Guy Maddin makes movies unlike any others. His signature style draws on the look and feel of silent films, and his stories trace their roots back to the cinema of German Expressionism, campy horror, and the avant-garde. Since May 9, he's been touring the country presenting his new Brand Upon The Brain! in an unusual live setting: While the film flickers onscreen, a narrator will read live while musicians and Foley artists create the soundtrack in real-time. (For a schedule of performances, visit the film's official site.)
The A.V. Club: How did the idea arise to present the film live?
Guy Maddin: It's something I'd always kind of daydreamt about, and I suddenly found myself working with this crazy, quixotic, utopian, visionary not-for-profit film studio that would not accept screenplays but would rather invite filmmakers with a green light already flashing. I had to shoot in a month's time, basically, which meant I didn't have time to write dialogue. And then I didn't have time to make anything up either, so I decided to cannibalize my childhood. This is as good a time as any to make a childhood recollection movie. I've long believed that anybody who is in the act of remembering childhood is a poet, because you're thinking back on times when you were making false models of the universe. Everything is kind of irrational and poetic then.
AVC: What does silent film serve better than sound films?
GM: Fairytale. All stories are more or less fairytales, and removing speech makes everything more universal. It makes specific characters stand in for everybody, so actions take on fairytale significance. And the writing has to be pared down to represent people as types, too. Certain types of allegorical horror films are better as silent films, because talking and screaming and all that extraneous stuff just kind of gets in the way. I really like Lon Chaney films, those great human-disfigurement allegories where external injuries stand in for psychological injuries. Because silent films are so aggressively artificial, they're not trying to fool anyone that they're representing real life as it really is. They're bedtime stories, and that's something wonderful.
AVC: None of your films are especially realistic.
GM: If you sit in on a film class with students, their big complaint is "That's not like real life." They don't realize that they don't really want to watch real life. They don't want to sit and watch a security camera. There's a strong gravity in all of us as viewers—even in myself now and then—to want to see real life depicted. But you're looking for it in the wrong places. It's in little allegories, in something removed.
AVC: Was the live-presentation idea part of this movie from the beginning?
GM: When I started asking for certain things, I couldn't believe how good the arrangement was. They kept saying "Yes, of course." So I started thinking out loud—passive-aggressively hoping that people would hear me. At one point I asked them for something I'd always wanted: live musical accompaniment while shooting. Old Hollywood movies [circa the 1910s] used to have a pianist and a violinist playing mood music to help actors get into the mood. We went through two organists. The first guy actually made a deathbed promise to his mother that he would not play live music for movies with nudity in them, so he had to bow out.
I also realized that I was going to need sound effects, and that put me in mind of how delightful it is to watch Foley artists at work. No one ever gets to see them, and they're so strange. They see the world differently: things as things that might make sounds that sound like other things. They see the whole world that way—like when you're a house painter, all you see is a bunch of houses that need painting.
AVC: Had you worked with them much before?
GM: I got two of the best people and their prodigy, and they gave up a lot to travel with the movie. But they've really loved coming out into the limelight, and they have kind of a showman's sense. All of the sudden, maybe because they were always translating visuals into sound, they started working it backwards. For instance, there's a sound effect in the movie when the paternal signet ring is harvesting nectar out of a child's skull. The best sound really was dry pasta wrapped in a wet shammy and twisted. It makes a sort of slightly wet but crunching sound. But they realized no one will know what that is visually, so they replaced it with celery, which reads as "celery" even from the cheap seats.
AVC: What are some of the other sound-making tricks?
GM: Foley artists only do incidental sounds—not ambient sounds—but I wanted wind and surf. So they had to build wind machines: They got blueprints from an old vaudeville site and built a big hand-cranked wooden thing that rubs on canvas. Then they have a giant pan full of beans that sounds like giant waves pounding. There are a lot of footsteps, dishes smashing. There's urination. At one point, they wanted to urinate on people sitting in the front row. I nixed that one.
AVC: How come?
GM: I was all for it in theory, but when it came down to it
AVC: When you were making the film, did you have a sense of it being presented in a different way?
GM: During principal photography, not much. I knew that if the live presentation didn't happen, I could always have sound effects on a recorded track. But when it became apparent that I was going to get my wish granted, I realized I could throw even more things at them. I remembered 1929—notoriously the worst crop of films in Hollywood history, because of the switch from silent to talkies. Notoriously, the camera quit moving so that everyone could gather in a tableau around a vase concealing a microphone. And there were these movies known as "goat glands," named so because men suffering from erectile dysfunction would have operations to have goat and monkey glands inserted—which turned out just to be placebos or hoaxes—as attempts to inject confidence into the limp member. So movies were "goat glanded" quite often; films that were shot in 1927 or '28 and then shelved because they were silent were "goat glanded" by producers who would call back cast members and get them to sing and then edit that in. Then they could release it as a musical, even though it was just a silent movie with four minutes of singing in it.
So I thought, I'm going to goat gland this movie, too. A year after shooting it, I shot a song and met this guy in Winnipeg known as the "Manitoba Meadowlark." He's got the voice of a castrato. I met him in a sauna and he has absolutely no body hair. He had some sort of medical misfortune in his childhood that's kept his voice very soprano-ish.
AVC: How about the narrators? What was Isabella Rossellini's reaction to the idea?
GM: I just knew that whoever was narrating would have to be set at about 11 on the melodrama dial, to be fearless about delivering the melodramatic goods. [Rossellini] was tickled. I think she expected to see like, a five-minute thing, so she said, "Yeah, sure." She has kind of a toggle switch in her—she can go Scandinavian or Mediterranean. Even though the movie has a Scandinavian cool at times, it's a job for the Mediterranean in her. When she performs it live, she kind of claws at the air and shreds it. There's an orgasmic abandon in her performance that is quite nice.
AVC: You've mentioned as inspiration for part of the story the sense of "sexuality" in old teen detective books. What did you mean by that?
GM: There just seems to be so much horniness latent in their juvenile antics. They're forever hiding and sneaking around and shushing each other, and eavesdropping on adults, and putting themselves in positions of seeing things they shouldn't see, all while their breasts are growing and testicles are dropping. It's a time when your memory is at its most powerful. It's also a time when you've already gone through the first wave of trying to make sense of the world, and now all of the sudden there's this new sort of sex-world to make sense of. You can only build models and theories, usually with some parts that aren't working so well. Everything just seems super-saturated. That's my prevailing memory of that time. Everything is charged. Even certain noises people made—if someone had a cold and they sniffed somehow, the viscous gurgling sound seemed to send either a repulsive shiver or an excitement through me. It's a time when your senses are just as sharp as your memory.
AVC: You worked with autobiography before in Cowards Bend The Knee. How did this new film differ?
GM: This one is actually mostly literally true. My mother didn't reverse her aging and I didn't grow up in an orphanage or a lighthouse, but everything else is basically just there. My childhood was a little bit grand guignol and horrifying and melodramatic, in the sense that it was very uninhibited. I define melodrama as truth uninhibited. It's the kind of truth we dream about. Rather than melodrama being exaggerated, it's actually uninhibited. And it's a big difference—people look down on exaggerations, but I think they should look up to the un-inhibitions.