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.