You could forgive Guy Maddin for feeling a little put out at the moment. The Canadian filmmaker has, for nearly 25 years, been faithfully paying homage to the early days of cinema with films like "Archangel," "Twilight of the Ice Nymphs" and "The Saddest Music In The World" to little commercial success, only to see "The Artist" become an awards-laden phenomenon this year. But actually (as we'll see) Maddin hasn't been paying much attention. Instead, he's been focused on his latest film, the gangster memory tale, "Keyhole," with Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini and Udo Kier, among others.
Having premiered at Toronto last year, the film made its European bow at the Berlin Film Festival this week, and we were lucky enough to sit down with Maddin to discuss the new film, whether or not he's seen "The Artist," and being the coolest man in the world. "Keyhole" will next be shown at SXSW next March, and will be touring the country starting March 20th in New York.
So I saw "Keyhole" last night, I wanted to ask you how does it feel to be the enemy of logline writers everywhere.
You're the first person to mention that! I'll be lucky if the movie even divides audiences.
It was very well received, actually. The guys on either side of me were laughing and they were very much into it, but…
But it's frustrating and annoying.
It's difficult to categorize.
You know people have been telling me for years that I am difficult to categorize and I take that as a compliment but it makes distribution tough. Then I accidentally made an easy to categorize movie ten years ago when I made a ballet version of Dracula [2002's "Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary"], and that did far better then I ever expected. For some reason way more people went, it wasn't meant for theatrical release, it was a TV show but it got a theatrical release and I knew that I was in trouble with this one when it started to coalesce into something far more nebulous.
It coalesced into something nebulous?
Yeah it started to nebulize into something un-coalesced, let's put it that way. That's more accurate. You know I've been lamenting for years — long before I made a clarity step backward from "My Winnipeg" and even "Brand Upon the Brain!" to this — I've been lamenting, ever since movies were invented the earliest Variety reviewers would say "realistic," as if naturalism was absolute ideal. It's certainly what makes Lumière's films exquisite. But it's certainly not an absolute thing. I finally put my finger on it, because I've been trying to make films that operate on the logic the way music does rather then narrative sense, rather then a mathematical formula, but I have a degree in Economics and Mathematics, and as soon as I graduated I threw my degree in the garbage and rotated hemispheres.
I wish I could even say this of myself, I wish movie viewers could watch movies the way we all listen to music. Now a song, a pop song that you either love or hate, or come around on, is only three or four minutes long and a movie is longer. A movie uses up time you can never get back. But if you don't understand a pop song, you don’t care, you just love it. It just goes straight to your heart. The kind of perceptions that a movie can bombard you with could work the same way if we just learn to watch that way. I was telling my my four year old granddaughter [about] one of my script ideas for a short film and I said, "It opens up, it's a dark room but there's a little bit of light and there's a dead man lying on the floor and he's got a mustache and the camera moves in closer and closer to the mustache and the mustache has a dream and you see into the mustache's dream, you see the man alive, he was alive back then before he died. And the mustache is about to tell the same story…" And I said, "Is that confusing?" She said "No." And I realized that later when she's older, she probably won’t accept it as much after she's been trained by crystal-clear narratives that have been through screenwriting processors and things like that that.
She is not yet motivated by the cause and effect narrative line?
Yeah all that stuff, I'm not saying it's bad, far from it, I love beautifully scripted, tightly logical movies, but I also love letting go. One of my favorite movies last year was "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol." It's unbelievable, and who cares what it was about. It's perfect, it's like I spent the entire viewing experience imagining Luis Buñuel sitting next to me, and just going "Isn't this unbelievable?" You know? This is what movies can be like now in the year 2011. They can just be a nonstop dream. A million times better than… "Wasn't 'Inception' terrible, Luis?"
And it can really be like that, just like listening to Wagner, you like Wagner. It's a dream, it's a big feeling and can't we just watch movies like that? But we can't because most people just aren't trained that way, they want to understand a movie. They don't require that of a song. But they require it of a movie and if they don't get it, they get angry, they get frustrated, they tend to blame the director. They tend to accuse the director of being pretentious — I'm assuming, I haven't read any of these blogs. But being a wanker I've read some comments on IMDb, "I bet Guy Maddin and his friends just sit around on a Saturday night telling each other how cool they are." One night we did! We were watching some [Ukranian silent flimmaker Aleksandr] Dovzhenko, "The Diplomatic Pouch," downloaded it, and we’re thinking there's probably not a lot of people watching "The Diplomatic Pouch" right now. It didn't have any sound so we put some dub ambient music on, and it worked, by some alchemy because music and image working together is a occult science. And it worked beautifully, something even Dovzhenko could never have anticipated and we all just looked at each other and went we are the coolest guys.
So that was your apex of pretentious coolness?
You bet. And so I do do that now and then, bloggers! I don't just say it, I am the coolest guy in the world, I am.
That's good to know, it's good to know I've met the coolest guy in the world.
Absolutely you've met him, and are with him right now.
It seems to me that there's an attempt with "Keyhole" to create something that would be marketable because of the gangster element.
Yeah I've always been told that, because genre picture means genre.
Obviously aesthetically your films very much refer to classic movies.
Yeah, The Bowery Boys [characters in 48 of Monogram Pictures features, from 1946's "Live Wires" to 1958's "In The Money," making it the longest film series ever], for instance, here.
But this one seemed to me to start out from that place, but go somewhere else.
That's exactly what I felt, much to my horror that the movie needed to do. Because I really set out to make something that might build on the audience goodwill I got from "My Winnipeg." And I thought, "Well, I'll make a genre film. I'll make a film about reminisence, recollection, the sadness we can all feel, a sweet sadness, as sweet as a Billie Holiday song, how it's great to feel sad in a safe way. But it's an honest way and it doesn’t make you suicidal, for very long anyway, a fantasy suicide that we can all share for a while and then come out of it feeling stronger. You know it can still be a legitimate art, a beautiful art. So I set out to make something like that and something that would be understandable but it ended up being important to me the more I thought about the space, the house, that I started to wonder what ghosts were to me, ghosts were just memories. I don't believe in ghosts but when I'm writing and I hold a camera in my hands I believe in them. I just tend to think of them as memories. When you're in a house that's really dear to you, like I chose to make the house in this movie like my childhood home. I just thought it was important that these memories hang in the air as voices and as characters and that they all had to start talking to each other at one point and that they would all just start clamoring.
Actually the house was one of my questions because…
What is that novel, "Pedro Páramo" [by Juan Rulfo]? Where the protagonist just goes to a town, his old home town, and everyone is dead in it, but he's still making love to them, and hearing of their heartbreaks, and how they died, and everyone's dead in the novel, including the narrator. I just thought, "Well, we're all just hanging in our houses."
I found the film much easier to comprehend when I thought of it as a story of a house, as opposed to trying to follow the characters.
I think that's probably what I should say in every intro to the movie. This is just the biography of the house. And that the ghosts and things are just characters that are just guests and the house will outlive us. I have these recurring dreams — these are the things that made me want to make the movie — where I'm just walking through my house and there's no one in it. It always feels like there's someone in the next room, a sadness that needs to be taken care of, maybe someone I didn't visit enough at the hospital before she died, or something like that. They’re very haunting, and the house really haunts me, until I realized that we all live in the past and the present simultaneously, I realized that these dreams, if I chose to look at them as dreams of the future… the house isn't haunting me, I'm haunting the house. I literally feel like I'm walking up and down the corridors of the house entering different rooms, and just feeling things but I'm unable to see people that are still alive. I'm just dreaming of my own death. So it kind of spooked me that way when I started to see it that way. So it's a story of a house, but it's a house I'm haunting. That may be the glibbest way of putting it, and it's the only time I've done it. So you got it first.
Finally, we wanted to know if you've seen "The Artist" and what you think of it?
I still haven't seen it. I want to hate it, I'm scared I'll like it. That's my take on it.