Guy Maddin has worked with his share of recognisable names over the course of his career, but The Green Fog is surely the starriest cast he’s ever had. Rock Hudson, Michael Douglas, Karl Malden, Vincent Price, Joan Crawford, Nicolas Cage, Glenn Close, Humphrey Bogart, Sharon Stone, Donald Sutherland, Whoopi Goldberg and Chuck Norris are just a few of the actors who appear in the director’s latest film, most of them making fleeting cameos in roles you may have seen them playing before. Commissioned to create a piece celebrating San Francisco for the 2017 edition of the city’s film festival, Maddin and his co-directors Galen and Evan Johnson have stitched together footage from the countless films and television programmes that have been shot there over the course of decades, but this is no mere collage. As the film progresses a familiar narrative shape begins to emerge, and it quickly becomes clear that The Green Fog is audaciously remaking Hitchcock's Vertigo by reconstructing its key scenes. This a typically ingenious, surprising and hilarious piece of work from one of the most distinctive artists currently working in world cinema, and it’s one that rewards repeated viewings, allowing audiences to catch the unexpected cameos, gags and allusions that initially zip by. Our originally scheduled interview had to be postponed because Maddin was away on a location scout, but we caught up by telephone a few days later.
How was your location scouting this week? Did it go well?
It's kind of tiring. You know, my entire movie career has been spent on cheap handmade sets shot extremely claustrophobically, highly artificial – and then The Green Fog, which is the result of the work of other location scouts – so this is the first time I've ever done a location scout. The real world can be really dispiriting and ugly and ordinary, and I have a tsunami of newfound respect for people who can make the real world look really interesting. Even though we knew that the city of Winnipeg would look pretty drab for our project, and that drabness was even important to it, to find drabness that would play interestingly on screen is… I'm just really out of my comfort zone. But I do keep trying to put myself out of my comfort zone. I should have forced myself out of such comforts decades ago, so it’s better late than never.
It feels to me that you have been pushing yourself in new directions for a couple of years now. The Green Fog is certainly something entirely new.
I've always been a big fan of re-purposed or found footage films. There's this early '60s Canadian guy named Arthur Lipsett who made some really cool movies. Joseph Cornell, of course, the granddaddy of all found-footage films; I love Rose Hobart, I've seen it a million times. I love the work of Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller, who made The Phoenix Tapes, this centennial tribute to Hitchcock by re-purposing footage from the entire Hitchcock oeuvre to make little short film essays or prose poems. I'm an enormous fan of those, they're really cool. You know, Hitchcock just has a way of shooting hands, for instance, and mothers come up often, so they've organised little observational films around themes common in Hitchcock. So I've just always been an ardent supporter of these things that have never had a broad release, they've just occupied glorious but niche existences in the film world. I'm a big fan of the city symphonies too, the main ones anyway. Seeing Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera with live accompaniment at Telluride Film Festival was one of the great experiences of my life, and I like Berlin: Symphony of a City, Vigo's À propos de Nice. So when I was approached by Noah Cowan, the head of The San Francisco Film Festival, to make some sort of tribute to the San Francisco-ean cinema, I had a chance to make what I quickly assumed would be a city symphony and a re-purposed footage movie combined in one. It ended up not being so much a city symphony, not any more than any movie short in San Francisco is, but it did end up being a re-purposed film orgy.
One thing I love about the film is that it's a great reminder of how cinematic San Francisco is. I’ve never been there so my only experience of this city is through its depiction in movies. Was that your relationship to it?
Oh, for the longest time. I started my filmmaking career in the '80s, the pre-internet days, and Winnipeg, this isolated city, was genuinely isolated. I didn't travel until I started getting into film festivals, so all my impressions of cities – not just of San Francisco but of Cleveland, Kansas City, New York, Albuquerque – it was just things gleaned from watching movies and TV shows, just myths. I knew they probably weren't accurate, and I'd known for a very long time that the preeminent medium of mythmaking since the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century was film, or the moving image. You're not really properly mythologised until you're mythologised in a motion picture. So I had a sense of these cities but I always thought they were kind of poetic facts, the cities as presented to me. You know, I didn't really expect The Streets of San Francisco to feel obliged to represent the city, to go into its slums or discuss its gentrification issues that plagued the actual citizens or anything like that. By the time we started this project I'd been there and my collaborators had never set foot in the place but, just like you, we had a strong sense of what it was like. You know, movies make it possible for you to just stay at home and not go anywhere.
It is funny how many images you found that rhyme with Vertigo. There are so many shots of chase sequences, characters following and watching each other, people hanging from high ledges. I wonder if there is just something about the architecture and layout of the city that lends itself to this kind of filmmaking.
Yeah, I think so. Before we started on Vertigo, we were organising along the lines of whenever we saw a bridge, or whenever a car went up a hill, or whenever people were falling, or dangling precariously from things. We started to log the timecodes for every appearance of things like that, and sure, some of those things appear in other movies, but Hitchcock would often choose locations that he intended to exploit. If you have hills and bridges and a big phallic tower jutting out of the cityscape, you tend to want to exploit them. Hitchcock was pretty good at writing scripts that include locations that matter somehow, Mount Rushmore and... well I could just go on and on but I'm sure I don't need to teach you. Sometimes it was just a matter of all the film crews in LA being busy so they had to head north to San Francisco, but I think there's a big difference between the two cities. There's a different wealth between Hollywood and San Francisco, and all the things which go with that, there's a different atmosphere. Some decisions by producers and directors are probably made subconsciously and they don't even know why; they just say, "This is a San Francisco kind of story." I find it interesting that Point Bank starts and ends in the Bay Area, but takes place entirely in LA – or Los Angeles, sorry Thom Anderson. I bought Rebecca Solnit's book on San Francisco with the intention of really learning about the city, but the commission was taken on with such a short deadline, I think we had a month to make the movie. We just ignored the deadline and delivered the movie a couple of days before it was to screen, so we ended up having about four months in total and there wasn't time to read books or anything. Once we'd decided on Vertigo we didn't even re-watch it, we knew it pretty well.
So at what point in this process did the Vertigo inspiration strike you?
About halfway through our watching about 300 movies that were shot in San Francisco, most of them on fast-forward, we started noticing that Vertigo elements were popping up in the films. Sometimes there are homages to Vertigo but sometimes it's just coincidence; sometimes it's in films shot years or decades before Vertigo. After a while one of us just glibly said, "Hey, we should remake Vertigo but just not using any of the shots from Vertigo." Then we thought we'd allow ourselves one shot, the very first shot of Vertigo should be allowed.
Aside from recreating Vertigo through this footage, did you feel like you were exploring particular aspects of it, or offering some sort of critique on the original?
More than any other Hitchcock film, Vertigo pretty much makes it known how aware it is of how horribly destructive the male gaze can be. You're often not quite sure how aware Hitchcock is of that, especially in light of Tippi Hedren's accusations of his behaviour on set, but it's pretty clear he knows that Jimmy Stewart's character is behaving destructively. He's taking someone who only existed as a figment of Gavin Elster's machinations, and then recreating her by changing a woman against her will into that person. So by taking a person who never existed and using her as a template for someone he never knew and changing her... it's pretty cruel, and it ends up destroying her and destroying him, in that it breaks his heart. It's a pretty knowing portrayal of how savagely destructive this male gaze is, whereas with the other films you often wonder if it's just "That's the way it was in those days!" or something like that. I remember how thrilled we were when one of my collaborators found that footage that's able to pry the camera away from the male gaze for a while, and show a scene between two women having lunch, one of them a sort of stand-in for the Kim Novak character. For once you're actually getting the would-be Madeleine Elster confiding in a friend about how uncomfortable she is with this whole plot Gavin Elster's launched her into.
It would have been interesting to do that a bit more, if we had been able to find the footage, to show the flip side of a scene. Instead of showing the counterpart of a scene in Vertigo, to show the scene that Hitchcock doesn't, that he leaves out. Since gentrification is an ongoing civic concern in San Francisco, because it's got to be the most expensive city in America to live in, and poor people have been perennially moved out and relocated heartlessly, the idea that Vertigo was also kind of a gentrification of a person rhymes with that nicely. There are a few movies made on the subject; Pacific Heights is one of them, and we got some footage from that, along with a kind of Bond villain monologue about gentrification. So yeah, it's a long-winded and stuttering way of answering your question – sorry – but we were able to take a slightly different angle on it, and I think illuminate some of the things that Hitchcock's up to. It's not like we need to take the piss out of the movie. We also joke that we had the advantage over Hitchcock because we got to see Vertigo first, and tighten it up and eliminate all of its dull patches, and improve upon it. We've taken the all-time greatest movie according to Sight & Sound and knocked it down a notch, so now in 2022 when the next poll comes out, we expect to see The Green Fog on top. Hitchcock will have to make do with second place. As a matter of fact, if we have time to make our own version of Tokyo Story we'll probably occupy the top two spots, with Hitchcock and Ozu in three and four.
One of the great finds in the film is that shot of Mel Ferrer from Born to be Bad, watching the two girls in the gallery. It feels like it speaks so directly to the themes of Vertigo; the voyeurism, the doubling, the male-female dynamic.
And not only that, he's so brazenly creepy in it! He's not even pretending not to be watching them while they're looking at portraits. Yeah, it's unbelievably creepy, especially out of context; I mean, even in context of the original film it's creepy enough too. You get really lucky, and what a great privilege it was to make this movie. I mean, yeah it was a job of work and we needed the money, so we accepted this commission. I think I'm lucky that way. I get commissions like this because I've never been able to stockpile enough savings to turn them down, but they enable you to vivisect a film. We haven't destroyed Vertigo, we've just taken it apart, looked at all its component pieces, and stitched together a Frankenstein's version of it. By the time you've finished that exercise you really know the movie and you know more about how movies are put together then you could ever learn from just making your own movie from scratch, in a way. It's a really interesting way of learning about cinema. It feels great to be in my early 60s and still learning like crazy.
It’s interesting to hear you say that about getting these commissions, because I’d argue that some of your very best work has come from commissioned pieces, going back to The Heart of the World, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary or My Winnipeg.
I agree. I'm always honoured that somebody would trust me with money and a deadline, but I'm also competitive and I want to over-deliver. I want to give them more than they ever expected, so I usually do. I've been lucky. When I was commissioned to make my short movie The Heart of the World, and similarly a ballet version of Dracula and this, in each case they ended up over-performing. Instead of just one-offs, for a festival or TV broadcast, they ended up with theatrical releases and big festival screenings. I know some people accept commissions with a different attitude, and they kind of mail something in and save all their creative genius for their own work – which might be smarter than me in the long run – but when I accept them I have so much adrenaline, and it's the same with my collaborators, they really want to deliver. I think I have too much freedom on my own projects and these commissions really excite me.
So how does the relationship with Galen and Evan work? I understand they were more heavily involved in the creating visual style of The Forbidden Room. Did the collaboration work in a different way on this one?
On The Forbidden Room we were really strongly collaborative at the screenwriting stage too, at the researching stage and writing it. On the set, Evan and I stood like conjoined twins, and I yelled "action" and "cut" and spoke to the actors most of the time, but he was never far from me. He helped me because we had to shoot so much footage in such a short time for that film, and we shot it live and in public. It was such unorthodox shooting conditions, I just needed him to be like another hemisphere of my brain, you know? On that project Galen was the production designer, but the sets were so small he was basically another director as well. On this one, we just watched all the footage together but then I had to go back to Harvard where I was teaching, so they would just edit late at night and send me cuts in the morning. I'd give them a few notes but not much, I was basically just waving pom-poms like a cheerleader on the sidelines while they assembled the movie. My job is to collaborate with the lawyer and the composer and with the San Francisco Film Festival, so they did way more work on this one. On the project we're working on now we're writing together and we'll see how it plays out on set. I guess it's more common if there's more than one director for there to be two, and for them to be brothers, so maybe eventually they can just take over and be the Johnson brothers, the JoBros. They can put flowers on my grave.
So your ultimate goal is to have them doing all the work and then you can just be the mogul barking orders.
Yeah! I can come in and smoke a cigar and rub my eye patch, or something like that. But I do need them and I like to think they need me, but they probably need me a little less with each project.
One of my favourite recurring gags in The Green Fog is the conversations that take place with all the dialogue removed. How did you arrive at that choice?
We found this footage that would serve as placeholders, substituting for the Vertigo counterparts, but they weren't saying the right things, so it was a perfect example of where a practical need actually produced something way better than just a practical solution. We needed to cut out the dialogue where they're talking about the non-Vertigo things, but the result is when you cut out dialogue you’re left with all that in-between stuff, the stuff that's not meant to be featured; people listening but only for a second, people getting ready to say a word, and then the moment after they've said it. It’s all the detritus of dialogue, the floor-sweepings of a scene. It puts such a strange stress on an actor’s presence. These actors are far from household names, they’re just character actors, with richly titled filmographies. I know Jeff Goldblum and I was talking to him one day after he'd seen the movie, and he was naming off all these actors who I couldn't name because he's been around Hollywood for 45 years, but they're not meant to be reeled off, a lot of these people. They're not known by the general public, but to me they're part of the star system we're creating, the three of us, because those are our favourite scenes.
He’s a more recognisable actor, but the Chuck Norris sequence is a particularly wonderful use of this technique.
That one is less jagged and there are very few jump-cuts, I guess because his directors felt he was limited as an actor. He has lots of scenes where he's just thinking or driving or walking or running. It's perfect to cut together, a Wagnerian Parsifal moment, and you realise that his almost expressionless face is Bressonian in the power of its clean slate qualities. It's just changing the context of something that changes everything. It's risible, but only because we've thought of Chuck Norris mostly being an action star. Once you take away the things he's most famous for, it turns out he has this incredible presence, really mysterious. You're laughing but you're also moved by the music, and his face isn't ruining the music, they're not in competition with each other, they seem to be helping each other somehow, and it creates both delight but there's a surprising power in it too. I'm sorry, I'm just formulating a lot of these thoughts for the first time. I hope I'm not overselling my own accomplishments. Evan edited that sequence together, and I think the Wagner helps, but there's something in that blankness that reminds me of Bresson in his best movies, where the same dynamic is at work. You project onto that face and it's really beautiful and elegant in Bresson and The Green Fog is…er…something like it. A really cut-rate Bresson.
The other star you get a lot of mileage out of is Rock Hudson, and again this is quite an unusual context to see him in. I wasn’t at all familiar with his TV series McMillan & Wife.
He's one of the great melodrama actors of all time, he's got such a beautiful voice. I'm also aware he's been re-purposed already in Rock Hudson's Home Movies, and done very well. We don't have anything to say that hasn't already been said about how Rock presented himself as hetero role model and concealed a gay lifestyle, but there is just something about him being the mayor of San Francisco television, presiding over the city during its most glorious television existence. We're decidedly not using him in that Rock Hudson's Home Movies way, we're just kind of wilfully ignoring that.
You know, that masterpiece is an underground film classic and that brings me to another thing. There are so many things that San Francisco is famous for – the epicentre of queer culture in America and the world, earthquakes, fires, beatniks, AIDS, a lot – but underground cinema was a huge thing in San Francisco. It was arguably the most important city for it, maybe along with New York City. I made a decision – and we didn't have enough time, and maybe that was a factor – but it's one thing to take footage from movies made by big studios and exploit them because nobody is hurt, but I wasn't about to take footage from artists who maybe never got money for making their films, and there were some really good movies that I would have loved to use. It would have been a matter of securing permission from the actual artists or their estates so I decided not to. There's one exception: it's a shot of George Kuchar, who is my favourite underground filmmaker, period, and he worked in San Francisco most of his life. But he was a friend and so I stole from him lovingly, just because I needed to have George Kuchar in this movie.
Your film also made me think of Bruce Conner’s work and he is another key San Francisco underground artist.
Yeah, he is so important to me, but I didn't know him personally and I wouldn't dare exploit an artist who worked with god knows what relationship to money or the studio system or anything like that. My conscience is pretty clear, and I'm in the clear thanks to the advice of my fair usage lawyer. In a way, I felt like those people could be declared out of bounds because I too am an underground filmmaker, and to steal from a colleague wouldn't be right. It's like only we underground filmmakers exist, and all those studio things are just part of the environment in which we operate. It's the air we breathe, and so we're allowed to breathe it.