The Forbidden Room: Interview with Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson
The co-writer-directors talk about the perks and pitfalls of collaborating, Udo Kier’s haircut and the best remedy against forgetting people’s birthdays.
No barrier could hold what is unashamedly unleashed in Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room, and equally there is no stopping the wonderfully twisted mind of the Canadian filmmaker as he consistently pushes further the various ideas he has developed in his previous films, from his hypnotic debut Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988) right through to the magical and haunting Keyhole (2012). This time, Maddin has co-written and directed the film with his collaborator Evan Johnson (who has been working with Maddin since 2009). Together they have crafted a perfectly chaotic, yet fiercely formal, billet-doux to the lost, destroyed and forgotten films of previous decades by reimagining their very essence, sometimes based on little more than the original title of the films or the bare bones of their narrative. Immersing itself in a mad melange of wild plotlines, colour saturations, tints and overlays, the film initially evolved out of an even more ambitious project called Seances. Maddin and Johnson made lost films in public, filming at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and at the Phi Centre in Montreal, and these films will be made available next year on a website devised so that each user’s experience is unique and unreproducible. Part of this complex project, The Forbidden Room can and should be watched a number of times, not only to discover the cinematic treasures it hides but to appreciate the relentless effort and sheer love that went into its making.
Pamela Jahn sat down with Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson at this year’s Berlinale to talk about the perks and pitfalls of collaborating, using intertitles in talkies, Udo Kier’s haircut and the best remedy against forgetting people’s birthdays.
Pamela Jahn: You’ve been working together on other projects in the past, but this is the first time you are officially co-directing. How did that come about?
Guy Maddin: We all worked together on the companion piece to this project, the interactive website called Seances, ‘we’ meaning Evan and I, and also our third writer Robert Kotyk. We co-created it just through discussions in the screen editing room. But when it came to shooting, Evan and I were very close together, we’re inseparable. I consult with Evan for advice all the time. I tend to hold the camera more often…
Evan Johnson: I never hold it.
GM: But you have done on other films, on My Winnipeg and other short films, you’ve actually done the cinematography, so occasionally you do shoot. And it’s basically all just filmmaking. In the same way I long had a guilty conscience about my editor John Gurdebeke because, if an editor gets a bunch of found footage and makes a documentary out of it, he’s called the director, but if he’s just editing footage that we’ve shot, he’s called the editor. And I remember years ago, before I started working with Evan even, I asked John if he wanted to be called the co-director, but he said, no thanks, he’d rather be paid. So I kept him to that but I do try to give a shout out to him as a fellow filmmaker. And Evan is my co-director because he, too, is a filmmaker, even though our duties aren’t exactly the same. I couldn’t have made the film without him, or the editor, but John got paid eventually and Evan and I haven’t, so there’s that. Evan also does editing, or assistant editing for John, who gets things in a rough draft from us. And he does all the colour timing and effects along with his brother, the production designer Galen Johnson. I don’t do any of that, but I sit in a big comfy chair and write intertitles, the silent movie text.
What inspired you in the first instance to use both dialogue and intertitles in your films?
GM: I first became inspired to include intertitles with dialogue by the precedence set in Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress. I like the way he uses intertitles with lots of dialogue and I thought, yeah, why would you abandon this wonderful vocabulary unit, just because you can have actors talk? Why not put these intertitles in which you can really establish a lot of flavour, in which a lot of expositional work can be done. And just like the way a child – if he or she learns a new word – doesn’t cough up the last word, so the vocabulary just keeps getting bigger and bigger. So, we kept the intertitles as an option here as well, even though our movies are essentially talkies.
The film is multi-layered with different storylines, genres and characters. How did you decide how to connect the various parts and, eventually, to frame everything with a prologue on how to take a bath which feels like another film within the film?
GM: When we were shooting some of the larger elements – there is a Filipino ‘Aswang’ vampire film and lumberjack-‘saplingjack’ film – we knew that those where going into the feature, and we knew ‘How to Take a Bath’ would be part of it. But then we had to start planning the links, and some of that was done after the shooting was done, which meant we had to go back and shoot some transitions. The narrator of ‘How to Take a Bath’, Louis Negin, and I ended up in Havana last year on a vacation together, and at one point I put him in a room – he didn’t really know what was happening – and I just pulled out my camera and there I had him. I mean, it’s clearly not shot the same year, the same country, the same camera, because I just opened up the laptop with his lines on it in really large font, and I just sort of scrolled down for him while holding the camera, so he could read the lines. But I love that because I’ve always loved the way my granddaughter could just gleefully slap together items and make a collage or a drawing, something with a noodle glued on, and I love the way Ed Wood or Oscar Micheaux did the same thing with film. And so I thought, well, I need some transitional exposition from Louis, and I’ll just take my camera and shoot this stuff before he goes to the beach.
Despite the dipping in and out of different storylines you end up with a surprisingly classic melodrama-like structure that carries the film.
EJ: We literally structured the whole thing like a classic Hollywood movie.
GM: Yeah, we bought Robert McKee’s book on how to write a screenplay, or a story, or whatever it is called – I never said I read it, but I bought it. But no, we worked way harder on this. I like working quickly on set, but I’ve always kicked myself for working too quickly at the screenwriting stage and never writing a second draft, and this time, we did second and third drafts of each different episode even. It took a long time, but I really enjoyed collaborating with Evan. I have always feared confrontation, and whenever I drew up designs for sets, half the time, the production designer would say, ‘No, you can’t have stairs’. I think I made eight movies before I finally got three steps in a movie! So in a way, collaborating was actually just compromising heartbreak and me hating myself for not sticking up for myself. But in the writing room we’d all collaborate and we argued things through and whenever it got personal – we can argue quite vehemently – there was no hurt feelings, and I think I learned that from Evan and it feels really good. And since his brother is the production manager there is none of that other stuff either. I got stairs, I got other things… I understand that things needed to be cheap but I was never just told, ‘no, you can’t have this or that’. And because they are brothers, they almost always worked things out between them and I never had to deal much with that. Before, my editor was my collaborator, and the most important collaborator was the happy accident, but now I have many collaborators and I really love collaborating.
You mentioned the Seances project earlier. Can you tell me a bit more about it?
GM: We shot a bunch of our own adaptations of long-lost films at the same time in Paris and in Montreal, in some cases with the same cast even, like improvised live ‘happenings’. That’s going to be an internet interactive, where anyone visiting the website can call their own a seance of lost cinema: little fragments of films will come up and interrupt and combine and collide to form new narratives. The programme will generate a title for that film, you’ll watch it and then it’ll be lost again. The programme creates and loses unique films and the title will be entered in an obituary list. Hopefully the two companion pieces will help each other, that’s the master plan.
Are you using some of the footage from The Forbidden Room when creating those seances?
GM: There is a little bit. Some the stuff from the film will be used as raw material in Seances, but it will be much altered in many cases, because they are alternate plots that you can change to incredible degrees by just re-wording the intertitles. That part gets hard because you have to come up with a completely different story that somehow fits the same edit – that’s the part that has racked my brain the most. But it’s really fun, it’s really satisfying when you come up with a plot that somehow fits. I guess it’s somewhat akin to Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? where he took the whole movie and changed its plot, but I’ve never seen the film, I’ve only read about it. And with Seances, there are literally 500 billion different permutations that are possible and I still don’t have a concept of that number, so every now and then I go, ‘Are we really losing and destroying those movies afterwards?’ But yes, we are!
You’ve also made an incredible effort reworking all the palettes and colour-timing the raw material, as if to give it a new life of its own.
GM: At one point we discovered that movies weren’t just being lost in the 20s and 30s but that the Khmer Rouge destroyed many films in the 70s and sometimes they even murdered the directors. And there were low-budget exploitation films that were getting lost just because there was only one print and the director lost track of it, or he died and his widow didn’t care, something like that. There were lost films from all over and, for example, when Evan was colour-timing that little musical number with the obsessive man he decided to give that a lurid 70s palette. Whether or not it reads as that is beside the point, but it just felt ‘nower’, not just imitating the very limited two-strip Technicolour palettes of real film history – basically a blueish green and a pinkish apricot – but creating other palettes as if from a parallel universe of something.
EJ: I think in that case it was more Udo Kier’s haircut.
GM: Yes, Udo had a blonde Moe Howard thing going that determined the palette. It was really despairing while shooting because it was my first experience shooting in raw colour HD video and I just didn’t have the right attitude, I wasn’t seeing things that were really beautiful. But I have a lot more courage now, knowing how much the footage can be fixed. I actually made a colour movie way back in 1992 (Careful) where I controlled the palette literally by painting everything. I would paint people’s faces, their clothing, the walls… I even painted the plants, literally. But because we were so poor on this film, we had to take our props from anywhere and there was just no palette to the naked eye, no order, no control, no art, no thought put into the colour. I just couldn’t afford to think about it, so it had to be added later.
Given the low budget, you worked with an incredible cast. How did you convince them to take part in the project?
GM: They just seemed to be up for an adventure, because there is no way they could have known what exactly they were doing. I just told them they’d be acting in public. They saw the scripts eventually because they had to memorise some lines in some cases, but I think they were just up for finding out. We didn’t waste time asking people who would just say no. It was just a matter of meeting everyone for a coffee or lunch, one on one, talking to them for a little while and, every time, they agreed to show up. I couldn’t believe it. I was just waiting for them to just storm out of the set, but they never did.
As always in your work, there is a great sense of humour in the film.
GM: I’m a laughter slut, ho ho. I always take a laugh. I know people earlier in my career didn’t know whether the laughs were intended or not, so it made people very uncomfortable or embarrassed for me to the point where they had to go home early. But then, because I never quite had the nerve to make a joke, if it got laughed at, fine, but if not then I could save my dignity and the joke hadn’t failed. This time though, I started to make some changes and I made some conspicuous gags – although they are not that conspicuous, there are still probably not more than two people laughing at once.
You talked about your obsession with dreams before and there are some Freudian references worked into the film. Are you a fan of his work?
GM: I am a fan in theory, but I think my publicist at the Sundance film festival described me as a six-year-old pervert…
EJ: …a cross between Eisenstein, Italo Calvino and a six-year-old pervert.
GM: Exactly right. I’ve only read a little bit of Freud, on the interpretation of dreams, standing up in a book store and it just ruined dreaming for me for the next couple of months because I was interpreting them while having them. And I like having dreams, they just come out of me and mystify me, and I start figuring them out later, but I don’t need Freud’s voice nattering in my ear all the time telling me what to think. So I just have a basic cartoon understanding of what’s going on, just like a lot of people probably did before he existed anyway.
How much of this film derived from your dreams?
GM: A few episodes came straight from dreams – that I am willing to admit. I don’t know about Boba and Evan. But there are a few guilt dreams and empowered-ness dreams… The dead father one is a recurring dream I’ve had since my father died in 1977. But there are other things like forgetting wives’ birthdays… there are not just dreams, they happened in real life too, and then they revisited me as nightmares over and over again. It’s about time to get over that. And what I’ve learned is that by making movies about things that really matter to me, things that I have experienced, I sort of cure myself of them. It’s a form of therapy. I don’t know what kind of therapy that is, aversion therapy maybe, where you just make yourself sick of something, because in the act of making something that matters to you into a movie, you have to turn it into work units, you have to cast the thing, you have to design a set, you have to shoot it, edit it, sound design it, then you have to talk about it with people and by the time it’s finally over, you’re cured. I’m cured of My Winnipeg, I’m cured of my childhood, so now I am finally cured of forgetting peoples’ birthdays – I am going to keep forgetting them, but I don’t care anymore.
Interview by Pamela Jahn
Watch the trailer: