Guy Maddin Talks! Part 5: Through the Keyhole and Settling the Score with Gimli
The final installment of our epic conversation with Guy Maddin.
Two weeks prior to the premiere of Guy Maddin’s ninth feature-length concoction at the Toronto International Film Festival, Fandor co-founder and executive Jonathan Marlow spoke with the inimitable director about his gangsters-in-a-haunted-house Keyhole and a handful of other nefarious topics. The conversation occurred on the eve of his departure to upstate New York for a week-long residency to craft a new score for Tales from the Gimli Hospital. Which, over the course of a half-hour discussion, takes us from his earliest work across more than two decades (and more than two dozen short films) to his latest film.
Keyframe: Why Gimli?
Maddin: It was a chance to re-contextualize it. It’s called Gimli Hospital Reframed and it’s being presented with live music and live narration as part of the Performa Arts Festival in New York in November. The new score changes it completely. The actual sync-sound voices have been replaced with Udo Kier narrating and Kristín Anna Valtysdóttir, one of the [former] singers of the Icelandic group Múm. There’s more meta-narration going on. It still needs some work so we’re all retiring to a residency of sorts to work on it.
WATCH GUY MADDIN’S FIRST INDEPENDENT FEATURE FILM TALES FROM THE GIMLI HOSPITAL ON FANDOR:
Keyframe: All of that will only take a week?
Maddin: Supposedly. We’ve already had one performance. It was supposed to be completed in April for a screening in Ottawa. But the composer announced to me, “Don’t worry, the score isn’t finished. This will be just like a rough draft for New York.” I’m thinking, “This is playing in Canada’s National Arts Centre! Thanks for telling me now that we’re presenting a rough draft.”
Keyframe: Are you going to roadshow it?
Maddin: We’re trying to design it to travel economically so that we can make the Cleveland-Hartford rubber chicken circuit.
Keyframe: In a sense, it is related to Brand Upon the Brain!
Maddin: It’s a real continuation of that. I didn’t want to just repeat the same thing, though. In Ottawa, I even added additional projections. And I also took a so-called deleted scene that I shot in 1999, about eleven years after filming…
Keyframe: Hospital Fragment.
Maddin: …and I found a place for it in the movie that’s just perfect. I put it inside the Punch and Judy puppet show as a kind of hallucination or anesthetic dream. Since the anesthetic is the puppet show it makes sense that a narrative anesthetic would produce more narrative. So I just embedded it in there. It’s just sort of presciently shows some of the love relationships and the homoeroticism in a little nightmarish glimpse that becomes true later in the film. It was something that I shot flippantly but I guess I’ve just got so much Gimli in my blood that it ended up making sense being in the movie after all. I remember felling mischievous calling it a deleted scene since there was no possible place for it in the movie. But all I had to do was think for about thirty seconds and there is. There’s an obvious place! It’s nice. I feel better. With the additional voices, I think that I can say a bit more about the narrative process. The narrative within the narrative within the narrative in which we all live our lives.
WATCH GUY MADDIN’S SHORT FILM HOSPITAL FRAGMENT ON FANDOR:
Keyframe: You opted against using Brent Neale to do his own voice?
Maddin: No. It’s going to be all Udo and Kristín and maybe her twin sister Gyda. Or maybe Hildur Gudnadóttir. Or Maria Flapadapadóttir or whatever they’re called.
Keyframe: At least one of the …dóttirs, at any rate. I ask because I noticed that he [Brent Neale] is in Keyhole. A bridge to the past.
Maddin: I try to use him in everything. It used to be my uncle Ron [Ronald Eyolfson] who was in the most of my movies but now it’s Brent. Have I sent you my latest short movies? Like Glorious and The Little White Cloud That Cried?
Keyframe: I’ve seen them! With these latest shorts and the Lightbox installation last year, it seems that you’re more productive than ever. I remember [cinematographer] Ben Kasulke had a short commissioned by Andy Spletzer [part of the Spletz-O-Rama Invitational at Local Sightings] that he shot on the set of Glorious, made concurrently with the feature. Keyhole had been a long process for you.
Maddin: It sure has. It’s funny. My projects either take a remarkably little amount of time or, sometimes, I really like to digest things for a while. For my movie Brand Upon the Brain!, the script was written and I was up [in Seattle] shooting within three or four weeks from getting the invitation to come shoot. Whereas my movie Cowards Bend the Knee, which is a similarly autobiographical silent film, I spent a year writing the script. I just talked it over with my Shakespearean professor friend (and swimming partner) Steve Snyder. We’d just sort of dogpaddle with dry hair around a pool for an hour every day and just talk about the thing. So it really got digested and compacted down to one hour. There’s a lot of plot in that movie!
WATCH GUY MADDIN’S SILENT MOVIE MASTERPIECE COWARDS BEND THE KNEE ON FANDOR
Keyhole was kind of the same thing. I knew that I wanted to make a movie about a home because I’d been haunted by architecture and houses… and haunted houses. I think that I was haunting the houses myself! I was literally haunting them. But I liked the feeling these “house dreams” produced in me. I realized that everybody must be haunted or pleasured by return visits to special places in their dream lives or their daydreaming lives. I thought I really wanted to make a movie about that. But I knew that it would be complicated. I knew that just making an autobiography of a house wouldn’t be any simple matter. I would need to trick viewers into digesting my reveries by framing everything with a plot. I’d really wanted to make a film of Gaston Bachelard’s “Poetics of Space” [“La poétique de l’espace”], a 1950s French Pop phenomenology or philosophy book that really strongly and beautifully but densely considers what every space in a house can mean. An attic, a closet, the space under the stairs, a basement, a little nook under the kitchen sink and the comfort that it gives. What a home means. The same author was writing “The Poetics of Reverie” [“La poétique de la reverie”] and “The Psychoanalysis of Fire” [“La psychanalyse du feu”]. He’s always thinking of things from a different angle without anthropomorphizing anything. He’s got a great way of thinking. So I thought I’d tackle the impossible and do a film adaption of his book. Well, what I ended up with was nothing of the sort. I spent a couple of years trying to get things down, filling a number of Moleskine notebooks cover-to-cover, hundreds of pages of notes and quotes from books and middle-of-the-night notions and things like that. I ended up settling on just stealing an ancient plot structure that really served the movie well. I decided to take the basic structure of “The Odyssey.”
I’m finally getting old enough when I can reconsider John Ford or Frank Capra remaking some of my earlier movies. I started to think of The Dead Father when I was reading “The Odyssey,” the oldest long narrative that literary history possesses.
WATCH GUY MADDIN’S EARLY SHORT FILM THE DEAD FATHER ON FANDOR:
I realized that “The Odyssey” is just a dead father narrative. Odysseus has been missing from his home for nineteen years. No one knows where he is. His wife Penelope and his son Telemachus are sure he’s still alive. Their hope that he’s still alive is tantamount to the dream of returning. The entire odyssey of Odysseus is the crossing of the seas and dealing with many setbacks and adventures along the way but finally making it back to his wife and son. A son who doesn’t even remember him or recognize him.
Keyframe: Which you flip in Keyhole.
Maddin: Telemachus was an infant when he left. Odysseus makes it all the way back to his marriage bed. A super solid marriage bed that was built on top of the biggest, sturdiest oak tree in his country, with a house built around the bed. He finally gets back home and his wife doesn’t even recognize him. Rather than filming a crossing of the seven seas or anything, I thought it would be interesting if a father just returned home through the back door as usual—just like my father every night after work—and spent the entire duration of a movie making his odyssey indoors. Just from the back door, up the stairs and into the marriage bedroom. And that his son might help him or observe him or love him. So it’s an indoor adaptation of “The Odyssey,” but very rough, very loose. Just something to give me courage. Probably just about every third movie made is “The Odyssey.” I was watching The Wizard of Oz last night and there are elements of it in there.
Keyframe: Or Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
Maddin: Yeah, yeah! It’s a great, flexible narrative to start off with but it also enabled me to play with my own obsessions.
Keyframe: It’s almost as if you’ve taken “The Odyssey” and filtered it through Nicholson Baker’s “The Mezzanine.”
Maddin: I love that book.
Keyframe: Everything reduced to such a small…
Maddin: I wish that I was able to get it that small! It makes sense, though, that when one loves a house, they love every molecule of it. They love the grooves on the insides of the vinyl records in their collection. They love a little corner of a cup or the holes in a salt shaker or the sound two ceramic cups make when they grind against each other. My childhood house, which I revisited around the making of My Winnipeg, had a little wolf’s head-shaped dent in the plaster just about the vent in the bathroom which you could see only when you were sitting on the toilet. When you add up the time I spent in the bathroom—many hours, if not months—staring at that little wolf’s head… Once I had permission to revisit my childhood home, the first thing that I did when I got in the door was to run up and revisit that washroom to see if that little wolf’s head was still there. To see if it hadn’t been plastered over.
Maddin: It was still there! It was so nice. Maybe the new Guy Maddin… he’s the same age as me. He’s from My Lai and he been sleeping in my old bedroom for the last few decades. Maybe he sits on that same toilet and looks at a wolf’s head every morning.
Keyframe: Has your process working with George Toles changed over the years? On Keyhole, for instance, compared to Careful?
Maddin: It changes a little bit with each project. Sometimes he wants to be the sole screenwriter and he comes back with a project. I have trouble getting into those. I like being there along the way so that I can steer it away from the purely verbal, peppering the movie with pantomime scenes to give the ear a rest or just to mainly get things in that I care about. Lots of times he’s putting things in that he cares about but I don’t understand them so I don’t serve them well. And then no one wins. But it’s been a tug-of-war all along. We’re both keen to get our things up there. And often he writes the script in such a way that it’s one big organ. If you try to remove one scene, the whole thing dies. He’s kind of tricky that way. On this one, I wrote a very elaborate treatment with a lot of obsessions and gave them to him and got him to supply dialogue. I just don’t like writing dialogue, that’s all.
Keyframe: You work with actors who can do quite a lot with good dialogue. I imagine working with Udo Kier was quite pleasurable for you.
Maddin: Yeah. And Udo loves George’s writing and asked George to write a speech just for him in the movie. He realized that his part was a bit thin and he was right. It was a shame to be so lucky to get Udo Kier and then not have as much for him as we should’ve. Even though I was desperately trying to shorten the movie at the time, I had George come down to Bar Italia in Winnipeg to meet-up with a post-day’s-work Udo, all hyper and sauced-up, and write a speech right on the spot. It was quite nice and it appears in the movie. It’s really beautiful. It’s my favorite part of the movie, actually. Jason Patric also knows how to read George’s dialogue, which is really quite mannered. It definitely gives a nod to ancient writing. It’s like a translation of ancient writing. Jason Patric can read those lines naturally. Udo gives a naturalism to them as well. An articulate naturalism. Whereas less experienced actors, when they read the lines, come of as confidently mannered. I really envy his style of dialogue. I know, when I first started, no one watching my movies had the confidence that I was doing this stuff on purpose. But they know now that I am. The performances tend to be uneven throughout a film because I get my actors from all over the place: professional athletes, dancers, actors, pals, guys from the 7-11…
Maddin: …all acting in the same movie. The singular way that George stylizes his dialogue somehow puts everyone in the same movie. For Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini and Udo Kier to all appear in the same movie and they all keep their dignity is an unlikely occurrence. But it happened. I’m very pleased with the performances and I’m not a guy famous for the performances in his films, that’s for sure.
Keyframe: Was it always your hope to premiere the film in Toronto?
Maddin: I think so. Every now and then, I daydream about Cannes. Venice has always been nice to me. But TIFF, ultimately, is like an extension of my living room. I know so many people—both in Toronto but also in the actual TIFF front office—that’ve been so good to me. It feels better having the premiere there. I think it helps me more, too. The press that show up in Toronto, as opposed to Cannes, are my people.
Keyframe: It’s always a challenge at Cannes. Your film screens [at the Palais] and you’re the most important story around and, a few hours later, you’re yesterday’s news.
Maddin: Yeah, I know. TIFF has actually started something they call a “boot camp” for first-time attendees. They actually tell them what to expect from the film festival. God, I wish I’d had that the first time I went to the festival because nothing can prepare you. It seemed like nothing did prepare me for the emotional plummet I experienced after one of my films played at TIFF. I felt so lonely. I expected the attention to keep up. I expected more attention in the first place!
Keyframe: What was the first film of yours to screen there? Archangel?
Maddin: Just my short film, The Dead Father. But not Tales from the Gimli Hospital. I’d never been to a film festival and I literally expected paparazzi to be meeting me on the tarmac as soon as I got off the airplane to talk to me about The Dead Father…
Keyframe: a la 8 1/2.
Maddin: When no one talked to me about the film before, during or after… except for a few relatives that showed up, but even they—perhaps out of embarrassment for me—didn’t talk after the film. I experienced quite a crash.
Keyframe: How was it presented? Did they pair it with another film?
Maddin: They paired it with a Bruce McDonald feature [Knock! Knock!, evidently].
Keyframe: And Bruce will be back [at TIFF] this year for a sequel to Hard Core Logo.
Maddin: That’s right.
Keyframe: There was a film that I never expected to have a sequel.
Maddin: No, no.
Keyframe: You haven’t caught sequel-itis.
Maddin: No, I haven’t. Though I’ve often been tempted to do a sequel to Archangel. I had so much to say! But I think I’ve settled for writing a novelization of it instead. The least commercially successful of my films to date—Keyhole might be worse—and I’ll write a novelization of it. The lowest art form possible! I’ve got this publisher, Coach House Books, which published the My Winnipeg book and my diaries and things. They’re wonderful. They don’t care about sales at all. They just want to make nice, handsome books and they’re happy if it sells a little bit. Fifty copies or something like that. We’ve been talking about my writing a novelization of Archangel. I’m all over it.
My mother [Herdis Maddin] is in the middle stages of a dementia similar to Alzheimer’s. She has a new species of amnesia every day. The other day I took her out for a car ride. This isn’t like [mutual friend, name expunged] taking his mother for a car ride and [the latter] suggesting that they get a motel room together. I brought my mom home three hours after her normal bedtime. Eight o’clock. She usually goes to bed early, at five. She’s ninety-four and she’s not used to being up and about or out at that hour. As the elevator opened on her floor, I said, “Well, mom. Jeez. Look at the clock. It’s late for you.” She said, “We’ll have to be quiet or we’ll wake her up.” I said, “What are you talking about?” And she pointed at her apartment door and said, “The woman who sleeps in there.” She was referring to herself. She’d somehow forgotten that she wasn’t in there sleeping but was out in the hall with me. And so she’d somehow performed some sort of body split. When I unlocked her apartment door, I half-expected to find one version of my mom sleeping and the other, forgetful version of her standing with me in the hallway. Now what? There’s two of them!
Keyframe: They’d just keep multiplying.
Keyframe: I look forward to seeing Keyhole in Toronto. The production stills are quite remarkable.
Maddin: I’m pretty proud of it. For the first time, I have regret for some scenes that don’t quite work. The previous nine films I’d always chalk up to experience and say, “Well, I’ll get it next time.” This time it really hurt that I didn’t get it perfect. That means I’m pretty proud of it.