An Interview with Guy Maddin

“If you want realism, watch security camera tapes.”

Johannes Springer & Christian Werthschulte

Even after 20 years in the film business, the name “Guy Maddin” rings a bell only among cinephiles. Strongly rooted in his hometown of Winnipeg, the 51-year old Canadian director’s work seems to be too idiosyncratic in its fusion of silent film-era camera work and surrealistic storytelling for the audience of German arthouse cinema. Surprisingly enough, a major retrospective of his work toured German and Swiss cinemas in autumn 2006 and resonated strongly even among mainstream media. We caught up with Guy Maddin in Bremen, where he introduced his movie The Saddest Music in the World to a fully packed cinema.

CW / JS: Mr. Maddin, you have been making movies for fifteen years and your latest one, Brand upon the Brain!, has just been released to great critical acclaim. Yet, at this stage of your career, you are also the object of a retrospective. How does it feel being an active filmmaker while at the same time being buried in a retrospective?

GM: It feels a bit weird because I always think of my films just as titles of my filmography, but now I’m actually supporting them in a way. It’s also an occasion of melancholy, because it reminds me of how much time has passed since I started. Actually, it’s perfect. It’s both great and terrible – a perfect mix.

JS / CW: When you started film-making, critics were applauding the ‘New Canadian Cinema,’ such as the Toronto New Wave or the Winnipeg Film Group and their postmodernist style. How do you explain the continuing interest in your work?

GM: I don’t know. I know nothing about the Toronto New Wave. I remember, I first attended the Toronto Film Festival in 1986 and met young Atom Egoyan. Shortly afterwards, I met a couple of the other members of whatever that wave was. Yet, almost all of my movies were played at the Toronto Film Festival, except for Tales from the Gimli Hospital. When I’m making them, I often think of the Toronto Film Festival in the back of my mind or right at the very forefront.
As for the Winnipeg movement, I don’t want to be stretching it. There was a brief little flurry of films that managed to escape Winnipeg and get into foreign festivals, but they weren’t linked by any aesthetics at all. Some critics tried to label it as “prairie-postmodernism,” because it came from the prairies and everything that came after 1975 was postmodern anyhow. I guess it could be called postmodern but you could easily call me a surrealist, modernist, romantic, or experimental filmmaker.

JS / CW: This labeling seems quite appropriate given your references to an anti-realist tradition of European film-making. Where would you place yourself in the history of cinema? As an heir to the Lumière Brothers or to George Méliès?

GM: I’m definitely a descendant of Méliès, although I actually prefer watching the Lumière brothers. But when I try to tell a story, I quit being a filmmaker and I become a reader of books. My way into great books was always to treat them like fairytales – no matter what the book was. I always saw all works of art, books, movies, paintings as artifices. I’ve never really felt like they were obliged to be realistic in any way. The job of art is to remind you of life somehow, not to imitate it. And so I evolved into a person that was just a little better at telling a story through fairytale-ish ways. The visual equivalent to this always seemed better, when it was a little bit artificial. Everything had to be artificial. I’ve since loosened up a little bit on these beliefs, but my most recent movies – both are silent movies – were actually shot outdoors and on real locations. It was kind of refreshing to have God as an art director.

JS / CW: Do you agree with the view that the silent film was replaced by talking motion pictures before it could reach its aesthetic and stylistic peak?

GM: Yeah, it struck me because it’s both an industry and an art form. Film was rapidly developing both industrially and artistically, but the industrial demand forced it to move on while it was still growing artistically and before it was finished lingering, before it was finished exploiting each stage. It really did seem to peak visually for a while. Most film historians agree that film was set back artistically at least one or two years when it switched over to sound. I just like silent film because it aggressively says to its viewers: I am artificial. I am art. I am an art form; quit expecting realism from me. If you want realism, watch security camera tapes.

JS / CW: Although your movies aren’t realistic, they don’t seem defamiliarized. Unlike Atom Egoyan you don’t intend to uncover the mechanisms of filmmaking in your storytelling. Once the viewer has passed the initial stage of bewilderment, your movies make actual sense.

M: That’s why I only reluctantly accept the label of postmodernist filmmaker. But it’s not anything I’m consciously working with; it’s part of the filmmaking and storytelling vocabulary that I’ve picked up. It’s the accent I speak with, it’s the dialect I use to communicate, although it’s a peculiar one, I guess. I use it without thinking and I’m most comfortable with it. I try to be playful, and I also try to convey feelings — hybrid feelings are my favorite kind. Pleasure and discomfort, for example; and I just try to weld the two feelings, quite often opposite feelings, together because I think that’s how life is.

Feelings are rarely simple, the great euphorias are all too brief, and they’re usually mixed up with other crap that prevents you from enjoying them for very long. So I always try to stick two things together at once and then render them somehow in a way that’s pretty. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t. I’ve found just better luck making pretty images when I’m building the sets myself and things like that. I come from a landscape that isn’t all that interesting to photograph, and it sort of made my mind up for me. There is almost nothing, there is certainly not enough landscape to fill up eight feature films in my hometown. I would have run out of landscape in a hurry. And I don’t like working on locations that much, I kind of like having a studio with a little desk in it.

JS / CW: Speaking of feelings, you once claimed you wish that your audience might experience the same kind of collapsing and feeling wrung out as you did when you watched Douglas Sirk’s What Heaven Allows. Do you think that you undermine these feelings by adding ironic or humorous ingredients into your movies? Take the scene in Careful, for example, where Klara and Grigorss yawn all the way through scheming the murder of Klara and Sigleinde’s father. It doesn’t work towards the building of tension.

GM: Adding humor probably does undermine the chance of experiencing those feelings for most viewers. I teach film at the University of Manitoba, and I have had trouble getting students to experience the same kind of complicated reactions to films that I have. But they exist in Sirk and von Sternberg. There are moments, where you can laugh at a film, but surrender to its sadness at the same time somehow. You literally feel yourself pulled in two different directions. If you allow the characters to give it, if you just allow yourself to treat them with a little bit of respect, still allowing yourself to laugh at them, it can somehow get to you. It’s like a well-told tale in front of a fire-place. It can get to you, but you don’t actually need to see the images or anything.

There are many different ways of rendering a story so that it can still be moving. And one of the ways, I’ve been very pleased to discover, is through irony. What a gift it is, when some god allows you to be moved while you are laughing. It’s what I actually attempt to give to my viewers, but I think it does require some bizarre leap of faith. The last time I taught, the very last film in the curriculum was Sirk’s Imitation of Life, and almost everybody in class laughed at the last scene when Susan Connor throws herself on her mother’s coffin, weeps, and begs her dead mother for forgiveness. I’m sure I have to figure out what’s so funny about that. I can barely describe it without crying. So I became very frustrated when people were laughing at it jeeringly. I still think there is room for delight in the cracks, even in that scene, but to just dismiss it as a ludicrous episode is infuriating. I wanted to skin my students alive.

JS / CW: You share this attitude towards Douglas Sirk with Fassbinder who praised Sirk for his humanistic view and perspective on people’s suffering and their despair when they become aware of the world’s condition.

GM: I do remember reading Fassbinder’s comments about Sirk. Fassbinder is elevating him to godly status. This was very early on in my own exposure to Sirk, when I found him just a delightful Technicolor diversion. I thought Sirk must have gotten better in the translation somehow, just like Jerry Lewis did in the French translation. I just came around and learned how to experience all those completely contradictory feelings simultaneously, and to me it’s the apotheosis of some primitive mystery. The reason I’m so drawn to trying it is that I kind of feel that I can’t make a completely serious movie anyway, and that my movies will always look kind of mannered. And therefore they wouldn’t be taken seriously, anyway. It’s just my visual rendering style and so I want it to be – I want to produce real feelings and my only chance of doing this is through this recipe, which demands simultaneous simulation of almost kitchen passion.

JS / CW: Is that why you are using a lot of Canadian clichés in your movies?

GM: Well, I’m very patriotic. And I felt Canada is very lousy in mythologizing itself. My answer to this question hasn’t changed in twenty years. I just thought it would be fun making movies, when I just make them the same way they do in every other country. So that sounds blasphemous and unpatriotic but it serves patriotic propagandistic purposes. But it hasn’t exactly aroused Canadians to action or anything because Canadians don’t even watch Canadian films anyway. Myself included.

JS / CW: Nonetheless, you seem to be rooted regionally; the boredom of the prairies forced you to explore personal and emotional territory but you also have a strong peer group supporting your work like George Toles and Steve Snyder.

GM: It shocks me how regional I am, because I remember making a vow when I picked up a camera the first time, that I wouldn’t even mention Canada in anyone of my films ever. And I went out of my way to call the setting in my very first movie “The dominion of forgetfulness.” But after that, I started getting interested in being more specific. My next idea for a film involved the Icelandic settlers in Gimli, which is a very, very specific place. So, then I thought I should maybe get up to some other mischief. Rather than ignoring that Canada exists, I could show Canada the way I wanted it to be seen.

JS / CW: And has this attitude changed while filming in Seattle now?

GM: It was time to get out of Winnipeg for a little while. It felt nice, like having an affair. It was really wonderful to work with a crew of new people. There was no baggage at all, we had no history with each other. I loved working with them.

JS / CW: You said that expressing yourself and your memories in your movies is very closely tied to your aesthetics. Since you’re dealing with a very personal episode in Brand upon the Brain!, did you have to adjust strongly to shooting at another location?

GM: For some reason, since I was very specifically dealing with pretty accurate recreations of what I’d been through and I was in an environment that looked so much like Gimli, it was very easy to make the switch. There’s a beach, there’s a big expanse of water, you couldn’t see the other side of it, it’s an ocean. Lake Winnipeg also looks like an ocean, it’s 22 miles to get across. The waves were the same size, the light, it’s the same sun after all. All you had to be Careful about was to point the camera away from downtown Seattle and the Space Needle. Otherwise, it looked like Gimli, and in my head it certainly was.

JS / CW: What can you tell us about the origins of the lighthouse motif in Brand upon the Brain!?

GM: When I was invited to shoot out there, I pictured Seattle as being surrounded by lighthouses, and it turned out that the nearest one was 350 miles away and I had to send a second unit of photographers out to grab images of it. The lighthouse motif itself is taken from a great Grand Guignol play. A father and son both worked as lighthouse keepers and they both had syphilis, but the incubation period hadn’t started yet and the supply ship was away for a month. In the meantime, the syphilis hits and they both go mad in this lighthouse and the lighthouse started swelling with madness and it certainly seemed pretty. Father and son were chasing each other downstairs and upstairs until in true Grand Guignol fashion they murdered each other in a great splurt of gore. I think this was the first Grand Guignol play I’d ever read, and it struck me as hilarious that someone would mount plays like this. I always had it in the back of my head that I wanted to do something mad like set a movie in a lighthouse, for example. It seems that whenever a lighthouse does appear in a movie it is an occasion of great madness. I’m thinking of the ending of Portrait of Jenny, which takes place in a lighthouse and with time-traveling made possible by this mad love that Joseph Cotton had for a girl that died before he was born. All these crazy things always happen in lighthouses.

JS / CW: In Careful, the idea of madness also resonates with height. It’s set in the Alps, and the people suffer from what we Germans would call Bergfieber. Is this an idea you picked up from German mountain movies of the 1930s?

GM: I hadn’t seen any of the movies when I started filming Careful. I had certainly noticed that when you’re mad you go up, for example, in crime movies. When the police chase a criminal, he usually tries to climb to the top of the building, so he can fall all the way down again. But what really inspired me for filming Careful was the nineteenth-century Victorian art critic John Ruskin. I read some little descriptions of his on mountains. They’re so beautiful. It might even be only two or three pages long. That guy is insane and one of the most gorgeous writers ever, a pedophile who loved mountains, he just loved to look at them. I also read another book of his, which is entitled Crystals: A Lecture to Little Girls. He tells little girls in lectures about the greatness of mountains and the rock hard ferns. He is not just describing a mountain in this convoluted sense, he’s describing an 18-inch phallus that’s rock hard with purple semi-opaque caps. And he tells the little girls that this is what everyone should aspire to be or to reach. There seems to be so much mischief in the love of mountains and potential beauty so I thought, “I’ll give it a shot.”

JS / CW: Concerning your references to other directors…

GM: I’ve never seen any of them.

JS / CW: But you must have seen Eisenstein!

GM: Very little, actually. I didn’t see Eisenstein until 1994. I wanted to go to sleep whenever I saw the name Eisenstein for some reason. And I was wrong. Once I’d started watching, I loved him. But all the theory attached to his name was very uninviting to me. I finally was in the mood one day and I watched Ivan the Terrible, both parts one and two. And it gets crazier as it goes along, especially in part two, where he started tiptoeing out of the closet quite a bit and then was running around in a silk bathrobe by the end of the movie. I loved it, and Prokofiev I loved even more. So then I worked my way through Aleksandr Nevskiy, and then back into the silent movies. I just watched them all consecutively and I loved them then.

I can see why you’re sniffing him out, though. He really is the ultimate storyboarding movie-maker, and I was very determined to be organized in a storyboard in those days so even without having seen one of his movies I could see, when I finally did seek them out, why people are saying: Eisenstein. It’s a ridiculously flattering comparison, because he was unbelievably great and the photography is so good.

JS / CW: While watching The Heart of the World, we wondered whether there is a political impact in borrowing the image of the industrial capitalist?

GM: By that time, I had seen all the Eisenstein and that movie is among other things a parody, I guess.

JS / CW: There’s no political impact in there?

GM: I’ll be very frank as to what I was up to there. The Toronto Film Festival invited me to make a tribute to it, and that instantly reminded me of the way Joseph Stalin used to invite film-makers to produce tributes to him. We discussed what to make and I couldn’t get it out of my head that it had to be a Soviet Agit-Prop Film about the Toronto Film Festival, and Piers Handling, its director, liked the idea. He was even volunteering to play Joe Stalin but I was already plotting to make the film a little more versatile than just a birthday tribute to the TIFF. I wanted it to be something else, too. So, I thought I’d better write something that’s more like a film creation myth but in the spirit of propaganda. So it had to be anti-religious, and it would create a new theology in the place of what Agit-Prop did, where the new theology was labor and mechanization. This time it had to be Kino. It’s a new film-creation myth.

JS / CW: We were wondering to what extent the memories of genre and technique intersect with personal memories. Is it possible at this stage of your career to really divide the two?

GM: My sometimes screenwriting partner George Toles actually has admitted that in order to feel emotions properly, he has to translate them into movie scripts and then watch the little movie in his head and then cry or laugh or whatever. I’ve only recently become comfortable thinking in terms of genre, and I don’t think I could articulate in any academic way how genre works for me, but I remember hearing that sort of paradoxical statement from many directors who loved to work within genres, because the more restrictions a genre had, the more liberating it was and while that sounds very neat I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around how the restrictions were liberating. But they actually are and I guess when you face too much possibility you can become a promiscuous creator but when you are given some limitations you are pointed into a direction, and it puts you on some rails and it does give you a direction that you can presume with all your strength and then think about how to best reach the destination. But I think you’re asking me how far genre affects my own personal memory.

JS / CW: Yes. Our assumption was that whenever one spins a tale, one always uses small bits and pieces (or clichés) that one sets oneself up against. For example, you stated that you prefer oblivion and forgetfulness when you are working on experiences that are long gone.

GM: I started making movies to try to duplicate these dream experiences I had. I felt I’d be a primitive filmmaker and that I’d best work with some sort of modern species of surrealism where I try to recreate dream emotions and dream feelings. And dreams, even though they can revive long forgotten memories, are also obviously a form of oblivion as well because they take you right out of your real-life situation. It’s a kind of oblivion, it’s a kind of forgetfulness because you forget the exact literal details of your life and instead misremember dreadful ones, and that’s what I’ve been up to right from the start. The genre I found myself working in and the result almost immediately was the Amnesia picture, Amnesiac melodrama, most literally in Archangel, but a little bit in every movie there’s some delirium, some forgetfulness. In The Dead Father, the main character forgets that his father is dead. In The Saddest Music in the World, the Maria de Medeiros character forgets that she has lost her young son. Some things are just too painful to remember. It’s simply more pleasurable just to forget the unbearable, to live in the sensuality of the present. Remembrance involves the painful part of living. Forgetting involves the pleasurable.

JS / CW: Did the idea to use surrealistic methods arise immediately when you started thinking about doing movies?

GM: Yes, because I was heavily under the influence of Bunuel’s L’age d’or. I was inspired not so much by the surrealism, but that he as a beginning film-maker was caught up not so much in continuity and other things. I like the fact that Bunuel, besides getting a proper exposure, wasn’t concerned with the beauty of a frame so much or the actual storytelling. But they are still very smartly put-together, primitive movies that seem like an inexperienced technician could make them. But you’d have to be very aware of what you’re trying to say so that you can say it sloppily — as long as this sloppiness is kind of an awareness. Technical suaveness is not necessary, and I knew I’d never be technically proficient even if I had a crew of people who were; I wouldn’t know how to handle them. I didn’t necessarily try to be surreal, but I always wanted to have a storytelling style that allowed for that kind of technical primitiveness. But since my first movie was dealing specifically with dream memories, naturally surrealism of a sort is in there. I’m a bit embarrassed at how some of it is off-the-rack surrealism.

JS / CW: Have you by any chance ever seen films by Aki Kaurismäki?

GM: I’ve watched a few, but I haven’t seen his silent films. I’ve seen a few of his others.

JS / CW: What do you think of the political dimension of the Kaurismäki movies?

GM: I’ve always tried to stay with the Machiavellian image of the human heart, but not on a political level. It seems though that Saddest Music has potential to be interpreted politically because it’s got people representing countries, and it’s pretty easy to bash America. They deserve it, most of the time. It’s not that I’m not political, but I’ve just always been more interested in personal things. Sometimes I chastise myself in private for not being more political. I’ve trouble being taken seriously, anyway. To be political and not be taken seriously would be a deadly combination.

JS / CW: Thank you for your time and your observations.

Springer, Johannes und Christian Werthschulte “If You Want Realism, Watch Security Camera Tapes. An Interview with Guy Maddin.” Screening Canadians. Eds. Wolfram R. Keller & Gene Walz. Marburg: Universitätsverlag Marburg, 2008. 183-192.

Contact: Johannes Springer[mailto:johannes.springer(at)] 
Christian Werthschulte[mailto:cwerthschulte(at)] 

Licensed as CC-BY-NC-ND


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