Guy Maddin on The Forbidden Room and Writing Melodrama

Guy Maddin, Winnipeg’s own living film legend, kindly answered some of my questions about writing melodrama and his latest feature film, The Forbidden Room, which will have its world premiere at Sundance next month. Here’s the Sundance summary for you:

“The Forbidden Room” (Canada) (Directors: Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Screenwriters: Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Robert Kotyk) — A submarine crew, a feared pack of forest bandits, a famous surgeon and a battalion of child soldiers all get more than they bargained for as they wend their way toward progressive ideas on life and love. Cast: Geraldine Chaplin, Caroline Dhavernas, Roy Dupuis, Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, Karine Vanasse.

Those unfamiliar with Maddin’s work should rethink their life choices — I will simply note that, since completing his first film in 1985, Guy Maddin has produced one of the most fascinating and unique bodies of work in film history, in addition to developing a substantial career as an installation artist and author. In 2012, he was appointed to the Order of Canada, which is the country’s highest civilian honour.

I’ve previously interviewed Maddin and his usual screenwriting partner, George Toles, and also written about my visit to the set of his film The Saddest Music in the World (where I met Isabella Rossellini!) — so you may want to check out those posts when you’re finished with this one.

You should also check out the “living poster” for The Forbidden Room as well!

What can you tell me about your forthcoming feature film, The Forbidden Room?

The Forbidden Room, my 11th feature, was just completed and will have its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2015. It is blessed with some of my favourite actors: Roy Dupuis, Mathieu Amalric, Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, Maria de Medeiros, Adele Haenel, Sophie Desmarais, Ariane Labed, Jacques Nolot, fantastic newcomer Clara Furey (who is such a star!), and of course my longstanding muse, Louis Negin, WHO HAS NEVER BEEN BETTER.

It was shot entirely in the studio, or in many small studios, but, strangely, in public studios, over three weeks at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and another three weeks at the Centre PHI in Montreal, where any visitor to those institutions could simply walk up and watch us shoot, watch the movie’s stars act, at very close range.

I think this is by far the best picture I’ve ever made. (I hope I’m right.) It was so strange to script a movie that would be shot in public, that would make sense to the public on any given day, and then later still make sense all pieced together in one coherent feature. And the movie is in fullest, fuller-than-full colour — more colourful than any other movie ever made. How’s that, you ask? I’m feeling very proud now, like I’ve finally figured it all out, this filmmaking business. Of course I had a lot of help from wonderful collaborators.

What is the connection between The Forbidden Room and your ongoing Seances project?

Well, they were both shot in public in Paris and Montreal, but there are big differences between the two. While The Forbidden Room is a feature film with its own separate story and stars, Seances will be an interactive Internet project, something that anyone online can visit and play with. It’s produced by the sexy new incarnation of The National Film Board of Canada. I never thought I’d use the word sexy to describe the NFB, but it’s so amazing now.

The Seances interactive will launch in 2015, shortly after The Forbidden Room is released. I’ll describe the workings of Seances next interview, closer to launch date. I can say that the museum installation in which we shot all our footage was called Spiritismes in Paris, and Seances in Montreal, but Seances is the final and only title now.

It’s a place — a dark place! — where anyone online can hold “séances” with the spirits of cinema, lost and forgotten cinema. The Seances project has really evolved in recent months. It was going to be title-for-title remakes of specific lost films, but we found as we went that the spirits of many other lost movies, and the spirit of loss in general, haunted our sets and demanded to be represented in front of our cameras.

I’m really excited about the results. No one knows, in spite of what might have been previously reported on Wikipedia and even in earlier interviews with me, what’s finally going to launch (I must keep it under my chapeau for now), but I feel we have something original on our hands — all this boasting, I’m so sorry! I’m not usually like this.

But Noah Cowan, back when he was one of the directors at the Toronto International Film Festival, told me he didn’t think it was possible to make art on the Internet. That comment, from my dear friend, whom I owe $60 by the way, reminded me of what people said about cinema when it was starting out, when the moviolas and kinetoscopes were considered artless novelties, so I felt the challenge to do this, to make Internet art, to really reach everyone out there online who might be inclined to like my stuff.

So while I shot the two projects at the same time, and under the same lost cinema spell, The Forbidden Room and Seances are two distinct entities, on two distinct platforms. I might add, that part of that Seances evolution involved a few planned elements falling away — not even vestigial traces remain of some of the limbs and flippers which I once thought so important to the project. At one point we had planned a theatric release of feature-length live seances, involving a lot of monitoring of audience attention by sensors placed among the seats. We feel now we need to keep it simple and online. As well, the films shot for the Seances will NEVER exist as stand-alone shorts. They will only be broken up into fragments and placed in the Seances program for recombinations and endless permutations for the visitors to the interactive.

How did the writing process for The Forbidden Room and the Seances project differ from your previous films?

Since the beginning I’d always written with my best friend, George Toles. When I started this project, lost film was a pet obsession of mine. I started the writing process alone, way back in 2010. I had no idea where I wanted it to go. I just knew I wanted to adapt as short films a bunch of long lost feature films — if only to finally get to watch some facsimile of a movie otherwise inaccessible.

Almost every director whose career straddles the silent/talkie era has a number of lost films on his or her filmography. Some poor directors have lost entire bodies of work, though they aren’t alive any more to grieve over this. I wanted to shoot my own versions, as if I were reinterpreting holy texts, and present them to the world anew as reverent and irreverent glosses on the missing originals. I hired a former student of mine, Evan Johnson, as my research assistant, and he got into the project so much that he soon became my screenwriting partner. He brought on his friend Bob Kotyk to help, and soon the three of us got a lovely writing chemistry going.

It helped that they were young and unemployed and had all the time in the world and little interest in money. Because the project soon got very large. Every day we discovered more and more fascinating things about lost cinema, every day the conceptual tenets of the interactive and the feature evolved, became complicated, tangled themselves up in our ardent thoughts, and then suddenly became simple. It was kind of a miracle the way we figured it all out, whatever “it” is!

Evan started to surpass me in critical and conceptual thinking. I wasn’t jealous, just grateful. I asked George back to join us, but I know I had hurt his feelings by starting up without him. Thank God we remain friends. My wife Kim Morgan and I wrote three days worth of shooting material as well — that was a blast. And even the great great GREAT American poet John Ashbery chipped in with an enormous contribution, a screenwriting and literary event that gave me gooseflesh of awe and soiled shorts — shat drawers of awe.

At one point, if I remember correctly, you were planning to shoot the Seances films Factory-style, in a Warhol-like process. How and why did you abandon that idea? 

Well, I never really abandoned the Seances. They were called Hauntings back in 2010, when I first took a stab at shooting adaptations of lost films, but once completed these were to be installation loops rather than short films. I did complete eleven of them for Noah Cowan, who installed them as projections for the opening of his Bell Lightbox Building, the nerve centre of TIFF. I deputized a bunch of talented young filmmakers I had met in my travels to shoot these Hauntings in a “Factory” situation.

My writing partner Evan Johnson ran the movie manufacturing plant under the job description Hauntings Coordinator. Our production designer, Galen Johnson, made him a business card that read:

Screenshot 2014-12-05 16.38.46

His job was to keep churning out movies with a team of filmmakers of wildly disparate styles and talents, hired to direct a bunch of films all at once, all in the same room. This was a chaotic situation. I think before this Evan’s biggest professional responsibility had been pouring toxic detergent into Rug Doctor machines. But he kept this wild affair going for a few weeks while I directed Keyhole.

It was genuinely surreal watching all those silent films get shot, sometimes as many as six at a time, a row-upon-row productivity resembling, I imagine, those porn factories of urban legend. Ah, silent film, post-dubbed porn! I really wish we’d made our Hauntings Factory into the setting of a reality show. It looked and sounded so eerie, hearing almost nothing, while each in its own little circle of light a half dozen films made themselves in an otherwise dark room. We were going to shoot a lot of titles — a hundred! — but we were underprepared and definitely underfinanced, so we aborted the project after we had finished enough movies for Noah.

Evan was stripped of his Hauntings Coordinator epaulettes — disgraced! But shortly after he became my full partner on these new projects. He is my co-director on both The Forbidden Room and the Seances. His brilliant brother Galen came on as my new production designer for these projects as well. He’s such a stunning graphic artist that I found new joy in writing text for the films — intertitles in deepest purple!

Screenshot 2014-12-05 16.28.45

What more can you tell me about your writing process for The Forbidden Room and how it differed from your process on previous films?

It was pretty much the same as with George. We found ideas we liked, argued and wrote. I really like to collaborate. I can’t write alone. I’m amazed I can even answer these questions alone.

What are your current plans for the Seances website/app?

The technicians at the NFB have cooked up some incredibly cinematic doodads for this super-sophisticated app. When all the kinks are worked out, which will be sometime early in the new year, movies will be watched in ways that perhaps the chestnutty old metaphors of cinema long ago ordained movies should be watched, in ways that surpass mere streaming, something more haunted, like ghost or soul streaming!

You’re a writer, but as a filmmaker you also work with and hire other writers. What do you look for in a writer?

I don’t have that much experience working with other writers, just George, Bob, Evan, Kim and Ashbery. Each is his or her own person, with incredible strengths, and, of course, varying sensibilities and sensitivities. I’m very good at inadvertently hurting people’s feelings, so that’s always a concern, but collaborators need to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Saving feelings MUST come second to the work at hand.

I guess with John Ashbery we just let him do whatever he wanted to do because I revere him so much, and what he delivered was so gorgeous. So I guess I look for bright, funny and gracious souls. And I like hard workers because I can be very lazy. The ambitious shame me into working harder. Sometimes they even have to nag me. I never have to nag them.

Psychological realism still holds sway, tyrannically, even amongst writers and filmmakers that are not otherwise interested in realism, but you consciously work to create melodramatic characters and situations. Mostly, writers work to avoid melodrama — Why write melodrama?

I think it’s easier to achieve psychological realism with melodramatic methods. Think of the psychological plausibility, or truth, in the greatest old fairy tales, the Bible, in Euripides, in a Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck film, in Expressionist painting — in cave painting! There is every bit as much truth in these works as in all of Chekov, and more than in a security camera feed.

And surface realism does not guarantee psychological truth. I think it merely misleads the viewer into thinking he beholds reality, when in fact the story beneath the surface might be very dishonest. I’ve always defined melodrama as the truth uninhibited, liberated, not the truth exaggerated as most people feel. I just watched John Waters’ Female Trouble — not realistic at all on the surface, but pure truth to its toxically melodramatic core.

What ruins melodrama? What should a writer of melodrama work to avoid? 

Same thing that ruins all bad art, I guess: charmless dishonesty. There can be horrible melodrama too. I don’t like all of it. I just adore it when it’s done well. It feels more universal. I like all sorts of narrative genres, I don’t limit my tastes to one brushstroke.

I’m a bit puzzled by people who eschew all melodrama. Don’t they realize they’re watching it in almost everything they view? Especially in reality television, which is usually, but not always, bad melodrama, but also in the straightest most “realistic” movies. There melodrama thrives in disguise.

Isn’t all art the truth uninhibited to some degree? Sure, some art is the truth mystified, but honesty is usually exposed in some, sometimes inscrutable, way.

What is the key to writing strong melodrama?

I’m not sure, we’re still trying to do it. I would imagine even the great screenwriters and directors would admit it’s different each time out, that sometimes it works and other times merely dullness results.

I interviewed you years ago and remember you saying that you hoped to one day write a book — at the time you’d just published your second book. You still talk often of wanting to write a book (even though you’ve now published three). To what degree do you think of yourself as a writer, or perhaps as a struggling writer, and what you can tell me about your approach to writing? 

I am always going to be an aspiring writer, just as I’m an aspiring filmmaker. I don’t mean this to sound like false modesty; many people would agree with the “aspiring” part. I just think it’s the best attitude to have.

And, yes, I dream of someday writing a book, a really slender book, with a double-spaced novella inside. I think if I keep on learning, and get lucky, I just might have one in me. Probably just one.

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