CONVERSATIONS WITH GUY MADDIN
August 9-11, 2005
Guy Maddin’s cinema is absolutely unique. That is a claim that is made about a lot of
filmmakers, but it is rarely true of them in the way that it is of Maddin. Maddin’s cinema is
simultaneously archaic (with its revival of methods and subjects from old melodrama and from
silent cinema) and avant-garde (with its sophisticated manipulation of degraded images and
soundtracks, and its many disruptions of straightforward storytelling). It is simultaneously
satirical of its old narrative forms and very attached to them emotionally, to the point of trying
to get them to work in a very functional way. It is simultaneously materially impoverished and
conceptually sophisticated. It is simultaneously comedy-sketch heartless and deeply felt.
Shooting on 16mm and even 8mm film mostly in black-and-white, constructing elaborate
historical settings in disused Winnipeg factories or grain elevators on 12-foot wide soundstages
with paper-maché sets and props, using stylized post-synchronized voice recording of his and
George Toles’s indescribable mannerist dialogue and voiceover narration, Maddin’s films have
a very homemade quality, amateur perhaps in the best sense of the world (he describes himself
as a “garage-band filmmaker”). The end result of all these highly idiosyncratic and clashing
characteristics is a cinema that can baffle and annoy mainstream viewers (a common reaction:
“that guy is crazy”) but has developed a coterie of admirers around the world that includes
some of the most discerning film critics in North America and Europe. At the very least he is
among English Canada’s most distinguished filmmakers, with a twenty-year track record and
more international attention than anybody but David Cronenberg or Atom Egoyan. All of his
feature films are available on DVD from indie distributors like Zeitgeist and Kino. Get them.
The following text is taken from a series of conversations I had with Guy Maddin on August 9-11, 2005, at his home in Winnipeg. All told, there were about 15 hours of interviews, of which a
very reduced selection was published by Metro Cinema in Edmonton (you can find it online as a
.pdf file at http://www.metrocinema.org/pubs/maddin). What you see here includes all that
material, and about 150% more. It’s still not a truly complete transcription, but it’s quite a bit closer.
I hope to post some of the interviews with Maddin that I did in 2006 and 2007 in due course.
William Beard: Can you talk a little bit about your preference for degraded images? Where does it
come from? Can you trace back to why you feel you need to use degraded images, or why are
Guy Maddin: I can’t remember the exact order of everything, but somewhere along the line I
started sitting in on these film classes taught by George [Toles] or my friend Steve [Snyder] or
some other film professors. And this was the pre-video days, and they were just showing
degraded 16mm prints that had usually been bootlegged by this guy. I never met him but I just
knew he was the man who bootlegged. Usually if you rented a movie from any legitimate place
you’d usually run it over to him to get it copied. So quite often what I was watching was a copy
of a copy of a copy of a copy.
Beard: So you were actually into dupes of dupes?
Maddin: I didn’t know it. It’s just like a photocopy machine. If you copy a copy of a copy, it
gets so high contrast. Eventually the mid-range disappears, so facial tones just become white or
Beard: I’ve never seen you use this on your films, but on dupe prints you have an umbra of
black around a black object.
Maddin: That’s something else I’ve seen in kinescope which was film copies of television
shows. I liked the white aura. The black aura is not so easily duped. That one is really cool. Or
there’s a weird ghosting effect that you get on kinescope where someone’s suit is grey and it
looks grey, but then there’s a black aura outside and inside the suit. I just assumed that those
movies… I suspected it was artifact of aging, but just how… I didn’t know it was a copy of a
copy of a copy. And sometimes a copy of something with scratches on it, or a copy of something
with dirt on it that hadn’t been cleaned, so the dirt would really build up in layers. But since the
movies themselves were so great. Whenever I saw something that looked like that I would go,
“this stands a better chance of looking great than something that just looks like a 1982 movie.” It
was simple. If something looked that way I’d go, “there’s a better chance of my enjoying this.”
Pretty soon the condition of them became inseparable. A lot of times I enjoyed, as if seeing a
movie for the first time, restored pictures. Just as often I’m horribly disappointed if it’s restored,
that the mystery is gone. All I’m seeing is someone mincing around in too much makeup. It took
me a little while to decide whether I like the restoration of Metropolis because it’s so perfect that
you actually see how much lipstick is on all the men in the movie. Not that that’s bad, but all of a
sudden you have to make all these mental adjustments that I’m capable of making, to maintain
the pleasure, but it shocked me. I really missed the occasional water spot or flicker and I wanted
to see a little less lipstick. But believe me, I’ve put on lipstick myself. But it was just changing
the mood; the dynamics of the movie were all upset. There was too much clarity, in a way.
Where that really hurts most is in colour. The old, early Technicolor movie The Garden of Allah
got restored, and I had to give away the DVD because I think the restorers seemed to be bent on
giving it the colour of autumn. I think they actually toned down the saturation of the
Technicolor, and gave it a 1998 colour.
Beard: This is exactly like the discussions of, should they have cleaned the Sistine Chapel
ceiling: “Everything’s so horribly clear now!”
Maddin: Then I take my affection for that even further. I love the part-talkie because that will
have people running down the street and you even hear their footsteps. You can see them
running, you don’t need to hear it. Then it will include just the sound of a horn honking, and then
a gun going off, but you don’t hear anyone falling. It’s selective sound, just the way when you’re
painting you choose your brushstrokes wisely, when you’re writing you choose your words
wisely, you choose your sounds wisely. I like to leave out a lot of sounds, and to isolate them.
The part-talkie does that, obviously. Those were technical limitations, but they were also
because the art form was new and a lot of people knew what they were doing by leaving out
sound. It created more dreamlike effects. Ever since film was invented there’s been a strong
gravity pull from the public to make it literal minded. But then, thank God, there’s artists every
now and then that pull it away from that. It’s a continual pendulum swing. But blockbusters have
so much sound in there now.
Beard: I’m going to quote a little passage now from “The Child Without Qualities” [an unfilmed
script from Maddin’s book Tales from the Atelier Tovar] where you talk about the child’s
affection for old, used toys. You even mention a little mention a bit about your toys being beaten
What vigorous and loving play these toys and couches and radios had been submitted to
before the CHILD WITHOUT QUALITIES had entered the world. Now, as a result, a
residue of better quality seemed to sit on everything in the deserted house. The house
held a dormancy, a potential to divulge what it held for his family before. Every object
in it was full and ready to discharge its payload of history.
That’s beautiful, but also I want to connect it to your fondness for degraded images and the
notion that maybe…
Maddin: Everything was already degraded in my world, when I was born. My house, everything
Beard: The notion that there was love involved there somewhere also, not just casual misuse.
Maddin: You have to assume that when a movie’s being watched, and therefore degraded,
someone’s love it.
Beard: Why would you dupe it if you didn’t want to make a copy of it because you loved it so
Maddin: I always assumed that all those movies were, if they’re not loved now, at least were
loved at one time.
Beard: The notion of degradation as a kind of love bruise.
Maddin: Yeah, that’s it. That it had been handled a lot before. I think so.
Beard: This raises for me the question of the Urtext with respect to your films. Does a Guy
Maddin film lose something, or is it actually better, if you make a dupe of it?
Maddin: I always say it’s better.
Beard: I don’t think it is, but I’m of the opposite school of thinking. You want the author’s
degradation in there, as opposed to something that’s accidental.
Maddin: I remember the thrill one of my movies got commercials. I was absolutely tickled. I
think it was Tales of Gimli Hospital. The CBC put it on and put some commercials in. And they
were real paying sponsors, too. by the time Archangel made it on TV, they were just PSAs and
rants for other CBC shows.
Beard: The idea of Archangel on television, though, is just very appealing.
Maddin: It’s popped on a few times. One time I was even channel surfing and finally it was like
one of those moments, I caught an old, degraded black-and-white image—now not all of
Archangel is degraded, I wish it were—I just went, “oh, what’s this? That looks good. Oh, it’s
my movie. No wonder it looks good.” There is a love bruise in the degradation, but I also, I see a
lot of the stuff as some sort of doorway between me and the thing, some kind of obstacle to me
enjoying the thing or getting at the thing the way. When you’re watching an old Busby Berkeley
movie (and I’ve talked about this before, though I can’t remember where), there’s something
about the way those women are choreographed that’s kind of sloppy and loose, and it makes you
feel like the women are loose. And they definitely are beautiful in a way that no one appreciates
any more. But you go, “well, I’d appreciate it if they’d have me, since they’re so loose.” But you
can’t get at them because they’re cavorting through a doorway that’s decades thick, and you’re
just looking at them through a keyhole and you can’t get at them. No matter how loose they are
they’re just not for you. With degradation you’re looking at love things, and you love them, but
you’re still looking at them through a keyhole in a door, through many decades of degradation
and you just can’t go back in time and get it.
Beard: You have twice, if I’m not mistaken, gotten awards from the National Society of Film
Critics for the Best Avant-garde or Experimental Film, which is nice and I would say also just.
What do you think about being put in a class with avant-garde and experimental filmmakers?
Maddin: I remember at the time, I was thrilled. I had to find out who these people were and
when I found out it was pretty good. I had to say that, and I guess the most experimental films
have this problem, I’m not experimenting. I had a bunch of things that I set out to accomplish
and tried to do it. I wasn’t just fucking around.
Beard: In terms of where they show, experimental films are going to show in art galleries, in
cinemathèques, if they get very big, they’ll show at little art houses, movie houses. That, I guess,
has sort of been the main home for your films at least until Saddest Music. I don’t actually agree
with that classification of avant-garde and experimental. Maybe I have too narrow a notion of
the avant-garde, or experimental filmmaker. I think of Stan Brakhage or Michael Snow or
somebody when I think about experimental film. I would say that you’re basically unclassifiable,
which is maybe why they put you in that class.
Maddin: I’m strangely a populist. My favourite movies are movies that aren’t that accessible to
everybody, but that’s because they’re not interested in watching old pictures. They’re movies
that were nominated for Academy Awards in the 30s. I’m kind of a hoi polloi fella.
Beard: Well, L’Âge d’or [Luis Buñuel, France 1930] is an experimental film, maybe you could
Maddin: Yeah. That one really was an experiment, I think, where they tried to make jokes that
had no punch line and then string them together, they say, in a series of unrelated connections.
To me they’re all related, they speak directly to me. Other movies I can’t parse for the life of me,
but for some reason those movies spoke directly to me. There seems to be a school of writers and
filmmakers that I could communicate with and others that just didn’t do anything for me.
Beard: But L’Âge d’or, that film might play in a big theatre in Paris, but not anywhere else.
Maddin: I’m very lucky to have found a niche for myself. Jim Hoberman described me— When
Cowards Bend the Knee came out, it got really good reviews. I was very pleased with that. I
think he described me as the most experimental mainstream filmmaker, or the most mainstream
experimental filmmaker, depending on where your tastes are situated. I was kind of delighted by
that description because he’s a pretty astute viewer and I think he could tell at some level that I
just want to make a connection with the audience.
Beard: Obviously, silent melodrama is attractive to you, and you called it not so much
exaggerated life as uninhibited life.
Maddin: Right, as [drama scholar] Eric Bentley says. He had one of his chapters on melodrama
that was really useful in helping me solidify for myself what I was only vaguely aware of doing.
I’ve always tried to warm up audiences that I really feared needed a warm-up with a paraphrase
from Bentley, just talking about how in life, in waking civilized society we’re not allowed to
grab just anyone after whom we’re lusting, we’re not allowed to just wail out whenever we feel
sad without raising a few eyebrows, we’re not allowed to hit anybody we’re angry at (there’s
laws against it), but in your dream life you can do all those things, if you’re lucky. You can some
pretty lusty dreams with people you’ve just met or people you’re not allowed to.
Beard: So it’s also closer to unconscious life.
Maddin: Yeah, we all have to admit something honest in our dreams. They’re coming solely
from us, our fears, anxieties and desires, and so in dreams we do get to cry out loud, we do get to
grab anyone or hit anyone we want. You could describe dreams, if you want, as an exaggeration
of real life, but I would it find it more useful to call them an uninhibiting of real life. It’s good
melodrama when it’s working that way, working the same way as dreams. They’re not
exaggerating real life; they’re uninhibiting it and fitting it into a short, manageable running and
just presenting it in a way that you’re not allowed to experience it ordinarily.
Beard: Would it be a corollary to that that if, as a filmmaker or as an artist, you’re looking for
that motor, to tap into that realm of feeling or that realm of impulse, then you would want to stay
away from a more documentary realism? The world as we normally see it is inhibited in that
way. Everybody walks around in a state of inhibition. Is that fair?
Maddin: Yeah, sure, except for criminals and children, psychopaths. So you get to be childish
and paranoid and whatever in films, and all these feelings are more darkly sketched out for you
by melodrama, so they’re more easily recognizable to yourself and other viewers.
Beard: What strikes most viewers of—melodrama’s a very embattled term anyway, and there’s
lots of different kinds of definitions of it, but I think melodrama, as you would understand it, is a
sense of exaggeration, a sense of immediacy and a sense of immediately going to the limit in
terms of the tone in which it’s pitched and the kinds of activities and the kinds of behaviour—
Maddin: That are literally shown, yeah.
Beard: Yeah. I can understand the attractions of that for a filmmaker in terms of what you were
just saying, grabbing an audience’s attention or…
Maddin: Yeah, or in the beginning, if you don’t feel that you have enough subtle control over
plot or over your actors, that you can use a tendency that inexperienced actors have to heighten
anyway and just use that to your advantage, and just embed them in a script where they can help,
darken the outlines of the urges. I’m kind of going all over the place here. I have to put in a good
word for Medea. All of us have known couples that have broken up badly, and where the rage
that ex-husband and ex-wife have for each other makes them stupid and unloving to their own
children, even. They’re careless and just what could be a better horrifying example of the
damage parents can do to their children than the story of Medea where she literally kills her own
children to hurt her husband. Let’s face it, we know couples that have been bludgeoning each
other with their own children. That’s, you know… she just went to the extreme. But it’s
unbelievably moving, crazy, hysterical.
Beard: It’s also very, very powerful. And I guess some literary critics have probably accused
Euripides of being a bit melodramatic. But he’s normally melodramatic. Though that’s usually
thought of as tragedy as opposed to melodrama.
Maddin: Well, they overlap a little bit. There’s a little bit of melodrama in everything, just the
way—this is my favourite philosophical dictum: everything tastes more or less like chicken. But
every story is more or less melodramatic.
Beard: At the same time, I think it’s fair to say that the reason that so many discussions of your
work immediately head towards melodrama (and you, yourself, are interested in discussing it or
introduce the term into discussions) is that the melodrama there is very strongly marked. And
there’s also an aspect of contemporary attitudes towards melodrama which is a very
condescending or critical toward melodrama. I know you don’t have that—
Maddin: Yeah, it’s a very derogatory term.
Beard: I guess what I’m getting at is the notion that the derogatory view of melodrama is also
present in your melodramas, at some level, through an exaggeration which can no longer be
processed without irony by viewers.
Maddin: I always feel sort of guard—I’m also sort of doing something that I’m kind of ashamed
of and I’m always doing one thing and then covering myself by making it obvious that I’m
aware of doing it. I’ve tried to remove that safety net, I’ve tried to have it just physically
removed from me by trying to go for more unironic moments. In Saddest Music in the World,
where I’m literally just hoping for something tragic. I can’t help it. There’s just something in the
tone of the movies that enable people to laugh at them instead of giving in to them, but that’s
fine as long as I’m engaging them somehow. Douglas Sirk has that going for him, too. So many
people enjoy him for what I feel are the wrong reasons. But at least they’re enjoying the show.
Beard: Oh, I couldn’t agree more. But I think when you open Gimli Hospital, for example, as
soon as the viewer begins to process what’s going on, the sense of the absurd or the ridiculous is
immediately evident. In Archangel, which is actually a pretty sober film a lot of the time, there is
a mocking quality in Boles’s wooden leg and in a number of different moments. It seems to me
that you start off on the foot of irony, that you start off on the foot of pastiche, even of ridicule
and then try to sort of claw your way back somehow over the course of the film.
Maddin: I was emboldened by Sirk, but even more so by von Sternberg. These guys were my
gods at the time I was making these movies. They still are, kind of, especially Sternberg, who
was making movies in the earliest days of talking pictures, when the rules and vocabulary for
filmmaking hadn’t been set yet. He was making his own stories in his own way. He manages to
get stuff that some people can enjoy at a pure camp level, and other people can enjoy ironically,
and other people, if they let themselves get in (he’s so cold and distant), but his movies are all
emotional. So, actually, it’s not that I’m copying von Sternberg. I never could in a million years.
He’s unique. I’m emboldened by him, to know that simultaneous takes on a movie are possible
and exciting. There’s nothing lost if someone just decides to see something as a pretty movie, or
as a piece of kitsch. As long as it’s entertaining and engaging them.
Beard: In Scarlet Empress, the gigantic door that you need a whole squadron of ladies of court
to open up, drilling holes in the eyes of statues or icons—
Maddin: Yeah, there it is. Truth is only in the exaggerations.
Beard: It is funny, it is self-mocking, but at the same time there is certainly a very strong
Maddin: You know, he always refused to go the countries where he set his movies.
Beard: He was insulted when the Sultan of Morocco said Morocco was an accurate picture.
I do think that there’s something very Sternbergian about your work sometimes. It’s not just the
cluttered mise-en-scene or soft focus and stuff that he sometimes gets into but this idea of a
stifled world, and a way in which the feelings somehow are embodied in the décor.
Maddin: I like the feeling that the décor has a reason for being one way and not another in the
movies. It’s somehow inseparable from the actors. And I just hope I have the same respect/fear
of irony that he does, or just the right soft touch with it. That’s what I’m going for. I’m willing to
be primitive and clumsy around a camera, and around actors, even sometimes pretty free-wheeling and elliptical around as script, but it’s certain touches of tone and in my handling irony
that I’m overcautious to the extreme.
Beard: Well, if Sternberg is operating with Paramount Studios, million-dollar soundstages and
Marlene Dietrich and every technical refinement known to cinema at that point, and you’re
filming with a 16mm camera in a warehouse in Winnipeg, and you’re working with completely
different sets of circumstances, there has to be some way to cover that gap. Irony is one of the
tools that you’re using to do that.
Maddin: Like I said, though, I can’t even define irony. I just know the way that it’s used as a
distancing device in films. I’m careful not to be too distant.
Beard: When people start laughing at one of your films, and your films are very funny —
Maddin: Starting happening around the year 2000, by the way. It was a little slow to understand.
Beard: People didn’t understand in Gimli Hospital, when Kyle McCulloch squeezes the fish oil
on his hair…?
Maddin: Yes, a couple of people laughed during that. Some maybe laughed out of
embarrassment for me, I’m not too sure. I quit watching my movies…
Beard: ...in company?
Maddin: Yeah, I make myself watch them once or twice, and then that’s it, to see how things are
going. It seemed like more people were picking things up, like in Cowards Bend the Knee and
Saddest Music in the World, and having a chuckle. They seem to have figured out they have
permission to laugh and to not feel so bad for me. I’ve started to feel a little better. But it did feel
like about 15 years before I got two people laughing at the same time.
Beard: So people were just stunned and baffled.
Maddin: Or embarrassed or dying to figure out a way to get out of the theatre without my seeing
Beard: Your fans, who are growing in number all the time, are getting a growing percentage of
the jokes that are in the film, getting that sense of affectionate parody that’s there. But there are
times when… I don’t know, when you go into the butler school in Tolzbad?, it’s hard not to see
a pretty big brush of ludicrousness in a situation like that. It’s clear that it’s intended; it can’t
possibly accidental. [pause] I’m chipping away here and I’m hoping I can get something…
Maddin: It’s always the case, that people will ask me, at least in the first 15 years of making
movies, actually I still get it, is your stuff funny intentionally? And my answer to myself, which
isn’t entirely honest, and to them, is well I’ll take a laugh whenever I can get it, intentional or
not. But almost always, I’m happy to say, the few places I’ve gotten them have been intentional.
It’s a compliment to me and my viewers.
Beard: It seems to me that you’re trying to do something very complicated in your films, and
that is (maybe it’s coming from George Toles as well or both of you together, mostly from
you?), and that difficult thing is to hold ridicule and serious feelings right next to each other. The
scene that pops into mind right now is that scene in Careful where horrendous earth-shaking
events are taking place in the little gondola car and they’re yawning right through that scene.
One can find all sorts of similar examples like it in your work.
Maddin: Well, I just don’t like it when a movie… Well, other movies sometimes gamble and it
pays off for them. I’m too frightened to go, ever to appear to be soliciting for laughter or
emotions. Besides, in real life, they’re kind of conjoined sometimes in the strangest ways.
Beard: Well, when you open the doors and stuff start coming out, it can be all kinds of stuff. In
Careful you go from that scene to the scenes in the cave after the avalanche. And Grigorss is just
basically dying, freezing to death, while having these fantasy hallucinations of his mother and
his family. And that’s not funny at all. That’s very moving, actually. That was straightforward.
Maddin: George had written a longer scene for that, and I didn’t quite have the nerve to go with
it, and I always regretted not going with it, just where there’s a little more of a dialogue
exchange between the ghost father and ghost mother with their dying son. I was in a hurry to end
the movie because it was already ending a bit long. I thought it would delay the end. I should
have gone for it.
Beard: But it’s there anyway.
Beard: We were talking earlier about old films and old culture. We talked about how you found
the language of silent cinema for example to be a fantastic new discovery and a new weapon, a
new tool for you to use.
Maddin: It literally jumped ahead six, seven decades for me and became an avant-garde thing.
Beard: If I ask you the question, “what can silent film do that sound film can’t do,” what would
Maddin: It seems just like nature being silent and therefore instantly, relieved of the fetters that
make talking films a little more earthbound. It just instantly seems more stylized and therefore
capable of a universality that sound films have to fight harder to get somehow. When you have a
man and a woman in love in a silent movie, it seems to be about all men and women for some
reason, no matter how specific the details of their love becomes. I don’t know if that’s inherent
in silent film, or if it’s what survives in the best silent films and those are the ones we see. It
seems to me that once you remove the voices, you’re no longer listening to specific things that
are beside the point. It’s kind of like the select-a-sound I was talking about. The inter-titles tend
to, in the better movies, talk only about the most essential things, and filmmakers try to keep the
inter-titles to a minimum, or if not a minimum they would at least try to keep them down.
Whereas contemporary movies have two hours’ worth of dialogue to come up with.
Beard: The best inter-titles—it’s a fantastic art.
Maddin: They can do all the things that great dialogue can do.
Beard: Your films often, if I can say this in a respectful way, often seem like grand dress-up
occasions. It’s just like all these kids got into all these trunks of old clothes. I had that feeling
particularly in Archangel, when particularly all the guys are going off to war in their horsehair
helmets and their various military gear, and all the girls look like they’re going to throw
themselves in front of the king’s horse at the Derby, right?
Maddin: I just thought that was the last, great fashion war. It seemed to me, whenever I was
reading my “How, Why and Wonder Book” on World War I [The War Illustrated, published by The
Illustrated London News, 1914-1919] as a kid, the soldiers in the photographs and the drawings
just looked like toy soldiers to me. It just didn’t seem like a real war. It just seemed remote
enough in history. In the 60s there were still World War I veterans aplenty, kicking around, in old
hospitals, legless, tortured, and shattered, horrible lives, but still I couldn’t quite comprehend
that it was a war in which people could possibly be hurt when they were wearing such delightful,
toyish things, the equivalent now in dressing up the American forces in big Emma Kelly floppy
shoes and this greasepaint and a big bulbous nose to send them into Iraq or something, or just in
Galiano fashions. It just seemed like the soldiers in those days had all the great fashion designers
working for them.
Beard: You’ve got World War I period nurses in Gimli Hospital, too, with the full wimples.
Maddin: I was happy to have anachronisms. My rule of thumb there was that the plague, if
we’re talking about the plague that really happened in Gimli, happened in the mid 1870s, and my
movie is kind of a part-talkie, I guess. So I decided that the fashions were allowed to exist
anywhere between 1870 and 1929. It’s mostly 20s stuff. Hollywood very rarely considered itself
with getting historically accurate accents, clothes, haircuts especially. 50s historical pictures like
The Vikings always had Tony Curtis with sort of a greased back, 1950s hairdo. Later on in the
70s, those historical pictures had lots of long hair. The rule seems to be make your heroes as
contemporary looking as possible, no matter what year the movies are set in. It seemed like one
thing to play with.
Beard: What use would historical accuracy be to you, anyways?
Maddin: Or anyone. I’m so closed minded that I refuse to acknowledge that it’s useful to
Beard: In the same way that you like to have your images degraded, in the same way that you
like to call attention to the degradation of your soundtracks or the way you call attention to
ruptures in continuity in your soundtracks or something like that, you don’t want a continuous,
realist type of world.
Maddin: If you’re counting on fictional movies to give you an accurate sense of history, you’re
in trouble anyway.
Beard: True, but at least a lot of them are searching for a kind of internal consistency, whereas
yours seem to be producing an internal heterogeneity. A difference and variety and contrast of
anachronisms that are working for you in some way.
Beard: Before we leave the question of silent film and what silent film does better, I noticed you
mentioned in one of your DVD commentaries that wonderful series narrated by James Mason
that was on television, [Hollywood: A Celebration of American Silent Film, UK 1980]. There’s a
great moment there where Lillian Gish is being interviewed. She says, “Silent film marries
images and music, and it brings the world together. Sound film marries images and words and it
separates the world.”
Maddin: That’s interesting.
Beard: I was particularly struck by the idea that it was more akin to music, in the sense that it
can really access moods, partly maybe because as you said it’s not tied down or maybe more
earth bound because of the sound. It just seems to enter into that direct world, direct expression.
Maddin: That’s funny. I don’t remember her saying that. I don’t think I was ready enough to
remember that quote when I heard it back in 1981 or whenever they came out, but I’ve sure been
thinking about music a lot in the last few years, and trying to get my movies to make musical
sense, in the way melodramas do. They can make absolutely no literal sense, but I just wanted
the images to somehow be able to take the same kind of shortcuts that music does. Music goes
directly to your heart when you hear it. It bypasses your brain. I’ve always liked the idea in
theory that ballet or symphonies or basement music can do the same thing. The kind of narrative
ballets (or non-narrative ballets) that can actually evoke emotions are doing it through pure
movement and music all married up, really seemed exciting to me. And then just thinking about
the Greek roots in ‘melodrama’, you know ‘melos’ and ‘drama’ and how ancient Greek
melodrama or melodramatic poetries were always highly subjective. And subjectivity, when
you’re talking about the emotion of a story, is the only thing that matters anyway. Objectivity,
scientific facts are beside the point. So I always want to get more and more music welded to the
actual — not just to the images— but welded to the stories on the page, even.
Beard: And I know the kind of acting that takes place in silent film is in a completely different
Maddin: It’s the kind of acting ballet dancers do in narrative ballet.
Beard: It’s pantomime, it has to be more expressive, it has to act out more and then maybe that
goes along with melodrama also.
Maddin: Yeah, all of a sudden people are walking a certain way for a reason, not just to get
from point A to point B in a humdum way. They’re just getting there in a clumsy display of
exposition. I like it in von Sternberg movies where when he needs exposition he just throws up
an inter-title card in talking picture, gives you some exposition and then he liberates himself to
move on to Act 5 of more visual balletics and verbal balletics, too, his dialogue is very
Beard: Very very mannered. That’s another Sternberg connection in my mind, with your work,
that there’s this kind of underwater delivery of these strange, hypnotic lines of dialogue.
Maddin: There’s no other way to deliver the lines that George writes. There’s a music in his
dialogue that unites lousy actor and great on the same playing field, a subaquatic playing field.
Beard: Having to teach Sternberg and getting people past the point where they’re giggling at the
dialogue, Marlene Dietrich in Scarlet Empress reviewing the troops there at the end of the film
and stops this one particularly succulent Captain of Hussars, “and your duties ... Captain?” Just,
three beats in between, and just lubricious beyond belief, that stylization.
Maddin: I still like exploring with stuff all the masters have done. I really want the plots to be
musical, or to make the same kind of musical emotional sense that music does. I want to try
pushing the ellipses as far as the masters and further, and the accidental masters, too. Just the
masters, grapes? and all. Once again I don’t think just copying these people is being inspired.
The way an Olympic runner isn’t copying the sprinter who holds a world record, they’re actually
going after the achievement, they’re inspired by the achievement, just trying to. Everyone in the
world except one usually fails to reach the standard. But… I’m a very competitive person, going
after these standards that have always filled me.
The Dead Father (1986)
Beard: Turning to particular things about particular films, I loved your first film, The Dead
Father, and I think it stands up extremely well. Despite your obvious consciousness of how
much you didn’t know when you made it, it still works very well in my view. It has a kind of
simple, unselfconscious surrealism that looks completely easy. It’s completely natural
surrealism. It’s the last of your films that has undegraded images, more or less.
Maddin: I was kind of learning how to light things myself, and it’s full all the trials and errors.
Beard: It has the effect of being more straight forward than the films that come afterwards.
Maddin: Yeah, I had always intended it to be twelve minutes long, so if I had any regrets it just
Beard: That it went on too long?
Maddin: Yeah, or just that maybe it wasn’t edited as tightly as I would edit it now. But
whatever, you can’t go back. I think it did have one thing going for it. I respected film too much
to… that’s not the right way to put it. I’ve just never wanted to be accused of being a wanker,
somehow. I wanted people to think I was pretty cool and all that stuff. I really felt the only way
to make anything that stood any chance of lasting (even stood chance certainly wouldn’t
guarantee it) would be to be as honest as possible. I just literally tried to put on the screen some
feelings I’d had in my dreams about those desertion feelings you get when a loved one dies. It
was that simple. I just wanted to put that up there and some of the episodes from… None of the
episodes were from any of the dreams I had. I had almost nightly dreams at around the time I
was making the movie, about my own dead father, but I suppose I could have just borrowed stuff
from those dreams. One thing I took was this sense that he kept coming back, and that’s pretty
common, and was very eager to leave again, for a better family or a better something else. So I
just wanted to get that feeling across somehow. I don’t think I got that feeling across to anybody,
but I started discovering accidental effects along the way. It’s just as well I didn’t succeed.
Beard: One of the most fascinating thing about looking at The Dead Father for me is—in light
of your later work—is to have an example of what a Guy Maddin film might look like that was
photographed in a relatively documentary fashion, that was set in the present day, and that
unfolded without elaborate artificial sets and costumes. Can you see yourself ever returning to
Maddin: If I could figure out a way of getting a kind of atmosphere that I like, I’d love to break
free of one style and find another. I mess around with my mini-DV camera all the time. I make
little videos. I’m getting better at stills photography. Lately I’ve been thinking, and I still think in
terms of stories. I don’t write dialogue (George writes all the dialogue). I used to write
voiceovers. The reason I wrote voiceovers and George wrote dialogue is we needed the dialogue
in time for shooting and he had a knack for it, he has a special tone. The voiceovers were more a
manifestation of the need to repair all the things that went wrong when you’re shooting. You put
together your montages and then you have to write the voiceovers as a complementary track to
achieve what the images don’t quite achieve. I would always be careful to write those. It was fun
to write them because I could manner them as much as George, but they didn’t have to do all the
work that dialogue does, which is usually about ten things simultaneously. It has to be
interesting, it has to reveal expository things surreptitiously, it has to create suspense, it has to
create atmosphere, it has to create character… It has to do too many things for me to…
Beard: Cowards Bend the Knee shows that you can make a silent film, no problem. There’s no
need at this point for you to make dialogue films.
Maddin: Every now and then I have to put in a line of dialogue in an inter-title, so I could write
something that’s just as mannered as a film noir. I like film noirs for that reason. The dialogue is
usually very sparse and very stylized. So while I’m not very good at film noir dialogue, and
you’re talking about making a 2006 release version of a movie that would have to be stylized in
a different kind of way.
Beard: The Dead Father is your first film and you already have zombieism, cannibalism,
actually incestuous cannibalism—
Maddin: Although my girlfriend, shortly after, ate her own father’s ashes.
Beard: That’s not the same thing as eating them before they’ve been cooked.
Maddin: That’s true. Yeah.
Beard: I wonder what the Latin word for eating your dead father is, or Greek. We have
coprophagia for eating shit, but…
Beard: That would be eating your father, but what about eating your dead father? Anyway, so
there’s already this kind of, I could call it, quasi-hysterical element, or you might just call it
something from horror movies.
Maddin: Well, I was thinking right from the first time that I picked up a camera, along the lines
of the kind of short cuts the surrealists were able to get through the intentionally illogical
combinations of things. That kind of reminded me of since I can’t read music and can’t even
begin to understand how it works, but I know that there’s more logic to music or at least a way
of making it logical after the fact. But I wanted to take something that was true, truly felt, but
then just use kind of illogical, hysterical episodes to try to convey it, to try to make a connection
with an audience. I really have been trying to make a connection with the audience all along,
especially with Archangel. Just because I was working in such an unfriendly environment here I
could never have preview screenings of the movie or people who just told me to give up, so I
make the movie in such solitude that only Greg Klymkiw, its producer, and I had really seen it
by the time it was really released. I really would have benefited a lot from some preview
screenings that could have helped me clear up the plot just enough for me to make a little more
of a connection with audiences, and still keep all the other things I liked about it intact. I’m
always making serious attempts to make connections with audiences, I just haven’t succeeded in
the same way that I’ve attempted, ever—ever. Except for maybe Heart of the World. It’s the
only movie I’ve made that turned out exactly as I planned.
Beard: Can you remember how this idea occurred to you, to leave the noise in, to emphasize it
even, in other words to foreground and to make clear to the audience what process of getting this
music onto the soundtrack?
Maddin: I didn’t even know where a lot of extraneous noise came from in old movies. It turns
out some of it’s an artifact of television broadcasts. When a movie like, say, Morocco, because I
used some ambient crackle from a broadcast of Morocco and there’s no way it’s copyrightable
because it only exists on the VHS tapes I made of the broadcast on television of Morocco.
Beard: Well, that’s illegal itself.
Maddin: Oh, that’s right. Well, they can come after me for the crackle, then, because I only
taped the silent scenes. What happens is that if a scene goes silent on a movie, there are these
little — you could call them audio thermostats or on TV if the scenes get too loud, the audio
thermostats will bring the volume down a bit, but if a scene goes suddenly silent, it tries to turn
the volume up somewhere towards the middle, but there’s nothing to turn up, so it starts turning
up optical hiss and noise. It starts getting almost to the point where it’s roaring. And then all of a
sudden someone will drop a set of keys on the table, which is what happens in this scene in
Morocco where there’s virtually nothing going on, and the keys are a bit too loud and they
suddenly dip down and the optical hiss drops down. So I sampled some crackle which is an
artifact of a broadcast and not even of Morocco. I didn’t even know what caused it at the time. I
thought I was just stealing dirt off the track or something, but it’s some sort of weird thing. It just
helped create an atmosphere to me. I justified old music just because it was a father-son story
with a generation. And they story ends in a truck in an attic. I just thought there should be music
that evokes a past, and that’s all. I’ve never entirely abandoned it. I used modern music in Sissy
Boy Slap Party, synthesizers and stuff like that. And in Heart of the World it’s something made
Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988)
Beard: Tales from the Gimli Hospital. Your first essay in mythologizing Winnipeg. Can you
remember actually having the idea of why don’t I make an epic in my own home town?
Maddin: When I first started out, as my reaction against Canadian cinema, I thought I would
never, ever mention Canada in any of my movies.
Beard: And since then you have never not mentioned it.
Maddin: I went out of my way to describe I think the setting in—I think when I was writing the
voice-over for Dead Father I think I called the setting the Dominion of Forgetfulness or
something. But that actually was an accidental pun, because I meant the dominion, namely the
hegemony of forgetfulness. But the movie was lucky enough to get written up a little bit, and
people started talking about Canada being the Dominion of Forgetfulness. I’ll take the
compliment. I was still pretty determined not to try to do what other Canadian filmmakers do,
which is… At the time I wasn’t quite pledged to mythologizing my hometown or my country. I
was just determined to shake it off my boots, the dust of this crummy country. But my friend Ian
Hanford, with whom I was painting houses at the time, really wanted to make a movie about
Gimli. There was this book, Gimli Saga, around, which we both thought was a laugh. And I
realized that there was a lot of original material in these great myths, of settlers first days, that
seemed pretty cool-movie material, and very dark and bleak to the point of being funny, and a
really modern sensibility once again in this century-old story. I started daydreaming a lot with
Ian, and we would, just while we were painting houses, start talking over scenes. So the tone of
the movie was already fixed in my head. I was determined that it would look exactly like Eric
von Stroheim’s Greed because there was something in Greed that’s silly and yet grounded in
some sort of sober reality. And Icelanders are soberly grounded in literal minded reality much of
the time in spite of the fact they can — maybe they need to drink lots to start believing in all
those elves and myths that they made famous. There’s just something in my Icelandic relatives
that was always so humourless determined to trace back our genealogies and recount tales of
privation in the most serious tones all the time. There was just something Stroheimian about this.
I was determined to make a movie that looked like von Stroheim’s Greed. When the first few
days of shooting came back way too dark (Greed is set almost entirely in the daytime), I forgot
about Greed altogether. I also realized that my sets were like 11 feet wide. They weren’t
Stroheimian at all, and it’s just going to look like the way it was going to look. And it started
taking on the look of Gimli, because I shot lots of it there. All the exteriors are shot in Gimli,
except some in my back yard in the city. I was using stuff that just looked like Gimli, or hauling
props from Gimli like old fish nets and things into my mother’s beauty salon and reconstructing
Gimli there. Gimli’s changed now, it’s all been developed and all the old shacks have been torn
down, but Ian had (he’s a neighbour of mine at the lake, too) had an old tool shed that was
sagging over and had some bushes against it, and we always used to joke that that’s where the
mayor of Gimli lived and things like that. It seemed to me that that’s where the protagonist
should live, that it would be a fish-smoking shed that he actually lives in, that he actually has to
come out of the smoke in the morning to see the world.
Beard: Exactly what part of your family is Icelandic?
Maddin: My mother’s side. My mother and her sister, Aunt Lil, who’s sort of in Cowards Bend
the Knee, my grandmother, all spoke Icelandic. My dad was of Scottish-Irish ancestry. Just
Canadian, really. Didn’t speak Icelandic. So it was a real gynocracy that we grew up in.
Beard: What was your mother’s maiden name?
Maddin: Eyolfson. It would have been, had she stayed in Iceland, Eyolfsdottir, or something
like that. Actually, she was born in Canada.
Beard: Gimli Saga can still be found, can it?
Maddin: It can be found. My friend Caelum Vatnsdal, who interviewed me for that book Kino
Delirium, wrote a review of Gimli Saga for the Manitoban, the university newspaper. It’s a
pretty funny book. It’s 600 pages long, but it’s all written by the housewives, the women’s guild
of Gimli, in about 1970. It’s full of oral traditions and stories—mostly Icelandic ones but some
Ukrainian ones, some Métis ones. They’re really neat. And they’re told very quaintly and
charmingly. The movie’s working title for the 18 months it took me to make it was Gimli Saga.
Beard: The film has a quality of layering narration, stories within stories, which is a feature, it
seems, of a number of your films.
Maddin: Some of it’s on purpose, some of it was also, um… I also did show that movie to a
couple of people. I showed it to Greg Klymkiw, when it was about 45 minutes long, and I
showed it to George, just for some feedback. They said it was nice, and they were very
encouraging and they were thrilled. But Greggy was always angling for a way to make a buck—
Beard: Feature film—
Maddin: And George, whatever his motives were, yeah, they just said, “You’ve got to make it a
feature now. It’s so close to being feature-length, and it’s too long to be a short, really.” It didn’t
have the structure of a feature, really. I always that I would never be able to make a feature, that
I would never be able to get a handle on the sophisticated requirements of a feature structure, but
in pure running time, because I was directing and editing it so limply, it was stretching out. And
so George suggested shooting some of the stories that people were only talking about. So I
actually just shot them and that helped lengthen things. So they ended up being concentric
Beard: But the whole thing is set in Gimli Hospital, where the grandmother or the aunt is telling
stories to the children. So you go back from there into the grandmother’s…
Maddin: She’s wearing an authentic Islendigadaggurin [“Icelandic Days” annual festival]
Fjallkona’s [traditional Icelandic “maid of the mountains”] headdress, which is supposed to be
the snowcapped mountain, and the green mantle is the … she wears a cloak that’s supposed to
the valleys of Iceland or whatever. The whole thing’s got framing devices.
Beard: I liked the idea of using little theatre stages looked at through opera glasses as a form of
anesthesia. That’s just so witty and graceful and funny.
Maddin: It’s actually a historical fact, and one of the few things I encountered in Gimli Saga.
When the patients were dying of the small pox epidemic or whatever, certain nurses or
volunteers would put on little puppet shows.
Beard: To distract them. Using it, you know—now we’re going to drill into your leg, here are
these opera glasses. It also of course gives rise to the idea of cinema as an anesthetic.
Maddin: Of course, you can always forget your troubles in a theatre for a couple of hours.
Beard: I was going to ask you also what the recording is when Gunnar is telling stories to the
nurses, some Icelandic patter on the soundtrack and the viewer has no idea what the story—you
can’t possibly imitate this guy because you can’t understand what he’s saying.
Maddin: Apparently people who speak fluent Icelandic can’t even understand this guy. He’s a
1920s comedian. I just had these old records that I found when my Aunt Lil died. Bjarne
Bjornson. I think it’s Bjarne Bjornson or Bjarne Bjarnson. I think he was kind of like a (I’m
trying to think of an example in English standup comedy circles), but sort of a musical comedian
with a thick accent—
Beard: Right, a Harry Lauder type, maybe—
Maddin: Exactly. It would be like that. Who told stories with music and plenty of interruptions
and nonsense syllables and things. Of course it didn’t help the old Icelanders who were trying to
listen to this and tell me what it was saying, that I’d cut it up into little pieces and rearranged it to
fit Mike Gottli’s mouth as much as possible. There’s a scene where a guy in a top hat’s
delivering a speech. That’s supposed to be an historically-based Lord Dufferin, the Governor-General of Canada, who came to Gimli. I wrote a speech for him which was, I felt afterwards, a
bad Bruno Schultz impersonation. So after synching up the sound on this long speech, I just
decided to throw in more Bjarne Bjornson.
Beard: During the big fight at the end of film, you have this indigestible mixture of cultural
strands. You’ve got Norse sagas, you’ve got Lord Dufferin and the Scottish pipe band going on,
plus all the extra levels of framing narration. Were you experiencing the urge to throw in
everything including the kitchen sink at that point?
Maddin: It must have felt like it to people not in the know. But I was stubbornly trying to be
true to Gimli itself. And Gimli is a weird amalgam. Every year there’s the Islendigadaggurin
celebration, the August long weekend. It’s such a pathetic celebration that it has to recruit
highland pipe bands from the Khartoum Lodge, the Shriners. So the parade is at least 90%
Shriners, which aren’t Icelandic at all. So I just like to think that even though I know
Icelangidagar didn’t start getting celebrated until I think the 50th anniversary of the Icelanders’
arrival, I like to think that there was as Shriner’s presence from day one. I refused to do serious
research. I just thought, well, who know when these Shriners started coming. I’ll just say they
were already there.
Beard: When the pipers start up, it really works.
Maddin: I finally got to into the secret inner sanctums of the Khartoum Lodge to arrange for
that, and then we decided that there was no anachronistic place inside the lodge, so we just went
outside on the riverbank where they were on the river. I just filmed them there. And I found an
old bagpipe dirge on a 78 and just played it. They were playing like crazy. I shot hours of
footage. It does sort of come out of nowhere and it must seem like the kitchen sink. But the
Glima wrestling was authentic. I didn’t know it was authentic because I’d only seen one still
picture of two Icelanders holding onto each other’s rear ends, and it just said, “Glima
Wrestling.” I saw a demonstration of real Glima wrestling about five years later. I was
astonished to see that it was exactly what I had filmed, just people picking each other up by the
pockets until they curled themselves down and I don’t know how a winner is declared. I just
thought, two men that are so jealous of each other over a woman that’s already actually been
removed from the mathematical formula, are left with only a species of homosexual admiration
for each other. Enmity and admiration, because enmity and admiration go hand in hand. I
noticed that I had been cuckolded by a girl that I was quite caught up on, and she had cuckolded
another guy with me, and so there was a triangle quickly set up. I love love triangles. They really
create a lot of feeling that gets things whirling around like three roman candles on a wheel. Once
I had broken up with this girl and this guy had broken up with her, and there was just the two of
us, I remember always wanting to attack this guy, because he was a bitter enemy, and he always
wanted to attack me. I started noticing that he was actually defending me when people made
personal attacks on me, and that I was defending him. We felt that it was unfair if other people
were attacking. We wanted each other for ourselves. And did seem strangely homosexual, even
though there was no (for my part anyway) physical desire to get into his pants. It just felt that
that species of homosexual rivalry could only be expressed through traditional Icelandic Glima
wrestling and that it would have to turn into something where, when you’re using a euphemism
to sort of fill in the blanks the way Ernst Lubitsch always did with a closed door. That you could
only have two bagpipers sucking on bagpipes to sort of fill in the gaps about what happens after
the fight’s over.
Beard: How did you do all the dissolves? Were you working on a Steenbeck?
Maddin: On all those early movies it was all Steenbeck. The Steenbeck that’s sitting right there
[in Maddin’s kitchen], actually. I don’t use it anymore. But I did the dissolves in camera
whenever possible, or in lab.
Beard: The soundtrack for Gimli Hospital is creative and charming and all sorts of nice things, but the
soundtrack for Archangel is brilliant, I think.
Maddin: Thanks. One of the first comments I ever got about the movie after it played at
Telluride… a film critic from San Francisco said that she sort of hoped that the soundtrack
would be as full and bouncy as Gimli Hospital, and she found that one too spare. But I kind of
like the spareness of it.
Beard: Well, first of all you’ve got the part-talkie thing going really, really well, right from the
beginning. It’s kind of clear if anybody’s ever seen a part-talkie understands that this film is part
silent, in fact. It really does seem to me to be working really well, and working to a degree
beyond what Gimli was doing.
Maddin: I was pretty pleased with it. I was starting to find music and I was re-listening to my
entire record collection but at the wrong speed looking for little narcotic sound bites and
pleasantly enough finding ones that I really liked. And then cutting and pasting them in in the
Beard: The way that you sometimes cut sound on the image cut, in a very disruptive way, a very
deliberate way, is kind of stimulating to viewers. I’m sitting there thinking, well, there’s music
from the Scarlet Empress, there’s music from Sunrise in Gimli Hospital.
Maddin: I can’t even remember if I consciously took that from the Scarlet Empress — I’m
pretty sure I’d seen The Scarlet Empress by then, it’s possible I hadn’t.
Beard: There’s a scene in the Murmansk hotel there where you’ve got three girls pushing the
door at the same time…
Maddin: Oh, yeah. That was my pathetic attempt to add the bounce of Busby Berkeley’s
Honeymoon Hotel. I had seen Scarlet Empress because I made a note to have lots of flags in the
art department but I couldn’t get them, the quantity I wanted, because everything was low-budge. Some of the most spectacular footage ever filmed is in that wedding sequence in The
Scarlet Empress. I’m trying to remember if I used that music forgetfully, forgetting that it had
been used in The Scarlet Empress. I think I may have realized it later but I didn’t mind anyway. I
think at the time I only had a very poor quality VHS with virtually no sound on it. That’s all I
had to go by. So I was sort of watching a silent version of The Scarlet Empress for the few years
that I knew it.
Beard: There’s a good film for your Murnau impersonation it seems to me, where you’ve got
Boles riding sleighs into town at the beginning of the movie, and the memory of the captain
dumping Iris’s ashes appears inside the shot in a very Murnau-esque way, not that he was the only
person to do stuff like that, as a double exposure. How were you doing double exposures, too?
Maddin: For that movie I built a matte box. Everyone kept telling me that matte boxes were
little. I couldn’t figure out … what little I knew about focal length and things like that, I figured
out the best way to make a matte box, and I just threw it in the garbage about a year ago after not
using it for so many years. But I had one built. It was something about the size of this coffee
table here, the size of three bread boxes maybe, and it had a painted glass on one end, and solid
wood on all the other sides, but each was a removable panel, sort of like a magician’s box of
some sort. On the painted glass on the other end, I would mount an animation cell and I had a
mount for a camera on the other end on the inside of this box. I would remove one panel, look
through the eyepiece of the camera, see the things that I didn’t want the camera to see, and paint
them out with black paint on a long—it looked like a cigarette holder with a paint brush in it,
because I had to reach far away—and I would just paint out in black a couple of coats and dry it
with a hair dryer as quickly as possible, a matte, the things I didn’t want. So in that shot I would
have Kyle in a sleigh, and I just tucked him inside the sleigh and painted out the curve of the
sleigh and painted the background black, dried it, filmed it that way with that, and then made a
counter matte where everything that was formerly black was now clear and everything that was
clear was now black, and just put it back up and rewound the film and just shot a series of
images to go in there.
Beard: So that’s exactly like these things were done in the silent era, towards the beginning ot
the silent era.
Maddin: Well, I’d tried doing double exposures in the lab and they just didn’t work as nicely,
they don’t look as good. They look milky. So I would do it in camera. The most I ever did was
six, a sextuple exposure for a Hospital Fragment, but also for parts of Gimli Hospital I think I
did a septuple exposure.
Beard: That’s very labour intensive.
Maddin: Yeah. The last exposure in the Hospital Fragment, I wanted some mist over
everything. It was in the winter when I shot it so I just lay down underneath my car and turned
on the car and just filmed the car exhaust. I was getting gassed while filming it, just lying there
with a Bolex underneath my car while fog just belched out onto me with a movie light back
lighting it. It was just pounding carbon monoxide on me. But you know, I’d hold my breath.
Beard: That only works for a certain amount of time.
Maddin: Well, the Bolex line is only 25 seconds. I would hold my breath, go under, film until
the 25 seconds was up and come up for air. It was very low… well, I didn’t want to rent a fog
machine that I didn’t know how to operate anyways.
Beard: The title cards in Archangel quite often have scratches painted into them or just built
right into them, but not the shots before or after the title cards. And of course scratches appear on
actual films caused by running through the projector. So you would always have the shot before
and the shot after the title card, as well. That kind of disjunction is another part of your little
armoury of …
Maddin: That’s sort of not really knowing what caused the artifacts in the first place, but just
loving the artifacts anyway, so a lot of them are misplaced anyway…
Beard: It’s kind of impressionistic take on degraded stuff.
Maddin: Right. Yeah, the scratches would come because I shot all the intertitles at the same
time with a dirty camera, so the scratches would all be on the cards.
Beard: And one of your title cards bounces…
Maddin: And none of the other ones do.
Beard: That’s a horribly frustrating thing to have happen when you’re trying to show film, and it
starts bouncing. And you got what looks like water damage on a couple of shots as well.
Maddin: Yeah, that was water damage. The lab apologized… well, they didn’t even apologize.
There was only one lab in town here. The labs have this way, through understatement, of
horrifying you. They say things like, “problems on reel five through 10” on the lab report and
you still have to wait a day for the lab to ship it to you. And so they just said things like “water
damage on roll 5.” It was an accident in the lab.
Beard: It works fine.
Maddin: And I thought, “oh, man, water damage, is that all?” My first AD—these people all
took a long time to figure me out. They’d come up to me go, “I’ve got really bad news about
yesterday’s shoot. Apparently there’s a lot of water damage on the thing.” “Well, here’s
Beard: The light leak on your Bolex that you talk about, too, is that satisfactory…
Maddin: That camera died on the first day of shooting, before I even had a change to do a shot
on The Saddest Music in the World. We were just loading the camera in -40 and the mainspring
broke, and the camera’s dead now.
Beard: The Illumination scene is a wonderful scene in Archangel, with all these tableaus and the
didactic, patriotic aspect of things, seems to look forward to The Saddest Music in the World,
with the public spectacle and the international brigade and the announcer.
Maddin: It did feel sort of vaguely familiar doing tableau again. Since I feel like I never made
Archangel as good as I wanted it to I have been trying to remake it over and over again. I was so
charmed by it when John Harvie told me about these Illuminations and then by coincidence I
started reading about them in fiction. They pop up in a Knut Hamsun novel, and what a great idea. Harvie really just had a way of recreating an illumination right
before my eyes with the way he spoke of them, so I was determined to have an illumination in
the movie. They have to be melodramatic because you have to strike heightened postures to
illustrate, to make yourself into a human painting.
Beard: Not only heightened postures, but heightened moral oppositions, right? Good guys and
bad guys, much more so than the film where you don’t actually have very clear divisions
between good guys and bad guys, unlike classic melodrama.
Maddin: A classic melodrama does have a villain. I could probably do myself a favour by
putting a villain in my movie. I’m too much of a film noir buff to ever have a simple villain. And
also the protagonist in films noir are never such great guys anyways. That’s where the Chekhov
comes in—I’m just thrilled by the fact that even the protagonists are morally weak.
Beard: Looking at your use of settings, and the terrific ability you have of making the most
elaborate and grandiose scene out of nothing. Have you ever thought of using Syberberg- type
Maddin: I have, recently, because I’ve had some good luck with rear-screen projection lately. I
used it a bit in Saddest Music in the World, and it’s a laugh. I used it a lot in the Isabella short
that I just finished because I needed her to play many characters at once, so I would videotape
her and then just video project it onto a rear screen and then get her into her other costume and
then stand her in front of that, videotape that, and then rear screen project that, and you build up
layers of Isabellas. So obviously a lot of that stuff can be done very effectively on a computer,
but just to all of a sudden switch to rear screen projection at this stage of the game seemed the
right choice. But it’s video rear screen, not film. Film rear screen is just too finicky for me,
synchronizing the shots.
Beard: What Syberberg does—he uses slides, basically.
Maddin: I could never get the slide projector powerful enough, or could anyone in Winnipeg. I
literally was doing research on it. I was getting frustrated that no one in Winnipeg could get me
the answers to these questions, even in 1990 when we supposedly had a film industry here. I
remember I was prepping a film that never got made in 1993 in Toronto and I phoned up all sorts
of people in Toronto about rear-screen projection, and they started explaining this really
elaborate—it sounded like one of those things where you would be lucky to get one shot a day in
with prisms, and you have the high-def projector behind an actor… I just thought, what the fuck,
Beard: But Syberberg is obviously making his movies for next to nothing, except he’s not
making them anymore, apparently…
Maddin: Well, he’s ancient, isn’t he?
Beard: He must be getting to be ancient by now, yeah. But Our Hitler, a 7-hour film with 12
props… this whole world...
Maddin: I like the idea of it.
Beard: You could take this stuff and blow it up.
Maddin: You could make something out of practically nothing. It’s exciting to think that instead
of painting a backdrop you could just project one, just video tape it with a mini-DV camera and
project it. So I did start doing that. I took some of that Mexican wrestling picture [Sombra
Dolorosa, 2004] I made for Telluride when the ballet dancers are swimming under water I used
rear-screen projection of an oil painting my mom had made. My mom’s the quintessential
Sunday painter. So I just took some of mom’s paintings and rear-screen projected them behind
my favourite ballet dancers and got them swimming underwater that way so they never had to
get wet. So I was starting to fall in love with rear-screen projection, and it was just so giddily
effective. I’d like to get into in a big way. I’ve written a few treatments for rock videos recently
Maddin: Yeah, but I’ll never made a rock video. I find the industry too infuriating. It’s too
rushed all the time. They’ll give you a song and they want a script in two days and things like
that. But I’ve been writing with rear-screen projection in mind all along.
Beard: The Canadian flag and the Canadian content in Archangel. The grenade with “Gott strafe
Kanada” on it, which, as you said, gets a laugh even from German audiences…
Maddin: I can’t imagine Germans caring enough about Canadians to write that on a grenade.
Beard: That’s exactly the point I was going to make. You tell a story on the DVD commentary
about how Germans in your audience were asking whether you hated Germans, or not, whereas
your Canadian viewers are going to feel flattered that the Europeans include Canada. Nice to see
Canadian content there, anyways.
Maddin: Yeah, I got a chance to improve upon the Canadian flag. I remember, ever since 1965
I’ve felt a little miffed that our flag is so… it looked like maybe the Toronto Maple Leafs third
alternate jersey or something like that. I liked the vintage leaf, the Toronto Maple Leafs, veiny
leaf. So I just thought the Canada flag should have a sort of more sinister, veiny leaf, and since
it’s a black and white movie instead of red it would be black.
Beard: And you put the ensign in there as well.
Maddin: It’s a chance to redesign, to reconfigure my country a little bit, which I guess is what
the movies are doing anyway.
Beard: Strangulation by intestine. Explain that a little.
Maddin: I can’t remember, exactly. It’s just a dumb gag.
Beard: It’s way over the top. It’s a good case in point, actually, that little whole moment, going
from there right through to the death of the boy, the return of the father, and they meet back up
in heaven and everything is hunky dory.
Maddin: I didn’t really develop it much. I just wanted the father to be a coward, forget to be
brave or something, and so I thought he should be rendered literally gutless. So that was my
Beard: So as long as the intestines were out, you might as well use them for something.
Maddin: I was literally thinking very programmatically. You know, how should he die? He
should be gutless, he should be gutted. But then there should be some sort of redemption or
something like that. Something heroic. He should use his guts for something. They’re there.
Beard: The glee that suddenly comes over Michael Gottli — actually, his greatest moment as a
performer in a Guy Maddin film, I think, occurs in his pantomime of how he did these
Bolsheviks for his son.
Maddin: That’s pretty nice. I remember, actually, astounding myself by weeping when filming
that. I couldn’t believe how he did such a good job of it.
Beard: But for me, the propinquity of those two things, the ludicrousness, the broad comedy of
strangling somebody with your sausage intestines on the one hand, and then this obviously very
sentimental and in some way quoted kind of transfiguration and redemption in a higher realm
somewhere where things are finally made right for everybody, and the fact that it is moving in an
ironic way, next to each other, that’s kind of your cinema in a nutshell almost.
Maddin: If I could figure out a way of really doing that, you know, it would be great.
Beard: Careful. Your first film in colour, and in your DVD commentary you talk a lot about
delicate, two-colour effects and trying to match colours and mysteriously appearing third
colours. But as the movie gets more and more intense and dramatically forceful, you more or
less revert to monochrome. In the commentary you say that there’s a relief to revert to black and
white, single tones. But it also seems to me that multi-colour in some way is the enemy of
intensity for you…
Maddin: Well, I certainly didn’t trust at that time my knowledge of how colour works
psychologically. I’ve have many just purely pleasurable undistracted experiences with rich
tonings of black and white things. I do remember laying out all the scenes of the movie on a big
piece of paper and sort of assigning colours to them. Either full colour, Caucasian [as in the skin tone] and purple or
Caucasian and emerald, or Caucasian and blue. And then I had just washes, monochrome. I just
planned it all out and I was literally just running out of combinations. I was starting to repeat
myself. But then I thought toward the end, maybe just keep it sturm-and-drang-ishly dark.
Beard: I really think it works.
Maddin: The earlier colour stuff is for the more festive moments.
Beard: It becomes in my mind a kind of pledge or sign of seriousness, when the duel takes place
in monochrome for example. It’s got a lot of jokiness to it with the buttons and a bunch of other
stuff that’s going on there, “I curse my fate!” and so on. At the same time, it seems to deliver a
bigger punch because it’s in monochrome.
Maddin: The cyan I was just pleased with. I guess it’s natural to make snow cyan. I guess early
experiments with two-strip technicolour were always… they make brief appearances as a
pageant or a parade or musical number or in a pirate movie, something swashbuckling. It just
seems that once you had to get down to business it was black and white. Time to go for some
Beard: And you talk about it, too, in Careful, the fragility of this eggshell quality of two strip
Technicolor. And it seems that that’s too fragile for what’s going on at the end of the movie.
You really need something more durable.
Maddin: At one point I was really wishing for that fragility to exist on all the voices as well and
have everyone whispering and barely audible, but George, as the defender of his own dialogue,
was saying, “well certainly you want the dialogue to be very audible, don’t you?” Besides, I was
having trouble finding those kind of helium addicts one needs to perform the lines with that kind
of strange, fragile quality that a lot of actresses had in the early days of the talkies before they
figured out what kind of voices they should have. They recorded very poorly and they had poor
voices to be begin with. A nice voice is very important to me. I went the opposite way, I went
the way I had already gone in Archangel and that’s recording the voices overly cleaning and
letting them exist almost as separate entities, sort of ghosts that won’t go away.
Beard: Careful also has your first specially composed musical score.
Maddin: That’s right, that was scary.
Beard: It makes quite a big difference. I’ll just give you my opinion here. I have to say that I
think it’s hardly possible to have film music that works better than found music in the case of a
filmmaker doing the kinds of things that you’re doing. Cowards Bend the Knee—there isn’t
better music for any of your films than Cowards Bend the Knee, and it’s all found music.
Maddin: Greg Klymkiw basically just said, “You’re doing this with a composer” because I had
sort of run out of music that was really working. I have since laid in more shipments. I only had
a few things, and it’s really hard to make it fit and stuff. But I was worried that John McCulloch,
who is Kyle’s brother, couldn’t get into the spirit of the really early stuff because a lot of his
favourite composers—and mine, too—were people that were working in the 40s and 50s and
things like that, 30s, and… We didn’t even bother going for the part-talkie vintage soundtrack at
all. The one thing I insisted on which John really didn’t like is that I record everything in mono.
He was probably right, actually. I probably should have gone for the full Dolby score in the mix.
It wasn’t like it was a 1920s score anyway. I probably should have just gone for that full effect
but I was still pretty stubborn. I was still shooting in a 1.33 aspect ratio even though it was being
blown up to 35, I was still having everything in mono.
Beard: The score’s doing some of the same kinds of things the film is doing, and that’s different
from found music. Playing a track from Boris Godunov, there’s no erotic element whatsoever in
the original music that you’re using. Here, the “aaaaaahhhh” you get right away, that moaning
sound works very nicely, but it’s already saying something different, something ironic. Some of
the big moments also have this very kind of queasy, solo violin—when Franz and Zenaida, at the
emotional highpoint of the film, the poor intonation—it’s running more or less parallel with the
film, instead of doing slightly different things.
Maddin: A lot of times when you’re finding music you’re finding things which are a perfect fit,
hoping it works, and you kind of try to make it work through cutting. Whereas it’s the exact
opposite with planning it. I was quite pleased with the score, just proud to finally have one and
relieved not to have to dig into stuff that was borderline legal, or stuff that wouldn’t become
legal anytime soon. It was just a relief. It felt good. John and I only had a short time to do it. We
collaborated over the phone while he was in Vancouver and I was here. I liked almost all the
cues a lot. There’s only a few that aren’t thrilling to me.
Beard: There’s some harp arpeggios there which are right out of Vertigo.
Maddin: He and I both like Carmen, and so I was pleased to have that borrowed power instead
of the stuff I had been borrowing before. I thought that he might be nominated for a Genie (not
that I cared, I didn’t even know the difference between a Genie, Gemini and a Juno until around
that time anyway), but I thought he would get recognized. But maybe his peers, if they even
noticed the movie at all, thought it was too pastiche-y. I’m not sure. I thought he did a really
good job. I was pleased to survive my first encounter with a composer. I saw all such composers
as the enemy, just as I did anyone who wanted to help me with lighting, or a first AD I resisted
having, I didn’t want any of those things. But I was pleased enough with the experience to see
the kind of potential that I always wanted to have.
Beard: In your cinema music has a big effect, much bigger than it would in conventional films.
The music track is always important.
Maddin: That’s right. It’s always bugged me that producers and bureaucrats have always treated
me like the ways that I can advance are the same ways that other filmmakers can advance. So,
“you need this composer,” but they’d be horrible mismatches for me or push me in a direction
where I’d be a fish completely out of water, dying.
Beard: It’s another way of emphasizing how much I like your use of found music.
Maddin: I really like to do it, too. But I feel a lot of nostalgia for the time I spent with John
working on Careful…
Beard: So, again with the caning—as in Archangel.
Maddin: I’d been reading some child cruelty fiction of the 19th century. I think Geza Csáth, this
Hungarian short story writer, who write a lot of corporal punishment stories, just cruel things
that everyone sort of accepted in days of yore. So I thought it would be nice to throw in
Beard: Well, try to follow up from Archangel with another caning scene, and self-mutilation.
There’s a real horror movie element in Careful with the burning your lips away and slicing your
fingers off and that kind of Grand Guignol quality.
Maddin: Ever since I heard the term Grand Guignol—someone explained to me that there was
this theatre in Paris that used to put on these bloody horror shows—I just loved the idea of it. I
thought, what a great idea. And I know it doesn’t mix with— but I was just going to insist on
putting it in anyway.
Beard: There’s actually a false happy ending in Careful, where Grigorss is reconciled to his new
father and Zenaida is reconciled to her son. Now it’s true that it’s too late for the brother
[Johann]. But there is a moment of serenity or potential rest there and then Klara just moves in
and just sweeps them all over the edge there to—
Maddin: Yeah, she’s got her own problems, evidently.
Beard: I’m struck by the fact that there’s this inexorably tragic while at the same time ridiculous
set of events that’s going on. But it looks like, for a moment, whoa, happiness or a certain
amount of peace at least may be possible. But then…
Maddin: That’s happened to me so many times. Now George wrote that scene but it just
seemed to ring true that would-be spouses like Klara and Grigorss don’t always have each
other’s best interests at heart. And so many times I’ve found peace in my life only to have it
pointed out that I’m behaving in a cowardly fashion and there is no nobility in such a peace and
it’s time to whack the hornet’s nest again. The next thing I know everything is horrible again.
I’m not saying that that’s what women do. It’s what mates to do each other.
Beard: Klara is a seriously toxic person in the film, but she has her reasons. — Now, compare and contrast the ass-wrestling in Gimli Hospital and the vest-unbuttoning in Careful.
Maddin: I did want the duel to be—as somebody who’d already shot Glima wrestling… when
the script outline that George had come up with called for a duel, I realized, I can’t just have a
duel, you know. And besides, duels had been done to death in movies. I just wanted a wrinkle on
it. George usually produces things in one big piece and they come out and you just shoot the first
draft. But it’s one of those occasions were I just said, “No this is not quite there yet. There’s got
to be a twist that ties in with the theme of the movie somehow,” the way I flukily did so with
Glima wrestling. So he just thought for a minute and went, “I know, these Canadians can undo
their own coats so each other could have better access to their weapons.” And they can be
worried about not being fast enough so that the other could get… I was very excited when he
thought of that.
Beard: It works very very nicely, I think. I can’t remember if I heard you or George or you and
George, or something, describing Careful as pro-repression and also pro-incest.
Maddin: It started out as pro-incest. I took a big rest after making Archangel because I made
myself sick working really hard on it. I took a trip up the west coast and saw the mountains for
the first time since I was six. And I’d also just heard about Leni Riefenstahl’s mountain pictures,
these mountains movies that I guess was as dear to many Germans as Westerns were Americans.
And so I thought, ‘I want to make a mountain picture.’ Once again it’s an untapped force of
forgotten culture or unknown culture. George in the meanwhile had been daydreaming, decided
he wanted to make a pro-incest movie. So when I returned from the trip I said, “I want to make a
mountain movie,” and he said, “I want to make a pro-incest movie,” so we just thought, make it on
Beard: You can’t be pro-incest and pro-repression.
Maddin: No, no. Well that’s what happened. I went and shot it and the pro-incest kind of got
lost and I think it ended up being that whenever anyone did act on their impulses, they were
punished in an Old Testament fashion instantly. So the lesson the movie seems to be saying is—
Maddin: Yeah, put a lid on it, careful, not so loud. So it ended up being a pro-repression movie
and I ended up kind of marketing it that way in my speaking engagements, saying let’s clean up
our big messy bedroom here, start throwing everything back in the closet, closing the closet
doors. Some people took me to task on it because obviously there’s lots of pained people hiding
in closets who feel a lot better once they come out of them. But, ah, I glibly say get back in the
closet. The closet suggests illicitness, illicitness suggests pleasure. Try the closet, it’s not so bad.
Beard: It’s also the case that you’re swimming against the current again, in the way that you’ve
liked to do for much of your career, or doing things opposite to the way they’re normally done.
It’s easy to make anti-repression movies.
Maddin: Or anti-incest … anti kid-diddling movies, you know. There were a lot of movies
coming out in 1991, when we shot the movie, about how horrible it was to be molested, and
well, of course. Of course it is! I was trying to make a pro-war movie with Archangel, but I
forgot that. I thought that would be outrageous because we were coming off … uh, it was 1989
when I shot it, Vietnam war protest started seriously in 1965, let’s just say. It was at least a
quarter century of liberal antiwar sentiment, wall to wall across America, at least things that
made it onto the big screen, things that… You know, no one listened to those old Republicans
Beard: “Rambo joins the army” isn’t exactly anti-war. But liberals don’t pay any attention to
those kinds of films.
Maddin: Yeah, exactly. So I thought it would be fun to make a movie that was clearly coming
from a liberal but was pro-war. I just thought it would be fun to play with the pro-war stuff that’s
so delightful in these books [The War Illustrated]. But by the time the movie came out, Persian
Gulf I had just opened (or Desert Storm, whatever it was called in those days) and George Bush
the first had a 94% approval rating.
Beard: Didn’t seem to be such a great idea anymore.
Maddin: I was kind of shocked at that sudden swing that hasn’t really swung back. I naively
thought that we had buried jingoistic sentiments forever, just the way I thought in 1970, I
thought mini-skirts would never disappear. I thought we had taken the hemlines as high as they
could go and they would never drop. Just naivete.
Beard: Well, all the stuff that destroyed in the 60s and 70s in culture all got built up again,
except in virtual toy form in the 80s, so here we are back with patriotism, and…. When I was
talking to George about the incest in Careful, he expressed again his astonishment that this
wasn’t the thing that anybody mentioned in the reviews.
Maddin: That’s true. There’s a scene where a boy does something sexual to his mother and then
jumps off a cliff, and no one mentions it. And the movie ends with a daughter choosing to die
while kissing her father.
Beard: I’m going to quote a little passage from the Careful DVD commentary you and George
made. George says about the reconciliation of Franz and Zenaida, that it would be permissible to
drop a tear, and then you add that, “too many people are ashamed of emotion in movies and are
made too uncomfortable by melodrama and the sheer artifice of this movie seems to be an
obstacle as well. But I’ve cried tears—perhaps tears of pride—over this very scene.” I just
wanted to say that what may be preventing tears is not the wholeheartedness of the emotion, but
the way it’s wrapped up in an artifice that’s partly ironic and mocking, and that’s something
that’s more visible to people probably than emotion is. I think they have to learn that emotion is
possible in your films because they start off, again, with the sense that they’re going to be in
ironic world where things are silly in some dimension.
Maddin: I think it’s possible. I don’t know if it’s possible in my films. Like I said yesterday I
know it’s possible in von Sternberg’s. I know it’s theoretically possible. Whether I’ve done it
properly or not, I think I have really.
Beard: Cowards Bend the Knee I think gets close. And the end of Careful comes very close to
doing that also. And also there are a couple of moments at the end of Saddest Music that really
break through into that.
Maddin: I’d like to do it someday. I’d like to do it unequivocally. But in the meantime I’ll take
these encouraging signs.
Beard: By your comments that you wouldn’t be brave enough to do it straight, you’ve said that
on one of your DVD commentaries, or that you lack courage to just go for it straight. It would
be the courage to risk failing, I take it.
Maddin: Yeah. Well, I think I’ve been contradicting myself on these comments over the years,
but it does suggest that I’m wary. At least I know a bit more each time out. Sometimes I’m very
heedless and foolish but when I’m gambling with real, important things I get as cautious as
anybody. I don’t want to work on a movie for two years and then ruin it all by gambling
heedlessly. We’ll see how it goes. It has to be there on the page, or it has to be there in the
simplicity of a face or something. But maybe I’ll know it when I see it and I’ll go for it then.
Beard: What does it mean that you have Geoff Pevere credited as a script editor on Careful?
Maddin: We needed a script editor; Telefilm required one. I was still pretty wary of soliciting
advice from anybody. I felt very much alone making the films, alone at least this time with
George and Greg Klymkiw. But I didn’t feel I had any other sympathetic people out there. Geoff
Pevere had been an early critic who had shown a lot of sympathy towards me.
Beard: He has spoken up pretty loud and clear for your films.
Maddin: We asked him if he would be the script editor and if he wanted to make wholesale
changes. we’d consider them, but we didn’t really want them. But I was eager to hear what he
had to say. But he just read it and said, “sounds good to me.”
Beard: It was ideal: it made Telefilm happy, and it made you happy.
Maddin: It was what I needed at the time. I still needed complete freedom to make my own
mistakes and now when I use script editors I would find them pretty valuable. Now some people
have sort of figured out where I’m coming from and so I can have preview screenings if I choose
carefully who comes to them (they have to be people who are smart, choose their words
carefully, and things like that).
Beard: Yeah, you don’t want to put a deadly weapon in somebody’s hands.
Maddin: I don’t want to have a preview screening like they do in California a month before the
movie’s reedited or something like that. So that was all it was. I needed some privacy. But now I
love input. I’m brave enough to take it.
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997)
Beard: You were reluctant to use 35mm for Twilight of the Ice Nymphs and you haven’t used
Maddin: I don’t like its lack of portability. Some of it was just … a bad marriage with the
producer and he didn’t stick up for me in any of the ways he promised he would. He and the
cinematographer ended up outvoting me to go to 35.
Beard: You didn’t know this was possible.
Maddin: I didn’t know there were votes being taken. When I hired both those people, and I
hired them, they both promised me that…
Beard: You’d be the boss.
Maddin: Yeah. And then they outvoted me on this 35 mm. And the agreement with the
union, I walked into that one, I wasn’t allowed to touch the camera. So, it wasn’t very
portable. And my cinematographer had had a severe leg injury so he was kind of limping
around. And there were no such things as handheld cameras. I still hadn’t quite learned to
move the camera while it was going, anyway. I briefly though that that’s there’s so much
dialogue and I would try to enhance its musicality that maybe I could get some sort of dolly
tracks but I just learned just how slowly dolly track shots are to set up. So we just ended up
having a slow push now and then on these boring two-shots. We were getting 14 shots a day
when I was used to getting 100 a day.
Beard: That’s amazing, by the way.
Maddin: It was really irritating.
Beard: Did you think about using Stedicam at all? Was that not an option or did that just not
Maddin: I didn’t think the story really called for it and besides the budget wouldn’t allow it.
I kept getting told that the budget wouldn’t allow it, the producer kept getting himself trailers
and things like that. Greg Klymkiw and I were great gutbucket-poor filmmakers. We’d share
a motel room together when we went to another city to do postproduction. But this producer
was always staying in expensive hotels. The money was misspent. And at the end we agreed
that we just earn exactly the same on it and at the end I was $14,000 in the hole and he
bought a house and an SUV. So I did not have a good experience with it. Right from the
start… This was the first time I’d actually tried to adapt a script that was already finished
rather than being in there … I liked the script, but I just don’t think I was capable of adapting
yet. I think I’m better now. I felt a commitment to keep the script the way it was and go with
it, and there weren’t little personal things to go on. I was very pleased with way the script
ended. I thought I’d had trouble with my films getting a sort of a knock-out punch at the end,
and I thought this movie had a nice ending. Unfortunately its so hermetic for most people,
most people weren’t sticking around for the ending anyway.
Beard: If you could imagine a fantasy universe in which 35 equipment was as small and
portable and easy to manage as 16, would you be using it?
Maddin: The movie still wasn’t a 35 mm, like, even if the portability was taken care of. All
of a sudden you’re shooting a 16 mm art department in 35 mm, and props and backdrops and
sets that are charming under low resolution conditions all of a sudden become kitschy when
they’re seen in sharp focus.
Beard: Couldn’t you use just as much Vaseline on your 35?
Maddin: I used a little bit, yeah. Don’t get me wrong. Some of it I thought was beautiful
looking. There just didn’t seem to be any mischief in it for me. I didn’t feel I was operating
under any banner. Before I was always the ringleader of a one-man band of mischief makers.
I was making a pro-incest movie or a pro-war movie or a slag-your-own-Icelandic-relatives
movie. In this one I just couldn’t attach myself to any mischievous plan and the 35 mm made
it just look…
Beard: It didn’t feel personal enough for you.
Maddin: No. And it looked pretty and artificial, but in a way that didn’t really matter to me
much. That’s when I learned that… About the only thing anyone ever said nice about the
movie repeatedly was that it looked very beautiful. That’s when I learned that that’s what
people say when they have nothing else to say about a movie. So I don’t even consider it a
big compliment really.
Beard: Since then you’ve gone in the other direction, 16 all the time and now 8.
Maddin: It never occurred to me to do 8 because I thought to you had to edit it on those tiny
Beard: It’s like watchmaking.
Maddin: But when I was teaching Film at the university, filmmaking, who sort of entered
the film class last and couldn’t get access to 16mm film just brought in a Super8 camera and
started making Super8 movies. It looked really neat. He had lots of motion in them and lots
of quick cutting. And all of a sudden I sort of got inspiration from one of my students, which
felt really neat, and ended up working with him on Dracula, this guy named Deco Dawson.
Beard: He started out as a student?
Maddin: I think when he worked on Dracula he must have been 21. I think he’s a year
younger than my daughter, so he would—no, he would have been 22. It was nice to get, a lot
of people just accused him of copying me because he was doing black and white movies,
they were kind of grainy. But his movies weren’t plot-driven at all, like mine aspired to be.
Most people couldn’t tell the difference between our movies, but mine had been 16mm and
black and white with talking, and his had been these micro-montage-y things.
Beard: More avant-garde, sounds like.
Maddin: Yeah. And they were very beautiful and he was a good editor. He had a real knack
for editing. So it was very inspiring for me, and he enabled me to be the kind of open book
that George was for me. I got to be that for him. It was lots of fun to teach someone lots of
things and then he learned lots of things on his own, and was way better than I was on certain
things. It was kind of fun to give him a job. He’d just graduated from education, didn’t want
to be a teacher. And so I got him this summer job working on Dracula and he ended up
contributing a tremendous amount. It really rejuvenated me quite a bit. I felt kick-started.
Beard: The other thing that’s a first in this film is the fact that you were using performers
that were known to a wider audience, with, Frank Gorshin, Pascale Bussières is known to
people outside the Guy Maddin world, so to speak…
Maddin: Alice Krige…
Beard: I love Alice Krige.
Maddin: All boys born around 1970, plus or minus four years, and were about twelve years
old when she appeared nude in Ghost Story loved her like crazy. I had Alice Krige branded
on the brain.
Beard: And of course, Shelley Duvall, also. So that must have presented a challenge to you,
to not be finding people that you knew personally, people from the neighbourhood.
Maddin: Yeah, casting became a nightmare. Alliance at the time insisted that we get these
name actors. Say goodbye to your chums and pals, useless, mannered cronies and get some
real actors in here and then we’re talking. And 35mm would be nice, while you’re at it, too,
and all that stuff. I was so glad they were supporting me [slightly ironic tone]. But I didn’t
mind having those actors because for one thing they were professional, they’d come
prepared, and George’s dialogue puts everybody into the same movie, more or less.
Beard: R.H. Thomson, I don’t want to forget him, too, because he’s just terrific in that.
Maddin: Oh, yeah. He really worked hard on this thing, to get it right. He’s the one who I
really appreciated the most because he had these long speeches and he had to make them
play, and he’s a great theatre actor and so he really worked at it. And he was asking me so
many questions about the motivation between lines and how he should say things. I finally
just dumped him off onto George. Maybe that was the problem. I didn’t understand the script
as well as R.H. Thomson even. I ran out of luck with the lead actor. He struggled.
Beard: He looks good, he’s got the right facial expressions a lot of the time, for me. And I
know you had problems with the dialogue delivery and you had to loop.
Maddin: Yeah. I tried so hard to put the George back into his performance because it wasn’t
there. He struggled with it. I like that guy, and he was really just devastated when his voice
was replaced, but it’s a tough role to play when your director doesn’t really even have
control of the movie, either. So I won’t blame him.
Beard: What happens to me, and I find it a little disconcerting in that film, is that as
professional and as wonderfully skilled as these actors are they do represent a departure from
the kind of somnambulistic acting style or this kind of frozen acting style that you sometimes
get with your earlier films, which goes so well, actually, with the kind of film that you’re
Maddin: I tried so hard to get Nigel Whitmey, the lead actor, to sleepwalk because there are
scenes where he’s sleephunting in this movie and where he’s just stunned with the usual
Archangel delirium of not knowing which girl to be with and which one’s really there and
whether she really loves him or not. I just asked him to be delirious. Just like I used to direct
Kyle McCulloch that way. But he [Whitmey] couldn’t be delirious. He could not get
delirium. He just couldn’t stylize it. He came from a different acting school. He came from
RADA where delirium was something internalized and I was dealing with expressionist
actors all the time.
Beard: But even in a performance where you wouldn’t want to make any kind of criticism of
the performer whatever, for example, Alice Krige’s performance, which is just fine in terms
of what it is, but it brings a sort of face to the part which maybe, I dunno, shouldn’t be
there… Well, I don’t want to put it like that.
Maddin: Well, some of it may be 35mm, too.
Beard: I think you had another go around now, with Saddest Music, with Isabella Rossellini
and Maria de Medeiros, some people who had been in other people’s movies and who are
sort of fairly well known and who are professional movie actors. And it seems to me that in
that movie, the skills that they bring, the face that they bring, the presence that they bring is
integrated somehow very well into what you’re doing. I don’t know whether that simply has
to do with the difference in the projects or what.
Maddin: Well, I was more organically involved right from the beginning perhaps. And I
don’t really know what I’m doing, so I have to stay within myself. I’m serious. There are
very few things that I can be sure of what I’m doing so I try to stay within them usually and I
try to grow slowly. George just made a beautiful script to listen to when he read it to me first,
out loud, a very difficult one for me to do properly. I just wasn’t ready for it. I think at that
time I should have gone for something more sensational and more zany or whatever.
Beard: There is one thing about that film that relates, and I don’t know how much of this is
George and how much it’s you. There’s a kind of molecular model of characters in relation
to each other. You remember those molecule models you used to play with in junior high or
high school, you know, stick and oxygen onto a carbon. You can get that sense of a three
dimension model of characters in relation to each other in almost all of your films there are
more than a few characters, certainly most of the later ones, now, and you could almost draw
a diagram of the relationship to each other. Is that something that you just kind of drifted
into, or is it something that comes from George…?
Maddin: I like to do it. I like to know the relationship of everyone. There were two people
that virtually never saw each other in that movie. I think it was Pascale Bussières and Alice
Krige. So they didn’t get to be joined up that way. They were at opposite ends of the
molecule. I sort of noticed half way through the thing that the movie was structured like
Gilligan’s Island. Exactly the same number of characters and sort of the same kind of people,
with a really kind of hotheaded Gilligan and a little more manipulative Professor or
whatever. But that’s when I realized that of course Gilligan’s Island is modeled on The
Tempest and that George was thinking more along the lines of The Tempest than Gilligan’s
Beard: But to go back to Archangel or Careful, and again in Cowards and in Saddest Music.
There’s like three or four or five or maybe six —
Maddin: I kind of like seven as a number of characters.
Beard: — and they all have these little connections with each other. It’s very different from
the standard plot movie where you have one or two central characters and you follow them
through an action.
Maddin: Maybe why no one can follow my damn movies and why after I make a movie like
Saddest Music in the World people will come up to me and say, “I really like your movies;
they’re so non-narrative” or something like that. People will come up to me after every one
of my movies and say, “I really love your movies because I love silent film.” It doesn’t
matter whether it is a silent film or a talking picture. So even after Twilight of the Ice Nymphs
people have said, “I love your movie. It reminds me so much of silent film.” And I’m
thinking, “here’s a movie that has so much dialogue that my French distributors, who are
really loyal to me, wouldn’t take it one because there were too many subtitles to do and it’s
in full colour.” I was trying to figure out what’s the silent movie part of that.
Beard: It seems like the least silent movie of all your films. We’ve got another wooden leg
here, and another self-mutilation (a guy shoots himself in the foot, of course)—
Maddin: Yeah. Just literalizing it.
Beard: And it’s just one of a whole procession of mutilations, amputations.
Maddin: It’s like every time I go to start a new movie I forget that I had all these in the other
Beard: It’s not a bad thing to repeat stuff like that, the question is just, where is it coming
Maddin: I like those old Lon Chaney movies and I like those—you know, I love melodrama
but I also like fairytales. They’re all kissing cousins, surrealism, fairy tales and melodrama.
Beard: All the things that happen to Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters.
Maddin: Yeah, and these are little allegories of disability where someone’s inner wounds are
shown expressionistically, outwardly. So I’m comfortable things like that. I’m not too sure
why Doctor Solti has a wooden leg, I can’t remember.
Beard: The statue fell on him.
Maddin: Oh, that’s what it was. Yeah. See, I didn’t give enough savagery to Venus in that
story. It’s one of those cases where I forgot to warn George that I have sort of a pet peeve
against certain movies that involve pieces of art that supposed to be really… that the
overburdened art department can never come up with. At least in the old days. Nowadays
they can digitally make something. Even Vertigo, favourite movie, that portrait of Carlotta.
Paint by numbers painting.
Beard: You know what, I was at the Palace of the Legion of Honour about two months ago
and I walked through it and of course there’s no portrait of Carlotta there, but there is a lot of
kind of bad art up there together with a lot of really good art. Nobody was sitting there in
rapt contemplation of the bad art.
Maddin: But then I was just worried about, okay, a sculpture of Venus. How I can convey its
power? Obviously you can’t just do it in the art department. I went cheap the wrong time.
Hitchcock always knew when to do phony and it worked. He’s got that incredibly awkward
dream sequence in Vertigo where Jimmy Stewart’s head gets detached and turns into a —
what a prescient moment of psychedelia — Sal Bass pizza nightmare.
Beard: It wasn’t one of Saul Bass’s greatest moments.
Maddin: But I was … I just didn’t go phony at the right time there. When the statue falls I
wasn’t able to imbue it with any power, somehow. I didn’t know how to. And at fourteen
shots a day I hadn’t quite—I think I’d know how to shoot that movie now. I’d collaborate a
bit more on the script to incorporate its visuals. It was also the first script where I had no idea
what kind of setting to give it. George had written it so that it would be set on a sheep farm
in Iceland and I just felt—maybe I should have kept it Norse and sparse.
Beard: It looks like Maxfield Parrish a lot. Which is kind of stimulating.
Maddin: I decided to go more nineteenth century decadent—I’d been visiting Gustave
Moreau’s museum in Paris and I thought, maybe I’ll just try to make it decadent a little bit
because this language isn’t very sparse. Maybe I’ll try to go that way and turn up all the dials
as far as I can. But those are dials that nobody pays much attention to. If they’re not
organically… the sets just weren’t organically part of the story. It didn’t matter if it was
ostriches or sheep. I thought maybe I could rationalize the ostriches, the neck as a sort of
stamen or phallic sort of, endlessly running around.
Beard: I know some people really really like the film. Steven Shaviro, who wrote a good
essay on your work, is ravished by the look of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs.
Maddin: He probably likes Peter Greenaway movies then, too.
Beard: Don’t mention Peter Greenaway to me. I don’t like Peter Greenaway.
Maddin: No, me neither. I had a hunch you wouldn’t care for Peter Greenaway. I can’t
The Heart of the World (2000, 6')
Beard: Moving on for just a minute to Heart of the World. If there’s some problems with
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs and not everybody likes it that much possibly including you—
Maddin: At least I learned a lot.
Maddin: — Took me a while to move on.
Beard: Heart of the World is a film that everybody likes, right?
Maddin: That felt good, yeah.
Beard: Were you surprised by the, you know, rapturous acclaim that that film has gotten?
Maddin: Well, it’s weird. I’m never surprised about anything because I always daydream
out in advance all the possible scenarios. So I’m never totally surprised, but I was pretty
pleased. I didn’t expect—I had a hunch while I was making that it would get noticed. And its
best venue was of course the Toronto Film Festival where it played many many times. I
don’t know how many screenings they had at the time.
Beard: In competition with the best filmmakers in Canada, and you beat the shit out of them.
That must have felt good.
Maddin: Only Robert LePage didn’t do one, and I don’t think Denys Arcand did one, one of
those preludes, but all the other big names.
Beard: I haven’t seen them all. I’ve seen a couple.
Maddin: Cronenberg’s is quite nice.
Beard: It is, but yours is the best.
Maddin: Well, it seemed to be talked about more.
Beard: The idea that it would end up on Ten Best lists of American critics, you know?
That’s unheard of for a short film.
Maddin: Well, the Toronto Film Festival is attended by all the critics in North America, and
then it played even at press screenings even, I think, before the features they were reviewing,
so each critic got to see it maybe 20 times. And I made it intentionally so that it would still
be revealing things on a subsequent viewing. Whereas if you didn’t make a film like that,
you might be getting resentment on a fifth or sixth viewing. I’d been to enough film festivals
where there’s really a clever commercial placed before every movie by the sponsor and the
first couple times it’s hilarious and then audiences boo at it after a while. And I thought, you
know what, I’d rather just have something whiz over everyone’s head but at least maybe
since they’re going to be forced to watch it like Malcolm McDowell in Clockwork Orange
being forced to watch images, then the least I can do is make it go by so quickly that maybe a
story will eventually emerge on a nth viewing and maybe some images will pop out and look
a little better and things like that. At least you won’t be infuriatingly bored on a second
viewing. And then I was really lucky to find a piece of music that was kind of invigorating.
Beard: Can you tell me a little bit more about that piece of music because it is invigorating.
And it works perfectly with the film.
Maddin: Georgy Sviridov, who was a composer in the Soviet Union, around 1968 (I’m told)
composed this piece called “Time, Forward!” for the evening news in Moscow, or a
newsmagazine, or a spy show. I’ve heard varying things.
Beard: And where did you find this?
Maddin: My connection through the producers on those preludes, Rhombus, Larry
Weinstein there works with a guy in Moscow named Victor Gabechev whom I’ve never met,
I just spoke with him on the phone. When I was telling Larry that I was really looking for
some Soviet, agitprop kind of music—
Beard: Futurist stuff…
Maddin: —he suggested Mosolov’s Power Plant or something? And I listened to that and I
really liked it.
Beard: Pounding …
Maddin: Yeah. I really liked it but it wasn’t still quite there yet. And so he said, well, I’ll
connect you with Gabechev and so I phoned up this guy in Moscow, who I immediately
pictured sort of in a tar paper room on the Nevsky Prospect somewhere in Petersburg.
Wherever he was, somewhere in Russia. And I just described what I wanted and he said, I
know exactly what you want. And he phoned me back about a day later and left a message
saying, phone me. And I checked my messages and I phoned from a pay phone in Winnipeg
and he said, Listen to this. And he played it to me over the phone, and I went, this is great!
Send it to me. And on a Sunday night there was a knock on my door and a big, fat courier for
a company that I don’t think really exists showed up with a big box, a really big box, bigger
than a bread box, and I opened it and there was tons of old, Soviet newspapers shredded for
packing, and in the inside was a CD and a little DAT tape.
Beard: He got it straight from the television archive.
Maddin: He just bought the CD, I guess.
Beard: So there was a commercial recording of this after the fact, in other words.
Maddin: The rest of Sviridov’s compositions are choral and slow and lugubrious but this one
is unbelievably energetic. When I got a whole Sviridov CD, I played “Time, Forward!” and
then the next ones were sort of just getting more and more oatmealy.
Beard: You were obviously in your Soviet phase here. Had you spent some time…?
Maddin: I’d been watching a bit before that, and then Deco, with whom I’d been hanging
out the previous year, was really getting off on the Soviet stuff so I was rewatching some and
he was making dubs of Soviet films for me. So we watched quite a bit. And we just watched
the way Eisenstein uses those jump cuts or those redundant cuts where the person sits down
five times and in very micro-montage-y things. We realized we were getting goose bumps
and boners from together watching these cuts. And then, he and I (I can’t remember who
discovered it first) but there are all sorts of editing accidents when you’re actually editing
film physically, where you’ve got a shot, you cut the head off of it, you cut the tail off of it,
you keep the meat of the shot and that’s what you want. Quite often after you’ve been
delirious for a while you cut the head off and you cut the tail off and you throw out the meat,
by accident. All you’ve got left is the stuff you didn’t want. And you join that together and
you watch it and then all of a sudden there’s an exciting jump cut and actually the rejects are
far better than what you would have kept had you been more wakeful. And so we just called
these bite cuts because it’s actually where you bite the shot that you want right out of the
movie and kept what was left instead. And so both of us use that a lot in our movies.
Beard: And that was shot on 16mm, right?
Maddin: Heart of the World was shot in 16. The plan was to shoot it entirely on 16, and then
I hired Deco, I was just going to pay him a few bucks to keep a diary. I usually just hire a
diarist to keep a written diary, and I have them all, on my movies, but I thought for this one
is would be fun to have a Super 8 diary. And what happens a lot of times when I’m in battle I
can’t hear when my film runs out and I forget to focus and stuff like that. But when the film
came I realized there were some shots that I just didn’t get because the film ran out, and they
were really important shots in the story—because I storyboarded the entire movie—but Deco
got them because he was just filming me filming, and most of the time he framed me out.
And he just started trying to get shots. He and I always thought things differently. I just tend
to shoot things straight on, and just keep it as simple as possible, so when he wanted to shoot
something at the same time that I was he didn’t have that angle because I was putting my fat
ass there. He was either forced to or chose to take a different position. So at a 90 degree
angle or a high angle. So what happened was when Super8 film came back and my 16 film
came back, he not only got the shots I was running on empty for, but he also got sometimes
far superior angles than mine did, or the light just halated better or I just liked the grain and
texture of that. So I asked him if he wanted to edit some of it in... And then he started editing
sequences together just for fun and sure enough, they did look—I preferred them over some
of the little 16 segments that I had. Pretty soon his diary was making its way into the film.
And soon we were just editing side by side. He was editing the 8mm stuff on a little table
right beside me while I was editing 16.
Beard: Are there 8mm Steenbecks?
Maddin: No. There are horribly punitive little editing things with dim lights and Deco was
going blind doing it. Then we travelled to Regina together where there was an optical printer
and we blew his 8mm stuff up to 16 and then edited the two formats together and then went
back to Regina and reprinted the entire movie, at Saskpool.
Beard: Obviously, there are editing rhythms and the whole pace of this film is different even
from your short films which were quite often pacier than your longer films.
Maddin: Yeah, it’s something I’d been thinking of doing ever since I made this Odilon
Redon where I made a short film. I sort of pledged to eventually remake all my favourite lost
Beard: La Roue.
Maddin: Yeah, I could never get hold of La Roue, so I just threw in a two-and-a-half hour
plot into a four minute movie. It disappears, you know, the images are more dealt out like
cards rather than seamlessly flowing one into the other and telling a story. I decided I wanted
to do that for this one, but really cram it in, so I knew right from the beginning that the shots
would have to be that quick. I gave the treatment, and my producer, Niv Fichman, he just
said, are you crazy? And I said, no no no, I’m going to edit this really fast, trust me.
Beard: So your story board for this must have been very extensive with all of those shots.
Maddin: They were pretty planned. There ends up being 600 cuts in the movie, but there
were only about 150 storyboards.
Beard: For a six minute film that’s a lot.
Maddin: A lot of the cuts were unplanned. You know, they’re jump cuts or they’re things
that Deco supplied. Or I’m cutting back and forth between things. But there were about 150
panels that I worked from and that I adhered to it completely and then in the editing that’s
where we improvised. Actually, I didn’t have to edit to the music at all. I just edited it as
tightly as possible and then just slapped the music on.
Beard: The music is just driving all the way through, so...
Maddin: It didn’t have to be cut to the music at all. We just slapped the music on after. We
learned that the music was already working. I was experimenting with the music before I
even shot the movie on all sorts of silent movies that I own that have really bad soundtracks.
I was putting this on and I found that it worked with movies in which there was movement
and that it didn’t work in movies where they were serene. I looked through my storyboards
and realized a lot of the panels had no movement in them, so I just quickly added some
movement. If it was just a crowd listening to Anna the Scientist talking, I would just have
them go up on their toes and down on the balls of their feet for no good reason, but just to put
movement inf. So I tried to put movement in almost every shot. I couldn’t put it in every one,
but just something that made it really crazy.
Beard: Well, you have all those Eisenstein shots where you have somebody go like this and
then they go this.
Maddin: Where at point A and point B the framing is still pleasing and somewhere in
between is too quick for it to be unpleasing. I love those things. There’s nothing like
Beard: Well, Anna gets to do that all the time.
Maddin: Yeah. The best examples of that in Eisenstein, in Ivan the Terrible where, I can’t
remember the actor’s name…
Maddin: Yeah, Cherkassov, where he’s got that incredibly elongated beard and head and so
he’ll start in one position and then the whole thing swings around and so there are two great
still portraits in one moving shot.
Beard: But he was doing that already in, well, the Eisenstein movie that I know the best is
actually October. Because I’ve taught it a lot I’ve actually done, I used to have to use stop
action projectors. You could actually see what was going on even when the montage was
really fast. But so often he would do that kind of a thing, do a close-up and have… That film
is a great, and Potemkin too, and I guess they are all, great compositional films, not
necessarily editing films but the compositions are very strong in them.
Maddin: I really wanted Sissy Boy Slap Party to look like Potemkin. The studio where we
were just didn’t have walls strong enough to support hammocks. Otherwise I would have had
tonnes of hammocks in the beginning. All those boys would have been in hammocks. Maybe
it would have been too direct a rip off at that point, so it’s just as well.
Beard: What are your favourite Soviet films, just while we’re on the subject? Some Dziga-Vertov, right?
Maddin: I loved Three Songs of Lenin and Man With a Movie Camera and Enthusiasm quite
a bit. It’s got a great soundtrack. It’s got a very non-literal soundtrack where industrial
sounds are the music and sometimes music’s there. I also like these Trauberg and
Alexandrov a lot.
Beard: Right, yes. Did you turn into a Dovzhenko person at all?
Maddin: Not as much.
Beard: That’s kind of slow Soviet film.
Maddin: I watched one with my girlfriend and her rage over Pudovkin’s Mother. She hated it so much that it was killing me. But I remember
watching it with a lot of pleasure. I love the wailing Ukrainians in Dovzhenko always. There’s so much to
love in those things, but because they’re propaganda more often than not, they aren’t about
Beard: No. I was also going to say… If you think about the other side, let’s say Murnau, on
the other side of the ledger, you’ve got a cinema that’s about the soul, and another cinema
that’s about something else, whatever Soviet cinema’s about.
Maddin: Propaganda’s just a big lie, so I find it kind of amusing now and then, even though
they kind of… there were pogroms attached to these propagandistic urges. But the
propaganda is laughable, you know, and so is George Bush.
Beard: It’s fitting, in a way, although Eisenstein’s probably spinning in his grave, that
Eisenstein’s techniques are best used in commercials. They’re still selling something.
Maddin: I’m sure the queer mischief in him would approve.
Beard: Now I have a very specific question. How does Anna heal the heart of the world and
how does it lead to Kino?
Maddin: I don’t know. I don’t remember. It is a propaganda movie, don’t forget, so it
requires specious leaps of logic.
Beard: I’m not bothered by the fact that I don’t know. I wondered if you did.
Maddin: Umm… well… I was trying to get into the spirit of propaganda. Those always
require a leap of faith, all the isms require a leap of faith. And that one sort of reminded me a
bit, just from first-year Marxism back in university, that one would no longer be alienated
from one’s work, and one would just work because he or she liked the work, and all this sort
of crap, it sort of omitted the fact that there’s such thing as jealousy and desire.
Beard: Humanity has not been perfected yet.
Maddin: Yeah. So I just kind of liked the propagandistic suggestion that someone could just
give up all earthly pleasure or pleasures of the flesh if she’s stymied by indecision in a love
triangle or a love quadrangle, and that she should just give up money, the plutocrat and that
she should just give herself—
Beard: Save the world.
Maddin: —save the world by producing its biggest, ironically, its biggest opiate since
religion. I don’t know.
Beard: OK. No, that’s good.
Maddin: Actually, it was just an excuse for a new creation myth of cinema.
Beard: But that’s good, too. And what is that penis gun thing doing?
Maddin: This is failure of montage. It originally was a part of the … there was supposed to
be—Nikolai, the mortician, was supposed to be making these really elaborate coffins but I
didn’t have enough time to include them all. There were some coffins with factories on top
of them that we built, and there was this one coffin that had a huge riveted cock and balls and
it was being loaded with money, like coins, so that in an impressive display of human
taxidermy meant to woo Anna, and then I guess, with all the pressure of all the people
becoming undead diring this sort of apocalyptic moment, I sort of thought that all the coins
could come blasting out of this cock again and actually just hit an innocent bystander. But
even with my explanation of what I attempted to achieve through cutting and what I
grotesquely failed to do, it doesn’t make any more sense.
Beard: Well, you’re in good company because Eisenstein has volumes of what this montage
sequence means and what that montage sequence means and nobody gets that when they’re
Maddin: That’s what I was going for, and I knew right away that it wasn’t going to work.
And I didn’t care.
Beard: And the beauty is that things are going by so fast that in a certain sense it doesn’t
matter because the verve of the thing is just carrying it forward.
Maddin: I didn’t want to give it away because this extra just did a great death fall, right on
one take, and I liked the way her shoe went flying off in it.
Odilon Redon, or The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Towards Infinity (2005, 5')
Beard: You mentioned Odilon Redon. I don’t have a lot of questions about that, but La
Roue [Abel Gance, 1923—reputedly the basis for Odilon Redon] was mythical film for you,
for a while.
Maddin: Yeah, I thought it was lost. I could never track it down so I just thought I would
make my own version of it and then if I ever saw it I would see how it compared. So I do
own it now, on video tape.
Beard: You do? Because I’ve been looking for it forever. Where did you find it?
Maddin: It’s not in great shape. It’s murky enough to be just wonderful and it really is an
Beard: I don’t understand why Gance’s work, particularly his silent work, isn’t just available
Maddin: Yeah, restored and out there at Blockbuster. Even the talkies, which are a bit mad, I
really love. I love J’accuse. The ending of J’accuse, I actually—I was so in love with that
movie when I was making Twilight of the Ice Nymphs that I sort of just tried to—it’s the one
thing I changed from George’s script—is that I tried to take the madness of J’accuse and just
sort of take a guy who’s addressing all the war dead, and I just thought I would have,
um—I’ve been through a lot of unrequited love agonies myself, so I thought I would have
the main character addressing all the trees in the forest. The closest I’ve come is addressing
all the taxis in Winnipeg. So it was an autobiographical moment emboldened by Abel Gance
and the tree invocation.
Beard: I can see Gance in your work.
Maddin: I love him because he’s a fevered romantic. He loves his Victor Hugo, he loves his
Baudelaire, and he loves his cocaine.
Beard: He loves his Napoleon, or his romantic version of Napoleon.
Maddin: Yeah. There are almost no pimples on the characters in Beethoven. Well, there are
a lot of pimples—not pimples, warts and waddles on Harry Baur as Beethoven but he’s still a
god and he gets the full deification, and so does Napoleon. I love Beethoven, too.
Beard: I haven’t seen that one.
Maddin: It’s crazy. Larry Weinstein was doing a documentary on Beethoven’s hair for
Rhombus and he kept making fun of Gance’s Beethoven, but I was thinking, you’re wrong,
you should be lucky to even make a movie 1/10 as interesting as this movie. But there are
very few subjects that could withstand that kind of deification, and maybe Napoleon and
Beethoven… He did Lucretia Borgia, as well. I would love to make a Lucretia Borgia
Beard: Go for it.
Maddin: Yeah, I’m reading up on her. I just have to do a little bit of research and figure out
a way of not having so many wigs. They make me tired, watching too many wigs in movies.
Beard: Notwithstanding that you managed to put Isabella Rossellini in a wig.
Maddin: I don’t think I can watch that wig anymore. We used that wig in Cowards Bend the
Knee and… that wig costs eight bucks and we used it in two movies.
Beard: That’s value for money.
Maddin: That’s right. Four bucks per picture.
Dracula—Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002)
Beard: Now, Dracula—
Maddin: I think we used the wig in Dracula, too, actually. I think Amina wears that wig.
Beard: I just wanted to say that I think it’s your most straightforwardly beautiful movie in
the sense that it’s the most directly lyrical, the one with the least sort of noise surrounding
lyricism, if you know what I mean. And it’s also obviously very different kind of production
for you because you’re a metteur-en-scène here as well as an auteur or even instead of an
auteur. It’s totally a Guy Maddin film but you have a finished production to start with and to
convey and adapt in a certain kind of way, or to reimagine. You’ve said you were averse to
doing it at first but after a while you were very glad you did it in the end.
Maddin: I loved having everyone all rehearsed before and at the start of each day. And
instead of me telling them what to do they were telling me what they were going to do. And
then all of a sudden it was kind of like a low-budget Roon Arledge is trying to figure out how
to film a sporting event, you know. Where to hide the Super8 cameras, which potted fern to
stick the third cameraman in and then just how to block it out. It was kind of fun to work
your way through a dance that you didn’t quite understand yet.
Beard: It’s very far from being anything like what I’ve seen in terms of a film version of a
Maddin: I didn’t want to make one of those, nor did the choreographer want me to make one
nor did the dancers, because I asked them all beforehand—maybe you’ve read this
beforehand—I approached this project very cautiously so the first thing I asked the
choreographer and all the dancers what their favourite dance films were and they said they
didn’t have any, that they didn’t like them. While I was videotaping the dance, just so I could
have a record of it (because there’s no such thing as a script for a ballet, that I could read,
anyway) I just, Mark Godden, the choreographer arranged for a performance for me. He held
me by the nape of the neck while I walked around with a video camera. I just moved in
amongst all the dancers on the stage and then every now and then he would pull me out of
the way if a ballet dancer was going to come kicking through or something. So we wouldn’t
have collisions or my head taken off or something like that. I quickly got bored with just
documenting it, so I would go in for close-ups. And I could feel that the dancers were
actually enjoying the close-ups. Far from being insulted that their dancing bodies were being
removed from the their heads, I could feel them and I could see with my eyes that they were
doing a lot of work with their faces. Then I would wander down to check out what their
bodies were doing now and then and I could see that they were doing things with their
fingers and that reminded me of the great, expressionist silent movie actors. I kept finding
myself returning to the hands and then back up to the faces for way of capturing expression.
And now and then I would feel guilty and move back for the full body things. So I got kind
of a record of what was going on. And every now and then I realized that there were two
things going on on the stage at once. The vampire hunters were over there, and that Dracula
and Mina were over here, and so I would swish pan back and forth with my video camera,
just keeping it running for the full two hours of the ballet’s original length, whatever the
length was (it was 50 minutes longer [than the film], at any rate—it was 2 hours and 2
minutes). But what was really neat sometimes was when there was a lot of action going on, a
lot of dancers doing things, either the suitors coming over to introduce themselves or the
vampire hunters closing in on Dracula or a big corps de ballet of all these little convent girls
moving around, that you could actually feel the dance floor (ballet dance floors sort of have a
give to them), you could feel the dance floor give a little bit beneath you, you could hear
them exhaling, you could hear them gasping, you could hear them, literally leotards ripping,
panties shredding, muscles tearing. They were all injured all the time, they have partially
severed Achilles tendons and things, they’re tougher than football players, these dancers, you
get sprayed with sweat from cute girls and beautiful men. There’s all this… there’s an
occasional “queef,” all sorts of chaotic stuff. So even stuff that would look symmetrical to
the people in the expensive and cheap seats, was total chaos to a camera right in the middle
of it. And that’s dance as dancers know it.
Beard: And that’s why they don’t like dance films.
Maddin: Yeah, they’re boring. That would be like reminding them that they’re going to have
to retire some day and sit in the house, you know? So I got lots of gripes from dance purists
about it, but I didn’t get any gripes from dancers. Except, you know—
Beard: You did get gripes from dance purists.
Maddin: Yeah, occasionally. Not many, though. Or some people would gripe on behalf of
dance purists. I didn’t feel they were dance purists, but they would feel that someone had to
gripe on behalf of dance purists in the absence of any dance purists. Besides, we’d decided to
make it a silent movie that just happened to have dancing in it, rather than a dance film.
Beard: And it’s already a silent movie, right?
Maddin: Yeah. In a narrative ballet and when the dancers quit dancing they start miming and
they’re silent movie actors. It’s a matter of filming in black and white. The producer
originally wanted it in HDTV colour. I though, oh, after I read the book, which I hated,
which had some really clever things in it…
Beard: Bram Stoker’s Dracula?
Maddin: Yeah, I didn’t really like the style, it’s boring and I only ever read the first half of
it, but it was enough for me to get what the book was really about, and what almost all the
movie adaptations aren’t about to me. Just the way men propagandize against women who
make them jealous and create a monstrous perfect man that they’ve never met and measure
themselves up against them and come up short and spend all their time trying to expunge him
from even the daydreams of the women that they want to boink. So that’s what I felt, that it
was that simple, that it was about that and I decided to take that approach, and that Dracula
doesn’t really exist and you could remove Dracula from the formula and the men and the
women would still act exactly the same way with or without him, that the women would still
dance romantic, sexy, horny pas de deux but just by themselves, off on little autoerotic
reveries, and that men would still be jealous that their women were even thinking of other
men. So it was kind of fun just to film it as a silent movie, trying to keep the narrative focus a
little more than the stage ballet did, because stage ballet has a captive audience; no one can
Beard: Not only that, but ballet is not a particularly good medium for narrative. It can do all
kinds of fantastic things, and it can do narrative, but it’s not a natural medium for narrative.
Maddin: It’s not best for it. But something on television, if it’s a narrative, you have to make
sure that people are reassured that if they’re lost they’re going to be able to find their way
back in in a hurry. Making Dracula helps, because everybody knows Dracula ends up getting
staked through the heart and bites people before that. I just decided that I would have
intertitle cards inserted now and then to help people get back on board and that I would try to
reassert narrative clarity, and that I would introduce the character of Renfield from the novel,
who, since he doesn’t do any dancing (he’s just imprisoned for the entire book) the
choreographer decided to omit him but I thought it would be kind of fun to have someone to
cut to that was outside of the main theatre, so I introduced Renfield and… Lucy’s mother, I
reintroduced, too. I thought she was important. Having a mother that seems appear in almost
every one of my movies, a tolerant mother—I thought it was important to have an eagle-eyed
mother. Stoker was smart enough to put one in there. It’s Victorian England, after all.
You’ve got to have a mother that’s an all-seeing, sexually-sensitive mother. In the book it’s
great. She dies at exactly the same time as Lucy and they’re stuck in a crypt side by side on
coffins, and I thought those were great ideas so I couldn’t do that, because we didn’t have the
budget, believe it or not, to bring out a coffee table to put the mother on. That set, we ran out
of money, but I had one more set to build, so we made it out of paper garbage bags. My
friend Ricardo Alms just worked all night one night and I came in one morning and we had a
set. A crypt. I was so pleased. He just took paper and just sprayed it with coffee. It’s very
Beard: And of course one of your great world-historical achievements had been to show how
you can take cheap stuff and make it into something really interesting and nice.
Maddin: Luckily we set it down in this loading dock of this mattress warehouse. I wanted to
do something that the choreographer wasn’t crazy about at first, so we nixed most of this, but
I wanted to get multi-levels going, but dancers don’t really like to dance upstairs and
downstairs a lot and it would really change the choreography. But he was really
accommodating about, when we amputated certain chunks of the ballet to fit it into the 75
minute time slot we needed for television, because it was made for television. And that’s
why I especially felt the need to keep the narrative clear because people have very itchy
remote control fingers and would change it the instance they got lost or things got too
abstract. So I made it way more literal than Mark originally had. But whenever I amputated
things Mark was there as a surgeon to quickly stitch over the truncations so that there was no
Beard: It really sounds like the project, everything went right on this project.
Maddin: That felt nice. It turned out better than I ever thought. I thought it would be
something where I would just earn some much needed money and maybe learn something
about camera movement. But it all turned out way better than I thought. I wish actually, I
wish I had known it was going to turn out that well because I think I would have gone even
Beard: Well, the future beckons.
Maddin: Well, the Svengali project is not a dance film but the singer Trilby has been turned
into a dancer so maybe…
Beard: Just in terms of an adaptation or of moving into an area where—you spoke of not
having the best experience with the script of Twilight because you weren’t there at the
beginning of it, but then a couple of years later along comes Dracula where you had no
involvement in the initial imagining of the thing, and in fact it had toured all over the place
by the time you got to it, right? And you could come in and things could just yield to you in
Maddin: What was really lucky for me there is that, when I read the book (bad as I think that
it is), it was my autobiography. Those jealous vampire hunters and Van Helsing, I’ve felt all
those things during my great, disastrous romantic campaigns. I understood those people,
Beard: You understood both the person pounding the stake into the gorgeous girl’s chest and
Maddin: Yeah. No. I have been on both sides of that stake, and haven’t decided whether it’s
better to give than receive.
Beard: That is a great Foley moment when Lucy is decapitated, I must say.
Maddin: Yeah, I was pleased with that. For me the real great Foley sound of all time might
be the Hammer film stake bottoming out in the coffin after it’s gone through the heart. That’s
a good one. Right around the time I was watching that woman burn to a crisp on that four-poster bed, I was also watching a lot of Hammer films. And, man, if people doubt that
movies work on subliminal levels, I don’t know. It didn’t even occur to me until 20 years
later that penetration was penetration. All I know is a stake going through a woman’s heart
was the most arousing thing I’d ever encountered since I peed into a badminton birdie at age
7 or whatever. It was pretty incredible.
Beard: I have now a question about matching the shot, and matching the decoupage, to the
dancing and to the choreography and what kind of adventure that was.
Maddin: In the cutting?
Beard: Yeah. In the editing of the film, in establishing the rhythms of the film. Because there
is a rhythm on the stage, of course. It’s not the same in the film.
Maddin: No, because when you start adding jump cuts, and then cutting the music to bits,
too, but in different places, and in some places, in a part that I’m sure hurt Mark Godden,
even removing a piece of music that he’d choreographed to and then putting in a different
piece. It was from the same symphony but I just thought, “eh.”
Beard: ‘I like this one better.’
Maddin: He felt such, that he should just honour Mahler, and I can understand that, and so
he didn’t touch the symphonies at all. He took intact movements from them; he didn’t
Beard: You don’t do that.
Maddin: No. We had to cut this as tightly as possible. And what it forced him to do is that
Mahler’s repeating things once, and it always it seems like in film you’re doing things once
or three times, but twice is bad, and so quite often he was having a bunch of people do things
and then he would have them sort of do it again. And so Deco and I went through my
videotape, whenever someone was sort of doing it again, we kind of just decided to move on
to the story so that meant cutting the music right there, too, and then you just cross-fade it
and it’s just a little scar, and people who know their Mahler go, hey.
Beard: But it can be very jarring to do that, if you crossfaded the two parts and you were in a
Maddin: Oh, it really annoyed the music editor, because there was a music editor that the
producer hired even though when Deco was cutting, he just did it anyway. The music editor
just had to duplicate what Deco, you know, and didn’t quite get it some of the times, because
he was — sometimes when the keys were wrong, for instance, I just found that some parts of
the Mahler, because he was so—Mark was so—married to it, and respectful of it, was just a
little too bright and celebratory at times. They sounded like themes for the Olympic Games.
Beard: Well, the First Symphony in particular.
Maddin: Yeah. It’s too bright. I wanted it dark. So I just knew from some amateur DJing
that I’d done that if you play two pieces of music at once you get a dissonance that’s all of a
sudden kind of disturbing, so we were taking a piece of bright and a piece of dark music and
darkening it even more by playing them both at the same time.
Beard: You were doing this on the soundtrack of live footage?
Maddin: No, we just let the dancers dance to the Naxos recordings of the Mahler First and
Second symphonies and then when we were editing we started messing around with the
Beard: You were doing the music editing. Your music editor wasn’t.
Maddin: No, we were just doing the music editing while editing the picture. And the movie
was edited from start to finish. Not a rough cut and then a smaller… because you’re cutting
in time to the music. You just start with the first ten seconds and cut it until you’re finished
and just move on. And then every now and then we decided to eliminate a pas de deux
because … I added a blood transfusion scene that wasn’t danced at all because I wanted the
sort of gang rape/blood transfusion. But we didn’t have any music to score that to. Since we
were just working through the symphony in order, we used the music that was going to be
used by the pas de deux and we just expected to cut the pas de deux in after, and then we just
thought, eh. It’s a great piece of music, that part, I really like that music, and then we just cut
out the pas de deux and just went to more mime, there. We shot the pas de deux, but we
needed to get the movie down to 75 minutes, so it just went. It was part of a ruthless …
Beard: I’m not any kind of editor of anything in terms of film or sound, but that’s a
complicated job and potential catastrophic things could happen there.
Beard: I as a Mahler lover didn’t feel offended at all by anything because you understand
what the realities are. I thought it was pretty smooth, you know.
Maddin: Well, that’s good. I think Deco did a really good job editing. Because these little
student films he made had a million cuts in them and they were all cut to Philip Glass music
so they aren’t legal to show or anything, anywhere, and he couldn’t get permission from
Phillip Glass to show them ever, but I knew he had a really good sense of cutting to music,
and he was editing to music just on a little Super8, handwinding thing, he would listen to it
and he would know how fast, and things like that. So I knew he was really good at cutting to
music so I just let him cut it. And then it was only when we switched to the mime sequences
I had any input or whatever, like that. He just cut the movie. I have to get up on my soap box
for a minute and just say that film editors are the (I’ve always been my own film editor until
recently and I’ve learned to work with other editors) but they’re the—along with
screenwriters—the most undersung, underappreciated craftspeople in the business but also in
the art of filmmaking.
Beard: There does seem to be a coincidence in the arrival of Deco Dawson in the sense that
the pacing of both Heart of the World and Dracula is quite different and the editing feels
Maddin: I want to give Deco a lot of credit but I won’t give him credit for that. I’ll give him
a lot of credit for the editing of Dracula. He cut it entirely, basically, but the pacing was
something that after Twilight of the Ice Nymphs I was going around, like, during Q&A on
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs I was saying, I now pledge that all my films from now on will be
fast. And I haven’t been able to keep the promise entirely but I’ve tried my best. So Heart of
the World was designed to be that fast. And then when I hired – and Deco ended up working
on Heart of the World accidentally, and thank god he did, but then I knew exactly what he
could bring to Dracula. He helped me a lot there. He was exactly the right editor for the
movie for me. And co-shooter. Strangely enough I shot Super 8 on Dracula and he shot 16.
So we sorted traded gauges at some point.
Beard: From what happened on Heart of the World.
Maddin: Yeah. Because I was starting to fall in love with Super 8 at that point, and he was working his way up to 16.
Beard: Why were you falling in love with Super 8?
Maddin: Because I’d found the experience of having it around and its portability so exciting
and the way that when you’re mixing 16 and Super8 that you’re getting sudden jarring
changes in grain, things like that. I wanted that. It asserts that all accidents are intentional,
almost, and so I was falling in love it and Deco meanwhile was getting ashamed of working
in Super8 and wanted to work his way up to 16. So we happily switched. We’d switch back
and forth a little bit, because I had my Bolex that I really knew well and things like that, but I
just found it really liberating.
Beard: What was the genesis of that project? Somebody came to you, right?
Maddin: A local producer here in Winnipeg, who’s never really produced anything outside
Beard: Vonnie Von Helmolt?
Beard: And said, we’ve got this Royal Winnipeg Ballet production which has been doing
great guns all over the place, we’d like to do a version for CBC.
Beard: She already had a connection with CBC?
Maddin: Yeah. She was approaching them about doing it and thought I would be great for it
and I just kept telling her, no no no no I wouldn’t want to do it. HDTV colour? Forget it. But
then I just got broke and I phoned her up and said, OK, I’ll do it. And I just sort of thought,
this was a despairing moment because I thought, this is going to be humiliating. I’m going to
make something for the first time in my life that I can’t even watch. Because I was having
trouble watching ballets, all the way through, especially on film, forget it—I never had been
able to. But I tried my best to make it something at least I could watch.
Beard: And then, you were getting theatrical distribution for it.
Maddin: That wasn’t in the plans at all, so it was very very pleasing.
Beard: Very good reviews, everywhere.
Maddin: I even won an Emmy.
Beard: Did it?
Maddin: An international Emmy. I don’t think those things count for much.
Beard: Why not?
Maddin: I don’t know. I’m not too sure what they are.
Beard: Emmys? Well if you’re in the television arts, a gigantic… And this is a genuinely
silent film, if you get Mahler out of the way.
Maddin: I guess it was my first fully silent film—
Beard: Purely, purely silent film.
Maddin: People have been telling me I’ve been making silent movies all these years, I
finally made one.
Beard: And then you made another one.
Maddin: Yeah. It felt good. And it felt good to get Brent Neale to play Renfield. He had
been in Careful. All of a sudden, I was finding way of getting my comfort zone.
Beard: I know the answer to this but I’m going to say it anyway, cause I found out from
George this morning. When I see a film about female sexuality and the fear of the sexual
other that’s going on in Dracula and see Dracula being played by an Asian man, I really
thought of the 1915 version of The Cheat, where you’ve got Sessue Hayakawa—
Beard: Branding. That’s right. And also being this disavowed and hunted-by-the-other-males
kind of expression of her independence.
Maddin: Right around the time I was prepping Dracula an American fighter jet got escorted
out of Chinese air space into China and CNN had a “Yellow Peril” campaign up and running
in about 30 seconds. Next thing we knew it was okay to hate Asians. I couldn’t believe how
quickly, how easily they dusted that off from WWII.
Beard: Well, the Chinese were good Asians in WWII.
Maddin: Yeah, whatever.
Beard: I know, I know.
Maddin: There it was, they’re yeller. I just realized how quickly people are to propagandize
when it’s convenient to, and that’s almost always.
Beard: It works out really well that he’s Asian.
Maddin: It was between him and a Cuban. I let the choreographer choose without any
arguments at all. He cast it. He went with the best dancers; he went with his favourite
dancers. And there were problems because CindyMarie Small, who plays Mina, had an
Achilles tendon that was ready to go, and there was the matter of getting her insured and I
don’t know how we got around that. Because if it snapped anywhere through we would have
had to reshoot. And we wouldn’t have been able to afford reshooting. So I don’t know how
they got around that, but I think they just bartered with the insurance company and said, this
is what dancers do all the time and that’s just the way it is.
Beard: I remember seeing a documentary about the toes of ballerinas. And feet. They look
like somebody’s been at them with a mallet.
Maddin: Edward Westin photos of gnarled tree roots.
Beard: I don’t know whether this is just me or not, but Dracula seems like something quite
refreshing in your trajectory. It may have been, you had had some inactivity, you may have
been in a hangover from Twilight or something like that. It just feels like something fresh,
and it feels like there’s something new and really good happening in your work and that may
also have to do with, and once more, this is absolutely no criticism implied of anything that’s
not there, but absence of words, and the ability to just freely to work without a script, without
a verbal script.
Maddin: It’s fun. I was really getting into it.
Beard: Did it feel like that at all to you?
Maddin: It was the beginning of it, because I realized there was no script but I still had to
capture things that were happening. It was a nice easing into the process of Cowards Bend
the Knee because the stuff was already happening and I just had to capture it. And a lot of
times it was just a matter of swishpanning to capture a—and I practiced with my video
camera. I had a week of watching rehearsals and I got right in to the rehearsals and was
trying to anticipate camera moves that I would do. A lot of them were frustrated once the
whole unionized crew came out and the dolly grip insisted on laying down tracks, dolly
tracks, and slowing everything the fuck down. And finally we got a baby’s high chair on
castors and put little Deco in it, because he’s little, and just pushed him around. So we
managed to get all the crude dolly work that I wanted. It was really exhilarating to try to
capture through all these movements stuff that’s out there.
Cowards Bend the Knee (2004)
By the time it came to shoot Cowards Bend the Knee there was, as with Dracula, something
in a way that already existed, too (it was my autobiography) but it wasn’t choreographed yet,
so I just assembled all the actors together, in a football huddle in a way, to tell them what
they were going to do for the next two or three minutes. ‘Okay, you’re going to perform an
abortion here, and this and that.’ And then I was just capturing something that had already
sort of happened.
Beard: Yeah, except that it’s unrecognizable, I mean, anybody could tell that Dracula was
an adaptation of an existing ballet however transformed it was. But if you took a complete
stranger and sat him down in front of Cowards Bend the Knee, I’m sure he would not leap up
and say, this is obviously somebody’s autobiography. I know what you mean, but it’s
disguised at the same time.
Maddin: It enabled me to… I surrounded myself in a three dimensional space, almost
always. The beauty salon set was three dimensional, the hockey rink. I mean, 360 degrees.
The hockey rink was 360 degrees. And so I could literally, if I was on the rink and I was the
camera operator, always, on skates, or if I was in the beauty salon, I could, literally, in the
middle of shot, decide that I was going to shoot someone else, and I would swishpan to them.
And there was just a lighting assistant whose job was to keep an eye on me, knows where my
camera, see where it was pointed and when I swishpan from my dad to my girlfriend, the
light would just follow that person. Or sometimes that room was pre-lit so that people were
in and out of shadows of things. But I would just decide, that, hey, there are seven people in
this room, say, and I’ll just keep swishpanning from one face to another, down to their hands,
over to another hands—it’s a story about hands, and standing in for the man, The Hands of
Orloc and Electra and all of those things—and so I was just trying to use hands and just keep
things moving which really came in handy when cutting it because, even the intertitle cards
are handheld shot, and there’s always some sort of movement. And there’s nonstop music
and things like that. It kind of was a combination of everything that I was sort of hoping
Beard: That represented a really different kind of filmmaking.
Maddin: Yeah. It’s kind of the opposite of my early films. If you look at Gimli Hospital and
then at this, it might be clear that it’s made by the same person, but they’re very dissimilar, I
Beard: Technically, they don’t look an awful lot alike. Cowards feels like a complete and
finished work, you know. It feels like a mature work to me.
Maddin: I guess I worked pretty hard on the script. In a weird way, I just kept taking notes
while I was in a relationship quite similar to it. I’d been in a number of bad relationships. I
was in one in 1999 that wasn’t so hot, and I had already decided to make a movie about
Beard: Bad relationships.
Maddin: Yeah. And so I just wrote, I had maybe 120 pages of notes, single space, tons of
stuff, and then I wrote up a treatment. Now normally treatments are five pages long, but my
treatment was 100 pages long. There’s just so much autobiographical detail in there that it
was getting kind of big.
Beard: What would that film have looked like, I wonder. Because this is very short. 66
Maddin: Yeah. It got boiled down a lot. I do have the original script somewhere. I finally
just sent it to this girl that I had just met on the Internet who was a pretty good reader. I could
tell. I’d never met her. I just sent it to her and I just said, cut out everything that bores you.
And I just wanted to see what that would be liked. She sent it back to me. It was considerably
shorter, but I didn’t even notice what was missing. Then I needed a shooting script, but that
was sort of the length more or less, that is published there [taps the book?]. And then I took
that and I just, still on my Word programming, I just started eliminating descriptive passage,
and so it got boiled down to about 14 pages. And that’s what I shot. I never rewrote it as a
script from the original. I had a girl cut some stuff out, and then I trimmed out stuff that had
Beard: That’s the same principle that you employed, visually speaking, right? Just keep
Maddin: That’s right. The bite cut. I just let some other girl take a big bite out here and
there. I’m not so sure she even understood what the story’s about, but I just wanted some
other, I just wanted to introduce the—believe me if there had been something really special
that she’d cut out I would have put it back in.
Beard: Was it connected already with the Power Plant [Toronto art gallery that premiered
the film] or was it intended as an installation from the beginning? How did that work?
Maddin: By the time I’d asked this girl to cut things down, the Power Plant was involved.
But I was working on it as separate project at one point, and then when the Power Plant
approached me about doing something I thought it maybe would be a way of getting this
thing made, that it would probably never get made as a movie. I’d kicked it around a little bit
and no one seemed interested in funding it, in that state. Or in the 100-page treatment, that’s
for sure. And it had different names and things… I don’t know. I think it had Brand Upon the
Brain for a while for a name, and it had Black Silhouette, which is a bad name, and then it
had some other names.
Beard: So the Power Plant came along and you had this idea of doing it in ten chapters.
Maddin: That’s why I really shortened it to 14 pages. I thought I could make the whole thing
14 minutes long, but then I … I took five days to shoot Odilon Redon and I took five days to
shoot Heart of the World. So I thought if I could take five days, I could shoot a 14 minute
thing, and there’d be like, 10 chapters and each one would be a minute long or something
like that. And they’d be very easy to watch. But it ended up getting longer, so it failed as an
installation, totally. It was very physically impossible to watch that long stuff through a little
Beard: Well, having never seen it in its installed form, it’s intriguing however, to read these
accounts of how you had to crouch down in order to look at these things, so you were
inflicting physical punishment on your viewers.
Maddin: I’m not too thrilled about inflicting physical punishment. I’ve already inflicted
enough mental punishment on viewers to add physical punishment. Thrilled the curator was,
not me. It was the worse night of my life, in a way, because, the opening had, I shared it with
the Royal Art launch of these artists from Winnipeg and they’re really cool, and the Power
Plant gallery was full of people for opening night, there must have been a few thousand
people in there. And they were all lined up out the hall to look in my peepholes and things,
and one after another people were emerging from that room with faces contorted in agony
from the peepholes. There was a quirk in the air conditioning. It was sort of blowing air—
Beard: Into people’s eyes.
Maddin: Yeah, and little pieces of giprock, because the peepholes had been chiseled into jib
rock by the curator. I wasn’t there for the installation. And so, my daughter introduced me to
her favourite professor who had come out just to see her father’s work, and he said, “my eye
hurts. You really ought to change the setup. That’s really obnoxious.” It was a disaster.
Beard: It’s not a disaster anymore.
Maddin: I pled with the gallery for permission to show it as a single-channel thing, and they
were nice enough to let me do it.
Beard: You said you toyed with a number of different titles. You could have called it Crime
and Punishment because it’s all about your stand-in commits moral crimes and ends up
punished with humiliation and amputation and castration and impotence and petrifaction,
Maddin: He gets exactly what he deserves. Like I said, I spent a lot of time digesting that
story. I used to discuss it with my swimming buddy, Steve Snyder, who’s a good—he’s a
colleague of George Toles’ as well—and I would discuss my bad relationship with him while
doing the dog paddle up and down for an hour and just try to figure out ways of making The
Hands of Orloc work. I didn’t know whether there should be a real transplant and if this
should be really science fiction or if it should be in the mind. I finally settled on a fake one,
that was better, I thought. But then there’s real ghost. I had a lot of decisions to make. Are
these ghosts imagined or real?
Beard: It also doesn’t matter whether there’s a real—
Maddin: It just had to be hysterical
Beard: Yeah, hysterical, and enter that— One of the many ways in which I think the film is a
complete success is the fact that it doesn’t — I mean, you think to yourself as you’re
watching this, what do you mean, this guy doesn’t look like somebody who’s capable of
microsurgery to reattach somebody’s hands, but at the same time you’re in that dream world
where it doesn’t really matter whether this guy just paints your hands blue, puts a little line
around your wrists and tosses the other hands in the garbage.
Maddin: Well, it doesn’t seem like Orestes is really capable of matricide when you’re
reading Electra, either but somehow she convinces him.
Beard: And the idea, that then, the idea that your hands are doing this against your will,
because you’re in the hands of Orloc, but they’re not. They’re the hands of Guy.
Maddin: Well that was the most important part for me, because I ended up doing things in
these bad relationships where I was literally ending friendships and blaming my girlfriend for
it when in fact it was my own cowardice that prevented me from standing up to someone
who was putting a strain on dear, precious friendships. I just had to, it was my own fault. But
I was finding myself in so many..
Beard: Well, Meta, in the film, is quite a plum.
Maddin: I was lucky to find her [actress Melissa Dionisio]. I found her at a karaoke bar one
Beard: Oh really? Well, that’s another advantage of shooting silent films, right?
Maddin: Yeah. I didn’t have to worry about her vocal performance.
Beard: You can do casting calls at the karaoke bar.
Maddin: It’s strange. When I say that Dracula was my biography, I was sort of finding
biographical traces in everything around that time and even in vaguely remembered stories. I
vaguely remember reading Eudora Welty’s “Petrified Man,” which is set in a beauty salon,
actually, and it’s people talking about a petrified man exhibit down the street and it turns out
the petrified man was an escaped convict that someone was hiding from someone, and he just
ran away at one point. And I thought, that’s what most unhappy husbands are. They’re just
scared to run away. They’re incapable of running away. So I thought, why not have a whole
wax museum full of these cowards.
Beard: That’s what they all were? I was, but they were also—the Winnipeg Maroons Hall of
Maddin: Exactly, well.
Beard: I mean, you do end up in the Winnipeg Maroons Hall of Fame even if your hands
have been cut off.
Maddin: The All-time Maroons, it’s called. Not the Hall of Fame.
Beard: As in Bugs Bunny’s “what a maroon!”
Maddin: Yeah, exactly. And I just remember hearing after he died, that the Duke of
Windsor, this sort of bon vivant, was just so of pussy whipped that he was too invertebrate,
too jellyfishy, to stand up to this wife that brought him down.
Beard: Wallace Simpson?
Beard: But we can get down on our knees and thank God for that, though. Because
otherwise he would have been King of England.
Maddin: Yeah, exactly, what an embarrassment. Nazi sympathizer on the throne. But um,
just all sorts of people like that. What other famous person at the end of his life was getting
beaten up by his wife. It doesn’t matter anyway?
Beard: You know what’s been happening to Stephen Hawking.
Maddin: Right. Yeah.
Beard: There’s a movie there for you.
Maddin: Well, there’s a movie that’s more baroque than anything I could dream up. A
physicist in his wheelchair being bashed around by his evil wife, while his children try to
rescue him. That’s something that the Brothers Grimm, if they were living in the twentieth
century, could write. It’s pretty great. I’m kind of jealous.
Beard: The hands, the hands of everybody—they are everywhere in Cowards. You said
something about how the hands were a stand-in for people.
Maddin: Well, they are. Just in the English language, you know, you’re talking about how
many hands are working in the farmers field…
Beard: Their hands are working, at least. Here it’s, it’s synecdoche or metonymy, where the
part symbolizes the whole. The hands are extraordinarily eloquent, and I guess you did get
the inspiration for that from watching Royal Winnipeg ballet dancers, to some extent.
Maddin: Yeah, mostly. And then rewatching silent and realizing that the best actors—and
then I started watching actors hands, period. Jimmy Cagney’s little hands, Raymond
Massey’s giant hands. This guy, Brandon Hurst from The Man Who Laughs, he’s a bit actor
that appeared—it’s the only big part he has that survives—anyway, has amazing hands. The
guy weighs about 112 pounds but his hands are about 40 pounds each. They’re very
expressive and he’s exploiting them to the max. You realize in the old melodramatic stage
days that obviously an actor with highly-visible hands could really use them because they’re
more visible than facial features.
Beard: Pantomime and dance, you’ve got to use more than just your face or your eyes…
Maddin: Yes, you’ve got to use every fibre of your body down to your cuticles. That was a
real eyeopener for me. Plus I remember watching some silent film, or even part talkie like
the middle of the three Doctor Mabuse’s by Fritz Lang—
Beard: The Testament of Doctor Mabuse
Maddin: Yeah. There’s that sort of silent section at the beginning where a paranoid man is
just sort of walking with a gun waiting to be attacked by somebody. I remember watching
that with George and George just lamenting, “actors just don’t know how to watch
anymore.” And that’s when I vowed, I’m going to get ballet dancers from now on to walk in
my movies because they know how to walk with poetry.
Beard: You used Tara Birtwhistle again in Cowards Bend the Knee.
Maddin: Well I thought, you know, she had time with Dracula, a long rehearsal period and a
number of years of performing it—it had been I think mounted for three years already—to
really detail that performance in Dracula. She had me convinced—I watched that
performance very closely, you know, maybe watching it once you don’t notice it so much,
but—she’s a great silent movie actress. I actually think she’s right up there with the best
silent movies actors of all time. So I wanted to put her in a silent movie. But she was a last
second replacement for Alice Krige, who was supposed to be in the movie but who got sick
just before coming and was ordered not to fly.
Beard: Well, that was sad.
Maddin: Yeah, very sad. And there was a trade-off there, you know. Alice could have given
an hauteur and a coldness that I wrote for her, and was picturing for her for the couple years I
was kind of stewing about this thing. But Tara, all of sudden Tara needed a wig—she had cut
her very short and very modern, whereas Alice, Alice’s hair, she’s got really long hair and it
was going to have this really elaborate, this really big thing that would have been so sexually
Beard: Snakes, maybe.
Maddin: But I gained a lot because as athletic as Alice is, no one can die like Tara
Birtwhistle. So when she’s finally strangled to death with a hair net…
Beard: Well, she just smashes her face against the glass there.
Maddin: She knew how to do all that stuff. Actually, Alice is really amazing at that stuff,
too, because I’ve seen her in Sleepwalkers, a Stephen King thing, there’s some really great
violence that she does and she gives it her all. But I was really pleased with Tara because she
knew how to do it balletically, you know, where she’s having the hair dryer shoved down her
head but she’s actually shoving it while appearing to be fighting it. So she was controlling
her violence entirely and Darcy Fehr [playing the protagonist], who doesn’t have much
experience with stage fighting (he has some) was basically just her partner while she led him
through her own murder. It was very easy just to do it once or twice and to just film it.
Beard: I want to talk about the music for Cowards Bend the Knee a little bit, just to make the
point that in a certain sense, John McCulloch could write a really good score, Christopher
Dedrick and certainly Bernard Herrmann are great, but they’re not Beethoven and they’re not
Wagner. And there’s a sense in which you could take, draw on, you know—
Maddin: Yeah, you’re just bumper-hitching behind geniuses. There’s lots to be said for that.
Beard: Especially if they’re public domain geniuses.
Maddin: When you use that stuff as temp music, for Chris Dedrick, and say, you know, just
write something like this Liszt thing, it’s not really fair, you know. But when you’re in a
situation where you can use public domain recordings and just literally import this power
almost intact and maybe even add to it in a weird way, if you’re lucky, with the marriage of
Beard: Yeah, that’s right. I just want to express my admiration of the way that the music is
employed there because it’s not just—okay here’s a dramatic passage, I’m going to find
some dramatic music. There’s a certain amount of that, I guess, but there’s also a certain kind
of… I mean, using that cello version of the Tannhäuser thing just works beautifully. It’s your
unconscious working or something, I don’t know what it is…
Maddin: I have a piano transcription of Tristan and Isolde that Liszt did—
Beard: Yep, that would work.
Maddin: Benno Moiseiwitsch played it or something like that. It’s unbelievable. I’m just
waiting for the right moment to use that.
Beard: It’s so simple. Again, it’s using stuff that’s in your own living room, practically, or at
least next door. There’s no cost involved, if it’s out of public domain.
Maddin: For Cowards Bend the Knee, my editor and I, I guess it was just I, decided to use
just one piece of music per chapter. For Brand Upon the Brain! I’ll be cutting and pasting
more with public domain music. But then an original score is going to be written for it. But
we’re keeping all the temp music, we’re editing to music, temp music, that is in public
domain just in case they run out of money, or just as a back up so that they’re be two
versions. If for some reason that score never gets written, we’ll have a version that can just
play and it will be cut to it. We’re being very careful. That’s why I’m going through a lot of
music right now because I need more in a hurry.
Beard: So the roster of the 1969 Minnesota Twins was injected into Careful. Who are the
hockey immortals in Cowards, if there are any.
Maddin: Actually, when I was writing the original, before the Power Plant became involved,
the main character was going to be named Fran Huck.
Beard: Yes, I remember Fran Huck.
Maddin: He played with the Canadian National team and St. Louis and the Minnesota
Fighting Saints and the Winnipeg Jets finally, until Bobby Hull decided that he hated him
and took a slap shot at his head one game (some teammate!) But I always loved Fran Huck.
For some reason he was the first hockey superstar I met as a child, I think he was 19 and he
had just finished scoring 85 goals the year before and he had a gold helmet. In dressing room
my dad introduced me to him and he was naked, covered in lather in the shower, and I sort of
approached him at penis height and looked up at him and he was smoking a cigar and there
was sort of moment where penis and cigar got conflated. You don’t really need the cigar
when you’ve actually got the penis, I guess. Anyway, I was quite excited about him, but then
that name Fran Huck always seemed effeminate and rude at the same time. And then Huck
seemed kind of vulgar. I always just wanted to make him the hero, just as a stand-in for me,
anyway, but that name I liked. And then there were just some other, Mo Mott was a character
in here. He was a real player for the Nationals. He was sort of the embodiment, sort of fourth
line checker who sort of eeked out a modest but colourful career in the NHL with the
California Golden Seals. He had lots of fans because his name was so strange. Morris Mott,
or Mo Mott. I always wanted to introduce him to Boris Brott, the conductor of the Hamilton
Symphony Orchestra. And then maybe invent a movie actress named Delores Delott or
something like that and introduce them to her. And then there were just some other people in
the All-time Maroons that were kind of a mixture of old Minnesota Twins and old Maroons
and Nationals. My producer Greg Klymkiw’s father used to play goal for the Maroons and
was a back-up goaltender for Terry Sawchuk for many years. Julian Klymkiw. So he’s in
there, in the All-time Maroons.
Beard: And the team in general was kind of inspired by the National team.
Maddin: Yeah, the Maroons and the Nationals. And by the way that hockey photography in
the early 60s and the 50s always looked like a WeeGee photograph because it was a
flashbulb taking the picture and then everything grading off into darkness instantly. You sort
of really felt that hockey players were more sinister then. They didn’t wear … they had
helmets of Brylcreem and face masks of stitches. And they looked old.
Beard: None of them seemed to shave.
Maddin: When you’re a little kid the hockey players seem to be, what, 55 years old? But
when you find that Reggie Fleming was actually 27 when that picture was taken, you could
have sworn it was the picture of a 55-year-old man. I decided to take 55- to 60-year-old men
for most of my Maroons and have them skating. We shot I think it was in last September or
something, but it wasn’t hockey season yet, and it turns out I cast some people who couldn’t
even skate at all. So they were just out there trying to skate. It was four hours of skating
around when you hadn’t skated in a few years or never skated at all, you’re getting some bad
blisters wearing antique skates that we managed to find somewhere.
Beard: The uniforms are from the 20s?
Maddin: They were kind of from the 20s, yeah.
Beard: I have to say what a thrill it is to see reproduced in 2004 the look of all those
kinescopes of old hockey games from the 30s, where the ice —
Maddin: They didn’t move too quickly, the ice is murky.
Beard: That murkiness in the ice is very strange. It’s like there’s no white paint underneath it
or something like that.
Maddin: It was just a matter of putting two big lights up and then shooting directly into them
all the time so that things were in silhouette almost all the time.
Beard: And then your dad is Foster Hewitt.
Maddin: If there was sound in the movie he would just be complaining like my dad about
how the players aren’t as good as they used to be. Right into the microphone.
Beard: Your use of titles there seems to me to be very Soviet…
Maddin: I tried to make them indirect.
Beard: …as opposed to Hollywood titles, where you’ve got a title and then you’ve got a
sequence and then you’ve got another title or maybe you’ve got a little dialogue sequence in
titles. But you don’t have this breaking up of single words or a couple of words and then a
sequence of film, and then another couple of words, which can be very exciting and so on,
and it works very well in Cowards. But it does seem to come from, like, Eisenstein.
Maddin: I was just getting used to how intertitles can work and you don’t want everything to
stop while you read, always. At the beginnings and ends of each chapter I was doing that
where you just stop. That was more or less because the way the installation was set up each
chapter had to be exactly six minutes and 15 seconds long. Each chapter had to be exactly the
same length as each of the other chapters.
Beard: That must have been a challenge to do.
Maddin: Sometimes you would finish editing a chapter and you would realize you had 40
seconds to kill, so you would just repeat a few images and put in a long intertitle card. There
was always something to explain. The story is elliptical enough that you could explain
something. Then I shot it so blurrily that it would take people longer to read it.
Beard: The opening of the film is very striking.
Maddin: Well, it starts slowly.
Beard: No, it goes (sound of clapping?) like that, just in the sense that you’ve got a drop of
sperm on a microscope slide followed by this act and then the hockey arena. That blew me
Maddin: Yeah, I’m not too sure where that came from.
Beard: I was wondering where that came from, actually.
Maddin: I think it was a writing exercise and a gag. I think I wanted the… it came from a
two-shot that I wanted of just Guy Maddin (or Fran Huck) and his pregnant girlfriend in the
foreground, and I wanted the players in the background to be squiggling around like little
sperm, because they were talking about a pregnancy and an abortion. So I did the shot, but
they don’t really look like sperm, they just look like distant hockey players, because it’s
easier to write that, you know, that the players are squiggling around like sperm in the
background, than it is to direct players, you know, “skate more like sperm!” and the guy’s
like, I don’t even know how to skate or things like that. But I decided to just literalize that
metaphor by having a guy look into a microscope and find them/him? there.
Beard: And it’s not just a guy, either, right,
Maddin: It’s Dr. Fusi.
Beard: Is it Dr. Fusi or is it the father?
Maddin: It’s Dr. Fusi looking at the microscope. The Father might have been better.
Beard: The idea that all of this, that the power of the father is very strong in the film, he’s up
Maddin: Well you don’t really know whose sperm it is. There’s kind of a hand.
Beard: The whole film comes from that glob of sperm. I find it a potent idea.
Maddin: Thanks. I never even really asked myself whose sperm it was. I know that in
practical terms, you need a hand. I was going to direct somebody’s hand and then I thought,
no I’ll just film own. And so I just filmed my own hand against the Winnipeg arena ice.
Beard: And this repeated handshake which is broken off or this kind of tentative sense of
human connection which isn’t working out.
Maddin: Well, once you decide to use hands that way what a great excuse to, um, …it gives
you a game plan that’s so easy to improvise from when you just say, I’m making a movie
about hands. And you can just build scenes up around them and everything. I wish I had that
kind of simple mandate for all my movies. In Careful I sort of did, you know…
Beard: It melds with Hands of Orloc stuff so well, too, and it comes before the Hands of
Orloc stuff, it’s there already. It works really well. What about murdering people in public
places in front of dozens of witnesses or at a police station?
Maddin: It’s funny. I was talking to a friend of mine who used to play for the Winnipeg
Blue Bombers, and he was telling me just the other day about what it was like back in the
CFL days. He said he was playing in Vancouver once against this guy that he just hated. This
guy had been trying to decapitate him all season and had really gotten some dirty hits on
him. And the most he’d been able to do was when this guy clotheslined him once he was able
to draw blood on a bite, through the faceguard. But he said at one point, everyone was in a
big pileup in a deep puddle of water, and he said, all he had to underneath this pile was push
this guy’s face down one inch and he would have drowned by the time everybody got off.
But then he remembered, there are 30,000 people at the game. There might be some
witnesses. He probably would have gotten away with it, it was back in the day before there
were tons of cameras in the game, so it was probably just the 30,000 witnesses, so he
probably could have gotten away with it, but he decided not to do it.
Beard: Well, strangling somebody at a police station is pretty…
Maddin: A lot of things happen right under the noses of our police.
Beard: Why is Meta always combing Guy’s hair? It seems kinds of maternal as well as kind
of possessive, and also very erotic. It’s a gesture, of, okay, I want you to do something
terrible and now I have to make you do it so now I’ll do this thing you can’t resist.
Maddin: Yeah. I’m not too sure what was going on there. But it just seems to me that you
get into relationships sometimes now and then where it’s just easier to give over your entire
appearance to another person, let them buy you your shirts and let them decide what side of
your head your hair should be parted on. She seems like the kind of person that would
impose her ….
Beard: He seems to love it, also.
Maddin: Well you love it or—you don’t really have much choice anyway, with a person like
that, so you might as well like it.
Beard: It seems like a Samson and Delilah something going on.
Maddin: You pretty much love anything in the early days of a relationship. I think it first
happens when they’re on a pile of empty hockey gloves in the Maroon’s dressing and she’s
half naked and she combs his hair and he’s happy to go along with that. I’d go along with it.
Beard: What is the ice breast? What part of your unconscious threw this up?
Maddin: I needed an ice block. I just wanted the father—my real father’s dead—and this
ghost to get it on kind of in Turgenev’s First Love where the protagonist loses out in a
romantic rivalry to his father. I just thought, you know the father would have to be pretty
cold to steal the first love away from his son, and this ghost would have to be pretty cold,
and, my father’s dead and I just thought maybe if there was this girl, this ghost that got off on
being cold, or something that I’d have to explain… so I knew there had to be some sort of ice
block. When I went to make the ice block the night before, I realized all I had was a big
plastic salad bowl. So I filled it full of water and it froze and when I flipped it over it just
looked like a breast.
Maddin: There it is. And it had to be an ice breast. And that way Vic Cowie got to caress it
by way of summoning this erotic ghost.
Beard: There’s another instance, in a way—it’s Oedipal, clearly, the rivalry between the son
and the father, for the girl, even if it is the girl who’s already been rejected by the son.
Maddin: Well, he’s forgotten that already.
Beard: It doesn’t matter though because he’s remembered now, or he’s seeing her again
somehow. I can’t think of a more … I mean, literature and cinema are full of scenes where
fathers, where’s this kind of terrifying, castrating father figure, but I can’t think of one that
does a better job, a better number on his son than in Cowards Bend the Knee.
Maddin: I haven’t seen Damage. Apparently that’s pretty good. That has Jeremy Irons
clutching his dead son after he’s jumped out a window after he’s just been cuckolded by his
Beard: Yeah, but that’s told from the point of view of the father. The son is just this
secondary character whereas this one is from the point of view of the son, instead of the
father, who’s this pretty remote figure with a pretty big dink. It’s just amazing when you
actually have a scene of father and son in the washroom and the son looks over and his father
has this intimidatingly large sexual organ.
Maddin: I got a male prostitute to come over and pee in my bathtub while I filmed his penis
because he had the biggest penis [Maddin’s friend] Noam Gonnick had ever encountered. So
I had him come over and I focused my camera on that and he lightly spritzed my camera and
my face with urine while peeing into my bathtub. I didn’t have enough room in my bathtub
to backlight the urine so that it would show up, so he could have just flopped his dinky
around to the same effect, but no he had to pee into the bathtub and I had to rinse it out
afterwards and wash my face about 100 times. And then I cut it into the movie. My biggest
regret in my filmmaking career is not filming that prostitute’s penis in slow motion so it
would have that Moby Dick heft to it.
Beard: Then on top of that you’ve got the father coming in to the wax museum with Guy’s
old girlfriend and saying, well, you know, I’d like you to meet your new mother.
Maddin: I had a number of different titles. I wanted them at one point to walk off into some
kind of icy afterlife but I just had them literally just walk away or something. All those
different things existed in a longer version when I was not quite focused on exactly what I
wanted to do. I had a lot of time to think about it. It felt good. Normally—but then, that
enabled me to really make the movie on the fly. I had no idea how long it was going to be, I
thought, like I said, it was going to be 14 minutes long. But because I’d really boiled down,
because I’d lived all these episodes, more or less exactly they’re filmed, I was able to
improvise a lot, you know. Go with the ice breast, go with it, I sort of knew where to fit it in,
instantly. And so there was literally a one-to-one shooting ratio on it. It was very economical.
Beard: I don’t want to gush about this movie because it’s really not going to help me, but the
beauty parlour next to the bordello, or the beauty parlour as a bordello, the idea of getting
your hands cut off at your own request and then getting your hockey gloves sewn on over the
stumps, I mean talk about having bad hands. And then trying to… Not to mention having to
have your dad get your pecker out so you can take a wee.
Maddin: George Toles used to tell me that he and his dad used to cross swords over the
toilet, which meant they would both pee at the time, send their fuming rails out in opposite
directions, and make an X.
Beard: Have some fun.
Maddin: Yeah, I guess it’s very bonding. I would never do that with my dad. I would just
see him sort of groggily make his way to the can at the end of the hall in the middle of the
night in nothing but a T-shirt sort of half pulled down over vaguely shadowed somethings, I
don’t know what they were. That was it. I never got to cross swords. I was going to write in a
swordcrossing scene, but I didn’t know how.
Beard: You’ve got a dedication at the end, For Dad and Aunt Lil.
Maddin: A bit sappy, maybe.
Beard: It doesn’t need any explanation, I don’t think, particularly to anyone who’s read
Atelier Tovar or some of the things you’ve said. This is, though, the first time that you’ve
included a dedication in your work.
Maddin: I had a little bit of a dedication at the end if Dead Father to a guy named Reid
Taylor, who actually, his nickname is Fusi and he’s the team doctor. But yeah, I felt that as
distorted as my depictions of my Aunt Lil and my father were, I made it quite clear that I
loved them dearly.
Beard: I read it as a sign that this was an especially personal or deeply felt work…
Maddin: I guess it was, yeah.
Beard: Plus Guy Maddin being the name of the main character—a bit of a clue there.
Maddin: I got a little bit of grief over that. I’m probably going to name the protagonist of
Brand Upon the Brain! Guy Maddin, too. Why not? But I cringe a bit whenever I see the
dedication, but I, um, I realized it was really necessary at the time.
Beard: I don’t think you should cringe. I don’t think that anybody is insulted by that film,
unless maybe it’s whoever the original Meta is.
Maddin: There was a really pretty girl in New York at its premiere there, I actually just
happened to be in town when it was opening in a theatre so my distributor asked me if I
would actually go and talk after. I thought, okay, it’s kind of a weird thing to do, but why
not, it’s just an art house film anyway. It played at the Film Forum for two weeks. There was
a really pretty girl, the kind of girl you dream of having at your movies when you first pick
up a camera as a kid. She asked the first question. She just said, why did you make the movie
so mean? Do you really believe—is your outlook on romance really so cynical? I got about
half way through my answer when she just got up and left. I tried to say something about…
Beard: It was a rhetorical question, it turned out.
Maddin: Ah, man, I thought I really had finally nailed a demographic that’s been so elusive
to me, you know, but I make movies that are mostly for boys, I guess. And film noir is
mostly a boys thing, not that it is a film noir, it only meets some of the film noir criteria, but
there’s a film noir attitude in there. I tend to see film noirs as movies where the protagonist
makes some sort of moral decision that’s the wrong one very early on, and the rest of the
story trajectory looks like a luge run into an open grave, you know. I kind of was doing that,
in that spirit, and then there’s got to be femmes fatales. So I was going for noir, but it was
anachronistic and blurry noir. I was just trying to explain to her that in doing my take on the
genre things were a little more nihilistic than usual. Of course, if I was really being honest,
all my films are like that.
Beard: Meta’s not a classic femme fatale anyway, because she’s got her own insanity that
she’s carrying around which is not a, “ah, how can I prey on this helpless male”, but this
thing to do with daddy. He’s exactly like poor Grigorss in Careful who just gets into the
slipstream of someone else’s Oedipal problem.
Maddin: That girl’s too young, and will always be too young, to realize what relationships
do and what she’s probably doing in them herself. Most people don’t have much self-knowledge and she was pretty enough to be destroying a lot of people the way little kids tear
wings off flies. I’m sure without recognizing it she’s in her own version of Cowards Bend
the Knee right now.
The Saddest Music in the World (2004)
Beard: What does it mean that Atom Egoyan is executive producer on Saddest Music of the
Maddin: Atom and I have known each other a long time, since 1987 I think it is. So we’re
pals. But he’s really close friends with Niv Fichman, one of the producers. And I think we
just had a slight shortage and Atom had a Telefilm allotment that was going to expire on
March 1 or something, of 2003, if he didn’t make a feature, and he didn’t have one,
obviously, he’d just finished spending himself on Ararat. And so that money was going to
have to go back to Telefilm but you’re allowed to give it to another production if you want
to. So he gave I think $200,000 of, it was real money, kind of, in that it bought us things, but
it sort of was just monopoly money in that it wasn’t really money that Atom had. He donated
that, and that’s what an Executive producer is, quite often.
Beard: Can you outline where Katsuo Ishiguro fits in?
Maddin: He wrote a script called Saddest Music of the World in 1985 or 1987, something
like that. It was the story of a music competition, very similar, set in London, sponsored by
an alcohol company, and promoted by a CNN-like news network, in an attempt to exploit the
soon-to-be, the loosening up and soon-to-be hoped for markets of Eastern Europe. And then
it had some subplots involving a couple of old Yugoslavian friends, or maybe brothers, but it
was set in contemporary times. It had been kicking around a lot. It had had a few producers
and a few directors attached to it, including Atom Egoyan. The script, by the time I got a
hold of it—Niv Fichman gave it to me after I made Heart of the World, he said why don’t
you take a look at this, Ish has thrown it around quite a bit, he’s getting tired of it, he
suggested that I just find a director who could just put his own auteur stamp on it. And so
why don’t you Guy Maddin-ize this thing. I didn’t even read it, because I had trouble getting
into … I just sort of sat at my kitchen table for about 6 months. And then I gave it to George,
because he’s a faster reader than I am, and he read it and then we quickly got … George
suggested a few ways of making it more interesting for me. Setting in the past in Winnipeg
on the eve of Prohibition’s dissolution. Pretty soon we just started as we always do, we
started riffing and joking before we decide something either stinks or is worth pursuing. We
just start joking and overlapping each other and butting into each other’s ideas. But in a
couple of minutes we had a complete revision of it. And then I wrote long treatment of it.
And that started a two-year process of me slowly convincing Ish, whom I never met until
much later, that this complete trashing of his script and rewriting it was worth supporting.
What Niv was doing was coming back to me and reporting on his meetings with Ish, and
then suggesting some script changes, which I realize now in most cases (because Niv does
have pretty good ideas) in most cases they were Ish’s suggested but he knew I had a bad
temper so to prevent me from getting mad at Ish, he would claim them as his own ideas. That
way I could get mad at him and he could defend himself and we could argue it out. That
way, I would never get mad at Ish and either stalk away or contact him or anything like that,
because we needed Ish’s position. And then eventually came the time when Ish and I finally
met, and he’s a really gracious guy. By that time, our two takes on the script had met. We
were I guess collaborating, all four of us. Me, George, Niv, Ish, without any of us realizing
how many collaborators there were. I was taking all of George’s ideas and presenting them to
Niv as my own, and Niv was taking Ish’s ideas and presenting them to me as his own, so Niv
and I hammered out a script together. The two of us finally shook hands on that. So I think
the script was actually written by four of us. That was the treatment, and then George wrote
the script itself, all the dialogue and everything. And we just did the same four-person thing
with all sorts of deception on that, too. At one point, it was Niv who suggested making the
Maria de Medeiros character the actual lost wife of Roderick, otherwise she was just another
person. But he was the one that contrived the outrageous coincidence—and outrageous
coincidence is one of the central components of melodrama. Niv does not have a
melodramatic tradition, whereas Ish knows his storytelling. So I have a hunch, that one
comes from Ish. But it really instantly pleased me. I’m always looking for ways of tying
things together. You asked about that, the molecular model. I want things to exist for a
reason. I don’t want things to feel added on. I want them to feel reinforced from many
Beard: A “meanwhile in another part of the forest” type of thing.
Maddin: Yeah. If I was an architect my flying buttresses would lean on more flying
buttresses. So it was written that way. I have no idea how much of it was Ish. The original
script, though, was not very much, but I know he was very active in the ongoing and very
infuriatingly slow process, because I’m used to things going pretty quickly. Cowards Bend
the Knee I wrote very slowly, but that was my own project all along, when I just wanted to
go. Niv also led me to believe that things would happen a lot faster than they would.
Beard: Doesn’t this seem to be something that just goes with — as in the case with
Twilight— with something like 35mm and stars and having a producer who...?
Maddin: I just learned to have to be real patient.
Beard: And then the carrot of wide distribution and stuff at the end.
Maddin: Yeah, I need to be more patient. But I liked… the other movies… Archangel and
Careful just took nine months from the minute George and I thought of writing them and the
minute we were sitting down to watch it. And I like that nine months. That’s about a natural
human number of months to be able to bear the gestation of anything. I was used to turning
things around quickly. There was plenty of time to do all you needed to do for all the
primitive kinds of films I was making, but … Niv made it quite clear from the beginning that
he thought I had a lot of style potential but he was just going to make sure that the scripts
were a little more processed. There’s a lot of spontaneity lost.
Beard: Amongst other things, there’s a lot more dialogue.
Maddin: You can’t be spontaneous with that much dialogue.
Beard: You can’t have less dialogue than Cowards Bend the Knee, either.
Maddin: Yeah. But I have to keep reminding myself that I actually worked a long time on
Cowards Bend the Knee, too, because it feels like something just dashed off. To everyone
that witnessed it, it must have looked like something was just dashed off, because as a
shooter and director I was just dashing things off. But the script was very boiled down.
Unlike The Brand Upon the Brain which I tried to make as a companion piece to Cowards
Bend the Knee and it comes from episodes from my own life, so they’re boiled down like
crazy in my own recollection, but the actual script isn’t tight at all. It’s very loose. Editing it
is going to have its problem areas.
Beard: To me, there’s like this kind of a curve or maybe this kind of a curve in your work, in
the sense that it’s a movement towards colour and then away from colour. Twilight obviously
represented a certain kind of apex or a certain kind of extreme of using colour, and using
35mm. When you get to Saddest Music, there isn’t a film I think where the image is so,
actually, such a challenge to the viewer as it is in that film, which is ironic because that’s the
film that’s by far got the most distribution. More people have probably seen that film…
Maddin: Yeah. It’s very smudgy.
Beard: Very blurred, very grainy, aggressively so, really. Obviously, that was deliberate.
Maddin: To a degree.
Beard: Yeah, but if you were using 8mm to be screened in big theatres, it’s going to be...
Maddin: I think what made it even worse, well, more grainy (in a way it’s worse because
I’m not sure if I had it to do over again I would go quite that far, but I did), the Super16 was
coming back looking so clear. It has a crystal shutter that’s timed so perfectly, it’s almost
digital, as opposed to the shutter of a regular 16mm camera which is more analogue and
irregular, I guess, on a subconscious level. The Super16 stuff on the first day’s rushes (at
least I was getting rushes every day), were coming back so clean they looked like video
compared to the regular 16mm and especially compared to the Super8. So we did this thing
called push processing, where you just change the SA and then leave it in the bath longer and
it makes the grain really big. I also broke it up another way. I shot it 18 frames per second
and transferred at 18fps, so that the speed was still the same but there was just fewer frames.
Then the thing I didn’t anticipate when you actually have to transfer that to film, at 24 fps,
you can’t just transfer 18 frames onto 24, you have to duplicate every third frame. It’s frame,
frame, then frameframe, frame, frame, frameframe. It creates a weird movement, and
watching it on video is different than watching it on film because it’s two different
Beard: I just remember this print of October that I used to show all the time which was a
version of the reissue that was done with Shostakovich music and stuff like that, and it was
every third frame was duplicated to bring it up from silent speed up to sound speed so you
could run it through a sound projector. On a stop action projector you’d get, new frame, new
frame, same frame.
Maddin: That’s kind of neat.
Beard: I can see it subliminally, watching. There was something a little bit strange going on
Maddin: So that satisfied me, but then I realized later, by the time it finally appeared after 8,
9 months later, when I finally got a chance to see it on the big screen, the grain on the push
process was huge. And that’s the stuff everyone thinks was Super8.
Beard: But in fact it was push processed Super16. That reminds me. Have you thought about
just using digital video? Making a film in Digital video? You can carry it around in one
Maddin: I like the portability, I don’t think I’ll ever be patient enough to go to one of those
four-shot-a-day movies, or anything like. I don’t know where… the beautiful thing about
filmmaking is that so much of your career decisions are based on necessity. I like
assignments, I like trying to please a boss. Heart of the World was an assignment, Dracula
was an assignment.
Beard: Both very successful.
Maddin: I like an assignment. And then necessity is kind of like one big assignment.
Starvation. So we’ll see.
Beard: Was it really 40 degrees below zero when you were filming?
Maddin: Not every day, but often enough.
Beard: Not 30 or 25? 40 is really, seriously cold.
Maddin: There were 24 days of shooting, two of them didn’t involve actors, they were maps
and objects and things. I think 10 of them were indoors, were mild in a studio, which wasn’t
big enough to hold all the space.
Beard: With heating.
Maddin: Yeah, it was heated and comfortable. Ten or eight… Isabella had ten shooting
days. I’m trying to remember. That means 16 days in the cold studio. I would say about three
of them were mild, and that means…
Beard: 15 below.
Maddin: yeah, something like that. And the last couple of days it was mild enough that the
skating rink was starting to thaw a little bit. But before that all the other days leading up to
that were minus 45 on one day, and minus 28 was the warmest.
Beard: Minus 45 is like, in five minutes your skin will freeze.
Maddin: It was cold. The studio was so big that there was even windchill. It was big and
drafty, so there was a mild windchill. Normally, when it’s that cold you’re walking on snow,
but you’re walking on concrete, and it’s very cold and it sucks the warmth out of you. So you
have to wear that Sorrels that are good to minus 70 or whatever. So the actors, the extras,
weren’t wearing Sorrels. So there’s this scene that was cut out of the movie of these little
orphans where the little kids are just wearing these little shoes with toes sticking out of them,
who were just walking on concrete at -45. That was exactly the coldest part of the studio, that
part, and they were really cold. And their obnoxious showbiz parents were freezing their
asses off, too. It was great. I like the cold. I never wanted to shoot outdoors, I like indoor
studios and comfort and not having to get nervous about the weather channel. But at the end
of each day you felt like you had licked it, you know. I never wore mitts or anything. I had a
jacket that I wore over my sleeves like this, but my fingers would freeze on the camera.
Beard: Liking it to be cold is one thing, but 40 below is something else.
Maddin: The colder it was the more proud we all were. It was kind of disappointing when it
was hovering near zero, at the end, there, because there was no real challenge. But lunch time
was unbelievable. It felt like we were all war veterans, you know, talking about the battle.
Beard: This was your second go around with better known actors. As I said before, it seemed
to me just from a viewing position that it worked out pretty well.
Maddin: Yeah, I was pretty pleased.
Beard: It just seems strange to see a well-known actor in a Guy Maddin film. That’s another
discontinuity in the film, because you have associations with these faces with other contexts.
And everybody’s good, I think, in it.
Maddin: They’re each a little bit different. They have different backgrounds.
Beard: To me, the revelation of all those faces that I’d seen before though was Maria de
Medeiros, who… my experience of her in other films — I haven’t seen a lot of her other
films — there always something a little off about her in other films. She’s a little too cute or
she’s a little…
Maddin: She’s a good little sleepwalker in this one, though.
Beard: Yeah, there’s something just weird in other films. But here she seems absolutely
right at home, and she seems absolutely the most natural character of all the characters in the
film in terms of just her presence and her ability to just do Maria de Medeiros to some extent
and it just fit right into a Guy Maddin film.
Maddin: She came right off the plane, and had a read-through and she was perfect. But the
cold really hit her hard. It was killing her. It didn’t hurt much, it just took the life out of her
in just a couple of moments here and there. But I’m still so grateful for her to give the
performance she did.
Beard: She can sing, too.
Maddin: Yeah, it was nice. I wish I had figured out a way to get more music into that movie.
Just to get it a little more musical.
Beard: You say in your DVD commentary that “I was intentionally turning my dial towards
American film”. I think I understand what you mean by that but can you…
Maddin: Yeah, Ish, after he saw it, he sent me, he said, congratulations, you’ve moved on
from expressionism to—you’ve made your first American film, now.
Beard: You relate in Kino Delirium, about that message you got from Telefilm about how
they weren’t going to fund Dykemaster’s Daughter because it was “a lateral move.”
Maddin: Right. It’s a forward move to make an American film. I think he might have been
referring to um, probably just a sort of, the protagonist who is actually a protagonist.
Canadian protagonists just sit back and let things happen to them. We made a conscious
effort to have a protagonist who went out and grabbed things.
Beard: And look what happens to him.
Maddin: Yeah, exactly. And that’s a classic film noir. We were using as models, I’m sure
George has mentioned this, Ace in the Hole, the Billy Wilder picture, and Yankee Doodle
Dandy with Jimmy Cagney. Those guys are in these masterful films (Ace in the Hole
especially amazing) but just to use that once again as a sacred unit of measure against which
we can compare our own modest project and just try to keep the protagonist greedy and
selfish and forward moving as much as possible.
Beard: Except that he comes out looking like the hero, well, paperback hero, of a Canadian
movie, so to speak. Because there are all these Canadian movies about Canadians who
pretend to be American or try to behave as if they are American and then disastrous things
always overcomes them.
Maddin: Well, I am a Canadian. What do I know about America?
Beard: I think it’s fascinating and in fact you’re probably, possibly to your sorrow, going to
read about this film as being an allegory of making films in Canada or being a Canadian
Maddin: Once you start to have characters representing various countries it’s an allegory
whether you want it to be or not. I’ve had people ask me if Isabella Rossellini’s glass legs
were the World Trade towers.
Beard: Oh, well that’s a good one, isn’t it? And that would make Roderick’s cello playing
Maddin: That’s right. Into Osama Bin Laden. It was an odd coincidence that Dubya started
bombing the instance those legs blew up while we were shooting. I’d detonated those legs
and received word that the war had just started at that moment. That was an interesting piece
Beard: I guess. Although, again, you don’t have any actual Americans in that in fact.
Maddin: No. There are no such things as Americans. They’re in the melting pot. In the
1930s, you know, everyone’s an immigrant, at least in Warner Bros. pictures.
Beard: I like the fact that they’re all Canadians. Roderick is pretending to be Serb, you
Maddin: There are so many Canadians like that, who have embraced—who have retro-embraced their ethnicity without ever having set foot in the country of choice.
Beard: Well, it’s the problem of what is it to be Canadian anyway. That’s a subject for
another conversation, probably. There’s a beautiful scene in the train, Roderick’s first scene
in the train, with the raindrops on the window of the train, and the again very Murnau-esque
appearance in a raindrop or a teardrop of this idealized family tableau of him and his wife
and his son. Which of course immediately dissolves—he stands up and moves away almost
Maddin: That’s about as long as our family ever were together.
Beard: —a matter of sorrow. What I recalled was the similar moment at the end of Careful
where poor doomed Grigorss is in the cave and his mother and his father and himself are, in
an idealized way, sort of being projected into the back of the cave. This kind of idea of an
ideal family moment, or some kind of idealized, if-I-could-only-get-back-to-this moment
where it was just me and mommy and daddy, is always associated with catastrophe. It
certainly is in Careful and it is in Saddest Music, too. And you’ve got more Oedipal struggle
in this film, again, with the father and son both going after the same woman, both damaging
the same woman, and being damaged in return.
Maddin: At least I’ve started to acknowledge that you actually hurt people when you get
involved with them.
Beard: But this comes after Careful where there’s a couple kind of triangles of that kind, and
after Cowards Bend the Knee where the same thing is happening. Obviously there’s
something resonating there, something that’s fertile with you.
Maddin: I haven’t had much luck with relationships.
Beard: It doesn’t seem to me a matter of having no luck with relationships. It seems to me
this very Freudian sense of the other generation as somehow still being there, still having a
very active part in the part in the way that your relationships aren’t going.
Maddin: You haven’t spent a weekend at my cottage. Holy smokes, my mother, Mrs. Bates.
Making a depression in the couch or the bed whenever she sits. And her voice is audible
everywhere in Gimli.
Beard: Well she’s in your films, too, right?
Maddin: She’s in Cowards Bend the Knee.
Beard: She plays her own mother.
Maddin: That’s right. She still hasn’t seen the movie because I didn’t tell her about it. She
Beard: What, did you just say, put these dark glasses on, mom, and this dress, and I’m just
going to turn these lights on.
Maddin: Two coats of paint and some blinding lights took care of seeing what was going on.
Beard: Fyodor Kent, is that Fyodor Dostoyevsky? Is that where that comes from?
Maddin: I guess so. George and I have so much cultural indifference that we were just
looking for name.
Beard: He’s supposed to be a captain in the Canadian army? He’s wearing sergeant’s stripes.
Maddin: Yeah… what is he? yeah. I think lieutenant. I think he says lieutenant, but I think
you’re right. I think they are sergeant’s stripes—it might be Boy Scout uniform, for all I
Beard: You have Chester Kent, that’s from Footlight Parade.
Maddin: Yep. Chester Kent.
Beard: And Fyodor’s, who knows where from, and I can see where Roderick gets to be
Roderick. That’s a very good sub-ironic name for somebody.
Maddin: I think George had just finished reading House of Usher. He just liked the name.
Beard: Somebody carrying internal sorrow with him, always. That kind of—the whole
puzzle of nationality and family history in that is just very productive because it doesn’t
make any sense at all.
Maddin: It doesn’t really parse out if you think about it too hard.
Beard: And I like the fish cut-outs in the “Alaskan Kayak Tragedy of 1898” number. It
seemed to be left over from Gimli.
Maddin: It’s kind of strange when you find yourself doing something a second time in
filmmaker. Usually you master something just in time to never need to do it again.
Somebody said, “how do we make these fish cut-outs” and I went, “like this.”
Beard: Roderick’s usual performance of “The Song Is You” on the cello is this very
heartfelt, romantic, Pablo Casals, type of performance and the renditions are interiorized. It’s
a kind of private communion with these feelings. And then when we get to his moments of
full realization and anger, later in the film, and of course the final contest where he’s coming
out with these eldritch, you know, almost post-Webern screechings and howlings that break
the legs of Lady Port-Huntley—is that any kind of comment on different kinds of art?
Maddin: I just wanted him to —
Beard: It’s like, it’s more authentic art, it breaks things!
Maddin: Well, I just wanted this agony to be less something that he’s proud of. He seems to
be this agony artist—
Beard: Yes, very much so.
Maddin: He’s vain about it, so I just wanted him to be more out of control.
Beard: And that big hat and the veil is …
Maddin: And I was thinking Hangover Square , and I just like the way that Laird
Cregar is sent into conniptions by dissonance.
Beard: That’s right, I’d forgotten that. The Hangover Square connection is inescapable at
the end of the movie with the piano recital while the building is going up in flames. I had
another connection with another movie—the moment, the great moment in the film it seems
to me, is, which I didn’t quite connect with the first time I saw the film but I feel that I have
since, is Chester’s last, well, last real moment of emotional breakthrough and connection
with his own feelings. Immediately he has to be stabbed in the gut with multiple shards of
glass in order to make this kind of breakthrough, but that sense—I mean, at that point, he’s
actually—he staggers out and he’s by the piano there, I think, there’s a little smile that
appears on his face there, and I was just so strongly reminded at that moment of the ending
of Louis Jourdan, of Letter from an Unknown Woman.
Maddin: Oh, right.
Beard: Who has this same kind of, you know, ‘I’ve been resisting this all my life and now
finally here it is, and I’m going to go die.’ That wasn’t something that was in your mind at
Maddin: I love Letter From an Unknown Woman and the fact is I didn’t direct Mark at all in
that scene. I told him to come on out and he did that. But I was very pleased with it and I
Beard: But structurally speaking it’s also, it’s the moment when he’s finally able to connect
with his own—
Maddin: George and I were going for that moment from the beginning and I’m not sure I
built to that moment properly, but we did the best we could in editing. There were so many
narrative threads to tie up that we couldn’t tie them up simultaneously. But that was one that
I wanted to be the most important one, for Chester anyway, this guy that had been, through
his music and everything he did, repressed every whit of sadness and then finally have to
acknowledge it and then go…
Beard: And to remember this traumatic primal scene of mom dying over the keyboard.
Maddin: I think that could have been executed better, but still. That was the moment I was
going for. I was glad that Mark delivered there, I thought.
Beard: It’s the defeat of amnesia in your work. That’s a big moment for you, right?
Maddin: And Maria de Medeiros, same thing. She has to remember. And the pleasure of
coming out of your amnesiac trance is you get to have a dead child, the reward, the happy
ending, you get to acknowledge a dead child.
Beard: Well there isn’t any happy ending. As in Letter From an Unknown Woman. What
happens is that after that you have to die.
Maddin: I love that movie. It’s a hilarious movie, in its own way. It’s a cruelly hilarious
Beard: Well, what strikes me is how the heroine empowers herself through her own self-abnegation. She just basically does things for herself: she leaves home by herself, she goes
off, she manages this relationship—the relationship actually works better because it’s never
Maddin: I think that’s my whole relationship with the world, actually. I was going to do this
in Brand Upon the Brain! but I haven’t done it yet because I haven’t have quite figured it out
yet, but I think my whole relationship with the world is entirely imagined and made up and
that’s why I’m on bad terms with it half the time.
Beard: See, my interpretation of this movie, and you may hate it, is that it—it seems like a
kind of allegory of your creative dilemma, as I see it, in the sense that the irony and the
parody in your work seems somehow the kind of equivalent of the show biz defenses that
Chester Kent has, and you have to work your way through to your sadness also, somehow, in
your work. The film seems like a good little model of your filmmaking… I don’t know if
that’s going to work.
Maddin: That’s not so bad. I don’t think you need to force that so much.
Beard: I’ve got a whole thing going about Canadian and American art, and European art,
too, actually, in the various nationalities that are taken up, actually, by—you’ve got the
Canadian-Canadian, who’s Fyodor, you’ve got the American-Canadian who’s Chester, and
you’ve got the European-Canadian who’s Roderick. It’s beautiful. It’s actually all the subject
positions available to a Canadian artist in certain ways. It’s interesting that Fyodor’s song,
“The Red Maple Leaf”, which is overtly Canadian, overtly sad, and it just bombs.
Maddin: For a Canadian audience, for one thing.
Beard: Of course, you know, the judge is a little bit embittered with respect to this
Maddin: Eh, he’s up against Africans. What are you supposed to do?
Beard: And the Canadian audience, who you’d think would be cheering for the Canadian
contestant… it reminded me of the Olympics, you know, the Canadian finished 12th. Well,
we’re stoical about that.
Maddin: We’re used to being eliminated in the first possible round.
Beard: I was also going to ask you, how many of your shorts that are listed are actually
Maddin: Some of them are incomplete. They should be removed from the list until I
finished, but I’m trying to finish them now.
Beard: Because they have these baroque plot summaries in Kino Delirium and they’re all
actually posted up on imdb.com, too.
Maddin: I finished—some of these work books are where I took the fragmnts of things that
weren’t quite finished. They were finished but I didn’t have the money, I didn’t have the
$3,000 handy to marry the soundtrack to the images on film and stuff like that. They kind of
existed in primitive form. Some of them I recut to music on those workbooks, because I need
to come up with six short films in two weeks. I finished Maldoror: Tygers and Cock Crew,
but just called them Rooster Workbook and Zookeeper Workbook, and they just have
different names. As long as they’re out there now. So they’re complete.
Beard: There are those of us who want to see every frame.
Maddin: I’m trying to finish them all now, just because I realize, editing on a computer you
can do it much more quickly. Some of them aren’t very good.
Beard: So it goes from 16, and then they’re digitized.
Maddin: Now they’re digitized. What The Cock Crew and Maldoror were, they were edited
on the Steinbeck and then I digitized them and then re-edited them into something that was
less plot-heavy, because I wasn’t happy with the way those turned out. I completely botched
them, so I kind of suppressed showing them. But now I’ve just made them more abstract and
more music driven. They’re still now movies, so I refuse to call them a movie. I just call
Beard: You’ve already done, do you know, you made a comment the other day about how
you were never going to do rock videos, but you’re doing music videos already.
Maddin: I’m just having trouble finding the music that works with the images …
Beard: And rock videos come from a different place, anyways, but the idea of taking a piece
of music or performance and illustrating it with images.
Maddin: I did make one rock video that actually I’m not totally ashamed of. “It’s a
Wonderful Life”, I don’t know if you ever saw that? I’ll give you that one, too. I have that
one on DVD. There’s not much going on there, but at least it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Brand Upon the Brain! (2006)
Beard: What can you tell me about Brand Upon the Brain?
Maddin: Very suddenly one day, I got an e-mail followed up by a phone call just inviting me
to make a short at the Seattle not-for-profit film studio. And I was really busy and swamped
and I really didn’t have time for it. But then I got a follow up phone call from a guy who
explained that they could supply me with a bunch of film stock and free studio space,
everything, free everything. And I just asked, what kind of shooting ratio can I have? He
said, well, it depends how long you want to make your movie. And I said, well, how many
hours of film can you give me. And he said, like 11. And I said, well, I’ll make a feature,
then. But I had to do it in like, a month or something like that, so I wrote a script very
quickly. And I had to write it very quickly because the art department had to build sets and
things, and it had to be written in just a few days or something like that, and I phoned up
George to ask him… I was racking my brains to come up with a Euripidean play to use as a
structure again, or something like that. George had always suggested that I do The Bacchae,
but I couldn’t get into. I tried reading it; I couldn’t see how to make that my own, somehow.
And George suggested some things that appealed to me because they reminded me of some
Grand Guignol plays that I liked. A play set in a lighthouse, he suggested an orphanage with
some parents that were using the children to harvest their organs for resale, and things like
that. I like the Grand Guignol spirit of it. I remembered from my childhood, there’s this sort
of one long episode that sticks out. It’s this titanic battle between my mother and my sister
over her hitting puberty, over her sexuality. I thought I would set this story in a lighthouse
which was sure to be, out in Seattle, I was pretty sure I could find a lighthouse out there, and
a lighthouse orphanage. So it’s a Grand Guignol autobiography of my childhood
observations of this battle between my mother and my sister.
Beard: And it’s feature length.
Maddin: It is. I decided that it would be this companion piece to Cowards Bend the Knee,
that I would shoot everything in Super8, it would be a mixture of locations and sets.
Beard: It’s going to be another Super8 blown up to 35 theatrical experience.
Maddin: It will be — it’ll never make it to film; they just don’t have the money. All the
films that this studio makes are finished on tape and then projected digitally. Digital
projectors are pretty good. This is a really neat film company, it’s called The Film Company,
out of Seattle, affiliated with the Northwest Film Forum there. They’ve got a website. Their
goal is to make six films a year. They’re a not-for-profit film studio.