“We wanted viewers to feel like they were washed up, panting on another shore somewhere having just had a brush with drowning in a tempest of narrative,” is how Canadian director Guy Maddin described his latest feature (co-directed with Evan Johnson), The Forbidden Room, which played this year’s New York Film Festival. And indeed, Maddin’s 11th feature is exhausting. Essentially an anthology film with a Russian nesting-doll structure, The Forbidden Room sprouts narratives out of narratives, flowing from one seeming tangent to the next with Maddin’s familiar silent-movie aesthetic (the narratives were generally based on titles and synopses “lost” movies often dating back to the ‘20s). A crew in a submarine that’s running out of oxygen attempts to extend their collective lives using the air pockets in flapjacks. A lumberjack attempts to rescue a woman from a cave-dwelling tribe called the Red Wolves. A man’s ghost attempts to teach his son how to trick his mother into believing that the man never died. There is a vampire banana, a virgin sacrifice, a character known as “Squid Thief.” It blends together deliriously in transitions that emulate the decay and melting of celluloid.
“Fever dream” and “phantasmagoria” are the words that come up again and again to describe Maddin’s work, particularly this film. I talked to Maddin and Johnson earlier this week, as they were in New York for the festival. Their film may seem arcane, but found the two of them to be friendly and funny. A lightly edited and condensed transcript of our chat is below.
Gawker: Just to make sure I have the conceit straight, the stories within this movie are based on lost silent movies?
Guy Maddin: Not all of them are silent, technically. The narrative material, the provenance of it is, in one form or another, based on or inspired by lost movie titles.
Maddin: Not just titles, but the plot lines. Sometimes, the title was all we had the way a bloodhound only has a scented rag to go by. Or maybe a little bit about the traditions of storytelling that director might draw on or that country might be more likely to produce. But they weren’t always silent movies. There were a bunch of Cambodian movies lost in the ‘70s when the Khmer Rouge destroyed them and murdered their directors. There was a lost TV network here in America, the DuMont, which really intrigued me because a lot of really cool TV shows went lost. Cathode ray narrative intrigued us for a while. None of that made it into The Forbidden Room, but made it onto our to-do list for this companion piece website involving making contact with lost material.
We expanded our definition of “lost” to include unrealized projects. They were not only not silent, they were not made. They were lost if you consider what caused them to be lost: political marginalization or red scare. There’s this Edward Chodorov guy who planned to make The Lynching of Elizabeth Taylor, but he never got it made because he was blacklisted. There were all sorts of films that weren’t made by Oscar Micheaux and other African American filmmakers. Even though they did make some films, they barely got made because he was so marginalized. There was James Young Deer, who made films identifying himself as a Native American filmmaker but there are theories that he was African American and found it just slightly less oppressive to make them as a Native American. Some of his films are lost and others just weren’t made because of who he was. And then there are untold stories by women, etc.
Maddin: That’s a form of loss as well.
But I don’t see compromise when I watch your movies.
Maddin: (Laughs) There’s not a whole lot of compromise there. But we’re excited by losses that other wussier directors have had to incur in the name of compromise. For instance, Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver even has a loss. To get its [R rating], he had to remove a number of color saturation units from the blood red just to wiggle it past and to enable a profitable number of people to watch the movie. So we had hoped to take those—I don’t even know the units of saturation of color, widgets we’ll call them—the 3.5 widgets of red saturation he had to remove from Taxi Driver to make it available to the general public. We were hoping to take that loss. We needed to haunt our picture with the color red. So thank you, Marty, and good luck with your lawyers on getting those red widgets back.
How is it that you are unwilling to compromise in an industry that so many people are? Is it merely a matter of operating with the understanding that you’re not making blockbusters?
Maddin: That helps. There’s no pressure from above to compromise, but also I’m kind of incapable of it. I don’t mean I’m too stubborn or full of integrity, but I don’t know what use a compromise would be. I don’t think it would make one more person come to our movie.
Evan Johnson: You don’t have a starting point to impose compromise on. People don’t look at your films and go, “We could really make this work in the open market if only he made this tweak.” It’s not quite that simple.
Maddin: So really, I’m lucky. I like to think that [Luis] Buñuel was in the same position, just to flatter myself with the company. At the end of his career, in My Last Sigh, his autobiography that he wrote right after he retired from filmmaking, he said that he was able to say that he never included or excluded a single shot in his entire career against his will. It was maybe because his films had their market and niche already so he didn’t have to. No one ever asked him to, probably. And that’s kind of the way it’s been for us, too.
Was it always that way? At what point do you stop worrying about mass appeal or expanding your audience?
Maddin: My first feature [Tales from the Gimli Hospital] came out in 1988, and I really thought, “Well, I gotta start making genre pictures. Maybe that’ll reach more people.” My first feature didn’t have any props in it, it was just shadows, so I thought, “Maybe by putting in sets, I’ll reach more people.” I was thinking of genres that were really popular in the ‘20s or ‘30s: “I’ll make an amnesia World War I movie. This’ll be popular.” And I made a way more opaque and unwelcoming movie by doing that [Archangel, 1990]. My next movie was a two-strip Technicolor bergfilme [Careful, 1992], a mountain melodrama, and I thought, “People won’t know what hit ‘em when the zeitgeist gets a load of this.”
And then I was really stymied for a while in the ‘90s. I realized I had taught myself a kind of filmmaking that was making progress—I was reaching more people in the film festival world, but the film festival world and the commercial theater world in those days, they were two different planets—so I was building myself a little tower on Mars while the film industry was building its towers on Earth. They weren’t ever going to even notice each other. I briefly went to Hollywood in 1993 and had meetings and got scripts to read. Claudia Lewis at Fox Searchlight was really nice to me and sent me a bunch of scripts. Every time I read one, I could see those things being made into movies, and some of them were by other people, but each time I read one I just wanted to hide deeper in the shadows under my bed. It was hard to read in the darkness under my bed. My naps were getting longer. Weeks long. I got very depressed.
I didn’t get excited about filmmaking again until the turn of the century when I started shooting with Super 8 instead of 35 mm. Now we’ve come here by doing an end-around through Super 8 and through whatever it is Evan and I are doing now.
I also started making movies that felt like basement-band equivalents of films. I just thought, “Well, I like basement bands and some of them became really famous and popular. I’m a basement band filmmaker.” But I found that people who like basement bands still like Steven Spielberg movies. It just takes the film world another decade or two to catch up to an ethos that musicians can access immediately. In a way, I thought we’d just wait it out and maybe the world would catch up with us.
How much did you think about audience while making The Forbidden Room?
Johnson: Working with Guy, everything had a kind of strange distance for me because he has a reputation and a history and has made a lot of films. I was doing this with him and had to decide if I was going to try to elbow him out of the way or if I should just be enhancing his Guy Maddin-ness. So there always always a meta level at which I was thinking. I gave up on that eventually and we were just friends and collaborators. It’s simpler that way. We thought about the audience all the time. We thought we were making a pretty clear (snickers) story for them.
Maddin: We wanted to give them a chance to follow the story.
Johnson: A chance.
It’s a difficult movie.
Maddin: But we gave them the best chance we were capable of giving them. We tried. We tried hard.
Johnson: We knew it was going to be structurally complex to follow. The majority of audience members are probably not even aware that it has a structure. Things happen in a definite order. Stories start and stories end in a very particular way. But it probably feels to a lot of people like a big mash of randomness. But it’s extremely fussily made. Whether that comes across I’m not sure.
The structure I got. It was mostly within the stories...
Johnson: That things get unclear and confusing. You bet.
Maddin: And yet some people say the opposite.
Yeah, I got the nesting-doll structure, the tangent within a tangent within a tangent...
Maddin: You’re cool with that.
I’m cool with everything. I want nothing but for you guys to do what you want to do...
Maddin: We didn’t even want to do it, really. We grudgingly did it.
Johnson: There’s a certain built-in shame to the process of being self-indulgent.
Maddin: We were always there to preemptively deflect charges of being wankers. So the movie comes with a sort of post-masturbatory, gloopy guilt.
Johnson: You know when you’re a child and your body produces fluids and things? I remember pooing once as a kid and being really proud of the size of it, but then people were disgusted by what I was saying, as you might be now.
More like fascinated.
Johnson: There was a mixture of pride and shame at having made something. And that is the essence we’re tapping into. I think the movie, on many levels, is tapping into that combo of pride and shame.
Maddin: And it’s a huge pride. You have to flush a number of times to get this project down.
The line between communication and indulgence is always fascinating to me. But also, how do you differentiate between working within a style and repeating yourself?
Maddin: Yeah. I don’t want to repeat myself, but relative to other filmmakers, I’ve been doing the same thing every time out. I think if you’re more generous in appraising what I’ve been doing from the beginning, and especially with this one, there’s more than an evolution. The provenance of this project is lost films, old timey movies, but we were really excited to be working in digital, which in many ways leaves everything else behind. Before I was all about film emulsions but then there’s a nod to film emulsions and how they decay and how they buckle and dry and turn into goo and vinegar. But we accomplished that digitally. The internet interactive project that came first and will stand when it’s launched in the new year as a companion piece for it, plants us firmly with one foot in the emulsions of the analog era and the pixels of the digital era. So I feel like we have left that stuff behind and have made one big step. It’s the second last step and the next step is to be fully digital.
Do you have any misgivings about going digital?
Maddin: None. The history of art is people moving forward, every now and then doing a shoulder check, acknowledging what’s in the past and moving forward. I don’t want to be one of those guys riding around on a penny farthing in plus fours and a boater. I’m a baby boomer, but I’m working actively with, I hope, many movies in my future. Gotta deal with what year it is.
It does seem like this movie in particular is just stuffed with ideas. That’s part of what makes it difficult. It’s overwhelming. Is it a metaphor for what’s in your head?
Johnson: That it is. (To Guy:) As someone who’s worked with you, but apart from you for a while, I always say the major thing you’ve taught me is that if you’re free to discard ideas they’ll be more free to arrive. So when we have an idea that isn’t working, believe it or not, we wouldn’t use it.
Maddin: It seems like we threw it in.
Johnson: It seems like we threw everything in. But there were many thousands more discarded. But one of the things you taught me is if you’re not precious about them, that’s when they’ll keep coming. I noticed working with you that they just kept coming in a barrage and that’s how the movie feels.
Maddin: And in many ways, just the way this project came to define itself, too-muchness was an important part of it. At a certain point when we had to decide how long the movie would be—it’s just under two hours long—we could have easily made it a snappy 70 minutes and it probably would have felt like 100. It was tricky.
Normally you make a movie as tight as possible, and I’ve never been very good at that. But here, we made many passes, and I even watched it at Sundance at a certain length and tightened it up even more. We took 14 minutes out of it or something like that. We still were careful. Instead of going with “tightest is best,” we wanted viewers to feel like they were washed up, panting on another shore somewhere having just had a brush with drowning in a tempest of narrative. So it was tricky having the right amount of too-muchness.
I know what you say about melodrama being life uninhibited as opposed to the common conception of it being life exaggerated comes up a lot when you’re interviewed. [Note: For a longer explanation of this theory, read this.] I actually discovered it through Carl Wilson’s book Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. Are you familiar with that?
Maddin: No, please tell. I’m getting goosebumps.
He applies your idea to her output. Do you think that’s accurate—does she, through her work, inhabit the uninhibited life you talk about, and if so, is she your peer?
Maddin: Man, I feel like I’ve just been handed a golden opportunity to define myself once and for all. [Laughs] I don’t think about her much, but I have thought about her a bit lately, because some people really close to me have astonished me by coming out as not just secret fans of Celine Dion but willing to hold a parade in celebration of Celine Dion. I have to revisit her perhaps hold up a funhouse mirror to myself and hope to find her there.
Johnson: There are some good YouTube behind the scenes of her concerts, a day-in-the-life Celine things that are magnificent introductions to why she’s so great, I think.
Maddin: Well I’m on board. I can tell we’re circling around each other. I’m circling around her. She’s not paying attention to me, but I feel like I’m circling around her and pretty soon I’m gonna latch onto her soul and spend the rest of my sorry-ass life defining myself in her terms somehow. So, in other words, yes.
Melodrama, as you know, is looked down upon, that’s the whole point in talking about it like this—to challenge people’s understanding of what is widely considered a lower form. I don’t know if you care about a high/low culture divide, but one could call your movies highbrow melodramas, at least in terms of their audience impact at the very least.
Maddin: I don’t make much distinction. The goosebump-ometer is just as great for Ed Wood or Paul Morrissey movies or George Kuchar films as it is for Max Ophüls...sometimes. And then, as a matter of fact, if it was a tie, the tiebreaker goes to the trash. To me, it’s just more fun. The Earrings of Madame de... is a masterpiece, but it’s just too...the taste is too good.
But I firmly believe that not only is this seemingly unredeemable melodrama sometimes truly great, and the stuff that’s in it is as great as anything in the canonically great movies, but that most people fail to recognize that those great movies are melodramatic as well. They just aren’t seeing it because it’s been gussied up with surface class. It’s just as melodramatic as a reality show sometimes. It’s just all the same machine parts working the same way, it’s just there may be more gaudy bells and whistles on some melodramas than on others. That’s all. I firmly believe that, so I don’t make distinctions in melodrama between high and low. Some melodrama doesn’t click with me. Sometimes even though it’s tawdry, it just doesn’t click with me. It helps if I can find myself in it somehow.
Where does camp fit in? Does that word describe accurately your movies at all?
Maddin: It’s certainly been applied, but I don’t think... I’ve been called at times the straightest queer filmmaker around or the queerest straight filmmaker around...
Maddin: Well, you know, all the poppers I’ve ingested have been on the dance floors of gay clubs. Where else are you gonna get poppers, for crying out loud? That’s where I get my poppers. It’s just a practical thing. It has nothing to do with my sexuality.
Do you care about contemporary movies?
Maddin: A lot. I try to get out, have a big bag of popcorn and some diet soda on opening night. This isn’t quite contemporary because it’s one Mission Impossible ago in the franchise, but Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol is my favorite movie of the 21st century. I sat next to its director at Telluride last year and I said, “Hi, my name’s Guy,” and he said, “My name’s Brad,” but I didn’t recognize him. He even said, “My name’s Brad Bird,” but I thought he said, “Bradberd.” I thought it was the full name of “Brad.” I felt silly because I couldn’t lengthen “Guy” into anything. We sat there making small talk for 40 minutes when he was the director of my favorite movie of the 21st century, a movie I imagined watching with Luis Buñuel in the empty seat beside me through its entire duration. He and I were just high-fiving each other.
You think Buñuel would have been into it?
Maddin: For sure. He was! We were literally smoothing each other’s gooseflesh down. And especially these new filmmakers that are really exciting now, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Miguel Gomes. And Brad Bird. Love them. And Christopher Nolan. We’re remaking each other’s movies.
Johnson: He’s not aware of you.
Maddin: He’s not aware of me. Yet.