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Guy Maddin: “Like a ghost in my own house”

Maddin was on a roll when he spoke with Mars before his film's Berlinale premiere. Much like his films he was confusing at first, but once you've stepped in, you're in for the whole ride.

Image for Guy Maddin: “Like a ghost in my own house”

When the master of B-expressionism starts talking about his stuff, he’s unstoppable… and very much like his work: brilliant, confusing, and prolific.

A Berlinale regular (he was a member of the International Jury in 2011), Maddin is back with his latest opus, Keyhole, a film about a gangster named Ulysses (Jason Patric) who, having returned home after a long absence, revisits his own house for an indoor odyssey all the way up, one room at a time, to the marital bedroom where his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini) is waiting for him. The flick disconcerted quite a few viewers, even some of his most fervent fans.

Keyhole is a very confusing film, even by Maddin standards. What is it all about? A waking dream? A surrealist confession?

Because I am a quasi-surrealist and maker of artsy artefact I have always been scared that people would think of me as a complete wanker, you know a self indulgent poseur. So I have always been careful to make movies about feelings, in an attempt to reproduce feelings that I have had. I have taken it upon myself to make my job to film-the-ineffable.

For the longest time I used to address a weird combination of melancholy over the loss of loved ones with a kind of comedy and a naked confession of how cowardly I am in dealing with people. In other words just try to deal with the human condition the way an author might without worrying about sales. I would always use surrealism or melodrama as a short cut to getting stories that seem true out of performers that were amateurs or friends of mine.

In recent years I quit dreaming about long dead loved ones, which had always produced me with enough ambiguous feelings to galvanize a number of projects.

What do you now dream about instead?

In recent years I noticed I have been dreaming about empty architecture where I have been wandering around empty hallways rooms in a place that sure seemed like my childhood home and there was always a sad person in the next room – someone that I needed to resolve some issues with. Someone that maybe died and I hadn’t visited them enough in the hospital because I was too busy chasing after some woman somewhere or something horrible and awful. I started to be haunted by my house and then I realized I was the one wandering around this house and I was the one haunting it because we all live in the past and the present simultaneously. I realized these dreams had me living in the future after my death. I would wander around this house that I loved so much, much like the dream version of myself does. I was actually dreaming myself, and very realistically, as a ghost in my own house.

Do you believe in ghosts?

I don’t believe in ghosts. I tend to only believe in mystical things when I am holding a movie camera and I need to make a lot of atmosphere and create things that are metaphorically true. But the fact kind of creeped me out that I was repeatedly dreaming for a few years of myself haunting a place that I loved. If I am lucky, long after I am dead I will get to keep dreaming those dreams every night. So I decided to make a film that recreated those feelings and normally I do not know whether I succeeded in that or not in achieving what I set out to achieve, but for myself I succeeded in making a movie that feels exactly like those dreams felt to me. And that is why I wanted to make the movie.

So you decided to revisit this dreamed-up long-lost house, room by room…

I did some reading, I read the French phenomenology book Poetics of Space, which is just Gaston Bachelard’s room by room, nook and cranny by nook and cranny study of how various parts of a house make him feel, make us feel. Even a homeless person feels a certain way toward a cardboard box or a palm frond beneath which he sleeps. I set out with a very lofty goal to occupy every nook and cranny of a house but I realized I wasn’t the formally strong filmmaker I need to be. I’m no Chris Marker. I’m no Martin Arnold. I can’t have an empty house and just go up and down the hallways and go in and out of rooms without some actors to melodramatize the feeling. So it was really difficult to take a dream sensation I had involving no people and fill it with people and try to produce the same equivalent feelings. So I decided to come up with a story…

Your main character’s called Ulysses…

I decided to steal the structure of Homer’s Odyssey, thinking it must be good because it’s thousands of years old and still entertaining to read. When I started to read it I was struck dumb by the fact that it is my story: it is the story of a dead father returning to life and coming back home, except in the Odyssey he is coming back home to his son and wife across the ocean and meeting all sorts of adventurous setbacks, but I thought I better just have an indoor odyssey from the back door of a house up to the marriage bed. I thought that was the perfect structure to start with and then just let it get lost while all the memories of people start talking amongst themselves. I was perfectly willing to have the journey start out rather clear and then just disperse itself in a confusion of ghostly voices and memories. But now I am actually just telling you my entire secret recipe to the whole damn thing!

You’re unstoppable…!

I should be more like David Lynch who says nothing. But I am happy to always explain what I try to do and what I did because filmmaking is more a process of accumulating mistakes than accomplishments. But I am fairly pleased that I created the feelings for myself. Maybe if my film can sit around long enough that people will be haunted enough to revisit it years later and maybe find themselves exactly in it. I know that my favourite films that have often worked: put me to sleep the first time or disappointed me but then years later compelled me to return to them and they mean so much to me now. I think that is my biggest hope – that my films will outlive me a little bit or at least have a slight spurious immortality or at least while I am haunting my old house I can at least catch my movie on TV, 50 years from now. 

Speaking of haunting the place you love… you did that already with a city in My Winnipeg. You were already mixing feelings and family memories, and the idea of coming home…

I feel I just re-made My Winnipeg but with just a completely different genre, one of them is a documentary and the other one’s a drama.

In My Winnipeg you had a weather motif, which was snow. In Keyhole it’s water. What’s with you and raining and rainstorms and drowning? Is that one of your phobias? A recurring nightmare?

I had a near drowning experience when I was little but it was kind of pleasant. I’ve heard that drowning is the best way to go. In spite of being born and raised and spending my entire life right in the middle of the continent of North America, in the Prairies there is a very large lake and we have a cottage so I’ve always spent a lot of time right by water – 20 meters from a place that looks like the ocean. You can’t see the other side of it. So I’m a big water person.

An astrologist might say, because I’m a Pisces I’m a water person as well, I don’t know.

Water has just meant a lot to me, maybe because I’m a dyed-in-the-wool expressionist I’m always trying to think of broad ways of just filling the frame with something that looks good, or feels good, or sounds good and something public domain. And it just sounds like there’s something comforting and womb-like about pelting rain, there’s something comforting about a blizzard, y’know? When you’re in a big blizzard, you don’t want to go out. So, there’s something cosy and home-like about all that stuff.

It’s not just cosy, there’s a ‘drowning’ girl…

No, that’s more than cosy I guess [laughs]. There’s avalanches that kill people.

And every time somebody dies, they’re thrown into that murky pond.

Oh yeah, I never thought of that [laughs].

The pond represents… death?

Yeah, I like the idea of a bog. Frankly, I got really excited reading Camille Paglia’s book Sexual Persona, way back in 1990, and she talks in the first chapter about some primal bog out of which all humanity comes and into which it will go again and I just like the idea of a bog that is all eggshells and teabags and bones and sperm and blood and feces and sort of everything rolling around in there. But then, meanwhile just outside of it are all these human melodramas over petty things and Facebook happening right beside the bog. I’ve always just liked the idea of bogs, but water and I don’t know… I honestly don’t know, I’m just doing it because I like it, other director’s would never dream… they’d have a patch of concrete where I have a bog and they wouldn’t then know why either.

After so many films, do you think you now have a little bit of control over or at least knowledge of your own filmmaking or it’s getting worse and worse?

Yeah, I started to learn a little bit about filmmaking in the late 1990s and it took the fun out of filmmaking for me, so I consciously unlearned everything and switched. I had moved up from 16mm to 35mm and then I just went back to 8mm and felt like a child unaware of himself again and it was very liberating.

Y’know, what’s really taught me a lot is just this experience. Sometimes I’ll start giving an answer in a panic to a journalist and I’ll start talking about why I did something and I’ll realise that my bullshit is actually true [laughs]. It’s not a matter of convincing myself of my own bullshit, it’s that I actually did have a reason, but I’ve just uncovered it while trying to describe it over and over again for many different points of the compass. I’ll finally chance upon the right approach, maybe the 20th time, sometimes the first time and then it does sort of add up and that I do sort of figure it out. I guess you’re my therapists or something like that?

The Berlinale is running a retrospective of silent German-Soviet cinema – “The Red Dream Factory”. Do you like Soviet films?

I was scared to watch Soviet film for the longest time, because my first encounter with it was just all these endless essays about essays by Eisenstein on montage theory and stuff. I didn’t want to read essays; I wanted to just watch movies. I was scared that watching Soviet film would be like reading an essay. And then one day I just happened to be in the right curious mood, but it was many years after I had started making films, and I just started watching Ivan the Terrible and then ‘Part 2’ and I just started ingesting a lot of things, and then lately I’ve been downloading a lot of Dovzhenko.

I find him the perfect soul mate. He’s so mischievous and strange and lyrical and poetic. And [I like] the more obscure, difficult to get a hold of titles, like Aerograd. I watched it with really strange downloaded subtitles that were probably Google translated, but they were already very poetic in the first place so I wasn’t sure how much was Dovzhenko and how much was Google translation, but the movie itself was so aggressively strange and capricious that I just gave the benefit of the doubt to Dovzhenko. The experience was so odd. And then to watch The Diplomatic Pouch, it had no score so I added some music of my own. It felt really good.

These things are some of the most sublime viewing experiences I’ve had in the last few years and it made me want to make movies again because I lose interest often. I feel like quitting or becoming a shoe salesmen. In all seriousness. And so Dovzhenko and more recently Sokurov re-energised me totally. Not that I make movies like them or could, but they’ve excited me so much, a guy still alive and a guy who’s long-dead, they both seem so ridiculously new and fresh and inventive.

What is the influence of German Expressionism in your film?

I like the idea of expressionism. Someone once defined it to me as the way an artist expresses him or herself while using the inner landscape of a character outwardly. So the outer landscape matches the inner landscape. Suddenly, it just seemed so simple to me, that if I had an inner landscape in mind for a character, I suddenly knew exactly what kind of production value to have, because it would have to match somehow, or rhyme. I’ll always be a bit of an expressionist, because I like the idea of finding a counterpart in the outer world to the inner world. It’s just a nice simple way of going. I’ll also always be an expressionist because I’ll have a lot of shadows, because I’m not a very sophisticated lighting person.

You do love shadows… why?

The very first time I shot a movie, I read up in a filmmaking book how to do a three light setups: a key light, a fill light and then a backlight. But when I plucked in all the lights, on the very first shot I attempted, I just got an actor with three nose shadows, so I unplugged a light, and then another one and then I moved the nose until I had a pretty shadow, and then I shot, so ever since then I’ve had a lot of dark, black shadows, not light grey shadows or multiple shadows. To me, especially in black and white films, a shadow is just an absence of light. It’s an absence of knowledge, a dark mystery, a cheap way of decorating a set. Just turn off the lights and add a sound effect. Its a great way of really inexpensively creating atmospheres for practical reasons and budgetary reasons but also for the psychological fairy tales that I am most interested in – the least commercial kind. I have got to make more genre pictures like this, “ghost meets gangsters” or “cowboys and aliens”. Why didn’t I think of that? I have already done ballet-dancing vampires. The future of the genre film is the mash up.

Speaking of silent era, did you see The Artist?

I still haven’t seen it… I want to hate it; I’m scared I’ll like it.

Actually it’s pretty much the opposite of what you’re doing with your films. You’re getting inspiration from silent movies in order to do something new and unique. The Artist is just parodying something already done. But what about going really silent and get an Oscar?

Yeah, I’ll win that Oscar [laugh].

Get a proper linear story – a simple story, make it all silent and…

…I don’t think I’m going to win an Oscar. I made a short movie once that I allowed myself to think might be nominated for an Oscar but it wasn’t, so I know that it’ll never happen now. It will not happen.

I’m asking because there’s a film in the Forum, The Woman in the Septic Tank. It’s all about those young guys who try to think how they would go about with their film in order to win an Oscar.

So they’re just going for the perfect recipe. You know what? Even if someone gave me the perfect recipe I’d just screw it up so badly that it wouldn’t happen.

You said earlier that you were worried that people think you might be a wanker.  Are you so worried about what people might think about you?

Not anymore. I don’t read reviews. It’s like looking at yourself in the mirror on a bad hair day that I live in eternally. There’s nothing to gain. It’s just going to make you feel bad. Even favourable reviews make me feel bad for some reason. But I have chanced upon enough people who seem to have cottoned on to what I’m up to, that even when sometimes my movies feel campy, that there’s a sincerity. That’s all I want. I just want people to recognise. For instance, when I watch a Douglas Sirk movie in Technicolor with Rock Hudson, you’re just so delighted by the artifice that your first impulse is to not take it seriously but to giggle, and then the next thing you know you find yourself devastated with dread by the melodramatic power of the story and you find yourself laughing at a movie and crying with it at the same time. You realise it is possible to be both camp or slightly kitschy or overripe and emotionally timeless, and I’ve seen that in von Sternberg and Sirk. Those are two masters of kitsch and emotional powerhouses. Those are the guys that I aspire to reach. I’m now confident that no matter how cheap or jerry-built or flimsy my movies may seem, that some people at least are into them, that I’m trying to say something about myself, even if it’s self-pity.