Guy Maddin is an aberration of modern cinema. From his first film “The Dead Father” in 1985 to his latest “The Forbidden Room” (premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival), the Canadian director utilizes the techniques and tones intrinsic to silent films and early talkies while coupling them with scripts that often feel both literary and tawdry. He has a ludic sensibility that may be an acquired taste, but his presence is welcome —even his misfires provide an antidotal experience for anyone burned by the unambitious state of moving pictures.
This month, The Criterion Collection released his 2007 film “My Winnipeg,” a documentary/memoir/essay on the home he finds impossible to leave. We sat down with the director and spoke with him not just about ‘Winnipeg’ but about his entire career (his first feature “Tales from the Gimli Hospital,” the Toronto International Film Festival-produced short “Heart of the World,” German mountain movie “Careful,” the noir “Keyhole“) and his thoughts on television, film vs. digital, walk out ratios for his films, the Kindergardener approach to art and losing a tooth while watching a film.
It seems that the structure of ‘My Winnipeg’ had a lot to do with your narration. Were there any memories or ideas that didn’t make it?
Yeah. There was a lot of stuff, because I started filling a notebook up with things. Some of it didn’t make it, because it’d be hard to shoot or too much reenactments (which I already thought the movie had enough of), or it’d be just material that someone had to read, so I chose my favorites. Then in a kind of infinite gesture, I released a book a year later which had more “My Winnipeg” in it, stuff that didn’t make the cut, stuff that would’ve made for a “Berlin Alexanderplatz.” A “Winnipeg Alexanderplatz.” You know, sixteen hours of “My Winnipeg.” It was the third of my blatantly autobiographical movies —I did “Brand Upon The Brain” and “Cowards Bend The Knee” and the protagonists were named Guy Maddin. I felt sick of myself after this. Making movies is a form of therapy for me —you cure yourself of whatever obsession you have, so I’m sick of myself now. I’ve been able to move on. I was stalled on the road to maturity for a long time, but with each picture, whether the movie is any good or not, I exhaust myself of my interest of certain things and move on. I feel like I’m about 25 years old in maturity terms. I’m a young adult. My body is something else, but… I’m moving on in my own slow way.
In that sense, how old was your maturity level during your first feature, “Tales From The Gimli Hospital”?
Incredibly immature. I made it when I was 32, but I would’ve been a 17 year old [emotionally]. But I did have access to a lot of dreams, and I was trying to sort out the kind of species of honesty that dreams offer up to the dreamer and, emboldened by watching early Bunuel and Dali films, I was really excited that you didn’t have to be a really slick filmmaker to get something honest, even if very dreamlike, like “Eraserhead” by David Lynch. Those things are really great examples of ecstatic truth that Werner Herzog talks about. You can be a filmmaking primitive but still get the literary truth out there. So I just liberally accessed my dreams and I adjusted my meds so I would keep dreaming. And I kept sorting through them until I found something that I wanted to film. I’ve been able to work through a lot of stuff that way. And I’m disappointed because in a way I’m sort of pretty well-adjusted now. I don’t know. My next movie might be a very angry one.
Was it true that ‘Gimli’ was rejected from the Toronto International Film Festival because they thought it was unintentiontionally poorly-made?
They had programmed my first short film “The Dead Father,” but I guess the programmers for shorts and features are different. There were some people there that are now my great friends, but a few of them insisted that the film was the work of a complete incompetent. I would’ve just argued that the work was by someone who was a technical incompetent, but I sort of knew what I was doing and wasn’t doing, you know? When I watch it now, I get kind of a high off of certain bad continuity errors and the acoustic scratches, but the slow pace is something that I’ll never get over. You just watch so many people walking out of these movies. The walk out ratio for ‘Gimli Hospital’ was 70%, it was 80% for “Archangel,”and it’s come down in recent years. I narrated “My Winnipeg” live across the world, and I had a very low walk out ratio. And because I’m there, I can see a person walking out and I can stare them down and say “you better be walking to the can, buddy.” So I’ve had many screenings where nobody walked out. So that’s quite a turn around. And it’s something for Canadian filmmaker to become a showman. So it’s always fun.
That’s great, and you had done something similar for “Brand Upon The Brain” — live foley work, different narrators…
It felt really good, I have to say, but to the point where I could barely watch it. Not that I watch my movies a lot, but it got to the point that screening it without the live element kind of saddens me. I got to be almost like a stage manager for those screenings and it was so nerve-wracking. When Lou Reed fell asleep while he was reading the monologue, I crushed a molar from clenching my teeth so hard.
Well, at least that’s good trivia. Did you ever consider any kind of live show for “Keyhole”?
No, I didn’t. As luck would have it, the movie is kind of opaque to the point of being very unwelcoming to viewers, it’s got a sort of “Stay Away” sign nailed to the door. I learned a lot from that experience, because it was a really personal movie, but maybe just a little too personal and too forbidding. I mean, I kinda blew it. But for subsequent work, I’ve slowly but inevitably learned how to allow people in more. And I think “My Winnipeg” let people in enough, or at least made the people that were gonna come in and feel welcome.
It’s strange that you consider “Keyhole” your most personal movie, even though you have a few films in which the main character is Guy Maddin.
It kinda is my most personal film. I was trying to create a movie about my dead brother, who took his life when I was 7. I tried to make an oppressive house experience. The home I grew up in was really important to me and my dreams. There were too many nightmarish curlicues for anyone to follow what was going on. But it was very personal, and I felt utterly drained after making it. I was quick to tear up when people talked to me and I was really oversensitive, but that’s proof that it doesn’t matter how sensitive you are, because if you’re not a good craftsperson then the sensitivity stops in your bosom. I was operating in such secrecy that I didn’t realize that my playfulness wasn’t [obvious] to anybody. I told myself that I was the little brother who masturbated under the stairs all the time, but how was anyone else supposed to know that? I was making it for posterity or something, and there was some super ego trip that was going on there that I was punished for and I’ve since learned.‘Gimli’ had a lot to do with dreams you were having. And then next came “Archangel”…
That’s kind of an amnesia melodrama where everyone has a sort of amnesia, including the director who forgot what the hell he was writing with the screenwriter. It’s just gridlocked with forgetfulness. But I thought that was pretty autobiographical, because I was really sleepwalking through my life in those days. So I thought that was pretty grounded in something of myself, but once again, going back to “Keyhole,” that did not transfer to people. I’m still thinking of writing a novelization of it. It’s my least commercial movie, and the novelization is the most disgraced genre of writing so… sounds like big bucks to me!
Your movies generally have a certain amount of playfulness to them, whether within the narrative or through a brief digression.
Yeah, I don’t know what the playfulness ratio is in the future for me. But I know I’ve never been able to take myself seriously for a few minutes at a time, because I listen to myself talk and I think “Man, what a gasbag!” so I just need to deflate. I tend to walk around and think I’m a class act but I’m not. And I’m prone to frequent spells of cowardice and backdoor sketchiness and all sorts of things, I dunno. I just hope that a little bit of masochism sprinkled with lugubrious tones is a winning recipe, but sometimes the ingredients are off.
There’s like a childlike wonder to your work, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s the wonder that every child has, the wonder that is beaten out of them as they grow older. You’ve somehow retained it and you incorporate it into your work.
Whenever I’m faced with a decision on how to shoot something, I think of my daughter at 5 years old. She would just produce drawings really quickly, decisively and beautifully. She knew not to take more than a second to decide what to do —discover the image, create it, and then pronounce it done. So I’ve always tried to try to put a kind of kindergardener arts & crafts spell over my work.
And again, that’s something that’s usually discouraged.
Absolutely. People are telling you how to do things “correctly.” I have a granddaughter who is turning 4 in a few days and man, she’s a genius. She just sits there and the papers fly out from underneath her and the drawings are so moving, hilarious and genius. But my daughter’s very protective of not teaching her that “correct” way. She’ll just learn on her own. She’s creating a great body of work… which I’m going to sign and sell (laughs). She’s kind of a Cy Twombly, and his work was going for six figures at least. Maybe I can just come in and build up a market for my granddaughter. And then I could retire (laughs).
And it’s weird, because you look at films that are popular now at multiplexes —super hero movies— and they’re generally thought to be kids movies, which is admittedly reductive, but still.
Yeah, there’s a weird sort of tension or literal-mindedness there. I am guilty of thinking less of people that I think are “too nerdy” about superhero movies and stuff like that. But the kid in me goes through Ray Harryhausen movies, and I loved nothing better than “King Kong” and stuff like that. I get most of my childlike thrills from literature, like when a metaphor works well. When I discovered the Polish writer Bruno Schulz, I thought “that’s the guy whose writing I would like to emulate with my camera.” And no one would ever mistake my films for his writing, but that’s my secret kind of banner of which I work under all the time.
Well, it’s out in the open now.
Yes. That’s okay. If more people read him, then the world will be a better place.
Something I noticed in ‘Gimli’ —the last scene between the grandmother and the two children. The boy seems to be mouthing everyone else’s lines as they deliver them. It was very disorienting and magical.
It wasn’t intentional, but I kept it in. I was off camera and I didn’t shoot much dialogue, and I didn’t trust anybody to remember dialogue so I would just be giving them lines off camera. So the girl would say the line, but then the little brother would also mouth it. But it’s almost a perfect sync if I recall.
It’s a really wonderful moment.
That moment was hilarious. I figured out how to keep things: once in awhile, I would redo a shot if it looked fucked up. I would keep most stuff and just go with it. Especially in “Careful,” I had to redo a lot. My producer and I would be like “we don’t want to but we have to reshoot it.” But ‘Gilmi’ was whatever. Someone was mouthing the lines —is that breaking the illusion of reality? Who cares. You know, J. Hoberman wrote about Oscar Micheaux, and I don’t remember the exact quote, but [Hoberman suggested that] every aspect of his films loudly proclaims its existence as a piece of manufactured junk. You’re aware of where the light is, you’re aware of a focus issue, you’re left to wonder where he found the actors and the music. It comes together, it feels so good and it’s like a painter that decides to leave brush stroke evidence in his canvas. It’s really lovely. Why not? And now again I’m reminded of Cy Twombly.
Let’s go back to something like “Careful.” We were talking about movies that were very personal to you. Where does that one fit in?
George Toles, my writing partner at the time, came up with much of that script. It doesn’t really matter who wrote what, but I knew that I wanted to make a “mountain picture” and Toles wanted to make what he called a “pro-incest” movie (laughs). So we decided to set a pro-incest movie on a mountain, and then the rest of it sort of came out. But I think the incest stuff wasn’t something I felt strongly about in the movie. I was enjoying the butler school setting and the papier mache mountains and the colors.
How do you feel about “Careful” as a whole?
I don’t think I knew quite what I was doing as a filmmaker. I wasn’t in touch with how literature was made. As junkie as my movies are sometimes… Ed Wood is one of my favorite filmmakers, because I like the freedom to just go from low art to something that aspires to be high art that falls short. I love that spirit. It’s as if John Ashbery made films. I delighted in making it as a piece of artifice. I didn’t have a sibling rivalry or mother issues like George Toles did, so that figures in the story… but after “Careful,” I felt really unmoored and I didn’t know what to make for a movie for many years until the 21st century. Then through blatant self-portrayal, I started to understand how the truth could be put on screen, if only masochistically at first.
Did you watch a lot of German mountain movies for “Careful”?
No, I actually made “Careful” without seeing any of them. I just read a description of what they were and thought that it was like Germany’s version of the Western. Of course, I found out that they had made Westerns there, but there’s only seven things that could happen in a Western, so I figured that the mountain movies were similar. You could climb up a mountain, you could climb down, you can fall down, you can be in peril and rescued, etc. And that’s about it. I liked the Borges story about the author of Don Quixote, the guy who sets out to reread it without having read it. It seemed like that in a much less intellectual way. But a lot of the things that happened, I felt pretty good about. I even got a fan note from Leni Riefenstahl which I’m half-proud of and half-made to feel evil about.
I assume your approach differs from project to project, but how different is it when you make shorts? How do you know if an idea would fit a short?
I’ve made so many shorts, some of them are just really terrible, and I haven’t really released all of them, but sometimes I want to do them in the way that Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland would put on a musical in a barn, y’know? Just something to do. I would make some out of loneliness, sometimes to experiment some technique or audition an actor. Or if I hadn’t made a movie in awhile, it’d really just be something to do. I have far too often experienced the “rusty eyeball”: from the first day of shooting a feature if it’s been a couple years since I’ve shot something, the first day of shooting is terrible. Making shorts is a way to keep the rust off. When I get a commission, I really try hard. It’s very flattering: make a movie in exchange for some money. So those I care about. It’s a bit different for each one. I made a movie called “The Little White Cloud That Cried” that was commissioned for $4000 that was done for the Berlin Film Festival for the anniversary of Jack Smith‘s death. I just had a happening the way Smith used to, with some transgender friends of mine, and one of them was an aspiring screenwriter. They had a script and they just started partying really hard and started an orgy. They hadn’t seen his movies but they started a Mario Montez style orgy. And I just filmed it. I couldn’t control them at all. They were all high on viagra and alcohol. Like this XX rated romp that doesn’t have much to do with Jack Smith, but I showed it in Berlin and I was waiting for people to be angry because it didn’t have much to do with Smith, but I guess it was doing something like his work and taking it a step more towards myself, I guess? So I have a different approach each time. Only a couple times have I felt mischievous, but I usually just want the audiences to like the movies.
And where do you stand on film versus digital?
I don’t care anymore. I haven’t seen “Blackhat” yet, but I’ve heard that it’s aggressively digital and makes no attempt to be film, and it’s about time. It’s the medium everyone uses now, and it’s the same way when I make movies that reference olden times, I don’t ride a penny farthing while wearing plus fours. I look normal and make these things. It’s all going to go through digital processing anyway. I’ve been to Quentin Tarantino’s theater in LA, it’s all film and all the digital projectors were removed, and it was pretty cool. But it’s just too difficult to shoot on film now, and I’m not a glutton for punishment. Maybe people think I’d be the last person to switch, but Tarantino and P.T. Anderson are the ones.
“Keyhole” was digital.
Yeah, I did tests on “Keyhole,” where I shot it digitally with a couple filters and transferred to film. And it looked exactly like film. But then when it was released on iTunes, I think they went straight from the digital copy, and the film grain is missing, so it just looks digital. It would have been nice if they told me about that, because I wanted that movie to look like film. Whatever.
More filmmakers are gravitating towards television. Would TV be something you’d want to do one day?
If my abilities, the material and the zeitgeist all lined up, I’d give it a shot. I don’t know if anyone wants me to. My next movie “The Forbidden Room” is in full color with actors that some people have heard of with dialogue, so it might get film industry people closer to the notion that I could do something like that. I like assignments and I like money. I don’t have any money and I’m getting tired of it!
Would you say it’s a departure?
It’s not a huge departure. It’s structurally very intense, but you’ll be able to tell that I made it. I made a commitment to color and it’s very colorful. I have a filmmaking partner now who co-directed it with me, Evan Johnson: he’s a really great color timer and he went nuts on this movie. I’m feeling good about it.
“My Winnipeg” is now available via The Criterion Collection.