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.

A Haiku and an Interview: Jonathan Ball in Toronto Review of Books

John Wisniewski was kind enough to interview me recently, which reminded me of a haiku of mine that is also online in the same publication. (Best interview title ever? Well, I’ve had some good ones….) He had to edit for space, so I am posting the complete interview below in case you are interested.


Could you tell us about your earliest poems and other writings — were they experimental in nature?

My earliest writings were poems that resulted from failed transcriptions of song lyrics. I used to write out songs I had taped from friends who had gone into the city recently, since where I grew up there was no radio station that played modern music and no music stores. Anyway, when I became able to purchase CDs through the mail and look up lyrics online, I noticed a host of deviations between what I thought they were singing and what they were really singing — probably because I listened to mostly grunge and heavy metal and it’s harder to make out the vocals in those genres due to the singers having a tendency to mumble or scream. In every instance, I preferred my misheard deviations to the original lyrics. After discovering this, I began to write my own lyrics and poems.

Now, reflecting upon these early “writings,” it’s stunning how close this accidental composition was to experimental processes of copying, reframing, corrupting, or remixing texts — even though the stuff I was writing had very little experimentation to it, ultimately. However, after discovering Radiohead and Nirvana, I quickly began working with fragmentary and surrealistic images. Then I discovered Salman Rushdie and Stephen King around the same time, and became interested in architectural book forms and aggressive, assaultive imagery.

Ex Machina explores man’s relationship with machines — could you tell us about this?

The title effectively summarizes my core idea: that once one removes ‘God’ (Deus) from the cosmic picture, one ends up in a universe without a guarantor of humanity’s place near the top of some hierarchy of being. At that point, it’s easy to see yourself as an evolutionary step towards the rise of technology. Related to this is the idea that technology actually alters humanity in some essential way, now that we have no guarantor of any sort of permanence/essence, so that the category of the human begins to break down, even during what we might otherwise view as ‘normal’ uses of technology.

Since these are well-worn science-fiction themes, I grafted them onto what is probably my real interest: the way that artworks like Ex Machina might be considered a species of technology, and also something that we exist simply to create and service. I’m interested in the cultural anxiety produced by postmodern ideas — so, the modernist vaulting of art into something that might take the place of religion, which develops into a postmodernist devaluing of both art and religion for their metanarrative force, is something I’m transmuting as a nightmarish situation of conceptual violence.

The Politics of Knives explores words and violence. Is there violence in words?

In his book Violence, Slavoj Žižek wonders “What if, however, humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence precisely because they speak?” and notes that “there is something violent in the very symbolization of a thing, which equals its mortification … When we name gold ‘gold,’ we violently extract a metal from its natural texture, investing into it our dreams of wealth, power, spiritual purity, and so on, which have nothing whatsoever to do with the immediate reality of gold.”

Žižek’s connection of language to violence, and of symbolization as a form of death, is hardly original — however, what I find interesting is how language and narrative both get viewed as having a violent potential in postmodern thought, and yet the abandonment of language and narrative is seen as creating what is possibly a more nightmarish situation than their maintenance. So you end up with all of these attempts in experimental art to undermine narrative and the communicative qualities of language (which are seen as having negative political implications), alongside an acknowledgement of the impossibility of this, and sometimes even the undesirability of this. That space of anxiety is the space I want to occupy — and possibly escape, but without retreating towards some sort of conservative position.

Whom are some authors and artists that influence you — do you like the work of Artaud? 

I used a quotation from Artaud’s letters as the epigraph for my book Clockfire — “… the pool of energies which constitute Myths, which man no longer embodies, is embodied by the theatre’ —although I find Artaud’s actual theatre less interesting than his ideas about the theatre. What Artaud missed, and what I try to suggest with Clockfire, is that a true theatre of cruelty would present the audience with horrors on the Lovecraftian scale, pushing forth a cosmic or conceptual horror rather than confining itself to the artistic and social situation.

My influences range widely, and depend on the project, since I read and research in relation to specific projects — so, for example, with Clockfire the major influences were Artaud, Lovecraft, Italo Calvino, and Yoko Ono.

Probably the largest luminaries in my artistic life have been (in no order) Guy Maddin, George Toles, Solomon Nagler, Dennis Cooley, Robert Kroetsch, Christian Bök, Natalee Caple, Derek Beaulieu, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Maurice Mierau, Robert Majzels, and Suzette Mayr. David Bergen made some very powerful comments to me early in my writing career although he doesn’t remember it (I’ve re-met him since).

In a more general and less personal sense (i.e., people I don’t know), my largest influences (again, in no order) would include a host of musicians, and the aforementioned Lovecraft, King, and Rushdie, alongside David Lynch, Franz Kafka, Lisa Robertson, Shirley Jackson, Tony Burgess, and the Freud/Lacan/Žižek trinity. I just wrote a book on John Paizs, which should be coming out probably in January 2014, so he looms large as well.

I consider myself a horror author, and I think of myself as a novelist. So my longer list of influences would no doubt surprise someone who doesn’t think of me that way, since people generally consider me an experimental poet.

Could you tell us about writing Clockfire — are these glimpses or sketches of possible stageplays?

It would be more accurate to call them glimpses or sketches if impossible stageplays — one requires the destruction of the sun, another requires you to burn down the theatre with the audience inside, and so forth. I have always been ambivalent about the theatre. I love the theatre in theory, but I always feel disappointed when I see actual plays.

Writing Clockfire required me to think about what kind of theatre we might produce if we weren’t shackled by morality, mortality, and physics. Also, I’m interested in books that make demands on the reader and require reader engagement, and with Clockfire readers are ultimately responsible for “staging” the plays in the theatres of their imagination. This pulls the book closer to Fluxus art and its scripts for “happenings” than conventional poetry, which is why I decided to write in a prose-poem form, although I remained attentive to the language and its rhythms.

This desire for reader engagement is also why I released the book under a Creative Commons license, which allows and encourages “remixes.” My other two books have been released under the same license. Gary Barwin did a great series where he reversed a number of the plays, so that instead of unfolding into horror (as mine often do) they progress toward states of grace.

Your writing requires the reader to actually create, in that he can use your images to build on his own. Do you find this to be true, that your writing challenges the reader?

I would like to think that I challenge the reader, in a way that is engaging rather than frustrating. I pay a lot of attention to how I think the writing is possible to receive, and try to both anticipate and subvert or upset reader expectations. For me, what’s exciting in literature is the way that it disturbs your ideas of what a book is or should be.

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.