The Saddest Filmmaker in the World
Director Guy Maddin is highly resentful, terribly romantic and prone to melancholy. He also makes wondrous, utterly unique films. Kristine McKenna asks him how he does it.
Originally published in Arthur No. 10 (May 2004)
Guy Maddin was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1956. He’s of Icelandic descent, and his father was a prominent hockey coach who lost an eye as an infant when his mother pulled him to her breast and pierced his eye with the pin from an unfastened broach. Maddin’s mother ran Lil’s Beauty Shop, a salon she named after her beloved sister. As a child, Maddin received a piggy-back ride from Bing Crosby. When he was seven years old his teenage brother committed suicide; when he was 14, his father died. These losses can be seen resonating in the films he’s subsequently made.
After earning a degree in economics at the University of Winnipeg, Maddin became increasingly obsessed with film while working a series of crummy jobs that included house painting and bank telling. When he was 29 he played a character named Concerned Citizen Stan on the cable access television show, Survival!, and the following year he completed his first film, the 26-minute short, The Dead Father. A moving portrait of a young man whose dead father haunts him in daydreams and nightmares, the film contains all the seeds that would later blossom into Maddin’s mature style.
Maddin has described digital effects as “grotesque artifacts of the present” and his predominantly black-and-white films operate on one level as an homage to the silent cinema of the ‘20s. Artificially aged through the incorporation of jarring edits that suggest old, broken reels of film clumsily spliced back together, soundtracks riddled with cracks and pops, and the mannered, melodramatic performing style he coaxes from his actors, Maddin’s films seem to call out from a remote, murky past. At the same time, however, they’re clearly the work of a late-20th century man well acquainted with the astonishing trauma of that bedeviled century. Fraught with anxiety and dread that often erupts into black humor, his films invariably circle back to a thematic point you’ll never find in an old silent film: the inevitable loss of that which we hold most dear.
In 1988 Maddin teamed up with his longtime collaborator George Toles on the brilliant Tales From the Gimli Hospital, a wickedly funny study of male rivalry and romantic longing. Two years later he completed his second film, Archangel, after which he contracted an incurable neurological condition called myoclonus which causes him to feel as if he’s constantly being touched. He soldiered on, nonetheless, and in 1992 he completed Careful, the story of an alpine village whose residents must forever speak in hushed tones, lest they trigger an avalanche. Twilight of the Ice Nymphs was released in 1997, and four years later he directed the filmed ballet, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, which will be released on DVD in May by Zeitgeist Video.
Maddin’s sixth film, The Saddest Music in the World, is currently in theaters. Based on an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, it’s a Depression era melodrama set in Winnipeg, where a beer baroness (played by Isabella Rossellini) hosts a competition to determine which ethnicity produces the saddest music. Out this August will be Cowards Bend the Knee, a film installation Maddin premiered last year in Rotterdam that will be released as a single panel projection. Maddin has also completed 18 short films; they’re difficult to find and they’re all fantastic, so don’t miss them if they come to your town. I had the privilege of speaking to Maddin last month, and these are some of the things he said.
Arthur: What’s your earliest memory?
Guy Maddin: My mother showing me her naked breast and telling me that’s where milk came from. My mother is no naturist, so that’s a strong memory. I also remember being stuck to the floor of the beauty salon where I grew up because everything there was coated in layer upon layer of ancient hairspray. I’d play on the floor and crawl around the nyloned ankles of all the women sitting in a row under the hairdryers, and whenever someone spilled a tray of curlers I’d gather them up and build little castles out of them. I was pretty young to be glued to a beauty salon floor.
Do memories enhance or impede our ability to enjoy the present?
You couldn’t make anything of the present without memories, so they make our enjoyment of the present possible. We’re constantly building up our library of memories, but we’re constantly losing memories, too, because we haven’t revisited them enough and finally they fade away. It’s as if you’re building on a beach that’s constantly eroding, so memories don’t really provide much of a foundation.
To what degree do we unknowingly fictionalize our own past?
Most people have a small set of stories they tell repeatedly that take on the quality of tales told around a campfire by cavemen. Those stories do become more like cave paintings than an accurate recounting of something that happened, and they become more beautiful and useful as a result. I willfully fictionalize my own past as much as possible, but strangely enough, I find the more I attempt to mythologize my own past, the more raw and cathartically confessional I become. In Cowards Bend the Knee, the protagonist is a man named Guy Maddin who’s a triple-murderer, hairdressing, hockey player–none of which I’ve ever been. But in the way that fairy tales can be incredibly true, despite the fact that they involve talking wolves, the character feels like an authentic version of me.
Is it true that in directing The Saddest Music in the World you copied various descriptions of depression and synonyms for sadness onto index cards to create a deck of 52 cards, then had each actor draw a hand of cards every day and use the suggestions on them to shape their performance that day?
Yes. I’m willing to try anything because I’d be revealed as complete impostor if I tried directing my actors conventionally. So I had these beautiful little sentences from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and synonyms from Roget’s Thesaurus, and it was just a way of forcing the actors to channel their lines of dialogue and their gestures through the suggestions on the cards. It worked, too–I think it refreshed their approach every day.
What elements of Ishiguro’s original script remain in your adaptation?
I had a real free hand in adapting his screenplay. In his version there was a contest, as there is in mine, but his took place in London on the eve of Perestroika. I switched the place and time to Winnipeg on the eve of the dissolution of Prohibition. Ishiguro’s main concern, which he made sure I included in every draft of the script, was the heartbreaking irony of Third World countries who are already suffering under immense privation, but are still compelled to exaggerate their privations because the competition for world charity is so stiff. So you get this grotesque sight of a starving populace pretending to be even hungrier than they are so they can be the sexiest charity of the season. Ishiguro wrote his script in the early ‘80s when the Ethiopian drought sparked several all-star pop fundraisers, so his concerns were essentially political. I’ve never been a political filmmaker, though, and I wasn’t interested in making a political satire.
Is it possible to make a film free of politics?
If you succeed in being honest about your characters a political reading will always be possible, but I think you can have a story that’s more timelessly political and explores the way hegemonics invariably work out. Some countries have more power than others and it forces them into inevitable roles. That’s apparent in everything from Euripides to Archie Comics.
Archangel includes a scene where a shower of bunnies rains down on a group of people huddled in a barn. You’ve described the scene as being so delightful that it’s a portent of something bad, which suggests you feel that any high point of joy must inevitably be followed by a fall. Do you think that’s true?
Yeah, I guess it’s that feeling you get right after the first time you masturbate—everything is cute until you’re on the far side of the parabola. Those white, fluffy bunnies seemed to fit so niftily into a phrase like ‘the white fluffiness of forgetfulness.’ I wanted everything to look cozy because forgetfulness can be as comfy as getting tucked in beneath a giant, goose-down duvet. In Henry Green’s novel, Back, there’s a man who loses a leg after being shot by a sniper hiding in a rose bush. There’s not just a thorn in the rosebush, there’s a bullet too—it’s fun to combine things like that.
What’s the difference between nostalgia, melancholy and grief?
Nostalgia and melancholy are relatively benign, but grief is something I’m terrified of. There’ve been times in my life when grief was called for and I just didn’t have it—when my father, my brother, and my Aunt Lil died, for instance. Instead of grieving in one big payment, I think I grieve on the installment plan in my films and in my dreams, where I encounter all sorts of unfinished business. The bill collectors come around almost every night, and I engage in uninhibited grieving in my dreams, then I wake up refreshed.
What do you think happens after death?
I’m afraid it’s nothing. It’s funny, if you believed it was nothing it shouldn’t be frightening at all. But then, no one understands what “nothing” really is.
You’ve said, “I don’t need anything to happen to me anymore. I have plenty of sadness in reserve. I can lie down with a fine, vintage memory and sip it all night long.” This suggests that sadness is a source of comfort for you. Most people go to great lengths to avoid feeling sadness; how do you explain your ability to embrace it?
I avoid pain like a normal person, but I digest sad memories the way other people listen to CDs or watch movies. I don’t do it so much anymore, though, because I’m such a busy adult with this movie-making, and melancholy takes time. You need big, white expanses in your daybook to enjoy it properly, and I’ve been a bit too busy. My girlfriend, who I’ve been with for four years, has sort of trained me not to talk about it so much, too, but it’s always been a major pastime for George Toles and I. Don’t get me wrong—we’re not just sitting around reminiscing about funerals—but when we’re screenwriting we’re openly fabricating our past and transforming it into an exotic blend of melancholy and joy, much in the way people blend whiskey or tobacco. When a sad song strikes someone at a point of the compass that’s so completely personal and unique that they can’t even explain why it’s so deliciously sad, that song has been transformed into a fantastic commodity.
Name a song that always makes you cry.
This is really sick, but some songs actually make me cry tears of pride. It has to be a song that’s not too good, because a really good song is beyond envy. But if it seems so simple and clumsy that I almost could’ve done it myself, I find myself sliding into a temporary reverie that I was, in fact, the author of this work. That’s why I like basement bands, early rock, and any period of the Ramones. There are primitive films that affect me that way, too–Bunuel’s L’Age D’or, for instance, or Jean Vigo’s Zero For Conduct.’
What was the essence of Vigo’s genius?
Some people have taste and aspire to make things, but they don’t have the technical skill or the experience to do it, but Vigo’s voice coincided perfectly with his talent. He was a primitive and he knew exactly what to do with that primitivity. He was probably aware he only had enough command over his actors to get stylized, blocked out performances, but he knew how to use that style of performance. And he gave his gifted cameraman and editor the same careless, open, free-for-all he allowed his actors. Every aspect of his work is so consistently primitive and out of control that it takes on a quality of control. Jonathan Rosenbaum made the observation that when some lost scenes were restored to L’Atalante it didn’t make the movie any better or worse, and you do get the sense that you could remove or reorder the sequence of the scenes and it wouldn’t affect this great movie at all. I’m not great at talking things out with actors, so my approach has always been to use broad narrative strokes, then try to cover up with lots of baroque effects and film grain. So I’m always looking for people who work in analogous ways.
You once commented “sometimes it’s liberating to be self-destructive.” Could you elaborate?
I may’ve been referring to a foolish decision I made a few years ago to have my diaries [From the Atelier Tovar] published. I happened to have them with me on an occasion when I met a publisher, and it came up in conversation that I kept these diaries. He asked if I’d ever considered publishing them and I replied no, then he asked if he could take a look at them. I said “Sure, take them–you can publish them as far as I’m concerned.” I regretted that instantly because I knew as I handed them over that a lot of people would be mad at me—and they were. But it sort of cleared the air, and I found out who my friends were. I’m really not sure what’s in the diaries because I’ve actually never even read them. The sound of my own voice, even written on a page, bothers me, so I don’t like the sight of my own handwriting. I’m kind of phobic—I’m about two steps removed from late Howard Hughes right now.
You’ve also said “you do the darnest, broad stroke, crazy things when you’re in agony.” When was the last time you were in agony, and what crazy things did you do?
There’s nothing like mad love to force you into a surreal experience of your own life, and when I said that I was probably referring to the agony of unrequited love. The first time it happened to me I was about 20 and I didn’t know how to deal with it at all so I made a jackass of myself. One of my favorite scenes in L’ Age d’Or is when its star, Gaston Modot, responds to getting jilted. He wanders around in an apartment, he tears open a pair of pillows and puts a handful of feathers on a windowsill, he picks up a giant plow, then he throws a burning Christmas tree out the window. It’s pretty liberating being that irrational because you get to blast things to smithereens. The second time I got hit I was old enough to have some dignity, which I unfortunately didn’t have. I was once at a party where this girl I loved was ignoring me, so I responded by phoning up a taxi for each person at the party—and there were about 50 people at the party. I remember pointing at people and saying ‘this taxi is for you!’ I finally realized I was making a fool of myself and got into one of the taxis myself.
What’s the most destructive thing about romantic love?
There’s all sorts of damage done, but it doesn’t feel like damage at the time because it feels so good to surrender yourself to the other person. It feels like everything you’ve been waiting your whole life for, and you give up so much of yourself in those early days without any sort of negotiation. But you’ve actually just signed over huge parcels of land that you can never reclaim unless you want to start a war at a later date. And maybe it’s just an excuse to have a war, because they feel pretty good too. It’s no mystery why love can turn to hate because those two emotions are extremely close when the stakes are so high and two countries are sharing a border. I’m in love with romantic love, that’s for sure, but there’s always a price and you have to decide whether it’s worth it. I’ve considered the alternative, which is being without my girlfriend, and that’s not an idea I’m crazy about. It’s not that I’m afraid of being alone—I can be alone standing on my head for 14 years and I’ve done it in the past—but I’d miss her and always be thinking of her.
What’s your definition of a bad decision?
Something that looks ludicrously irrational from the outside. But the thing about wild gestures and ill-conceived battle plans that cause massive collateral damage is that when the smoke clears, the desired result is often still attained somehow. Maybe the desired result was all the collateral damage, or to make a huge, imperialistic claim for your romantic self. There are many lessons to be learned from nature, so we’re well advised to remember those marshland mating rituals, with giant animals making bizarre noises while opening themselves up to their natural enemy.
Jung says we’re all archetypes playing out ancient, eternal fables. Freud says we’re simply animals enslaved by biological drives. Which sounds more accurate to you?
I’ve never been a very good student of either of them, but I have groped out a murky, working theory for myself that embraces aspects of both those positions. I believe there are stories painted on the insides of our stony heads, there for reading and re-reading and palimpsesting ourselves. But I also can’t help but see us as selfish alimentary canals sort of bumping into one another.
How selfish? Are people incapable of truly putting the interests of someone else above our own?
Probably, but that’s too reductive. If you love other people and are even willing to sacrifice your life for them, yet that somehow satisfies some need in you, are you selfish? I suppose you could call that selfish, but you’d be doing a disservice to the extremely complicated and inscrutable transistor-sized wiring of what’s really going on in our heads. But human nature certainly feels selfish enough of the time without it having to be selfish 100% of the time.
Is evil contagious?
It can certainly spread like wildfire, and it probably has a very short incubation period. Unfortunately, its symptoms usually aren’t so apparent to the host organism, even when they’re fully infected.
Your collaborator George Toles has described the impulses that swim up from the unconscious as “deliciously unsavory, unsightly and extreme.” Is the unconscious basically a fetid swamp?
Yes. It’s a bog filled with sperm and eggshells and old teabags and discarded statuary. There are lyrical things down there too, and every now and then, through an act of will and imagination, you can make something beautiful from those raw materials. But mostly it’s a roiling, furious, unforgiving and stinking realm.
You’ve commented, “Most filmmakers don’t have the nerve to be really cruel to their characters, to give them what they deserve and what the audience secretly wants, even of they don’t know it.” Do people enjoy witnessing the suffering of others?
Yes. A lot of it is just glee that it’s not them, and a chance to vicariously wonder what it would be like if it was them. That’s why people slow down around car wrecks. When I was a teenager I had this Lord of the Flies fantasy and I used to wander around the beach naked throwing stones at birds. In time I developed a really strong throwing arm, and one day I actually hit a sea bird in the head. It was surrounded by its flock, and all these birds cried as this bird floated off. There was an off-shore breeze that day, and the birds cried for hours as this bird slowly floated away. I’ve never thrown a stone since.
You’ve said that when you saw Eraserhead you thought “Wow, this is my biography. How did someone read my mind and project it onto the screen?” What aspects of that film resonated with you?
The general state of delirium Henry Spencer films himself in. I’d been a father of an unplanned pregnancy—I assume David Lynch had as well—and I remember feeling plucked from a state of quasi-virginal youth and stuck into this domestic situation with me as the completely impotent paper mache patriarch of a family. The tenor of my life during that period coincided exactly with the tenor of Eraserhead, which evokes those middle-of-the-night trips to the washroom where you don’t quite have your balance and you’re staggering and you have to brace yourself against a wall and you’re scared you’re not even peeing into the toilet. Then all of a sudden one of life’s truths comes swinging out of the darkness at you and says, “You’re 20 and you’re married and you have a child and your father’s dead and you’ll never see him again.” During waking hours when the sun is high all sorts of misty veils pile up and envelop you in a sort of amnesia, and your troubles seem somehow abstract or fictionalized. But in the middle of the night there are moments when there’s an unavoidable, painful truth right at the center of everything, and that’s what Eraserhead felt like to me.
How did you go about surfacing from that very deep lake?
I wasn’t aware that I had to because I kind of embraced it in a way. Parenthood has tremendous rewards and I loved it, just as Henry does. Every now and then he gives a little admiring look down at the baby–although mostly, of course, he just stares into his radiator. When you have a child you love that child more than anything you will ever love, and my daughter is a wonderful person. She’s a designer and someday I’d love for her to design a picture with me.
The actor Ross McMillan has said “In every scene George Toles writes there’s someone doing something to someone else.” How would you describe Toles’ sensibility, and what makes him an appropriate co-writer for you?
George is always doing something to someone else, and he’s never happier than when he’s manipulating a situation to create conflict. He treats every room like a stage in which a short scene must be played out, and he’s perfectly willing to fabricate misinformation or involve wives and lovers to get things going. George treats human beings like piñatas, and once you understand that about him it can be fun to be part of his ongoing theater improv involving real human stakes. I thought we would’ve broken up long ago, but we’ve only had one little bump in the road, and we both mourned each other’s absence so much that we decided to repress what we found annoying in each other. It hurt too much to be alienated from each other
Toles has described your third film, Careful, as “a pro-incest movie” ; do you see it that way?
I don’t think it converted many people to incest, but we did try to work under the banner of making a pro-incest movie. It’s hard to control an ideology, even if you’re a skilled propagandist, which I am not, and I think it ended up being a pro-repression movie that offers a patent lesson in what awaits you if you let yourself slip and do what you want to do. Everyone in the film ends up getting punished for letting slip.
A central theme in your films is male rivalry which you describe as a situation that’s homosexual without the sexuality; what sort of territory does this theme open up for you?
I’m just trying to make sense of male rivalry. I know that when I’ve been intensely competitive with someone they become a point of principle for me, and I actually come to my rival’s defense if someone else attacks them. There’s a certain jailhouse logic operating there, and it’s not much of a stretch to find some kind of sexual analog in it.
You’ve described yourself as highly resentful and competitive; who are you competing with now?
Right now I’m competing against the clock. I had a very elderly uncle, my Uncle Ron, who’s been in most of my movies, and he recently passed away at the age of 95. He tricked the system because everything went right for him—he lived a great life and died painlessly. But somehow, his death finally brought it home to me that you die. I can’t count on living to 95, so while I still have my health I’d like to make one masterpiece. That’s my dream.
What are the qualities a work must have in order to be a masterpiece?
It must have the quality of something that was always there, but was waiting to be expressed, and now it has finally been said. It carries an element of surprise with it because it’s obviously so right that it’s startling its gone unexpressed for so long. It doesn’t have to be big–in fact, my favorite writer, Bruno Schultz, is considered a minor writer because he didn’t leave a huge body of work. His complete body of work is, nonetheless, a masterpiece.
Which of your films is most fully realized in your opinion?
With Archangel I thought I was on my way to saying everything there was to say about how we love, but I was kidding myself and I confused myself and my viewers a lot in its execution. I was pretty happy with [2000 short] The Heart of the World, but it’s not trying to do as much as some of my longer films. I’m really proud of The Saddest Music in the World because there are moments in the montage sequences where the music works the way music is supposed to–as a mnemonic device that drags up all sorts of cargo. And there are things I really like about my hugely autobiographical film, Cowards Bend the Knee, which is a very primitive, low-budget movie.
What historical period is most compelling to you?
Although it’s true that all my films seem to exist in the past, I’ve never been much of a historian because I hate doing research. Every once in a while some historical episode does engage me, though, and at the moment I’m trying to learn everything there is to know about the Borgias. I’m drawn to them because they were bad and charismatic, they had cool, sexy names, and there were no small gestures in that family. There was fratricide and incest and it was all true–not that that should matter at all, because nothing’s really true anyway. I’m always amazed when a film boasts “based on a true story!” Who cares? Whether it happened or not, it’s how a story is told that’s important.
You lost many of your ancestors to an 1876 Pox epidemic in a Canadian town called Gimli, and you now maintain a Winnipeg scrapbook of newspaper clippings that include stories of mad dogs dragging off children, hockey stick bludgeonings, and a father shooting his children during a fight over a snowmobile. This brings to mind Michael Lesy’s book, Wisconsin Death Trip, which in turn is evocative of the Bunuel film, Land Without Bread, the Brecht/Weill opera, ‘Mahagonney,’ and your second film, Archangel, which is set in a region of Russia that experienced a collective amnesia following World War I. All these works deal with places that seem to have fallen under a sort of dreadful bewitching; do you think there are places that are cursed?
Yes, and they’re there for anyone who chooses to see them. There are invisible cities piled up all over the place, and if you occupy those spaces with just the right focal length on your spectacles you’ll see the skyline in all its, horrific, lugubrious, glowering splendor. And all it takes is a population of humans to create one of these places. Artists have been trying to pinpoint our humanness for a long time, and we seem to be inexhaustibly cruel and compassionate by turns, but nobody’s ever figured out why.