agreement with what they would allow us to do per minute, and use that when we approached other archives. So it was a building block, but if they had said no, that would be it. They knew that we needed them and that gave them some leverage, but they also knew that they needed this. They needed this film. This is not the Andy Warhol Foundation that deals with paintings. This is the Andy Warhol Museum that deals with the films, and they’re very different entities.”
The second component, and just as vital — or perhaps even more so — was the participation of founding Velvets’ member John Cale.
“Again,” said Haynes, “there would be no way to make it without John’s agreement and blessing, and agreement to participate and give of himself. How much you ever are going to get I’m learning as a fresh documentarian is something you don’t know, and the process in which you try to make them comfortable and come prepared and make them feel like you’ve really done your work on your end, but then you let them go where they’re going to go. John’s an extraordinary artist who, there are times in any artist’s life where they feel like talking about the past, there are times where they maybe don’t feel like talking about the past. So you want to gauge it appropriately. A lot of it was a dance of coaxing and courting.”
Naturally, the film is filled with many of Warhol’s most famous images. But perhaps one of the most striking bits from the archive are the extended shots of each band member staring straight into the camera for screen tests during a Warhol shoot.
“These are very famous images, and most of us have seen stills from the screen tests, and maybe clips in documentaries about Warhol,” Haynes said. “I’ve never watched an entire screen test from beginning to end, from sprockets to sprockets, emulsion coming in and emulsion going out. And it wasn’t until we started to construct this first act of the film and you literally watch Lou Reed breathing and existing in time, next to a composite shot and a parallel shot that’s describing his childhood. You feel like he’s both witnessing the act of storytelling itself, which sort of pulls you out, and then you actually feel like you’re living with him in time, which pulls you in at the same time. We had these ideas in our head, but it’s not until you really watch them unfold that I think the power of the surprise of that recognition comes through, even for us while making it.”
“The Velvet Underground” is in theaters and available to stream on Apple TV+.