Guy Maddin Talks! Part 3: Finest Shorts and Saddest Music

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


Keyframe: Closing the 1990s is what I believe to be one of the finest short films ever made, Odilon Redon or The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity. I think a lot of the folks that were heaping words of praise upon the wonderful Heart of the World apparently had never seen Odilon Redon because your incredible abilities were readily visible there.

Maddin: It doesn’t get seen that much, I don’t think.


Keyframe: I guess not. That’s unfortunate because it’s fantastic. Something that you mentioned in Kino Delirium was an attempt with Odilon Redon to remake Abel Gance’s La Roue without ever actually seeing it. What other films would you like to remake that are lost or that you’ve only read about? Would you want to tackle [Tod] Browning’s London After Midnight or [F.W] Murnau’s Four Devils? Would that ever interest you?

Maddin: Precisely those titles. I made a little list of lost films that I thought would be fun to make into four-minute productions. Those two were there. I’ve since seen a reconstruction of London After Midnight on that Lon Chaney DVD that’s just come out. It doesn’t interest me that much anymore [ed. besides, Browning himself remade this film as Mark of the Vampire]. Four Devils I would love to make, although shooting trapeze artists would be very tough. I would like to slowly make them, something to do between big projects to fill in the gaps. Almost every major director has at least one lost film. It was really fun and liberating to make La Roue without having seen it. I’ve since seen it; I own it on videotape now. It’s kind of fun to watch a two-and-a-half hour version. And I’m a huge fan of Gance.

Keyframe: As am I. Now we’re up to Twilight of the Ice Nymphs – “very lush and full of ostriches!” Like Paul Cox in Careful, Frank Gorshin wasn’t your first choice. The film wasn’t really your first choice, either. You were going to make The Dikemaster’s Daughter. Will you ever get back to that project or is it one that will stay on the shelf?

Maddin: I was lucky that one fell through. I wasn’t ready to make that one. The script wasn’t quite ready there. We were into pre-production and we had some people cast already but it just… it was going to be a big mess. That’s one of the reasons it folded. When financing was cut in half by the government, we did have the choice of continuing or not. We could have restructured and gone non-union and made it for less money than we’d made the previous film, Careful. I was already starting to have doubts about this project anyway. When everyone was so devastated by getting 50 percent of what we thought we were getting from Telefilm Canada to make the film, I just used that as an excuse to bail on it, in a way. It wasn’t just that. It was a terrific slap in the face, I felt; a terrific display of a lack of confidence in me and aptly so [laughs]. I think the funders read the script and felt the same kind of concerns that I did. It was a good first draft but it wasn’t ready to go. They didn’t say that, though. They just said, “No!” Then they gave me a figure. I think we wanted to make it for $1.8 million and we were going to be forced to make it for $900K [Canadian]. In 2004 dollars, that would be like making the movie for $2 million; that wouldn’t be so bad. I just thought, “Nah, I better get out of this picture that I don’t really want to make.” It needed to be rewritten. I wasn’t ready to shoot a musical, either. I was barely ready to shoot the musical that The Saddest Music in the World is when I shot it. A lot of work goes into those things. I hadn’t done any of it and we were just a few weeks from shooting. It was going to be like that Nick Nolte musical [I’ll Do Anything] that was shot a few years ago where they finally just cut out all of the musical numbers and released it as a drama. That would have been its fate for sure.

I remember feeling, just as I was finishing Careful, that for almost ten years, since I picked up a camera for the first time, I had already been messing around with making these old-looking movies. I really felt like I’d done it once too often, even. I just needed to spend a few years drifting around until I found some enthusiasm for the pictures again. Unfortunately, I made a movie right in the middle of this period where I had no enthusiasm for making pictures…

Keyframe: …and that’s Ice Nymphs?

Maddin:  Yeah. I feel that good directors have got to be able to get through that anyway and just work; to put failure behind them and just keep moving. I shouldn’t have lulled around so much, but I just didn’t feel a burning need to make a picture. I didn’t know what kind of visual language to use, which is why there is sort of a different visual language going on in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. Sort of a determined Ouija-style by unknown forces at work on the set. Different people determining different things. Some very loyal pals helping me out that were doing imitations of me in the décors. Every now and then I would work up the energy to supervise really nice “Guy backdrops.” I like those in the movie. It was a learning experience, but I shouldn’t have let the film’s sort of cursed existence get me down so much. I should have just reminded myself that even Hitchcock laid a rotten egg now and then.

Keyframe: Quite a few of them, even. If you had a checklist of film techniques that you were crossing off as you make these features, you covered Orson Welles’s classic trick of redubbing someone (although you didn’t do the voice yourself).

Maddin: Exactly. I’m not in love with my voice. But I do love Ross MacMillan’s voice, so he could be my “vocal Orson” any time. There’s only so much an actor in Ross’s position can do. He understands the music of George [Toles’s] writing and he could put the “George” back in the George lines. Nigel [Whitmey, star of Twilight] had no sense of irony or playfulness. He was a bit of an imposter. He was from RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts], this distinguished academy in London but, I don’t know, it just seemed like he was from Calgary to me. Strangely enough, when we were finishing Saddest Music in the World and we had some preview screenings, there were some suggestions that we replace Ross MacMillan’s voice [Ross portrays Roderick, the “sad Serbian”]. [laughs] I couldn’t believe it. His voice was almost replaced. It would have been the strangest irony that I hired him to replace someone’s voice in one movie and then hired him again only to have his voice replaced. Whatever.

Keyframe: This was the producers of the film that wanted you to do it?

Maddin: I’d better not say who it was.

Keyframe: Let’s forget it then.

Maddin: It was some people up there that luckily didn’t have any sort of veto power or anything. It was some bigwigs…

Keyframe: You took this period after Ice Nymphs to finish off some shorts that you had shot earlier but hadn’t finished…

Maddin: A lot of them are sort of stillborn and it may be a while before they see the light of day. I’ve shown them to friends. I have about four shorts that were financed by my aunt Lil who died and then left her entire estate to her nephew. Not me, a different nephew. Now he claims ownership of them. One of them is Sissy Boy Slap Party, so I’ve re-shot it just recently. That will be released as a remake. He can have the first one and I have the second one. The second one’s better anyway.

Keyframe: We screened Hospital Fragment at the Grand Illusion in Seattle. It seemed to be an outtake from Gimli. I don’t believe that it really was; perhaps it was only inspired by…

Maddin: I shot it many years later. Mike Gottli, the fat guy from Gimli, had been in a horrible car accident. He hit a moose with his Austin Mini and went into a coma for about a year. When he came out of it, he needed speech therapy. He can’t talk, actually. He lost about five years worth of memories, including making the movies with me [Gottli also stars in Archangel]. He needed to walk with a walker. His health has since failed even worse and he’s doing really badly. He’s had a stroke. He’s only 35 years old and he’s in horrible shape. Before he had his stroke, I thought it might be nice to have him come and do a little scene, just for something to do. So, on the day that JFK Jr. went down in an airplane, I just called up Angela Heck and Brent Neale [from Careful] and I got them all together in my bedroom and we just shot this thing. It was done in 1999, a full twelve years later than Gimli Hospital.


Keyframe: It wasn’t sure if the footage was shot earlier and then assembled in 1999. I suppose, if I compared them side-by-side, it would be rather obvious. Wasn’t Maldoror: Tigers shot earlier and finished, I think, in 1999?

Maddin: It was shot when Kyle was heavier, I know that.

Keyframe: From the lone still that I’ve seen, it was clearly photographed after Careful but I can’t tell when.

Maddin: It was shot around 1997.

Keyframe:Now we’re into the big guns. You had this fallow period and now you can’t be stopped.

Maddin: [laughs]

Keyframe: The Heart of the World, of course – the shot heard ’round the world. Nearly everyone’s seen it. It’s on disc, fortunately, so folks that have only heard about it now have the chance to see it as well. In only six minutes, you’re able to pack more story than nearly every feature film released in 2000.

Maddin: [laughs] Yeah, it felt pretty good. It’s the only film that I’ve ever made that turned out exactly the way I had hoped.

Keyframe: Plus, I’d wished that when people were talking about The Passion of the Christ and rattling off all of the great cinematic Christs that they would mention Caelum [Vatnsdal] but they didn’t! I don’t know why…

Maddin: He’s a pretty good one. I was pretty lucky there. I’ve always been lucky in my career. Lucky to get way more mileage out of my talent than I deserve. I felt like everything that could go wrong went wrong on Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. The spell I like to work in was gone. All of the sudden, I felt lucky again. Caelum lives just a few blocks away from me. I phoned him up and said, “Do you mind if I just come over and look at you?” So I rode over on my bicycle and I was there within ninety seconds. He opened his door and I just said, “Heal me!” He’s got these long, skinny, boney fingers and he became a German Expressionist Christ there on the spot. I cast him. I just felt so lucky. He’d never really done much acting but I thought he was perfect for it. I had audition even, where I had these people showing up and they’d memorized chunks of the Bible, giving me Christ monologues. None of them were as good as the non-actor Caelum.

Keyframe: He has that great Ivan the Terrible beard.

Maddin: Yeah, and since I wanted to make a Soviet agitprop thing, I thought he looked quite sinister. Christianity really is the sinister opiate of the masses.

Keyframe: That free style that you use on Heart of the World seems to surface again in Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary. This all-over Super-8 shooting style, assembled in a way that really doesn’t resemble anyone else’s film.

Maddin: I just started getting more and more confident with my “primitivity.” Just deciding that the more I intentionally, aggressively, got primitive, the more it embraced mistakes and made them into strengths. I really started to hit my stride right around Dracula that way. I just felt good and it’s been kind of a strategy I’ve been using lately.

Keyframe: The same style goes into The Hands of Orlac, which I thought was really clever…

Maddin: I loved the premise of The Hands of Orlac and it never seems to get told properly. I’m not saying that I’ve done it properly either but, like in Mad Love, it always becomes bogus about two thirds of the way through. That’s a wonderful movie. I love Peter Lorre, it looks great, but the script sort of fell apart. I thought I’d try my hand it. It’s been shot six times at least. I had all of these other stories sort of simmering in my head, and The Hands of Orlac as well. I was really worried that, by fusing too many metaphors together, I’d just make a big dog’s breakfast. I feel that it worked out okay.

Keyframe: Well, more than okay. Obviously, conceived as an installation, I think that the single-channel film is really exceptional.

Maddin: I sort of let down the Power Plant [Contemporary Art] Gallery [in Toronto] that commissioned it because I made a film not an installation. I feel badly about it. They’ve been kind enough to let me show it as a film from now on.

Keyframe: IFC Films picked up Saddest Music and Zeitgeist is distributing Cowards?

Maddin: Yeah.

Keyframe: I’m pleased that people will have a chance to see it.

Maddin: It is going to open at the Film Forum in New York in August with a Quay brothers? film [The Phantom Museum] and probably with Sissy Boy Slap Party.

Keyframe: How did this idea of coming to the Pacific Film Archive come about? Did Edith [Kramer] approach you?

Maddin: Edith made a phone call to me. I was quite excited to talk to Edith – I hadn’t talked to her in a few years.

Keyframe: Since 1993, right?

Maddin: Yeah, but she’s one of those people whose opinion really matters to me. Whenever I made a movie, I used to send a tape of it for her to watch and then wait for her response. Sometimes you could tell if she was busy and hadn’t had a chance to see it properly. She’d say, “Congratulations,” and then she would cite something that she liked about it, usually something that happened in the first few minutes. I was beginning to get frightened that I had fallen off of her radar altogether. To get a call way back whenever it was, last February maybe, about coming here when I was already getting sick of traveling. I had sort of sworn off all trips but I accepted this offer in a second.

The chance to do a retrospective plus the carte blanche [to show the sidebar, “Director’s Choice”] was a tasty piece of bait. It was fun to pick other movies. It was great talking with Edith and then she quickly delegated it out to Steve Seid. He’s really an amazing programmer. He really knows his stuff. A lot of people say that he’s maybe the best programmer in the country and things like that. It was really nice to work with him. He’s really funny. He’s kind of a merciless kidder as well. There’s not even a molecule of obsequiousness in him or anything. I feel like he’s a friend already, somehow, although we probably won’t ever speak to each other ever again! At least not for a couple of years.

Keyframe: You’ve definitely had a flurry of productivity over these last few years.

Maddin: Maybe I can be back here eventually or soon or something.

Keyframe: When Saddest Music screened at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival, the staff were apologetic that you weren’t present to introduce it.

Maddin: I’d had it. I’d had it with travel. I think it was happening during the school year and I was teaching, for one thing. I had just traveled so much and I’d talked about the movie so much that I didn’t think I was capable. Now it’s getting a French release so I’m going to have to go there. French film press. Staggeringly huge. I’ll have to do a lot of interviews. I’m just going to have to gird myself for another blitzkrieg. Maybe I should think up a new mythology for the movie or something.

Keyframe: Perhaps you can try some of those ideas out now?

Maddin: Yeah, I’m dry I think.

Keyframe: Is that the hardest part? After you’ve worked so hard on the film, to have to go around and explain it to these people who probably don’t have a clue.

Maddin: Sometimes it was kind of fun. When I made Archangel, a movie which, while I was making it, I was very hubristic, I thought that I was making something wonderful. Then, when it came out, I realized with a very painful blow to the skull administered by the public that the movie was incomprehensible. I had a lot of fun talking about it and trying to make it more accessible to people, trying to literally hide in these interviews explanations and enlightenments and ways into the movie and things like that. That was kind of a fun challenge. I never got tired of that because I liked the movie enough. It was just this little movie of mine walking around on leg braces. I gave it all the special attention it needed.

Keyframe: Were you giving conflicting explanations for the film?

Maddin: I was giving any explanation.

Keyframe: You were trying to provide any detail that could provide a gateway into the story?

Maddin: Yeah, whereas with Saddest Music in the World it’s somehow a movie that can stand more on its own. I quickly found myself running out of things to say. Maybe this came with age but I felt less mischievous; I found myself less interested in lying. Not very playful. The biggest challenge was Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, where I had to talk about how, since it was a movie set in the forest, I was going for a “deciduous” acting style. Trying anything to help people into what few sylvan charms were in there. But Saddest Music in the World seemed to stand well enough on its own. I really preferred reading or hearing what writers had to say about it rather than hearing me myself saying it. I wanted to give myself the pleasure of reading some takes on it or hearing about it, you know? But then you’re standing there with a microphone or a blank piece of paper and you’ve got to say or write something. I found myself using up all the material that I have. When you’re a director and you are talking about your movie, you’re pretending to be a viewer and talking about the viewing experience.

Keyframe: How did you and George [Toles] approach the story? Were there any special challenges in taking the story and adapting it into a film?

Maddin: One of my favorite stages of filmmaking is the writing of the screenplay – my other favorite part is the sound edit. The treatment was really fun. The screenplay was kicking around since 1985, I think, and it was something that Ish [Kazuo Ishiguro] had written before he was a famous novelist. We were told, not by Ish but by our producer, that we could do whatever we wanted to make it “live” as long as we kept the basic premise and the title and Ishiguro’s name on there as a pedigree. One of the first things we did… George and I have almost never collaborated in person. We just talk on the phone. Our friendship was formed over the phone. He’s a person that has a phone-shaped dent in the side of his head from 1968. You can put a phone in there and you can just hang it up.

Keyframe: He does his best thinking through this device?

Maddin: Yes, and he’s really strangely articulate. He speaks in these long, complicated sentences but with correct punctuation – dashes, colons, semi-colons, exclamation points, periods, pauses… and then, just when you think the whole thing is going to topple over in some dramatically incorrect mountain of participles, he just finishes it up in a couple of words and the whole thing stands there, shimmering. He’s a real Nabokovian that way. He’s fun just to listen to, so we’ve always just collaborated by editing out all other things except for the sounds of our voices over the phone. The more excited we get – I don’t know about George but, judging by the dent in his head, he is probably the same as me – I start pressing the phone further into my ear and by the end of the conversation I usually can’t straighten my arm up, my tendons are close to snapping, my head hurts – but we peeled away all the things in Ish’s script that didn’t thrill us and added some personal obsessions of our own. We came up with a structure that we felt could support all of the throughlines in a clear, audience-friendly way without sabotaging any of our concerns.

We were quite excited after just one ten- or fifteen-minute conversation. Then it was a matter of having one more conversation like that. Even though it was a short conversation, I still remember my head hurting, so I guess that I was excited. Then, my job is always to write it out in purpled prose to get right away to the tone of the movie. At least that’s what I like to do. I’m sure that people in the industry don’t want to read that and I’ve probably done myself no favors by writing in that way. Trying to write in the style of the last decade of the 19th century or something like that; trying to get some flavor of decadence into the project, something frightening to the producers but something that gets my mouth watering for the project. I wrote a 29-page treatment just based on our conversations.

Keyframe: Were there certain things that you found in the original script that seemed to suggest the typical obsessions that would appear in your films or did you feel that it was open enough to add those items in here or there? It doesn’t seem greatly different from Careful or Tales from the Gimli Hospital. It’s definitely a “Guy Maddin/George Toles” concept.

Maddin: There were some things that we’ve been working towards. There was a project that we didn’t make, this Thomas Edison bio-pic [Edison and Neemo] – it’s being shot but not by me; George sold the script to an animator and it’s being made into a cartoon [by Perfect Circle Productions in Vancouver, B.C.] – but I had sort of sworn that I would have a proactive protagonist in my films from now on. With Thomas Edison, you had the ultimate American proactive protagonist – a guy that just sort of grabbed and stole and took a lot of credit and things like that.

Right away, we switched around Ishiguro’s script into something that was more of what we had become recently. The competition in Ishiguro’s script didn’t even involve Americans. They were in there but only in a tertiary role. We just thought, “No, it has to be about America and this proactive character.” Since we’re Canadian, there has to be a Canadian character, and they might as well be brothers. There had to be an old world way. Then, we quickly developed this way of speaking over each other’s lines and finishing each other’s sentences. We talked about how America always repressed its sadness in music and pop culture and how Europe always seemed to embrace sadness and present it to the world without any guise, especially its music. Think of all those Tin Pan Alley songs of the Great Depression that came out ofAmerica, like “We’re in the Money” or “Happy Days are Here Again” and a million others. Only a couple of Tin Pan Alley hits of the 1930s acknowledged the Depression – “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” is the most famous one, I guess. The rest are highly polished songs concentrating on romance.

Keyframe: In Hollywood, they rarely wanted to address the Depression in any cinematic dramatic way, except for a handful – Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road, for instance.

Maddin: Yeah, there’s a few. The Warner Bros. stuff was kind of gritty and there’s something tawdry about everything Busby Berkeley does but, for the most part…

Keyframe: They knew that audiences were seeking some kind of escape.

Maddin: Audiences didn’t want to see a movie about shacks because they were living in them.

Keyframe: We’re kind of in that period again. Making shallow entertainment that denies our situation.

Maddin: The new opiate of the masses. Anyway, we thought it would be fun to make a movie that would be full of music. This was something that I had been working towards for a long time anyway and something that I was able to do with my ballet, Dracula – a melodrama that’s wall-to-wall music.

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