Guy Maddin Talks! Part 4: A Climactic Nexus of Ballet, Hockey and Horror

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


Keyframe: Was it always the case that you were going to exclusively use Mahler for Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary?

Maddin: I came to the ballet after it had already been staged [by Mark Godden] three years earlier and it had been choreographed to Mahler. I was stuck with the Mahler. I didn’t love it at first but I learned to like most of it a lot.

Keyframe: I think that it’s used effectively and, at times, it sounds like it’s played off of an old 78 rpm turntable, which suits the imagery. That sets a whole other story in the development of this style of shooting in many different formats and using multiple cameras, moving all over the stage.

Maddin: I had to cover that one almost like a hockey game.

Keyframe: In a sense, you’re treating ballet as a sporting event.

Maddin: The ballet dancers struck me more as athletes than as artists. I think that they think of themselves more as athletes. They don’t go into a method actors trance in between stints on stage. As a matter of fact, I went to a number of ballets and watched from the wings. As I got to know the ballet dancers, they would come running off of the stage and they’d go, “Hey, Guy. What did you do on the weekend?” And I’d go, “You know, I got too drunk,” or whatever. I’d go, “How about you?” “Oh, I went fishing… just a minute.” And they’d run out and have a love scene and then come back, literally like talking to a hockey player between line changes or something like that. They are so athletic and they perform as a team.


They do act with their faces but it’s that uninhibited magnified melodrama, like in silent movies. They’re just silent movie actors that don’t know it. It was neat working with them and I’ve used them since. One of the female leads [Tara Birtwhistle] from Dracula I used in Cowards Bend the Knee but in a cheap wig.

Keyframe: Which part did she play?

Maddin: She’s the mother of Meta who gets strangled. She’s unrecognizable in that cheap wig.

Keyframe: I didn’t make the connection at all. I also didn’t realize until recently that your mother [Herdis Maddin] appears in the film.

Maddin: [Laughs] Where her ballet training came in handy was when she was being strangled. She could really make it seem like she’s going through a lot of pain and she’s being tossed around when in fact she’s leading. The actor is supposed to be strangling her with a hair net when in fact he’s just following her around while she’s leading with her throat. Dragging herself but making it appear that she’s being dragged underneath the hairdryer and having her head rammed underneath while putting her hand on the helmet of the hairdryer as if to try to resist it when, in fact, she’s pushing it down. She sort of does everything in reverse. She knows how to die since she’s died a million deaths on stage – stab wounds, stakes through the heart, poisonings, broken hearts and all sorts of other things that a ballerina has to die from. That one really paid off.

Keyframe: This would be similar to when a number of early silent filmmakers used opera performers to bring that level of experience to the screen. Have you ever thought about directing an opera?

Maddin: I’ve had a few offers recently.

Keyframe: I think that your talents would suit the stage rather well. Watching West of Zanzibar the other day [one of Maddin’s selections for “Director’s Choice”], I thought that it was a perfect story, this tale of misplaced revenge, for an opera.

Maddin: Maybe you’re right. Maybe it should just be sung. Maybe I’ll send you a case of champagne for that idea if I ever do it! The first opera that I was offered was Janacek’s From the House of the Dead but I got fired. It would have been nice but it didn’t work out. I’m still not sure why. Perhaps because over coffee with the maestro I told him that I actually enjoyed Gounod’s Faust. About three people started spitting up their coffee at that point and one of them announced that it was the most loathsome opera ever written. The next thing you know, none of my calls were being returned.

Keyframe: Just for a simple comment?

Maddin: The other theories are more litigious sounding so I’ll just stick with that one.

Keyframe: Many opera companies rely heavily on directors with a significant theater background but these directors seem better suited for a smaller stage. They generally spend much of the performance moving the singers and supernumeraries around in circles. Of course, they’re often dealing in those types of productions with singers who simply are not great actors.

Maddin: Right, and they often can’t get them to sing and act at the same time either.

Keyframe: Were there special difficulties in starting with a movie entitled The Saddest Music in the World with writing or finding music that would be perceived by audiences to be the saddest music? One person’s “saddest” is definitely not another’s.

Maddin: I just sort of believe that there is no way for there to be a “saddest music in the world.” It’s different for everybody. George was really pushing a while for “Happy Birthday.” I was up for it because I told him that in my personal experience, “Happy Birthday” is the saddest, not because it marks another year passed, another year older. Actually, it’s been sad for me since I was about five years old. I could always sense that around birthday time I was going to getting a lot of presents that would be kind of useless and disappoint me. I always had to feign happiness. I could always tell that my loved ones – my parents, my aunt, my grandmother – could tell that maybe I was faking and then they were trying to conceal their disappointments. Then there were all of these mutual reassurances that everyone loved the presents and, even if we didn’t, we still loved each other anyway. It just became an annual occasion for a lot of deception, discomfort and pressure to please.

As the years went on, these memories accumulated into a highly concentrated unpleasant feeling. The music for me is awful. Plus, I have a girlfriend who demands an orgy of celebrations every year for her birthday. Whenever her birthday rolls around, I feel like I’m in the pennant race but without any pitchers. Every year, it’s awful. I start out the spring with the buds on the trees, feeling like the New York Yankees, and I end by feeling like the Montreal Expos. To me, it’s just the saddest music in the world but I knew that it wouldn’t necessarily be so for everyone. For my girlfriend, for instance, it’s the happiest music in the world. In the first draft of the script, we decided on climaxing the movie, after the contest, having Mark McKinney/Chester Kent’s mother come to the piano and everyone would be laid to waste again by the devastating effect of the song. But it’s too abstract and it couldn’t be accomplished through a montage. Besides, the rights to that song are notoriously expensive!

Maddin: Right away, I discarded that notion [of using “Happy Birthday” as the saddest music]. Remembering how musicals worked, old Hollywood musicals set up a piece of music in one context and then replayed it throughout the movie in different contexts and then, hopefully, that sets the viewer up for the ultimate proper context that is the exact flipside of the original idea. It starts off being a happy piece of music and then it gains some demonic associations when it’s played finally. That was something that I thought that I’d try to do. It was just a matter of picking a piece of music that was versatile enough.

Keyframe: Then whereabouts would you approach… how could I say this nicely? How did you select a composer that is mostly associated with writing the happiest pop music in the world, Christopher Dedrick of The Free Design, to write the score for your film?

Maddin: You know of The Free Design? “Kites are Fun”! He was up for it and I think that he did a pretty good job.

Keyframe: He does a great job.

Maddin: Yeah, he’s really proud of his work and he should be. He’s won some Canadian movie awards for it. I wasn’t that familiar with “Kites are Fun” at the time. I don’t know how I missed that because I was a real pop music buff in the late 60s when “Kites are Fun” was a hit.

Keyframe: You weren’t the only one that missed it. The song, along with much of their work, is largely forgotten now, despite its relative popularity at the time.

Maddin: He’s a real sort of charmed, levelheaded figure. He seems to have a harmonic way of playing through life but he’s really professional and hard-working. I wasn’t quaking in my boots with the realization that I might have to swing this guy around. He was willing to turn the dial darker. It was just a matter of saying, “More Wagner, more Herrmann.” I had this Jerome Kern song that seemed to be the most versatile song ever. The lyrics to it seemed to apply to almost any situation that the human heart can get itself into, “The Song is You” [words by Oscar Hammerstein]:

I hear music when I look at you,

A beautiful theme of ev’ry dream I ever knew.

Down deep in my heart, I hear it play,

I feel it start then melt away.

I hear music when I touch your hand,

A beautiful melody from some enchanted land,

Down deep in my heart, I hear it say

Is this the day?

I alone have heard this lovely strain,

I alone have heard this glad refrain,

Must it be forever in side of me

Why can’t I let it go?

Why can’t I let you know?

Why can’t I let you know the song my heart would sing?

That beautiful rhapsody of love and youth and spring,

The music is sweet the words are true,

The song is you.

So I decided to make that the firepole that ran the length of the movie. Chris [Dedrick] could sort of slide up and down that thing to get to various “darknesses” or lighter than air.

Keyframe: Such as the “flapper-esque” version.

Maddin: Yeah, there’s a foxtrot, a dirge. All along, I knew that wanted to take one song and keep it as a motif. It thought that it was worth it to pay for the rights to this Jerome Kern classic. It’s a song that, at one point, he was best-known for but it seems to have been forgotten by so many people. So, it felt good to partially exhume it and recycle it. Then it was just a matter of finding incidental music and I was really worried about that. I just held auditions in Winnipeg and, it turns out, among its many immigrants are tons of musical groups. We held auditions and we also told them to bring their own costumes and their own instruments and play two of the saddest songs their ethnicity could muster. They were allowed five minutes each and we just picked people that had their own costumes to save some money.

Keyframe: IFC stepped up to the film after it was finished, right?

Maddin: After seeing it at the Toronto Film Festival.

Keyframe: How did you finance the film initially?

Maddin: I have no idea. I know that I didn’t have to pitch the movie once, which felt good. I guess my producers did the pitching this time. In the past, I’ve had to pitch my movies a little bit. It’s kind of strange to make a movie now without even pitching it.

Keyframe: That’s where you’re at now!

Maddin: Pitching it afterwards.

Keyframe: With MGM releasing it on video, it will probably be seen by more people than any of your other films.

Maddin: I hope that they release it in the proper aspect ratio [the Canadian release, evidently, was full-frame; the U.S. release is 1.85:1].

Keyframe: Did you create a commentary track for the film?

Maddin: I did some commentary in Canada, Mark McKinney and me. Maybe they’re buying the commentary. [They didn’t – the US release contains two featurettes and three short films instead].

Keyframe: Was Mark always your first choice for the film? Did you write it with him in mind?

Maddin: No, we didn’t write it with him in mind but we didn’t have anyone else in mind either. I guess he was my first choice. He was the only choice. We thought of some other people, briefly, but I have no regrets. I think that it was really the way to go.

Keyframe: There is a real chemistry between Mark and Isabella [Rossellini].

Maddin: Isabella was in our minds all along. I’d given brief thought to my friend Alice Krige, with whom I’d worked on Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. I’d cast her and even bought her a plane ticket for Cowards Bend the Knee but she got quite sick so I replaced her with that ballerina at the last second. Then we shot Saddest Music in the World instantly after – you know, I shot those movies back-to-back. I shot Cowards during the pre-production of Saddest Music in the World.

Keyframe: I told you this before but I’ll mention it again – Cowards is my favorite of your films. It used to be Careful.

Maddin: I think that it might be my favorite, too. It was my favorite experience.

Keyframe: To exorcise those demons, in a way?

Maddin: It felt really good. Plus it was so easy to make. I had a friend [Shawna Connor] that needed a job and so I paid her some money to be the production designer. I found a studio, an abandoned snowplow garage in Winnipeg, so I gave her some money to build some sets. I basically just gave her the script and I just let her do it herself. I only showed up on set maybe twice before shooting, to make sure that things were going along nicely. She took so much pride in her work; she had so many volunteers working for her. I had really nothing to do with it. I just made sure that it looked good to me. So I just showed up on the first day of shooting with a bunch of actors.

Keyframe: She was your Cedric Gibbons, in a way.

Maddin: Yep, I just let her go and she does great work! I gave her a salary, too, and she spent her whole salary on materials as well. She was living in complete poverty, sleeping in her car. The costume designer, Meg McMillan, was the same thing. She also did the costumes for The Saddest Music in the World. She was sleeping in her car with her two Scottie dogs. People were pouring their own salaries into the movies. I owe them a lot of gratitude.


So, I just showed up with these actors. I guess that I had cast the actors myself. That was slightly time consuming but they were all hand-picked from people that I knew. Meg put them in costumes and I put them in the sets that Shawna built. Then I pointed a Super-8 camera at them and started filming them. I sort of snuck five days away from Saddest Music in the World into this snowplow garage.

Keyframe: It was only a five-day shoot?

Maddin: Yeah. Five pretty short days, too, because I had to check in at the other place first thing in the morning and then report back in at lunchtime.

Keyframe: Sounds like an Edgar Ulmer schedule.

Maddin: Yeah. We’d shoot from ten in the morning until four in the afternoon everyday with a ninety-minute lunch break while I would drive across town to the other studio. It was fun shooting a secret movie in a parallel universe. The only thing that would have made it better was if I was shooting at the same time on both sets, but that would’ve been impossible. I actually tried that once. It doesn’t work. A producer for a rock video hired me once to be the director of the video but he secretly really wanted to direct it himself. So he scheduled it, rather craftily, at the same time while I was scheduled to shoot another short movie of mine. For a while, I was literally riding my bike back and forth between the two locations. This was back in 1994 when I was making the Odilon Redon short. The video was for a group called Grand Theft Canoe. I ended up finally giving up after about three bike rides and just letting him take over. It was clear that he was going to do it anyway.

Keyframe: This chaotic shooting schedule seems to suit you. “Odilon Redon” is an amazing film as well.

Maddin: I like the imposition of outside restrictions somehow. You wouldn’t think you’d want that but I kind of like it. I like working with producers that make it clear to me what they want. The producer of Dracula really made it clear that she [Vonnie von Helmolt] wanted it in HD-TV color.

Keyframe: Although it is neither of those things – HD or color.

Maddin: When I fought with her over it being in black-and-white and on film, Super-8 film even, I finally had to make a strong case. You sort of find out which of your arguments are good and which ones you don’t even believe yourself. As long as you’re dealing with a reasonable person who isn’t just using their veto power, it’s pretty productive actually. It was like that with the producer of Saddest Music in the World, Niv Fichman, with whom I argued constantly. He had this sort of rule, which is very sweet – once an argument is settled, it’s never brought up again in the form of sour grapes or whatever. And consensus – once the two of you have decided on a path, you back each other on it. Quickly, amnesia sets in and you don’t remember which side of the argument you were on, whether you lost or won.

Keyframe: Because you had agreement.

Maddin: Yeah. It was pretty good, actually. There was never any, “Ah, shit! I knew I should’ve shot it in color.” Or something like that. “Why did I let you talk me into it?” There was none of that, ever. I beat myself up over some second guesses, though.

Keyframe: Why did she want to shoot Dracula in HD?

Maddin: Well, it was her project right from the start. She approached me as a gun for hire. She just knew that she wanted it for TV and she loved the production that she’d seen on stage. She wanted it to be on cutting-edge technology, thinking that it would improve its export chances for Europe and American television.

Keyframe: Was she wrong?

Maddin: I don’t know. I think, for me, she was. It wasn’t a good fit for me because I like to murk things up. I don’t really like watching ballet films. A lot of times, you’re not seeing enough because the camera is too far away from the human face. Then, when they do go in for a close-up, you’re seeing too much. You’re seeing bad stage make-up or a person whose face isn’t mysterious enough. I thought that HD would be the worst possible approach.

Keyframe: It seems that your technique, which you were perfecting on Dracula, accurately represents the way that the human eye perceives things. Shifting the focus, picking up different details.

Maddin: Yeah, there is a time to reveal something and a time not to. In writing, in painting, in photography, in drama and storytelling. It’s not like I’m the only person doing stuff like that. You see it in commercials all the time, in advertising where the smartest people are, the most manipulative at least. That’s where I get daily inspiration. I buy the big, thick fashion magazines and flip through them. I sort of wish that I could be a fashion writer, as a matter of fact. There is a particular flavor to the kind of spun candy that appears in those pages.

Keyframe: Did you ever want to be a sports writer at all?

Maddin: That would be fun, too! A dream that I held, quite seriously, was to be a hockey color commentator. I knew that I couldn’t be a broadcast play-by-play man because I just don’t have the voice for it. I don’t even have the voice for his companion in the booth, either. That was a dream that I had for a long time, and I’m meaning, recently. In my late 30s, I was still sort of planning on it.

Keyframe: The whole film thing is a sideline.

Maddin: They get paid like $30,000 a year but it was what I wanted to do.

Keyframe: Dreams have nothing to do with money.

Maddin: Of course, that’s about $20,000 more a year than I get paid now!

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