Seven years ago, Cowan commissioned Maddin to “haunt” the Toronto International Film Festival's new flagship Bell Lightbox with some ghostly installations that included projections on the side of the building. The men's relationship goes back even further than that: Cowan distributed Maddin's Hospital Fragment when he was with Cowboy Pictures back in 1999. And Maddin's relationship with SFFILM extends even further into the past. The Festival screened the auteur's first feature Tales from the Gimli Hospital back in 1989, and in 2006, it presented him with its POV Award. So even though a rough assembly would be due almost immediately and even though Maddin teaches full-time at Harvard, he readily agreed to Cowan's proposal.
Working with his partners, brothers Galen and Evan Johnson, as Development Limited, or Dev Ltd (“because our development's fairly limited,” Maddin jokes), they decided to organize their city symphony around Vertigo in a kind of remake using found footage from other San Francisco-set films and TV shows. They're calling it The Green Fog, subtitled A San Francisco Fantasia. In a recent phone call from Boston, Maddin talked his inspiration and what went into rolling this Fog in.
Let's start with the very basic. How was it that Vertigo was chosen?
I went home at Christmastime and we watched so many movies shot in San Francisco. I don't know if you've done the IMDB search of just movie titles with "San Francisco,” but there are so many, even like scenes of The Ten Commandments, DeMille's first silent version was shot there; A View to a Kill; High Anxiety; a fantastic Vincent Price picture, Confessions of an Opium Eater; The Sniper; The Love Bug; Jade; The Conversation; Barbary Coast; The Towering Inferno; Star Trek IV; Woman in Red; Pal Joey; Sudden Fear; The Killer Elite; Sister Act; Fearless; Jagged Edge; The Fan. There are so many movies shot there. I'm not mentioning the ones we necessarily culled footage from, I'm just giving you an idea of [how many]. Sequences from Lady from Shanghai; The Lineup; Bullitt, of course. Chris Marker went to San Francisco for parts of San Soleil. There are European films set there, Perversion Story, sort of a porny Eurotrash film that's a remake of Vertigo, actually. There's an Obayashi film, the guy that made Housu, he came to San Francisco to make a film. There are just so many cool movies. So at Christmastime, you get six weeks off for Christmas at Harvard, and I just went home to Winnipeg and we just watched these movies. I never allowed myself to watch anything unless it was shot in San Francisco.
We started to try to organize the footage and it occurred to us that we were saving Vertigo for last somehow, because it's my favorite film. Then we realized Vertigo was slowly materializing before our eyes in bits and pieces that were floating up out of all these movies of varying quality, that had been shot in various decades, going all the way back to Greed and before, even footage shot before the earthquake hit and stuff from the Prelinger Archives. The bits and pieces floating up reminded us of Vertigo and they seemed to be insisting, kind of like the Whos in Horton Hears a Who, I'm not quite sure who that final Who was that finally shouted “Vertigo!” loudly enough in our ears to tell us to organize our footage around it, kind of a mischievous, super-quixotic task. It does remind me of a Borges project. He had his famous Menard, author of Cervantes, who decided to rewrite Don Quixote without ever having read it. It just reminded me of something quixotic that way, that we could remake Vertigo, maybe even make it better by using the footage Hitchcock didn't think to shoot.
Of course, like I say, so many directors pay tribute or secret homage or plagiarize Vertigo in their own films, so sometimes you'll see a shot that seems a perfect substitute for one used by Hitchcock only to realize it's a tribute or a homage. That feels like cheating. It feels like you have to take an emotional match for a shot rather than a literal one somehow. I don't know, whatever. Whatever it is and no matter how ugly it is, the amazing Kronos Quartet will make it all pretty. They'll give people the price of admission, that's for sure.
Given the sheer number of films shot here, you could conceivably make a remake of Vertigo just using shots from film noir or musicals or whatever. Did you set up some kind of rules for yourself?
The rules...I have to be careful not to give myself away too much. I don't think we ever uttered this rule, but it sure feels like we wanted to give—and maybe this will disappoint Noah—we got equal pleasure from finding footage from the margins or even the gutters of San Francisco, the same pleasure as we did culling footage from the canonical and the gorgeous. It's a real amazing thing to behold shots across decades colliding with each other to create new effects. But sometimes those effects, when they're the same effects that happen in Vertigo, it's kind of extra-pleasing. Then sometimes it's just impossible to create those effects, so you have to look for other strategies and that's where remembering that this is a concert film really helps and that music cuts to the heart and that film, if you treat it more like music, can take a shortcut to the heart, too, and thus save yourself a lot of trouble. Besides, Vertigo is two solid hours long and our thing is a lot shorter. It has to be more of a musical experience.
I was thinking about what I would do with such a commission. I love films that were shot here and I love places here. I would want to include Experiment in Terror, the climax at Candlestick Park, just because it's the climax at Candlestick Park.
Yeah, exactly. Through montage, you could do just about anything. You could turn Candlestick Park into a church tower quite easily, just through the miracles of montage. Yeah, there are a lot of choices. When you get 200 movies, you have 200 climaxes, you've got some choices to make.
It was a real pleasure seeing Experiment in Terror for the first time. Wow, it's really beautiful. Henry Mancini’s score is really modern. That shocked me. I was used to those Mancini-Blake Edwards collaborations that are more light and fun. That movie's dark and it's really stylish. It's fun.
The other—I'm embarrassed to say I'd never seen Don Siegel's The Lineup before. That was a pleasure. It was just great submerging myself in the history of San Francisco film. I watched a lot of underground film as well, but out of respect for independent filmmakers like I am, they've already been exploited so much, not paid for screening or just not paid at all, I felt better talking with my fair-usage lawyer about films made by corporations than by independent artists. I was friends with George Kuchar. I don't want to like rip him off and recycle his footage. And some of my favorite independent and experimental films have come from the Bay Area. I love Castro Street. I love everything by George. So the sampling we took just erred on the side of extra-tiny, just to be cautious, not to feel like we were exploiting the hard work of someone whose shoes I may have once stood in.
The Festival was careful to hire a fair-usage lawyer who's super-sweet, but super-professional and cautious. We're making sure that we're putting something together that falls within the law. There's no reason to top off the closing night with a sheriff serving papers or anything like that. This is going to be a wonderful celebration. There are just so many titles to choose from that everything's going to be cool.
The Lineup is an interesting title, because so much of what's in it has vanished, even the Embarcadero Freeway, which was unfinished when they shot it, is long gone.
It's amazing. I gotta say one thing about San Francisco films. Lots of people plummet to their deaths off of buildings and things. And lots of people hang by their cuticles in San Francisco films as well. But I don't know, my first feeling when I glibly said, when we—I can't even remember which one of us three thought to use Vertigo as our wire frame—but the first thing I thought was, 'I guess Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire is our Madeleine Elster, or something like that. Or Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act. Or maybe Patty Hearst herself in a Patty Hearst documentary. Or Natasha Richardson in the Patty Hearst biopic.' Once you start talking about women and their doubles, you start going, 'Ah God, is that Haley Mills' twin picture or the Lindsay Lohan, what's that one where they play twins? Is that set in San Francisco?'
You find yourself wishing or you have dreams that certain movies are set in San Francisco, like, 'American in Paris! That's right! That's set in San Francisco.' You dream, and you wake up and realize, 'No, it isn't.' But you double-check, anyway, on Google. You even triple-check, because you had your heart set, while you were lying in bed, on including some footage from American in Paris in your San Francisco city symphony. It's a really strange city to obsess over, and I'm not from there. And Galen and Evan have never even set foot in San Francisco. So here we are, but we feel we know San Francisco now as well I've known any other city growing up in Winnipeg and just learning about them through movies and television. We know those Streets of San Francisco.
The first time I went to San Francisco was in 1989 was for SFIFF with my very first feature, and man, the cab ride from the airport terrified me. Winnipeg is flat as a table, just all those hills the cab was going up and down. I was thirty-three years old and had just never been to a place that wasn't flat before. I just wanted to go home before I got to the hotel, panicked. I remember literally thinking of my mother and how I never even should have left her house, let alone my city. But pretty soon I got my sea legs by drinking a lot at—what's that bar that George Gund used to serve drinks all the time?
Yeah. I went to Tosca and George Gund poured me a couple of giant Maurice Kanbar vodkas, and pretty soon I got my sea legs. Then I was walking like someone who had just pulled into the Barbary Coast or something like that. I was fine. Now we're just pixellated San Franciscans. We've been looking at the city more than anyone who actually lives in it. So, it's really kind of a cockeyed view of the city.
Once we got it into our heads to organize the footage around Vertigo, we no longer felt constrained to represent the city's history. In other words, to tell guests at closing night stuff they already knew and knew way better than we ever could. We didn't have to hit all of them. It's been ground zero for so many amazing things. But we now no longer had any historical responsibility to it. And the freed us up, too, whenever we felt sociopolitically inclined to deploy those urges, but it's just gravy whenever we had a chance to think along those lines.
You referred to Streets of San Francisco earlier. One of the delights of watching that show for those of us who know the city are the chase scenes, which, geographically, never made any sense. So can we expect that same sense of delightful displacement?
Well, what do you think? You're talking to Guy Maddin here, about continuity, geographical continuity...It's emotional geography to me, distances are all relative. Jeez, even gravity is relative when you're having a down day. Gravity feels twice as strong than when you're having a great day...Those chases felt emotionally true to Karl Malden and Michael Douglas. They might not have been literally or civically or geographically true, but they felt emotionally true and they were melodramatically true.
It's the same thing, but more so, in this thing, 'cause you're not just cutting out a few blocks in a car chase and then scrambling the order in which the blocks appear, but you're cutting back and forth across decades, across different film stocks, across actors' careers. You have a dead actor making love to an actor that's still alive. You get all sorts of continuity collisions that are actually arousing in this medium, the re-purposed film medium. So I can, in fact, promise a million Streets of San Francisco moments and they're really horny.