If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
“I’m always dipping myself into our stuff and seeing what color I turn.”
In the films of Guy Maddin, fabulist par excellence, memories don’t just emerge or recede per usual—they gallivant, threatening to take whole works hostage, punctuating and/or mutating the frame with phantasmal surreptitiousness. Co-directed with Evan Johnson, his spellbinding new The Forbidden Room is disguisable for Maddin at his most Maddin-esque: the film is a whirligig cross-indexing of recreations of long-forgotten films (based entirely on their titles), bookended—to the extent such a term applies—by scenes from something called How To Take A Bath, written by the poet John Ashbery, as played by Maddin regular Louis Negin. Shrinking, blotching, and clarifying on a dime, the protoplasmic nature of Johnson and Maddin’s digitally mediated imagery is of a piece with The Forbidden Room’s amnesiac framing device, allowing for the abrogated mini-narratives to crumble and dissolve into one another like novellas with pages ripped out.
Lest I’m making The Forbidden Room sound like some kind of anti-structural exercise: the film is also really fun. Maddin and Johnson’s scenelets were performed and shot live at the Pomidou Centre in Paris, and the picture throbs with the excitement of on-the-spot creativity, thumbing its nose at earthly notions of verisimilitude and revealing new ingenuities in the construction of its every last scene and backdrop. Like many of Maddin’s works, Room is both a paean to a certain bygone cinema and a dissection of its vernacular, drawing sustenance (and a not-insubstantial number of belly laughs) from the limits and liberations of playing dress-up in front of a rear projection.
Playing at both the Toronto and New York film festivals, Room was guaranteed to make waves—but more surprising was Bring Me The Head of Tim Horton, directed by Maddin, Johnson, and the latter’s brother Galen. Inspired by Pere Portabella’s behind-the-scenes “cuadecuc” of Jess Franco’s Count Dracula, Head sees Maddin and the Johnsons aligning their gaze on Canadian filmmaker Paul Gross, shooting a perhaps-misbegotten Afghanistan War melodrama called Hyena Road in Jordan. Much of The Forbidden Room deals with being trapped in one’s own cyclical trauma and despair; and Bring Me The Head Of Tim Hortonindicates—alongside trenchant, almost Farockian observations about war, moviemaking, and problematic twenty-first-century lines of sight—that, for Maddin at least, hell might be other people’s movie sets.
Steve Macfarlane As you’re probably well aware, nobody can get enough of Bring Me The Head Of Tim Horton. I’m glad I had the chance to read a couple other interviews, so I can make this my first question: Were you guys invited to the premiere of Hyena Road?
Evan Johnson No. Well, I wasn’t—not at the Toronto International Film Festival anyway. Guy wasn’t in Toronto, and they spelled his name wrong in the thanks. I was invited to the premiere in Winnipeg, so the relationship is still good, right?
Guy Maddin Yep. Paul Gross and I met at some really extremely boring Canadian Broadcasting Corporation hearings, where a mutual acquaintance of ours was lobbying for a new TV network, and we were brought in as the token filmmaking talent.
SM As success stories?
GM (laughter) Yeah, and we failed!
EJ (laughter) “Success stories!”
SM Hey, we barely have any public arts funding in the States, after all.
GM I’ve been successfully breastfeeding from the taxpayer teat—the longest of all the Canadian filmmakers anyway. And when I met Paul Gross at those hearings we hit it off in that super-stifling, bureaucratic atmosphere, then I suggested, out of sheer jealousy at the size of his budgets, that maybe we could earn a few bucks, just to put some bread on the table, by shooting a “making-of.” He was up for it, because he’s crazy. He was like, “Y’know, my biggest fear is that we’re actually alike.” He’s always quipping and willing to fail, willing to go up there, swing for the fences and just strike out. I’m a guy who’s more likely to just slap out a batting average with no extra-base hits, but we’ve always got these things going.
So we hit it off, and he liked the idea of us doing this, though I think less as the opening night of Hyena Road came. That’s where our true differences came about. He has a huge military background; all I did was just play guns as a kid. We’re Canadian. We hadn’t been in a war until this involvement in Afghanistan. I’ve been a peacenik my whole life—a smug peacenik at that. He’s not. He’s something else. We’re different from each other.
EJ Oh, completely different. (laughter)
GM It finally came to a point, resembling a boil, toward the very day that Tim Horton came out. I think all is fine now—the boil burst, it’s all over.
SM The making-of begins and proceeds from a point of deep-seated professional jealousy. You’re on your back, in the desert, ruminating on the difference between the two budgets.
EJ And general hostility as well, not just jealousy. It was never going to work if we couldn’t sell an authentic hostility, and they knew that—that was the premise!
GM But he was good. He said I could wail away on him all I wanted.
EJ We maybe dove into that hostility more than was expected?
GM It was fine.
SM I was thinking more in terms of one working filmmaker assessing another’s budget. But that hostility, how staged was it? If you’re at liberty to—
GM No. Everything I whined about, those self-pitying laments, it’s all stuff I’ve said millions of times before. It was easy to write.
SM Can you talk a little bit about your foreknowledge, if any, of how Tim Horton was going be exhibited in Toronto? One of the pleasures and/or frustrations was its placement in the lobby at TIFF Lightbox; people were in and out, checking their phone or perusing a book from the gift shop. Did you know you’d be trading it in for a proper theatrical premiere?
EJ That’s a good thing. If you make a movie like that and there are people, members of the dreaded public, ignoring it, then that only makes hardcore cinephiles flock further to your corner.
SM As evidenced by my question starting this interview…
GM It was originally supposed to be a feature, so it would have had its own program slot. But the ungrateful bastards, Paul Gross and his producers, wouldn’t give us enough money from their own budget to make a feature. It became a short and, clearly, was to play in some short-film ghetto. So we chose, we lobbied for it to be played somewhere very few people would watch it from start to finish, but where, at least, people would be aware.
EJ It was easy. You didn’t have to line up.
GM And we’ve been sending links to everybody and his brother, too.
SM I had this vision of turning up at the exact moment the Lightbox first opened, like a Star Wars super-fan. I ended up watching a link. (laughter)
SM How did you two become such close collaborators? I’m not gonna lie—when I got my first Forbidden Room press release, and it said, “directed by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson” (somebody I had never heard of before), like a jerk, I thought: “Man, I hope Guy Maddin is okay.”
GM (laughter) Oh yeah, it’s like Antonioni’s co-director—you know, somebody to dab away the spittle from my mouth.
SM Evan, my sources at IMDB tell me you were a camera operator on My Winnipeg?
EJ I was that, yeah. I did odd jobs.
GM You shot some of this tribute to Jack Smith we just made.
EJ I was DOP on that. I took out your garbage when you went away on trips or forgot. I alphabetized your books once, and your movies… eventually I was ghost writing for you. When we started the project that became The Forbidden Room I was doing research. Then we were just writing scripts together. It’s been so long that I worked my way up—or maybe laterally.
GM I wanted to make this Internet project, which is still happening. It’s a companion piece to this movie.
GM Yep. And because I liked Evan, and he’s bright, I asked him to be my research assistant. We sat in a room, very similar to this, just discussing the project, and it became clear he had really great ideas, conceptual ideas. So pretty soon we were just co-creating it. Then, when it became apparent the only way to fund an Internet project would be to make a feature, we just did it together.
SM I didn’t know Seances came first.
GM There’s a tendency for people to think of websites as promotional tools, strictly, for a feature. It would be just as glib to think the other way around—in this case, that the feature is just to promote the site. It’s not. They’re just companion pieces. Every funding body in Canada is keen to get behind new media, but at many decimal places less. It was actually Niv Fichman, the producer of Hyena Road, who suggested making a feature.
At first, we really balked at it, then we thrilled to the idea that this would finally give us the opportunity to borrow, roughly, the structural models that excited us so much in Raymond Roussel, the French writer who loved to nest stories within stories within stories, to a sort of brain-breaking degree. So we proceeded quickly.
SM The Forbidden Room’s bookending “How To Take A Bath” passages with John Ashbery are inspired by a lost short film by Dwayne Esper. A lot of your work riffs on movie titles (often literally, just the titles) that are lost to the ages. Did he write his own material? Did you write it, then ask him to embody it? What was your collaboration like?
GM When I invited Ashbery to write some script material for us, he wasn’t sure what that meant. I just sent him a big list of all the lost movies we were hoping to adapt and shoot. He chose one and wrote it. I was hoping he’d take twenty and write twenty scripts. But he said the title appealed to him for whatever reason, sent us the monologue, and we shot it. He had 100% freedom to do whatever he wanted. He could’ve done a silent movie.
SM So he’s the only one who had carte blanche, correct? The rest of the nesting stories, that’s all you two?
EJ He just wrote the one.
GM He’s the only writing credit. The other screenplays are written by Evan, myself, and Bob Kotyk.
SM Since you were shooting these live at the Centre Pompidou, how did your live audience know about the relationship between what they saw there and the final film? Or was there no prompting of any kind?
GM We shot these films live, in eighteen days—one film per day. Did we not at least put a label up, some wall text, with the name of the movie we were invoking that day?
EJ Nobody knew what it was going to look like. Even we didn’t know.
GM They just watched with a naked eye.
EJ The only compromise we made with the audience was when we shot what would normally be green-screen effects. We shot them as live, rear-projected effects. That’s part of the showmanship of it, and we like that; it hamstrings you in an interesting way when you can’t just fix a background in post. We had a lot of complicated shooting with that, a lot of on-set chaos.
GM Lots of delays. It was very easy to tell if the audience was interested or not; sometimes you’d look over and there’d be no one watching, then you’d look and there’d be a hundred people watching. We had one person who came to watch, a really scary guy—sort like John Wayne Gacy in full clown makeup.
SM He was there every day? Like the weeping dude in the Marina Abramovic show at MoMA?
GM He frequented the Pompidou, yeah.
EJ All day, every day.
GM I never cease marveling at this because it became such a part of things, but the actors, the public, the crew, the director were all using the same bathroom. It was very cruise-y, very interactive. (laughter) All sorts of marshland mating rituals audible from various segments of that basement. It was something.
SM That seems… confidence restoring.
EJ Well, some people walked out there just ashen-faced, confidence shattered.
GM I thought it would be hard to talk the actors into participating because they’re acting in public. Their outtakes, their flubbed performances, would be seen by all. Not only that, since some of the public viewed from above, leaning over railings, pieces of baguettes and cigarette butts and things would fall into the set. We tried keeping them in the shots whenever possible. But then there was that extra interactivity in the lavatories. It was moreso than theater—something out of Victor Hugo, or something.
SM Neither one, nor the other, but both. What was The Forbidden Room’s budget?
GM I don’t even know. It’s hard because it’s Canadian dollars, for one thing. How about a million bucks, something like that?
EJ Maybe roughly? We don’t really know because the budget of the entire project, which includes Seances and a lot of other material is a little bit over that figure.
SM You shot digitally, then you, Evan, were responsible for the warps and emulsions?
EJ Me and my brother Galen, yeah.
GM Their job was also to talk me out of the suicidal depression that raw video put me into.
EJ While shooting I was just lying through my teeth, saying, “Oh, I know how to fix this footage!”
SM That’s how you learn, right?
EJ That’s how my whole life has been—making promises that I can’t keep, but have to anyway!
SM Guy, I’ve read a number of reviews and interviews published about your earlier work; one does, from time to time, encounter words like “pastiche” and “homage.” I wouldn’t describe it that way personally, but Forbidden Room is steeped in old filmmaking vernaculars, the construction of sets, costumes, styles of acting and camerawork—and yet, the emulsions, the warping, mutating imagery is strictly twenty-first century. You don’t seem to be hiding.
GM One foot in the digital world, one foot in emulsion.
SM And I know you’re not precious about film, which is a surprise to some people.
GM I’m happy to work in digital.
SM So, tell me a little bit more about being one foot in, one foot out?
EJ To me, the analogy was always Guy’s obsession with “part-talkies.”
GM Films that existed for, like, three months.
EJ They began production in 1928 or 1929, or thereabouts. They were shot as silent films, but then talking pictures became a big thing, so they suddenly got to add scenes with dialogue. I guess my favorite example is DeMille’s The Godless Girl, which is an unbelievably gorgeous silent film, then there’s a four-minute scene at the end that is ugly as all hell. It’s a talkie, suddenly.
GM Well, that movie’s storylines get wrapped up very satisfactory like, then the four main actors get together and just talk.
EJ They stand there in an ugly looking frame and talk into a plant, because it has the microphone in it.
GM I love that!
EJ And then there are others: Hitchcock’s Blackmail was shot in both silent and sound versions.
I guess it’s semi-rare for a movie today, during the film-to-digital transition, to be made in both media. It’s probably been done a bunch of times. We just wanted to make a confusing mixture.
GM On the “pastiche” subject, which is semi-related, I didn’t actually know what it was. I had to look it up in the dictionary.
EJ It sounds like a delicious pastry.
GM Maybe, in a paste-form.
Anyway: It wasn’t what I thought I was doing. I had always rationalized that, in its industrial haste, the art of film—moving steadily along, because it’s part carny sideshow, part art form, part just product—still had all sorts of perfectly working, yet-unexhausted vocabulary units being tossed overboard while things sped down the road of film history. Why not cobble them together the way you would a collage? I was learning to make films the way the film industry was, so I thought, “Maybe I’ll dust these off why I’m figuring out what goes into making a film.” I was trying to figure out film from the inside, while making it, and so I found it comforting to start at the beginning, with film as fairy tale, as some kind of painful allegory, and just use these units to build up very simple stories. Due to my ineptitude as a storyteller, they often just collapsed under their own weight, into non-narrative—
SM They seem pretty narrative to me.
GM My biggest fans often say, “I love your movies, they’re so non-narrative.” But, thank you.
SM Also, isn’t pastiche just the “dis” version of collage?
SM Your work seems to locate the weird interiority embedded within older forms—the “units,” to use your phrase—that weren’t even talked about when these movies were released.
GM I could just deploy them in service to my contemporary issues. (laughter)
SM To apply a false dichotomy: Forbidden Room seems more fun-minded, less trauma-minded, than some of your earlier works. Perhaps less autobiographical than the other features? Is the fun in the formal challenge?
GM I don’t know if anything is fun formally. (laughter) My autobiographical elements are buried a little deeper.
EJ They’re in there.
GM But they’re in there because I just use my own personal experiences all the time. I’m always dipping myself into our stuff and seeing what color I turn. But there was something fun about the manic quality in the shoot. We had very strict time limits; we’re in public, where people are coming and going. It’s kind of nuts. There were no rehearsals. Some of the French actors didn’t speak a word of English and had to memorize lines phonetically.
SM Fahrenheit 451 style.
GM Right—and I only speak English, but I made a promise to myself not to speak it on set. So I fell back on my high school Latin, just to keep that promise. And a little bit of German and Quebecois, just to get the message across. I swear I just left the language—that pure, beautiful French—just sort of trembling and traumatized, weeping in a shower when I got home after the shoot.
SM I’ve read some of your published diaries and watched Noam Gonick’s documentary Waiting For Twilight.
GM I’ve never seen it.
SM Oh. Well, from those two sources, I guess what struck me was—
GM Enough self-pity for ya?
SM Has it become easier for you to make these movies? Emotionally? Mentally?
GM I didn’t quite know what I was doing then. I was just having pure fun, getting high off textures. I was trying to tell stories that didn’t mean much to me in the early going. Twilight of the Ice Nymphs meant nothing to me. And still means nothing.
I turned a corner in the twenty-first century. I started to read Euripides, recognizing myself in 2500-year-old texts—things like that. I just got a foot in the door of personal storytelling, so I’m really enthusiastic about it now. And it is easier. I know the kinds of challenges I want to set for myself. Our next project, in abstract terms, not knowing the details yet, sets the goal of describing one another. We don’t know who’s in it or what it’s going look like, but we’re excited. We’ll draw on my festering, open wounds if necessary—or, at least, until Evan finally gets one.
The Forbidden Room is currently playing at Film Forum in New York through October 20, 2015.
Steve Macfarlane is a writer, programmer, and filmmaker from Seattle, Washington. A head programmer at Spectacle in Williamsburg, his writing has appeared in publications including Slant, The L, and The Brooklyn Rail.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.