I was fortunate enough to be able to talk to genius/stylist/ecstatic visionary Guy Maddin on the occasion of his latest film, My Winnipeg, opening in Nashville. The actual commissioning magazine for the piece could only use about three hundred and fifty words, so I'm damned if I'm going to let the rest go to waste.
With that in mind, I present to you thirty minutes with Guy Maddin.
JS: My Winnipeg is the third time, following Cowards Bend The Knee and Brand upon The Brain!, you’ve had Darcy Fehr serve as your onscreen alter ego. What sort of working relationship do you have with someone who is basically your cinematic self?
GM: Darcy is very willing- he’s like a couple of my other favorite actors that I always use. He’s willing to do anything, and he’s a little bit insane in a loving way. He kind of looks the way I always wanted to look, he’s twenty years younger than I am, so he’s the weight I was twenty years ago, and he doesn’t have the male pattern baldness that I did, so I can sort of plug him in in my little revisionist reenactments of my own life, while hopefully getting them right this time. The relationship is great, and he’s willing to do anything, even set himself on fire or jump out of a window-
JS: That’ll be for the next one.
GM: Actually, if you gave him a quarter, he’d probably do it.
JS: And how did you get Ann Savage for the film?
GM: I was willing to do whatever it took. It ended up being not too much of an effort, probably about two or three months of phone courtship and an exchange of movies. Her part within the movie is sort of a meta- part, playing someone who’s playing someone. But she’s sharp and she wanted to make sure it wasn’t wanking too much. I know she’s been turning down parts from American independent films for decades to come out of retirement, but almost all of those supplicants came bearing Detour pastiches, and I think (with My Winnipeg) she liked the fact that she was playing someone her own age and playing someone who wasn’t Vera, although definitely someone who still has all the power of Vera.
And all the power of all mothers, actually. I was very determined to get her. I mean, my mother herself would have been good, but she’s getting a bit too old and she hasn’t had a good year, she’s ninety-two, and I find Ann Savage is the only actor living or dead that could play my mother. She has to play the uber-mother- the mother that must represent the hometown which we all have. Oddly enough, she was never a mother herself, but she still has a lot of that maternal terror-force.
JS: And how have The Powers That Be in Winnipeg been responding to the film?
GM: It first premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year, and the mayor who was in power when the Winnipeg Arena was demolished (a very important event in the film) was there, and I ran into him afterward and he sort of looked at me in a way that was kind of – well, I walked away feeling like my pocket had been picked. The actual city fathers have been fairly silent, but the local press, since the premiere in late June, have been really great, and for a couple of weeks I had my own section in the daily newspaper. I t felt good to me, and I didn’t expect that.
I expected a more grumbly and cynical response. But I was very touched. At the premiere, my mother, my real mother, she showed up and got a standing ovation and her own spotlight- she was glowing like a bioluminescent creature- her skin is transparent, her hair is platinum, and she is immaculately coiffured at all times, like Ann Savage, but she got a two-minute standing ovation, and it was very lovely. I think they felt like I was in cahoots with them. “I’m your friend, I’m your ally in this thing.”
JS: I love the film because it’s equally shocking and educational at all times.
GM: Thank you. I won’t rest until this is compulsory viewing in all Kindergarten classes in Winnipeg. Or even in all of Canada.
JS: One of the adjectives I would toss out in description of the film, and I swear I’m not saying this just to be pretentious, is Proustian. In the way that the historical is experienced in details, each of which trigger the personal and individual response. Was that frame of expression part of your shaping process for the material that became My Winnipeg?
GM: I figured that a lot of people wouldn’t be interested in just Winnipeg, so I just knew if I just spilled my guts and was honest and passionate as I really am that somehow it would make all that superspecificity would overcome itself and it would be about everybody’s hometown and all things associated with town. I was hoping that it would play in Peoria
JS: If anything, that specificity makes it more universal. Every town has its weird little secrets and its fascinating customs, buried below.
GM: So everyone, in watching, can make their own analogies. It’s good to hear that.
JS: My sincere hope is that the film triggers more filmmakers and artists to provide similar exigeses on their own hometowns. I can’t even imagine what it would take to tackle Nashville.
GM: More of what Herzog called the ‘ecstatic truth’ of each town. I can’t imagine doing Nashville in anything less than sixteen hours. Nashville Alexanderplatz. I mean, the music and history alone... There are a few movies that emboldened me in the making of this one: Berlin, the film by Pabst, the movie Camera, which is a remarkable portrait of Kiev, and there’s a film from the early nineties that I liked called London. I like walking literature, those Rousseau confessions and the kind of books where you go for a ramble and start daydreaming and mythologizing…
JS: While you speak of mythologizing- I have to ask you. Is “If Day” real? It just seemed, of all the things presented in the film…
GM: A little bit unlikely? It actually happened. The most interesting of all the events, and I didn’t even hear about until halfway through shooting this movie, and it sort of confirmed to me why I needed to make this movie. It proved to me that Winnipeggers and Canadians are such lousy self-mythologizers compared to Americans. One of the reasons is that we’re smaller- There’s not enough difference for us to define ourselves other than that we’re not American, so we don’t boast or exaggerate. We consign potentially mythic figures to oblivion in human, life-size form.
It happened just four years after Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast, which was completely mythologized immediately, with possibly apocryphal stories of people committing suicide and crashing their cars out of fear and panic, and If Day was completely forgotten. My parents were both alive during If Day, and they never even mentioned it. It took an American to tell me about it, and the only coverage of it were from the Fox Newsreel shots that we used in the movie. I had to pad it out with some reenactments, but If Day is mostly made form actual Fox Newsreel footage. So it illustrates a point that I didn’t make in the film but that I hope to correct in that Canadians should mythologize themselves. And the best way to mythologize something is to put it on emulsion or videotape.
JS: Because that way, it creates its own historical context. For better or worse.
GM: And that’s been the most acceptable form since the invention of motion pictures. But everything in the movie is purported to be a fact, with a couple of errors that I put in… Winnipeg isn’t the coldest city in the world, but it is the coldest city in North America; Ulaan Bataar and some other Mongolian cities are colder, but I always grew up reading stats that said we were the coldest. Maybe it’s more accurate data, or global warming, or the Iron Curtain coming down, but the movie’s 1/3 fact, 1/3 lamentation, and 1/3 legend. And legends aren’t facts, but they’re sort of more true than facts. I like to think the movie is 100% true, but lawyers could have a heyday with that.
JS: Do you think that any cinematic representation of hockey has gotten it right?
GM: There’s a John Wayne hockey movie that has a great poster online that’s the one I want to see most of all. Slap-Shot is the one that comes closest, but I’m not a minor league hockey fan. I like the NHL.
JS: Nashville’s actually in the midst of some NHL drama right now. Some sketchy business loans, and weird owners, and city money. It’s all a rich tapestry of deceit. But what do you think about the big controversy over changing the theme to Hockey Night in Canada?
GM: They should just pay this woman. The CBC is a mass bureaucracy. They’re a Kafka castle of labyrinths. The money is really not that much. They should have just paid it already- they just end up looking really stupid. It is our national anthem. I remember reading the initial response, and one of them was “What are we going to do, change the name of our country too?” It really should be our national anthem, anyway. It’s a better one.
JS: In addition to educating audiences about hockey and the Oedipal drama, you’re also quite the master of the homoerotic display. I’ve heard tell that you’re planning a live-action Sissy Boy Slap Party for this year’s Toronto Film Festival? What all will that entail?
GM: I don’t think that’s going to happen this year. I’m just too tired this summer to go searching for the perfect stage replicas of Sissy Boy. It will be done sometime. We just couldn’t quite agree- the directors of the Festival wanted it to be a touring production where they went out in the street, slapping each other, but I wanted to do it in marriage to the film, perhaps an extra long cut of the film… Foley artists with big Vaseline-coated open fists and a bunch of sailors onstage arranged from tallest to smallest like a glockenspiel, and then go at them while the movie unspools. It never really got past a certain point…
JS: That’s truly a shame. But given your success with Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, have you given any thought to directing a theatrical, operatic, or ballet production?
GM: If someone offered… There was some talk a few years ago from The Magnetic Fields who wanted to put on an opera, but I guess I didn’t respond with enough interesting ideas, and I think they just dropped the idea. I wouldn’t mind- I’d love an invitation from any opera house or ballet.
JS: After helping drive an artistic rebirth for Isabella Rossellini with My Dad is 100 Years Old, have you ever thought of trying something similar with Liza and Vincente Minnelli?
GM: I guess it would be too late with the centennial, but I love the idea. I was photographed with her once at TFF. I was coming out of the theatre behind her, and she stopped because of the paparazzi, and the flash of their bulbs was blinding, and I would love to find that twenty year-old photo someday.
JS: Given that so much of your expression of the fantastic is expressed in production design, exposure, and character attributes, I wanted to ask you about the physically monstrous. Do you like a good monster every now and then?
GM: I like the old Universal movies and the Val Lewton movies, Frankenstein and Dracula. In literature, I certainly do. I tend to approach everything like a fairytale, but I don’t have a budget for proper special effects, so I always try and write away from them, like Val Lewton did.
JS: And in that way you take characteristics and personae that would easily fit something shambling and horrifying, but you bring those back into creations which are noticeably human.
GM: They’re also a little more interesting to me that way. The great monster movies are like that, I just can’t afford to make them. You find those things and then put them back into people.
JS: Do you find that perspective a specifically Canadian approach, or do you see it as more universal?
GM: I’ve noticed that Canadian protagonists are often donut holes. They watch as things happen around them, and maybe it was just an artifact of filmmaking in its infancy, or maybe it’s something self-deprecating. Unlike American protagonists who always make something happen, Canadian protagonists are always watching things happen to them. That may be typical of Canadians who are used to sitting and watching things happen to Americans.