Guy Maddin Talks! Part 2: Making Movies Louder than a Whisper

This is the second of a five-part interview with Canadian film director Guy Maddin, conducted by filmmaker (and now Fandor executive) Jonathan Marlow. Read Part One.


Keyframe: Archangel followed Tales from the Gimli Hospital. It was given the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Experimental Film. Here you have this “part-talkie,” a beast which really only existed between 1927 and 1930, but you had to make one and there it is. Inter-titles, occasional dialogue, voiceover – everything all in one big picture. How was your experience on that film?

Guy Maddin: I loved making that movie. I really thought right up until the day I had it finished that I’d made a masterpiece. I watched it for the first time during a process of the sound mix. It used to be called the interlock, where you’d put up all these magnetic soundtracks all at once really for the first time. Normally, when you’re editing on a Steinbeck, you can only hear two tracks at once. I think I only had three or four tracks on the movie, but I finally heard them all at once. I really felt like I’d made a dream, a perfect dream of a movie.

It wasn’t. I had no objectivity on it. I didn’t even realize until I watched it with an audience and then… it was very crushing. I didn’t have a test audience on the film in those days. I didn’t trust them. I didn’t realize that I’d made a film that was incomprensble to everybody else. It wasn’t so much “dream-like” as “sleep-inducing.” But I feel that the completely self-deluding experience I had when I first watched Archangel might be one of the best film viewing experiences ever. I was very proud of myself when I watched it with Greg Klymkiw, who was my producer at the time, and we were just so thrilled at how beautifully it turned out. We both fooled ourselves. We just drove around all night going, “Wow, that is so incredible.” You know, we got our comeuppance.

Keyframe: I think that it has a first in the history of cinema, though – the intestinal strangulation scene. I was quite surprised by that.

Maddin: I was proud of that. It felt like a first. If I stole it from anyone, it was definitely a subconscious plagarism.

Keyframe: It’s played seriously, which I think helps considerably. It’s a very strange sequence, though.

Maddin: [laughs] Thank you.

Keyframe: I think this whole technique was pretty much fully formed by the time you get to Careful, where you’re making your first color film. I watched it again last night and I felt it to be a Freudian fever-dream. Until very recently, it was my favorite of your films.

Maddin: I feel Freud has been discredited. No one takes him seriously anymore. I thought it would be kind of fun to just embrace the good old days, when there was that great mania for Freud in the 1940s and 1950s in Hollywood. There were so many films with shrinks; sort of the Greek chorus. I thought it would be fun. I didn’t know much about Freud. I read the first chapter of his Interpretation of Dreams. It was really just fun to play around with these obvious symbols. I was forced to do it in color by the distributor, but I was really glad I was forced because it would have taken me a long time to get around to it otherwise. I was so respectful of the power of color, its mystical power. I started to try to harness it and control it as much as possible. I remember, I thought, “How could they force me to shoot color? Don’t they realise how difficult color is?” Think of Don’t Look Now where that red raincoat is worn only by a homicidal dwarf and a drowned girl. If you don’t control every color in the frame, you might accidently shoot a fire hydrant and the fire hydrant will take on all the same importance as the homicidal dwarf and a drowned girl. I didn’t want to have fire hydrants all over the place so I determined I would have to control the color of absolutely everything in the movie and make it only two colors at a time.

Keyframe: That’s why you shot it exclusively indoors?

Maddin: Yeah, because if I shot outdoors I would have to pull an Antonioni and paint the golf course or whatever it was.

Keyframe: Did you think, when you were making a mountain film, that it had to be black-and-white and then…

Maddin: I felt like it had to be black-and-white because mountains seem like black-and-white things – although I guess Heidi would look good in color. I had never seen a Leni Riefenstahl picture prior to writing Careful but I saw Tiefland shortly before shooting. Tiefland was in black-and-white and I thought, “Yes, mountains, black-and-white’s the way to go,” but I’m really glad I was forced to go color. I like the color in about three quarters of the scenes.


Keyframe: I suspect that you were familiar with Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten?

Maddin: Very familiar. I read it. I had read it but I didn’t have a library card. I couldn’t take it out of the library, so I read it in the library once. I read it way too quickly because you can’t read Walser quickly. I like the butler stuff. It was actually George Toles, my writing partner, that suggested we stick a butler academy up in the mountains. I just wanted to make a mountain picture and I had some other plots in mind but George had read another Walser in the “Masquerade” collection. There’s some butler hijinks in that story. I got all the Walser attitude that I needed from that short story.

At the time, I didn’t realise that the Brothers Quay were working on their own adaptation. I’m a huge fan of the Brothers Quay and they’d already beaten me to doing a Bruno Schultz adaptation when they did Street of Crocodiles. When I found that they were doing Institute Benjamenta, it just sort of confirmed that these were people I had to meet someday. I’ve since become really good friends with them. I really admire them and I visit them whenever I go to England.

Keyframe: How is the Quay Brothers’ latest feature [The Mechanical Infanta aka The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes] coming along? Have you heard much about it?

Maddin: I think it’s still sort of in delivery throes right now. No one has quite given them the go-ahead to start. I think it’s in that state where everyone is waiting around hoping that they’ll get the word.

Keyframe: You finally met Steven and Timothy [Quay] at the Olympia Film Festival, the same time that we were introduced. There’s a reference in the Atelier Tovar to “dinner with tons of wine before the Twilight screening,” which was a dinner that we all had together. You also mention showing up at Scarecrow Video, a company that I worked for at the time [note: Jonathan Marlow operated a movie theatre on the second floor of the store in the mid-1990s].

Maddin: I liked that video store. It was great.

Keyframe: It’s still quite a place. Can you talk a bit about casting Paul Cox as Count Knotkers? Because, as I understand it, Martin Scorsese was at one point going to do it and then Bobby Hull…

Maddin: That’s right, yes. I received a lot of encouragement about Scorsese from his vice-president [of operations] at the time, Melanie Friesen. She’s a Manitoban, actually, my home province, and she now works for the Vancouver International Film Festival. She used to phone me up every now and then to request a tape or a print from me because Marty was interested, and I talked to her. Naturally, being self-centered like all filmmakers, I tried to turn this to my advantage somehow. I wanted to get Marty in this part, you know, and I tried. She finally just said, “No, he’s too busy.” [Scorsese was editing Cape Fear at the time.] By then, I became determined to get a celebrity, so I thought along the lines of celebrity athletes for some reason. O.J. Simpson hadn’t killed anyone at that point yet. I was thinking of Jim Brown, the former football player who had, I think, thrown a woman out of a window or something. No one talks about his unbelievably homicidal tendencies, but he struck me as a great sports hero turned rotten. I knew Bobby Hull was charged a few times for slapping his wife around and things like that, so I thought, “This is great, he’s Canada’s – and especially Winnipeg’s – huge hockey legend. Plus he’ll have this echo, a sort of after-career echo that’s really rotten and that will be my own private joke.” I think he smelled a rat or he was too busy bashing someone, but he was interested in theory for only a couple of weeks. And then, I just got it into my head that I needed a hockey player, so my producer [Greg Klymkiw], whose dad [Julian Klymkiw] used to play in the NHL in the 1950s, knew Maurice Richard [of the Montreal Canadians] and so I wanted to get Maurice. He did a lot of Grecian Formula hair ads in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s but apparently he was getting too old, even in the early 1990s, to be considered. I don’t remember all the other people we thought of.

Finally, Greg had become friends with Paul Cox at a film festival. Paul is a great drinker and he just likes hanging out with other filmmakers. He’s sort of a grassroots kind of guy, which Greg really liked. Paul made Golden Braid with Gosia Dobrowolska and eventually married her. When we cast Gosia as Zenaida in Careful, Greg just thought it might be handy to ask Paul, her husband, as well. Paul and Kyle McCulloch had this strange rivalry over Gosia. They had been working together for a few weeks before Paul even arrived in town and Paul sniffed something was up. I choreographed their fight after Leni Riefenstahl’s Tiefland knife scene. I’d watched it the night before and basically lifted the storyboard panel-for-panel from that because I didn’t know how to do a knife fight. It sort of encouraged me; incompetence rendered it unrecognizable, but it was a nice starting point. There are a lot of shots in that scene, two hundred or maybe 150. I don’t know if they all made it into the movie, but I shot a lot of setups. Paul and Kyle were using these fake knives but even those were kind of sharp and they were genuinely stabbing each other. Just stabbing away all day long. They truly hated each other. They were pretending not to, but you could tell that there was some sort of sexual rivalry going on there. Anyway, the marriage is over and the rivalry’s over. Everything’s over.

Keyframe: Seeing the film again last night, I was surprised at the duration of that sequence. It’s very difficult to block action scenes and make them seem believable. The rest of the film is so loose – to shift into a compelling fight sequence right at the end is a bit of a surprise.

Maddin: You know, I was very proud of that because I edited it myself. I edited the whole movie myself. I’m pretty proud of the movie, but I wish it were about fifteen minutes shorter. I think I allowed my girlfriend at the time to talk me into putting her in the movie and…

Keyframe: What part did she play?

Maddin:  She’s that girl chained to a rock. An unnecessary detour in the movie. I had to create a lot of stuff around the rock to make it a justifiable piece. If I went back and cut it out, I could just fix that movie up, but you’re not allowed to cut out things from our lives, so…

Keyframe: Well, it seems that everyone else is doing it these days. Imagine, a Director’s Cut of Careful – other folks put missing scenes back in, but you’d be taking existing footage out.

Maddin: I’m very sad to report that the guy who narrates the introductions to both Careful and Archangel, Victor Cowie, just died yesterday.

Keyframe: Oh, no.

Maddin: Yeah, I was very close to him. He was very sweet. He had a small part in The Saddest Music in the World and it fit. I had given him a tape [of the movie] a couple of weeks ago because he was dying of cancer. His wife phoned me today to tell me two things: That he’d died and that he liked the movie. She was so sweet. He was a perfect gentleman and always made a point of follow-up calls. It would be so unlike him to die without passing on word that he thought he had done okay. It really is a touching gesture from this woman who had just lost her husband. She was sort of acting as a “gentleman of proxy” or something like that.

Keyframe: This is the actor that portrayed the father?

Maddin: [Herr Trotta], the father of the girl.

Keyframe: He’s so fantastic in Careful.

Maddin: They go down in the little avalanche in the end. I really loved Victor Cowie.

Keyframe: That’s such a shame. The score in the film is your first non-cobbled together composition, I guess. John McCulloch, he is related to…

Maddin: Kyle’s brother.

Keyframe: That’s what I figured. Even though it’s his score, there are a handful of quotes from other pieces. For instance, there are a few bars from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in one sequence. Did you influence him in that way or is that something he simply wanted to do for the film?

Maddin: You know, I’m not even aware of that quote, because I don’t even know The Rite of Spring that well, but I know that we spoke in those terms quite often about [Bernard] Herrmann or [Erich Wolfgang] Korngold and things like that.

Keyframe: …like a classic Hollywood score.

Maddin: Yes, I just sort of wanted it to feel like certain things. He lives in Vancouver and I live in Winnipeg, so there was a time difference. We would sort of collaborate on the score over the phone. He’d play me little things, and I’d say, “Oh, that sounds good.” When it was all orchestrated, there were little things in there and sometimes I would ask him to put in paraphrases of things. I can’t remember specifically right now what they were, but I liked it when things sounded Bernard Herrmann-esque, even if Herrmann belonged to a entirely different era than the one the movie seems to evoke. I don’t really care because I didn’t really want to just make an imitation of any specific time period anyway.

Keyframe: I remember when I saw the film in a theater, shortly after it was released, and all of the added of surface noise, like old run-out grooves of records, I just thought was fantastic.

Maddin: It really broke John McCulloch’s heart because he was begging me to let the sound be full Dolby Stereo Surround, ’cause he’d really written a nice score, I thought. It was my belief that all other movies had full Dolby Surround scores and I just didn’t want to sound like other movies. He’d written a great score I thought and it sounded great in mono. I later took his advice but one film too late.

Keyframe: It would seem inappropriate for that film to have it in stereo…

Maddin: I thought so, but I know it broke his heart, ’cause he really did beg me. He’s a very insistent person, very persuasive, and it’s the only time I ever really dug in my heels with him. When one of my producers, Greg [Klymkiw]’s partner, Tracy [Traeger], just assumed we were doing Dolby Surround so that the avalanches could really kick ass, I was thinking, “You fool, did King Kong need Dolby? What are you even talking about, you preposterous nincompoop?” So I was literally, completely insulted when someone mentioned the word Dolby around me. Perhaps I was a little bit of an arrogant mother.

Keyframe: There is another oddity that I noticed in Careful. Sarah Neville appeared in Archangel and Careful and then she seemingly disappeared, but Katya Gardner, whose first role was in Careful as Klara’s sister Sigleinde, has gone on to do a lot of television and other feature films as well. How did you find Katya for the film?

Maddin: Katya was my very first casting agent find. I really was having trouble finding that part. I was thinking of using Angela Heck, who was the blond girl in Gimli Hospital, but Angela was going through some sort of “earth mother” phase and she was intentionally making herself look tired. She looks great now. I think she was sick, frankly. I don’t know what it was… I realize now, she told me a few years ago, that she got so mad when I didn’t cast her. That’s right, she told me she had cancer. That’s what it was. She didn’t look so hot and, without realizing that she was sick, I just thought that she was… I remember now, it’s all coming back. I’m piecing these two halves together now. I thought that there was something about this “back to the land” look that she was adopting that made her look like she was literally lying with her toadstool collection at night or something. It didn’t look healthy and sort of disappointed me, so I did know whom to cast. Katya was suggested to me by a local casting agent. She’s in Winnipeg and she came and I talked to her and she sort of reminded me of Angela a little bit. She’s sort of Winnipeg’s Charlize Theron. She was always sort of seriously disappearing from the set to testify in court at the murder trial of her stepfather or something like that. Someone came to the door and killed him. Sarah Neville works in Toronto as well and both Katya and Sarah live in Toronto. I see Sarah in Ivory Snow commercials and she does some theater and things.

Keyframe: So, Careful seems to mark an end of an era, filled with all these little cinematic treasures and a number of shorts that I’m still dying to see…

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