An Interview with Guy Maddin
Guy Maddin, the Canadian director, makes discomfiting films steeped in the cinematic grammar of the 1930s, delivered with wildly theatrical art direction and arch dialogue. His cinematic world is an old-timey place that nevertheless exists in the here and now. His features include Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), Careful (1992), Cowards Bend the Knee (2003), The Saddest Music in the World (2003), Brand Upon the Brain! A Remembrance in 12 Chapters (2006), and a quasi-nonfictional look at his hometown, My Winnipeg (2007). He is also the author of a collection of essays and fragments called From the Atelier Tovar and books to accompany Cowards Bend the Knee and My Winnipeg.
On first viewing, these films appear like archival treasures of an auteur, once forgotten and rediscovered. Maddin reaches forward, technically and thematically, to suggest new possibilities for the medium. He plants his lo-fi sensibility squarely in the twenty-first century, running 8 mm and 16 mm film through contemporary mixing and editing software. But Maddin isn’t content for his work simply to exist on a screen. He approaches distribution as an extension of the creative product. Screenings of Brand Upon the Brain! featured the accompaniment of Foley artists and guest narrators including John Ashbery and Isabella Rossellini; Cowards Bend the Knee originally appeared as an installation in which segments of the film could be viewed through keyholes, and the book My Winnipeg elaborates upon that film’s digressions and themes.
I spoke to Maddin over the phone. He was in Toronto, I was in Seattle, and I didn’t have a proper tape recorder, so I recorded our conversation on videotape. There now exists a two-hour shot of my iPhone and my hand occasionally lifting a coffee cup, with the voice of the charming, gentlemanly Guy Maddin holding forth on such topics as Canadian television, hairless boners, and women’s rear ends.
I. THE WAY LAUGHTER IS SUPPOSED TO BE MEASURED OUT
THE BELIEVER: Legend has it you were born in a hockey arena. Isn’t this the Canadian equivalent of being born in a manger?
GUY MADDIN: I’ve been told so many different things about my birth. It’s strange, my parents, who never read much, seem to have a real strong sense of legend or myth. I remember once being told I was born on the floor of the beauty salon in which I grew up, and another time that I was born in the dressing room during a game between the Winnipeg Maroons and the Trail Smoke Eaters. I haven’t been able to ever confirm any of this. Another time my family doctor told me I was born at the Grace Hospital, which is this old hospital where Deanna Durbin, a contemporary of Judy Garland’s, was born. I’m happy with any of those birthplaces.
BLVR: In a feature that accompanies the DVD of Brand Upon the Brain!, you make reference to the embarrassing Canadian films of your childhood. Could you elaborate on the feelings of shame you experienced when watching certain Canadian-made films?
GM: It’s funny, this shame actually predates my earliest memories. One of my earliest memories is just the feeling of long-standing shame galvanizing me up off the carpet where I spent most of my preschool years transfixed by television. The instant a Canadian show came on, as opposed to an American one, no matter how tiny my wrists were back in those days before remote controls, I could still grab the big channel selector and clunk the dial over stations until I saw an image that had clearly been fashioned by Americans. There was just something in the way Canadian shows were lit and the way they sounded like a microphone had been put inside a shoebox and left inside a tin garbage can. I guess I could tell even at the age of three that there was something imitative, but shabbily imitative, of American stuff. Then once I got into grade school I was forced to watch all these documentaries by the National Film Board of Canada, and they were something else altogether. Boy, did they not resemble American films or the American sitcoms of my childhood, and so I rejected those so quickly. Only now, years later, do I see that as a strength, that these things were made without any awareness of American television; they were made by old documentarians who probably hadn’t watched any television and so weren’t under anyone’s influence. You can sort of see that as a strength now only a half century later, but at the time, as it was for so many cultures around the world, Americans set the platinum standard for the way sitcoms are supposed to look, the way laughter is supposed to be measured out by its canned suppliers. Canadian film has always been telling Canada that it’s been steadily improving over the decades. Our government pours a lot of money into Canadian film, and I’ve been one of the biggest beneficiaries of that sort of state-supported evolution. I recently did a project for the National Film Board, and I looked back into their old archives and I realized we haven’t come as far as we’d like to believe. I’m starting to feel that shame all over again.
BLVR: On one hand you rejected this feeling of Canadian film and TV, but now do you find you’ve internalized any of it and are using it in your own films?
GM: I’ve actually been astonished lately. I’ve started to reflect upon what I’ve been doing, especially with my most recent feature, My Winnipeg, which is an autobiographical portrait of my hometown. At one point very early on in my filmmaking endeavors, I vowed never to make any reference to Canada, but by the time I was making my second movie I was setting it in a very specific Canadian place, so I guess I’ve gone from wanting to completely reject not only Canadian film but my country, too, but then I realized it was more fun to take my country and just be—not proud of it or patriotic—but just see what it looked like if I put it through the same myth processors that all other countries put their historical figures and events through. I just feel that film and television should have the same freedom to be as unreal as fairy tales.
BLVR: Your last three films are considered more descriptive of your roots and your life: Cowards Bend the Knee, Brand Upon the Brain!, and now My Winnipeg. At the same time, you’re known as a purveyor of melodrama.
GM: I actually believe that good melodrama isn’t an exaggeration. For example, in your dreams you’re allowed to grab anyone you lust after, hit anyone you hate. You’re allowed to just cry out in grief or pain. None of these things you’re allowed to do in your waking hours. Etiquette forbids it and requires a repression of you, but in your dreams you really are allowed to give vent to your true feelings. No matter how confusing and jumbled and bizarre your dreams may be, they’re un-inhibitions of something. And those un-inhibitions in your dreams have a lot in common with good melodrama. A melodrama has a finite amount of time, ninety minutes, say, if it’s a movie, to convey authentic human emotions if they’re set up properly. So the best way to do that is to un-inhibit them. When you exaggerate human emotions, you run the risk of distorting the dynamics of the emotions of various people. When you un-inhibit them you’re actually getting more at the way things really are. When you think of the real timeless tragedies, Oedipus and stuff like that, those are un-inhibitions of feelings some of us have at some time or another. People locked in a really bitter divorce battle might be tempted sometimes to use their children as weapons against their estranged spouse, really hurting and maybe destroying their children in the process, and, thus, Medea.
BLVR: Are you working against that Canadian understatedness with your melodrama, is it ripping something open and showing—
GM: Yeah, I think so. The understatedness can drive you nuts. I’ve been guilty of that myself for so long, so when I started making movies and found my way into melodrama, it was such an explosive relief for me to find a way of shaking all that Canadian reticence off and just going for it. When a Canadian hates a movie, they say, “Well, that was pretty good,” and if they really liked it, they say, “Well, that was pretty good.”
II. NOTHING TO BE GAINED BY PARROTING THE ANCIENT VOCABULARIES
BLVR: I want to ask about the architecture in your films. There are attics where people are kept, secret back rooms, a lighthouse that’s also a laboratory. I know you grew up upstairs from a beauty parlor. How did this help you form your ideas about human relationships as they play out in buildings?
GM: I’ve really come in the last couple years to be haunted by architecture, especially versions of my childhood home or of mysterious houses I never entered that stood next to my childhood home or next to other addresses I’ve lived at. I’ve been reading Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, which is all about the poetry of a cubbyhole or hallway or den, even a lean-to. I’ve decided to make this movie Keyhole, which is my attempt to get at what it is about the architecture of the home that really gets to me. I’ve kind of written a loose script right now, it’s a film noir, might be more Dr. Mabuse–like, like a slightly fantastical crime film set in a very labyrinthine house. I just hope to make it an autobiography of a house. Maybe even narrated by a house. I’ve been shooting in this fantastic, dreamlike locus of so many of my haunting dreams in Winnipeg, this place Selma Mansions, where I was forced to deliver bottles of medicine as a thirteen-year-old for the local drugstore, this really strange and eerie apartment block that’s abandoned now. I’m working on filling it up with little myths and crimes perpetrated between genders and among family members. The narrative is just so sprawling now that I’ve been toying with the idea of making it viewable in some other way than as a conventional film, maybe as an Internet interactive movie labyrinth or maybe a live screening with live music and other live performative elements and then maybe a gallery component with some short films and a kind of parallel universe. I’ve gotten the poet John Ashbery to agree to collaborate with me on short films, which would kind of represent various smaller rooms in this apartment. In some cases there are films about an extra in the background behind the main characters or maybe these little satellite narratives that sort of orbit frantically around an alternate reality for the viewer. All I have to do is supply to John a few basic premises and he’ll write the short scripts and then I’ll just shoot them and my DNA will be slathered on John Ashbery’s forever on IMDb.
BLVR: When I watch a movie from, say, the 1930s, I’m struck by this feeling, this knowledge, that everyone involved in its production is now dead. Do you have a similar feeling when you’re watching films from that era?
GM: Absolutely. I kind of came to these [films] overnight. I’m a person of obsession, so in the late seventies, when I was around twenty, I became a little punk and I bought up every record that was ever pressed by some small label in Britain and sort of immersed myself. Then in 1980 I met some people who were into older films, and I dropped that one obsession as quickly as I’d dropped listening to baseball games on the radio in favor of punk music in the ’70s and became immersed in the movies of the ’20s and ’30s, but especially the ’30s. There were actually still a lot of those people that were alive. Most of them were dead, but there were a number of people who were still alive. It always felt like, if only I could visit these people and convince them to go back into movies, maybe some sort of impossible reclamation of lost time could miraculously happen. That we could somehow make movies of the ’30s—even more of them. It was a cockeyed notion, and I don’t think I was consciously aware of it. I just realized I’ve had an almost pathological obsession with resurrecting things. It’s kind of pathetic, but at least as an adult I know intellectually that when things are gone and dead, they’re gone and dead.
BLVR: You’re known for using grainy film stock, intertitles, and other modes and technologies of early film, but in Brand Upon the Brain! you stumbled upon this interesting fast-forwarding process during editing that you incorporated into the film. So you’re using contemporary technology to manipulate film elements that may appear old, but you’re exploring the tics and imperfections of digital media as well.
GM: Yeah, it pleased me to be able to move forward a bit. The last thing in the world I wanted to be considered was someone stuck in pastiche-ville. There’s nothing to be gained by parroting the ancient vocabularies, and so it pleased me to make a very conspicuous evolutionary step forward in my own vocabulary. It just occurred to me while we were forwarding through all the rushes for Cowards Bend the Knee and Brand Upon the Brain! that when you do it on Final Cut Pro it’s called scrolling, where you skip forward. It doesn’t just fast-forward through every frame, it quite often skips over them much like a stone skipping over water, so it applies these huge ellipses when fast-forwarding, and you just touch down for a moment on some stuff and then skip on again. Quite often you go past the shot you’re looking for, so you have to go in reverse, and that’s even more skipping, and then finally you go backward and forward slower and slower until you find the moment you’re looking for. It kind of reminded me of the way I relive my favorite episodes from the past. Now, I may spend more time in the past than other people, but everyone does it a little bit. Who doesn’t indulge in his favorite romantic moment or the highlight of some pathetic sports career at least once in a while? And in reliving it you really have to approach a memory just so to get the proper flavor out of it. You approach it too quickly, or perhaps you’ve even gone too far, and you’ve gone past an important part and have to go back, and then you have to achieve the right speed of approach. And then once you get to that moment, the best moment, you maybe want to slow things down or even just repeat it a few times until you’ve sucked all the flavor out of it. And then you go skipping off to your next favorite memory.
III. “I’M LITERALLY CHASING A WOMAN’S BARE ASS AROUND A ROOM WITH A CELL PHONE.”
BLVR: How has working with your screenwriter George Toles changed as you’ve delved deeper into more autobiographical material?
GM: Our writing methods change slightly from picture to picture, but are almost always the same. We discuss over the phone, even though we live five minutes from each other, the elements of the treatment that needs to be written. Usually I write the treatment, then George writes the script, including all the dialogue. The voice-overs, such as they have been, are written by me much later, in postproduction, to fit the picture cut. Sometimes George writes way more than I do. He was kind enough to share a writing credit on Careful, even though he must have written 97 percent of it. On the more autobiographical work he has still been there, suggesting gags and writing dialogue. Cowards Bend the Knee is the only film he didn’t work on much, because it was meant to be an installation and not a film, at least at first, and also because for that, my treatment, usually a document of one and a half pages in length, was well over a hundred pages long. I think it was just too much to ask anyone to read. I know it was. Who likes reading scripts? Please, screenwriters, quit sending your scripts to your friends. They hate you for it.
BLVR: It’s interesting that your art isn’t just about the product, but it’s about manipulating the distribution of it. You have to figure out what things will appear on DVD, what to do with live Foley artists, what to do in an installation, what appears online—
GM: It’s always bothered me that no matter how happy I was with the overall look of my movies, there was never any one single image that seemed the logical choice for the poster. Then I realized I was spreading my imagery too thinly and evenly, and that there should exist within the movie somewhere, embedded right in its pages of written text, an image that says it all. Then I realized the best way to do this might be to recruit really strong visual artists and then not tell them too much and see what they chanced upon. So we’ve harvested thousands of collages now, and some of them are really strong. I’m hoping to have a gallery show somewhere along the line, whether it’s in conjunction with a screening of the film noir or just separately. The recently awakened showman in me wants me to reincarnate William Castle and his tingler. I want to tingle the rectums of everyone who comes to see my movies, or at least vibrate them a little bit.
BLVR: [Laughs] Your films have this incredibly stylized art direction. The first film of yours I saw was Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, and I remember being struck by how its world was so thoroughly enclosed. I’m wondering if working on a set allows you to make these melodramatic leaps you wouldn’t be able to make on location.
GM: It just seems like the language was so decadent and melodramatic that the only way to really help it get airborne was to embed it in a kind of decadent world. I’ve always felt, maybe literal-mindedly, that the degree of artifice in the language and story should match the decor. I’ve seen examples, say, in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, where there’s an incredibly melodramatic story full of artifice, even singing and dancing, taking place in what looks like the real world, and it works. Perhaps I’ve been too literal-minded. I think with Twilight of the Ice Nymphs I wanted an indoor forest, and so I had all these trees cut down and brought in and dressed with real grass, and then all the leaves died so I had artificial leaves wired onto each one, and then I had a big painted backdrop spread out behind them, and voilà: an indoor forest with a fake painted sky behind it. It looked pretty artificial and quite beautiful; I was proud of that. But I realized all I really had to do was take the big backdrop outside into a real forest and just spread it out there, and I’d even have some real luminous moths flying around. I could have saved all those trees’ lives by now. We could be reading canned Canadian literature off of pulp derived from those trees by now.
BLVR: With Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, was it the decision to use 35mm that heightened the artificiality? The time you were filming The Saddest Music in the World you were using, what, 8mm?
GM: Yeah, I found intoxication in even smaller gauge, 16 and 8mm. Every script has its proper gauge, it seems. I shot so much of My Winnipeg on video, actually. It was only at the last second that I chickened out, and I re-shot the video onto film because I realized there’s something about the narration and the subject matter and the kind of dreaminess I was attempting to produce that was definitely a filmic dreaminess and not a video dreaminess. I was really hoping My Winnipeg, being a documentary of sorts, would help me break free of my addiction to film and enable me to embrace video, maybe forever, but I’m still a little bit addicted to film emulsions. I have actually shot a movie on a cell phone. It’s a pretty disposable movie, it’s called Nude Caboose, and I don’t even know where anyone can see it. It was on YouTube for a while with a piece of music that I disapprove of. A friend of mine shot a Making of Nude Caboose on a cell phone. And, boy, does it ever not look like I’m making a movie. I’m literally chasing a woman’s bare ass around a room with a cell phone.
BLVR: So you mention YouTube. I wonder if in a hundred years’ time we’re going to dig up archival YouTube clips and if they’re going to have the same emotional resonance that, say, watching an old nitrate print has for us today.
GM: I bet you they do. Maybe not exactly the same, but I’m a firm believer that we’re wired emotionally the same way no matter how much technology changes. Long before the invention of the photograph, locks of hair produced the same kind of [emotions]. Now that I’m in my fifties, I still love sifting through the trash of my prehistory. Now, thanks to sites like TV Carnage, I can sift through junky TV commercials that I missed from the ’80s and ’90s, and they’re just a delight to me, but they also make me nostalgic for a time that seems an eternity ago, even though I was in my thirties when it was happening.
BLVR: What’s the sexiest scene you’ve ever shot?
GM: I don’t know if I dare even ascribe sexiness to anything I’ve shot. It’s something I’ve always tried for, but felt I’ve fallen so short of. I love the pre-code movies of the ’30s. Anyone can watch porn, but for some reason almost seeing someone’s nudity through something diaphanous and luminous—is that a breast I just saw? It’s an incredible thrill putting those obstacles up between yourself and whatever it is you’re perceiving. I used to get really turned on watching Busby Berkeley movies, maybe because the configurations of females in them reminded me of my own bowels, I’m not too sure. But I think it was because I was always viewing them through a keyhole drilled through a door that was seven or eight decades thick. It wasn’t until I shot Cowards Bend the Knee in 2002 that I had really explicit nudity, big flapping penises and breasts that the camera held on for a long time. I found those scenes pretty sexy to shoot, but I don’t know if they’re sexy on the screen or not. I don’t know if sexiness is what ultimately my movies achieve at all. I feel so childish, like I’m Bruno Schulz’s ageless preadolescent when I’m making pictures, anyway. I guess whatever effect I’m going for is probably some kind of preadolescent wondrousness rather than preadolescent boners. But if I could get both, somehow— a tiny, hairless, wondrous, preadolescent boner in every second viewer—that would be perfect.