Documenting Nostalgia, Memory and Home

By Nancy Harrison and Lee Hill

guy-maddin.jpgGuy Maddin

Guy Maddin's latest film is a travelog of the mysterious territory of memory

Vertigo: The programme of your films at the BFI suggests quite an individual film style, and a number of specific preoccupations right from the start. When you see your work all together in a retrospective – the entire breadth of your career to date – does it remind you that weren’t really certain what kind of filmmaker you wanted to be?

Guy Maddin: Well strangely it’s quite the opposite. I always knew exactly what I wanted to be. People call me an experimental filmmaker – but I knew it was just a label – that meant ‘not commercial’. But I knew that I wasn’t experimenting, that I had these objectives that I set out to achieve, and then I would sort of decide how much of them I had achieved at the end of each picture and give myself a report card. I’ve made the mistake of re-watching a couple of my older movies recently, and I realised that I just wasn’t capable of being objective at all and I ended up achieving a lot less than I thought I had, and I am probably getting closer to achieving it now, but I always knew exactly what I wanted to do. I guess what I wanted to be – without being a ‘bookish’ filmmaker – I wanted to put on the screen literary effects. I like the way reading just the perfect metaphor on the written page produces almost narcotic effects, almost produces an airborne effect in the reader’s mind. And it just seems to me that experimental film can do that more often than conventional commercial entertaining cinema, although I watch huge amounts of that stuff. But I thought that my best chance of satisfying my stultified desires to be a writer would be to be a maker of these films that go after more writerly effects. And like I say that definitely means not being bookish, not doing ‘faithful’ adaptations of books, but just going after, and trying to produce, the same narcotic feelings in the viewer as a reader gets.

V: That’s always a difficulty, because often you read a book and then you see the film of it and you think – that’s not how I imagined it…

GM: So often people are trying to adapt the book through such literal-minded approaches. They are trying to find an actor that looks exactly like the character, the right accent, they are trying to duplicate the period that book is set in – failing to realise that the author is evoking a period that doesn’t really exist lots of times. Maybe a period of the mind, or its rendered in a kind of poetry or style that isn’t really interested in naturalism or realism – but the filmmaker is, so ends up producing an adaptation that’s completely unfaithful, especially the more money that they pour into it. Whereas if you are capturing the spirit of the book it could be argued that you are being more faithful to the work, rather than if you are capturing the surface details.

my-winnepeg-guy-maddin.jpgMy Winnipeg, 2007

So when I was adapting Dracula, for instance – I got a commission to make a ballet film of Dracula. I’d like to think that of all the hundreds of Dracula films I’ve seen, in many ways it’s the most faithful adaptation – even though its danced, rather than acted out and spoken. In prepping for the movie I read Bram Stoker’s novel anew and found myself in it, in the form of all the males who are jealous and who created a Dracula out of all their jealousies. And if you removed Dracula himself from the story, all the male and female characters would be acting the same way: the female characters would be having female sexual fantasies, and the male characters would be reacting violently against the women having female sexual fantasies, and the Dracula is just conjured up by both men and women as objects of jealousy and lust respectively. So it was really great to find myself in the Bram Stoker book and then just dial up and down the various aspects of the ballet until it reflected how the book was my biography. And so for me I felt it was a very faithful adaptation. I have always been trying to do things like that – almost always putting myself on the screen, and more so with each recent picture, in ways that recreate my feelings. Not literally me though – I get someone else to play me, but…

V: But you do name them as yourself

GM: Well that is just to make it quite apparent that that is what I am going for. Doing that enables me to really enjoy the ecstasies of masochism, because when you name a protagonist who’s a real ne’er-do-well after yourself, then you get to stand behind every cowardly deed he performs, and there are real pleasures in masochism. That’s just a bonus I hogged for myself.

V: Your new film My Winnipeg was originally commissioned by the Documentary Channel. Partly it’s a documentary, but there is also a lot of fiction, and very personal, autobiographical content in it. How did the Documentary Channel feel about that?

GM: They loved it.

V: They weren’t expecting a completely factual film?

GM: Well it’s a ‘docu-fantasia’ I’ve decided, which is a sub-set of the documentary. It is a documentary, but I just call it a docu-fantasia by way of flagging the fact that I am unapologetically aware of the fact that a third of it is just opinion or wishful thinking, and that a third of it is legend and folklore, and a third of it is cold, hard facts. But they are all emotional facts, or ecstatic facts. And then the episodes that are discussed in there – the historical episodes – are all literally true, as implausible as they seem.

my-winnepeg-guy-maddin-2.jpgMy Winnipeg, 2007

V: The horses?

GM: Yep. I wish I had been able to make that up, but its true.

V: People have trouble believing those heads are real – it seems so crazy.

GM: It does. But those were real horses heads – unless it was a hoax cooked up in 1927. But no – its been documented. And its been talked about in town for years.

V: Do you think that documentary is moving towards this sort of form – more personal or perhaps less factual?

GM: Yes, the frontiers of documentary are expanding so rapidly, its interesting territory. Documentary’s obligation is to represent a truth, in a compelling way, and I guess what you have to ask yourself is what is this a documentary about? I think people baulk at the idea was that this was a documentary about Winnipeg because I couldn’t figure out a way of disentangling a discussion of Winnipeg from a discussion of my mother, and my house and my family. But I realise now that it’s a documentary less about Winnipeg, than a documentary about nostalgia and about home and memory and that is why the movie is travelling way better than I ever dreamt it would, because everyone carries with them ideas of what home and memory and nostalgia should be. So it is a documentary, but it is a documentary portrait of me trying to contend with these things, and I hope that I just addressed them as honestly as I could – as petulantly and as childishly, when I felt petulant and childish, and nobly when I felt ennobled…

V: Do you think it would have been different with some distance – if you weren’t living there?

GM: If I had been making the film about my ‘former’ hometown? Yeah, it would have been different, probably, as I would not have been so tied up in some things – perhaps more resigned. I’m already more resigned to the Arena going down, for instance. One thing that made me resigned to it was that I showed the movie in Berlin, to a populace whose entire city was flattened just a generation ago, and I wasn’t getting much pity from these people when I was whining about losing these 2 buildings. So, I’ve resigned myself to it, and a couple of years have gone past since the place went down, so the passage of time or a little distance would have made it different, but it would have been just as honest. It just would have been from a different perspective.

V: How was the reception of the film in Winnipeg?

GM: I was shocked – it was really good, although there might have been one or two grumps in the theatre. It premiered at an old vaudeville theatre, there were 1600 people – and they really liked it. They were really generous. Winnipeggers are very cheap with praise, but my mother was sitting up in the loge seats, and she got a two-minute standing ovation – maybe just a consolation for being my long-suffering mother… But it was really heart-warming for me, and shocking, because I really thought that they would run me out of town on a rail when they saw it.

V: And elsewhere?

GM: It just opened in America: it’s doing well, and in Canada as well. And it played at Berlin and in Sydney.

V: Are there any countries that are particularly receptive to all of your work?

GM: Well, it’s not like I have conquered the globe yet, but Germany and France and America have been receptive. My film distribution is just starting up in Australia, so we will see.

V: I would have thought you would appeal to the Nordic countries.

GM: In the Scandinavian countries it just hasn’t really taken off. I go to the Reykjavik Film Festival every couple of years, and I will this year, so we’ll see. Although Canadian I am of Scandinavian heritage myself, but…

V: Well often there is a feeling of that the Nordic countries are very receptive to films that explore personal and autobiographical issues, so that should be fertile ground for your work.

GM: And they are all over incest as well, so…

V: My Winnipeg features people stuck in repetitive patterns of behaviour – the train, the hockey players, the soap opera. Repetitive behaviours often happen in dreams – you always seem to be doing the same thing over and over in dreams. For part of your inspiration, do you keep a dream diary when you are working on a script, or before you start writing?

GM: I have kept a dream diary in the past. Now I just take notes about them – jot down the ones that really seem to make some kind of emotional sense. I can’t literally figure out what they are saying, but if they seem to rhyme with something in my waking life then I will jot those ones down. And there is even a scene in My Winnipeg, near the very end when my mother is lying in the snow – lying in the fake snow – with my dead brother, and that is a scene that my daughter dreamt. She told me about it and I thought that it really was the only way to end the movie. So I was pleased to collaborate with my daughter.

brand-upon-the-brain-guy-maddin.jpgBrand Upon the Brain!, 2006

V: You have worked with a lot of different actors – particularly high-profile women.

GM: I’ve been lucky. I would like to keep working with more, although I really like working with Isabella Rossellini. She and I get along on so many other different levels – ever since the day we met, in Central Park, in 2002.

V: Just by chance?

GM: Kind of. I saw her coming, and I never bother celebrities, but she stopped to pet a dog, and I like dogs, and I thought I would pet the dog while she was petting the dog. And the dog was a big Labrador retriever with a lot of saliva dripping out of its mouth, and it was holding Isabella’s hand in its mouth, and so I let it hold my hand in its mouth too. And so both of our hands were in this dog’s mouth while she was talking to the pet’s owner and I was pretending to be caring about it and finally the owner and the dog left, and we were just left together with dog spit on our hands, our fingers intertwined – I guess the dog’s tongue had tied our fingers together somehow… And I had a lot of things to say to her, for example her ex-husband Martin Scorsese had bought one of my earlier films for his archives, and I told her that I had just finished writing a part for her. And so it had been such an odd meeting scenario that really it just had to lead somewhere. And it has led to many collaborations – she came up to see me live narrate My Winnipeg, and it plays with her Green Pornos– she has made these one-minute movies about the sex lives of insects. They are really good, and they have her writing voice, which is unique – she is so pornographic, but she is so little girl; so worldly elegant, but so playful and bawdy.

V: And you have also worked with Shelley Duvall – she’s a very interesting actress.

GM: Yes, Shelley was crazy and it was fun to tap into the same energy that Robert Altman had experienced, and inspired masterful performances. And also Alice Krige and Maria de Medeiros – I really liked working with them, they were both really cool. I have to keep up working with such great actresses – so I can become the William Wyler of Poverty Row or something…

saddest-music-in-the-world-guy-maddin.jpgMaria de Medeiros in The Saddest Music in the World, 2003

V: Have you really had to pursue these actresses to get them for your films?

GM: I have just had great luck with actresses. I just made a cold call to Maria de Medeiros – I knew someone who had her number – and the same with Shelley Duvall. I got both Alice Krige and Shelley Duvall just two minutes apart – just phoned them up. So that felt good. Being Canadian I never have to pitch projects – the government pays you money to make movies – so the pitching you do is with the actors.

V: And your next project – are you working on something new?

GM: I am hoping to rest at the summer cottage for the next little while, but I do have an internet interactive ‘choose your own adventure movie labyrinth’ I am working on with the American poet John Ashbury, so I am hoping that will boil down into something interesting by the end of next year – it has to be done July 1st 2009. I think I have to make about 16 hours worth of filming, so I have to start up soon…

As part of the UK release, Soda Pictures is collaborating on a special short film competition – Your Winnipeg – a chance to document your own hometown. Chosen shorts will screened on 3 Minute Wonders on Channel 4 and be included on the UK DVD release of My Winnipeg. For more information visit: