From his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Guy Maddin has staked out his territory as the leading practitioner of a style that applies lyrical silent film grammar to aggressively disturbing themes.
His singular brand of fever dream filmmaking has captivated international audiences, from his 1988 debut feature “Tales from Gimli Hospital,” through his renowned shorts like “The Heart of the World,” to his latest, Isabella Rossellini starrer “The Saddest Music in the World.”
In our exclusive interview, Maddin ranges from the techniques of his newest film, to the advantages of filming in Winnipeg, to his next film and why he is so strict with himself as a filmmaker.
ReelChicago I’ve heard your newest film, “The Brand Upon the Brain!” described as a “grand guignol silent film,” and that it was shot in Seattle. How did that come about?
Guy Maddin: In December I received an email from Gregg Lachow, co-producer of The Film Company, the first nonprofit film production studio in the world. It’s been Gregg’s dream since the early ?80s to set up this Utopian haven, which is a reaction against the Hollywood system. He doesn’t accept unsolicited scripts. He contacts filmmakers, greenlights them and gives them complete artistic freedom.
They said they wanted me to make a feature, and that they’d provide me with a free studio, free costumes, free cast, free editing, a free score, free film stock. I don’t know what the budget was, maybe only $100,000, but it would be at least a million if you had to pay for everything they were getting for free. The only condition was that I had to use an all-Seattle cast and crew.
RC: You hadn’t even conceived of the project before The Film Company approached you?
Guy Maddin: That’s the way they like it. They want directors to come up with something specific to them.
It’s a phone call that would be welcomed by many directors, when you want a chance to go back and make something so non-Hollywood. You get a free film. You can wear yourself out, spending years trying to get films made. But with The Film Company, you may not get a salary for it, but if you’re serious about being in it for the work and not for the paycheck, then it’s a perfect opportunity.
RC: What film ideas did you provide?
Guy Maddin: By the end of January I was shooting. I thought, in a pinch, I could cobble together episodes from my childhood, in a sense making my “400 Blows,” my “Zero for Conduct.” As I flew into Seattle, I was still writing the script when the plane was gliding past the Space Needle.
I was still writing while shooting, writing with my camera, improvising. Every now and then, a group of actors would reconfigure themselves in a formation that duplicated what I’d experienced 40 years earlier and I’d be winded, or destroyed really.
I had an embarrassing moment, where I’d only known these people for two days, and I had to leave the set because I couldn’t get a sentence out without getting a giant lump in my throat. I squirted the costumer with hot tears like there were giant water pistols on my face.
RC: Didn’t an earlier film also draw on your autobiography?
Guy Maddin: “Cowards Bend the Knee” drew very much on my autobiography, growing up in my grandmother’s beauty salon, so I didn’t want to do that again. I made what was to me a psychically honest shift, over to a lighthouse that contains an orphanage.
The grand guignol part is that the parents in the story, who run the orphanage, are tapping all the children’s skulls for brain fluid that they use to make the mother young.
RC: And you got work outside for the first time in years.
Guy Maddin: I’ve made myself into a studio director: my papier mache sets look better under tungsten lights. We went out on Puget Sound and worked with God’s set design. Shooting on the seaside was especially moving to a prairie boy like me.
RC: Other than exterior shooting, how else did “The Brand Upon the Brain!” vary from your usual working methods?
Guy Maddin: I seem to be refining what I’m finally discovering I’m most comfortable with: working swiftly, instinctively, grabbing things as they pop up and surprise me, fetishizing them, shooting the hell out of them from as many angles as possible and sifting through them in post production. Things pop up that couldn’t have been written.
It’s a movie I’ve made in a more experimental style than I had before, but at the same time far more personal, far more dramatic and far more engaging with audiences, I think. It’s very music driven, being silent, like one big rock video in a way, but without the usual rock video tricks. It’s not all edited yet. I’m being cautiously optimistic. I think it’ll be a satisfying story as well as a hysterical outburst.
RC: Do you know what kind of distribution you’ll be getting?
Guy Maddin: The Film Company retains distribution rights. I have a very loyal relationship with Zeitgeist Films of New York. They’ve distributed most of my films. The Film Company has begun discussions with Zeitgeist. It seems to be going really well.
RC: When do you expect to complete the film, and when will it debut?
Guy Maddin: “The Brand Upon the Brain!” will be finished some time during summer. All my films have premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, but this one seems to be taking a bit too long. There’s only a 50% chance it’ll premiere there. I like the New York Film Festival’s experimental wing; Rotterdam, Sundance [are possible venues].
If we have to project it on a bed sheet hanging from Mt. Rainier, that’s fine with me. I really want to show it with a small live orchestra, a string quartet with odd instruments like a piano that’s been sawed in half or a garbage can with a tuba attached to it. I’d like to have at least two live Foley artists, and maybe some go-go dancers for the dull stretches.
RC: Tell us about your relationship with Winnipeg, what you’ve gained from working there consistently, and also what the drawbacks have been?
Guy Maddin: On a pragmatic level, Manitoba has the most aggressive pro-film policies, the most tax credits, of any state or province. My films are heavily state subsidized. I have a good relationship with the film bureaucrats here. They know me and they know what I’m about.
But that’s just business. Most importantly, Winnipeg is where all my muses are. My dearest friend and collaborator George Toles is here. We suffer when we’re in different cities. There are a couple other people who are really strong characters who have always inspired me to pick up a camera.
I have friends who are attorneys, judges, doctors, but they’re pathological anachronists. They walk around in spats with corncob pipes and speak in an ancient patois that died out with Ring Lardner. They’re inspirations to me, beautiful people. I’ve tried my damnedest to find similar communities in Toronto and New York. But the Winnipeg avant garde community is the most fertile soil for me. I suffer a lot, the longer I stay away from them.
RC: So knowing your hometown as well as you do is a real advantage.
Guy Maddin: I know where every loose board is, in case a mad dog is chasing me I can make a quick escape. I can try to recreate beneath a proscenium arch?though I’ll never try to actually film and therefore destroy the soul of?the old junk stores and the old ladies who have not aged a day since my childhood 40 years ago.
It’s also a city that, because of its economic state, hasn’t changed since the stock market crash in 1929. I’ve had a chance to revisit all the byways of my youth that Proust got by lying in bed, I get by driving about the town on my daily routes.
Submerged as I am in my past, though, I do feel the need to raise the periscope and start looking for something in the future. I may take my submarine to another city sometime soon.
RC: Can you talk about the way you recombine archaic cinematic forms in your work?
Guy Maddin: It’s just what comes out. Nothing feels right until I’m giving my subject matter some distance. I don’t think it’s ironic. It seems to legitimize the feelings I’m talking about.
It transforms stories that I don’t have an immediate connection with, or my own stories that I have too much connection with; it transforms them into fairy tales, to put it simply and not quite accurately. It turns them into something a little more timeless. It gets at characters as unchanging types. They’re melodramas. It’s okay to deal with types in melodrama.
I think of all these characters as behaving the way characters behave in Poe or Euripides or Douglas Sirk or John Waters. It’s a visual style that comes more easily and more rewardingly to me. I have some other styles I’ve experimented with in some of my video work and short movies. Maybe I’ll work more in those styles, if they start to give me the same narcotic pleasure that this style gives me.
RC: You call your films melodramas, but your work seems to have a degree of humor and self-awareness that’s not normally present in melodrama.
Guy Maddin: Because I became aware of the art world in the ?80’s, I might have had trouble shaking all the irony off my boots. Even though I make movies that are far more modernist, even romantic, pieces of melodrama, I can’t seem, no matter how often I get myself dry cleaned, I seem to always be poised halfway between total commitment and hedging my bet. That might even lubricate my way in with a few more viewers.
RC: Why do you feel you vacillate like that?
Guy Maddin: I’m torn between seeing movies with total emotional commitment, and an ironist angle of superiority. I share the temptation with almost every movie viewer, that strange, completely ignorant feeling that we human beings in 2005 are superior to the human beings that came before. Just because we have a few more inventions we think we’ve figured things out. We think we’ve seen the last genocide. As if people aren’t still clubbing each other over the head like the first pair of brothers did in the Old Testament.
I know in my heart that people never change. If I could expunge the traces of that sense of superiority that I find in myself, and the grotesque quantities in everybody else, I would consider myself a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize
RC: Do you know what your next project will be?
Guy Maddin: All I know is that it’ll be a genre picture, probably horror, maybe noir crime, and it’ll be a talkie. How talkative I don’t know. I want to work with movement, not just camera movement but movements of all the actors.
I want to design a picture based on a list of requirements before deciding on how many characters or what the plot is: a movie that takes off visually and kinetically, in which everyone moves beautifully.
| The 4th Annual Movieside Film Festival
Wednesday, June 15
Pre-screening workshop. 6 p.m.
Thursday, June 16
Local and International Shorts
Friday, June 17
Like a Waking Dream
In other words, a movie that has all the strengths of a silent film, the convenience of a talkie, the nice parts of a dance picture. I want everything to feel choreographed and eternal and beautiful and lurid. It might be “Revenge of the Fleshopods” or something like that. Hopefully something everyone can relate to.
RC: What kinds of freedoms do you practice in your filmmaking?
Guy Maddin: The freedom that the surrealists or noirists had to get to depths that other techniques can’t get to. Certain areas like mad love and hysteria and jealousy, all those raw, childish human emotions that won’t go away.
That seems to be what I’ve been refining and tailoring all my methods for, for years. That may even be the flavor of my movies. They’ll always contain big elements of those feelings, the way a Ramones album would always have a power chord in it.
RC: Do you know if you’ll shoot in Winnipeg, or elsewhere?
Guy Maddin: It’ll probably be Winnipeg. I’ve had some encouraging thoughts from some producers who are willing to back this folly without bugging me at all.
Most people see me as pretty self indulgent, but I have really intense standards. I’m really strict with myself. I only have so many movies left in me. I try to treat each film as if it’s my last. I want to make one great movie before I die. I want to make something that can be put in the canon without much controversy.
Every little boy wants to do something great, whether it’s in football or baseball. I’m just giving myself permission to have the same dream.