You’ll never mistake a Guy Maddin film for the work of another director. His style is so unique and consistent that—with only six feature films under his belt—he’s carved out a niche solely his own. Nostalgic, melodramatic and heavily influenced by silent films, his movies have gained a rabid following among cinephiles over the last few years. And now, with the DVD release of the more accessible The Saddest Music in the World, he’s ready to expand his audience.
Maddin didn’t start making movies until he was 30. “That seemed really late to me,” he says, “since every independent director I knew had been making films since the age of 12.” When Paste caught up with Maddin in December, he’d just returned from a whirlwind promotional tour that took him across the U.S. and Europe. After a week in Paris, he came back to Toronto where he’d been teaching a college class. Though jet-lagged and exhausted from grading papers, he was ready to discuss his career and where it might be heading.
Maddin arrived on the scene in 1988 with Tales from the Gimli Hospital. In 1990 Archangel followed, as well as Careful in ’92. These early films are an acquired taste. Of Archangel, Maddin admits, “I watched it once after ten years, and I couldn’t follow it. [But] I’ve actually had a chance to go back and do the cut of Archangel the way I always wanted to. For the DVD release, I was able to insert the 30 original intertitle cards that I had shot but had never had the money to put in. Those clarify everything.”
Maddin explains the inaccessibility of certain films he’s made in terms of his relative isolation in the Canadian city of Winnipeg. “It was so hard in my earliest years to find someone to watch my movies to get any feedback,” he says. “The environment in Winnipeg was so hostile to the films I was making. If I showed one of my first three films for feedback, they’d say ‘You shoulda made it in color’ or ‘You’ve got a continuity problem there’ or some f---ing infuriating, useless piece of moronic feedback. I was literally forced—you can tell I’m still hostile about it—to make these movies in utter privacy. I had to keep my editing door locked because people would come by and say, ‘Geez, what’s that? There’s some bad continuity.’ These continuity watchdogs.”
All of this changed in 2000. More than most directors, Maddin enjoys making short films, and when “The Heart of the World” was shown at the 2000 Toronto Film Festival many film critics took notice. Maddin followed in 2002 with the rapturously beautiful Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary. Based on a production by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the movie is a re-creation of that ballet from a cinematic perspective. Mostly shot in black and white, with a few metaphorical dashes of color, the film revels in its gorgeous soundtrack and hypnotic dancing. Maddin’s decision to render all the dialogue in intertitles (a la silent film) adds an appropriately otherworldly element. The Dracula story has never looked so elegant.
In 2003 Maddin made another virtually silent movie, Cowards Bend the Knee. While the soundtrack is full of music and sound effects, the minimal dialogue is printed, not spoken. Though Maddin claimed this was a more accessible work than his earlier films, its odd narrative—about a hockey player named Guy Maddin, a bordello/abortion clinic and severed blue hands—certainly wasn’t for all tastes.
“I didn’t actually know much about silent movies when I started,” he says. “I was more influenced, I think, by Luis Buñuel. But as I developed my style, I realized that there were certain aspects of my films that echoed silent cinema. So I figured I should start watching these old silent movies. Of course, I wasn’t seeing beautiful prints. I was watching these musty, old prints that were almost falling apart. But that’s part of what I liked about them, the nostalgia that comes from watching something old and decaying.”
This aspect of decay is a central element in Maddin’s work. It’s not just the intertitles and black-and-white photography of silent cinema he appreciates. He’s also fond of the flickering cinematography, the over-exposed lighting, the herky-jerky editing, and the radial fade-to-black. Maddin filmed Cowards in grainy Super-8 and then dirtied the footage to make it seem even older. The stories of his movies often involve bodies in disrepair. In The Saddest Music in the World, a beautiful amputee (played by Isabella Rossellini) uses beer-filled glass for her prosthetic legs, glass that could conceivably crack in cold weather.
This might not sound accessible, but The Saddest Music in the World is practically a Hollywood movie by Maddin’s standards. It tells the story of a strange contest held in Winnipeg to discover the saddest music in the world. Interspersed with various musical numbers is a love triangle involving the beautiful Rossellini and an old flame who’s also trying to win the contest.
“My producer approached me and said he had this script by Kazuo Ishiguro,” says Maddin, “and he said there was no reason this couldn’t reach a lot more people if my script were more accessible. And I wouldn’t let him say anything else because I couldn’t agree more. I had been saying the same thing to myself for years. I finally figured out how to tell a story and not lose 80 percent of the people.”
It helps that the movie stars Rossellini (who was cast in a ten-minute phone call) and Mark McKinney (of Kids in the Hall fame). Audiences are more willing to follow an unusual narrative if they can identify with the primary characters, and familiarity is always an advantage. Furthermore, Maddin was aided by his old friend Ross McMillan. “He helped me direct the movie,” Maddin says. “He’s not credited, but he was unofficially a dramaturge. He ran rehearsals for me in my absence. He met with McKinney and Rossellini to rehearse in her apartment about a week before the movie. It felt nice to have them arrive camera-ready, not the usual arrangement where actors arrive and are woefully unprepared. Everyone was really keen, too, to give the project their all.”
That enthusiasm was critical as the movie was filmed in an unheated steel factory in the middle of one of the coldest winters in Winnipeg history. “Seasonal affective disorder was rampant during the shooting. It was literally 40 below, sometimes 45 below, indoors on this cold concrete and steel floor and without sunshine. Every once in a while, a pigeon would freeze to death and drop from the rafters. One landed on Isabella’s lap once during a scene. And we’d have love scenes at 40 below. We brought in flame throwers, but they made no difference.”
Maddin has shot all of his films in Winnipeg, though he’s somewhat ambivalent about being called a Canadian filmmaker. “I’ll tell you what kind of filmmaker I am. I’m one that’s watched a lot of American films and a lot of American television my whole life. And I’ve watched films from all decades. I love the charisma and forward propulsion of most American movies. But I have one foot in the old world as well. Jim Hoberman of the Village Voice recently called me—and I’ll take it as a great compliment because it’s the position I want to be in—the most experimental mainstream filmmaker or the most mainstream experimental film-maker. To be halfway between the two fields feels good to me, because that acknowledges that I’m accessible if people can find me.”
With the success of The Saddest Music in the World, Maddin now has even more opportunities to reach a larger audience. “I’m thinking of making a contemporary horror film. I want to come up with something that’s really atmospheric but doesn’t necessarily have my DNA in it. If that works, I can go on doing that. But if not, people can say I should go back to what I do best, which I’d be happy to do.
“I have a great opportunity to build on a lot of good will and trust, but people love to yank that away from you if you make the wrong move. If film were just an art form, I’d be happy to do movies along personal lines and what interests me. But I have to consider whether I’d be allowed to continue making films if I did that. I’d love to have a three-pronged career, like a fork. One prong would be to make movies with bigger and bigger budgets, one would be to make personal films with ever smaller budgets, and the third would be to make short films, which I love doing.”