The experimental auteur explains why his movies are like your grandmother telling you a story
In Guy Maddin’s latest offering, Keyhole, someone prefers the radio when it’s “tuned between stations”. You won’t find a better description of Maddin’s work. The Canadian filmmaker’s work exists in a place between awake and asleep, past and present, fact and fiction, avant garde yet accessible. He spoke to us from Winnipeg about his exhaustive career retrospective, Nocturnal Transmissions, at ACMI in July.
With your retrospective about to launch, we were wondering: are you someone who likes looking back at your old work? Or does it make you wince?
The stuff that makes me wince is usually the stuff I’ve just completed. All my delirious, ridiculous hopes are still fresh, so the disappointments sting more. I try not to rewatch my movies very much, as I don’t think it’s healthy – but every now and then it’s kind of embracing and instructive to look back and force yourself to see that maybe they weren’t as bad as you feared. Or that you’d forgotten what you hoped for in the first place.
I had the strange experience recently of someone approaching me about doing a brand new score for my first feature, Tales From the Gimli Hospital. I ended up working pretty closely with the musicians, and that felt really unhealthy, going back and working on something that was 23 years old. I wasn’t ashamed of it – I aspire to forget everything I know, and be a naive primitive – but there were just pacing issues, things I felt I’d moved on from. I got tired of making excuses to myself about how “that’s the old me!” and “I’m different now!” So, yeah, there’s something of that to a retrospective. But the word ‘retrospective’ just sounds so wonderful. I’m honoured – so long as I don’t have to sit and watch the darn things.
I was pretty pleased when I took a peek at my second film, a few years ago. Not pleased with myself, but pleased I hadn’t really improved that much since making it 20 years earlier. Whatever I’d managed to learn, I’d managed to unlearn. I decided about halfway through my career so far that I’d learned a dangerous amount of stuff and was in danger of becoming a complete mediocrity rather than someone who half the people hated, and half the people found curious. Maybe I’m flattering myself with that ratio breakdown! Anyway, it was nice to see that the primitive naivety of the early films seems to survive to this day.
You’re one of a small number of filmmakers whose work is instantly recognisable. Did that aesthetic develop over time, or were these the pictures that were always waiting in your head?
It developed, but it developed very quickly. I remember very well how I had no intention of having a ‘visual style’ when I started making films. I just had some bookish ideas, and wanted to film them. I went to a ‘How To Light A Movie’ textbook and learned a basic three light setup: the key light, the fill light to make the shadows a little less harsh around the nose and eyes, and then a backlight to rim your subject with a nice little halo. When I plugged all the lights in on the first day of shooting, all I got was three nose-shadows on my subject’s face. So I unplugged one light and got down to two nose-shadows. Unplugged another light, got down to one nose-shadow. I moved the light so the nose-shadow was in a flattering place, and what I got was a very shadowy image – not grey shadows either, but deep black shadows that completely effaced the background.
My way into movies and books was through the fairytale door; through the expressionist door. The simple working definition of expressionism is where a character’s interior landscape is reproduced in the external, visible landscape of the work. All of a sudden I had these shadowy thoughts and these shadowy shots – and they seemed to jive. The expressionist, fairytale-ish flavours of my stories matched up with my extremely limited abilities, and the result was something with atmosphere. I felt pleased to have atmosphere, something I felt was really sadly lacking in Canadian film in the '80s when I started out.
Do you have a mistrust of how movies create ‘realism’? You can’t see us doing finger quotes around that word.
I’m mistrustful of the word ‘realism’, frankly. We’re all just telling stories when we make movies – even documentaries, right? One of my favourite types of story is the bedtime story, told by your grandmother, sitting on the foot of your bed. If she tells a story well one night you can be totally engrossed in it, but you can also see your grandmother the entire time. You might even be aware that tonight she’s not telling it quite as well as last night, or certain parts are better than two nights ago. You’re well aware of the artifice, and you’re also totally sucked into the story. I’ve always thought there was no need to try to be as realistic as... as what? What are you supposed to be? Like a 3D security camera, running without edits? I don’t want to show people a 3D security camera. Although that does sound interesting all of a sudden...
To me, the word ‘realism’ should be replaced with something like ‘psychological plausibility’. A fairytale like Little Red Riding Hood might have something like 100% psychological plausibility, but 0% literal plausibility. To me, Little Red Riding Hood is more realistic than most naturalistically performed films that you’ll see. I’d rather think in terms of something that ‘rhymes with the truth’. I like Werner Herzog’s idea of the ecstatic truth. In his documentaries, he clearly fictionalises some things to get at a truth that’s hidden, and needs to be heightened somehow to be more useful as an exposition of the truth than just showing the world as it is.
Your latest film, Keyhole, is a ghost story. Watching it, it's evident that while all your films aren’t ghost stories, they do all feel haunted.
Yeah. I think moreso with each film, for some reason. I got unblocked maybe in 2002 or so when I made my movie Cowards Bend the Knee. I decided it felt masochistically pleasing to make the protagonist’s name in it ‘Guy Maddin’. That way I wasn’t just confessing some rotten things, but really rolling around in the excrement. With each subsequent project, I realised a good way inside of a script was to place myself in it, whether I was doing so literally with a character name or not. Working more and more personally with the subject matter. I didn’t always succeed in getting what really matters to me onto the screen, but I went through a process where I got more and more in touch with the things that haunt me.
I’m very proud of my movies Archangel and Careful and Gimli Hospital, my first few features, but while there’s plenty of autobiographical stuff in there I wasn’t haunted by autobiography in them. I was haunted more by the textures of old cinema. Keyhole ended up being far more abstract than I wanted it to be. I really wanted it to feel more like a hardboiled, quite lean noir. It started off with a basic screenwriter’s structure – and ended up being a bunch of ghosts talking to each other while the director cowered in the corner.
I wanted to make a movie about the nightly dreams I have about being lost – strangely, pleasurably lost – in my childhood home. There’s just something in that home that’s haunting. I walk up and down its hallways so often I must be the one that’s haunting it. I wanted to reproduce those feelings, and I succeeded, but I think I just succeeded for myself. The movie feels exactly like my dreams. It has a lot of stuff in it that makes me really melancholic and sad, but also very dreamy and wonderful as well. I’ll try to concentrate more on the actual craft of screenwriting, so I can make my hauntings more contagious to viewers.
We only have time for one last question, so let's make it a big one. You have a fascination with early cinema – but what’s your take on the future of cinema?
Oh man, I have no idea. I wish I knew. I do feel like we’re in a period that’s kind of analogous to Hollywood in around 1908 – where no one can guess. People said “These things will never amount to anything!” or “art isn’t even possible in cinema!” Now you hear things like “art isn’t possible on the internet!” That’s a challenge that was laid down to me recently. I’m working on a big internet project next, but I always hope to keep working in conventional film. I hope single channel, big projection screenings never go away. Let’s face it: what’s a better first date? So I just don’t know. Maybe the same? Maybe more boutique cinemas? Bigger, better? And also smaller, better? More extremes, maybe? More choice? Infinite choice? Paralysingly infinite choice?
That sounded pretty hopeful until you got to “paralysingly”!
You know, I’m living across the street from Marshall McLuhan’s childhood home. I feel like a faux-McLuhanite, pontificating about the future! I have no idea. How’s that? I’ll let Marshall have the last word.
Nocturnal Transmissions: The Cinema of Guy Maddin is at ACMI from Jul 5-27.