In the week before the British theatrical release of his new documentary My Winnipeg and the BFI retrospective of his films, Guy Maddin came to London to introduce some preview screenings of his work. Alex Fitch caught up with the director and they chatted about My Winnipeg, Guy’s interests and influences as a filmmaker and his career on screen so far.
Alex Fitch: My Winnipeg seems to be a mixture of the various styles you’ve developed in other movies. Parts of it – for example the ballet section – remind the viewer of Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary and other parts are autobiographical. Do you see it as a sort of culmination of your career so far?
Guy Maddin: Yeah, I just decided to kind of throw the kitchen sink at the viewers! I was commissioned to make this film and I’ve never made a long documentary before. I’d made a short one with Isabella Rossellini which I’d always called a docu-fantasia, because Isabella was talking about her father on his centennial, but I don’t think she was really worried about getting the facts right. What really mattered was that this was a documentary about her feelings about her father, so she conducted all the research she needed in her heart. So when I was commissioned to make a film about Winnipeg I realised I could do the same thing! But I was still worried about ‘the documentary’ and all the ridiculous disciplines it tends to require, all the apparent objectivity and higher shooting ratios and longer editing periods and discovering your true subject in the editing… All these are clichés about the process of making a documentary, and I was pretty terrified! So I thought, I’m just going to load up the arsenal with as many tricks as I have… But something prevented me from allowing them to be tricks; since I was talking about my Winnipeg, they had to ring true in my heart. So I ended up making – I think very intuitively – a movie about Winnipeg that really kept grabbing at the oddest, almost forgotten corners of my memory and finding things that mattered to me. Finally, I found myself not making a movie about Winnipeg after all but about home – everyone’s home – about home towns, family, nostalgia, memory or something! I think that’s why the movie’s been travelling way better than I ever thought it would. People in Sydney or London or Berlin are seeing the same things in it that Winnipeggers see in it. It’s strange…
AF:Someone famous once said it’s not so much that ‘History is written by the winners’ but rather ‘History is written by the writers’ and so you can take any kind of fact and weave it into your own personal narrative.
GM: That was a bit of a challenge. There are so many disparate and seemingly unrelated items of interest to me that I had to find a way of weaving them together. The editing process did take a long time, but sometimes I would just fluke upon a connection between two things during my improvised narrations. I would go to the recording studio for five or ten minutes each day and just talk for a while. Sometimes in the spirit of just keeping the talk going I would have to repeat things before thinking of the next thing to say and so things started taking on poetic symptoms. Every now and then when I was trying to force out an idea, I’d come up (to the studio) – and in desperation, to keep the ball rolling – I would make a throw that accidentally perfectly connected two scenes. Ultimately, after months of doing these improvised narrations, almost every scene in the movie spoons against the previous and the next or rhymes somehow with a scene elsewhere in the movie and they all kind of fit together. I’d like to feel that if there were such a thing as poetry or psychology accountants, they’d come in and do an audit and everything would add up horizontally, vertically, diagonally and we’d be congratulated for keeping such good books!
AF: A lot of themes in the movie seem to be about movement and rhythms. The confluence of the rivers, the way they flow into the town and the immigrants, the way they flow into the town and the way the railroad flows into the town… Nature and man’s imposition on nature is something that might dictate a more poetic narrative rather than straight storytelling.
GM: Yeah, and Winnipeg especially, being at the geographical centre of North America and the site of so many strange intersections including all sorts of mystical beliefs whether European or Aboriginal… I’m not much of a mystic when I’m not holding a camera but you’re always looking for something to haunt your screen when you’re a filmmaker and I found it in abundance in Winnipeg. The stories really had me half-believing in all the great mystics and the legends. I mention them because they actually create a really strong and eerie milieu for the stuff that happens within my family. I could never successfully disentangle a study of my home town from a study of my own home and family. I was pleased that the staining mystical powers bled right into my family and that all the occult ectoplasms prescribed to the city by Aboriginals and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also seemed to be in operation whenever my siblings and my mum sat down to eat dinner!
AF: How autobiographical are the recreations?
GM: They’re spot on!
AF: You show a younger version of yourself making films of your mother and family. So that actually happened?
AF: So you might have, for example, those actual home movies as an extra on the DVD if you felt like exposing yourself that much to the world!
GM: I have hours of 8mm footage – it’s not even Super 8 yet – from when I was very young. I shot some of it; my older brother, Ross – who’s still alive – shot a bunch as well. He’s twelve years older than I am. My dead brother was an audiophile and created tonnes of sound sculptures which we were able to incorporate into the movie, so he has a posthumous credit of sound design or some sort of sound department credit anyway. I didn’t want to give him too good a credit – you don’t want to cheat the living out of their proper credits! The recreated family and conversations were spot on, as well as I could remember anyway – memory’s pretty unreliable.
AF: The new scenes, were they shot on film or digital? The reason I ask is because you mentioned alchemical processes earlier and film itself is obviously a very alchemical process – you open a shutter, expose some plastic to light and bathe it in chemicals in order to reveal the hidden image…
GM: …and you’d think I’d know that more than anyone! But I really thought that making a documentary was an opportunity for me to break free of my enslavement to film emulsion and work in HD. So I did buy an HD camera and I shot most of the movie with it and then I realised that these stories would sit a lot better in emulsions rather than pixels. They’re just made for emulsions… So I projected the finished edited film onto my fridge and shot it with a film camera and there the stories sit properly!
AF: The history of filmmaking is something that’s very important in your work. There’re all sorts of references to silent movie techniques… Were European silents something you were fond of when you were growing up?
GM: Not when I was growing up, but when I was a 20-something hipster I loved the look of those things. When I was daydreaming of becoming a filmmaker and for the life of me couldn’t light the basic three-light set-up. I had three shadows every time I’d light them, so I started unplugging them until I got down to one shadow. And it was an expressionist shadow and I realised the shadows were not only very evocative and loaded with atmosphere and dread but also the most inexpensive form of set decoration. Absence of light seemed to suggest far more than building a set could ever do! It was kind of a chicken / egg thing… I think my penchant for expressionist stuff came about from sheer inability to do classic filmmaking, and then of course that forced me to watch more silent film and I found more affinities with it. The approach of silent film is a little closer to fairy tale than naturalism. I like treating everything as more or less fairy tale anyway. That’s my way of finding myself inside of a book, I always pretend it is a fairy tale at first – whether it is or not – and then make adjustments later.
AF: In your first three films, you seemed to be touring Europe both in terms of style and narrative – Tales from the Gimli Hospital is about an Icelandic community, Careful is about a Swiss town, Archangel is about a group of Russians. Also, Archangel and Careful have very strong expressionist and constructivist influences, which culminate in my favourite of your shorts, The Heart of the World, which feels like a lost Russian silent movie!
GM: Yeah and that’s the only movie I’ve made that turned out exactly the way I planned it! It’s pretty lucky – that won’t happen again! I feel it’s because film, more than any other art form – it can be argued that Renaissance painting was like this too – is an industry as well as an art form. In its industrial haste, so many beautiful unexploited potentials were just left behind and it seems like such a shame not to go back and exploit them a bit more, even as ineptly as I do!
AF: I wouldn’t say that at all! Certainly the fact that your films use the language of the silents gives them a great visual aesthetic that stands out amongst all the CGI and the slickness that are crowding the movie theatres. It seems a shame that so few directors have a visual style any more, as if they have to fit in with everything else that’s out there.
GM: I’m so lucky… Like I said, whatever visual style I have – and I do have one – came about just from dumb tenacity to shoot in spite of the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing and I’ll credit myself with recognising that that was producing something – something worth clinging onto with a lot of desperation! It’s evolving slowly but I’m not in any hurry; there’re still a million and one great stories to be told by this enchanting method, so why toss it out, the way the industry did the first time around?
AF: In the films you made from the late 90s onwards like The Saddest Music in the World and Twilight of the Ice Nymphs and now the hidden history of Winnipeg you seem to be inventing a Canadian mythology.
GM: Yeah, definitely.
AF: Modern Canadian cinema seems to be somewhat ‘new’; it seems to be inventing its own history as if the hundred years that preceded it haven’t been documented enough so they need to cram it all in.
GM:They haven’t! I guess because we’re smack dab up against the greatest self-mythologising culture ever, America – we’re loathe to self-mythologise. When Canadians are asked to define their identity, they say, ‘Well, we’re not American!’ And pressed to define what that means, they say, ‘Well, we don’t exaggerate, we don’t boast…’. But there’s no more sure-fire way to consign a historical figure or event to complete amnesiac oblivion than to present them in life-sized terms. So it’s nice to see other filmmakers’ work, but it was something I was prepared to do if no one else was going to do it – start self-mythologising… That doesn’t mean lying! If you asked the average American which one of the following really existed, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, Daniel Boone, Abe Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Joe Montana, they couldn’t tell you half the time! So apocryphal people are just as important as ones that really lived. They get boiled down to an essence that gets tasted in one’s lifetime and goes into the recipe of a national identity. I just want to do my bit for Canadians so they don’t have to say, ‘Well, we’re not American’.
AF:Also, because you’re nestling against a ‘sleeping elephant’, as someone once called America, Canadian cinema seems to be able to explore themes that American cinema seems to be terrified of, such as sexuality, for example. Your films, the films of Robert LePage, the films of David Cronenberg, seem to explore male sexuality in a way that American cinema won’t touch with a barge pole!
GM:Us Canadian mice can go right up the rear end of that elephant without them even noticing! It’s an advantage.
AF:In My Winnipeg for example, the scenes in the changing rooms… Is it something you feel just isn’t explored in cinema?
GM:Children are sexual beings, just think of your own childhood. In my case, I was far more sexual as a child than I am now; far more preoccupied from a very early age… I haven’t conducted an elaborate survey, but I just like movies that acknowledge that. There’s a great Canadian film called Léolo that gets right into that. I’m just trying to be honest. Nothing bothers me more than a movie about the innocence of children! What are they innocent of? They might be innocent of murder, but that’s about it! Children haven’t learned to repress yet or anything like that. They’re just teeming with wonderful luridity, from very early on! I was six, maybe, when for some reason I locked the bathroom door and urinated into a badminton birdie! It was very important that I do this! I’m not going to say how many times I did this, but…
AF:You marked that territory well!
GM:…it seemed to make sense to me somehow. While it was a rough draft or an incorrect model of the world, there was something telling me to do that…
AF:Another theme in your work is matriarchal figures. Obviously there’s Ann Savage playing a semi-fictionalised version of your mother in My Winnipeg, in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs there’s Shelley Duvall, in The Saddest Music there’s Isabella Rossellini… These strong female presences, is that something you’re trying to work out – some sort of childhood trauma – or just something you feel isn’t explored enough in cinema?
GM:Yeah, especially in indie film, which is still very male-dominated. I’m not going to start making feminist statements on behalf of women filmmakers, but it just feels good to see everybody represented fairly in movies. Bergman’s trick was to write autobiography and then ascribe his own autobiographical traits to one or two female characters; but I’ve been lucky enough, I’ve had one or two very strong female characters in my life and they seem to be bottomless sources of narrative material! My first few movies were very male-centred with very simple objects of desire wearing the skirts but in these recent pictures I’ve decided to zero in on what women really meant to me. They feel more fleshed out, it’s very satisfying.
AF:I suppose that in films like Cowards Bend the Knee and Sissy Boy Slap Party it’s the absence of a female presence that causes the guys to go crazy?
GM:Well, yeah! If you’re just lounging around the dock with your shirt off and a gob hat aslant over a sun-sleepy face, you’ll get yourself into some trouble! I found myself reading Euripides of all things… I never wanted to read Greek tragedy, I thought that would be like unrolling parchments and be a very arid activity, but gobbling up Euripides is like flipping through the pages of Mexican romance comics – really fun, fast-paced, crazy, violent stuff! Everything Quentin Tarantino should be is in Euripides! Not only that, it’s written 2,500 years ago but it’s about the relationship you just got out of – it’s incredible! There’re some great women characters in there and I’m in there! The male characters always seem to be me! In Medea, I’m Jason. I’ve gone out with Medea, I’ve gone out with Electra… It’s amazing how easily you can find yourself in these things.
AF:It’s interesting you should mention Medea, as Lars von Trier made a film version of the story for TV and I was wondering if you were a particular fan of his work, because the central leit-motif in My Winnipeg, having the train with back-projected images behind it, reminded me very much of Europa.
GM:Yeah, I had that in mind and then I realised that when I was trying to hypnotize people at the beginning of my movie some people might be reminded of Max von Sydow’s very hypnotic narration in Europa, but I’d already decided to do it anyway. It ended up being different. Von Trier really took the rear-screen projection a lot further, by incorporating characters in real world and ‘flat world’ and having them trade places and things like that. I do like rear-screen projection. It’s a simple way of opening up space – of acquiring cheap cinematic space.
Interview by Alex Fitch