Keyhole is Guy Maddin’s latest and by far most ambitious film to date. Trying, as usual, to make sense of the memories and feelings from the past that haunt him day and night, Maddin this time has crafted a heady amalgam of sinister black and white 40s noir-gangster flick, Homer’s Odyssey (loosely adapted), Hollywood melodrama and haunted ghost story. Like all of Maddin’s work, it’s a perfectly twisted, dark, dreamlike cinematic encounter that stays in the back of your mind long after you have re-entered reality.
Pamela Jahn met with Guy Maddin at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival in February to talk about dreams, light switches and wolf heads, the importance of giving movies a second chance and the horror of watching your own films with an audience.
PJ: Let’s start with the obvious: do you actually believe in ghosts?
GM: It’s funny, I don’t believe in ghosts at all and I am not scared of the dark or things like that until I hold a movie camera in my hand. Then I believe in ghosts. Maybe there is some sort of natural selection at work but it’s just so convenient to believe in ghosts when you are a filmmaker, either as a metaphor or a way to get your sense of a story airborne, or even just to make yourself suspend disbelief. It’s all sorts of things, but the truth is, when movies are working well people start believing in things they wouldn’t normally believe in. So I am quite comfortable with that little camera-generated adhocracy. It’s just like when you’re a little kid and your grandmother is telling you a bedtime story. There are all sorts of things at play, and at least for the time being you believe in what she’s telling you. And it feels pretty good. But on the other hand, I feel very haunted all the time. Maybe I am far more than average a backward peering guy.
What are you haunted by?
Well, we all live in the past and the present simultaneously, but for some reason the past seems to have a stronger demand on my emotions than on most people’s. Sometimes I’m haunted just by the way things once were and by a longing that they could be that way again. But it’s also quite simple in the way that I’m haunted by a love that is gone. Don’t get me wrong, I like these hauntings. I have a dream life that is cramped with sadness for some reason. I don’t get nightmares, instead I get these kind of emotional injections. But I like them in the same way people like, say, listening to Billy Holiday.
What happens in your dreams?
I see people and places. Places are very important to me, especially homes that I once lived in and which really mattered to me. Or people that have already gone reappear with a vibrancy of recollection that I can’t master while I am awake. But I like these experiences. It is my way of keeping these old relationships alive. I even got to know my father better in my dreams. He is a much nicer man now and we agree a lot more on things. I remember I had a girlfriend once who had a very ‘New Agey’ attitude towards it and one day she told me: ‘You really shouldn’t be dwelling on this stuff. Next time someone reappears from the past in one of your dreams, just tell them you love them but that it’s time for them to go. So you can say goodbye to them and then they won’t reappear in your dreams anymore.’ Basically, after that, we just broke up.
What is the strongest memory you have had that found its way into the film?
That’s an interesting question because I haven’t had the courage to assess what insistent memory made it all the way to the final cut… I’m not sure. There are a couple of little mentions of things. For example, when Jason Patric, who plays the father in the film, enters a room – even though he is not sure who he is or whether or not he is alive – it’s just the fact that his hand knows exactly where the light switch is. I had a few very uncanny dreams about that in the past. I normally have no control over my dreams otherwise I would just stay in bed all the time, dreaming. But I had one or two dream experiences in my life where I could literally stay in a dream on purpose. I found myself in my childhood home, which for some reason I miss very badly. About four or five years ago I think, I stopped dreaming less and less about people and more about architecture, precisely, the architecture of an empty home. Sometimes there seem to be people present in the next room or so, but it is mostly architecture.
I had one dream where I was just in my old bedroom and I opened up my drawer, and that’s a scene that made it into the film, where I could actually see everything exactly the way it was in 1968. And it wasn’t me bullshitting myself, it really wasn’t uncanny. I remember looking into the drawer and seeing a razor and a pencil sharpener and a little ink pot that I hadn’t thought of for some 40- odd years. Things that I had forgotten all about were in that drawer. Then I decided to look up from the drawer because I couldn’t exactly remember what was on my shelves. When I looked up, I saw exactly what was there, and I started walking around in the room and I could remember where the light switches were and what the plastic plates around the light switches looked like. I do remember that, as a kid, I knew exactly were all the light switches where. At certain doors there were on your left and at other doors they were on your right when you entered the room. Sometimes you had to switch the switch upwards or you had to remember to switch it downwards. It took me many years to figure that out, lots of trial and error, but in my dream it was all clear. Then it became an issue not worth remembering at all because the house was sold. But in this dream it all came back.
I have heard that you don’t really forget anything and that your brain is full of all the memories you’ve ever had. It’s just a matter of accessing them. I had a similar dream that was not as good but where I could access everything as well and it felt like maybe I was dead. It felt like I was literally haunting. At first I was thinking: ‘Jesus, I’m haunted by this house.’ But then I realised it felt more like I was the one haunting the house, because there was no one in it except for me wandering around, trying light switches and looking in drawers. And while I don’t believe in ghosts it gave me gooseflesh to think that maybe in those moments I am just a ghost myself. Since we all live in the past and the present simultaneously, maybe I was living in the future as well, I don’t know.
Do you wake up and make notes immediately after you’ve had a dream like this?
I do find that if you write a dream down afterwards you will remember it forever, but if you don’t, you sort of forget it. But that one was so vibrant that I couldn’t forget it anyway. It hasn’t all stayed with me though. But then I arranged for a visit inside my old childhood home, and a lot of the light switches were still there. Also, I had my own bathroom as a boy, and there was a little chip in the plaster above the heating that you could only see when sitting on the toilet. You could see this little dent, someone had put some scotch tape over it and then painted it but, to me, it looked like a wolf’s head. That was the first thing I checked when this guy gave me permission to look through the house. I went straight to my old bathroom to see if the wolf’s head was still there, because I also had a couple of dreams about it and I was very worried that someone had chipped it off or fixed it but, luckily, it was still there. After that visit, I often wondered whether the guy who bought the house maybe also sees a wolf’s head in the tape, or if he sees something else because his childhood was so different to mine. He is exactly the same age, a My Lai survivor. So, when I was 12 years old and looking at Playboy magazines in my bathroom, he was in My Lai going through horrible things. Now he sleeps in my bedroom and I often wonder what he’s haunted by. It must be the most unhealthy way of planning one’s future, but if I ever get enough money, I would just buy the house back from him, or live with him. It’s a big house. And I love my childhood, so it would be a way to sort of slide back with perfect symmetry into my second childhood.
Keyhole is more than just a childhood memory though. There are many different elements coming together, and critics have talked about your films before as being impossible to grasp and to classify. Do you like that idea, or do you sometimes feel disappointed that audiences and critics don’t get what you are trying to do or say?
I always thought that it was great when people told me that my films are impossible to put in a drawer. So I’d say: ‘Oh, thank you’, and they’d respond: ‘No, that’s terrible. You would be doing yourself a big favour if you worked in a genre.’ And then they’d tell me I should work in science fiction, a genre I don’t find much of a connection with for some reason, even though it has so much potential. To some extent, science fiction and horror seem so close together as an element of fantasy. But I still like my horror films scary yet slightly allegorical to a degree where I’m not sure whether I can figure out the allegory. If I can’t figure it out, that’s even better. But it has to be rooted in something that we all feel, whether we believe in saucers or vampires or not. We all feel those things but they are dressed up in the horror genre garb. I like that.
Lately I’ve been trying to work in genres a little bit as well. I accidentally worked in genre, or more a hybrid genre, in 2002, when I accepted a commission to make a ballet version of Dracula. I was shocked, because it was originally just made for Canadian television broadcast and then it ended up getting a theatrical release. Then I realised that this genre advice was actually pretty good advice, because I think what enabled people to go and see this movie was the fact that they knew exactly what they would be getting. It’s Dracula and ballet, it’s two genres but at least it’s only two and you could see how they fused together. I think it gave people a point of reference from which to approach it. And it just made it easier on the picture and on myself that the public could figure out what it was.
With Keyhole, I thought again I would make a kind of hybrid genre film where gangsters meet ghosts. A bit like cowboys meet aliens, something you understand right away! But I’m actually not very comfortable with the gangster genre, because gangsters have guns and I didn’t want the script to get bogged down with all the technicalities involved with this, things like who is carrying a gun and who is not, and fill it all up with a lot of gun shots. I just wanted a story about gangsters. the protagonist’s father should be a gangster, some sort of alpha male hero that a boy could admire in the same way that Homer’s Ulysses is a soldier and a hero. I am not even sure why I picked a gangster, I just wanted something that looked right in black and white for my one last fling, or love affair, with black and white before I move on and try to challenge myself to colour.
Given the positive audience reactions it seems to have worked fine. In fact, Keyhole has been described as your most accessible film to date.
I think that when I set out to make Keyhole I wanted it to turn out a little more accessible. I was enjoying the fact that for various reasons my last two pictures have been increasingly accessible. I am used to really low ratio shows, like down to zero. But still, I do want to reach people with my movies, though maybe just more like an author wants to reach an audience rather than a member of the film industry who needs to reach people to be able to make another movie. But I do want to reach them, because I love the feeling of understanding how an audience feels when they are watching a movie. I was forced to watch My Winnipeg and Brand upon the Brain many times because I was narrating the films behind the stage, and I really began to feel more like a showman than a filmmaker, which was nice, so I’ve tried to keep that attitude going while making movies. That said, in a way, I never felt closer to a conventional filmmaker than when I was making Keyhole.
What inspired you to base the film on Homer’s Odyssey?
To be honest, that story was just an excuse for a structure and I am glad I found one that really fit in well with what I was trying to say. I was looking for any sort of narrative, because I’m not quite formal and crazy enough to make a movie about an empty house without any characters in it. So, I knew I wanted it to have a plot and certain characters and things that matter, even though my dreams are mostly about little objects. But those little tokens and objects and wolf’s heads, they all matter because they have soaked up a lot of people before they became precious to me.
At one point, I was tempted to use a plot structure suggested by Heinrich von Kleist’s Penthesilea. It’s also an unrealised film by Leni Riefenstahl: just a couple of gangs holed up in a house fighting and then a gang of Amazonians come in and start hysterically tearing both fighting parties to shreds. But then I realised that what initially seemed a good excuse to explore every piece and corner of the house with all that war and fighting going on would probably just get derailed into gender politics in the end, so themes that I am nowhere near qualified to explore – at least not yet. I think I’ll wait until I’m a veteran of another war before touching on that.
Instead, I tried to concentrate on what really matters to me about the home, and maybe I also tried to sum up what I hope is the first half of my filmmaking career, and I realised that The Odyssey had a lot to do with my dream life. For instance, my very first movie was a short film about my father who had died, but actually in my dreams he hadn’t died. In my dreams, he just went off to live with a better family. He would come home almost every night just to get his razor or pick up some glass eye that he had forgotten, and every time I had about one minute to convince him that our family loved him and really missed him and that he should stay. But he never did stay. Nevertheless, they were still wonderful dreams because I got to hear his voice, a voice I couldn’t remember properly. And those dreams generally left me with a slowly dissipating pleasurable feeling until lunchtime and then a dream might return later that night or in a week or so. The years went by and, one day, I read Homer’s Odyssey and realised that it was just that dead father dream. It’s the ultimate ‘dead-beat-dad’ story, and I came to the conclusion that this is the story I should use for my storyboard structure. I like using a very durable structure and then abusing it as much as possible by overburdening it with my own concerns and seeing how much of it can survive.
Is it easier for you to develop your own story if you base it on a work of literature or a play?
Yes, if I just use it as a framework. For example, Cowards Bend the Knee is very loosely based on Electra, but totally debased from Euripides. I even changed a brother of Electra into a boyfriend. What I mean is that I am willing to change things so that it is all already psychologically a different thing all together but, on the other hand, it’s good to know that it is a pretty sturdy structure of a centuries-old story and still reads like something that has happened to me yesterday. So, yes, I am happy to make adaptations, I just happen to make them of ancient texts and in such a surreal way that no one can complain that I have messed with the original shape of the text.
Do you sometimes feel that, as a filmmaker, you’d have been better off living in the early days of cinema?
Naturally I went through a real biologically driven love affair with the 1920s when I was in my twenties and thirties and felt I needed to sexually possess the decade. But now I just think it looks nice. I have mellowed out about it, and I am happy not to be considered an impersonator, that I am not doing complete adaptations, that my editing style is different and that I am using digital tools. I am happy to eventually having graduated from being a false pioneer to a real pioneer.
What is also very unique about your films is that you seem to use music and film as interrelated languages. Is that something you do deliberately, or is this a natural process for you while making the film?
No, it is actually a goal of mine to shoot a film where I write the script and have the score written at the same time. That would be ideal. I had the chance to do this once on a short film called Glorious that I used as a rough sketch for Keyhole, because it is also a gangster story. The Netherlands-based British composer Richard Ayers and I worked on this by writing the script and writing the music back and forth in a series of emails and that was really amazing. Generally, most composers are given a somewhat flawed movie and then it is up to them to kind of fluff up scenes that are somewhat sagging, or they are supposed to really underscore something that needs building up. Famously, even with Vertigo, although that’s not flawed of course, Hitchcock apparently said to Bernhard Hermann: ‘Reel four especially needs your help’, or something like that.
But actually I think music and imagery are working together in a more occult way. It’s something that mystifies me and no amount of thinking about it can get me closer to an answer. I often have a piece of music in mind for a scene, but almost never does that piece of music fit in the end. I remember when I was making Archangel, I had special music picked out for certain scenes and when I got to edit the film it didn’t work at all. So, I tried switching scenes around, because I had it on magnetic tape and didn’t feel like recording new music altogether. But when I switched the scenes, the music I had picked before worked in exactly the different scenes that I had originally intended it for. I even thought that they worked very nicely, so I kept it like that. That’s when I realised that it really is witchcraft how these things work. But again, it is and it isn’t, because composers know how to create such visual sounds.
Thank you for mentioning music. It had been a long-term goal of mine to get people to trust their feelings about film as much as they do about music. When you listen to music you either like it or you don’t but, mostly, you don’t even know why, you are just letting yourself go. But when people are watching movies they get nervous if they don’t quite understand something. Even if they are enjoying it, they don’t know why, so a lot of them are shutting down saying: ‘I don’t get it, I don’t get it’, because they can’t just let go. But with music it seems so natural and I just wish we could all watch movies the same way we listen to music. So I try to fuse the two together as much as possible in my films, just in a desperate hope that somewhere along the line they take up and weld themselves in some sort of occult union and really work in ways that no one can explain.
It also seems more difficult to give films a second chance in the same way that you would listen to a song again until you get used to it and, eventually, you start liking it.
Yeah, absolutely. I have given some films a second chance. For example, the first time I saw L’Atalante, which is now one of my favourite films, I think I expected it to be a bit more like a Buñuel picture. I wanted it to be more surrealist and so I was disappointed in it the first time round. And then it just stayed with me, submerged in my memory for about five years until I found myself thinking more and more about it. And when I watched it again I fell totally in love with it. I think that’s the way we know it works with music, for example, when your favourite artist puts out a new album and you resist it first, but next thing you know, you realise that you have to put that thing back on and listen to it again. For some reason, it is just easier to do so with music than it is with movies.
Do you go back to your own films a lot?
No, not much, not if I can avoid it. I remember reading in Buñuel’s biography that he only watched his films once and then he knew what they were like and he never watched them again. At first, I didn’t believe him, partly because he was such a fantastic liar, but now I can understand him better, because I really don’t need the agony of watching my films with an audience more than once.
Why is it so horrible?
Because when you watch your films with an audience, you can poke your ear drums out and still sense the audience reaction. It’s just the fact that you know the audience is there and you can no longer kid yourself and tell yourself that it will all be OK. Instead, total objectivity is brought to you by the presence of an audience and, trust me, one experience like that per movie is enough. You give yourself a report card and it’s written in indelible ink, so you don’t have to go back again and again.
Do you dream about your films before, while or after making them?
Sometimes I do. A couple of times I have had dreams while making a movie in that I see myself watching it and it is obviously way better than in reality. But luckily, on some occasions, I had these dreams in time that I have actually been able to add things to the movie and improve it slightly. But that’s happened less than 10 times in my whole life, and if I dream about my movies then it’s almost always that they look better in my dream. So, when I wake up I mostly regret that I didn’t think to make those scenes.
You said elsewhere that you felt Careful was the only film that turned out exactly the way you wanted it to be. Is Keyhole coming close now though?
I think I have also come close with shorter film, for example, my short Heart of the World turned out to be exactly the way I planned. But, of course, with longer films that is less likely to happen. I think with Keyhole I did get the feelings right and also the levels of confusion which I was willing to have anywhere between perfect clarity and complete abstraction. But I also do care about Keyhole a lot for another reason, not even so much because of the dreams but because of the conversations I had with my mother about some of the years I drew my inspiration from for this movie. I have to say, my mother has got a kind of really sweet grade of dementia right now. She has become this lovely, sweet and agreeable old lady but she just told me the most brutally frank anecdotes about my family and my childhood, stories I had never ever heard of before. She has filled me with enough stuff that would have fit into the Keyhole universe to make another movie all together. I won’t do that though, I am leaving that subject behind now. But, God, it’s killing me that I didn’t get my mum to open up just half a year earlier. The movie could have been so much better. I mean, I don’t think anyone else would have noticed it, or people would have liked it more, but it just would have meant more to me. I think I would have managed to get my whole family in one piece in that house.
Do you feel that now that you have made Keyhole and that it turned out the way you wanted it to be you can eventually put your childhood memories to rest and move on?
Oh no! Thank God no! I don’t want my memories to rest, because I like them way too much. I won’t let that happen. Never!
Interview by Pamela Jahn