DVD RE-RUN INTERVIEW: Melodrama as a Way of Life; Guy Maddin and Isabella Rossellini Talk About “Saddest Music”
by Andrea Meyer
[EDITORS NOTE: Andrea Meyer spoke with Guy Maddin and Isabella Rossellini prior to the film’s theatrical debut back in May. “The Saddest Music in the World” will be available on DVD this week, November 16, 2004.]
Always the iconoclast, underground filmmaker Guy Maddin has made a real doozy. “The Saddest Music in the World,” which premiered at Sundance and opened in theaters on Friday, takes us to the director’s hometown, Winnipeg, smack in the middle of the Depression. The owner of the local brewery, Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini), annoyed that people aren’t spending any money on beer, has a great idea. The savvy businesswoman — a haughty glamour-puss with no legs — announces a contest, offering a chunk of change to the person who can play the saddest music in existence. Her reasoning is that the spectators will spend their last pennies drinking their sorrows away in the face of such misery. Musicians arrive from all over the world to compete for the cash. Meanwhile, a local family drama unfolds, when washed-up Broadway producer (Mark McKinney), who once broke Lady Port-Huntley’s heart, creates a spectacle to pull all heartstrings, starring his lover, who happens to also be his depressive musician brother’s wife (Maria de Medeiros).
The story is kookier than a brief summary can do justice, but it’s par for the course in light of an oeuvre that includes such oddities as “Careful” and “Tales from the Gimli Hospital.” The director’s enigmatic, melodramatic tales are totally original, springing from a unique creative sensibility made manifest not only in the outrageousness of their subject matter, but also in their unusual telling. Maddin borrows stylistically from silent film, creating images that suggest a jump back in time, when cinematic technology was much simpler, but human interaction and psychology was as complex (and fucked up) as ever. Andrea Meyer met with Maddin and his Lady Port-Huntly at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, where they talked about musty old techniques, actresses with accents, challenging the audience, and bizarre family deaths.
indieWIRE: Isabella, you have always chosen the most unusual film projects. How do you make your decisions?
Isabella Rossellini: I am foreign, I have an accent, so it’s very rare that I get hired. I’m such a peculiar person that things come my way …
Guy Maddin: You’re sort of one-of-a-kind in many ways. There’s a degree of recognition. Isabella is a sui generis case somehow, so it would be hard to generalize or to talk …
Rossellini: … on behalf of a Hollywood community. I never thought I really did any Hollywood films. They don’t hire me, because very few foreigners are hired, the women.
iW: Except when they cast evil vixens.
Maddin: Either mystery or they have some malevolent agenda. A black widow spider would have an accent if it could talk.
iW: So, why this film? Were you a Guy Maddin fan?
Rossellini: I didn’t know about Guy. [laughs]
Maddin: I had this dog whistle that I blew into the telephone.
Rossellini: He sent me his work and I thought it was fascinating. It’s hard to find something original and I’m generally a good audience, not only to film, but I go to the theater, I go see dance, I go see performing arts, I see painting. To me it’s always interesting when someone can do something completely new, when it isn’t the same structure. Most films are basically illustrated novels. They have the structure of a novel, the narrative of a novel, and it’s illustrated, and it’s great if the story is great. I’m not against being in it, acting in it. I love it, but it’s been done. [laughs] When there’s somebody who can be inspired by other things it can be quite fascinating, because I do think that film stands on its own. It doesn’t have to be derivative of theater and literature.
iW: Guy, you have a unique aesthetic that has carried through your entire oeuvre.
Maddin: Every once in a while I decide I’m going to dismantle my vocabulary and try to learn to speak filmically all over again, but then I discover new ways of expressing myself in this primitive fashion that make me as excited as a kid on the first day of kindergarten with a new box of crayons.
Rossellini: To me, it’s primitive in the sense that it’s homemade, but it has an incredible language of cinema, because you’re a film buff and you have a culture of film that shows in your films. One of the things that fascinated me is that cinema still is looked at as a technology. It was presented 100 years ago in magic shows, like a trick, and they’re still waiting for the new technologies. It’s still promoted that way, the new cinemascope or the new special effect or the digital camera. It’s always the new technology and what artists can do with the new technology, and all the technologies impose a certain storytelling that is forgotten as the technologies progressed. In Guy, you go back and look at all that.
Maddin: Because film is both a business and an art form, it always struck me that business needs to be fed by technology, and it’s so fast that it moves along to the next technological advance before all the artistic potential has even begun to be wrung out of any particular era. So I always see myself as going back along the road of film history and picking up all these great and completely abandoned technologies and film vocabularies, which I pick up and try on and learn to speak. For instance, the most salient one would be when sound came in. It’s not just a technological thing; it was an economic thing. The technology to make sound movies was there from about 1895, actually. It was just a matter of economically converting all the theaters didn’t seem worthwhile to distributors until around 1928, but the silent film era wasn’t even close to peaking in its artistic potential then, so mime was quickly abandoned. It was cut down in its prime, cut down in its youth even, so mime and mime comedy and mime melodrama were all euthanized and replaced with a new breed of film that had its own charms, and then the evolution really started fast and musicals came in as a new form and they were quickly deemed cloying and abandoned, even though they hadn’t achieved their potential. And the most extreme and manqué forms are 3-D and Odorama and Surround-o-vision. When a painter makes a painting, he or she can use any color or any kind of pigment, doesn’t even have to use paint. When a poet makes a poem, they can use any word from any language or even make one up, so it seems to me a filmmaker should have the same freedom to use whatever is out there to make movies: old, new vocabularies, humble technologies, sophisticated ones.
Rossellini: When I saw your films, this is exactly what happened to me. I work so much in film restoration, because of my parents, so I started to work in archives, retrospectives, restoring. Then you get caught up by all that. It was a world divided from the creative, contemporary world. It was a world of film buffs or historians or students, but there were no artists that came to the archive to be a source of inspiration.
Maddin: I can’t even intellectualize why I should be making films that look that way. To me, atmosphere was always an important ingredient in a movie. There’s story, obviously, and ideally emotion and mystery, and you want your movies to keep revealing themselves in small doses to people through the years, but, first and foremost, you have to have some kind of atmosphere. The first few days of shooting I ever did, they were missing atmosphere, until I accidentally stumbled across the right direction to point myself in and that was the past. I started finding things that started evoking atmosphere and musty smells, and so I started exploring and poking around in there, and I realized I was all by myself and there was all this cool stuff! It was a bit like one of those dreams where you keep finding money on the ground and you just keep finding more and more and you can keep it. No one’s coming to take it away from you. I just got all excited about that. There’s just an amazing wealth of stuff that people had forgotten about or didn’t even seem to love know or care to know about, and so when I started recombining them into my own little projects and people started reacting to them, it literally did feel like free money.
iW: You devise stories that fit your aesthetic.
Maddin: I’ve always believed in a simple rule and there are great artists who break this rule all the time, but it just feels like every story has its ideal schema. So I’ve worked it backwards. I have a schema and now I try to find stories that fit into it, but luckily I think like a melodramatist and my life has been led by one. I had a brother who killed himself on his girlfriend’s grave. It’s like something out of German romanticism. My father caught on fire during an argument with my mom and ran through the house asking for help from every one of his useless children, until he finally just turned into an ash on the marriage bed. My aunt, with whom I lived, did hair for 50 years and then got hit by a car and it knocked all the hair off her head. I don’t know, these things are just melodramatic and poetically apt.
Rossellini: She lost all her hair after the accident?
Maddin: During the accident. Just bang, and it knocked it all off. It killed her, too, but the police showed up with this bag of hair. And there was more. My grandmother, with whom I also lived — I lived with all these Icelandic women, I lived in not just a gynocracy but a Scandinavian gynocracy, these brooding women — my grandmother was blind for many years and she suddenly regained her sight. And she was so surprised, she fell down the stairs and died of her injuries a week later, but she actually got to read the paper that week, while dying. That was my long-winded way of saying that melodrama makes sense to me, if you define melodrama as hyperbolized real life or life lived uninhibitedly. That’s the way it’s always been for me.
iW: Isabella, is that part of what attracted you to Guy’s work?
Rossellini: The first time we met, you picked me up at the airport and while we were waiting for the luggage you told me about a relative that you couldn’t bury because the ground was frozen.
Maddin: That was my grandfather.
Rossellini: And I thought that was a very strange chitchat just to get to know me. I thought, “Whoa, that’s interesting chitchat.”
Maddin: You’d written in your book that you have these conversations with your dead parents. So, I thought, “Wow, a kindred spirit.”
Rossellini: It was his work. It was the originality of it. It was that finally there was somebody with a new voice.
iW: Lady Port-Huntly is a great part. Do you think there’s a lack of great parts for actresses?
Maddin: Let’s start with legless actresses. I’ve got a gripe: There aren’t many great parts for legless actresses. Isabella’s now the spokesperson.
Rossellini: It’s a very big leap. This is such an original film. It’s hard to take Guy, who lives in Winnipeg, completely isolated, and just because he got his film in Sundance, to put his film in the context of the U.S. market. I think it’s forcing an argument. He’s from very far away. I’m from very far away.
Maddin: And I’m actually a woman filmmaker.
iW: Guess I got the scoop on that story.
Rossellini: We’re both from very far away and we’re delighted to be here in Sundance, but I don’t know if we belong. It was just lucky that they invited us. [laughs] Last time I was here, it was 20 years ago. I think mostly because I’m a foreigner.
Maddin: But you have this great filmography. When you look at it, it’s got pedigree.
iW: Maria de Medeiros is also in this film. Guess you like these exotic women?
Maddin: You can get them ’cause they’re unemployed. No one will have them. I’ll take them. I love accents in movies. They are instant atmosphere and mystery and character. They’re short cuts to so much. They’re the equivalent of scratches on the picture. An accent is like toning a picture. It’s beautiful.
iW: I ran into some people on the way over here who had seen the film and just didn’t get it. Do you think you need a certain film vocabulary to grasp your work?
Maddin: Niv Fichman, my producer, has run into a bunch of people who just didn’t get it. He says, “Did you understand there was a music contest?” They say, “Yes.” “Did you understand there were these brothers who were competing with each other? Did you understand there’s a wife who’s sleeping with one and should be with the other?” And so on, so forth. “Then you got it.” People feel like there’s more that you should get, but it’s still just a story. Maybe it scares people off thinking that there should be secret messages, but I assure you there aren’t. It’s just a story and hopefully it stays with the viewers for a few hours or days afterwards, at best, the way my favorite movies do, and perhaps the movies in the real canon for me stay with me for a couple years. Maybe I didn’t even enjoy them the first time I saw them and then I find myself needing to go back to see them, like “L’Atalante” by Vigo. I saw it and went, “Oh, what’s so special about this?” And then about three years later I was clawing at my bedclothes like a junkie in withdrawal, I need to see “L’Atalante.” And then I’ve seen it many times since. I’m fine with maybe having made a dud. I like to think if people aren’t responding immediately, I know that my favorite movies had a real delayed reaction to me. So, I’m an optimist. Get ’em now or get ’em later.