You don’t just watch The Forbidden Room, you surrender to it. Guy Maddin’s films have always offered a unique cinematic experience but his latest work is something else entirely. This is Maddin’s biggest, longest and most densely packed work; a multi-layered fever dream in which each story only leads to an even more bizarre one, drawing us ever deeper into a world that only could have emerged from Maddin’s imagination. Drawing inspiration from films that have fallen through the cracks in cinema history, The Forbidden Room encompasses life-giving flapjacks, vampire bananas, buttock-pinching, squid theft and lessons on the correct method for taking a bath, and all of this is presented in the director’s trademark surreal, hysterical and hyper-stylised fashion. Quite simply, there is nothing else like it, and I met with Guy Maddin during the London Film Festival, just a few hours before the film’s UK premiere at the BFI IMAX.
Are you going to watch The Forbidden Room on the IMAX screen tonight?
I think I'll watch a few minutes of it. I've been warned that the IMAX experience can be almost physically overwhelming at first, so I will watch the first few minutes just to see what the heck it looks like. I'll probably puke. And then I think we have a dinner to go to or something, so I'll be dragged away even if I did want to watch it, but I've already seen this movie too often. It's official. You know, everyone wants people to watch their films multiple times but I wouldn't wish the number of times that I've seen it on anybody.
Can you put a figure on it?
It's not as bad as my movie Brand Upon the Brain! when I was the stage manager for a live act, so that I saw 25 times or something. This one I've seen maybe six times, but in a really short span, you know? I've seen L'Atalante, Zero for Conduct, L'Age D'or maybe twenty times each, but that's spread over two decades so it's perfect, I only watch it when I feel I really need to see it again and I'm not force-feeding it. I do feel the movie gets better on a second or third viewing, but whatever, I'll be happy if somebody just watches it once.
I actually do really want to see it again, partly because it felt like it was too much to take in the first time around.
I'm glad you said 'too much' because I wanted the movie to be too much. You know, I have regrets about my ten other feature films because I always wish they were shorter, I feel I just called them finished a bit too soon and often a few months later I wished I could go back into the editing room and trim them, tighten the screws. The director's cuts of all my movies would ironically be much shorter rather than longer, but this one, editing it was a counter-intuitive experience because I really wanted viewers to feel at the end that they had been washed up, panting on a far shore, having just barely survived drowning in a narrative tempest. Knowing how much is too much in the right way is difficult. The initial cut was two hours twelve minutes, or something, and that was just plain too much, and getting it down to just under two hours seems to be too much but in the right way. I know I like brisk movies and the kind of mannered movie that it is always works better when it's short, but this needed to be too much.
It's not just the length of the film but the fact that it is so densely packed with stories, characters and incident. That's what really overwhelms.
There's the fragments of 17 feature films in there, and each script was written so the film would be 12-18 minutes long, so each fragment has a higher density. It has a feature film's worth of plot, maybe not character detail, which tends to be in broader strokes, but it's packed with crap.
There's your tagline.
Yeah, “The Forbidden Room – It's packed with crap!”
When you started working on the Seances project did you approach each short as an individual entity or did you always have one eye on a compendium feature like this later on?
The notion that we'd make a feature came out about halfway through. Whenever I approached a Canadian funding body with this project I got very enthusiastic responses, because it was a new media project, for one thing. All of the funding bodies are very eager to find out ways to get art onto the internet and to support Canadian artists, but the amount of money available just isn't film budget-level, and let's face it, while this is a new media project and it will have its companion piece on the internet by the end of the year, it's a film shoot and it costs money like a film shoot, especially as we're paying union rates to actors. We had to shoot a feature film just to fund the internet half of the project. We also knew it would take a few years to complete this and we're all feature film lovers, and we became terrified that so many years would go by without us having a feature film on our CVs. So it worked out just fine, I wanted a feature film but I also wanted the internet project, so they're like siblings, or I even thought of it as Adam dreaming his sinful Eve out of a rib. One of them came out of the other and I love them both equally.
I guess The Forbidden Room is a film that is big enough to get people's attention and so if they like it they can then dig further into the internet side of the project.
Yeah, it's a two-hour long commercial for the internet project.
I remember seeing you do a live reading of My Winnipeg in London some years ago, and you did the same kind of live performance with Brand Upon the Brain! It seems that a sense of theatricality and interactivity is something that you're continually trying to add to your films.
I chanced upon that. I had always been a filmmaker making films for myself and for a small number of people, and I'd always had a pretty high walkout rate. I had wanted to make a connection with an audience and I was disillusioned with how quickly people walked out, especially people who I thought would be hip. You know, when I was younger my favourite bands were British basement bands and do-it-yourself bands, I mean, I was right there when The Sex Pistols started – I'm the same age as John Lydon – and I liked the idea of getting a guy who couldn't play his instrument and putting him at the front. And that was me as a filmmaker, I didn't know how to play my instruments but I thought I was doing with movies what these basement bands were doing with music, and yet those very musicians would be the first people to walk out of my screenings in the late '80s, and the people that stayed were the ageing rep house movie queens who understood the codes that I was using, but whatever...I think I'm losing myself in my answer, just a second...what was your question?
It was a question about theatricality and interactivity.
Oh yeah. So, I became a filmmaker but I always called myself a movie maker, I made movies, but they just weren't engaging people the way movies do, they were boring a lot of people the way films do. But when I was shooting Brand Upon the Brain!, which was designed to be a silent movie, I realised that a lot of the pantomime that I was using wasn't going to work without sound effects and wasn't going to work without specific music, and maybe even without narration. And I also realised that a silent movie shot on Super-8 would probably only play on a Tuesday morning at TIFF, so about two or three days into this nine-day shoot I started to formulate hopes for a full orchestra, a foley artist, narrator, a year later I thought of a singer, and putting that show on nobody walked out, and I felt like a showman. It was nerve-wracking too, I was the stage manager when Lou Reed was a special narrator and he fell asleep, as he was given to do in public. I was so tense! I couldn't wake him for forty minutes as he was snoring away up on the microphone, and I was grinding my teeth so much I shattered a molar. But that's when I realised I was a showman, that I cared, I really cared about the audience, and when I was narrating My Winnipeg and I could feel the audience sagging too comfortably in their post-prandial torpor, I could rouse them by energising my performance a bit. I was a showman, I was trying to sell the movie to those people, and when I was making Seances I realised I could be a showman at the shooting stage, put on a show and energise the actors. I wanted to be an artist but I also wanted to be a showman because in film the two have always co-existed.
That stage-management experience must have stood you in good stead when it came to shooting in the bustle of the Pompidou Centre with the general public in attendance.
Yeah, you want to entertain them. Film sets are really boring, you've probably been to a few, you can't even tell who the director is, who the stars are, it's just a bunch of crew members sitting around scratching themselves and texting. They work hard too, but not often and it's boring to watch. I directed people out loud while the camera was rolling and helped people watching from just a few feet away sometimes understand what was going on. It also helped that the set at the Pompidou was just a few feet away from the cruisiest bathroom in Paris, and so all sorts of fantastic marshland mating ritual sounds were coming out of there.
Those are your foley artists.
Yeah! Exactly, just off-duty foley artists working on some strange new sounds. It helped create a sense of disinhibted wonder on the set, which was fun. I didn't direct anybody. Everybody showed up, there was no time for rehearsals, and I put them in a trance at the start of each day, supposedly, invoked the spirit of a lost film and invited it to possess my actors, to compel them to retrace the long forgotten plotlines of this lost picture. With the war whoops coming out of the washroom and my windmilling arms cutting up the air in imprecations to disinhibit, the actors just defaulted to what you see on the screen. The only directions I ever gave were 'smaller' and 'again', two words I'm not inclined to give or usually can't afford to give.
It's interesting that you say 'smaller'. Do people have a tendency to go big in that environment?
Yeah, it's the language of the scripts that does it. The language is very mannered. You know, Charlotte Rampling and Mathieu Amalric are amazing naturalistic performers, but you're asking them to improvise, there's an atmosphere around, people are watching, in Paris people can watch from above so you have half-chewed baguettes falling out of mouth-breathers onto the performers below...and we just kept rolling! “Keep rolling, just wipe the saliva off Mathieu's cheek, keep going!” I would say things like that out loud and we just added dialogue, sometimes we'd get the actors to record their lines in a quieter room later. There were often a thousand people milling around in the foyer of the Pompidou, but if you take a thousand people all talking French about a million heterogeneous subjects, it just becomes a big seashell sound, just white noise, so I kind of loved recording sound in that place. It seemed nuts, though. The sound man was shitting himself.
The other thing that's really striking about this film is the look of it. You have gone fully digital now but it seems like the film aesthetic is more prevalent here than ever before.
It's like the chemicals have really started roiling up, and yet a discerning eye can see that it's all digital and there are digital artefacts in there. On the website side there is going to be YouTube cat videos intruding and data-moshing. I wanted one foot firmly planted in each realm.
I adore the colours in this film. Every shot feels so vibrant and rich. What was your process for creating the visual style?
That's where my co-director [Evan Johnson] really saved me because I really did not have any mojo at all shooting this raw hideous colour footage. I knew how to move the camera the way I like it but I wasn't finding shots that looked good. Then somebody said “No, it looks good, it looks like a Chumbawumba video.” [laughs]
High praise indeed!
Exactly, that's what I said, high praise indeed. And then I went back to my flat in Paris and cried myself to sleep because I had just spent the previous three weeks shooting 700 hours of Chumbawumba. Nothing against Chumbawumba, but they did it, they perfected it, and I didn't want to be accused of copying them. Evan and his brother Gaelen, who is also the production designer, graphic designer and the music designer, they did some pixel-cooking and they found some palettes. We became obsessed with palettes, we watched a lot of Douglas Sirk movies – and our movie does not look like a Douglas Sirk movie – but Sirk was so amazing with palettes. I need money, I'm broke all the time now, so I did a lecture of Technicolor – me, a lecture on Technicolor! – at TIFF this past summer on Magnificent Obsession. To prep for it I just made a list of all the palettes, the pairings, but I'm an old house painter so to name these colours I was choosing old paint-chip colours. It struck me that the off-whites especially were intriguing, and I came up with colours like Continuous Towel or Eisenhower or Rock Hudson's Nipple. The potential for naming the colours really brought out an appreciation of how beautiful and delicate they were, but also how unlimited and riotous the palette combination potential is. Just the act of watching a Douglas Sirk movie and trying to come up with the names that seemed to fit really helped create a respect and an awe for the power of colour, because I had been just avoiding its volatility. I didn't want, like in Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, an accidental little red raincoat to show up. I wanted to be in control of the colour all the time.
This whole idea of resurrecting lost films is fascinating. As cinephiles we incline towards despairing over these lost films. Did you feel in a strange position of enjoying the fact that these films no longer existed?
I became very ghoulish. When I was in Paris, we had planned to shoot a lost Three Stooges movie called Hello Pop! but it was found the day before we went to shoot it! Whenever I'd hear about movies being found people would say, “I guess you're pretty happy that movie got found.” No! I didn't want that movie found, I don't want any movies found! I was so ghoulish, I wanted more things to be lost. Whenever I found something interesting online I was heartbroken if it turned out not to be lost because I couldn't shoot it. There are a couple of movies I wish I'd shot and the project at one time was going to be much larger but I had to mercifully euthanise it in the end, it was killing me. There is an American exploitation film from 1974 by director Brad Grinder called Never the Twain and all that survives of it is a poster with a drawing of Mark Twain on it, and the cutline says “Never the Twain: the story of a man possessed by the spirit of Mark Twain, visiting the 1974 Miss Nude World pageant.”
I know! I mean, come on, the script writes itself. But we decided to mash it up with a lost Euripides play called Hypsipyle, which features a lot of women who have just had enough of the men in their country and just slaughter them. Then Michael Snow and I had been talking, and I don't know if you know his movie La région centrale, it's shot with that camera that randomly goes in every direction, and twenty minutes of La région centrale are lost. So I got permission to use his camera to shoot this Hypsipyle/Never the Twain mash-up and I wanted to install it at MOMA, to just let naked women slaughter men for the day while the camera shot in the other direction. That's actually still got to be done, let's face it.
The Forbidden Room is released in UK cinemas on December 11th