In a career stretching some thirty years, Guy Maddin has become one of Canada's most respected filmmakers and visual artists. His latest feature project, The Forbidden Room, certainly suggests he shows no sign of slowing down either, and the final months of 2015 even finds him on the cusp of releasing an exciting new companion project online titled "Séances."
Both of these projects are exciting vehicles for the director to explore how fragments of fiction can interact with each other, and they demonstrate clearly how the director continues to be someone who is capable of renovating or reincorporating past cinematic traditions into our lives in a way that can be both compelling and perplexing in almost equal measure.
In person, he remains one of the most entertaining, self-deprecating filmmakers you could meet too. But beneath his diffident self-mockery also lies an interesting and thought-provoking voice that seems to have found renewed urgency through a recent collaboration with ex-understudy Evan Johnson. Between them they have created a divisive voyage in The Forbidden Room which will challenge some and fulfil others.
Do you think you could describe The Forbidden Room to people who haven't seen it by comparing it to a particular narcotic experience?
Well, I don't do a lot drugs anymore, and I kind of stopped before all the new designer chemicals came out. So really I think I'd have to describe the experience more as a quilt of dreams at most. I liked my drugs, but nothing ever really topped the wonder of my dreams.
Dreams are where the repressed worries of my day always seemed to unrepress themselves; and the stuff that happens in them, no matter how odd or implausible, always struck me as expressions of the truth. They would be expressions of things about myself. So I've always felt as a filmmaker that if I just put uninhibited versions of myself into my works then that would seem simultaneously dream-like and true.
Why do you think being uninhibited and open has been so important to you as a director?
I think I have always thought that doing that would maybe make my films seem a little less "wanky," because that is something I have been accused of. I always knew that I would be too. Before I even shot a single frame of film in my sordid career, I knew that I'd be accused of being a wanker, you know? So I thought at least I'd know I wasn't being one if the undergirding of my enterprises was always honest, or rather if it always represented some kind of emotional honesty.
Is that quite exposing to you as a person? Does it make you quite nervous?
Yeah, it does. Except I guess I'm kind of desperate to expose myself. Or something like that, anyway. And I'm not talking pulling my pants down, it's more like I'm vivisecting myself and showing you the anatomy of this person. I mean, I know I'm not a role-model, that I'm not the kind of man anyone would want their son to be, but I do think my public vivisections can be sort of, erm... educational?
The end results are always precautionary. They're almost fable-like in a sort of Aesop way [chuckles.] I don't know, they're sort of warnings. I do just really think they're honest too. If people can just settle into the idea that the films in The Forbidden Room are bedtime stories, or fables, or lesser versions of Hans Christian Andersen or brothers Grimm style stories, then I think they could find expressions of themselves in there.
It's that moment of identification that counts. That's what I get when I'm watching a great filmmaker like, let's say, Buñuel with his film El. When I watching that film, there really is a spark which leaps from myself to the screen, and that's so exciting! I guess he's always been the most important god for me. So I guess even if I'm just putting types of myself out there in my movies, I still want people to recognise themselves more than I want them to see me.
At some level, do you therefore want films like The Forbidden Room to have an educative and unifying effect?
[Smiles.] I want to teach people that kind of masochistic erm... humiliation. The very same that I've been sucking the flavour out of for almost six wonderful decades now. There's plenty of nutrition and great taste in there.
What about this idea of the bedtime story, is this a concept that really appeals to you in films?
Definitely. I guess I've always liked films that draw attention to their own origin, or rather to their existence as something created by people. Like when you know a story is fake because your grandmother's sat of the bottom of the bed reading it to you. But you can still really be taken in by the story, even while you're keeping one eye on your grandmother.
You can even be comparing how well your grandmother is telling the story to how well she told it a few nights before. So you can still be listening with a critical ear, but still get sucked in. That's probably what I was trying to achieve.
And was there a sort of inspiring, seminal first film that gave you this feeling?
Yes, I think it was the Maria Montez film, Arabian Nights. That was pretty full of wonders, and it had all the qualities that a bedtime story should have. I knew it was fake, even though I was four, but it was still full of all that grandmother's bedtime story magic. It even inspired Jack Smith to launch an entire career dedicated to Maria Montez.
I really loved that film. It was both scary and exhilarating, because I knew I was scared but safe at the same time.
Were you trying to lull and scare your audiences in The Forbidden Room? Or given that it's such an intense experience, were you even trying to provoke a reaction out of them?
I don't know. I'd say I want to be liked. So if you say that I want to "provoke" people, it would sound like I'm trying to irritate them or something like that. I know I do irritate people, but I'd rather not. I do, though, and that's just the way it goes... Some people aren't so nice about it either, so I don't mind having irritated those people in retrospect so much.
However, I would much rather that I just please my audience somehow. And so far the movie is getting positive reviews, so I'm glad. I mean for some people it's not for them, but others have felt good about it.
Do you think there has been something in particular about the film that has been appealing to the latter group?
I can't really speak for others. But I've always wondered how many films you could put within other films before you just broke people's brains. So the real pleasure in this movie, for me, is what happens when you pull out from that.
What I like with this movie is that when you go into a flashback or towards the centre of a concentricity of stories, it becomes very pleasurable to pull back out from them. For me, it's really exquisite to remember on the way out where you were. In fact, to me the most pleasurable pull out is when, after fifty minutes, you return to a guy listening to some snow or something like that.
So as pleasurable as it is penetrating to the core of these concentricities, the real pleasure for me lies in pulling out.
And would you find watching films which lack The Forbidden Room's experimental intensity and complexity much less pleasurable these days?
No, no. My favourite movie this century is still Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which I might add, I watched with an empty seat beside me, and I filled it shortly after the film started with Luis Buñuel, and Buñuel and I just watched it together and, man, we loved it.
What do you think still draws you to films like Ghost Protocol, then? Popcorn? Soda? Friday nights and the excitement?
I think it's just the sort of horniness hanging in the air, you know? That gooey Twizzler smell, mixed in with testosterone and oestrogen and golden topping - that smell is reason alone for me to make movies. There should just be a spray, they should just can that smell. It saddens me when festivals don't even allow concessions stands for some reason. They could at least pump that sort of sticky teenage underwear smell into the theatre somehow. Then I'd watch anything.
Would you say Evan Johnson, your co-director on this film, also shares your taste in films and ambient smells?
We're very different actually. Our tastes don't overlap, or rather they overlap just enough for us to be able to get on. And whenever we do have differences, we just hammer them out, and we don't take it personally.
I think that's just such a healthy thing, and it feels great. It's something I've been looking for, for decades now. It's exciting.
How did you both meet?
Well, when he was twenty he was my film student, just in some film classes at home. But then he graduated to picking up my dry cleaning or assembling my barbeque (which I hate doing). Then before long, I found myself hiring him as a research assistant on my "Séances" project. And it was increasingly clear that he was coming up with these ever greater creative ideas, like the fact that the programme should both find and lose films. I really love that idea.
So I elevated him to co-director, otherwise I realised I would have ended up working for him before long.
It sounds like the "Séances" project you both worked on played a very important part in the creation of The Forbidden Room, could you tell us more about that?
Yeah, a few years ago I think I just decided that I wanted to make something for the internet, and I'd had this mania for lost films. It seemed that every time I looked up my favourite directors there would be these lost films. And I had a lot of short film projects at the time, sort of keeping my body and soul intact, so whenever I got a commission I just stole the plot for some lost film and made that.
It occurred to me then that I'd actually like to make lots of these, hundreds even, and then put them online as fragments. So that's what I'm actually doing now, and "Séances" and will be up and running in the early months of 2016 hopefully. The idea is that fragments of lost films will begin conversing with each other, rather like spirits at a séance. They'll hopefully collide in non-sequitur, almost endless permutations.
But yeah, loss became a massive issue for discussion for us. There are so many things that are lost, and there's so many ways things can be lost or can be considered lost. So loss became a really big subject for us.
Ultimately we hoped to shape the project or its theme around maybe the Native American genocide too, because that kind of loss is something that really means a lot to us Canadians. It wasn't anything that was ever going to be overtly spelled out, though.
That's fascinating, how will this work? How will you orchestrate the films?
Well, each film will be given a title which will be randomly generated by a computer. So I think the first title our programme spat out was "Wise Trumpets of the Milky Moonlight." I certainly liked that title. But then the programme lost "Wise Trumpets of the Milky Moonlight," because that's what it does. It's designed to produce films out of lost materials and then lose them again. That's something I'm really excited about it.
Funding the project was really hard, though. A lot of Canadian state funding projects are really keen to fund new media projects, but they just don't have the kind of money available for those types of projects as they do for feature films. So we decided to do a companion piece - besides I looked at how long it would take to do this project, and I realised that it would be years before I could have another feature film project, so we made The Forbidden Room as a companion piece.
It sounds like it's been a really big commitment over many years.
Yeah, and the first version we proposed had even more titles. That would have taken way too many years and decades of our lives. But the more lost films we made, the more I found I wanted to go on and on, making more and more. It was getting so life-consumingly out of hand that eventually I decided I just had to call it quits.
That did leave me with some regrets, though. There are some lost movies I really wanted to make. One of them I feel I really need to mention now, because it's becoming apparent that I'll never get a chance to make it. It was a 1974 American exploitation film called "Never the Twain" by a director named Brad Grinter.
All that survives of it is a poster, and it's got a drawing of Mark Twain on it and the cut line says, "the story of a man possessed by the spirit of Mark Twain visiting the 1974 Miss World nude world pageant" [Pauses mirthfully.] We did script this actually, because I mashed it up with a lost Euripides play called Hypsipyle, which contains a bunch of women that have just had it with men, and they decide to just start slaughtering men.
I then also talked to Michael Snow, the great Canadian experimental filmmaker, who had just created this camera that shoots in every possible direction for his masterpiece La Région central; and twenty minutes of that film is lost too. So it occurred to me that I would love to borrow his camera to shoot "Never the Twain" meets Hypsipyle. We were going to shoot that in public, with women slaughtering men everywhere whilst we probably shoot in another direction. Actually, the more I talk about it, the more I realise that it still has to be done - and as soon as possible.