On the Set of Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World

Originally published in the Manitoban 90.26 (26 March 2003): 12-13 (as “The Saddest Article in the World”). I have added an interlude here. I also interviewed Maddin and co-writer George Toles about writing the film.

Sunday: The Press Conference

Despite a long drive (to downtown and then along some fractured street into the industrial heart of Winnipeg), I manage to arrive a few minutes early, which works out well since it takes me a good five minutes to find the door of the building. After following a series of signs seemingly designed to protect Maddin from inept interviewers by steering the less intelligent into a pit of cruel stakes and poisonous vipers, I avoid a hellish fate and ascertain the proper entrance.

There are a few people milling around the bottom of a staircase, and one of them is Isabella Rossellini. I am star-struck for the first time in my life, and it is a good thing that she melts away into another room before I have a heart attack. I stand stunned for an instant, gathering my bearings and trying to remember why I am here in the first place. I notice I have been turned around somehow by Rossellini’s presence and there is a door in front of me now; it opens and Maddin himself steps out from the darkness beyond. Mist curls in along with him and gives Maddin the appearance of having materialized from some other dimension.

Maddin recognizes me and looks surprised, greeting me with a hearty “Hey!” One of the things a lot of people don’t know about Maddin is that he is quite possibly the nicest Guy in the world. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m here as press,” I reply.

“Wow!” Guy seems more impressed by the fact that I am writing about the film than the fact that he is making it, as if hoping to be so lucky as to write about it himself one day. He becomes distracted, face darkening, troubled and confused. “I have to … put make-up on?” he states, almost asking.

“Sure,” I say, not knowing what else to say. Guy nods solemnly and disappears into a nearby room. Later he confides to me that this is the first press conference he has been to, which I don’t believe.

Leslie Stafford, the woman who appears to be in charge of everything, introduces herself and herds me upstairs to where the conference is about to begin. I chat briefly with fellow Tobanites Erin Haluschak and Joel Trenaman before sitting down beside Uptown film reporter Peter Vesuwalla, whom I know. He introduces me to some woman whose name I promptly forget who works for the Winnipeg Sun and who is both amused and sickened by her boss’s orders to “stalk” Rossellini, snapping pictures whenever possible.

After a short time, the room has filled with reporters and camera crews. Robert Enright, who is facilitating the conference, takes a seat at the front along with Mark McKinney, Isabella Rossellini, Ross McMillan and Maddin himself. Guy is pleased to discover that there is water available for him to drink, and makes a display of discussing the fact and pouring glasses for others — but then he doesn’t drink any.

Enright opens the conference with a few remarks introducing the participants and the movie itself, while Guy examines the microphone in front of him as if he had never seen one before. A lot of people see Guy do things like this and assume, wrongly I think, that he is putting on a show. However, watching his films, I take what others view as surrealism to be a form of “extra-realism” — that is, it seems to me that rather than present a symbolic world, Maddin presents a representational world which appears only to him, blessed with a fantastical vision which spills over from his film life to his “real” life both in his consideration and constant re-consideration of everyday objects and events. This isn’t to say that he is some sort of naïf, but that when cornered or in reverie he seems to retreat into a childlike re-discovery of things.

The conference goes well. Rossellini has a lot of wonderful things to say, and Guy himself is a sound-bite factory, consistently brilliant. He remarks that the film is about the tendency of groups or individuals to make their sadness or suffering into a theatrical event. “Haven’t you all been at the funeral of a family member that you were close to and had to pretend to cry?” he asks, eliciting a round of nervous laughter. The press conference itself ends in howls, with McKinney riffing off a reporter’s question and pretending not to know about the existence of film festivals.

Afterward, Maddin and his actors are whisked away for brief one-on-one interviews with the national media, but not before George Toles hijacks Isabella Rossellini. Toles appears to have flown in from sabbatical in New York for the sole purpose of talking to the legendary actress and observing her on set, and although he’s a relatively seasoned veteran of the film industry, I think he’s just as star-struck as I am. In addition to being Maddin’s frequent collaborator and the screenwriter of The Saddest Music in the World, Toles is an English and film professor at the U of Manitoba, and my friend and thesis advisor as well. I visit with him for a little while, offering my congratulations on the project and the stellar cast.

George and I agree that things look promising, and that Maddin seems to be bursting with a newfound creativity following The Heart of the World — and shows no signs of flagging. Chatting with Enright just prior to leaving, I am shocked to hear that Maddin shot the hour-longCowards Bend the Knee, which I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing, in a mere five days. Guy seems to be reaching his artistic peak, and I am excited to be around to see the fruits of his labour. I leave reluctantly, excited and inspired, as I always am following an encounter with either Maddin or his films.

Interlude: On Meeting Maddin

I’d like to interject here to offer the anecdote that I tell everyone whenever they ask me what Guy Maddin is like. Talking to people over the years, I’ve come to understand that Maddin has a bit of a reputation as somebody who can be difficult and overbearing, and who has a pomposity to match his profile.

This impression has never been my impression. Although I’m not as close to Maddin as many, I feel this notion is a media construction, due to well-publicized spats with George Toles (the two reconciled before writing The Saddest Music in the World) and Deco Dawson, and a lesser-publicized rivalry with John Paizs. I know all these parties somewhat, and so I am careful not to contribute to discussion or take sides whenever the topic comes up (usually raised by some third party in a gossipy way — it seems to me that those involved don’t care much to rehash old news). In any case, I have had nothing but wonderful dealings with Maddin, and my first two encounters with him set the tone for my personal impression.

I met Maddin briefly at the University of Manitoba, where (as mentioned above) I was completing a Master of Arts degree with George Toles as my supervisor. I happened to run into Toles and Maddin and Toles introduced me as one of his students. Maddin chatted for a few moments and then took off. I was thrilled, but it was hardly a memorable interaction — even I don’t remember anything about the encounter, other than it being brief.

The next time I saw Maddin was weeks later, at the premiere of his film Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, held at the Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg (this isn’t a movie theatre, but a hall reserved normally for symphonies and so forth: I watched R.E.M. play on the same stage). I was seated about fifteen or so rows up, with my friend Patrick Short (the guitarist from This Hisses).

Maddin and his party entered and made their way to seats near the front of the venue, but before sitting Maddin turned to survey the crowd. His face lit up and he began frantically waving at somebody. I pointed him out to Pat — “That’s Maddin, the guy waving” — and then started wondering who he was waving at. I turned to look but nobody was waving back.

Then I realized that he was waving at me — some student he met for a minute weeks ago. I offered a small, shy wave in response. He was satisfied and sat down.

That, to me, sums up Guy Maddin.

Thursday: The Set

After days of virtual begging (that’s actual begging via e-mail), I have managed to wrangle a visit to Maddin’s set from Leslie Stafford. There wasn’t much wrangling, I suppose, though a lot of begging; she’s been rather graceful and helpful concerning the whole thing. I learn later that there has been a problem with visitors to the set — the amicable Maddin has been allowing too many to frequent the place during shooting and it has become a bit of a bother. (In retrospect, I should have just asked him directly! But I hate asking Maddin for things, although I do later ask to visit the sets of his short films Sissy Boy Slap Party and Sombra Dolorosa, which were fascinating visits deserving their own article.) In the end, just as it seems that my request is about to be denied, it is granted and I find myself waiting for Leslie in the dressing area, resisting the urge to steal food from a table laid out for the cast.

The dressing area is quite a mess, rags heaped atop rows of tables with more rags hanging against the walls. Some Viking helmets lie beneath a rack of dresses, their cruel horns apparently carved from plastic. A small dog runs through the room, in one door and out the other, followed by Maddin’s girlfriend. I say hello — I know her as well — but she is chasing the dog and rushes past.

Leslie appears and escorts me to the set. “You picked a good day to come,” she says.

It seems that what I’ll see this morning is the shooting and reshooting of the musical finale. For those not in the know, The Saddest Music in the World takes place in Depression-era Winnipeg and tells the complicated story of the Kent family against the backdrop of an international music competition sponsored by beer baroness Lady Port-Huntly (Rossellini) to determine which country has, well, the saddest music in the world. This scene is basically a song-and-dance number involving a concert given by some of the sadder countries, playing together.

Leslie walks me by an old set, miniatures of the town which are no longer in use. I take a moment to examine them; this is the Winnipeg of Maddin’s imaginings, a Grimm place half-buried in snow and populated by Orthodox crosses, looking simultaneously like an F.W. Murnau set and a drawing by Dr. Seuss. This is all located in a very cold and dismal warehouse with a large black curtain located at its far end, which appears to be our destination.

When we arrive at the curtain Leslie pulls a portion of it back for me to step inside, revealing the set, and an explosion of colour, sound, and light. The first thing I notice is a stage upon which is situated a large throne-like structure consisting of blue-white shards of cardboard or some other building material. It looks almost like a cross between an iceberg and a flame. Some pretty girls in bluish garb and exaggerated Inuit gear stand around it, while to the far left a dismal black-draped man with a sinister moustache sits solemnly (later I am told this is Ross McMillian, barely recognizable). Below the stage an orchestra pit is filled to bursting with musicians, small groups representing different nationalities, dressed in exaggerated, stereotypical fashion. (Maddin’s cult classic, Tales from the Gimli Hospital, featured comic relief in the form of an actor in blackface — offensive at first, this character’s subsequent death and the solemnity of his funereal proceedings speak to a deep-seated respect for him and of a great value placed on his life and being. In like manner, Maddin de- and re-constructs stereotypes constantly, allowing him to navigate within film discourses that appear outmoded and inject them with a contemporary relevance, reviving old forms while also critiquing them to avoid an empty nostalgia.)

Leslie positions me near the curtain on its inside and I wait for the cameras to roll. Members of the crew scuttle to and fro, placing beer-filled mugs atop every level surface (beer abounds in the film, and even the legs of Rossellini’s character have been amputated and replaced with beer-filled glass legs). Maddin cuts his way through the chaos, the otherwise docile man in polite but firm command. A voice calls for quiet and the cameras begin to roll, followed by a series of melodious clicks and the voice of Mark McKinney (who plays the conductor) counts upwards to four.

A transformation occurs. All of a sudden the music gives the chaos form; the strains of a sitar ring out an ethereal progression of notes, dying into silence. McKinney’s baton points away from the sitar player toward a banjo-toting man who, as counterpoint to the sitar line, begins a meat-and-potatoes rhythm. Other instruments join in, and in the middle of this cacophony the Inuit girls begin to dance. They spear fake fish and offer them to the iceberg/throne — except for one girl, who hoards her catch. The music darkens, and the blue-white structure begins to move, to turn, revealing Rossellini, radiant with anger. The dancing resumes, Rossellini intermittently casting icy stares and warm smiles upon the revellers gathered at her feet. Every time she smiles she sheds twenty years.

The music ends and I return to the world. There is a moment of perfect silence following the song and before the order to stop the cameras is given, and in that moment I think that I hear the real song, infinitely sad and filled with inexpressible longing. Then noise explodes around me as the work resumes; Maddin proposes new angles, actors are moved, the lighting is altered, and, of course, more beer is brought in.

I talk briefly with Robert Enright and Meeka Walsh between takes as the same scene is shot and reshot. Enright fills me in on the scene’s context within the film to a greater degree (the particulars of which I will not divulge here) and I begin to see the hidden apocalyptic aspects of the scene as it is played out again and again. Each time the scene is enacted it is a new experience, fresh and distinct from its previous incarnation.

Leslie politely informs me that my time is up and I have to leave. Before I head off I return to the miniature town and take a closer look at it. It’s a fantastic place, and walking through its streets I feel like a giant. I wish I could shrink, dwindle down to scale, find a cold corner in which to sleep. Something in this fabricated Winnipeg make it feels like the real Winnipeg, only sadder and more still, a place where something significant is about to happen.

Then something does: as I am leaving I stumble across the baroness herself, taking a short break away from the set. I decide that this will be the only chance I get to say anything to her, and so I had better take it.

“I think you’re wonderful, Miss Isabella Rossellini,” I offer, shaking her hand.

“Oh!” she replies, surprised and maybe a bit embarrassed. She smiles broadly, and on my list of Things to Do in Life I check off “Make Isabella Rossellini smile.”

Without another word, in a starstruck panic, I leave the building. It rains on the drive home, a gentle, cleansing rain, scouring the streets. I listen to my car stereo in perfect happiness, singing along with the saddest of songs.

Subscribe to my newsletter for a free eBook, 5 Steps to Create and Maintain Your Writing Schedule, occasional updates, and the secrets of life and death and time!