Reviewing Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World for the Village Voice, J Hoberman succinctly nails what’s most unique about one of the most enigmatic living filmmakers: “Like everything in Maddin’s ouevre… [it] is a contribution to the imaginary history of our times.”
Maddin’s Music screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2004, prompting a long and leisurely conversation (by telephone) with filmmaker (and now Fandor executive) Jonathan Marlow about his work.
This interview will appear in its entirety over daily segments on Keyframe all this week, with a newly added follow-up conversation over Maddin’s new film Keyhole, which premiered that this month’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Keyframe: When I was in Vancouver in October, I bought your diary From the Atelier Tovar and I was a little curious. We actually talked about this at Sundance briefly – what prompted you to get around to publishing them?
Maddin: A perverse caprice. I happened to have them on me in Toronto one day. I don’t live in Toronto but I was staying there for a few months, this past summer to edit, and I go there every now and then.
Keyframe: You edited Saddest Music there?
Maddin: Yes, The Saddest Music in the World. So I guess I was having coffee or something with a friend of mine during one of my business trips and I had my diary and a friend of my friend joined us. It turned out to be Jason McBride of Coach House Books and he was talking about diaries for some reason – because I had them on me I guess – and he said, “Would you ever consider having your diaries published?” And I thought, “Maybe someday, when I rewrite them.” Because I just thought, “Maybe as a memoir,” you know? Ah, but he said, “Would you mind if I took a look at them?” And I said “No, here.” I found myself giving my diaries to a total stranger. Maybe not a perverse caprice but a moronic caprice. Then he just sort of charmed me or persuaded me into publishing. He said, “Would you allow me to publish them?” And I said “Eh, whatever.”
Keyframe: Is it only published in Canada or is there a distributor in the US?
Maddin: I don’t know how the distribution works anymore. So many things are available on the Internet anyway. When I was in New York recently, a bunch of people came up to me with copies to autograph, so they’re getting a hold of them somehow. I’ve sold about a thousand copies so far. I don’t know if that’s good or bad or what.
Maddin: I like the jacket design on that.
Keyframe: It’s beautiful, yes.
Maddin: Some guy named Darren Wershler-Henry. He’s one of the employees at Coach House Books. He did a good job, I thought.
Keyframe: It looks like something that would… Well, obviously there’s one part that is from a film of yours, but the actual design seems to evoke…
Maddin: Yeah, they’re very thoughtful people there and I’d like to do something else someday and actually take some time to write it. You know, I was so harried when that diary was put together, which is just as well anyway because I would have been tempted to do so many revisions that it would have lost all “diary-ness.” I still haven’t read it, anyway. I haven’t even read my diaries. I intended to read them many years from now and I have this odd thing where I have a book out that I myself haven’t even read.
Keyframe: There are people out there like myself that know more about your past than you remember.
Maddin: Than I would at least know; I’ve probably forgotten many things I wrote. I definitely don’t know what aspects of me you know because it was edited and the diaries are very long. Those are just a selection. From what I’ve been able to understand, it sounds like it’s mostly… Half of my diaries are little fictional miniatures and I think those are not selected, so it’s mostly the diary-ish things that are in there. A lot of the self-loathing and the self-pity.
Keyframe: Yes, that’s what surprised me.
Maddin: Name-dropping, you know.
Keyframe: The amount of self-loathing that permeates the book is somewhat overwhelming.
Maddin: When you’re writing a diary, you don’t really feel the need to balance anything, so it’s not like I hate myself all the time. A diary isn’t a perfect reflection of what you’re up to. The days in which my life’s really humming along and I’m busy and happy, I don’t have time to write in my diary. It’s those days with lengthy stretches of “down time” that you have all the time in the world to write in a diary. Those days that you don’t really feel so good about how your life’s unfurling. The shitty days tend to get the lion’s share of the print, you know. There’s some kind of weird natural selection that goes on, that weeds out the strong days and keeps the weak.
Keyframe: That definitely puts things in perspective.
Maddin: Yeah, but having said that, I am a loathsome person.
Keyframe: Your films tend to mirror the history of cinema. In fact, in Caelum Vatnsdal’s book (Kino Delirium), you say that you’re bent on rewriting Hollywood history. As such, the early films seem like this quasi-silent period and then your first color film is almost a mirror of the two-strip Technicolor period. Now, with Saddest Music, you’re almost in this period of the early-1930s musical. Except, mixed in with this chronology, you have The Heart of the World, Dracula and Cowards Bend the Knee, which are almost even “earlier” than your earliest films because they are almost pure silent films.
Maddin: I’ve gotten off the straight-and-narrow path, shooting through the decades of the twentieth century. I’m sort of tackling all sorts of branching lines, loops and blind alleys. I’m traveling a pretty ramified path up through the reconfiguration of film history. It’s whatever capriciously seizes hold of my interest for a while. Each project has its own slightly different demands, although I’m sure they all look the same to a casual observer. They all look like old movies. They do have minor distinctions.
Keyframe: I think they’re pretty significant distinctions. Take The Dead Father, for instance. You mention it was influenced by Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. I don’t know if there is any special thing that continues to recreate itself around your relationship with your father, but there’s obviously this root that forms around all of your films. There is also some kind of core inspiration and, in this case, it was [Bruno] Schultz’s writing. How did you come about putting The Dead Father together?
WATCH GUY MADDIN’S EARLY SHORT FILM THE DEAD FATHER ON FANDOR:
Maddin: I thought, from the very first, that it was always the subject of the first film I was going to do. In a way, my reasons for making a film and how I made it all sort of intersected at one point and that was with the dead father. I knew I would never be able to make a very sophisticated looking movie, like more young aspiring filmmakers try to make. They try to make an exact replica of their favorite movie or something like that, like those kids that reshot storyboard panel for panel Raiders of the Lost Ark starting at age ten and finishing at age seventeen or whatever. I knew that I just didn’t have the technical expertise to make anything that would have any sort of continuity or sort of “Sean Penn style.” I would never be an actor’s director at that stage of my career anyway, probably never will be.
Having seen Luis Buñuel’s early films enough times (Un chien andalou and L’Age d’or), I was very impressed with the effect Buñuel and Salvador Dali could get while being film novices… primitives, actually. I knew that was the route I had to take. The kind of accidents you have when you’re a clutzy novice filmmaker lend themselves to surrealism. L’Age d’or, their second film, is more narrative than their first, or more recognizably narrative – it’s a love story with some surreal trimmings. I knew that I could probably have a narrative that was as continuous as that and as discontinuous as that and maybe, I would hope, as effective as that. It isn’t, because L’Age d’or is a great movie, and The Dead Father was sort of an interesting learning experience. I knew that I wanted to make something that wasn’t just a piece of wank, so I wanted to make something autobiographical. I also had this burning desire to just put down on celluloid what Bruno Schultz managed to get on paper, these dreams that people have about return visits of dead loved ones that leave you with such a strong feeling afterwards. A really strange recipe of feelings. I just thought that I would try to put these autobiographical reveries down in some kind of artificial structure, some sort of narrative order, in the freewheeling style of Bruno Schultz’s writing.
WATCH LUIS BUNUEL’S SURREALIST CLASSIC FILM L’AGE D’OR ON FANDOR:
Keyframe: Were you familiar at the time with David Lynch’s The Grandmother? Had you seen that at all?
Maddin: No, I hadn’t, but Eraserhead really hit me hard. I was really impressed. It was a big influence. When I discovered that Lynch’s first major short film was the same length as The Dead Father and was about his grandmother, it just really seemed like he’d felt the same need. He’s exactly ten years older than I am and I know he’s felt the same need to go autobiographical all the time. As soon as I saw Eraserhead, I knew he, like I, had experienced unplanned pregnancy and taken all those feelings of delirium and disorientation that comes when all the terrain you’re standing on is suddenly pulled up from under you. You find yourself standing in a completely new domestic situation. Especially in the middle of the night when you just can’t believe what’s really happened to you. On those trips to the bathroom where you go, “I’m in the bathroom in my wife’s apartment, the one I share with her, and I have a child,” you kind of dream these odd moments and realize where you really are in the world.
Keyframe: Surrealism is a natural tendency out of that.
Maddin: Yes, it is. There are many different ways of getting at the truth. There’s melodrama, there’s surrealism, there’s naturalism. When it’s done well, surrealism is as good as anything at getting at those irrational moments, those certain fears. It’s a unique species of feelings that David Lynch fits in to Eraserhead. It always impressed me and emboldened me to just go after a story in a non-linear way. I felt it was important to be true to the feelings I had and to get them up on the screen. Now, I failed. Nowhere do I see in The Dead Father the feelings that I get from my dreams. But it was an interesting experiment. I found some things worked better than I thought they would. Other things just never worked, even if I went back and re-edited it. About halfway through shooting, I discovered a visual style that I would stay with for quite a while. So it was really valuable.
Keyframe: I don’t want to dwell too long on your first film, but John Paizs was something of an inspiration as well? I’m quite a fan of Crime Wave, although I may be only one of a few dozen folks in this country that’s actually seen it.
Maddin: I like that film a lot, too. John and I were friends. I introduced myself to him – much the way you introduced yourself to me – after seeing one of his films. He made a series of pretty great half-hour films; he must have made six or seven thirty-minute films. It’s an unique length. I think I’d seen his third one one day – he brought it to a class and screened it – and I came up to him afterwards and talked to him. We hit it off pretty well. You know, we never became best friends, but we came close enough that we hung out together for the next three years or so. It never even occurred to me that films of such accomplishment could be made by people my age, in my mid-20s. When I met him, I think I was 24 and he was 23. I don’t know if you’ve seen his other films, but his half-hour films are already as accomplished as Crime Wave. His style’s there. They were a real inspiration to me and I knew right then that I wanted to make one someday. It took me a few years to get up off my ass and go at it myself.
Keyframe: And you have a part in one of them, The Internationals?
Maddin: Yeah, I do. I’m a terrible actor, though. I actually didn’t even realize I wanted to be an actor. John just casts friends in parts, he didn’t bother [to cast things the usual way]. I don’t think ’til Crime Wave did he even bother casting people he’d never met before. We all hung out and watched movies together at a friend’s place. Almost every night of the week he made this movie, or he was in preproduction on it, and he cast all of my friends except me. I couldn’t believe that I actually found myself saying, “Well, can’t I have a part?” I honestly had never wanted to be an actor and can’t imagine why anyone would want to be one, but I found myself saying this. I think it was just because I was the only one who wasn’t [cast] and he said the only part he had left was a woman, a woman’s part. I said, “I’ll do it, I’ll do it!” I can’t believe it. I guess you’re just never too far away from becoming a shameless actor. I did it, but holy smokes, I never got comfortable performing and that had nothing to do with the drag. I just can’t get comfortable in front of a movie camera, especially with the slate and all those things that get said before “Action.” Maybe if they just suddenly said “Action,” I could do it.
Keyframe: You seem relatively comfortable in Waiting for Twilight, but then you’re just appearing as yourself, I guess.
Maddin: Yes, but I also knew that I would never watch it. I promised the director [Noam Gonick] I would never watch the movie, so he could feel free to cut it any way he wanted to and I could be free to do whatever I wanted.
Keyframe: It seems to be a reasonable agreement.
Keyframe: With your first feature, Tales From the Gimli Hospital, with that one effort, you became Winnipeg’s most famous director. Is that too bold of me to say?
Maddin: Actually, it depends on what you mean by “famous.” There’s a number of Winnipeg filmmakers that up until very recently were more well-known than I was locally. You know, they work on Movies of the Week all the time and they get a lot more regular work than I. One of them, Norma Bailey, is from Gimli, where I spend summers. This resort town, an hour’s drive [from Winnipeg]. I wasn’t even the most famous director from Gimli! And then Neil Young is from Winnipeg. He’s made a Super-8 feature, Greendale. I think he would have to qualify as the most famous.
Keyframe: Yeah, except that he didn’t make it under his own name.
Maddin: No, that’s true. It’s “Shakey-something” [Bernard Shakey], and I guess he’s not famous for filmmaking.
Keyframe: No, not exactly.
Maddin: But he’d be the most famous filmmaker from Winnipeg.
Keyframe: Yeah, now…
Maddin: Unless Monty Hall made a film, somewhere…
Keyframe: Did he?
Maddin: I don’t know.
Keyframe: He might have. [He didn’t]. It seems in Gimli that you were able to strike on another Maddin hallmark, one that doesn’t appear in The Dead Father, exemplified in this case by the “Angels of Mercy.” You have this knack for finding the most beautiful women to appear in your films. I don’t know how it’s possible, but they’re always there. You have this thing for faces…
Maddin: Yes, and they have to be anachronistic faces. They have to seem somehow that they belong to another time or place. I was a little beyond my years already. I’d already adopted that forty-something habit of hanging out in cafes alone with a notebook. That sort of “foreign legion of the middle-aged men” who are just sort of always scouring and scouting the world’s surface for faces. Male or female or whatever, and if you get a few with acting ability, it’s sort of a bonus. They look good. Some of them. I filled up most of the cast after that movie with thirteen-year-old girls, actually. I have this theory that girls could look a lot older on film than they really do if they wear makeup. I noticed that during Halloween. It’s from the six-year-olds that look like badly-used thirty-year-olds. Because, what do you dress up as if you’re a little girl on Halloween? A hooker. So I see a lot of the coal-eyed treatment. Paid a heavy price for it, though. Showbiz parents hanging around all the time, who don’t really love their children but are doing something sick [to their kids]. Whatever it was that I was doing wrong, they were doing far worse, so I retired a few of the thirteen-year-olds and replaced them with twenty-year-olds and things like that because it just wasn’t worth the trouble. Parents that are willing to step on their children to get closer to the director. It was really strange. A really strange scene.
WATCH GUY MADDIN’S FIRST INDEPENDENT FEATURE FILM TALES FROM THE GIMLI HOSPITAL ON FANDOR:
Keyframe: This is your first collaboration with Kyle McCulloch. He appeared in the first three pictures.
Maddin: John Paizs discovered him somewhere. He was a good little Mormon boy at the age of eighteen when Paisz put him in a movie. Next thing you know, Kyle was smoking and drinking – things a good little Mormon boy should do. He disappeared for about a year and a half. He was a Neil Cassidy kind of guy in real life, despite being alone. Kind of a charasmatic to the ladies, kind of a drifter, and he just hopped on a boxcar one day and disappeared. All sorts of rumors drifted back to Winnipeg. That he had died or that he had won the lottery – I remember those two were the two most common. And then finally he just came back to Winnipeg. He had neither died nor won the lottery. He’d just gone boxcar-hopping for a year and a half. He came back just in time, ’cause I’d had him in mind while I was writing this thing.
I didn’t know many actors, I only knew the few that John Paisz had used. John decided he hated Kyle McCulloch by that point and he didn’t want to use him anymore. I was happy to use him. Kyle and I became very close filmmaking buddies. We hung out mostly while working on films together and then only occasionally during other things because he… I can’t stand not having a roof over my head and he doesn’t mind just sleeping on a pile of cardboard. It’s not so true now. He’s married and he lives in a beautiful home in Los Angeles with his wife. He’s got this job as a writer for South Park. But when he was younger, he was one of those guys that could just sort of go play pinball all afternoon and then fall asleep on the sidewalk. I always needed to be home for dinner at 5 pm even though there was no one home to make it for me. I had to be home or my imaginary parents would get mad at me or something. Even when I was an adult. He was sort of like the fox in Pinocchio. He wasn’t into method acting or anything. He takes his acting seriously but I could just tell him to do something. I could just show it to him and he would imitate me perfectly and then improve on it. He’s really funny; he’d do improv and stuff. He is “Mr. Expressionism,” you know. He’s where a person’s inner landscape is reflected in the outer landscape and he augments it with all sorts of great sort of miming. He sort of had that set of false modesty gestures that I use all the time down pat.
Keyframe: It isn’t likely that you’ll ever work together again?
Maddin: I’d love to work with him. I don’t know if it’s likely, you know, ’cause he’s busy on his writing job. A year and a half ago, I called him up to offer him a part in this movie Cowards Bend the Knee, playing me. I thought of him first. He’s maybe seven years younger than I am. We’re both about the same size and he’s always been sort of a reflection of me because he does a good impersonation. But he was busy working on South Park and there were scheduling difficulties so I asked a new slimmer, younger me to come on and take my place.