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.

Guy Maddin and George Toles interviewed about writing The Saddest Music in the World

Originally published online in scr(i)pt magazine, c. 2004. Co-authored by Jonathan Ball and David Navratil


No Sob Story: Director Guy Maddin and Screenwriter George Toles on Collaboration The Saddest Music in the World

Filmmaking is about collaboration. Unless you’re writing, directing, lighting, shooting, funding, editing, and somehow acting in your own film, other people have to bring their talents to bear on a project in order for it to reach completion. Any screenwriter who wants to see his or her work produced has to, at some point, hand the script over to somebody else and trust that person not to tear it into pieces. The original writer is almost never the person with ultimate authority over the script, but sometimes if that writer is lucky he or she gets to work with that authority figure, be it an actor, director, producer, or another writer. Sometimes friendships are founded upon the pages of a script, and rare collaborative teams can develop which produce consistently strong and engaging work.

Guy Maddin has an international reputation as one of the most original and respected directors in the world today. The youngest person ever to be honored with the Telluride Medal for Lifetime Achievement (and this in 1995, when the director had only three features under his belt), Maddin’s films have met constant critical acclaim, including a 2002 Emmy win for the feature-length silent dance film Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary. Though he has yet to achieve the commercial success of Canadian contemporaries like Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg, Maddin’s latest feature The Saddest Music in the World seems to be the horse that everyone is betting on these days. The film stars Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet, Fearless), Maria de Medeiros (Pulp Fiction) and Mark McKinney (Kids in the Hall, Saturday Night Live), in a depression-era epic about a contest held in Winnipeg to determine which country has the saddest music in the world.

Like most of Maddin’s features, The Saddest Music in the World was written with longtime friend and collaborator George Toles. This time around, the comfortable working arrangement between the two was complicated by the addition of author Kazuo Ishiguro, best known for his novel The Remains of the Day, which was made into a successful film. Ishiguro wrote the original screenplay for Saddest Music, and held control over the material when Maddin and Toles became interested in the project.

scr(i)pt: How did you get involved with The Saddest Music in the World?

GUY MADDIN: Another producer I had on a different project held the option for the Ishiguro script. It had been sitting on their desk since 1985. The problem is that I hate reading scripts, something that the readers of scr(i)pt are going to love to hear. There wasn’t anything that immediately drew me to this script. So it sat on my kitchen table for several months before they really started hounding me to see if I liked it.

GEORGE TOLES: Why did he suddenly decide that now was the time to hound you about this 17-year-old script?

MADDIN: This script, I had run sort of a forensics test on it. It sort of felt like this poor thing had been passed around in the bushes like a big bottle of cheap wine, from Atom Egoyan to Don McKellar to Bruce McDonald, and so forth. The pages had been degraded and besmirched by other two-bit directors. The cover page especially was marked up with the breath of bad Canadian filmmakers.

TOLES: None of the directors who’ve been mentioned, of course.

MADDIN: No, no, no. But after good people breathed on it — Egoyan, McKellar, etc. — a bunch of bad Canadian filmmakers breathed on it. So it didn’t really strike me as a great honor that I was getting it. I think it had most recently been in Egoyan’s hands, and he had decided to make his labor of love, Ararat. That had happened very recently. I also know that Don McKellar had something to do with it too, because every time I mentioned it around him, he started nodding knowingly. Just like someone I know used to after he slept with my girlfriend. It was hard to get my mouth watering over this thing. So I handed it to George, like I do with so many things, to get his opinion. And I don’t even know if George read it.

TOLES: Guy and I had one of those obscure, not so much quarrels but ‘friendship timeouts,’ for close to two years. Neither of was entirely clear in the aftermath what brought it on, but right before I was given the script we had our first real conciliatory meeting, brought on by Guy inviting me to do the DVD commentary for Careful. Ironically, the theme of the movie is two people navigating warily on alpine eggshells. Guy asked me if I was interested in looking at this ‘weighty thing.’ I was super eager to get working on something again. There was so much rust on whatever screenwriting talent I had, that I felt it would take me months to see if there was anything left. In any event, I was determined — when I got my hands on the script — to find something to warm to. It’s kind of a dishonest starting point. But I did, without trying, love the title. I couldn’t resist something called The Saddest Music in the World.

scr(i)pt: Were you concerned about making changes to someone else’s work?

TOLES: I don’t feel that, as an entity, a script is ever a finished thing. A novel can be finished. A poem can be finished. But even the last, last version of a shooting script is still a draft. I just feel that a script has a funny kind of half-life at the best of times. So I didn’t feel like I was doing a grave injustice to this much honored, Booker prize-winning author. Who has a well-deserved worldwide reputation among serious literary circles. What I honestly liked was the title, the premise and the contest—to determine which country’s music was the saddest. The characters did not immediately emerge for me on the first reading of the script. But the notion of sadness as an entity, something that one could be endlessly false in relation to and competitive about, seemed to me genuinely unusual and something that was right up both of our alleys.

scr(i)pt: Did you call Guy right away?

TOLES: I didn’t want to give myself too much time to do this. I was worried about giving myself pitching apoplexy and paralysis, wondering how I would make the presentation. I felt I had about 15 minutes to honestly win or not win Guy’s attention. And I can usually tell. There are many polite sounds and then there are sounds that move a little closer toward genuine enthusiasm, and laughter — of course — is a good indicator that something’s happening.

scr(i)pt: How did you pitch the idea?

I think — and memory is a corrupting agent — that the centerpiece of the thing was that it’s all sad. So the only way to tell the story is to have someone play against the sadness. The sadness is your given and there’s no need to have a character running in the same direction as that. But there would be a need for a kind of gingerbread man with a Cagney exuberance. And that unkillable, show biz optimism. I wasn’t sure at this time if he [Chester Kent, played by Mark McKinney] would be American or Canadian, but he would certainly have an American moxie. This character with all of that irresistible, do or die, throw something together for an audience attitude. We would put that sincerely into a comedy somehow in relation to sadness. That would enable us to do something in the ’30s, set in Winnipeg. I got about that far before Guy started kicking in with some notions of his own. Anyway, the hook was an obvious one for both of us: a guy repressing sadness.

MADDIN: Yes, as soon as you mentioned a guy repressing sadness, I started thinking about some of the great Kirk Douglas characters — like in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. Well, actually any movie with Kirk Douglas. A guy who is overlooking and repressing all the rotten things he’s done, and you get to watch them simmering there on his face until it all boils over in the end. Usually with his character dropping dead somehow, in his own feces — metaphorical feces. Or with him being left alone on an iceberg somewhere, somehow. Then we realized he had to be an American. That you just don’t get protagonists like this in Canadian films, nor should you, necessarily.

TOLES: I think we both envisioned a character like Chester Kent, with some of that Yankee Doodle Dandy-ness. In that film Cagney is just killing himself to be entertaining. Wrapping himself in an American flag, but doing it with a kind of… like he needs to win World War II single-handedly.

scr(i)pt: Were you worried about having an amnesiac character again?

TOLES: The amnesiac is a supporting role [rather than the starring role of the amnesiac Boles in Archangel]. We took the courage from Chester and infused her with life. She seems to gain sustenance from chill, something Guy wanted to do. I just felt there would be something in having a tapeworm as a thing within her, giving her all kinds of happy dispatches on pursuing nymphomania guiltlessly. As much as Chester is pushing sadness calmly to one side, this Narcissa character is not somebody who is dissolving into grief, but is working against it as calmly as Chester. They made almost a vaudeville comedy duo in some ways — cheerful in relation to almost anything. There’s just that one dark page that she has to turn that will change everything. Thankfully, she’s got some time before it has to be turned.

scr(i)pt: Do you often incorporate similar elements from project to project?

TOLES: I don’t know why, but we always like to bring everything, physically if possible, into one location and psychologically if possible into one family.

MADDIN: Yeah, it’s just a fear I have that things will get too spread out. I just feel that I can’t shoot something when things are not close together. There’s no reason, necessarily. But it’s just a claustrophobia that I’m comfortable with.

scr(i)pt: How do you navigate through the collaboration process?

MADDIN: Once we had gotten a treatment spoken out on the phone, I wrote down a version of it that had all our favorite elements. And all of them survived in the movie. It still didn’t have an ending, and it had some rough patches. But I got it down quickly so I could fax it to Niv Fichman, who was flying to London to meet Ishiguro. I quit my job at the university so I could get to work on this as quickly as possible. I just remember typing up our conversation so it was an interesting read. Knowing full well that whatever I sent Ishiguro would be a slap in the face, since we had taken the thing and changed it.

sc(i)pt: Did your producer actually own the rights at this point?

TOLES: No, which was actually kind of liberating, since I was certain that we would be turned down. So why not just do whatever the hell we want, since it’s a foregone conclusion Ishiguro will say no. We just couldn’t imagine a writer of his stature allowing two people that he didn’t know to—

MADDIN: To lop the legs off a character that he had never heard of.

TOLES: And to have nothing left but the contest. And even the tone of the contest had changed so completely — what chance did we have?

MADDIN: Yeah, so we were able to tackle it as kind of a big writing exercise. And maybe get published in the university’s student newspaper, The Manitoban. It was fun to write, and we were eager to start a project together again. Anyway, I waited by my phone to hear what Ishiguro thought, knowing it was a one in a million chance. It turns out that Niv never even showed him the treatment. Thus began a very long 18-month period, with Niv flying to London every so often.

sc(i)pt: Was Ishiguro unhappy with your ideas?

MADDIN: Ishiguro had told Niv — sometime over the preceding 17 years — that maybe he could get an auteur that was willing to run with the script. So he was already sort of loosened up a little bit and even told me this. But I don’t really believe it when people tell me they are loosened up.

TOLES: Especially sensitive European authors.

MADDIN: Actually, a lot of the collaboration went between Niv and me. George would talk to me and Niv would talk to Ishiguro, then we would talk to each other. Niv just kept telling me things were about to happen, but I was growing impatient. The truth was, that right up until the moment before he gave permission, Ishiguro didn’t like our treatment. He thought it was terrible.

TOLES: My memory of Guy’s version of that final meeting was that on his way to meet Ishiguro in London, he had decided to blow off the last 18 months and give up. It wasn’t until he saw in Ishiguro’s face that this was going to be a polite kiss-off meeting that he went into reverse gear and decided to charm the pants off of him and get Ishiguro to agree to letting Guy do the project.

sc(i)pt: George, as a screenwriter, what’s it like collaborating with the director?

TOLES: I can’t think at the moment of any disadvantages. The great thing about Guy is that I have enormous basic respect for his taste. And his taste both with respect to comedy and tone, which are hugely important things. He doesn’t make things that embarrass me. And when the joke isn’t flying for me, I am sure it would’ve been torpedoed by him well in advance. It’s a case of having harmonious sensibilities and enough themes in common that there’s no lack of stuff to draw upon. And also this very useful knowledge of what Guy is disposed to like and dislike. Someone else might take years to get to that place where you can know without asking. Communication effortlessness, where you don’t have to second-guess on so many issues. The other thing I love about Guy is that he has never told me ever to be safer in my thinking or storytelling. In fact, it is always the reverse. If I ever get chided or told to rethink, it’s to be bolder still. It’s always the direction of more alarming departure from sensible norms. That’s spoiled me considerably.