Guy Maddin is not your everyday director. Over the last twenty years, he's made a name for himself with his beautifully hazy black and white shorts and features, from the docufantasia wonder of My Winnipeg to the hops-filled thrills of Isabella Rossellini and The Saddest Music in the World. These projects have inspired many to call him the Canadian David Lynch, but while the two create rich fantasies for their films to thrive in, Maddin's always have a clear-cut narrative. The path might be surreal, strange, and utterly fantastical, but it's also easily understandable. With his latest, Night Mayor, Maddin turned an ode for the NFB's 70th anniversary into the tale of an immigrant who harnesses the power of the aurora borealis to help teach Canadians their national identity.
During TIFF, Cinematical had a chance to talk to the filmmaker about how Night Mayor came to be, Maddin's cinematic process, the magic of collaboration, and his next project (a choose-your-own adventure!). On top of more timely chatter, Guy also took a moment to share the story behind Sissy Boy Slap Party (my favorite guilty pleasure), and how a moment of spite turned into a memorable short.
Cinematical: How did the NFB approach you for this project?
Guy Maddin: They just gave me a call and asked if I would like to pay tribute to the NFB's 70th birthday with a short film. I had to say yes, even though I didn't really feel like making a short at the time. But I was so tremendously honored because the NFB is so important, and venerable, and old. I had to recover from the sudden onset of goose flesh and say yes.
I love getting what I consider assignments. It's so flattering that someone thinks you're the right person for the job. And maybe they've arrived at the decision through some very contentious debate. I just want to prove the doubters wrong, and prove my own supporters right. I don't want to let anyone down, so I really try hard to get it right. I get to send cuts to people, and versions and scripts and things until we all agree that it's okay. I don't like trying to sneak things by anybody. When it comes from me, it usually has a lot of me in it already. I'm not so special a person that the things that interest me couldn't possibly interest anybody else, so it's just a matter of finding something that I like that intersects with what my commissioners like.
Cinematical: Since you work is so autobiographical, how do you take an assignment and make it your own?
Maddin: I've just learned, through painful trial and error a long time ago, that it has to be done my way or I'll do a very poor job. For short films -- I don't know if this is smart or not -- I go with my first impulse. I can never get rid of it, except by executing it. The first impulse that came to mind was this recent arrival to Canada, who attempts to help Canadians understand who they are. I knew I had to go with something like that. It was a little echo of what the NFB itself is. I knew it would just be a matter of massaging that into a state that everyone was happy with.
Cinematical: Since Night Mayor isn't scripted, do you shoot a lot of possibilities and weed through them to make the final whole, or is there still a set path?
Maddin: Since the NFB's tradition is the documentary film, I thought it would be apt if I just came up with an idea for a character and situation, and then charged my performers and set designers with the implementation. I showed up on set, like a documentarian, and made them stay in character all the time. I had my production designers show my actors how to work the machinery, and what to do, then I just filmed them going about a work day, the way a documentary filmmaker might. It made the writing very easy, since there wasn't any. It made shooting it very easy, because I just got a lot of coverage. They say that documentaries are made in the editing room, that the subject of the documentary is discovered in the editing room even, so I was willing for that to happen.The hardest work was in post-production, just like all NFB films.
Cinematical: You mentioned your set designers. There are certain pieces of Canadiana in the film, but also grand and intricate machinery. How are these imagined and created? Are you involved in the process?
Maddin: I gave my production designer, Ricardo Alms, a few suggestions, sketches and photographs. Then he uses his strange way of looking at the world. I think he wears prismatic glasses or something, I don't know. He intentionally mis-communicates with himself until he creates something far more interesting than I could ever imagine. It was getting so he was coming dangerously close to writing a script for the movie, because a lot of his ideas and designs open up specific situations, like capturing the aurora borealis' energy and turning it into music -- things like that. He did a lot of research on it, and it was getting to the point where I was going to have to credit him as screenwriter.
I happily would have, but I think the Writer's Guild would have prohibited it. It's too bad. It's my only complaint about working with the NFB -- which is marvelous -- they really obey all the rules about end credits and things like that. I would've given writing credits to my production designer instead, and maybe even a co-directing credit as well, because at one point I just put him in a costume and put him on set to make sure that everybody was operating the machinery properly. So he's in the movie a little bit. But alas, I couldn't do that without giving him a writer's contract and writer's salary, and it would've thrown the budget out.
When I first started out, it was exciting to be working absolutely alone, with people who were keen to help me. But they were kept in the dark about what I was doing because whenever I tried to explain it, I could see people's eyes rolling, and people considered me a nutbar. But now I have a very small coterie of very imaginative helpers that I love collaborating with, and embracing the collaborative nature of it. So when I'm having a lazy day, I can just go: "Ah, you do it. I don't have a thought in my head today." So I have Ben Kasulke, the man who shoots for me now and then, because I like to shoot about half the time, and I have Ricardo, plus a composer and my editor. I have those people who are really important to me, and I sort of know when they do things better than I do anyway. I try to rationalize it like we're a baseball team. We can't all bat at once. Time for the clean-up hitter to come in now -- the editor. I'm just going to sit in the dugout and chew sunflower seeds.
Cinematical: I find it so interesting that your work has so much of yourself in it, yet you often talk about amnesia as a coping device. How do these two co-exist?
Maddin: I am an amnesiac. Never is that more apparent to me than at TIFF, when I meet people I think I've even slept with, whose faces seem only dimly familiar. But maybe that's a common feeling at TIFF, I don't know. I just try to use amnesia as my friend. I knew right from day one that I would never be technically polished, in a conventional Hollywood sense. I knew I couldn't afford the pointless energy expense on continuity. So it would just be best to sort of mist everything with a great big waft of forgetfulness, because you need to have a memory to notice continuity errors. I thought it would be better if everyone was deliriously just barely remembering, even while experiencing my films. I've tried to spackle everything over with a thick layer of forgetfulness.
Cinematical: Do you strive to remember, or just to revel in your forgetfulness?
Maddin: I really like the feeling of suddenly rediscovering memories. I think I'm trying -- and maybe completely failing -- to pave very stereotyped human emotions, the kind that are dealt with again and again in fairy tales, and pave them over with dreamy, sleepy forgetfulness. Every now and then, just from sheer ineptitude, I'll treat something too clearly. Maybe a memory a viewer can identify with might just poke through suddenly, a jagged, rocky outcropping on a cloud-cloaked peak. And people will see this peak, and see themselves perched on it before everything's swallowed up by a foggy oblivion again.
Cinematical: In the credits, you have Jenny Redzetodic listed as one of the narrators, and she sounds an awful lot like Isabella Rossellini.
Maddin: Yeah, that was totally unintentional. It's not like I replaced Isabella with a Winnipeg version of her. I was just using real, Bosnian immigrants. Originally Nihad Ademi had narrated the thing from start to finish, then I thought we needed a couple other voices in there. It never occurred to me that a Bosnian would sound like a Swedish Italian. But the effect reminds me of the old Hollywood practice of using a foreigner to play any foreigner -- the way Ingrid Bergman, herself a Swede, played a German in Notorious.
Cinematical: What are you working on now? Any features?
Maddin: I'd like to do something a little bit different. I'm probably making ... it's still in its first trimester, but it's kind of an Internet, interactive choose-your-own adventure movie labyrinth. I have a title for it: Keyhole, or The Naked Ghost. And I want it to have a gallery component as well -- an installation. So we'll see. I want to make that this winter.
Cinematical: Will that have any of the live performance aspects that your recent features have?
Maddin: I love the terror that the live performance brings to me, and the relief after each performance, which makes the beer taste so great. I like being a showman. I like making the film as a filmmaker, which means you've got to please yourself, and then presenting as a showman, which means you have to please your audience.
As things wrapped up, we talked about how Sissy Boy Slap Party came to be...
Maddin: I made it out of spite. I had just finished The Saddest Music in the World, and I was exhausted. But I timed all my energy to last until the film was finished. Then Niv Fichman, after signing a distribution deal with IFC, promised them that I would make a whole bunch of short movies, using the same characters and the same universe. I said "Niv, this is a great promotional idea, but couldn't we have planned this earlier? It's just ... sorry for the insult to maternity, but I've just given birth to this movie and I feel like what you're doing is asking a woman whose just given birth to a baby to give birth to a few more tiny babies. I'm spent. I don't have it."
He really insisted, and he was getting quite angry, because this was such a good idea for promoting the movie. The angrier he got, the angrier I got, and I finally said: "Okay, I'll make you movies. I'll make you Sissy Boy Slap Party! It'll just be a bunch of boys slapping themselves silly, until someone finally parks a bicycle in the up-turned buttocks of one of them, and see how you like that!" I thought of some other flippant titles, and I made it out of spite just to annoy him. Unfortunately he loved it. Damnit.