Guy Maddin talks about Keyhole and “the haunted house of cinema.”
- Mitchell Hurwitz talks about the resurrection of Arrested Development
- Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambor on the show’s return and inevitable movie
- Katie Aselton on going from mumblecore to thriller—and directing her own nude scenes
- Michael Cera on the evolution of George Michael Bluth and working in Arrested Development’s writers’ room
- Sarah Polley on laying her family history bare in the new documentary Stories We Tell
In an age when much of what passes for original is just clever recycling, there’s no mistaking Guy Maddin’s movies for anyone else’s. He draws much of his visual inspiration from the silent era, before the uncharted terrain of moviemaking had been colonized, but his influences are too chaotic to be easily classified. His new feature, Keyhole, is as close as he’s come in years to a straightforward story, if your definition of “straightforward” encompasses a gangster named Ulysses (Jason Patric) who holes up in a crumbling, ghost-ridden house, where his wife (Isabella Rossellini) keeps her father chained, naked, to her bed. He’s also at work on Spiritismes, a projected series of 100 short films reviving the ghosts of cinema’s past, which recently found him filming at Paris’ Centre Pompoidou with Udo Kier and scheduling an upcoming shoot at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Just before meeting with MOMA to hash out the details, Maddin sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about stealing from The Odyssey, meeting a miniature Brian DePalma, and his love of Sucker Punch.
The A.V. Club: You’ve talked about Keyhole being in some ways the biography of a house rather than a character.
Guy Maddin: I have this weird thing that happens to me all the time where almost all my memories of things that happened more than three or four years ago are placed in that house, like where I first heard the news of someone’s death or 9/11 or something. It’s all in my childhood home, but I haven’t been there for a long time. It’s a weird neurological thing maybe, or it’s just my nostalgic need to go there. I read in this neurology book—I always wanted to make a movie about this, but you could see how the plot might get a bit constipated—there are these people who live in a constant state of déjà vu where if you tell them something, like, “Your husband just died,” they go, “I know that.” These people were first discovered when the Titanic sank. “The Titanic sank.” “I know.” But the same thing would happen with 9/11, so what happens is, they never get to grieve properly. They always feel like they’ve already grieved. So there’s this horrible buildup and then they find themselves grieving in weird ways.
I think that’s what’s happened to me. I don’t think I have that ailment. I know I don’t, but I have its reverse maybe. Whatever it is I have wrong with me has enabled me to make a film career. It started with the death of my father when I was 21 and I refused to grieve. I so feared his death. He hadn’t been well, so when it finally happened I was prepared for the most horrible grief and unbearable grief, and then nothing happened. I think I blew a breaker switch somewhere and then what happened was I started grieving on the installment plan. Tiny installments every night in dreams for many years where my father would come back—like Ulysses, as it turns out, although I wasn’t aware of The Odyssey. Like Ulysses, he would come back, but he would come back just for a few minutes, because it turns out he hadn’t died. I’d always forget the funeral in my dreams. Turns out he hadn’t died at all. He had just gone to live with a better family. He abandoned us, and he was just coming back to pick up his shaving lotion or his glass eye that he’d forgotten or a tie or just something long enough for him to stay a minute, and during that minute every night in the dream I had a chance to tell him I loved him or just to impress him and hope he would stay and then every night he went away again. I spent every morning for over a decade sort of feeling kind of happy that I just had an encounter with my dad. They were so realistic. I can remember his voice only in my dreams and his every gesture. Your memories store practically everything, but you can’t access it, but my dreams for some reason, these visits, liberated my memories.
But then I also felt abandoned, so that’s when I finally encountered The Odyssey, which wasn’t until about three years ago. It was a Wikipedia reading. I realized that Homer had been through the same thing. He had either had a father die on him or abandon him that he’d written the ultimate deadbeat dad story. Telemachus, who is the son of Odysseus, was just dreaming probably, just dreaming the return of his father against all odds. He didn’t know whether his father was dead or alive or waylaid. It turns out he was on an island getting his brains fucked out by a nymph named Calypso. It was the same sort of dream I was having, that my father just found a better place to live, and I realized, holy shit, I’d had the same dream that Homer had. He wrote about his 3,000 years ago, and it’s been the most durable piece of fiction. So many movies have acknowledged structuring themselves on his things. So I thought, why not start with that? It’s a durable enough structure. Not even I could screw it up. Well, of course I completely buried it, and I did sort of screw it up, but I don’t care. My objective wasn’t to make an adaption of The Odyssey. I stole The Odyssey as a sturdy structure to embolden me to set off my ways, but I did find that the rhyme with Homer’s dream and my own is really interesting, and then there’s another weird rhyme that came up. Sorry, I’m just blabbing.
AVC: No, go ahead.
GM: It’s the first time I’ve talked to anyone in a few days. Working with Jason Patric was really interesting. I wanted an alpha male, an all-American alpha male to be a Ulysses figure, a deadbeat dad, but it turns out he might be the only actor as in touch with his own hauntings as I am. Not that many people realize it, his father was Jason Miller, Father Damien in The Exorcist, and 1973 was a big year for him because he wrote That Championship Season, a play that won the Pulitzer Prize. He was in The Exorcist. Little Jason Patric was 7 years old on the set of The Exorcist all the time getting freaked out. And then Jason Miller, his father, just left his family, abandoned him like Ulysses. It was a time of great haunting for him. His father just told him, “You’re the man of the house now.” And I think he took it literally, and he’s been a man ever since the age of 7, looking after his mom and his aunts, his grandmother, locking the windows every night and the doors. I think he still had some serious unfinished business with his dad even at the time of his death. So I think it’s still going on, and when he remounted that play his father wrote last year here on Broadway, he made sure he had his father’s ashes in an urn, so he’s constantly paying tribute to his father and it’s kind of a Homeric rhyme with me as well. I don’t know, if Jason were here to talk about the movie, he might just say he doesn’t get it, or, “Guy Maddin’s a crazy fucker.” Something like that. But when we were talking about it the night he came to Winnipeg, he was telling me about all this stuff, and I realized, holy smokes, it’s basically just me but really way more handsome and muscular and just as haunted, and this is the guy for this project. Really kind of cool.
AVC: So you shot it in Winnipeg?
GM: I did, yeah, and in one of my usual spots, a sort of asbestos and pesticide warehouse that I’ve been using for 20 years, so we shot it quickly. Shot it with highly portable little digital [Canon] 5Ds that just looked like cameras used to take Christmas snapshots with. Jason was very suspicious. “When are the real cameras coming out,” you know? It did look odd. Looked like I was just taking snapshots of people the whole time, but my DOP and I just sort of sucked up imagery with these little Dustbusters for 15 days.
AVC: This is the first feature you’ve shot on the 5D?
GM: I shot a lot of My Winnipeg digitally and then had this weird philosophical second thought, which I regret. I was sort of thinking “This thing should be embedded in film emulsion,” so I reshot a projection of the digital final edit of the movie off my fridge on film, just to give it some film emulsion. Turns out I didn’t have to do that expensive step. You can just put on a film grain filter, but I just chickened out and didn’t tell anybody and just paid for the film transfer myself. So I’d been dying for a nudge into the digital realm. I know a lot of people who follow me probably figured I’d be the last person in the world to switch to digital, and that I also sort of ride a penny-farthing with a bowler hat, but I don’t. I want to be a normal guy. I’m just an artist trying to make stuff that matters to me.
It’s a real arbitrary marriage between film emulsion and memory, let’s face it. Memories and feelings and hauntings and deadbeat dads and love of home and all that stuff predate by millennia the invention of photography in 1827. So we should be able to express our feelings about that in any medium. I copped out a little bit. I just made digital reminiscent of film. Shot in black and white, and transferred it to 35mm, although there’s versions that go straight from the hard drive to the screen. I’m fine with it, it’s cool. You actually see a lot of detail. Normally in my movies I shunned large-gauge formats, and even 35mm for the longest time, always shooting Super 8 and 16 because I didn’t have a large-gauge art department. I had some cheap sets and props and shadows. There was no point shooting that in 35mm. I would just reveal how shabby and charmless I am.
AVC: You’ve talked about shooting with a single light bulb early on.
GM: Yeah, where the big wall-to-wall shadow was the only prop I had sometimes. So I finally had a movie about a living space, about the emotions of space. Well, who knows what my movie’s about. What I set out to make it about and what it’s about is always two different things. What I often find out through the weird therapy of talking to journalists, what I’m really just starting to realize, I think it’ll probably be another couple of years before I figure out what I’ve actually made, but I set out over-ambitiously to make a movie that was about, well, the ghosts we all converse with constantly and who in our absence even converse amongst themselves. And then I wanted—and this is where I fell short, I think—but I wanted to really make a movie about our living space and the way we all feel about certain rooms and the way certain rooms when a living space is negotiated from room to room. If there’s more than one room in your living space, you can create an almost symphonic array of feelings in yourself and things like that. I don’t think I achieved that with this movie, but I think it’s always interesting to set really lofty goals for yourself and then fail better, as Beckett said.
AVC: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
GM: Yeah. So I set out with all sorts of really complicated things. I also had some autobiographical feelings that I really wanted to get out. I’ve been asked to downplay the autobiographical elements, because I made so many movies in which they were so blatantly autobiographical. They even had characters named Guy Maddin, things like that. I don’t know, I’ve been operating in the same way for so long, so whether there’s a character with my name or not makes no difference.
AVC: When you say “asked,” you mean by the distributor?
GM: Yeah, it’s just better to downplay it, but the fact that there’s no character “Guy Maddin” in there is enough. I don’t have to pretend I wasn’t litmusing myself. I’m sure all artists do anyway, except ones that don’t interest me.
AVC: It seems like a work of art is always more personal than anyone but the maker would know, but rarely in the obvious ways we might suspect.
GM: I know. Maybe it was the mood I was in. I was watching Sucker Punch about a year ago, and I thought, “Maybe Zack Snyder is onto something here.” I kinda liked the movie. When I watched it again, I found it hard to defend against all the charges people were making, but I somehow felt like he made something personal there. I don’t know.
AVC: It’s kind of the most expensive film maudit ever made.
GM: Good to hear. That’s a nice way of putting it. Plus I don’t know if there are bonuses on the DVD or not. There are musical numbers excised from it. Are they available anywhere?
AVC: There’s a torch song Carla Gugino sings.
GM: And that’s available as a bonus?
GM: Okay, I’ll check that one out. I kinda like that movie in spite of itself.
AVC: That’s the only way to like it.
GM: Plus it had Vanessa Hudgens in it. [Laughs.] It’s a dreamy picture. One thing I do often, I watch a movie, and I pretend Luis Buñuel is sitting beside me, or Giorgio de Chirico or something like that. What movie did I watch recently that I think Buñuel would approve of wholeheartedly? Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. I think Buñuel would love this. It’s kind of like a really stoked-up Feuillade with lots of effects. Stunts that made no sense. Buñuel would have been on his fourth martini 10 minutes in on that movie. He would have approved.
AVC: It’s a little odd how you’ve been turned into the go-to commentator on silent film. People keep asking you what you think of The Artist.
GM: I still haven’t seen it. I watched about 15 minutes of it that looked charming enough on the airplane just on a neighbor’s screen. That’s how I watch all airplane movies. I refuse to put my own on. I just watch sort of a sea of movies all at once, so they’re all silent. That sort of makes the movies slightly more interesting, but in The Artist’s case, I go, “Wait a minute, it really is silent already.” So I watched it for a while and it seemed likable enough, but it’s unfair to go by a 20-minute excerpt. I didn’t feel like it was anything more than superficial. I shouldn’t say that. I didn’t see it properly. I did not see it properly yet. I will stand by what I’ve always said: I want to hate it, I’m scared I’ll love it. But I haven’t seen it yet.
AVC: It’s a very ingratiating tribute to silent-film acting that has almost nothing do with silent filmmaking.
GM: Plus it won Best Picture, didn’t it?
GM: Just not a good sign, period.
AVC: You mentioned the personal connections you’ve had to various spaces, and the idea of your father coming back to you in dreams, and how that plays into Keyhole. How much of that do you know when you’re working on it, and how much only becomes apparent once people start asking you questions?
GM: I tried a method with this movie that I had tried earlier with my real silent movie, Cowards Bend The Knee. I took pure autobiography, or in some cases took aspects of it, and did a 180 on it. Like, I had an aunt Lil who was a virginal sweet old lady, my mother’s older sister. She and my mother, they ran this beauty salon, and she had this thoroughly chaste existence as far as I know and was like a mother to me. I had two mothers. She wasn’t a prude, but you would never dream of swearing in front of her or anything like that, just a wonderful woman. I felt—she had just died—I’m going to give her in this movie kind of a Bizarro universe existence. I’m going to make her a Clytemnestra figure, just a whore and a criminal and a back-alley abortionist and I’m just going to make her the opposite of what she is, a thoughtless, heartless woman.
AVC: Was Lil short for Lily? The character in the movie is named Hyacinth.
GM: Yeah, Lily. I sort of did all these inverse things. I took the beauty salon where I grew up, which was just this nurturing gynocracy, and I made it kind of a horrible den of iniquity, and I found just by flipping everything into its, not absolute value, into its negation, it somehow all kind of added up to an autobiographical truth anyway. As long as I was working with the same material, it didn’t really seem to matter if I flipped it around any which direction when you put it all together. It was like looking at a reflection of my life but in a shattered mirror. So it was kind of traumatizing, but it was all there and I found it interesting that you could actually, as long as you were working with the truth, you could flip it around. It shouldn’t work, but maybe it’s like cubist melodrama or something. I don’t know. It was a weird thing I tried to do.
I always hired diarists to work on films, and I hired a really crotchety diarist way back in 1991 to work on my movie Careful, and he never even left the green room. So he just went by rumors that came in from the set, and often you’d hear people complaining, just their side of the story, about me, and so he wrote this diary, which was just one nonstop vitriolic vent from one person after another about the director, about me, and when I read it, I was like “That’s not true, that’s not true, that’s not true.” But by the end of reading the diary, 15 years later, I had the entire experience exactly as I remembered it somehow, even though I was on the wrong end of every story. Maybe it was true. [Laughs.] It seemed to me like even falsehoods about a place add up to a mythic truth somehow—just the way American history is perceived from a series of myths and lies and falsehoods but it all sort of boils down to an identity. It all came back to me as a picture-perfect identity. So I thought I would try something like that with Cowards Bend The Knee, and I liked the results, because it felt true and it made my life seem more interesting and more grotesque than it really was.
My life’s been very dull, but there have been a lot of melodramatic events spread out over many decades, and I kind of crammed them into 60 minutes, so for this one I tried the same thing. I grew up in a family with three other siblings. One of them died. I immediately did the reverse. I had three of them dead and had one living. I had a dead father but had him living. I don’t believe in ghosts at all, or séances or any of that stuff, except when I’m holding a movie camera or writing a script and then of course it becomes very convenient to believe in those things. Just like Hamlet’s father on the ramparts, just a memory of his father, but perceived by bystanders instead of Hamlet himself. Just sort of willed into existence. It’s just kind of convenient to think of ghosts as memories. We all, as Faulkner famously said, live in the past and present simultaneously. We’re always communing with our ghosts or memories of hot elements. You don’t put your hand on the hot element twice, and we all live in the past and present simultaneously, and so ghosts are simply the people we love and pay tribute to or have chosen to repress or whatever, but they always show through the cracks one way or the other and at strange times. Or are memories not of people but of the way we understood the world to work when we were really young.
Bruno Schulz, the Polish writer, he’s one of my favorites. His narrator actually says as a child that mother started hanging the laundry outside instead of inside and that brought the warm weather. He reversed cause and effect. That’s been a very important sentence for me, that sentence in Schulz, because I realized that as children, we all build and then destroy and then rebuild models of the universe. We just build each successive model on the ruins of the other, but I don’t think we ever forget those crushed models. Whenever we have a trauma or an emotional meltdown, we’re on pretty wobbly footing, because I think we revert to those first earliest emotional models of the world, and that we believe that mom actually still brought spring. Or whatever they are in each personal case. So I think those are ghosts, too. We just live in a space that’s just thronged with ghosts and I honestly think I’m even a ghost sometimes. I often wonder if when I die, and I don’t believe in ghosts, but if I’m going to haunt any place, it’s that childhood home that I keep falsely remembering. In my dreams now I very rarely dream of people. I just dream of that space. I’m walking around and I’m the only person in it. I’m actually haunting in the future, in my dreams anyway.
AVC: How do these thoughts about memory and place factor into Spiritismes, which are your recreations of early films that have since been lost, filmed at various museums around the world.
GM:I was going to originally do these spiritismes—séances, as they’re known in English. Séances in French just means movie screening. Seating, actually. That’s what a séance is. I like the fact that it’s a movie screening in Paris. I was going to shoot them all the same time as Keyhole, the way the Spanish Dracula was shot on the sites of the Bela Lugosi Dracula at night. There were practical problems and they couldn’t be done, but I did shoot about 20 or 30 lost films while shooting Keyhole. It was a bit too crazy though, and I suspended it for the time being and restarted the project recently. I think of these lost films as movies with no known final resting place, which immediately reminds you of the words you often use to describe unhappy ghosts. They’re just unhappy spirits consigned, doomed to wander the landscape of filmic history, unable to project themselves for the people who might love them, for all the millions of people that once loved them. Waiting to be discovered, probably never will be. I had this idea that I could gather a bunch of actors, put them into a trance. Actors are easily duped into trances anyway, they’re always going into them. They’re self-indulgent, trance-wise. I think all actors go into various forms of trans-acting just to get the job done anyway.
AVC: Werner Herzog did that for Heart Of Glass.
GM: It wasn’t a far reach for Herzog, although there’s a bullshitter I admire. Man, he’s the best. He’s the best. And then just invite the unhappy spirit of this long-forgotten film to possess us and compel us to act out its essence of the lineaments of its synopses or some confused, garbled false message that you sometimes get in séances. I love the fact that I’m the medium and spirit photographer and I don’t believe in that stuff, because basically filmmakers and mediums are charlatans and their dupes want to believe it. People who go to movies want to believe it for at least for the two hours they’re there, and then if they don’t believe it, actually they’re kind of pissed off. I just decided they’re the same thing. With Keyhole, which is my personal house, not literally, but what I thought of it, I wanted to make that the haunted house of cinema as well and that the two would tie in together and the projects could be released simultaneously. But the Spiritismes project is far too immense. It would have taken years. It’s going to take me a couple years to finish.
Keyhole shouldn’t wait for that long. I’m pleased with the way Keyhole turned out. I originally thought I could make it a far more audience-friendly film, and I probably could have with one more audience-friendly pass of the script. I probably could have kept everyone in the know as to exactly where Ulysses was, and his progress. I could have had more sort of Robert McKee setbacks. I’m not saying that disdainfully. I probably should have read McKee years ago and then probably could have kept the audience involved and then still could have draped all my dream-like obsessions over everything and it would have been fine.
AVC: It sees as if Keyhole might have that kind of classical structure. You start out with all the characters in a room, explicitly stating their objectives...
GM: … and then the ghosts just started talking to each other so much and I just I had to just let my ghosts take over. I don’t know. Once you plant a sodomized cleaning lady in the first act, she’s gotta blow up in the final act. But I don’t know. That was Kevin McDonald’s girlfriend by the way, I think a piece of casting she insisted on.
AVC: As you mentioned, you grew up in Winnipeg, one of the only places in the world, except for Paris, where Brian De Palma’s The Phantom Of The Paradise was a hit.
GM: Paul Williams [who starred and wrote the songs] is a god in Winnipeg. An ex-girlfriend of mine stalked him to his hotel room. That was a strange relationship. But anyway.
AVC: Were you a Phantom fan?
GM: Saw it once. Listened to the soundtrack album a million times playing pool as an 18-year-old. Thought it was one of the iconic great films for so many years, because as a Winnipeger, it was so huge in the local zeitgeist, the civic-geist. I couldn’t believe when I later found that among De Palma buffs, it’s ranked like the 40th-best of his films. Because I was thinking, “Well okay, there’s Phantom Of Paradise, then there’s Dressed To Kill.” I thought it was like discussing Capra and going, “... It’s A Wonderful Life, which isn’t even a movie.” I’ve ridden in an elevator three times with Brian De Palma over the years. You’re in the same hotel and you’re just—“It’s Brian De Palma, I just gotta fucking…” The first time I saw him he was 6-foot-7, literally. The last time I saw him, he’s like whatever his real height is, or maybe much shorter, like 4-foot-2 or something. I don’t know, but every time I feel like throwing myself at his feet and thanking him for Phantom Of Paradise.
I didn’t even get into Phantom Of Paradise in My Winnipeg. It was too big of a subject. It’s a strange place. All I can say is, it’s one of the last isolated big cities, 700,000 people. The same size as Austin, the capital of Texas. It’s got no hinterland. There’s no one living within an eight-hour drive of the place, maybe a couple of really dinky towns. It’s just the biggest isolated city in North America; it’s right in the center, and it’s Siberia cold, so that isolation produces some quirky results. It’s a Petri dish no one sneezes on. We’re just breathing our own sneezes all the time.
AVC: It’s kind of the opposite of New York and Philadelphia, which might be the only two cities of comparable size located so close to each other.
GM: Without becoming subsumed in anyway. Such tribal rivalries. We could talk forever. It’s become banal, these sports metaphors, but I just I felt what might save me from becoming a complete wanker as a quasi-surrealist filmmaker is that fact that I just love sports so much. That keeps you pretty grounded, because there’s so many bad metaphors in sports. Even the best sports journalists are so terrible. You always just wish it could be saved somehow. I’ve sprinkled sports into my films, but I’ve never made it center, so Slap Shot’s still the best.
AVC: There’s always hockey.
GM: I made an interesting move. I got married about a year and a half ago to an all-American woman [critic and filmmaker Kim Morgan]. She’s such a country music fan and an Americana fan. I fell in love with her movies before I even knew her. I loved her little one-minute long portraits of Americana. No one movie is much more than a miniature, often featuring herself, and so a lot of people dismiss her as a narcissist, but they add up to a profile in Americana. I’ve ruined it all by bringing her up to Canada now, and now she’s watering down her portraits of America with portraits of Gimli and Paris and things like that, so I’ve got to get her back to Los Angeles where she can just do her Los Angeles things, because they’re really good. I like the fact she never writes a pan. She only writes about stuff she loves, and so it’s really opened a new area of obsession for me. As I make a movie about an obsession, each time I use up the obsession. It becomes boring. You suck all the flavor out of it and throw away something that was once really precious to you. I haven’t used up—I know I didn’t do it right. I didn’t quite nail it with Keyhole. I nailed the dreams. Those feel exactly like my dreams and they’re very melancholy. Maybe this movie isn’t quite as funny as it could have been, but whatever.
AVC: You’ve done a service to teenage boys everywhere by prompting them to yell “Double Yahtzee!” the next time they get caught masturbating.
GM: It helps. It helps. Jason Patric came up with that. That was incredible. He was so uneasy on the set all the time, and my homoerotic sprinklings throughout the whole thing just kind of, I don’t know… He was role-playing his alpha male so much that he was just in character all the time as a paternal homophobe. And let’s face, it that little boy wanking under the stairs is me. Whenever he saw that boy it was just like, “Yahtzee!” So when the Franklin Pangborn-esque interior designer discovers him a second time, he just said “Double Yahtzee!” and I realized I had to have the voice of the house shout that out at that point. It was unbelievable. Jason is a terrifying presence on set.
AVC: He’s such an imposing physical presence in After Dark, My Sweet.
GM: It’s terrifying. Just like that. I love that movie. On set, he’s fucking terrifying, but I found myself laughing 10 months later at things he said. He knows how to take a line that’s almost impossible to say—he’s a born naturalist. The dialogue George [Toles] and I write isn’t naturalism, but he knows how to give it a reading that makes it adhere to a character. If no one likes the movie, they should at least watch Jason, just to see how he’s taken lines that would be impossible to read naturalistically and how he puts them into his processor and spews them out. It’s kind of amazing. I’ve often just had types in my movies. I’ve always directed them to go for the melodrama, to pretend there’s a proscenium arch just above the frame and to go for that. He just refused to, and I don’t blame him, because that’s not his shtick.
But it was really interesting to force it. It was just forcing like NTSC into PAL or something, or metric into imperial. But he did the conversion and then some. There’s a really interesting conversion going on there that I don’t think I’ve seen in any movie before, because no one’s tried it. The Hollywood studios made melodramas and you delivered the lines as a melodrama, but we’ve written a surrealist melodrama that’s then performed naturalistically. It’s really strange. But full of gangster tropes and stuff like that. It’s a really odd performance for him. Some people have said it’s a bit clenched, but I think that’s important. He’s clenched. He has to be clenched. He’s like a guy who has pinched off the fact that he’s dead. So I like the way it’s turned out. I’ve always been Von Sternberg-y in that I like combining 17 different styles of acting in one movie. The Scarlet Empress being the best example of that, a symphony of accents. It’s like a weird meal at some sort of food festival, when you’re mixing Tibetan stuff with Thai. So I’ve always liked that. I’ve liked mixing actors I’ve found on the street with theater actors with film actors, with varying degrees of ability. I’ve never been able to get anything other than that anyway, but to have someone that—he told me he just wanted to yoke himself into this project and haul it all by himself across the finish line.
AVC: Visconti mixed acting styles as well.
GM: He’s got Burt Lancaster being dubbed.
AVC: Or Vincente Minnelli, putting Shirley MacLaine with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in Some Came Running.
GM: It’s like saying, “This is artifice. Enjoy it for what it is.” I’ve never bought that cliché that you should never take people out of the narrative, take people out of that dramatic illusion. I’m more of a person who loves his grandmother. I’m thinking when a grandmother sits at the foot of your bed and tells you a bedtime story, you get absorbed into the story, you notice her style of telling a story. Some parts you should tell badly, other parts charmingly. You’re totally sucked into the story. You’ve been scared, moved, engaged, and then every now and then you notice your grandmother has a dental whistle or a nose hair or that she’s getting pretty wrinkly and that she’s sitting on your foot, and then you go back into the story. I’m one of those filmmakers that likes to show the grandmother.
So’s Minnelli. Visconti. I don’t mean to put myself in such prestigious company. George Kuchar. So are all my favorite filmmakers. You feel the textures. You feel the edits like speed bumps sometime. I like reel changes in a crummy theater. For the longest time, I think until I was 25, I didn’t know what those reel changes were. I just knew that every now and then something flashed on the screen and then you’d hear a loud thump. It reminds me of that Kafka parable, which I can only paraphrase, about leopards breaking into the temple and upsetting the wine goblets and finally the leopards were just incorporated into the ceremony. The reel changes were just the leopards. Whatever they were was a luscious part of the film experience, which we don’t get anymore. But I insist on getting it because I just like feeling... I just put in cuts now just for the sake of them. You’ve gotta be primitive. The great Picasso, the great titan of the 20th century, everyone knows he could really draw if he wanted, but it was how he forgot that made him really important. You have to always forget. I got myself out of the biggest slump ever in the late ’90s. I just didn’t have a story to tell or a reason to say anything and it felt like my next step would be to go to 35mm and try to get conventional actors. And then I switched over to Super 8.
AVC: This was after Twilight Of The Ice Nymphs?
GM: Yeah. It wasn’t until after I made The Heart Of The World. I always hired diarists, as I told you, but I hired a Super 8 diarist this time, a guy named Deco Dawson. I always said he had to stay out of my way to shoot, so he chose different angles to shoot the same stuff I was shooting. I got his footage and I liked his footage way better than I liked mine. So with his permission, we just blew it up to 16 millimeter and edited the two gauges together and then I started shooting in Super 8, thanks to him. I fell in love with filmmaking again, because it just felt more primitive. It felt like I had been demoted to kindergarten, like I’d always wanted to be. I threw away my light meter. I had a wide-angle lens. I quit focusing, to super-deleterious results sometimes, but then those are always happy.
AVC: You made that your style.
GM: Absolutely. The less I knew. I just forgot everything I learned. I just learned a bunch of technical shit anyway. So I just went back to kindergarten and felt happy again. And I’ve been a child ever since, even though the man before you is starting to resemble Burl Ives’ brother-in-law. I feel pretty lucky to have this job, a job, maybe the only job where you remain a child until the day you die of old age.