Canadian iconoclast Guy Maddin has always been a personal filmmaker, if only by being one of those directors whose work is so instantly recognizable that a credit seems superfluous. He exploded onto the scene with 1988’s Tales From The Gimli Hospital, a neo-expressionist nightmare that recalled the style and psychosis of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, but revealed a sensibility firmly rooted in the avant-garde and cinema’s silent past. Subsequent credits like 1990’s Archangel, 1992’s Careful, the brilliant 2000 short “The Heart Of The World,” 2002’s Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary, and his mainstream (by his standards) bid The Saddest Music In The World continued his mad, often hilarious retro-collage technique while showing a fondness for amplified melodrama. But it wasn’t until a trifecta of great films—2003’s Cowards Bend The Knee, 2006’s Brand Upon The Brain!, and 2008’s My Winnipeg—that Maddin started explicitly veering into autobiography, working a mythologized character named “Guy Maddin” through scenarios that did and emphatically did not have any relation to the actual Guy Maddin.
The last of the three, My Winnipeg, debuted on Criterion this month, and stands as perhaps the best-reviewed movie of his career. Having spent most of his life in this frigid city in the heart of Manitoba—and in the heart of North America, too—Maddin fuses family and civic history with his usual energy and irreverence, but he doesn’t bother to identify what is and isn’t true. The family stories come by way of staged re-enactments, featuring Ann Savage, the star of the noir classic Detour, as Maddin’s imperious mother. The nuggets of Winnipeg facts are often whimsical fictions, like a law that allows residents to carry keys to their former homes and come in and out as they please. But beneath those lies are truths about the city’s unique gravitational pull on Maddin and the genuine affection he has for its people and culture. Just before heading to Sundance for the debut of his new movie, The Forbidden Room, Maddin talked to The Dissolve about My Winnipeg, “ecstatic truth,” mixing media, and mythologizing himself onscreen.
The Dissolve: My Winnipeg presaged a current movement of films that freely cross the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, what Werner Herzog has called the “ecstatic truth.” How much did you care about the audience being able to distinguish between real Winnipeg history, real family history, and tall tales?
Guy Maddin: Put it this way, I had a clear conscience about whatever it was I did. It did not concern me, but I was kind of hoping that it might strike people as fresh, or annoying, or worth talking about. I finished [My Winnipeg] in 2007, and I started working on it the year before. Since then, movies haven’t even really concerned themselves with the pains over what packaging the truth comes to them in. If a movie feels honest, ecstatically or literally, people can kind of feel it. “Ecstatic truth” is a term I’ve loved ever since hearing it, by the way, without ever actually reading his definition of it—it just made instant sense to me. Back when I was a twentysomething, I watched [Luis] Buñuel and [Salvador] Dalí’s “Un Chien Andalou” and L’Age D’Or, movies that would never be confused with the real world, but are as true as they come in terms of how people relate to each other. And I also feel the emotional truth in dreams—even though everything is all jumbled up or screwy, you can quite often come out of a dream realizing you’re dealing with some unfinished business. I don’t sit around analyzing my dreams, but I just ask myself, “How do they make me feel? How fresh do they happen to feel for a narrative?” Maybe I can take [something], steal it for a movie. Also then, there is just the ecstatic truth of certain songs, which most people feel rather than understand—a song that really works for people through a fragment of a lyric can be really powerful. Half the time, you can’t even hear a lyric, and the song will be true.
I never had any qualms about jumbling up Winnipeg in a dream blender. I myself can’t even remember the source of half of the stuff. It’s been a while. I do know one thing. It seems like the most popular medium for disbanding truth for the last hundred years has been celluloid, or film. It reaches the most people. People watch movies and read books. And I just thought that Winnipeg had been one of the least-mythologized cities in the world, of a comparable size. There are all sorts of geopolitical reasons for that. One is that Canada is one of the least mythologized countries of the world, because it’s just a diluted version of America sitting atop it, so there’s nothing really to talk about for most people, especially for Canadians, who feel unworthy talking about it. I remember making it as my very simple mission statement, that I would give Winnipeg the all-American, uninhibited mythologization treatment. And that I’d have a clear conscience doing so, because I knew ecstatic truth was just as true as any other true documentary can muster. We all know documentaries can lie. I can’t quote Chris Marker on this, but I know Marker at some made a statement—which I can only paraphrase—something about how he would have to manipulate the images, so that people would know they’re manipulated. So they would know that he wasn’t trying to present literal truth. I don’t even know if he said this, it just made perfect sense. [We can’t find the quote, either, but we’ll take it as ecstatic truth. —ed.] The more manipulated things are, the less likely people are to be misled, to take everything said with a grain of salt, and to sort out dynamics of things that are true and untrue in their lives. I always liked that.
The Dissolve: Reading just a straight synopsis of events in My Winnipeg on Wikipedia, it sounds like such a crazy assemblage of non sequiturs, but the film doesn’t play like that. What went into organizing and structuring the film? How did you build it?
Maddin: I kind of knew that any movie about my hometown would ultimately have to be about my home, because I lived in the same home for the entire time, and that was my home base for everything I experienced. Then that would be inseparable from my family, so that city, hometown, home, and family were inseparable. And then of course, there’s just me. I knew right away it would be my personal experiences, but I did have a number of episodes I wanted to get down, and organizing them was a little bit tough. I had never wanted to make a documentary. I had heard you had to have a 100:1 shooting ratio, and that documentaries were really made in the editing room, not on the page. That’s true. So I hoped to [counter] that system by shooting a script and cutting it together. I saved myself so much time. I shot these episodes, and they weren’t really connected by anything, so we ended up working in the editing room a long time, just like documentaries. I ended up having to come with some organizational trajectory or principle, and it’s still pretty loose, but at least one thing leads to another. The city is such a railway town. It was a boomtown until 1913, based on the railway. I daydreamed up this movie while I was was walking my dog, like this whole movie. There’s something kind of hypnotic and relaxing and backward-thinking and melancholic in taking a train ride. I just sort of thought organizing it around dog-walking and train rides and an attempt to escape would be as good as any. And then keep it as short as possible, and hope it works.
The Dissolve: My Winnipeg came at the end of a string of particularly personal and autobiographical films for you. How much were you looking to reveal about yourself, and is there something to gain thematically by turning your life into mythology?
Maddin: Yeah, I guess it sure looks narcissistic to have characters in a movie called “Guy Maddin” in Cowards Bend The Knee, and later in Brand Upon The Brain! Those were very autobiographical movies, and it felt good in the first movie to just out myself as the coward I am. It felt really good. My camera was really liberated, and it felt good to masochistically slaughter myself on camera. That was in 2002, and then with Brand Upon The Brain!, which I shot 10 years ago, right around now, actually, that felt equally liberating until I finished editing, and realized I’d outed members of my family as well, and that’s a different act. And then I decided to back off a little more with My Winnipeg. Besides, by the time My Winnipeg was finished, there were so many “my this and that” in the zeitgeist that it didn’t even sound original as a title. I really bargained hard with my producers to see if we could change the name to something else, but it was too late. There’s already a My Winnipeg website where you can get the weather and everything.
Still, I was going to be proud of this film, even it was embedded in this narcissistic nadir of the zeitgeist when every blog is “I” this or “I” that. I sound a little bit sheepish about it, but it really was liberating. And I’ve moved onto projects now which are at least less overtly Guy Maddin-centric. [Laughs.] I’ve got to make movies like everybody else where there’s autobiography, but it’s hidden. But [before My Winnipeg], I had drifted away pretty badly. I didn’t have a reason to make movies anymore. I had fun making Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary. And when I read the Bram Stoker book, I discovered myself a lot as a young, jealous male who acted like I did when I had male possessive jealousy. So I put a lot of myself in that movie secretly. It helped me to understand the characters, these monstrous men. But then, I didn’t really have a reason for making movies anymore, and then I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll take a story that’s really durable. I’ll take Euripides’ Elektra. I’ve never read it. I’ll read it.” And not only was it a page-turner, but it was about me. I just slapped my name on one of the characters, Orestes, made him a boyfriend instead of a brother, and it was off to the races. I had a 100-page script in single-spaced 10 point font for a movie [Cowards Bend The Knee] that was only 60 minutes long. I really found myself in there. I didn’t even need to consult the script. I just shot it out of my head, and that felt really good. It felt masochistically exhilarating, so that gave me a reason for a while. So what I’ve done is, I’ve learned a lot about filmmaking from the inside out. My last feature film from 2011, Keyhole, is an opaque, dense thing with a big “Do Not Enter” sign slapped on the front door. I learned how to make more welcoming films. I’ve been a very slow learner. I’m in my late 50s, but I’m learning.
The Dissolve: My Winnipeg was shot on a jumble of film and video cameras. Would that be the case if you were to shoot today? Are there effects you can achieve digitally that are satisfyingly filmic to you?
Maddin: For sure, but one has to ask why you would imitate film. The Forbidden Room, which I just finished, is aggressively digital, especially in editing. Same with My Winnipeg, actually—the editing could only be done digitally, but it was shot in a number of formats. You know if you’re just stubbornly clinging to filmic looks just for the sake of doing it, it kind of reminds me of someone who might wear plus-fours and ride around on a penny-farthing. And I’m not one of those guys. I wear clothing bought sometime in the last five years. I don’t wear a monocle. I like that the new Michael Mann movie, Blackhat, is apparently aggressively video, because I just want to see a feature film that’s not pretending to be a film.
The Dissolve: Mann seems like the one major Hollywood filmmaker who’s interested in digital video as video. The films he’s done from Collateral on do not really hide the fact that they’re shot on video. He treats it like a different medium, and not as a substitute for something that’s perhaps going to be a thing of the past.
Maddin: Right. As history progresses, grinding us all to our deaths, media changes and art changes along with it. With plenty of backtracking—some of it gratuitous, some not. You know, there’s no shortage of people who like old-timey stuff. And I see their art on Facebook all the time. Some of it goes beyond imitation or pastiche, and some of it is only that. There’s good stuff and bad stuff. I have to ask myself, am I only secretly imitating old-timey movies? But I quit asking that a long time ago, because I think I moved on a long time ago. I might have been out of pure, ardent love for the feel of certain things in old-timey movies, I might have been in the first three films of my career. But since then, I’ve been moving on to other things. Sometimes, I’m totally lost, and other times I feel really at home with the hybrid of film and video.
The Dissolve: You’d written a book as a companion for My Winnipeg. I was wondering what went into the production of the Criterion version of the film. The film already has so much commentary that adding commentary in the form of a feature seems like a tricky proposition. What was your approach to it?
Maddin: Commentary on a feature that’s narrated already is kind of hard. They proposed an interview, which I’ll never watch because I can’t stand watching myself. I vaguely remember talking about the picture, but you only have so much time to make supplements. My filmmaking partner, Evan Johnson, he had been making beautiful, odd, eccentric sketches of aspects of Winnipeg. He’s kind of creating a personal portrait of Winnipeg, so we took some that tangentially touched on things. There’s some puberty, for the little boys romping in the changing room. Color cross-fades into this thing on mothers. Then there’s a longer, experimental film that was set in a recreation of my brother’s room when I was 7. It was so full of private references that no one will know what to make of it, but at least it’s got some good music. I don’t know. I threw everything I had left at them. I didn’t have time to make new stuff. I had far more video elements in the movie at one point. My rough sketch on the hall runner that didn’t make the final cut was one. There are some rough sketches that are so rough, they were just embarrassing.
The Dissolve: What can people expect of The Forbidden Room? It’s a film with a pretty remarkable cast. It is a melodrama, if I’m not mistaken. The scale seems quite a bit larger.
Maddin: The scale is enormous to me. It’s the longest film I’ve made by far. And it’s not so easily reducible, by way of explaining, as my previous movies. It seems to be about narrative, which sounds off-puttingly vague. I’d say it’s about how men relate to women in spite of their extreme cowardice, but it is full of melodrama and uninhibited narratives, long stories compressed into short time spans and then nested into each other. I hope it’s a real adventure. Plus it’s a texture-rama—it’s very colorful, very HD. I’m pretty certain that no one has seen a movie that looks like it. I think they’ll recognize it’s a movie that I had something to do with, but I hope they recognize it’s a massive leap in one direction or another.