Interview: Guy Maddin on Making “The Forbidden Room” and Why He’s Described As “Weird"...
Originally published by Videology (November 19, 2015).
Guy Maddin talks to Videology about his filmmaking style, Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the transition to digital, his preferred viewing method (with absinthe, please) and more.
By his own words, Guy Maddin is certainly weirder than a Jane Austen novel. To wit: the two of us have never spoken before, but within moments of introducing himself over the phone from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he teaches in Harvard’s Department of Visual and Environmental Sciences, he is joking about being dressed up in an apricot-coloured housecoat, his hair wrapped in an indigo towel, and stroking his long beard full of bird nests. “We should both be impeccably dressed for these conversations”, he says before I mention I’m working from bed.
His latest film is The Forbidden Room and when it premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival it received the sort of ecstatic reviews one expects from a director as singular as Maddin. It is certainly the most purely Maddin-esque film yet full of everything that has made his films so popular in cinephile circles, but turned up to 11. With his trademark silent movie era flourishes, it’s a mind-altering journey into Guy Maddin’s brain where he and co-director Evan Johnson set about recreating a dozen or more lost movies (real movies that no longer exist in any known form) amid a labyrinthine romantic mystery. Among its many delights are a sentient volcano, squid thievery, a man addicted to big butts, burlesque, claustrophobic submarine seamen, poisonous skeletons, lumberjacks and a character credited as “Mysterious Necklace Woman”.
Videology spoke to Maddin and discussed his filmmaking style, Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the transition to digital, his preferred viewing method (with absinthe, please) and more.
The Forbidden Room is a movie that will confound and surprise a lot of people. I am sure many won’t know what to make of it, so I’d love to know how you would personally describe it to somebody.
Well, I haven’t had a lot of luck. I’ve attempted to describe it and noticed my description clocks in at little over an hour. I saw the back of the new DVD sleeve that my American distributors are working on; they spend about 300 words describing plot, but only get through the first five minutes. I guess I would describe it as a séance with cinema in which the various spirits of long-forgotten narratives are constantly shoving each other out of the way vying for the viewer’s attention. And that by the time it’s all over and the lights go on that this confusing welter of competing narratives does create one kind of unified impression. Even if it comes at you like one of those old Phil Spector wall of sound blasts of imagery and narrative.
That’s as good of an explanation as could be expected.
Maybe I can take a second attempt. I’ve always wanted the viewer to feel at the end of the movie like they’ve been washed up on a shore having just barely survived a drowning in a sea-storm of narrative. The movie experience has to feel like it’s too much. I could have easily edited this movie down into a tight 90 minutes, or even 70 minutes, but it wouldn’t have been too much. This needed to feel like an overwhelming experience of not just stories upon stories, slapping against you and then buffeting you and disorienting you, but that each story’s distinctive palate had to follow onto another in short succession. We just want you to feel like you’ve really watched a movie, that’s all. Or watched all movies. Preferably all movies.
But I don’t want it to be one of those dogs’ breakfast movies like Inception (2010) or Cloud Atlas (2012) where it’s too much narrative. So while there are fragments of seventeen different movies in The Forbidden Room with seventeen different protagonists, I still wanted viewers to feel like there was one protagonist and one antagonist and one love story told from our own particular point of view. We also wrote from the point of view of men, straight men, dealing in queer movie making. There’s kind of a hysteria in the film, but this time it’s male hysteria. There’s a strange vagina phobia going on.
The film is certainly a one-of-a-kind experience. Were you consciously aiming for that or did it happen organically as you set about making the movie?
Well, we definitely wanted to make a movie nobody had seen before. We wanted people to see a movie that looked like nothing they’d ever seen before and something that felt like nothing they’d ever seen before. There are Russian nesting dolls movies like The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) and, I guess, Inception, which certainly has many stories within stories within stories. I didn’t want to be so literal-minded about the rules like Inception felt obliged to be. I just wanted to deal with very ancient movie conventions. Someone has a dream, someone has a story to tell, someone has a flashback. That would free us up to do pretty much whatever.
While watching The Forbidden Room I was very much reminded of the works of Bill Morrison. Was his form of filmmaking an inspiration to your movie given Morrison is known for taking old, deteriorating film stock and transforming it into something new?
Oh yeah. I’ve known of Bill Morrison’s work for some time now and he and I certainly love the same things. We’ve probably visited the same archives. He’s gone to a lot more than I have, but I’ve gone to see the ‘Vinegar Vault’ where archives will store a print that’s gone to vinegar. It’s actually a contagious condition where a film has suddenly been infected by a terminal illness from which it can’t be saved and it’s turning to a vinegar-smelling goo and they have to be quarantined and I think they try to digitally record some of those films before they’re completely lost, just one frame at a time. I’ve often wondered what that stuff would look like animated and it seemed to me Bill Morrison answered that with Light is Calling (2004).
There’s the idea that film itself is the most haunted medium because it always depicts something that once was yet no longer is. Actors are all older or dead, landscapes have changed just by the passage of time. And so it’s already a haunted medium and then it starts decaying. It just feels like film is not only just haunted by the images it captures, but it starts getting haunted, doubly-haunted, when the images start to fade. And then when the film gets lost entirely then it’s a haunting once again. It’s an infinitely haunted medium by the time lost films start getting remade by me and then posted on the internet where they run the risk of just never being seen. [laughs] Every time someone watches a randomly generated film on my séances website, which I’m launching in April, that film will only be seen once and the program will destroy it. It’s a website that creates a new film and then loses it so we’re just trying to take the haunted medium and then make it more haunted.
You have been labelled a celluloid fetishist, but with Keyhole (2011) you went digital for the first time and did so again on The Forbidden Room. How different would this film have been if you had been able to make it on celluloid? Could you even have been able to?
I don’t think so. I think I would have had to shoot it and then leave the footage outside in a forest for three years before it even started to look the way it does. My collaborators – co-director Evan Johnson and his brother who is the production designer, music designer and graphic designer – created a program that enables accidents to happen like the way footage is color-timed. And I had grown disconsolate since switching from analogue to digital that all the happy accidents that happen and helped me so much in the film realm had now been taken from me. But they found a way of making a far more accident prone world for me in which to work. So the look of the film is just one big cluster of happy accidents and I am delighted with the way it works and I’m happy to stay in digital.
So you plan on sticking with digital then?
Yeah, and the nature of the project – it’s also an internet project – firmly plants it in the digital world thematically, and then one foot firmly planted in the film realm because nearly all of the original source material comes from the 20th century when stuff was made on film and lost. There was also a lost American network called The DuMont Television Network that ran from the late ‘40s to the early ‘50s and so many cool shows were just broadcast out into space. And so to read about the Hazel Scott show, the first show to be hosted by an African American woman; The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, the first show with an Asian lead star. These are lost and gone forever and we were thinking of adapting them. A lost camera that we wanted to reinvent and use. So many other things that were lost because they were never made, things that would’ve been made by people who were murdered by political oppressors, or films that should’ve been made by marginalized people. There’s just a million ways of looking at loss, not all of it filmic, but it came from a time where film reigned supreme.
Getting somewhat frivolous here for a moment, but how did the “The Final Derriere” song come to be? It’s the most inspired moment in an extremely inspired film.
It’s pretty frivolous! It’s based on a lost Greek film called Fist of a Cripple (1930).
That’s quite a name!
Great title, right? One of the great insensitive titles. It was a musical, that much we know. I even have a song from it, and I briefly considered using the surviving recording. We didn’t know what the film was about and we just decided to ask what kind of plot does the title suggest? We decided it suggested that plot [of a man who has brain surgery to remove his impulse to ogle ladies’ bottoms] and we decided it suggested Udo Kier star in it. We needed a song and I knew Ron and Russell Mael from Sparks from when I was 18 when I listened to them as a virginal boy with my ear stuck to a stereo speaker. In recent years I met them and became close friends with them and I asked them as a favor if they would consider writing a song for me. Within five hours they sent me a recording of the song you hear in the movie. We debated briefly whether it belonged in the movie because their sound is so crystal clear and ours is so crackly and murky and swampy sounding, but we decided if we put it in the first 30 minutes of the movie that we could just establish our boundaries as including all kitchen sinks.
You have a knack for taking actors that I would call square pegs in round holes – Shelley Duvall in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) and Ann Savage in My Winnipeg. How do you go about casting? Is it just about finding interesting faces and performers, or do you write for specific people and hope they will fit into your film’s universe?
I’ve written specifically for my non-famous actors from back home in Winnipeg because they had a certain voice and looked a certain way. The last time I wrote specifically for someone was Isabella Rossellini in The Saddest Music in the World (2003). I knew I wanted to get her just to increase the profile of the film and I knew she made adventurous career choices so it wasn’t that far-fetched. Then I just made a really cocky move to meet her and did and I got her.
I got lucky on The Forbidden Room. I went to Paris to shoot, fully expecting to have to cast off Facebook friends that lived in France, but my line producer hired a casting agent who knew everyone in the Paris-based acting community. He knows which ones are up for a crazy-assed adventure and which ones aren’t. He made a big list of people we should ask, he made lunch or coffee dates with each one of them, I met them all and they all accepted parts. He just made a list that had Charlotte Rampling on it, Andre Wilms, Geraldine Chaplin, Mathieu Amalric. The only person who turned us down was Frederick Wiseman. He was in Paris at the time, but he didn’t even come to coffee. I’m sure I could have charmed him if he came to coffee.
Do you consider yourself a comedian of sorts? This film can be very funny at times…
Oh, thank you.
I mean, at one point you literally drop a bomb on a brain. It’s very playful. Is it just a side-effect of the way you make movies that speak to audiences in a very absurd way or if it’s intentional and deliberate?
Well, life is kinda funny. Even when sad things are going on. I think this is the first movie where I’ve actually dared to extend my hat and ask for a few laughs. Whereas I’ve always covered my bets before where I’ve put something in that might, maybe, sort of, kind of be funny to some people, but I’d make it seem like it wasn’t intended to be funny. That just made people feel uncomfortable because they didn’t know whether to laugh or not. There’s a lot of jokes that are very intentionally not funny in the opening ten minutes of the movie and it’s kind of cocky to start a movie that’s my first requesting laughter with some unintentionally not very funny jokes.
But I’m kind of delighted by it to watch those opening minutes and hear how no one laughs. When those jokes, which are English-specific jokes, get translated into French, boy does the French crowd not laugh ten times as much. It’s almost like a black hole opens up beneath you and it’s really bracing. You feel like you’re on a high wire above the Grand Canyon.
Do you like being described as weird? It’s a word that comes up a lot when reading reviews of your work. Do you like having carved out such a distinct impression on people?
Well, I’m getting kind of used to being called weird. But geez, some of my favorite filmmakers are “weird”, but it’s also not a very useful term to me. John Waters, Luis Bunuel, George Kuchar, David Lynch, all of them could be described as weird. It’s a compliment I guess. Some people who aren’t into weird, into my species of weirdness, may not be into those other directors’ version of weirdness. I don’t mean to flatter myself so much, I’m not saying I’m as good as any of those people, but it’s just one of those things. I guess I’m weirder than a Jane Austen novel. Or maybe not so much, some of those are pretty weird. Some Nobel Prize winners have written books that are far weirder than anything I could ever dream up. Compared to commercial movies, yeah they’re weird. But I think Forrest Gump is weird, for crying out loud.
Well, I don’t like Forrest Gump…
You are a filmmaker with such a distinct style – you couldn’t mistake it. And yet you have a very diverse filmography. My favourite, for instance, is the dance musical Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002). Is this something you attribute your long career to?
It’s probably because it’s all I know how to do and sometimes I just have to accept whatever projects are offered to me. There is a lot diversity at times because I’m accepting a job for hire or something. I might as well say that I am looking for a job right now if anyone needs me. Even house painting. I do a good job. There’s a certain amount of fear and desperation that you can smell while talking to me. [laughs]
No, it’s because I’ve kept doing it for so long. People have told me I’m brave for sticking at this so long and wouldn’t it just be easier to quit, but no I’ve nothing else to do. I’ve no choice but to keep making movies and going forward. It’s almost like a bank robber needing to make one more big heist – maybe my next picture will do it! Luckily I’ve got teaching, but filmmaking is what I want to do. It would help if I received a director’s fee. I haven’t received one since about 2003. Todd Haynes probably gets one, he’s got a really good producer.
What does Canada mean to you personally? Opposed just being a Canadian, I mean. Does being a Canadian filmmaker symbolise anything for you? Is there something unique about it that keeps you making films there?
Well luckily our new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, increased the film and arts grants and state support for film in particular just last week so that’s one thing. Just sheer practical matter that it’s easier to raise money in Canada. I’d like to do a co-production with another country just for the sake of cross-pollination and shaking up the ol’ gene pool. I’m not overly patriotic and I feel for Canada and I’m pulling for its filmmakers. Our screenwriters tend to write protagonists that are a bit like donut holes, more passive. They watch the world go by rather than create the world like they do in American films. These are broad strokes, but when Canadians are left to themselves Canadians will make their own things.
How would you recommend viewers go in to The Forbidden Room? Is there a way to prepare for it? Or is no preparation the key to being able to surrender to it?
You know I wish I had worked out some sort of pitch for that. I want people to get high in a special way. Bring a nice foot bath with some lavender seltzer water in it or something like that. Put it on the floor in front of you and give your feet a good soaking. Drink some absinthe. I would say wrap your head in some silk turbans, but that’s not very thoughtful to the person sitting behind you. Just get comfortable. Rub some Vicks VapoRub on your chest and open your eyes and enjoy.
I think that’s a perfect place to end this conversation.
We’re both disgusted with each other.
We need to go back to our corners and reflect.
I’m taking my bathrobe off and going home.
The Forbidden Room screens at Videology from November 27th – 29th.