A Conversation With My Winnipeg Director Guy Maddin
During the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival, culturevulture film reviewer Beverly Berning sat down to talk to filmmaker Guy Maddin, who was there for the West Coast premiere of his latest film, My Winnipeg.
Guy Maddin is just as perversely imaginative and passionate in conversation as he is on film. Following is an edited transcript of his talk with Ms. Berning. An excerpt of the videotaped conversation can be seen on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3idzCP5_oAA.
BB: Last night I was trying to think of what questions to ask you, and my 12- year-old daughter came in and started bugging me about taking her out to buy a pair of jeans. I told I was busy, and then I said, “Help me out here. If you were going to be interviewed, what would be the first question you’d want someone to ask you?” And her question was: “Are you pregnant?”
GM: (laughs) I’m…uh,yeah, I’m in my third trimester now, so it’s too late for me to turn back.…..I wish I was, metaphorically, carrying something to full term. I don’t know. Right now, I’m between…projects, anyway…I mean…
BB: Does this mean…? I don’t know how personal to get.
GM: You can get as personal as you want with me. No, I’m clearly not literally pregnant, although some people have teased me about packing on a few extra pounds over the last few years. You know, it’s funny. Babies have been in the air lately. My daughter just made me a grandfather a few months ago, so I know a lot more about pregnancy than [I used to]. She really did her research a lot more than her knocked-up mom and I did before she was born. I’ve never been a very mystical person, but now I’m far more sensitive to the clearly occult lunar powers and gynecological powers that center the earth we tread upon. So, even though I’m literally not pregnant, I tend to think of our world now as one big teeming bog of egg shells and sperm and blood and muck, and all sorts of other things out of which all sorts of frighteningly uncivilized things come, whose powers we must obey. How’s that for an answer?
BB: Well, that’s quite….
GM: To your daughter. Tell her that.
BB: I don’t know if I’ll let her listen to that yet. (They both laugh.) So you’re a grandfather. That’s interesting.
GM: Yeah, it’s really been nice, although I don’t think I have anything new to say on the subject. Grandparents always say the same thing: Isn’t it great! When you’re tired of the baby you can just hand it off like a football. And sure enough, you can.
BB: We should probably get to the film.
GM: Sure. I’m willing.
BB: Even though I knew of you before, My Winnipeg is the only feature film of yours I’ve seen, but when I got the chance to interview you, I decided to look around on the Internet, and I saw some of your shorts on YouTube.
GM: Right. Some of them are pretty flippant, and not really….They’re whatever.
BB: I saw the slapping party one.
GM: Yeah, Sissy Boy Slap Party. I make these movies out of loneliness sometimes. It’s kind of like the old Andy Hardy movies where Mickey Rooney says, “Hey, let’s put on a musical,” and he and Judy and a bunch of the kids go down to the barn and put something on. It’s kind of like that. I get lonely, and call up some friends, and say, “Let’s make a movie. I’ve got to get some nudity into it.”
BB: It’s a very complex form of distraction. It must have taken quite a bit of time. I mean, there were lots of musical numbers, if you will, sort of Busby Berkeley type of stuff.
GM: Yeah. I made a lot of these things, and some of them I would never allow out into the public. But they do keep the rust off my eyeball, as a composer of images, in between features, because sometimes the years can surprisingly pile up between features. So it’s nice to keep busy, so that you don’t make the same rudimentary errors on the first day of shooting features, because you’ve recently been shooting something else—something disposable or, like I say, flippant. YouTube is gridlocked with crap that I’ve made. Some of it I’m actually secretly proud of, and other stuff is there just to be out there.
BB: I liked Sombra Dolorosa.
GM: Yeah. Sombra Dolorosa—Sorrowful Shadow. I always wanted to make a Mexican wrestling movie. Nacho Libre just kicks the crap out of that one. I love that movie. And of course, all the Santo ones, all the authentic Mexican wrestling pictures kick the crap out of that in turn. It was just one of those things where I wished I was a Mexican director in the 60s, and could just have the freedom to make one of those cheesy melodramas involving a real life wrestler as a protagonist.
BB: I don’t know these movies at all, so I’m lost here.
GM: I didn’t know much about them at all either, but I was instantly delighted by them. I’ve since found out how well known they are in certain circles. I just wanted to…(hesitates) It’s typical of me to want to rewrite history to include myself, so I thought, well I’ll make one, and that’s kind of like going back in time, and adding my name to the credits of a Mexican wrestling picture.
BB: Yes, and also to latch onto film genres that are very stylized. You mentioned cheesy. I don’t know if I would go that far.
GM: Yeah, that’s too dismissive, and I’m probably hurting someone’s feelings now. Actually, those pictures have rules that they obey, and cheesy is a lazy term. I’ll retract it.
BB: So you are very kind.
GM: Well, I want to be fair to the various stylizations that directors have access to in making a film. I teach a course in melodrama at university back home, and almost always students drive me crazy describing performances as over-the-top, and that’s just a lazy way of saying it’s less inhibited. Sometimes you can get at honest human emotions better by uninhibiting them. But the terms over-the-top and cheesy have negative connotations, when in fact you can get far easier access to human emotional dynamics by uninhibiting performances, or maybe by going cheesy, too.
BB: What do you mean by uninhibiting performances?
GM: Well, I will talk about my definition of melodrama for a second. You know how in waking life, you have to behave yourself. You can’t just grab someone you lust after and have your way with him. You can’t just steal money you see sitting there. If you feel sad, it’s frowned upon if you cry in public. But in your dreams, at night, you get to cry. If you’re lucky you get to grab the person you lust after, you get to hit people you don’t like. Things that terrify you, you get to flee. You don’t have to act cool or anything like that. So I would argue that our dream selves are our uninhibited selves. We get to be ourselves, no matter how bizarre our dreams are. We have little need to civilize our emotions. So our waking selves are inhibited. Good melodrama presents uninhibited versions of ourselves. So melodramatic plotlines are related to dream plotlines in that one way; they’re just as uninhibited as the plotlines of our dreams. And good melodrama does it well, and bad melodrama does it poorly. Almost every film is melodramatic. You don’t want to see something that’s completely natural, otherwise you’d just watch security camera tapes of people buying chewing gum at gas stations and things like that.
BB: Yeah, true life is very boring.
GM: That’s why reality television always edits to create melodramatic plotlines—alliances and enemies. And so does the evening news, CNN—everything is melodramatized, even though most people say they hate melodrama. So I always talk about “uninhibited.” What the news does is something different from uninhibited; they take what people usually think of as melodrama—they take real life and exaggerate it to create fear. And bad melodrama is just real life exaggerated, whereas good melodrama is real life “uninhibited.” That’s what I’m talking about when I say uninhibited. That’s my working model of melodrama. When I shoot movies, I try to take my feelings and uninhibit them. In other words, I come out almost with a Tourettes Syndrome style outburst every now and then, a filmic or verbal outburst of what I feel and think. And I don’t just mean my opinions in My Winnipeg about how bad it was they tore down the Arena, but I’m saying things about my family I shouldn’t be saying.
BB: Yes, that does come across.
GM: Yeah, I know. I should be muzzled.
BB: I have so many questions to ask now, because you’ve raised some issues, and one is that you have been criticized in your filmmaking [for actually hiding] your emotions behind the artifice, the humor. Can you respond to that?
GM: I can see that. I haven’t read that criticism, because I don’t read reviews anymore, even favorable ones. They depress me for some reason, but I’m told every now and then that at best I’m an audience divider. But I can understand that. It’s funny, the more I try to be frank about my emotions, the more they might seem distanced. Who wants to listen to someone pouring out the way they feel? You’ve got to present it in a certain way. And my favorite emotional filmmakers, the ones who work on me in the most powerful ways, quite often work on me on a second or third viewing only. And they’re extremely stylized. I like Joseph von Sternberg, who helmed those Marlene Dietrich pictures. He did seven with her, six of which are masterpieces. I don’t like the last one that much. I also like Ernst Lubitsch, who stylizes everything in comedy, but who can still destroy you with genuine agony, romantic agony, while you’re laughing.
BB: Can you name a film by him that shows this?
GM: Well, I just saw one the other night, One Hour With You, which has Maurice Chevalier cheating on his loving wife Jeannette McDonald often. The movie’s a delight, but [there’s] pain in it, when she finds out she’s been cheated on. He’s a guy that you really like, and you like her a lot, but he out and out cheats on her, for no justifiable reason. It’s just something that humans do, and so Lubitsch is psychologically plausible and honest, and he has one likable character really hurting another likable character, and the pain you feel is real, but it’s stylized.
My favorite von Sternberg movie is Blonde Venus, where, once again, Dietrich cheats on her husband Herbert Marshall with Cary Grant, because she needs some money to help save her marriage, and support her child, and so there are extenuating circumstances that excuse it, but the pain of the cuckold is real. And if you’ve been through a similar experience, it’s hard to watch the movie and be objective. Every time you see the movie, you see it from a different vantage point. You hate her and can’t forgive her if you’ve been through the experience recently; with a little more distance, you understand the incredible balance and the raw agony. But the movie is distanced because Dietrich gives an unbelievably stylized and mannered performance, and von Sternberg is always accused of being more interested in décors, and a perverse sense of humor above all else, but I disagree. He’s really interested in the way people love each other. But even the best critics don’t see that in him. [It’s] the same with Douglas Sirk. People like to dismiss him as Technicolor ridiculousness, and Rock Hudson’s presence doesn’t help, but [his films] pack a wallop, too. So, I’m actually honored by that criticism, because it’s the same criticism that I see frequently leveled at the gods—my gods—not that I’m including myself in their company.
I’ve also been criticized for a bunch of other wanking crap, too, and I deserve those criticisms.
BB: But not that one.
GM: Yeah, that one, I’m proud to receive.
BB: So, I guess in the end, it’s just a personality thing. It’s the way you are.
GM: It’s the way I am, and I can’t help it. I’m not walking around in jodhpurs with a riding crop, or anything, as much as I want to, but it’s not me.
BB: I overheard the interview you had before this one, and he mentioned a queer sensibility. I wasn’t going to go that far, but a lot of your filmmaking aesthetic seems camp.
GM: Right. I’m happy to engage an audience at any level, and if someone wants to enjoy it at a camp level, that’s cool. I myself rarely enjoy film as camp, but I’m not a prude. (He pauses.) I don’t necessarily think I know what it is.
BB: I don’t think it lessens a film by calling it camp. I didn’t mean that at all.
GM: Well, I guess we’d have to fine-tune a definition of [camp], but just to take an obvious example, some John Waters’ movies are obviously camp. I guess, whatever the definition is, it would probably include Pink Flamingos. But there’s still raw human emotion, there’s still art in camp.
Plus, it’s fun. Some of it might be too safe and too tired, too familiar by now, and people are already skating in the grooves when they’re making their camp.
BB: I feel like we’re going in two different directions, now, so I’d like to backtrack a little. I’d like to go back to this idea of expressing emotions through the artifice, through the stylized performances and all that.
GM: I think it can be done.
BB: I think it can, too, and I think it is done in My Winnipeg. Especially at the very end, I mean the last scene, [when the actress playing your mother has a moment of physical intimacy with the actor portraying her dead son]…I mean it’s filled with humor as well, but…
GM: Yeah, that scene consistently gets the biggest laugh.
BB: Yeah [it is funny…there’s that line where she says something like now that he’s dead for so long, she actually enjoys being affectionate; that is, with the actor playing her son.]
GM: Yeah, I always think I know a little bit about comedy, but that one consistently gets the biggest laugh in the movie.
BB: Does it really? Well maybe it’s a laugh of recognition.
GM: (laughs) Yeah. I’m talking about my dead brother, and I knew it was mildly funny, but the biggest laugh? It’s odd. I’m evidently not in total control of what I’m making.
BB: And maybe after a second viewing, the one verbal joke that is in there is bypassed, and you get to see the poignancy of the scene.
BB: And that came through throughout the movie, and unfortunately, I haven’t seen any of your other features [so I can’t compare].
GM: It’s the same DNA. It’s me trying to be me.
I have a screenwriting collaborator, George Tolles, who helps me out, and he helped me out on this one, and he has the same DNA.
BB: That’s helpful.
GM: Yeah, sometimes we work a la Lennon and McCartney, where one of us writes way more than the other, but we just share the credit all the time. It doesn’t matter anyway, because we just think the same way.
BB: I read somewhere that you did write the narration of My Winnipeg.
GM: I did. I riffed it in a series of live recordings, where I just went into a recording studio and waited to see what came out of my mouth. And then it was cobbled together in the editing room afterwards.
BB: So, it’s extemporaneous? Wow.
GM: It is. I was too paralyzed by the daunting task of writing 80 minutes of narration. Once the shooting was complete, my producer kept saying, “You’ve got to write that narration.” And finally, I just went in. I didn’t want it to be overwritten. If I just wrote it, it would sound like—you know—because I have a really bad habit of writing run-on sentences, kind of top-heavy, densely written things. I thought I can’t just write something that’s assimilable to the ear anyway, so I’d better just go in and start talking, and see where that takes me.
BB: I heard that George Tolles wrote the dialogue.
GM: Yes, he’s credited with writing the dialogue, which is odd, because it’s dialogue I’ve remembered from my childhood. (She laughs.) I can’t write dialogue for the life of me, so I asked George if he would write Ann Savage’s lines, and my family’s lines, and he said, “Okay, what scenes do you want?” And I just told him what went down in those scenes, and then he wrote them, and I didn’t even change a word. He nailed it.
BB: Well there’s one line that I love, being a mother myself, although I’m not quite at that point yet: “My cooking days are over.”
GM: Yeah, George can get right inside an elderly mother’s head.
BB: I loved her performance, too. I loved her character, and I think the actress fit into her character very well.
GM: Yeah, she’s quite a force. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen [Ann Savage] in the role she’s best known for, as the femme fatale in Detour in 1945. It’s unbelievable. She’s the fiercest femme fatale ever, and she brought that ferocity out of a 51-year retirement into my picture, and I’ve never been prouder.
BB: it shows. One of my questions is about that character. What did you tell your mother after she saw this movie?
GM: She hasn’t seen it—luckily. It’s just simpler this way. I love my mother to bits. It’s funny, I thought I understood my relationship with her, understood where I stood with her, but she’s gotten so sweet in the last couple of years. She keeps shifting on me, shape shifting. That was one of my issues with her as a kid, wondering when she was going to be mad, when she was going to be fine. Now she’s throwing big sweet change-ups at me. Just when I expect a fastball under the chin, she gives me the sweetest little things.
BB: Maybe she’s making up.
GM: I don’t know. She’s a wonderful person.
BB: I did overhear you talking to the previous interviewer about that scene in the film where the mother senses the sexual undercurrents [when her daughter tells her about her car accident].
GM: Yeah, she can just read it, like hieroglyphs. She can read our sexual histories as we etch them in body fluids on the walls. She can read exactly what happens.
BB: That’s interesting, because I interpreted the scene with the daughter differently. Maybe coming from a position of a daughter who had a fierce mother herself, and so I felt as though [the mother] was making things up, that she was seeing things that might have been there subliminally, but not literally.
GM: I think mothers can read consciences, and that if you have a guilty conscience that’s calling you out, it’s going to call you out in the voice of your mother. Let’s face it.
BB: That I did get out of the scene.
GM: I’m not sure that’s even in there. I’m just figuring it out now, but if your conscience does have a voice—mine doesn’t—but it definitely sort of feels like someone’s hovering. I don’t have much of a conscience. I’m about the closest thing to a psychopathic filmmaker there is, I guess.
BB: Do you really think so?
GM: No. I was just milking you for reassurance.
BB: That’s interesting because I heard you say in an interview, (reads from notes): “I get masochistic when I’m making a movie. I just feel like it’s not genuine until I’m feeling uncomfortable…” Do you remember saying this?
GM: Yeah, something like that.
BB: “…Like I’ve gone too far and there are lots of apologies to make.” And now you say that you don’t have a conscience.
GM: (laughs) No, I have a conscience. My conscience is much beleaguered.
BB: And perhaps the way you, with your major conscience, can get to the truths, is through humor…and artifice….
GM: Definitely. I don’t like that species of performance where people are just being direct and they expect you to instantly climb into their shoes and feel pity for them—the same amount of pity that they feel for themselves. You just can’t go at it directly. You’ve got to be a little sneakier if you want people to feel sorry for you.
BB: We have to wrap up so I’ll end with one final question. You already mentioned the gods, the directors that you loved. What is the movie of yours that you think is the most realized?
GM: I have this movie called Archangel that I made which no one liked, but I feel it’s my little….
BB: Is that the one where they speak in whispers?
GM: No, it’s a movie in which everyone has amnesia. I think I co-wrote the script and then forgot what I was going for on the page when I actually started directing it, so it was directed by an amnesiac as well. It’s very confused, and it’s my least appreciated movie by far.
BB: It’s a feature?
GM: Yes, it’s my second feature, so I kind of favor it. But I actually, in all honesty, feel that [My Winnipeg] is the most satisfying in many ways, because I can just tell it’s making a connection with more people, and you are a showman, too, when you’re a filmmaker. The term filmmaker seems to imply that you’re making something for yourself, but once you start thinking of yourself as an entertainer as well, I feel like…
BB: Yes, and a communicator…
GM: Yeah, and that you’re actually trying to say something and actually have it understood, I’ve probably got my best picture right here.
BB: I think critics will agree, and I think audiences, too.
GM: Yeah. I hope so.