Saturday, July 05, 2008

"This big self-pitying cry from the heart was really all I was capable of doing" - An interview with Guy Maddin

It's safe to say nobody makes films quite like Guy Maddin. His surreal, Freudian melodramas, inspired by the early days of cinema, have steadily built up a cult following over the years, through Maddin's many shorts and features. His latest film My Winnipeg is a semi-documentary that explores both the history of his hometown and his own family history, with the two becoming inextricably linked as Maddin shares one outlandish story after another with us. Maddin was recently in London to promote the film, and the below interview took place the morning after My Winnipeg's screening at the National Film Theatre, an event for which Maddin provided live onstage narration.

How do you feel after last night's performance?

I feel alright. It's the last time I'll ever have to do it, so as I was saying each line I was checking it off as something I never have to say again, so that felt good. It feels nice to bring the movie to a public in person, it bridges a gap, and I somehow I feel like I'm holding hands between the audience and the screen, bringing everyone a little bit closer together. I also feel a little bit mischievous bringing a travelogue about my meagre little hometown to a world capital; it feels a bit silly.

It must have been quite an intense experience for you, because there's a lot of narration to get through in the film.

Yeah. I've never been much of an actor or a theatre person, but I think I feel the same way after my shows that an actor feels after a night on the boards. Beer tastes so good afterwards [laughs].

Did you do any of the Brand Upon The Brain! narrations?

I did one in Seattle, the city in which the movie was shot. It was always such an ordeal tricking celebrity narrators into narrating my micro-budget film, so I volunteered to do it once, figuring that least I'd bring some directorial authority to my voice, although it's not a great voice. Besides, I always wanted to see if I could do a better job than the narrators who were driving me crazy. It's tougher than I thought.

Did you always intend to use your own voice on My Winnipeg because of the autobiographical nature of it?

Yeah, it was determined pretty early. I was really hoping to use someone else, someone with a great classically trained voice or just a natural born speaker. If I could have somehow cloned James Mason or George Sanders, someone like that, and I also pictured Dennis Haysbert, you know, that great African-American voice form Far From Heaven. I don't know, I just wanted someone like that; but the movie had so many highly implausible episodes from Winnipeg's history and folklore that having someone else pretend to be me would have pushed it into the realms of mockumentary, and that was my biggest fear. So my producers made me do it, and it was the right thing. It's just been strange and it hasn't allowed me to abandon the picture, I've had to travel with it.

This live aspect has been such an important component of your last two films. Is that something you'll continue with in the future?

I'd like to play with it a bit more, and I think film festivals really enjoy having some kind of filmic event. There are so many festivals now, a film like Brand Upon The Brain! would have quietly come and gone had it not been a live event, and instead at the Berlin Film Festival it played to a massive sellout crowd at the Deutsch Opera in Berlin. It was the same with its other festival appearances, and it's been pretty nice. It makes me feel more like a showman rather than a filmmaker, and when you're up there on stage with an audience you feel it; you feel where you've been too self-indulgent and have missed a connection, and it doesn't feel good, so I think it's a healthy relationship for all involved.

I understand the film was commissioned as a straightforward documentary.

Well, it was never entirely straightforward, but it was just meant for a television broadcast on The Documentary Channel in Canada. But I was always encouraged from minute one to make a highly personal portrait of Winnipeg, in other words my own Winnipeg, and that enabled me to take on the project. I don't think I'm a very good documentarian, I don't like doing research, but when I was told to make a highly personal one I knew I could do all the research I needed just by looking into my own heart, and I didn't have to go looking through archives or books and coming to disinterested conclusions. That stuff didn't interest me at all. This big self-pitying cry from the heart was really all I was capable of doing and interested in doing, so it quickly turned into that.

Your work reminds me of Werner Herzog in a way, in that neither of you draw a line between fact and fiction in your stories.

I consider that a huge compliment by the way, thank you. It's the first time anyone has invoked Herzog's name, and he has always been one of the gods for me. Even in interviews he doesn't seem to draw a line between fact and fiction [laughs].

Do you enjoy playing with that reality/fantasy distinction?

I guess so, but strangely enough everything in the movie is true, even if it seems like it isn't. There is at least a Winnipeg Alexanderplatz-style 16 hours worth of things that are strange and true before I'd have to resort to making things up. I really like Herzog's idea of "ecstatic truth" being more useful and more true than just the facts, although there are obviously places for that too. It takes too long to sort through facts and they take on a dossier-like aroma which nobody likes, so for the sake of conveying a psychological, ecstatic or poetic truth, whatever you want to call it, it's better to keep engaging the audience.

Have you had a lot of people coming up to you after screenings and asking you which stories are true and which aren't?

Yeah, they'll say things like "were those horses real?", and I don't know if they mean "did it really happen?" or "is the footage real?" or "is it really archival footage?" you know? I just tell them "the footage is real", which is the most ambiguous thing you can say - It was footage, alright! [laughs]. It's strange, everyone is curious and nobody quite believes, but the only thing I lied outright about in the movie is that my mother is actually acted by somebody else. It was really important to contextualise my mother in this movie, and I really wanted Ann Savage, the old B-movie, poverty row legend to be my mom. I just wanted to go back in time and be born from her womb instead of my own mother's, for the sake of this film anyway.

Tell me how you cast Ann Savage, she hasn't been seen on screen for fifty years.

That's right, it was 51 years, except for some non-speaking cameos here and there for old friends. After kind of fetishising her famous movie Detour for so many years and writing the outline for this documentary, I was talking to a friend of mine who used to run the American Cinematheque in LA. I was bemoaning the fact that I really needed to cast somebody perfect as my mother, and the only person who could do it properly would be Ann Savage, and he said "Well, I was just married last week and Ann Savage was at my wedding". He had her phone number so I started a two or three months long wooing by telephone of Ann, and I got to know her gradually. We found out we had many tastes in films in common, she still goes to the movies all the time, watching contemporary films as well as having her TV welded to Turner Classic Movies, so we could whip up quite a bit of enthusiasm chatting about films. She also has a million stories, you know, she's friends with Mickey Rooney, and she lived next door to Eric Blore, that character actor who played butlers in a million movies. We just became fast friends, it reminded me of how quickly my friendship with Isabella Rossellini formed, and it's great having these ladies in my life now.

Was Ann familiar with your style of filmmaking before you contacted her?

She wasn't, but I sent her a big package and she worked her way through them, and we had a lot to talk about. I think she first really connected with my ballet version of Dracula, and then she enjoyed The Saddest Music in the World, so there was a lot of respect there. The thing that impressed her most, if she's being honest with me, was that all the scripts she'd been offered over the years were offered in the spirit of "let's get this souvenir from Detour into a project", but this script has nothing to do with Detour. This person playing an unwilling to perform mother in a documentary just offered her one more pretzel twist in her barrel, it was this kind of meta-performance that she was intrigued by, and I was just honoured that she was taking it seriously. When I finally got her to come to Winnipeg I just couldn't believe my eyes, seeing her with the familiar Winnipeg skyline behind her, it was one of the oddest moments of my life.

Do you know how a film is going to fit together as you're shooting it, or is it something you discover in the editing?

I have traditionally always followed my scripts, but more and more I'm just showing up on set now and it's kind of the way I remember Fassbinder worked, which used to terrify me just to read of it. He would show up without any storyboards, just knowing what scenes he wanted to do that day, and then he'd look at the room, look at his actors, and start attacking it, and that's more like what I do now. I used to always get the storyboards, but nothing less and nothing more, and now I get far more out of the movie by just showing up with my camera. I end up surprising myself, almost the way a football player would show up the pitch and wait for an action and reaction, and sometimes you have a good game and sometimes you don't, but at least you're capable of surprising yourself now and then.

Is it a challenge to edit the film together when you're shooting on such a variety of film stocks?

Luckily, in this case, since it is a documentary, it allowed me to switch from texture to texture a bit. If it was a fiction film I suppose it would be an annoying affectation to switch all over the place. There was no real challenge, although I shot a lot more HD than you see in the finished product, because I really wanted to use this documentary to help me break away from my addiction to film emulsion, but a lot of the anecdotes really seemed to belong in the world of film rather than video when I cut them together, so I projected the movie onto my fridge and reshot it on film. So, they end up having the vestiges of video about them, but they're still embedded in film now, and it all seems to rest in a murky twilight somewhere between the two media, and that felt better to me.

Is digital filming something you're still looking to move into at some point?

Yeah, I am, just because I liked the look of INLAND EMPIRE quite a bit, there was so much versatility and texture in the look he got. I'd like to just open up a whole new Pandora's Box of image-making for myself, but I've always kind of relied on the accidents on set as I'm ripping through things, but the only thing that's bothered me about video so far is the fact that I haven't been able to have any accidents. The cameras seem to be accident-proof somehow.

These modern cameras are just too professional.

Exactly. I need to take all of the safety devices off them and then I can have some fun.

What's it like for you making such a personal film? Is it an emotional experience to explore your past in this way?

Sometimes it is. Sometimes I think it's easy to confuse your eyes misting up and a lump in your throat with pride; sometimes you're just proud of yourself for getting something out and you think "wait a minute, I'm not having an emotional moment, I'm just choking up at how brilliant I am" [laughs]. Every aspiring artist has to kid himself now and then that he's a real genius, and that's always an emotional moment, but upon closer inspection it's a sickening moment [laughs]. Every now and then it gets pretty strange, and sometimes when I'm narrating I realise I just really, simply love these people and I miss them, and that's pretty emotional. There were other times, when shooting in my childhood home, I was really astonished that some of the smells survived decades after other people had been living there, smells of our family cooking and things like that. The most shocking thing of all was that my voice kind of echoed off the walls of these old rooms in ways that...I couldn't quite put my finger on it...but it just sounded like my home again. It's as if humans have some kind of sonic memory, and we're all a little bit like bats, something like that. It was just a different way of inhabiting a space that caught me off guard, and I found myself choking up over that. It was a really strange, nostalgic experience for me at times.

Aside from the humour and strange anecdotes in the film, there's a lot of anger when you deal with the destruction of the hockey arena that was so close to your heart. Was the opportunity to raise that issue a motivation behind the film?

Yeah it was, I really wanted to point out how annoyingly narrow-minded or corrupt some of the thoughts behind these civic actions were, but it was also – and I didn't expect this – a way of consoling myself. Getting into the arena while it was being demolished, being the only person allowed in there with a camera, being the last person to urinate in the men's washroom, it helped to make the place mine more, and it was almost like being the only person to attend its funeral. Getting it on film too really helped, because now I have it forever, many hours of footage. It was always going to go anyway, and there was nothing I could do to stop it, but without naming names I could at least point some fingers and rant a bit; but I've found that I've calmed down a lot now, maybe because it's been gone for a couple of years. I know it seems silly to complain about a couple of buildings going down, especially when I was performing this film in Berlin to a city which was completely flattened just one generation ago. To complain about a department store or old skating rink just seems self-pitying.

But I think that's something that actually gives the film a more universal resonance, the notion of something close to your heart being snatched away. It does feel like a piece of you has been demolished.

Oh, for sure, that's my biggest dream for this film coming true when people come up to me and say "that reminds me of my home". I really hoped the film – even if it's an Everest of Winnipeg specifities – would push through all of those specifics to reach other people, because I guess it's not just a documentary about Winnipeg, it's about home and our nostalgia for home.

What has the reaction been like in Winnipeg?

I showed it just the day before I left town to come here, and I was shocked, it filled a 1600 seat old vaudeville theatre and it got a very warm response. My mother was present as well, sitting up in the Abe Lincoln loge, and she got a five-minute ovation after the movie, and I was very touched. My mom acted like she gets standing ovations every day, she really milked it. She stood up, she's 92 years old, she waved to the audience, sat down, and then she stood up and waved some more [laughs]. I was very proud of her.

What are you working on now?

I do have a few things, but I'm not sure what I'm going to tackle next. I have a few short movie commissions that I'm going to get out of the way this Fall, but I want to work on a longer project. I have an internet interactive movie labyrinth, kind of a choose your own adventure affair, that I'm working on with the American poet John Ashbury. I've got a low-budget feature that I got a grant for from Leslie Wexner, the founder of Victoria's Secret lingerie, but I haven't chosen a subject yet. I have complete artistic freedom on that one.

So it doesn't have to be about lingerie, then?

[laughs] That might not be a bad idea, the more I think about it. I always picture the lingerie coming with Naomi Campbell, for some reason, but I'm sure there'll be someone else who'll look good in it too.

You mentioned an interactive internet adventure there. Are you interested in the internet as a filmmaking tool and means of exhibiting your work?

Yeah I am. I've always considered myself something of a pioneer, even though I'm always pioneering stuff from the 1920's. I feel like a time traveller. I like the idea of wandering into that vast frontier of the internet and pioneering some narrative forms there. It's nice and scary and there aren't any set rules yet, so it feels pretty good.

Do you have more stories to tell about Winnipeg and your own life, or have you exhausted them all by now?

Well, I might recede a little bit and remove my name from the cast of characters, and just tell stories. I'm not quite sure yet, but I've made three movies now where I'm basically the main character, I call it the "me" trilogy, and that feels like enough.