GMB Chomichuk and Jonathan Ball (interview), Part 1

GMB Chomichuk (writer, teacher, mixed media artist, graphic novelist and proud Winnipegger) agreed to an interview only if I allowed him to also interview me — so this is Part 1 of a two-part, twinned interview (the second part will post next week).

Chomichuk won the Manitoba Young Writers Award when he was 15. He won the Manitoba Book Award for Best Illustrated Book in 2011, and again in 2015. His graphic novel series The Imagination Manifesto was nominated for Best Canadian Graphic Novel in the 2012 Aurora Awards. He is the founder of Alchemical Press and is always on the lookout for literary oddities. You can follow him on twitter @gmbchomichuk and see some of his work in progress at www.comicalchemy.blogspot.com.

His latest books are the picture book Cassie and Tonk (McNally) and the graphic novel Infinitum (McNally | Amazon).

Jonathan Ball: Why did you decide to start Alchemical Press?

GMB Chomichuk: I had been getting serious about the idea of visual story telling. I had a conversation with a friend who said that a people need to sell their strengths and buy their weaknesses, and on the same day got a call from a producer asking me to come and talk about doing a comic adaptation and some set design. When I was asked to use the likenesses of the cast for the comics, I figured doing so under the umbrella of a legal entity would be prudent. It just seemed the time. All ideas have their time, and I guess this was the time for Alchemical Press. Lots of things were changing in my life, and alchemy is change.

How does a poet/horror writer make a movie and sell it to The Comedy Network?

Ball: Don’t say horror, or I’ll never get published again. I used to say something else, like my work is “struck through with Gothicism” or “darkly fantastical” (I owe Hiromi Goto for that one). Since I am what people call, redundantly, a “literary writer,” I have to feign a pretentious investment in the marketing term “literary fiction.” Although to be honest I have gotten bored with that stance and started to call myself a “horror writer” in the press recently, even when not talking about horror.

I believe in the value of always doing something. I’ve been writing seriously for about 15 years at this point, which is about how long you have to work in order to reach Square One. The film you’re referring to, Spoony B, I decided to make a number of years ago, in order to learn the basics of filmmaking. I figured if I wanted to do some screenwriting, I should learn to think like a director, and the best way to do that was to become one. So I cobbled together about $500 and thought, “What kind of film can I make with only $500?”

I knew I couldn’t afford lab fees, so I developed all the film by hand in buckets and transferred it from my kitchen wall with a digicam. I put my friends in it and shot it as a silent film, like an old Keaton or Chaplin film, so that I didn’t have to record sound, because I couldn’t afford to record the sound well.

It turns out I have a small bit of talent for being a director (very small!), because The Comedy Network bought it almost immediately. Really, it was a happy accident that the film ended up being any good, and then Matthew Etches, who was the distribution coordinator for the Winnipeg Film Group managed to sell it, it was one of the last things he did before he quit that job. In many respects, I don’t know how it was sold, basically it sold because the Winnipeg Film Group sold it for me. The rights are available again now, if somebody wants to license it from the WFG!

What are your goals for Alchemical Press, and how do you see it as different from other presses?

Chomichuk: Alchemical Press is not a traditional press, it’s a story engine. We are a mercenary strike force of creative people that use art and words to fight our battles. We are a collective of innovative storytellers. We publisher the work of others, and we publish our own in collaboration with Absurd Machine Films and Vagabond Brigade, and Electric Monk Media web services, which allows us to be peer-reviewed while retaining creative control.

Too often peer review means “Give someone else the rights and revenue potential but keep the credit.” Don’t get me wrong, I love the book industry, but they do their thing, we do ours. Alchemical Press is a hybrid model that works with the direct sales market of the comic stores and the returnable market of the book seller, and the online make-it-up-as-you-like markets of the Internet.

Poetry, Prose, Pictures, Collage, Video, Digital Art. We aren’t interested in you doing things our way, we’re interested in getting things done.  If people have an idea worth sharing, we want to help.

Our goals are to get talented people the exposure they deserve. To allow those who are working with the medium of story for the medium of story, (Guys like Dave Ryan and his War of the Independents) to get their ideas out there and inspire people.

What’s your creative process, from idea to gestalt? Concept to page? Tell me your secrets I’ll tell you mine.

Ball: I never go out in search of ideas, because I have so many, a huge backlog of projects I will never have time to complete. Some of them are great projects too. But when I get an idea I stop whatever I’m doing and roll the idea around for a while. I make a note or two if I’m concerned about forgetting something, just a good sentence or two. Then I just let the idea retreat and go back to whatever I was doing.

The idea has to compete for survival amongst the thousand other ideas. If I find myself sticking with it, turning my mind to it over and over again, making more notes, and not letting it go, then eventually I’ll schedule some writing time to work on it. It might be years from when I think of an idea to when I write word one.

After I have a first draft, I produce a summary/outline based on that draft. Then I make all my major editing decisions based on this outline. I’ll cut pages, note where to add things, restructure, and so on, based on the outline. Then I’ll retype the entire document, rewriting as I go. I don’t go back and edit the original computer file, I type a new one so that I don’t feel bound to the first draft in any way and feel freer to rewrite rather than merely revise.

I hope to abandon this practice soon, because it is so time-consuming, but it works great so I can’t. I’m getting close to where I think I can let go of the practice, however. I started using Scrivener (Mac | Windows), and it separates the formatting from the text in a sense (because you have to output and finalize the formatting in Word, since the publishing industry uses Word). So far, I feel like mentally I’m not bound to the text when I play around in Scrivener, so maybe it will finally let me kill off this unproductive but useful practice.

After the second draft every draft is a revision unless there are some major issues. A structural edit might also entail changing things entirely, like turning it from a poem into a short story, or cutting out whole scenes and chapters and characters or whatever. Unless somebody has requested the manuscript, I think about where to send it when I start the revision process (usually with draft three, although I often complete up to eight or ten substantial drafts). Then it’s just a matter of finishing it, sending it wherever, and getting started on the next thing.

I used to work on a lot of projects at once but wasn’t accomplishing much. Now I try to stick to no more than two, switching when I get stuck on one.

What about your process? If I remember correctly, The Imagination Manifesto was at one point a novel called Strangeseed. So how did the idea develop, and go from being a prose work to a graphic novel?

Chomichuk: The Imagination Manifesto (McNally | Amazon) began as a prose novel that was just too visual to remain as text alone. Because my writing style often references allusion and mythology as a literary device, but sometimes I’m talking about figures from mythology, I realized that the book contained too many things that seemed like metaphors, and too many things that seemed like descriptions which the reader can misattribute.

If someone is described as like a snake, but they look human, you know it’s just an adjective, but here the women who looks like a snake is a snake-woman. I had started getting a bit of work in film, and the storyboard needs of some projects really solidified, at least for me, that this part of the tale had to be illustrative. There are many chapters of the tale that will contain long bits of prose, but only when words say it better than pictures and vice versa.

It sounds a bit silly as I write it, but most of my ideas come from dreams. I believe firmly that we can go looking for things when we sleep. Our memory is built up from patterns, but dreaming really lets one experience their own lives in a unique way. If something follows me back from a dream, I take notice, and try to give it somewhere to live. Sometimes as a character, sometimes as a setting, sometimes as a line of dialogue. I do my best to give my dreams a good home.

Ball: I’d like to hear about your process also insofar as how you choose or develop projects. I know you’ve turned down work in favour of edgier fare, and have often turned offers to “work” into offers to be a creative contributor — what’s your attraction to edgier, unconventional work, and why does having some degree of creative control mean so much to you, even when you’re working as a gun-for-hire?

Chomichuk: Collaboration is the point for me. The whole idea of alchemy is the process of mixing strange ingredients and intents and creating something new and vibrant.

When I do work-for-hire art I offer different pricing. One price is for the work I do with the understanding that I keep and control the original art and the right to remix the original images into new work as I see fit. The other price (much higher) gives the client control of the original art. What this usually does is open a dialogue about what art should be and the strengths of collaboration versus outright control.

When everyone is invested in a project, both creatively and financially, the discussion orders itself around the work, and the story, rather than who is in charge. There is a lot of ego floating around in this business, and I find that if/when I set the terms like this, then people I would not enjoy working with for the long haul aren’t the ones interested in working with me anyway.

A person’s portfolio should reflect the work they want, not just the work they’ve done. We all start somewhere, but you need to be assertive about what you want for yourself from any creative endeavour. I want creative autonomy when I work with someone, and I’m interested in working with people who want the same things.

Read Part 2 of my interview with GMB Chomichuk!

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.

Jason Freure on The Politics of Knives

Nice to see the new book on someone’s “summer reading list” over at The Puritan— a breezy summer read about assassination and terror!

Ball should have considered a career directing films given how often he pretends to be a camera, but “He Paints the Room Red” is genuinely chilling. “In Vitro City” presents condotopia in its finished form: a city where “former members of the regime are not welcome. … torn clothes are not welcome. … without money they are not welcome. you are not welcome.” The titular “The Politics of Knives” reads like an infomercial with the important parts blacked out. It will teach you all the things you can do with knives, “Things you never considered, but those Things step into your footprints with great stealth.”