Guy Maddin talks My Winnipeg, self-mythologizing, psychological honesty, and even The Host.
During the first few days of the Toronto International Film Festival I managed to sit down with Canadian auteur Guy Maddin for a relatively loose and informal chat. After a long couple days of interviews (and the stress of narrating his new movie live), there was no damper on his enthusiasm to talk about his last three feature films, influences and whatever rhythms or direction the conversation took. As abstract and often surreal as his films typically are, Maddin is an articulate speaker that conveys his opinions and thoughts clearly with a generous dash of self-deprecating wit. This is certainly on display in his latest film, My Winnipeg, which premiered at TIFF with the man himself performing a feature length live narration to accompany the projection. Taken with Maddin's previous two features (Cowards Bend the Knee, Brand Upon the Brain!) there is sort of a loose trilogy of wholly unconventional autobiographies. Talking film in general, he goes a little deeper into what makes a good one resonate and how personal a filmmaker can (or should!) get with their audience. He talks about David Lynch, Luis Buñuel and Bong Joon-Ho and elaborates on some future projects in the works. Read On!
KH: Were you happy with how the live screening [of My Winnipeg, at the Wintergarden Theatre] went?
GM: I was terrified, I’m not a performer and I thought the movie stood a better change of going over if had a live element, you get much more audience empathy and audience involvement if there is a fear (or a hope) that the narrator will screw up. And you can sort of adjust your performance a little bit according to the energy in the room. It went OK, I was really nervous and the nerves didn’t clear up after two minutes like they do for actors, you know, experienced Broadway performers. They just kept my knees knocking all the way through. It felt really good when it was over and the first beer afterwards tasted incredible.
KH: There has been a large oratory component in your last two films…
GM: That’s right Brand upon the Brain! had all these live elements. Every sound heard was generated at the screening.
KH: You had a bunch of guest performers as it toured around. You never did it yourself though?
GM: No but I am in about two weeks. I’m going to Seattle, where the film was shot and it is going to be narrated there. There will still be some performances here and there, Sao Paulo and Australia coming up and stuff, the whole thing. It got to the point where I couldn’t travel with it anymore, it was just using up too much of my life and I missed some narrators that I really wanted to see. I really wanted to see Udo Kier. I heard from friends in L.A. (where he narrated it) that it was just amazing. Scream queen Barbara Steele did it and she just has an amazing voice as well. I accompanied the picture down to New York where there was 15 different narrators over 7 days; a real mixed bag of personal heroes. That was great, so I thought, well, maybe just one more time bring the live element in. It probably made the difference between the movie [My Winnipeg] playing just a regular theatre and the movie playing at the Wintergarden. The live element made it more of an event. People are in such a good mood just sitting in that Wintergarden theatre it’s so gorgeous. And so strange too: A movie palace with a balcony above another movie palace with a balcony – who’d a thought. I think it is the only one like it in North America. I thought it was a myth until I went up there on my own two feet and there it is. Incredible.
KH: Like your 'rivers under the rivers' in Winnipeg
GM: Yea, it is. I felt like telling Torontonians they should restore the ‘men only’ theatre they have in the basement – the movie palace beneath the Elgin or something like that. They should have a theatre beneath the theatre, beneath the theatre!
KH: So doing all the oratory in Brand, did that play a factor in the intense amount of narrative in My Winnipeg?
GM: Yea. This is wall-to-wall narration. There is only a couple of little breaks in it. It did. I knew that it created a level of excitement. And you are just less likely to walk out if – you are less likely to even want to walk out – if you feel the narrator is watching you from up there while you are going [laughs]. In the last couple pictures I just felt more like a showman as well as a filmmaker. There is something about the word “filmmaker” that suggest a kind of hubristic disregard for regular film viewers. But I’ve always wanted my movies to entertain and also just wanted them to be entertaining on my own terms. Those are pretty hard terms to meet –even halfway- apparently, but by adding these live elements it seems to have bridged the gap.
KH: This film, I think, is the most overtly funny, overtly entertaining.
GM: That feels good, because I actually mean everything that I say in the movie and the movie is very emotional for me. For it to be both soul-searchingly honest and a bit disturbing for me, I’m very pleased that it can also be funny. I’m really getting to keep my cake and eat it too.
KH: Brand upon the Brain! Cowards Bend the Knee and My Winnipeg are sort of a trilogy…
GM: A “me” trilogy
KH: Guy Maddin exposes himself to the world. Have you ‘exposed’ yourself --overtly-- as far as you are going to go?
GM: I’ve always used myself as a piece of litmus paper to dip into the scripts I’ve written to see if they seem psychologically honest. As bizarre as the movies sometimes are I always want them to be grounded in plausible psychology – if that makes any sense at all. I’ve used as a precedent, probably not surprisingly Luis Buñuel, L'Âge d'or and Un Chien Andalou, his collaborations with Salvador Dali, they certainly are bizarre and wonky and surreal and all that, but there is also a lot of psychological honesty in them. And they are universal and timeless and they will last as long as film does.
KH: A lot of nervous tension in them…
GM: Yea, there is a lot of different feelings go there and to me a really movie has got to pull off a situation where the viewers are not quite sure how to feel because that is what really life throws at you all the time. You have these moments of guilt and anxiety and you can’t quite put your finger on it. When you see, for instance right now my daughter is pregnant and expecting in a couple weeks and when I look at her I’m so full of love, and worry and fear and guilt and a whole bunch of different things whereas in a bad movie everything is just one thing. You just see, oh isn’t it beautiful. There is a beautiful pregnant woman and it is just that simple. No. It is more like Eraserhead, you are full of fear and love and tenderness and nightmares. As strange as Eraserhead is, it is a very honest portrait of personal...[pauses] When I saw that movie I didn’t need to know that David Lynch had been through an unplanned pregnancy and that he had stuck around long enough to see the baby through its infancy and … it was pretty exciting to me to see someone pull off a real tug-of-war but not just a two way tug-of-war, but one in so many different directions you couldn’t even count them. And that to me is pretty inspiring. So, I’ve always used Eraserhead and the Buñuel movies not as atmospheric role-models, I like the atmospheres in them, but I just like what they pull off psychologically with what is really broad strokes and really big gestures. It gets really baroque, gross at times, but still achieves moods and flavours of moods in your soul – unease, pleasure, excitement – that seems to be running very quickly through the inventory of all the things you feel in the course of a year, but you can get them in one 90 minute experience. That is really exciting to me, that art can do that. Lynch has fine tuned it over the years so that things are more sophisticated so that now you are really wondering where these feelings are coming from and stuff like that. The strokes aren’t as broad, but the… I don’t know why I keep talking about Lynch, but he is kind of doing what painting has been doing for years, and I’m not saying that his images are painterly, but that he is doing with narrative what painting does.
KH: Have you seen Peter Watkins “Edvard Munch”? It’s a personal documentary that tries to capture in both a narrative and a documentary what painting is trying to do…Blowing the documentary open to new forms, non standard forms…kinda like when I’ve read you mention the term docu-fantasia.
GM: That was a term we’ve applied because we thought some people would balk with us telling them that it was a documentary, but I think I’m backing off of that term. I think it is just a documentary. Documentary has elastic enough borders, especially now, everyone understands that there is no such thing as a completely honest documentary. Everything has a point of view. So, it is just another point of view. I guess it was my daughter that said, “Of course it is a documentary, it is a documentary about you.” I guess a lot of people have been very adversarial saying “What is true? What isn’t true?” Just going through a check-list of what is fact in the movie and what isn’t. And things like “Why are you doing Winnipeg” and things like that. And, I was assigned by the documentary channel. Michael Burns there said, “Show me Winnipeg – that is your assignment – and make it ‘Your Winnipeg.’ ” And so I quickly realized that I couldn’t separate my home, my family, my hometown; they are inextricably tangled up. To show my Winnipeg, I had to show myself and so this thing kind of evolved to whatever it is. It is a real kind of hybrid of things.
KH: Back in the late seventies, early eighties I think it was the CBC actually, had a series of documentaries called “Cities.” And a number of people showed a city their way. Glenn Gould did Toronto, Anthony Burgess did Rome, I think there was a bunch of them. What sort of research did you do before starting out with this film.
GM: I haven’t seen those…Did Glenn Gould do it the year he died, didn’t he die in 1982?
KH: Apparently, there are several scenes of him driving around in the middle of the night in Toronto, similar to how you show the back-alleyways of Winnipeg…
GM: Wearing his gloves…[laughs]. I tried not to do any research. I watched a couple of city documentaries. There is one called “London” that was made about 15 years ago that is pretty cool. Very unconventional. I can’t even remember the filmmaker -- I feel bad. I decided to use that one as kind of a template, but I’m not very good at following templates so it ended up being something else altogether. That is often how I make movies. I set out to copy something, then forget what it was I was supposed to copy and then when I remember later there is just no resemblance between the two. But it is a nice way to start out anyway, it gives you the courage to make the first few steps. [pauses] I just always thought that Canadians were lousy self-mythologizers. And by myth, I don’t mean things that are untrue, like Paul Bunyan or things like that, but things that can be untrue, but can also be literally true, point by point, but whatever it is the repetition of these stories serves to help people define themselves even if they are spending all their time refuting the stories. You know, George Washington cutting down a cherry tree. Probably even though no one believes it really happened, it probably is at the very core of how Americans feel about themselves: More honest than anyone else. Than any other country and that the man who was the first president overseeing this wonderful constitution, this sacred constitution, was such and such a man and that Abraham Lincoln was the abolitionist and he is basically a fiction as well by the time you know, well, but these things are important, so why go through a checklist of what really happened and what didn’t happen; because they are more important as stories. The civil war – really happened [laughs] – but it too is an important part of the mythology that helps Americans make sense of what they are and so I’ve always felt that Canadians, for the usual obvious reasons – being in the shadow of the greatest self-mythologizers in world history, maybe, are a bit shy about mythologizing themselves and they feel the need to make their historical figures and historical events smaller than life rather than bigger than life. So I just thought, every other culture in the world, including the Inuit in Canada, are great at mythologizing, so lets just give Winnipeg its fair shake. There is tremendous stuff in there that I discovered that Winnipeggers had willfully forgotten and it was just a matter of once a number of my friends and acquaintances had discovered I was doing this film they came forth with an outpouring… At one point I had a book on Winnipeg history which I thought I had read as an 18 year old or something like that, but I sent it to my animator so that he would get a sense of Winnipeg because he lived out of town. And he was discovering things in it that he was telling to me (and he lived in Montana). He was telling me things about Winnipeg history that I didn’t know about and so I was rapidly changing my shooting list and putting things in the movie an so… I’m even a lousy Winnipegger at self mythologizing. But I tried to. There is just this collective amnesia that Winnipeggers are so ashamed of turning things into what any other culture would turn them into – these kind of totems.
KH: One of the images, the horses frozen in the river. That is a pretty intense image, yet is played quite humourously.
GM: Yea, it is kind of sad and you know, well…very sad. [laughs]
KH: In a number of your movies there are baroque or horrific images. At one point I had heard you were more interested in making a more genre type of movie. A horror picture?
GM: Yea, I was toying with the idea, but got sort of derailed. I’d still like to make one, I’m just not sure and I haven’t got a subject yet that resonates for me. I guess also horror has evolved into something else since the Universal Studios days of Dracula and Frankenstein and things like that. It is mostly just co-eds getting surprised and slashed and things. I really enjoyed The Host, that Korean monster film. That was really funny and wonderful and inventive but that is a big-budget digital action film more than a horror film.
KH: But it had lots of personal elements as well, the family element in that film and…
GM: And it too pulled you in many different directions
KH: Tonal changes…
GM: That scene when the girl goes missing and is presumed dead and people are grieving and the family members are grieving so much that they are just kicking and screaming on the floor until the point where the audience is laughing. To me you know that is one of those great tuning fork moments where I just understand this film here and it was so good, I was beyond envying, I really loved that!
KH: Can you talk technology in your movies. You mentioned changing your shooting list on the fly as the story evolves, but you also use an array of older cameras and such.
GM: I’m kind of a really odd mixture of digital state-of-the-art editing and low tech cameras. I like using Super-8 which you can’t easily find anymore and the film stock isn’t going to be available forever… [pauses]
KH: Does the technology itself ever play a role in driving the story?
GM: Especially in editing. My collaborator, John Gurdebeke and I have developed this editing style which requires digital editing and also step printing and we are at the mercy of exactly what all other modern filmmakers are at, but especially because of the editing we need … and I’m still a techophobe so I can’t even really describe what I mean [laughs]. I know I present problems for the labs and postproduction all the time because I’ve shot in so many different formats. It is sort of like grafting a monkey arm onto a human. There are all sorts of rejections going on in post where the frames per second are all jumbled up and then when you go to convert to a film, a 35mm film at 24fps, all of a sudden there is all sorts of nightmarish adjustments that have to be made. I shot My Winnipeg on mini-DV, HD, Video, Super-8, 16, then there is stock footage, animation shot on video, animation shot on Super-8 and then there is rear-screen stuff which was video reshot on film and so you get really weird digital artifacts and weird bars and flickers and sometimes I like and sometimes I love and sometimes I don’t. I’ve just learned not to care and if they can’t fix it, I go, Great! [laughs] Please, I beg you don’t fix it!
KH: And you’ve been pretty prolific the past three years, two features and one short film…
GM: Yea, I don’t know if I’ll be at the Toronto Film Festival next year, since I haven’t got something in the can right now…I already had My Winnipeg in the can at this time last year, I just had to finish editing it. My next project, I’m going to shoot it in January, will be an internet interactive movie labyrinth. A choose your own adventure. A big honeycomb of different directions that you can head off into as a viewer: a series of short films that interconnect and make a big sprawling network of narrative possibilities. You can kind of have some fun navigating your own way through it. And someone else chooses to enter into this honeycomb they will end up with a complete different narrative. It will be online only. That is going to be in collaboration with the Poet John Ashbery. I’m going to go down to New York in January and shoot some stuff and then just keep adding to it over the next year or so. How big it will be I’m not to sure. To even make a 15 minute narrative you will probably have to have at least 5 or 6 hours of movie, so I’m basically going to make a Super-8 Berlin Alexanderplatz [laughs] so that people can choose their own 11 minute adventure. Foolish? Maybe, but I’m going to do it. So there. The hard work won’t be shooting it, it will be editing it. I think it will just be a little YouTube sized screen (maybe full sized or maybe not) but possibly I could string together my choices and project that at some point.
KH: The self proclaimed technophobe goes hi-tech?
GM: I just want to try it. I have no illusions about it being a big internet phenomenon or anything, but I think that even one that is greeted with relative indifference will still reach more people than Canadian films usually do.
KH: A way to throw your stone into the viral-video pond?
GM: I’m giving my virus to the world. My little virus.
My Winnipeg won the Best Canadian Feature by popular vote during the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, and was subsequently picked up by IFC for US distribution. In Canada and Britain My Winnipeg has distribution with Maximum Films and Soda Pictures respectively and it will presumably air on The Documentary Channel (who produced the film) in Canada at one point or another.