Once among the most obscure cult filmmakers, Canadian pop avant-gardist Guy Maddin has been poking his head out of the underground, landing three features in U.S. arthouses in the last two years: the ballet Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary, the autobiographical museum exhibit Cowards Bend The Knee, and The Saddest Music In The World, which stars Isabella Rossellini as a Prohibition-era Winnipeg beer baroness who sponsors a competition to determine which country produces the saddest music.
Since Maddin's aesthetic encompasses both dry wit and overt distancing effects (like smeary lenses and old-timey transitions), his work until now has been just a few shades away from broad likability. Maddin employs elaborate sets, but with a cardboard-cutout quality, and his deadpan humor is dispensed via blatantly artificial dubbing. His films evoke silent-movie expressiveness, but with the knowing wink of postmodernism and experimental film.
Maddin, though, has always insisted that he's not really joking (much), and that what some are hailing as a new sincerity has been present in his features all along. The director recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about what lies behind his creative methods, and whether an artist as addicted to leisure as he is can ever work hard enough to find a wide audience.
The Onion: You've had three movies out in the past two years. Why the sudden burst of productivity?
Guy Maddin: The honest reason is that I bottomed out so badly. I was completely broke a couple of years ago, so I started saying yes to everything. I said yes to a woman who approached me about shooting the Dracula ballet, even though I felt like I was probably going to sabotage it. But I needed the money and thought I would at least learn something from shooting it. I said yes to an art gallery about making an installation that eventually turned into Cowards Bend The Knee. And Saddest Music In The World, which had been taking a long time to develop, all of sudden came to fruition. I found myself shooting Saddest Music In The World just days after shooting Cowards Bend The Knee, which I was sort of shooting on the sly. It all sort of intersected. I also had two books coming out at the same time: a 160-page catalog that I wrote for Cowards Bend The Knee, and my diaries, which at least didn't require much work on my part. I shot some short movies in there, too. It's just because I don't know how to say no. And I was desperate. [Laughs.] I ended up being very grateful that it all played out that way. I've been so lazy all my life. I used to literally lie on the couch, up until the age of 35, fearing that my bones were dissolving like sugar cubes, from disuse. So it feels good to finally stand on top of vanquished sloth, and actually impress some people as a hard worker.
O: Working on these projects so close together, did you find that each informed the other?
GM: Definitely, and in really cool ways. I guess to the outside observer, all my movies look like musty old black-and-white artifacts, but my earlier movies had been more static and tableaux-ish. Making the ballet really taught me how to get things moving. Ballet dancers don't stand still. I've usually never felt comfortable shooting until things were kind of claustrophobic, but ballet dancers need a lot of space, so the sets that I designed had to be big. Normally, I'd design a kitchen that was half the size of a normal kitchen, just to make everything feel kind of womb-like, but the kitchen in a ballet would have to be like 100 feet wide and just as long. I learned a lot about motion, as well as getting lots of shots done in one day. For Cowards Bend The Knee, I went even further with that sort of childlike free-spiritedness. I attacked the subject matter with a Super-8 camera and a wide-angle lens, to keep everything kind of in focus, not caring if it went out of focus. I just made a real sloppy, cut-and-paste collage of my own autobiography. And that really emboldened me to attack the hefty-budgeted Saddest Music In The World, especially since it was a music-driven melodrama. Dracula was wall-to-wall music, and with all the experience I had cutting it together to [music by Gustav] Mahler, I felt like I'd put myself through a boot camp. The purpose of it came to bear in making this feature, where talking, movement, primitivity, some slickness, and a recognition of the power of music all had to play big. It was tight, though. While we were building sets for one movie, I was shooting another movie.
O: What takes longer, building your sets or shooting on them?
GM: I don't know… I used to sort of hand-make my movies more. I literally designed and built the sets myself, and I kind of liked it. I always gave myself eight weeks to do that—sometimes even 10—and the shooting took five or six weeks. But now I work with larger, unionized crews, and they give themselves a frighteningly short amount of time, like three weeks, to build all the sets and paint them, maybe even less. I'd like to have a longer pre-production schedule, for sure, because everything seems so tense. But I guess we just can't afford it. I keep lamenting that, because when I first started, the movies were made by volunteers and friends, and we preferred a long time. We weren't in it for the money. I'd like to say I need more time for shooting, as well, but I hate shooting so much. I'm a nervous wreck. If it's a 20-day shoot, at lunchtime on the first day, I'm thinking "Only 19 and a half days to go… I can make it!"
O: How much do you have to plan your shoots in advance, to get them done in 20 days?
GM: I'm starting to frighten myself, because I'm backsliding into my devil-may-care attitude. I'm sure it's going to catch up with me. Cowards Bend The Knee, I didn't plan at all, because it was so autobiographical. I just showed up with my actors and the camera every day and started shooting, sort of like Robert Altman at his most stoned. But Saddest Music In The World required a lot of planning. I let my first A.D. do a lot of the planning, and if I thought of something at the last second that needed to be done, quite often the schedule wasn't flexible enough for me to fit it in. I should've planned a bit more. I feel the need to chastise myself. A movie that's a partial musical, full-on melodrama, should require a tremendous amount of planning. I went to see Chicago after I finished shooting, and say what you want about it, but that thing was so meticulously planned. It was planned like NASA planned its trips to the moon. It made me feel like some sort of horrible dilettante. But the spirit of my films… I always want them to be kind of contrarian. Meticulous on the one hand, but unbelievably sloppy and careless on the other. I guess that's what you get anyway, if you're not planning very much.
O: Is The Saddest Music In The World the first time you've worked with somebody else's existing screenplay?
GM: Yeah, it's the first time we've officially adapted anything. I made this sort of stillborn feature, Twilight Of The Ice Nymphs, which adapted Knut Hamsun's novel, but Saddest Music In The World was an adaptation of a screenplay, which is pretty rare. The original screenwriter was Kazuo Ishiguro, a Booker Prize winner. My producers have an ongoing relationship with him to develop his first novel, so we decided to keep Ishiguro involved with the project as a story editor. My screenwriting partner George Toles and I adapted his script, kept the title, and kept the basic premise, but made pretty liberal changes. Then we re-engaged Ish. George and I are very self-indulgent, so we liked having Ish as a story editor. He reminded us not of—I can't remember the name—that screenwriting-textbook writer who's derided by Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation?
O: Robert McKee.
GM: Yeah. He didn't give us those kind of suggestions, but, you know, Booker Prize-winning storytelling suggestions. When you start discussing them in mechanical terms, they may sound pretty horrible—backstories, through-lines, stuff like that—but they helped us know that, structurally, we were pretty sound.
O: In addition to your accidental burst of productivity, it also seems you've been getting a lot more distribution lately. Is there a heightened sense of responsibility, now that you have the potential to reach more people?
GM: No, I still don't feel much pressure. I hope I can return the trust these people have shown in the projects. At least Zeitgeist didn't have to lay out any cash advance for Cowards Bend The Knee or anything, so if it doesn't work out for them, they probably won't lose much. But I've never made movies to reach millions of people. Saddest Music In The World is the first time that my producers and I sat down and said, "Hey, let's remove some of the barriers that have been keeping people away, and try to make it a little more approachable. Not necessarily accessible, but approachable, you know? Just to allow people to maybe consider going to it. It'll be interesting to see what happens."
O: You mentioned in a documentary about the making of Twilight Of The Ice Nymphs that you've always been attracted to what you called "optical crackle." Why do you think that is?
GM: I'm not too sure. I've tried figuring it out. I think I've indulged in a pathological, chronic nostalgia over the years, which I've traced back to my childhood. I was the last of four children, born well after the other three, so I was left on my own in a big, quiet house where most of the people had left, and even the echoes of a happy family had all died out. But I had these old, scratched-up black-and-white photographs of my siblings when they were young, doing all sorts of fun stuff. Cramming themselves into station wagons and going on long trips. Doing things. Literally doing things, as opposed to the absolute nothing, the de-boning process I was putting myself through. I'd also see in these photos the new versions of the old hand-me-down toys I had. It was intriguing to me that there was this inaccessible past locked in these little black-and-white snapshots. And they gave my chewed-up-by-a-long-dead-family-pet toys a kind of mystical, improved-upon quality, because they'd made a journey through these snapshots.
I spent a lot of time just peering at them. I was too lazy to read, and I was even too lazy to imagine scenarios drawn up by the pictures. They just suggested a flavor to me. I swallowed them whole, like hosts. It was a form of worship. I never really gave it much thought until I grew up and started watching older movies. There was something that kept drawing me, like Svengali was drawing my little Trilby-feet, sleepwalking, into these images and sounds. Same with recordings. Older recordings just seemed to take me somewhere into my own pre-history. That's always been an interesting, sort of sphinx-like territory for me to wander around in. It feels morbid. It feels wrong. It feels syphilitic. It feels good. [Laughs.] Some Jungian or Freudian would tell me I'm just trying to go back to the womb… at gunpoint, if necessary.
O: Does it feel limiting at all? Do you ever have a desire to make a movie in a more conventional style?
GM: Yeah, I do. Every now and then I go, "Holy shit, what am I doing this for again?" But I've been experimenting a lot with my mini-DV camera. I'm a huge admirer of Lars von Trier's video production of Medea. It's really exciting to me how he came up with a stylization on video that worked for an ancient, really filmic kind of story. So I could see myself moving around. If I want to keep making films for a few more years, I probably should be willing to adapt. I've sort of evolved into the filmmaker that I am because of natural selection anyway. If I hope to survive, I have to acknowledge the natural selection that goes on when film stocks and cameras are eliminated from the world. And film viewers won't want to watch the same thing over and over again from me.
O: Judging by the best-of-the-year lists you submit to Film Comment, your own taste seems to be pretty broad. This past year, you included Elf, Old School, and Terminator 3.
GM: Yeah, I like going out to popcorn-munchers. But I re-watched Day Of Wrath last night, and God, that's a great movie. I also recently watched Zero For Conduct, which may be the best movie ever made… shooting way past Terminator 3, on the outside shoulder. Letter From An Unknown Woman is up there, too. Maybe in the summer, that's when Charlie's Angels features more prominently. Full Throttle, that is. The first one was kinda dull.
O: You mentioned being low on funds, but doesn't being in Canada give you access to some government money that you might not have in other parts of the world?
GM: Yeah, we're really lucky here as filmmakers. There's pretty strong, aggressive state support, not only at the federal level, but in the provinces. I probably live in the best province for independent filmmakers. Manitoba has a sort of thieving-magpie approach, trying to lift productions from other provinces as well as from other countries. It makes it very hard for me to leave. People ask me why I'm still living in Winnipeg, why I don't move to Hollywood or something like that. Well, first of all, Hollywood isn't exactly dragging me, or even aware of me. And, for a filmmaker of my kind, it's really nice just to have this local, traditional backing from the bureaucrats. They know that I mean well, even if I end up depicting our region as some sort of hellhole.
O: So you have no qualms about taking the money?
GM: Actually, I kinda do. I have this imaginary argument in my head, because whenever you're using state money and the same state is cutting back on health care and other really important things, you can't help but feel that, jeez, maybe your movie isn't worth one liver transplant. Rather than making this big, flippant piece of shit, I'd rather little Billy got his liver, you know? So thank God I've never been taken to task on a talk-radio show. I won't go on a talk-radio show. [Laughs.] I'm terrified of just that kind of right-wing response, which I wouldn't have an answer for. It's a bigger issue, whether arts and culture should be supported at all. But since it is, it might as well be supporting me.