I was down at the London Film Festival last year and had the great fortune to talk to Guy Maddin about his latest opus The Forbidden Room. I also got to see it on BFI Southbank iMax which was a headache inducing affair but in a good way.
Ian Schultz: Obviously, you’ve shot on digital and film. I’m curious, what did you shoot on with this one?
Guy Maddin: Digital. It’s mostly the Blackmagic [camera]—I don’t know how technicalyou want me to get… It started with really crummy sensors. And I myself am a crummy sensor of things, I need glasses and they’re always getting lost, and I have to pull my own focus half the time. But I’ve just always believed in that kind of reckless commitment to making a film now, and so things end up being pretty primitive. I have ever been more aware of a soft, lightly blurry order than in the iMax theatre, where what normally is a few centimetres wide, a centimetre ribbon of fuzziness is more like a highway running up the screen that… Just, yeah, shot digitally, with a couple of pixels after.
Are you shooting more stuff on film soon?
I’m teaching this year at Harvard, and Philippe Grandrieux was there, and he said he’s shooting every day this year, so I have a big fridge full of Super-8 film and a Super-8 camera. So I’ll probably little sketches, short movie sketches edited in camera on film. But I think as far as feature-length work goes, I’ll be digital from now on.
From what I understand the film is a companion to an installation you’re doing. Can you tell us more about it?
Yeah, it’s a Web site called Séances. We shot tons more movies than appear, there’s only small fragments of 17 “lost movies” in The Forbidden Room, but there are hundreds of fine-cut hours ready to be loaded up of other lost movies that we shot in public. And we’ve edited many different versions of them, with different plots, different scores, different colour timing, and broken them up in small pieces. And the Web site, the wireframe of Séances will make sure that randomly combined non-sequiturs will collide and form original narratives. Some of them actually work, it’s just the way they were designed, and some of them combine in ways that are less satisfying. So you have that sort of slot machine syndrome where you don’t always win. But each one is given a randomly generated title, and then as soon as it’s watched it’s lost, and its combination, its similar combinations are destroyed forever.
So how did Sparks come aboard, because that was just a bizarre little bit of it?
I needed an original song, and I didn’t know that many musicians—not ones that I trusted. And Sparks seem unlikely because they’re so brightly produced, they’re self-produced, but I like they’re lyrics, and Ron Mael writes good lyrics so I just asked him if they’d give it a shot. And I thought whatever he wrote, I could re-record with a different musician. But finally, I just like the song and even though it doesn’t seem to belong in this universe I decided just to jam it in anyway.
No, it works.
I know them from a few years ago, we were both on a radio show together once and met and became friends. So, yeah it was juts a matter of asking them. I just jotted down a few points in an email, and a few hours later they, five hours later, delivered a song and I cut it in. Because it’s a pop song and the music on it seems more like a rock video, but that’s fine with me too.
What films old and new have you seen that you’ve liked?
I really like this Lupu Pick movie called Sylvester, I think it’s also known as NewYear’s Eve. It’s from the mid-20s, That’s an old one, it’s great. There’s a mid-range old one called Cuadecuc, Vampirefrom Pere Portobella. It’s a “making-of” documentary of Jess Franco’s Count Dracula. That one’s really strange and intoxicating and gorgeous. I would programme that in a carte blanche in a second—both those movies I would. I’m still vibrating from the latest Mission: Impossible movie. Although I would rank it the third best in the franchise, I still like Ghost Protocol the best.
I’ve still only seen M:I 3.
Oh yeah? It’s not bad.
It’s got moments that are quite funny.
I’d say it goes, 4, 3, 5…and then 1 and 2.
Have you seen High-Rise?
That’s here isn’t it—the Ballard…?
I need to see that. And tonight I’m going to watch Remainder, because I loved the book so much.
Cool. So a lot of your films aren’t available over here…
Hmm, we’ll have to do something about that.
That’s what I was going to ask—are you going to try to sort out some deal to get a boxset out or something?
Yeah, just upload them to Karagarga and people can download them [laughs]. I’d love to get a box set out. I’ll talk to Soda about it, they handle some of the pictures that I’ve made most recently.
I’ve always meant to get Brand upon the Brain! when the Criterion sale’s on, and it’salways out by the time I get there. There’s always at least five things I want, the Criterion Collection Closet is just the best thing ever…
Just so greedy!
Yep, it’s always, “bag, bag, bag.”
It just became a self-imperative verb for me after that—“bag”!
So obviously a lot of your films kind of have silent film tropes. What do you think of thenew resurgence in silent cinema?
I think there is—a lot more screens have been showing silent.
To me, I don’t know why it ever went away. I’m not always in the mood to watch a silent film, but it’s just, if you’re in the mood to open up and just watch something, there’s so many different variables at the disposal of the filmmaker. There’s part-talkies, silent, 3-D, whatever.
Yeah, I mean, Mad Max was basically a silent film, which is kind of what’s so amazing about it.
Yeah, that’s really one of its strengths, that it’s just pure visual screen time. That’s pleasing. It’s nice when not everything I told through the, every word is …In fact, it’s an experiment that failed, my last movie, Keyhole from 2011, is a failure,there’s too much talking in it. That was due to kind of a power struggle between me and my screenwriting partner, which I lost, and it saddens me. But I started that project determined to have that it would not originate from the word. So I threw a bunch of collage parties and I brought in a bunch of images from old books and some horror magazines, and I had some really talented artists. And I threw 10 different collage parties in three different countries and collected an amazing amount of collages that I used as the basis for writing a script and they were on-verbal. And actually did want words, I just wanted the provenance of the project to come from images and not words. But then the word just took over and erased all the images anyway, and the whole fucking experiment just fell the fuck apart, and fucking annoyed me. And I guess I’m still angry about it. I like visual storytelling, it’s pleasing. And I don’t mean silent movies, because I lovegreat dialogue—I mean, Sweet Smell of Success is one of my favourite movies, I love Shakespeare, but let’s face it—it’s really pleasing when Murnau gets that camera moving. And I don’t know , the best movies are a nice combination of the two.
Exactly. It’s a visual medium first and foremost. So, a lot of your films have a sort of fairy-tale quality. How much have fairy tales influenced your work?
A lot. It’s juts because when I watch a movie or read a book, I always enter into the work through the fairy-tale door, whether it’s a fairy tale or not. It’s just my way of getting my bearings and understanding. And then I assess how much or how little it’s a fairy tale, and sometimes it’s not at all. Bu it’s how I start groping and start forming my theories about what something’s about. But when I make something, I just enter the fairy-tale door and start making a fairy tale. And then if some autobiographical elements come in, or some happy accidents start imposing themselves and turn it into something else, that’s fine, but it’ll still be at heart a fairy tale, or what I understand a fairy tale to be. Which is usually just—my understanding of what a fairy tale is is just something universal in the human condition, just represented in archetypes, and then you just change up the details to suit your purposes. So they’re everything. Buñuelian fairy tales, sort of.
The film probably reminded me the most of the The Saragossa Manuscript. Was that inyour mind a bit?
It was, but as much as I love that movie and respect it, I almost never watch it fromstart to finish, because I find it just too fatiguing. So I thought that maybe, maybe I’m not doing myself a favour by making a movie that’s perhaps closest to a movie that I can’tget through! [laughs]
Oh, I definitely have to take a few breaks between it, even on that Web site where they sort of have every little bit…
But it’s all the same world, it’s all the same colour timing, it’s the same costumes, it’s the same… so I thought maybe I could do myself a favour by at least every now and then shifting up the tempo, having different palettes, different actors… But it’s… I really like a movie, some of my favourite movies are really lean film noirs like The Chase, or Detour or…
or The Threat, where it’s all over in about 65 minutes, and it’s you’ve got a charismatic lead, you’ve got some kind of love interest that’s sick as, that everyone’s trying to work through, and it all resolves itself in some kind of sad, shitty way. Um, and it’s over quickly, with a couple of set-pieces in it that are really refreshing and original, no matter how old the movie is. But—we made a bunch of little movies that are like that, and to pay for the whole Internet project I had to make a feature, so we sutured them all together into this unholy Frankenstein version of Saragossa Manuscript. But I am pleased that unlike the Saragossa Manuscript, a lot of these stories are really just the same story told in different genres. They’re just about a bunch of jellyboys, jellyboy the gynophobes, quivering their way from one end of the submarine to the other. And whether it’s a cave or a cliff or whatever…
Or that brain thing…
How did you do that submarine?
The submarine was very charming. It was just one room, smaller than this little couch area here but t did have a door in it with rear-screen projection set up.
I assumed that was how you did most of it.
Yeah, we just shot each room from the back of the submarine forward, so you could keep adding a room every time you opened a door, and finally just kept projecting rooms in the background. Rooms within rooms within rooms in the rear-screen projection. It took some planning, it’s not simple.
I love rear projection, I think it’s …
I love it too. And it’s fun to watch it being used. Because anyone can see it on green screen, you can see what image is there, and the actors can interact with it even. They can walk on the spot, really badly, well…
And it saves money, it saves so much money as well.
It’s a thrill. And I think for some reason, even though the business end of films should be no one’s concern, I think viewers appreciate it when something is brazenly saving ridiculous amounts of money, It’s kind of bracing when you see an effect pulled off beautifully. Or not so beautifully!
That’s what I really liked about High-Rise—because they had not so much money, probably a couple million, So what they did was, they basically, obviously the high-rise is mostly CGI. But when you actually see the whole thing, when you see the cars and the massive parking lot—I think most of it’s a matte painting.
Yeah, I love matte paintings!
Yeah it’s wonderful.
Have you ever seen—do you know Roy Anderson’s work—You the Living and Scenes from the Second Floor?
There’s a really great movie called Tomorrow is Another Day about the making of You the Living. And it shows all the matte paintings.
Yeah, I’ve got the box set so…
Check it out, it’s the best making-of movie I’ve ever seen—other than Cuadecuc, Vampire by Pere Portobella. But those are the two great—One of them’s a great work of art, but Tomorrow is Another Day is just a really heartwarming making-of, it’s really beautiful. Lots of matte paintings.