One of the most singular, idiosyncratic works at this year’s
New York Film Festival, Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson’s “The Forbidden Room” is a phantasmagoric feast of discursive
storytelling, tales within tales, surreal humor, and electro-pop odes to
Geraldine Chaplin’s derriere that centers on the appearance of a strange woodsman on a equally-odd submarine. And that’s just the beginning of it. The film has already banked a hearty festival run, including showings at Sundance, Karlovy Vary and TIFF.
The co-directors recently spoke with Indiewire in
an illuminating discussion about communing with lost cinema, digital filmmaking,and making films like a “drunk Chris Marker.”
What was the genesis
of this project? It’s not just a feature film — there’s an Internet component,
Guy Maddin: Yeah, they’re these two companion pieces. One’s
an interactive way in which anyone online can hold séances with lost cinema. In
other words, you can watch a one-of-a-kind movie that will come up just once. The
materials from which that one-of-a-kind movie is made are lost film-based
materials, and once the film is watched it is then lost forever again. So, it’s
a website that produces movies and then loses them. And there’s this companion
piece, and it’s no more and no less beloved in our hearts, “The Forbidden Room,” which is just a feature film séance with
spirits of lost cinema. It’s really just an excuse: We’re the mediums through
which all this narrative matter that we discovered, that once was and no longer
is, can be re-presented through us to the viewing public. You’re getting a
bunch of spirits clamoring for attention with each other on the screen.
The project is
preoccupied with ephemerality and the fragility of memory, both in the form of
the disappearing videos and the act of drawing on lost films, as well as
thematically within the stories. Amnesia comes up a lot. It embraces the
digital filmmaking and it’s an Internet-based project, two forms that are
defined by their permanence. Film, on the other hand, is defined by its
GM: Yeah, that’s true.
How does the medium affect your approach thematically to these ideas of memory and
GM: Well, actually, that’s where Evan was elevated from mere
researcher to full-on co-creator, because he thought of the idea of losing
digital matter, destroying it. Which all of a sudden excited us both about the
project. So, maybe you want to answer—
Evan Johnson: I can’t remember all the things that I said to
GM: No, but you just said, “I think it would be really cool” — you didn’t use those words, but “I think it would be really cool.”
GM: “Groovy, if we not only made movies out of this lost matter, but then lost them again. Just
return them to oblivion.”
EJ: Right, because that’s what happens on the website.
GM: And it’s true — this film has one foot firmly in the
planted in the past and this sense of loss, and one foot firmly planted in
pixels. It’s a way of feeling like we’re not just imitating or paying tribute
to lost film. It’s a way of working in themes that matter to us melodramatically
or emotionally, and acknowledging our visual and audio style without saying
we’re just imitating anything. We’re creating things anew using new media.
How did you develop
the unique visual style of the film? It almost looks like decaying film, but
it’s not quite that.
EJ: That look was developed by myself and my brother, who is
also the production designer. So, there’s some kind of visual continuity
between production design and this surface element—
GM: That’s got to be rare, where a production designer is
also a color timer.
EJ: We were kind of uncomfortable in digital filmmaking and
so wanted to partially pretend that these were films shot on celluloid, but also
we were totally uncomfortable with just pretending that these were shot on
film. That felt disingenuous, unethical even. So, we basically just tried to
combine techniques for degrading film with techniques for degrading digital
images into one. You could degrade film, scratch it up, or you could degrade
pixels in certain ways like removing information and pixelating things. But we
wanted a sort of synthesis of those two and that’s what we tried to invent — and we succeeded somehow!
GM: The website goes even further. The way data can degraded
is incredible. Datamoshing or even just crossing — the idea of old radio
broadcasts interfering with each other like spirits, but with our visual data
you have images pushing through from other social media platforms. We’re really
excited about our YouTube cat video. The prototypes have been unbelievable.
You’ll see Geraldine Chaplin or Charlotte Rampling’s face being replaced by a
cat playing with a toy or something. I fell down in a faint the first time I
What were some your
influences on this project? There are the silents themselves, of course. And
John Ashbery contributed to the project, and his style is present.
GM: Yeah, and Raymond Roussel. What really inspired me first
was a John Brahm movie, “The Locket,” which had three stories within stories within stories — male stories — and, in
the center of that, a woman’s story. And at the center of her story, a little
locket — a little vaginal locket — that takes all the secrets of her
pathologies, that then radiated back out and affected the lives, including
causing death in one case, of the men around her. It was kind of a perfect
symmetry and, when I saw that, I was so thrilled and so satisfied with the
pulling out. Going into each flashback was satisfying, but then working one’s
way back out was also satisfying. I remember watching this and thinking, “Someday I’d love to make a movie which has way more nested narratives.” That
was years ago and, so, when we started working on this project, even the Internet
version was going to have nested clusters of things, “Locket”-style. And it was only when we decided to make a feature
that we realized we had a chance to really pile on the nestings and Raymond
Roussel style — this French writer that we really like a lot. And Evan re-read his
works a number of times more than I did to really parse out his methods.
EJ: He even has a book called “How I Wrote Certain of My Books” that explains what his method was
and it still doesn’t explain why. Like, it explains how he did it, but not why.
So, it’s a kind of disturbing, the complexities of his structures are still—
GM: Still completely unmotivated.
EJ: Yeah, they’re not motivated and a little disturbing because
there’s an emptiness to it. There’s nothing there. It’s all structure in a
disturbing kind of a way that makes it moving to me because it’s lifeless.
GM: It’s beautiful.
EJ: It’s beautiful and he had a tragic life and was
misunderstood. He thought he was the greatest genius since Napoleon.
GM: And his death was great.
E: When he died, he was found holding a key right in front
of a locked door and no one knew whether he’d locked himself in or was trying
to get out. And that paradox was at the heart of our structural gambit — of a
film working its way in and having some kind of empty core, with emptiness as
part of the promise.
GM: Are we trying to lock people in or chase them out?
elasticity to the way time functions in the film. When you have all these
nested stories and you’re keeping up with all these different strands, how do
you go about finding the rhythms of the film?
EJ: That’s a tough one. Our editor John Gurdebeke is a
genius, for one thing. That helps, that he has a good sense of what rhythms a
GM: And there’s a certain amount of just being hamstrung by
the pace that the actors give you, by the pace the scripts seem to insist upon,
by the limited number of orders that we had…and then finally feeling good about
it. The second act slows down for a while. I like that. It’s sort of this stallion
that’s all elbows and knees and brazenness, and it sort of establishes its
right to exist whether anyone wants to watch it or not. And, then, it can slow
down for a while and go darker.
EJ: That’s probably how dreams work, too, where time will
slow down and not make any sense. Time will be laden with concepts that are
there, but don’t have to take time to happen.
GM: Yeah, and some dreams can be nightmares simply due to
their pace, not their content. Which is actually why the scene I root for the
most in the movie — and I have no idea how it really goes over — is the
changing of the clothes in real time. Happening right around the time that a
normal movie would be climaxing, this thing decides, “No, now, it’s time to
change clothes in real time.”
EJ: That’s where I go to the bathroom and, when I come back,
it’s still going.
GM: Yeah, I usually go for a little walk.
EJ: I get a meal — a short meal.
M: Going back to that
vaginal locket, you [Maddin] said in a press conference following the NYFF
press screening that you were exploring this idea of men imposing themselves on
women in the film.
GM: That’s all I’ve ever done. I’m an expert in that.
EJ: We were three men writing it. There’s only one spot in
the film where I identify self-loathingly with a character and that’s this
character who has a monologue about the god Janus. His girlfriend’s like, “Leave
me alone.” And he’s like “Rawr, rawr, rawr!” Like mansplaining.
GM: Yes, mansplaining: Guilty.
EJ: And every time I say anything, I’m like, “Mansplain,
that’s all I can do!”
GM: You’d mansplain to another man, too, though.
EJ: Sure, I definitely do. I’m real devoted to
mainsplaining. It’s not a total coincidence that it’s mostly men in the film
doing cowardly, selfish, controlling things to women. It’s because we were men
in the room thinking about our own cowardice and shamelessness and occasional
stupidity. But it’s not like “All men are stupid and women are victims.” It
GM: No, but it does invite a kind of gender reading.
EJ: Like an almost satirical, Freudian account of male
desire. But part of that also came out in the scripts we were drawing from. They
had the gender dynamics of the era. And I’m not saying that they were always
inferior to our “modern, progressive attitudes.” Sometimes they were weirdly progressive
in strange ways. But they were male-oriented stories. Stories often were about
a man getting a girl.
GM: There was one we didn’t shoot called “A Sleeping Memory,” and the premise of
this lost movie was that this really wealthy man would offer his entire fortune
to a woman in marriage if she agreed to have her memory erased via surgery, so
that she could not remember any other man—
EJ: Past lovers.
GM: —that she had ever made love to. So, the condition was
simple: I will give you everything I have — everything! — as long as you never
think of another man. And I love the premise because every man has had that
EJ: That’s a sort of primal, narcissistic privilege men
grant to themselves.
GM: And the surgery works on her, but it doesn’t work on
him! He’s not satisfied. So, the morning after the honeymoon, he actually comes
in with her ex-boyfriend and goes, “You know who this is, don’t you?”And she’s
going, “I have no idea who this man is.” “You’re lying!” But it sort of seemed
like a movie Bunuel would have made, like a sequel to “El,” or something.
That actually sounds
GM: It’s so phallocentrically self-loathing that it’s
feminist by default. Isn’t there such a thing? At least that’s our only hope
for being feminists. We’re feminists in through the back door.
elides the difference between various mediums — it’s deeply cinematic, as well
as highly literary, and the full project literally encompasses two different
mediums. Are you interested, going forward, in doing more multidisciplinary
GM: I’d like to because I have a fantasy about being some kind
of James Franco.
EJ: Are you sure?
GM: But I’m a filmmaker. You know, I’ve made installations
but they’re a film set, where people are invited to watch a film being made. Or
we’ve made “Bring Me the Head of Tim
Horton,” which is here as an installation, but it’s a film. We’re
filmmakers. I am really excited, because Evan turned me onto the potentials of
cine-essays and paranoid thinking where connections are made in real riffing
ways. Like Chris Marker, but a really drunk version of Chris Marker, or Chris
Marker asleep and dreaming a bit.
I was excited to discover that the year Chris Marker started
making movies – 1952 – was the year Ed Wood made “Glen or Glenda,” which is actually just Chris Marker, but with Bela
Lugosi. You know, you’re either Lumiere or you’re Melies, but we’re Ed Wood. We’re
making cine-essays now, and you can include utterly fictional narratives. I’m
just more excited than ever for the future of filmmaking. I’ve gone through a
couple of doldrums periods in my career, where I just couldn’t even see a
reason for making a movie. But now I wish I could live another hundred years.
READ MORE: Watch: Guy Maddin’s Far-Out Celluloid Foray ‘The Forbidden Room’ Has a Trailer