Title : An Interview with Guy Maddin
Date : 31 January 2006
Author(s) : David Church
Blurb: An in-depth interview with Guy Maddin.
Word Count : 11883
URL of this article : http://offscreen.com/phile/essays/branded_brain/
Login to Offscreen to see other articles on the same topics :
- Guy Maddin: My Dad is 100 Years Old (A review essay of Maddin's most recent docu-short on Roberto Rossellini.)
- L'Âge des images (The recent video work series of four 50-minute filmic essays by Québécois giant Jean Pierre Lefebvre is analyzed for its cultural and aesthetic depth.)
- Windows (The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models.)
- Things Never Said in Playa Perdida (Good things do come in small packages, with this subtle and delicate low budget digi-film that dignifies 24 hours in the life of two flawed, yet endearing losers, lovers Alex and J.D. )
- BECAUSEYOURAREMYIWALKTHELINE (Donigan Cumming video short.)
The films of Guy Maddin are an uncanny amalgamation of personal obsessions and private memories made public. Maddin’s fears and desires sparkle forth amid melodramatic tropes so winkingly heightened and bizarre that every new convolution begs for laughter. Filled with death, psychosexual deviancy, and familial strife, his pictures recall the unlikely history of Winnipeg’s foremost native son of the cinema. Born in February 1956 to a family of Icelandic descent, young Maddin’s formative years were split between the beauty shop where his mother Herdis and aunt Lil worked (directly adjacent to the Maddin family home), and the smoky realm of the cavernous Winnipeg Arena, home of the Winnipeg Maroons, the hockey team for whom Maddin’s father Chas was manager. Maddin fondly remembers being lulled to sleep at night by detuned radio shows, tucked in by blankets of static fuzz as the broadcasts struggled their way across Manitoba’s icebound prairie.
But not all was fond childhood memories for Maddin. His teenage brother Cameron killed himself upon the grave of a recently deceased girlfriend, and his father died suddenly some years later. In his published journals, Maddin has described sex and amnesia as two different anesthetics for the pain of loss. Amnesia is a constant state for us all, he believes, for it allows one to disavow the pains caused and incurred in everyday life—though Guy clearly has not entirely forgotten his own wounds. His early traumas surface repeatedly in his films like so much scar tissue, but he is no miserablist. A strong sense of gallows humor permeates the masochistic, almost incestuous revisitation of such old injuries.
Perhaps it is amnesia that allows him to create the way he does. He lovingly cannibalizes the visual styles and methods of archaic films, infusing his wildly surreal melodramas with a boldly postmodern (though he would not use that word) gaze into the dusty corners of cinema’s past. From his memories of old radio shows to his encyclopedic (and largely self-taught) knowledge of classic film, he layers his tableaux with the grain and grime of decades long gone, evoking a time when movies were still developing anew and taking on strange lateral developments. With the help of longtime writing collaborator George Toles, Maddin makes the sort of pictures that he wishes (or literally dreams) had been made by directors both great and forgotten, but in doing so, he creates something distinctly his own—and paradoxically, something strikingly original and new in modern cinema. Along with David Cronenberg, he is perhaps the greatest and most vital of Canadian auteurs, hand-crafting something fresh (and, he hopes, emotionally eviscerating) from so such artifice and potential camp.
Working almost exclusively out of Winnipeg, Maddin began filmmaking as part of the Winnipeg Film Group with his 1985 short The Dead Father, the story of a son revisited by the eponymous family member, and the start of a long filmic obsession with fathers both deceased and cowardly. (Maddin somehow suspected that his own father had not really died, but had gone to live with another family out of cowardice). His first feature, filmed over 18 months, was Tales From the Gimli Hospital (1988), an “Icelandic folktale” of madness and necrophilia set during a smallpox epidemic within the Icelandic immigrant population of Gimli, Manitoba. This very tongue-in-cheek parody of Maddin’s own cultural heritage succeeded as a midnight movie and paved the way for his second feature, Archangel (1990), another black-and-white part-talkie. Inspired by World War I propaganda films, it was a melodrama in an amnesia-infested outpost on the Russian frontier where no one had bothered to tell the troops that the Great War had ended. This was followed by Careful (1992), Maddin’s first melodrama in color and his humorously pro-incest, pro-repression ode to the German mountain film.
Several years followed, during which Maddin produced a number of short films. (He routinely makes shorts between feature films, threatened all the while to be sucked back into the terminal laziness that affects him during unproductive periods.) His next feature was Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), a 35mm big-screen fantasy that misfired in a big way for Maddin, despite its strikingly beautiful French Symbolist-inspired visual style. Maddin followed the Ice Nymphs debacle with another series of short films, gradually building up the confidence and acclaim needed to helm another feature. Among these shorts was the frenzied mini-epic The Heart of the World (2000), Maddin’s most fully realized homage to the Soviet school of montage.
2001-2003 was a watershed period for Maddin, who directed and released three feature films in succession—no laziness there! The first, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary (2002), was a filmic version of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Dracula; although Maddin says that male jealousy was the story’s driving factor, his film also emphasizes the xenophobia at the heart of Bram Stoker’s novel in a way lacking from all other film adaptations. The Saddest Music in the World (2003), starring Isabella Rossellini, was Maddin’s largest production to date and perhaps his most critically lauded feature. This vividly elaborate melodrama about a search for the world’s saddest music took on a politically allegorical dimension not seen in his earlier films. He concurrently directed Cowards Bend the Knee (2003), a heavily autobiographical peep-show installation subsequently released as a feature; it told of Winnipeg Maroon “Guy Maddin” and his descent into cowardice and mass murderdom at the hands of a woman obsessed with her dead father.
With his visual, storytelling, and editing techniques now matured from their somewhat shaky beginnings, Maddin seems poised to continue his quiet coup d’cinema. He recently finished filming his latest feature, The Brand Upon the Brain, a companion piece to Cowards Bend the Knee shot in Seattle for the Film Company. Several months ago he premiered his most recent short film, My Dad is 100 Years Old, a cinematic love letter to director Roberto Rossellini, written by and starring Isabella Rossellini.
I had the opportunity to speak with Maddin from his office in Winnipeg on December 15, 2005. He shed new light on his recent work, his upcoming projects, his theories on melodrama, his reflections on a career in progress, and thoughts on some of the strange (but aren’t they all!) entries in his filmography.
Offscreen: I’d like to start with My Dad is 100 Years Old, your most recently premiered short. The apparent clash between Roberto Rossellini’s neo-realist visual style and your own very anti-realistic style comes up often in discussions of the picture, despite the fact that both of you essentially make melodramas. You’ve remarked elsewhere that irony and melodrama are not mutually exclusive in your movies, that the heavily ironic, self-consciously “archaic” aspects of your visual style co-exist with the melodramatic sincerity of the subject matter in your films. Would you say that this compensates for the seeming clash of visual styles?
Maddin: Yeah, I’ve done a lot of thinking about it and I’ve always thought of movies as another species of bedtime story or campfire story or tall tale or dream. There’s no obligation to being literally realistic anywhere. These are storytelling techniques and then photography was first invented. There were a lot of people that tried to enslave it to document the world literally—and other people tried to manipulate it to convey a truth through more artificial means. So I just don’t see why melodrama and irony, or melodrama and neo-realism, would be mutually exclusive. It’s all just ingredients in a recipe and some recipes are better than others. In this case, I did think long and hard before tackling the Rossellini project about how the film should look. I thought for a while that I could make it look sort of like my own movies without any difficulty—that’d be easy. Or I could set out to study Rossellini’s more famous neo-realist works and try to imitate that look. But that didn’t even seem like a valid thing to do, even if I could do it, because he actually also made a lot of movies that didn’t look that way and I wanted to respect those. To imitate one of his styles and omit his other styles seemed to be as insulting to him as the general public is, because he’s really largely only remembered for his black-and-white neo-realist movies, when in fact he was ready to move on from that stuff just as the world was getting excited about it. It seemed wrong to try to imitate it for a number of reasons: A) it was insulting to him, B) I probably couldn’t have done it anyway. So it made sense that the movie should have its own style that was neither mine nor his.
I found that Isabella’s writing voice was so strong that it seemed to suggest a style that was neither her father’s nor mine, but neither inimical to either. She’s the one who pointed out to me that her father and I actually have a lot in common. We’re both going to just shoot things whether we have enough money or not. We have a sort of “can-do” spirit, so if someone says it can’t be done, we’ll just go home and shoot it behind the producer’s back, even in our own kitchen, if necessary. We talked about shooting much of this movie in my kitchen, literally, in the spirit of paying tribute to her father properly, (but we didn’t end up shooting any of it in the kitchen).
I wanted it to feel kind of dark and lonely and gloomy, so a blown-out deserted movie theatre seemed to suggest itself—we have so many of them in Winnipeg anyway! We needed a meeting place for all of these movie immortals to convene in the film to debate Roberto’s final place in the firmament (they’re all played by Isabella), and so a forgotten, dusty old movie theatre seemed to be the best setting for all these characters. Then there was the problem of how to, on a really small budget, show Isabella three or four times in the same frame without using massive digital effects, which would’ve been cost-prohibitive. I just used some really dirt-cheap (free, as a matter of fact) old Alfred Hitchcock-caliber rear screen projections to layer up the number of Isabellas in the frame. In that way it was sort of giving a little nod to the horrendously artificial rear screen that appears in Ingrid [Bergman]’s Notorious appearances. She and Cary Grant are strolling in front of a glaringly flapping rear screen projection of Argentina in Notorious.
Anyway, somehow rear screen seemed to be the most organic and complimentary solution to the problem, as there’s a level of artifice in the degree of convincingness of the impersonations—after all, Isabella can only be so convincing as Alfred Hitchcock, as Charlie Chaplin, as Federico Fellini. We kept it so that each one of her characterizations was at least still 50% Isabella and 50% the person she was trying to do. And even when she does her own father’s voice, with technology I could have just turned a dial and pitched her voice down so she could have sounded like Paul Robeson or Bluto and sounded like a man, and even though that wouldn’t have cost anything more, I resisted the temptation because I wanted her to sound like a little girl, a daughter trying to imitate her father’s voice. So it’s just a matter of making the right decisions with all of the artifice at your disposal, and a style kind of just emerged, kind of the way letters somehow end up getting pointed out by an Ouija board if you just let go. We just sort of let ourselves go and made the movie and a style just spelled out for us and remained with us for the duration of the shoot.
Offscreen: And yet both of you also draw upon memories of dead fathers in similar ways for subject matter.
Maddin: Before I’d ever met Isabella, I quickly read her autobiography and that’s when I knew we’d have something to talk about, because she seemed to have some unfinished business with her dead father, as did I for the longest time. And we did hit it off instantly, not on that subject necessarily, but on the million-and-one other subjects that we both share an affection for. So there’s something I understand—this sort of Hamletism that we both have where we’ve maybe overvalued our fathers, but we seem to feel that the world should be reminded of their existence, and that we should at least remind ourselves of their existence for a little longer than what is perhaps healthy. At least in this case Isabella has her father’s centennial as an excuse—and the guy is a titan of film history and everybody deserves to be reminded of Roberto Rossellini.
Offscreen: Do you find your films being appreciated by audiences more for their ironic and archaic visual aspects or for the melodramatic core of their stories?
Maddin: I wish it was the latter, but I’m not sure. When I first started out, I know that the few people that seemed to be paying attention to the movies just seemed to like the fact that they had no narrative, even though I was trying my hardest to really make the melodramas pay off but wasn’t doing such a good job of it evidently. They seemed to also remark that the visual atmospheres were something they liked, but I think the melodrama is starting to win a slightly more respectable place in the balance and taking on its proper weight. I’d be happy with a 50/50 split there. I’m just delighted by Douglas Sirk’s greatest works, by the artifice, the visuals, the acting styles, the mannerisms—everything that seems unprecedented in film, and yet there’s just something as ancient as Euripides’ Greek tragedies in the actual stories that are both delightfully ludicrous and powerfully human and tragic at the same time. I couldn’t be more delighted when there is that mix of seemingly mutually exclusive feelings going on inside me simultaneously when I’m watching. I get that same feeling from Josef von Sternberg as well, and not that many other directors. So that hybrid feeling of being hit with a wrecking ball while being tickled with a feather really delights me.
Offscreen: Much of your audience consists of art house patrons, film festival attendees, and other members of the educated middle-class—precisely the audience that has learned to scoff at melodrama and other emotionally manipulative material. Does this complicate the intended effect of your films?
Maddin: Are you saying that most savvy modern audiences resent being manipulated? Yeah, it’s unfortunate, but that’s just a trend and I’m willing to wait until long after I’m dead. I’m a patient man! People will come to understand someday that it’s all manipulation. They’re just cognizant of a certain level of it, and soon enough they’ll just give into it. It’s just the way long hair for everybody went out of style at one point and then it became more acceptable to wear your hair at any length you wanted—it’s just hemlines. I’m fine with it. People don’t understand how easily manipulated they are. They’re delightfully stupid—and I include myself among that. I must’ve watched reality shows for a few seasons before I realized I was watching the most primitive melodramas yet. Almost everything that’s unscripted is scripted melodrama; if it’s not the producers putting people up to do things to create a little conflict, it’s the editors manipulating the footage to create melodramatic conflict. And it’s done with the way the news is packaged at night, and obviously Michael Moore will tell you that news is always packaged to be as frightening as possible, so these elements—rife with villains—are the basic ingredients of melodrama. Everyone is manipulated into reacting in a certain way, and as long as you’re aware of it, I’d say that’s great.
I’ve always heard people complaining to film students who are making their movies that “You broke dramatic illusion” somehow, but do you think a little child getting told a bedtime story has forgotten that he or she is in bed? No, dramatic illusion can be broken a million times but you can still be completely under the spell of a story. You can be watching Fantasia and watching dancing hippos, or you can be having an Old Testament bible story read to you, or listening to C.B. DeMille narrating an old radio play, or watching the news, or talking to your own friends at recess, but you’re always being manipulated and you might as well just enjoy it.
So I’d say it’s a problem, but too bad for me and too bad for the people that are letting such ridiculous pride stand in the way of their full enjoyment of art. I have a very smart friend who was devastated by the movie Forbidden Games, one of the great movies of all time, and he said that he resented the tears that he cried at the end because they were manipulated out of him. Yeah, by real life! By the truth that the movie is presenting in one form or another—so having feelings is nothing to be ashamed of.
Offscreen: Do you think the archaic visuals and acting styles that you employ somehow make it safer for those audiences to engage the heightened melodrama on a more emotional level?
Maddin: I think people have always kind of resented the melodrama. It’s been at least a century since the word “melodrama” has fallen into disrepute, and to be called “melodramatic” has been an insult for at least a century. I think people have always resented those things, and probably a lot of men didn’t like watching women’s pictures, like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis pictures. I think maybe if they’re watching by themselves they’ll let themselves go a bit more, and home video makes it more possible to make movie viewing more like the experience of reading a book, so what you lose by sharing emotions with a big room with people in the dark, you gain by getting the privacy of a book reader’s experience and you can let yourself go a bit more perhaps.
Offscreen: Some have described you as a “cult” director, and you certainly seem to have some sort of cult audience. How do you respond to that?
Maddin: I’m happy with any audience! Once again, I’d be happy if people could keep watching my movies for a few years after I die. I think it was the writer Cyril Connolly who picked some arbitrary number—I think he wanted to be read for two generations after his death, that’s all—and he felt that was the most immortality he could ask for in his wildest dreams. And I think that’d be pretty wonderful. So if it’s just a narrow cult demographic, I know within there are people who, on a strange night watching a movie for all the wrong reasons with all the wrong attitudes, will still be side-swiped by something now and then and might see something that even I didn’t know was in my pictures.
I had an experience watching Written on the Wind one night—and I’ve seen that movie about 12 times, but on about time number six I was feeling kind of vulnerable and I think I finally accepted the artifice of a 1956 equivalent of a Euripidean stage tragedy, and somehow my sympathies lay on that night almost entirely with Robert Stack, more than any other character, whereas usually they’re spread around a bit differently. At about the 20-minute mark I got filled to the brim with dread for the poor guy, and the dread didn’t stop until the movie ended, at which time I nearly collapsed on the floor, completely wrung out by the experience (more like the experience that Imitation of Life leaves you with), devastated by it. And I haven’t had a viewing like that since, and I’ve tried to recreate the attitude that I had going in, but it just caught me by surprise—side-swiped, T-boned by this thing—and I don’t know how often that’s happened with viewers of that movie because still all the while I was delighted at the ridiculousness that Sirk managed to pull off.
So I would be very happy if someone could promise me on my deathbed that there’d be a handful of people that had an experience like that with one of my films. Now, I’ve never made a movie that’s that emotional, but if they could just somehow have some kind of unearthly experience where they’re suddenly channeling the director’s most desperate hopes and actually projecting them and feeling them, that would be pretty wonderful, and I think you’ve got a chance to do that every now and then.
I finally saw the Kuchar Brothers’ movie Sins of the Fleshapoids the other day, which just got released on DVD not too long ago for the very first time, and that is a really low, low, low, lowest budget possible biblical epic kind of movie, and for some reason even that hit me pretty hard, and I was thinking, “Man, the Kuchars would be pretty pleased if they got the odd viewing like that from people,” because most of the stuff that’s dismissed as “cult fluff” every now and then hits you just right. And I don’t mean to sound so self-congratulatory but I’ve just watched enough movies that every now and then I’ll be caught off-guard by the way that it’s entering me.
In other words, I’d be thrilled if people just keep watching me, even if it’s as a cult phenomenon, because then there’s a chance that someone—maybe someone really smart—will write about it and give it a couple more years of immortality. Like renting a grave at Père Lachaise, I could rest comfortably for a couple more years if someone really bright has some kind of divine experience with my work…you know, before changing the channel to something else.
Offscreen: On the Cowards Bend the Knee DVD, there were excerpts from a 1997 feature called Love-Chaunt in the Chimney, which was apparently destroyed by a fire in your garage. Could you explain a bit about that feature? I imagine it was produced after Twilight of the Ice Nymphs?
Maddin: Just after. I decided to make it as a sort of antidote to that whole experience because I didn’t enjoy making Ice Nymphs, didn’t enjoy the producer or anything. So in this case, I self-produced and did it really on the cheap, didn’t pay anybody; everyone just sort of got together in this big sort of utopian experiment and I didn’t even shell out for insurance. We built some sets in my garage, some in the Winnipeg Film Group studio, shot some things outside in the winter, and I had reams of stuff. I don’t even know how long that movie was going to be. It was real low budget, but it still might have been 3 hours long for all I know! It was a really nicely dovetailed amalgamation of Herman Melville short stories stuck together by my friend George Toles. I really liked the way they worked together, and I just shot the shit out of it, covered it from every different way and did a lot of improvisation for the first time. Then I started working on improvising with editing (the first time I did it) because I had so much footage that it was more like a ratio typical of a documentary where shooting ratios are like 100 to 1 instead of 10 to 1. So I started riffing with an editor friend John Gurdebeke who had a computer, and we started editing through step-printing, slowing things down, speeding things up, reversing them now and then, duplicating shots—more or less as a way of fetishizing the frames. We were just getting started; we did it with a bunch of other stuff too, but that got lost, alas, as well. And so this is all that remains, other than a few seconds of stuff that wasn’t cut (maybe about 4 minutes’ worth of stuff that wasn’t worth including as a bonus, wasn’t manipulated at all).
Offscreen: Various portions of the surviving footage bear strong resemblances to different short films: for example, the Zookeeper’s Workbook recalls Maldoror: Tygers, and another segment recalls The Cock Crew (which also went by the name Love-Chaunt in the Chimney). Could you explain the relation between what appears on the DVD and the short films that were finally completed in 1999?
Maddin: I shot those [shorts] at the same time, so in some of the scenes I used the same costumes—the same actors even—and some of the sets (not in their entirety, but they overlapped a little bit). That was just part of the spirit of making Love-Chaunt in the Chimney on the absolute lowest budget possible. I think I’ve always liked the story about how RKO recycled those Magnificent Ambersons stairs so much that they appeared in Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, and countless other movies. I just like the idea of having sets used over and over again, but in Winnipeg I don’t own a studio so I can’t afford to keep sets all the time. As soon as you finish a movie you’ve got to tear them down and throw them out or store them somewhere. I just wanted to shoot as much as possible to get the taste of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs out of my mouth. The money for Maldoror: Tygers and The Cock Crew was raised through a different source so I had to keep separate books on those.
Offscreen: How many of these unproduced feature film projects do you have waiting in the wings?
Maddin: The Brand Upon the Brain might turn into one of them if I don’t finish editing it! It’s still not cut because I’ve been busy ever since shooting it, working on the Isabella thing and I’m in preproduction on a feature right now. I’ve got a few things. George has written a feature script—
Offscreen: Edison and Neemo?
Maddin: A remake of Svengali. Edison and Neemo is being made right now, but not by me. George wrote that and it’s being produced as an animation out of Vancouver, even though that’ll be a few years down the road, but it’s going to be good. I’m going to be involved in making a film-within-the-film. I’ve got some unproduced scripts but whether I’ll ever film them, I don’t know. They’re unproduced for a reason and a lot of times I’ve given up on them because the window closed a while back.
Offscreen: Like The Dykemaster’s Daughter, for example?
Maddin: Yeah, that one needs to be re-written to bring it up to speed with where I am right now. I was really lucky that it never got made. It just would’ve been a disaster. I like the basic idea of it, but rather than shooting it, I think I’d rather just make Svengali. That’ll be something that I’m actually shooting at about this time next year. It’s been a while since I’ve planned anything in my life, but I’m trying to plan ahead, so I have a movie I’m in preproduction on now that’s going to be shot in February, and then maybe something shot next fall or early winter—Svengali perhaps. Maybe something else will come up in the meantime. We’ll see.
Offscreen: I recall you did have that Svengali-like figure who mesmerized the character of Veronkha in Archangel.
Maddin: Yes, Ihor Procak is a real life Svengali, a sort of hypnotist who actually hypnotized Dorothy Stratten in a movie Autumn Born made in Winnipeg. Dorothy Stratten was the famous Playboy Playmate of the Year in 1980 who was murdered by her estranged husband because he was jealous of her involvement with Peter Bogdanovich. But Dorothy came up to Winnipeg and made a movie shortly before her death, and Ihor had a great big part in it and it was his idea to wind up a little squeaky mouse toy to hypnotize her with or something. Anyway, he’s an evil man and I always try to keep my girlfriend away from him.
Offscreen: Many of your short films are not in circulation but you’ve mentioned that they may someday appear in some form. Have you considered compiling a DVD of your complete short films or is such a thing already in the works?
Maddin: No, it’s not in the works, but I’d like to when I get around to finishing them. In some cases I’d have to either pay for the rights to some music, re-cut them to fit another piece of music, or get some original music made. It’s not something that can be solved inexpensively or overnight, so I just need a little bit of time to get that all straightened away. I was talking to Gus Van Sant about his first feature film Mala Noche, which he’s hoping will be released soon, and he’s having exactly the same problem. He just used too much music that he couldn’t clear, so he’s taking care of that—either writing a new score or paying for it, I’m not sure which. So it’ll eventually come out; I haven’t seen it, but it’s apparently really good.
So in some cases there’s that problem, and in other cases there’s the fact that I haven’t quite finished them but I too hastily put them on my filmography early on in my career when I was beginning to feel sensitive about some inactive periods, so I started including things that were sort of still-born projects and maybe those shouldn’t be finished. But they’ll surface eventually, even if only as fragments. My willingness to put those fragments on the Cowards Bend the Knee disc indicates that I have no shame and will put anything on!
Offscreen: In recent years you’ve expressed some ambivalence about using digital video, despite owning a number of DV cameras. With people like David Lynch moving to video (for his upcoming feature), do you ever see yourself making the switch?
Maddin: I do. I was just testing one three minutes before you called. I’m trying to decide whether to shoot in video or film. I actually want to shoot in video but I just want to make sure I get a look that I like for this film that I’m shooting this winter, which is a documentary on the city of Winnipeg for the Documentary Channel here in Canada. It’s a “docu-fantasia-mentary” or whatever you want to call it. I’d like to shoot in video but there are reasons for shooting it in film and I guess I’ll decide sometime in the next month, maybe in the next week.
Offscreen: Have you been experimenting with the sort of filters that can be applied digitally in postproduction to make regular DV look more like film?
Maddin: I’m just going to start experimenting. There’s one thing that these two clever boys at the Seattle Film Company were cooking up, a little device which seems to turn regular digital video into 1950’s television kinescope. So I’m working with them through emails and video cameras and things. I’m hoping to get this device here so I can run a bunch of tests—so it’s still in its early stages, but if I’m happy with the look, I’ll go for it.
Offscreen: At least it should make for cheaper productions.
Maddin: Yeah, although I’m no expert on budgets, but it’s easy to forget that the most expensive element in filmmaking is time if you’re paying everybody. But I think it’s got to be a little bit cheaper to use video. At least you can tape over it or something like that, although I don’t think you’re supposed to. More and more I like the look of it for certain subjects. When you’re making a documentary of a city, Winnipeg looks ugliest on video, and that might be the way to go.
Offscreen: You seem to currently have a workload pretty comparable to what you had in 2001-2003 when you were in production on three features in succession.
Maddin: I love being busy, I really do. I’ve been a lazy person for so long in my life. It feels good to lick it for a while. I know I could slide back at any second like an alcoholic can start drinking or a smoker could light up again; I feel like I could just fall back on a couch and never get up, at a moment’s notice. So I really love the feeling that putting in consecutive days, months, and years of productive time gives me.
Offscreen: Of those three features you directed in 2001-2003, The Saddest Music in the World was probably your largest and widest released film to date. Has its success increased your renown as a director and created new filmmaking possibilities for you?
Maddin: Yeah, it has. I’m pleased. It’s going right according to plan. I never really had a plan for world dominance. I don’t even know how Peter Jackson can make his movies. I don’t even understand the process…something about “green screens” or something! I don’t even get it, you know, and I love the guy but I haven’t got ambitions to be that kind of filmmaker. I want to be more like Buñuel or a low budget Von Sternberg. Those are the people I’d give pounds of flesh to be. It’s not like I want to be so popular that all the doors in the world would suddenly fly open for me or that every phone call be returned, but I’ve noticed that more and more phone calls get returned now and the level of recognition has ratcheted up a little bit—nothing ridiculous, but it’s a pleasant feeling to be recognized now and then and especially within the industry—so it’s had its desired effect. Isabella Rossellini, even though she hasn’t been that active in the film world in recent years, is just a celebrity for so many reasons; just being associated with her really helped for some reason. It seemed to help me more than it’s helped anybody else who have worked with her, for some reason. Maybe those other people didn’t need so much help, I don’t know! Richard Avedon didn’t need much help and David Lynch didn’t need much help, but it really seemed to help me nicely, so I’m really grateful for our friendship.
Offscreen: The Saddest Music in the World was a relatively large production with well-known actors and fairly wide distribution, but Cowards Bend the Knee was a much smaller, more intensely personal picture. Which was more personally rewarding and valuable for you to make?
Maddin: Making them at the same time like I did kind of makes it impossible to separate them. There are times where, perhaps out of sheer perversity, I’m way more proud of Cowards Bend the Knee because it cost so little and it was made clandestinely. Certainly odd circumstances under which to make a movie—sneaking off from one studio to a smaller one a few blocks away in preproduction. I wasn’t shooting them simultaneously—that would’ve been too much! But I would just get away from my office in one building for a few days at a time, basically just disappear and make up a bunch of excuses and then shoot this movie. So it felt pretty good but it really was a script that came 100% from me. George and I are so much alike that I can’t even remember half the time what he came up with and what I came up with in our collaborations, but I know that this one came from my own bilious broodings about how hard done by I’d been in my life.
I spent many hours daydreaming while swimming. Swimming requires a lot of patience and I’d swim for about an hour a day and just daydream about this movie and about things that have happened to me and how to fit it into templates established by maybe Electra or The Hands of Orlac—only to be astonished, after the swimming pool water had made my entire body as wrinkly as a prune, that all those stories somehow fit together. Maybe the soaking in the water really helped all those stories fit together; Euripides, Orlac, and my own autobiography were all the same story somehow and I got a sort of chlorine delirium everyday. The script was really written over probably about a one year period, the most I’ve ever spent on anything—and then after I wrote the script, I probably ignored it and just picked up a camera and shot it, kind of from memory—just gathered all the actors together and had them act out my life as I remembered it through a haze of chlorine and amnesia. I would shout out orders, directing while operating the camera so I could make instantaneous judgments in my head. It was a real pleasure and really strange. It felt like I was making a movie with methods unlike those used by anybody else ever. It was similar to old silent movie methods, but moving far more briskly. I hired a pianist and violinist to accompany the actors, but I found that I was moving far too quickly and talking far too much for them to be of any use. I was always leaving them behind, so they were told to go home after the first half-day. They were just too much trouble.
It felt really good to make the movie in a way that fit my story perfectly, so not only did everything in the story seem to fit together very satisfactorily, but even the way of making it fit the story like a glove. It almost seems like now you’re talking about the way a painter might approach a subject, sometimes using bigger schema or bigger brushes or flinging the paint onto the canvas depending on the subject matter. Why shouldn’t there be a different approach technically to the movie canvas depending on the subject matter? So I became very pleased that I’d found exactly the right way to make this movie, the way that suited the story just right. And if you think I’m into process, I’m not. I hate people who get high on the process of making things; I just want to get it made. But I found a way that was the most practical and tricksy, and also temperamentally the best way to make it. I guess all in all I’m more self-satisfied with the way that Cowards Bend the Knee turned out, but I’m also pretty proud of The Saddest Music in the World and grateful for the way it’s really gotten out there a bit more, sending my name into a few more households.
Offscreen: When collaborating on a script with George Toles, how does he accommodate the more personal details of your own life that you might include in the story?
Maddin: Well, he knows them all for one thing, so sometimes he just puts them in there! We really are best friends and I don’t keep any secrets from George. Sometimes he sneaks them in so that I don’t even recognize them until much later; not until editing do I realize what he’s getting at. A lot of times I give him a little “shopping list” or a wish list of things or elements or tones or flavors or directions that I would like the story to go in, and he just goes off and writes it. Every summer he goes back to his hometown of Hamburg, New York, a suburb of Buffalo, and he spends a month there in his mother’s house. I think he does his old childhood paper route or something in the morning, and then writes scripts in the afternoon. Every year he comes back with a couple of major academic essays and a feature film script. So I like alternating little shorts written by me or him, and features written by him. Svengali will be a hybrid dance film and horror film—not like my Dracula, which was like 70% dance and 30% pantomime—but this will be more like 70% talking Universal horror film and 30% dance. That one has a third collaborator: a choreographer, the guy that choreographed Dracula [Mark Godden].
Offscreen: Are you still hoping for your latest feature, The Brand Upon the Brain, to be finished by September 2006?
Maddin: Yeah, that’s the goal. I’m really hoping that it plays at the Toronto International Film Festival with a live orchestra and two live foley sound effects people also working in the orchestra pit or on either side of the stage, supplying footstep sound effects or smashing glass or foghorns—things that the orchestra can’t do. I really wanted to have music and effects, and I think it would be charming. I think it would be kind of fun peeking down from the movie every now and then to watch them—and if you hate the movie, you can at least watch the foley artists. They’re fascinating people to watch—the big, burly, hairy guy putting on a pair of women’s pumps, getting in anticipation of the staircase a woman will have to climb in the upcoming scene. That might add elements of suspense, mystery, and intrigue that aren’t otherwise in the movie! So that’s my dream and I’m cautiously optimistic that my dream will come true.
Offscreen: It was originally planned as a short film but expanded into a feature—how did that come about?
Maddin: It got expanded pretty quickly. They approached me to make a short film and I told them I didn’t have enough time. I was teaching full time at the University of Manitoba here, and it just didn’t seem worth it for me to go to Seattle to make a short in the middle of another job. But when I asked them what amount of film and processing they could come up with, they told me they could come up with 10 hours worth, and I suddenly decided I had time to make a feature. That’s enough film footage to make a feature, so I thought, “Well, I’ll take a week off of school. If I leave immediately after one class and come back just before another, I’ll be able to get in 13 ½ days of work on the movie,” so I agreed. So it was maybe by the second phone call that it had gone from a short to a feature.
Offscreen: One of the working titles for Edison and Neemo was The Brand Upon the Brain. Is there any relation between the two projects or did you just use the title?
Maddin: I’ve always liked the title and I just wanted to use it. When Edison and Neemo went into preproduction as Edison and Neemo, Brand Upon the Brain came back to me. Cowards Bend the Knee was a title that I was always kicking around long before the movie, and that title would indirectly apply to almost any movie I’ve made anyway. I just liked the titles. They seemed kind of muscular and old-fashioned and just kind of evocative of some other era. They seemed to speak to me directly. I thought they were the titles of old movies, but I’ve done research on the Internet Movie Database and everywhere else and I can’t find anything with those titles, so I think I dreamt them, strangely enough. Sissy Boy Slap Party, I’ve often said, was the only movie that existed as a title first, whereas Cowards Bend the Knee and Brand Upon the Brain were titles long before I had the script ideas. They didn’t instantly suggest the actual story, but with Sissy Boy Slap Party, the instant I had that title, I had the actual script as well—the title is the script! So I guess that’s still more true than not true.
Offscreen: You’ve described The Brand Upon the Brain as a companion piece to Cowards Bend the Knee.
Maddin: I still haven’t decided whether or not to call the protagonist “Guy Maddin.” In the script he’s got a different name and I don’t think I’d have to literally call him Guy Maddin, but I might. I don’t know. We’ll see how confusing the experience is to a test audience or something, and maybe it’s just simpler to call the characters “Mom,” “Dad,” “Guy” and “Sis,” or I can give them the more baroque names that the script I wrote gave them. But it is a companion, not just because it’s direct autobiography, but because it was shot using the same cameras and kind of the same attitude.
Although I’ve made a big point about how my technique to shooting Cowards Bend the Knee was a perfect fit for it, when I tried to use that exact same technique for Brand Upon the Brain, I found the movie resisting it a little bit, and that’s when I realized that for all the congratulations I’d been giving myself for finding a perfect fit, it was a bit presumptuous of me to assume that it would be a perfect fit again. The script is a little bit different temperamentally and needed a slightly different approach, and so I’ve found that one too. I think I’m pretty happy with the footage, but as we speak right now it’s not cut, and I’m trying to find a cutting style that will be the perfect fit as well. If I don’t find it, the movie will be a big mess.
Offscreen: The film is supposedly based primarily upon your own remembered early life—in this case the conflict between your mother and your teenage sister Janet during the period in which your sister became a local track star while your father’s celebrity as a hockey manager was waning.
Maddin: Where did you find that out?
Offscreen: It was in the extras on the Cowards Bend the Knee DVD.
Maddin: Oh, right. Yeah, I haven’t watched that thing. Yeah, it is. I don’t know how thrilled to hear that my mom and sister will be, but they had some fights that are probably pretty typical of a mother and a teenage daughter. Nothing too exotic or rarified, but I was seven years younger than my sister. Maybe I was seven or eight years old, ten years old, when the fights really got big. They seemed big to me, anyway. I won’t play the self-pity card too much, but they were kind of traumatizing little things. I’m not saying so out of self-pity; to make sense of them, they seemed really melodramatic in everyone’s sense of the word when they think of melodrama as completely uninhibited expressions of emotion. These fights had a lot of fireworks and they got pretty surreal. So I was cast into the role of an unlikely mediator trying to bring peace; I just wanted people to quit fighting. I still don’t really like fights that much. And so it really did feel kind of odd and it really made me understand the Jekyll and Hyde myth and the werewolf myth, the way people can transform from serene, beautiful creatures into monsters in a matter of seconds. It seemed like every day was a full moon in my house at that age.
Given the opportunity to make this movie on such short notice, I thought I’d best dip into autobiography for material because I didn’t have time to go swimming for a year to daydream about how all these things would fit into Euripides and into other things—so I just took episodes way more literally than I did with Cowards Bend the Knee and maybe only had time to go swimming a couple times to sort of wrinkle up and soften the skin so that all the characters could be packed closer together into a 90-minute show.
Offscreen: This is your first film shot outside of Winnipeg, and you’ve described it as your first “foreign” film.
Maddin: It felt great to hop off an airplane, be driven straight to a movie studio, and be all of a sudden present while actors and actresses are dressing and undressing for you, being given a tour of all the sets that were built in your absence. It reminded me of the way old studio directors must have worked back in the day when they would shoot back-to-back-to-back movies and just sort of show up and go “Okay, where’s my megaphone? Where’s the first set? Let’s go!”
It felt really exciting for me and it was my first job anywhere outside of my hometown, so I really felt like a grown-up there briefly—though all feelings of being a grown-up leave you once you pick up a little dinky Super-8 camera! Size does seem to matter when you’re at least posing for production stills. You should really have a fake camera, a gigantic one, to stand behind for production stills! But you really do feel like a kid when you start playing around, and the first weekend I shot with a bunch of little “orphans” and I had to fire them up and get them excited, and I had to really reach back because it’s been a long time since I’ve played with children. So all those feelings of being a grown-up on the road, a warrior having parachuted into enemy soil to work clandestinely—all those feelings disappeared when I just realized that I was basically making mud pies with kids again for the first time in 40 years.
Offscreen: Was it at all difficult to set such an autobiographical story outside of familiar settings, with a brand new cast and crew that you’ve never worked with before?
Maddin: No, it wasn’t. I was a little worried that it would be, but they were all very keen to help and adept readers of my wishes. A few times the actors even managed to create, in a few reductive melodramatic brushstrokes, exactly a memory as I remembered it, and a couple times I was astonished to find myself overwhelmed and I would have to leave the set to go collect myself. As mannered and as strange and as odd and as fake as the movie looks—and it looks every bit as fake as Cowards Bend the Knee—a couple times I was literally rendered speechless. It was very embarrassing with people I’d only known for two days to suddenly squirt tears on their astonished faces instead of words coming out of my face. They were very thoughtful people; they managed to let me collect my dignity a lot sooner than I normally would have, so they’re pretty sweet people to work with.
Offscreen: In your plainly autobiographical film treatment The Child Without Qualities, you mention a memorable trip to the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, the last trip your whole family took together. Did you draw upon those memories at all for filming such a personal picture in Seattle?
Maddin: That’s right! It did really feel like there was some kind of weird closure of fate. Of all the cities in the world to invite me to make a movie, it had to be Seattle, the last place where my family was together all at once. And it did seem odd to see the Space Needle—of which I have such kind of seminal, primal memories of my brother, who died shortly after—to see it breaking through the clouds as I was landing in the plane was pretty chilling. You see it wherever you go in the city and I was shooting lots of locations, so it really felt like this little thing was watching me. I say it’s “little” because I’ve lived in Toronto and the CN Tower is really big. But I love the Space Needle. I remember my brother throwing some money off the top of it somehow. It might not even be a real memory because maybe the windows couldn’t even be opened back then in ’62, but I remember him taking a big fistful of dollar bills and throwing them off the top in a kind of weird, troubling gesture. I think he was angry about something, or just wanted to waste money and see what it looked like fluttering down to the World’s Fair stands below. So it was a city that was already a little bit preloaded for me; it felt prehistorically full of “me” anyhow, so it was a good place. Maybe if I went to Minneapolis or Spokane, it wouldn’t have been the same.
Offscreen: You always use various filmic and literary sources as wellsprings of inspiration for your pictures. What did you draw upon for this latest one?
Maddin: I drew upon George almost immediately because I told him I was panicking a bit. I had used, as an encourager, Electra and The Hands of Orlac for Cowards Bend the Knee, but I just kept asking George if there was something that he could suggest on such short notice. I wanted something in a hurry and I didn’t have time to read all of Euripides. He suggested I read The Bacchae, and I read it and the overall structure didn’t send me, but I liked the way that it honored the savagery of the gods and the irrationality of love and the way in which we’ll never understand how brutally we love. That wasn’t a very good summary of what it’s up to—but I wanted something at a more sort of “plagiarizable” level and it wasn’t it, so he just fired off a bunch of suggestions. Seattle immediately put me in mind of lighthouses, and I remembered some old Grand Guignol plays from a collection that George had that were set in lighthouses. Lighthouses are obviously sort of claustrophobic, lonely, phallic places, so I told him I wanted something in a lighthouse. He suggested an unscrupulous orphanage used for organ harvesting or something like that, and then he set up some big melodrama involving a bunch of…I’ve got it written down somewhere.
I kept about half of it for my original treatment, and then in the act of grafting on the story of my sister and mother, some of his suggestions fell away as beside the point and others fit in perfectly. So it was kind of an act of fiction for a while, and then I realized that the untrue half was easily made completely true if I just tweaked what happened a little bit, and it suddenly just became my autobiography, but fit snugly into a lighthouse on the West Coast. So in very short order I had something that felt as real as Cowards Bend the Knee, without all those long swims. So there weren’t any real filmic or even literary sources this time. It was just me taking a huge shortcut through my usual process, skipping the look of the film this time, with a lot of help from George to get the courage to start up.
Offscreen: You’ve been making films for about 20 years now.
Maddin: Yeah, I can’t believe it but I have.
Offscreen: And you turn 50 next year.
Maddin: In about three months.
Offscreen: At this point in your career, which of your films are you most proud of?
Maddin: God, I wish I had a few more titles in there, but I’m going to keep going. The one movie I made that turned out exactly as I planned was The Heart of the World. I think Cowards Bend the Knee turned out better than I thought it would. And I think the first movie that I was genuinely terrified of going into, and really fought while making but was pretty pleased with the outcome, was Careful. I’d never worked in color before; things like that felt like I was really growing by leaps and bounds each time out.
I’ll partially retract my answer, because I honestly don’t really think about it that often. I can’t really watch any of my movies. I remember reading in a Buñuel interview that he only watched his movies once, maybe twice, and then never watched them again. And I couldn’t believe it because I’d just finished watching his L’Age D’or fifty times already and I thought, “Man, Luis, you’ve got to watch your movies more often. They’re great!” But he knew what he’d made and had to move on, and I understand that now because I’m always just stinging at the end of a movie with regret and second-guesses and desires to re-shoot things and re-do things, which you can’t do. So I’m always thinking of what to do next. I guess that would be my official answer—I guess I’m not really proud of any of them and I’m still hoping to make a really good one someday.
Offscreen: Although I suppose you’re not willing to burn all of your negatives like Buñuel was.
Maddin: Yeah, did he really do that? He couldn’t have!
Offscreen: He said in his autobiography that he’d be happy to do that, as some sort of final surrealist act.
Maddin: Well, he is an atheist supposedly, so what difference would it make to him?
Offscreen: You’ve said that Canadian cinema has arguably produced only a handful of great movies and the rest were relative failures. Do you see any of your own films within that small pantheon?
Maddin: Well, I’m using the word “great” in its toughest sense. No, I don’t think any of my movies are great. On a good day, when I’m in a good mood or something, a couple of them may be approaching “okay.” I believe I have a great movie in me and that’s what keeps me going, but I need to do that yet.
Offscreen: Does the technique of willfully creating cinematic “artifacts” leave you with doubts about their worth, or do you think your use of pastiche in visual style and content improves upon what could’ve been accomplished by filmmakers in the past?
Maddin: It’s all just a matter of what you do with what you’ve got. I don’t think I’m fooling anybody, not people who really watch movies. I think people can tell what year more or less my movies are made in. I just want to create an atmosphere and a sense of fun, but certainly atmosphere and a sense of fun aren’t necessarily obstacles to achieving an end in filmmaking. So I just recruit those elements and try to put on a nice watchable show and just free up some break time for myself to indulge the film in some other agenda that maybe I can sneak past the viewer.
Offscreen: You’ve spoken elsewhere of a personal project to reinvent cinema for yourself by shooting your way through its history. Is that still an ongoing project?
Maddin: I think I might have given up on that one a long time ago—maybe 20 years ago! So I was probably a bit impatient because there’s certain eras that I wouldn’t want to live through, and obviously if I had any hope of doing it in 20 or 30 years I’d have to go at it in an accelerated pace. I also didn’t want to spend too much time at the Great Train Robbery level, as charming as those movies are—and I must say I haven’t seen a Lumière Brothers movie I haven’t adored. And gosh, I do wish I’d been one of the filmmakers who was invited to participate in that centennial project Lumière and Company back in 1995.
But I think it was something that, once said, was as good as done. I’ve got to just let my direction determine itself one picture at a time and sort of see what’s got me fired up. The most frightening feeling, and I know this firsthand because I’ve gone through this in the late-1990’s, is not really having anything fire me up, and it’s a bad, bad feeling not finding yourself daydreaming about making movies at all. So as long as I’m fired up about something, even if it’s surface values or something buried far beneath the surface, as long as I can be excited about it, I’m more or less confident that I can trick myself into making another movie.
Offscreen: For Tales From the Gimli Hospital, you used Kyle McCullogh as a black-faced minstrel and another white actor to portray a First Nations member. You’ve said that this was done intentionally to complicate the nostalgia of an archaic film. What ways have you complicated the nostalgia in your later features?
Maddin: There it was a pretty conspicuous one and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. It was Kyle who really argued long and hard about being able to do the blackface. I was being kind of chicken; I really didn’t want to hurt anyone. But by the same token, I knew he was right, that it kind of had to be done. I had a clear conscience about it; I just didn’t want to hurt anybody who took it the wrong way, that’s all. He said, “Well, it will make for interesting dialogue and people can talk their way through it.” And then he said, “Come on, just do it!” and I think he just put on some burnt cork and said, “Well, we can just shoot it but not include it.” Then it just seemed right, so I put it in and I’m glad I did. I’ve had less comfortable fits, it seems, repeating African-American stereotypes in films. I just didn’t want to do that anymore. I felt it was so glaring there that it served its purpose comfortably enough, but when intentions became more ambiguous, I wasn’t interested in risking hurting people, because you don’t even find out most of the time when you’ve hurt people.
Other times of mixing up nostalgia? Yeah, I don’t know. I operate now so instinctively. I’ve promised myself never to think about any one decision for more than about 3 seconds and I can’t even remember what I’ve done, but I’m pretty sure I’ve done it and just can’t remember.
Offscreen: Missing limbs and other sorts of physical impairments are common in your pictures. Is this to help provide a visual shortcut to melodramatic effect or are there deeper matters at work, such as the way disabilities are used to signify fears of death or loss?
Maddin: It’s mostly the former—just a shortcut. And once again, the more realistically and then dismissively that you treat such things at the same time, you’re getting pretty insensitive and mean-spirited. So not all people with a limp are impotent, you know? People with disfigured faces aren’t evil and scary. But this is just Brothers Grimm, Lon Chaney, Tod Browning country, where an outward injury is the visual artifact of some sort of emotional injury. It’s just something people can see from the cheap seats. A profound limp, a missing something or other, is a spiritual limp, something missing, an injury incurred in childhood or something like that. It’s a real old melodramatic device and it can be chillingly effective like Ahab in Moby Dick or it can be more off-the-rack corny, as in an eye patch for the leader of SPECTRE in James Bond! But it’s definitely something on the palette. I guess I’m running the risk of overusing it, but we’ll see. There’s always a new illness. I really like the neurological illnesses that writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks describes in his books. Those seem to be made up specifically to describe the human condition, fairy tale-style, but they’re real neurological cases and his way of describing them makes him sort of a 20th Century Brothers Grimm.
Offscreen: So you don’t, either as an artist or on a more personal level, feel a particular identification with persons who are disabled or missing limbs? It’s just a device?
Maddin: Yeah, it’s just a device to help pinpoint feelings that you and I have both had at one time or another. If you didn’t get any dates in high school, you get to end up with an amputated leg!
Offscreen: You’ve said that we all live in a state of amnesia that allows us to forget painful memories—but doesn’t forgetting things like traumatic events or acts of cowardice just allow a person to constantly revisit and repeat those things in the future—for example, the recurring themes of dead fathers and cowardice in your films?
Maddin: Yeah, I don’t have a lot of confidence in people to improve or to fail to repeat mistakes. I feel kind of Buñuelian in that way. He’s a big left-winger, but like in Viridiana when the beggars, the starving people, the lumpen proletariat finally get the house and some food and some wealth, they don’t even know what to do with it. They just trash the joint and become a bunch of gross pigs. I just feel it’s such an old, broad-stroked, and cruel way of showing us what we’re really like. And he’s described as a humanist, but not an idealist humanist. He’s a realist humanist or a practical humanist. It’s really wonderful—there’s so much truth possible in that kind of cruel surrealism that I don’t even consider it surrealism.
Offscreen: You’ve said that your films are a way of coping with grief or the pains of everyday life—for example, you felt that the process of writing Cowards Bend the Knee made you less of a coward.
Maddin: Yeah, for about six months it made me less of a coward. I’m every bit the coward I always was, but for a while I was pretty good there. Actually, I always sort of suspected it was temporary. But I learned to confront people. I’m not so cowardly on the movie set, but in my day-to-day life I’m every bit as bad as Edward VII, the one-time king pussy-whipped into exile and oblivion and a bad liver.
Offscreen: How much do you think your films have helped shape you as a person in the 20 years that you’ve been making them, and do you think they will ever help provide solace for the biggest traumas in your life?
Maddin: I think I’ve recovered from all the traumas in my life…except for not having a girlfriend in high school. I don’t know if they’ve shaped me at all, but they’ve at least enabled me to take some pride in what I do. For the longest time, in my twenties, it just wasn’t shaping up like I was going to have a career, or even a part-time job. I was pretty depressed. So it’s nice to just have something to do and not be alienated from my labor (to speak in old Marxist terms). I am what I’m making, and I’m making what I am, and it feels pretty good. There’s got to be an audience, there’s got to be someone giving me the money to do it, but it’s just allowed me to be in the shape that I could’ve been in had I the ambition and foresight to plan a career in my teens and twenties (but I didn’t). So it’s just facilitated my entering into regular society.
I don’t think it’s changed what I potentially was, and it hasn’t shaped me in any odd way. It sounds so self-centered, but it’s enabled me to continually think of people and myself, and how I’m just regular like everyone else. It’s a pleasure to be able to think of art a lot. I guess I’m really lucky that way because a lot of people who work in other fields don’t have the time to think about that stuff, or the inclination, and they get kind of shriveled up in places as a result.
Offscreen: Your father has seemed to have the greatest formative impact upon your life. You’ve achieved some local, if not international, celebrity, not unlike him. Aside from the obvious associations that come up in your work (such as cowardice and death), how much do you either fear or desire becoming like him?
Maddin: I’m probably like him already. I tried Googling him the other day and there was virtually nothing. It saddens me, but I guess he just died in the pre-Google era and not much of his stuff has been retroactively posted. But maybe I should just devote some time to getting some crap of his on there, just so that he can exist in Googleland. It’s not like “If you post it, they will come” or anything like that, but maybe someone will accidentally chance upon things. Who knows how you stumble upon things in E-world?
But I think about him often. I usually compare myself to him at whatever age I’m at. I remember when I turned 38, I was cutting the lawn and saying to myself, “This is how old he was when I was born.” And when I was 45, I said, “This is how old he was when he lost his son.” And right now I’m at the age he was when he had his first heart attack and things pretty much declined very rapidly from there. I’m still not sure about his life. One day a woman and a girl from Germany arrived at our door, rang the doorbell, and I realized later that I was probably staring at an illegitimate half-sister. And now I sort of have to add, “And this is the age my dad was when he fathered a child in Germany”! Sometimes I can say, “Jeez, I’m doing better than my dad right now. I’m getting out more.” But then again my dad maybe fathered this kid in Germany and I’ve got my work cut out for me there.
I just want to be happier than he was, because temperamentally I feel like I’m the same person, with a deadly strain of my mother mixed in (which I’d like to get rid of completely). Not a happy strain. And I’m not picking sides; she’s just not always happy, and when I’m unhappy, it’s in a way that my mom’s unhappy and I don’t like that. But I kind of like walking around as the embodiment of him. It feels healthier than what I did until I was about 20. I walked around as the living ambassador of my dead brother, as this living ambassador of suicide, and that wasn’t always a good feeling. So this one at least feels more warm and more like an ongoing tribute…kind of nice. And I’m not as crazed as Hamlet or anything. It’s just a quiet unhealthiness that, except for the fact that I talk about it like this every now and then, no one would ever know about. That and I make movies about it!