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The Forbidden Room: Interview with Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson

The Forbidden Room1
The Forbidden Room

Seen at Berlianle 2015

Format: Cinema

Release date: 11 December 2015

Directors: Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson

Writers: Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Robert Kotyk

Cast: Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, Matthieu Amalric, Charlotte Rampling, Maria de Medeiros, Louis Negin, Géraldine Chaplin

Canada 2015

130 mins

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

This interview is part of our Berlinale 2015.

Watch the trailer:



Format: DVD

Director: Tony Collingwood

Writer: Tony Collingwood

UK 1988

23 mins

Tony Collingwood’s 23-minute animation Rarg (1988) is a charming ode to sleep, dreaming and the subconscious mind. Through Collingwood’s enchantingly detailed drawings and Philip Appleby’s mesmerising soundtrack, the film creates an absorbing idyll of ‘peace and tranquillity; a world so perfect that the sun never rose until it was absolutely sure that everybody was awake’. Rarg is a place where everybody is happy, from its leader, the Rargian senator, to the nesting birds singing outside his window. The key to this happiness lies in the vast library of Rarg: endless shelves stacked with books detailing the revelations of generations. In Rarg, thought and intellectual discovery are highly prized; ‘they discovered simply for the sake of discovery’. The sonorous voice of narrator, Nigel Hawthorne, introduces us to towers filled with professors working away on ‘discoveries’, from tiny revelations to the biggest question of all: ‘where exactly are we anyway?’

To our amusement and surprise, this latter enquiry is answered by an enormous sneeze. One of the professors has installed ‘information-sucking electrodes’ throughout Rarg to determine the meaning of existence. As the professor flicks the switch to turn on these electrodes, an image of a sleeping man named Edwin Barnes appears on his computer screen. When Edwin produces an almighty ‘Achooo!’ the ground shakes in its wake. After six minutes acclimatising to this strangely harmonious world, we realise that Rarg is a construct: the inner mind of a snoring man.

And so the film becomes an allegorical exploration of what happens when we sleep. The industrious professors are the workings of our subconscious minds, building on buried archives of knowledge (the library of Rarg) to reveal truths which remain hidden during our waking lives. And the senator of Rarg, with his delight in creativity and ‘discovery’, shows how our imaginations take flights of fancy when they do not have to deal with the practicalities and complications of our daytime existences. The peaceful harmony of Rarg is – put simply – an illusion and a very fragile construction. This utopia hangs in the balance as Edwin’s alarm clock ticks down to 8 AM. With five minutes left, the inhabitants have two weeks in Rargian time to hatch a plan. The Rargian senate calls a meeting for the first time in 8000 years. Time in Rarg is as fluid as it appears when we dream.

At the prospect of waking up, the mind stages a revolt and the Rargian inhabitants take action to rescue (or rather kidnap) Edwin from ‘reality’ and bring him to Rarg. As the hushed mission gets underway, Collingwood creates some lovely silent comedy set pieces. Like miniature Oliver Hardys, four rotund figures are sent forth with pillowcases on their feet to carry Edwin’s bed. The nuances of their movements are beautifully rendered to produce a delightfully silly heist scene. And, as these figures make their way through Rarg’s streets, a baby bird falls dangerously close to Edwin’s sleeping body, creating another wonderfully tense sequence of physical comedy. These scenes perfectly mimic the lightest stage of sleep in which we might wake from our slumber, every tiny external sound threatening our peace. Edwin survives these perilous moments and the subsequent result is an ending so unexpected and surreal, it is bound to make you smile from ear to ear. As a meditation on the beauty of sleep, Rarg makes you want to turn your alarm clock off, roll over and take another 40 winks!

Eleanor McKeown

The Sleep Paralysis Project

The Sleep Paralysis Project

Even though my eyes were shut I knew for sure that someone was standing above me, watching me. The mental image was crystal clear, clearer than actual vision, as strong as the unmistakable sensation of being stared at. I felt my whole body shake like mad under this enormous, trembling pressure as I tried to move under a fog of tingling static. I was physically straining to wake up – my will battling with my inert body: ‘Move! Do something! The unconscious has taken me hostage!’

I wrote the description above in a letter to a friend almost ten years ago, following a night of intense sleep disturbance. Jetlagged after a long journey I had gone to bed in a strange room and rather than falling into sleep, I seemed to slip sideways into a quick-fire series of dreams. These were set in my bedroom and peppered with periods of lying awake, unable to move my body. Throughout the night, in this sleep-wake state, I was visited by visions of a pale-eyed demon with a claw-vice grip. It was not the first time I had experienced this kind of ‘nightmare’. I have had similar episodes since childhood. They feel real unlike any other kind of dream, and terrifying.

Listen to Carla MacKinnon discuss the Sleep Paralysis Project on Resonance 104.4FM on Friday 15 March, 5pm.

This is sleep paralysis, a very common parasomnia experienced by up to 50% of people at some time in their lives. While in REM sleep (dream sleep) a sleeper’s muscles are effectively paralysed to prevent them physically acting out their dreams. This very sensible precaution usually ceases before the sleeper wakes. Sometimes, however, the process falls out of sync. A sleeper may become conscious while still in a state of paralysis, finding themselves awake and aware, but trapped in a sleeping body which will not respond to commands. Often this can be accompanied by hallucinations – visual, auditory, tactile, even olfactory. It’s as if a door to the dream-state has been left open, and some elements are allowed to leak out into what feels like the ‘real’ world.

Last summer, during a period of insomnia, I was getting sleep paralysis episodes once or twice a week. I was struck by how… cinematic the experiences were. Researching the phenomenon, I became fascinated by the recurring themes in experiences that are reported. These include the sense of a malevolent presence in the room, often lying on or pressing the chest of the sleeper. It has been suggested that this sensed ‘presence’ is at the root of many mythological characters, from the sex-crazed incubus in Western Europe to the demonic kanashibari in Japan (allegedly the inspiration behind the Sadako character in The Ring).

To kick off the project I put out a call for interviewees. I was inundated by accounts of sleepers visited by sinister visions and a sense of ‘overwhelming, ancient evil’. Words like ‘fear’, ‘isolation’, ‘loneliness’ and ‘helplessness’ cropped up frequently, as did emotional associations between sleep paralysis and ‘the feeling of being dead’. With the support of Wellcome Trust, I devised The Sleep Paralysis Project, a cross-platform project designed to navigate and express the experience, cultural history and scientific background of sleep paralysis across film, live events and an online resource. The project was launched at London Short Film Festival in January, with a sold-out event at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre. In this evening of film and discussion a psychologist, a neuropsychologist, a filmmaker and a psychoanalyst all presented very different angles on the subject. A series of curated shorts offered other impressions of sleep paralysis and associated areas. These included Paul Vester’s classic short Abductees, a lively animation documenting memories ‘recovered’ during hypnosis as well as new experimental work from Emily&Anne and cinema iloobia.

Another key element of the Sleep Paralysis Project is the creation of a short experimental documentary, currently in production. Inspired by science documentary, 20s surrealism, Hammer horror and musical theatre, the film is created in collaboration with arts and technology collective seeper and artist-composer Dominic de Grande, who is writing a quirky, original soundtrack. Live action film, stop-motion animation and projection-mapped sets combine to create an evolving visual environment, in which perceived reality is constantly in question.

Perhaps the greatest fear is a fear of madness, and the incredibly convincing realities conceived in sleep paralysis are a chilling taste of what our brains are capable of. And what better medium than cinema to capture and communicate the flickering, fearful illusions of the mind’s eye?

To find out more about the Sleep Paralysis Project visit thesleepparalysisproject.org

Carla MacKinnon

Keyhole: Interview with Guy Maddin


Format: Cinema

Dates: 14 September 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Guy Maddin

Writer: George Toles, Guy Maddin

Cast: Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini, Udo Kier, Kevin McDonald

Canada 2011

94 mins

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