Canadian Cult Hero Guy Maddin: “I Have Plenty of Sadness In Reserve”
by Jeremy O’Kasick
Like a true self-loathing Canadian, independent filmmaker Guy Maddin refuses to let his cult hero status get in the way of his own melancholy even after the most prolific 18 months of his career. He finished three feature films over that period, including the highly acclaimed “Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary” as performed by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
After playing at the Sundance Film Festival, his most recent film, “The Saddest Music in the World,” made its way to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota for the February 4 opening of an 11-day retrospective of his films.
Early in the film series, Maddin took the short plane ride south from Winnipeg to Minneapolis to join New York Times film critic, Elvis Mitchell, for a prestigious Regis Dialogue about his life’s work. (He had just finished shooting two new shorts in his frigid hometown: a Mexican wrestling picture and a remake of one of his earlier unreleased films, “Sissy Boy Slap Party.”)
From his first feature, “Tales of the Gimli Hospital” to his other so-called autobiographical film, “Cowards Bend the Knee,” Maddin has created a world that is simultaneously frenetic and crystal-like in its dreamy pace, at once insular with his own demons and outside of anything we have known on screen. With his experimental verve in exploiting the techniques of the silent film era, from irises to superimposed imagery, the near 48-year-old filmmaker has risen to the forefront of independent cinema.
Nevertheless, he remains undaunted in his attachment to self-deprecation, and these days that’s to the tune of “The Saddest Music in the World.”
The Depression era melodrama spotlights Winnipeg, as beer baroness, Lady Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini), hosts a single-elimination competition to determine the worldwide champion of woeful music, and sell barrels upon barrels of Canadian lager in the process. Besides bringing together many impoverished and saddened musicians of the world, the extravaganza attracts two former Canadian brothers turned expatriate rivals, a fast-talking New York producer, Chester (Mark McKinney), and a misanthropic Serbian cellist, Roderick (Ross McMillan). Besides competing for the $25,000 first-place prize, the brothers also vie for the affections of Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), a woman who, among other quirks, gets advice from her tapeworm.
Like any solid farce, “The Saddest Music in the World” gives each of its characters absurd eccentricities as it satirizes how we perceive and manipulate sorrow. Never has Maddin’s humor been so over-the-top, and, with a more straightforward narrative, the film reveals a new direction for the avant-garde filmmaker.
Audiences at the Walker on February 14 had the chance to take in the full gamut of Maddin’s style and films in a single sitting. The closing night gala included a dusk-to-dawn screening of Maddin’s films, coinciding with an all-night party that will marked the start of the modern art gallery’s year-long closing as it will undergo a $67-million expansion and renovation.
As a warm-up a couple hours before Maddin took the stage with Elvis Mitchell, indieWIRE contributor, Jeremy O’Kasick, talked with him about Canada, sadness, disused steel mills, and dead women among other topics.
indieWIRE: In addition to being your hometown, Winnipeg sits at the heart of the Guy Maddin film universe. Do you think your fans at least have a genuine sense of this place actually existing outside of your films?
Guy Maddin: I don’t know about that. But Canadians are really crappy mythologizers. I’m making it my mission to mythologize the place. Every other country in the world gives their folk heroes a bigger than life treatment. For some reason, Canadians look through the wrong end of the telescope and make them smaller than life. I just thought that if no one was going to make a myth about Winnipeg, I decided I would do it myself.
iW: How do Winnipegers receive and perceive your films and you as a filmmaker?
Maddin: Winnipegers are a pretty cynical and skeptical bunch. Like when we had a NHL franchise, any local born player would be the least popular guy on the team. You have to go away and come back prodigal son style and then they may like you. That’s a long way of saying that I don’t think that anyone likes me very much in my hometown. The worst thing you can do in Winnipeg is allow yourself to be overexposed. The city will chew you up and spit you out if they detect any smugness. I don’t do many interviews and don’t have my photo taken. Mostly, no one knows what I look like. Once in awhile, when I release a new film, there will be some articles out there and I can sense the hatred rippling through town.
iW: In the “The Saddest Music in the World” the two Canadian-born brothers claim different national identities, Serbian and American. How is that reflective of the national Canadian identity or lack thereof?
Maddin: It’s very typical Canadian. So many of us not only want to be American, we actually migrate and completely become American. Equally common is people embracing their ancestors from two or three generations ago and becoming fiercely ethnic. America is called the melting pot and Canada refers to itself as a cultural mosaic.
iW: Is Winnipeg, indeed, the saddest place on earth?
Maddin: There is no question about it. It was the epicenter of the dust bowl during the Great Depression. It’s the coldest and darkest big city in North America.
iW: Once and for all, can you clear up the myth that casts you as the David Lynch of Canada? Is there any real connection besides in creating these dream-like worlds and in putting Isabella Rossellini in cheap wigs?
Maddin: First of all, I’m thrilled that anyone would even be talking about me. I think there is something legitimate in comparing [Lynch’s] first feature and mine. I really loved “Eraserhead” and it gave me the courage to make movies. The distributor who picked up “Eraserhead” also distributed “Tales from the Gimli Hospital,” my first feature. They’re different movies and “Eraserhead” is much better. When I saw it I thought, “Wow, this is my biography. How did someone read my mind and project it onto the screen?” I couldn’t sleep that night. What really gave me my bang for my buck was that it was low budget with unproven actors and he still went for it. I can’t deny it. At least I’m being compared to someone whom I strongly admire.
iW: What was it like working with Isabella Rossellini?
Maddin: She was perfect for that role and we had her in mind while we were writing it. It was honor just to talk her on the phone and try to get her to come make the film in Winnipeg. Then, when she accepted, I just started laughing because I tricked Isabella Rossellini into coming to Winnipeg in February. We filmed in an unheated studio, which as a disused steel mill, and it was the coldest winter we had had in years. It was like -10 degrees Fahrenheit some days with a windchill.
iW: It wasn’t the same location as you used for “Twilight of the Ice Nymphs,” was it?
Maddin: No. That was another disused steel mill. There are a lot of disused buildings Winnipeg. We’ve never really recovered from Black Thursday, October of 1929.
iW: So everyone survived the filming? No one died of hypothermia or lost a limb to frostbite?
Maddin: It brought everyone together actually. A movie needs a scapegoat or a common enemy to unite everyone. In this case it was the weather and cold. The seasonal disorders were incredible because we were indoors and never saw sunlight with constant subzero temperatures. Maria de Medeiros had a real hard time, though. She is from Portugal and she thinks if it gets down to 80 degrees it’s cold. She was not prepared for Winnipeg. It took us a while to become friends, because she told me during production that out of all the directors she’s worked with, I was the one who lied to her the most. I don’t think she’ll ever come back.
iW: You’ve expressed fear in the past over the chance that actors taking away the film away from you with their performances. Did you that fear when you started making this film?
Maddin: Oh, I was terrified. I was really terrified that they wouldn’t be able to get into the spirit and it would become pastiche. Fortunately, it worked out.
iW: Chester Kent differs from all protagonists we’ve seen in your films.
Maddin: When my co-writer George [Toles] and I were writing it we were thinking of Billy Wilder‘s “Ace in the Hole” with a little bit of Jimmy Cagney in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Just these sort of irrepressible people who no matter how many times you knock them down they always come back for more. I wanted to get a protagonist who moves the movie along. I wanted to avoid pastiche because it was a period film. I didn’t want them to treat it as a skit or a satire. I had Mark McKinney treat it as a dramatic role. He started out sketch comedy like and got off to a bad start because I told him that I had been inspired by James Cagney and I think he got possessed by his spirit. But he knows what he is doing and he is such a self-loathing Canadian, so he is literally hitting himself in the head until he got it right.
iW: How do you personally embrace your own miseries and sadness? Is it a lifeline for you?
Maddin: Whenever someone asks me to describe the highlights of my own life, I describe them with a mythic quality and they were usually the family tragedies, the most miserable things. So it turns out that I find the best way of showing these things is to play them for comedy.
iW: So between sadness and Prozac, which one do you choose?
Maddin: Sadness is my Prozac. Especially self-pity. I don’t need anything to happen to me anymore. I have plenty of sadness in reserve. I usually can just lie down with a nice fine vintage memory and sip at it all night long.
iW: It’s obvious how the film comments on how the U.S. dealt with sadness during the 1930s through escapism in Hollywood and everywhere else, but what about now?
Maddin: Yeah, it seems like so many movies today are filtered through the preview system and because of that they have bad endings. Not many people have the nerve to be really cruel to their characters, to give them what they deserve, and what the audience secretly wants even if they don’t know it.
iW: There are a lot of character types and themes in “The Saddest Music in the World” that will be familiar to people who have seen your films. Why do you continue to return to male rivalry theme?
Maddin: One of the strongest feelings I experienced in early adulthood was an intense male rivalry. It was another filmmaker who has traveled a bit, a guy by the name of John Paizs. It was an intense competition on all fronts and a romantic triangle. I couldn’t shake it from my system for a few years. In art, it pops up as something that is easily painted in broad strokes because you do the darndest broad-stroke crazy things when you’re in agony. I made “Gimli Hospital” at that time which is about a love triangle between two guys and a dead girl and I realized that I had taken the girl out of the formula and the rivalry goes on. There is so much intense hatred that if anyone came in and tried to criticize your rival, you would actually protect him because he is yours. It’s almost homosexual without the sexuality. That’s why they had to be clawing at each other’s asses in “Gimli.”
iW: Do you still have a neurological condition that makes you feel like you are always being touched or grabbed?
Maddin: Oh, you bet. It’s called myoclonus. It feels like five fingers are constantly touching you whether it’s your head or your genitals, cheek or earlobe. It happens about six or seven times a minute. It doesn’t hurt. My neurologist said I will have it until I’m 99 and then I’ll be cured. But now to take this medication all the time and I don’t have those feelings. I think I’m addicted to it because if I don’t take it, it’s not about the ghosts coming but I start walking about six inches ahead of my body, like I’m outside of myself. It’s like watching myself through crossed eyes. It drives you fucking nuts.
iW: How is that paralleled with the other ghosts that haunt you, the ghosts of memory, whether it’s your father, who died when you were young, or your brother, who committed suicide?
Maddin: I spend a lot of time with my ghosts. Not so much my brother because I was only about seven years old when it happened. He was kind of the ur-Ghost. With the mysterious women in the films, some of it is just storytelling devices from favorite movies — “Vertigo” — or favorite fairy tales. My Aunt Lil is one ghost I have. She literally raised me in the same house as my mother and she was a second mother. I think I was too scared of her dying when it was happening, so just got involved with some woman at the time and channeled all my energy into some ridiculous affair instead. I still have dreams where I’m begging [Aunt Lil] for forgiveness because I ignored her while she was on her way out. But she is a very benign ghost, she forgives me every time.
iW: In “The Saddest Music in the World”, when the winners of each round slide into a tank full of beer, all I could think about was the great Canadian film, “Strange Brew.”
Maddin: Yeah, maybe, but I haven’t even seen “Strange Brew” yet. I had thought of setting it at a distillery instead of a brewery, but the thought of sliding into a tank of gin didn’t seem as appealing to me. I thought it would sting your genitals too much. So I changed it to beer. I was the one who had to go into the beer bath first just to prove that it didn’t hurt. It was fine but I didn’t drink it. It didn’t look sanitary.