Arts preview: Guy Maddin and Isabella Rossellini in Conversation

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From the August 22, 2013 edition

Celebrated art-house director Guy Maddin recognized his shortcomings early in his career. Instead of working to correct them, however, he chose to simply focus on his strengths.

“It was just like a young player in Little League realizing he had a good arm and could hit singles and deciding [late Pittsburgh Pirate] Roberto Clemente was his favorite outfielder,” said Maddin, 57, who joins actress and longtime artistic muse Isabella Rossellini for a visiting-filmmakers conversation at the Wexner Center on Saturday, Aug. 24. “I’m sure [Clemente] didn’t practice pulling the ball. I’m sure he practiced his throws to third base and hitting to the opposite field again and again.”

On his debut, in turn, the director embraced the few things he felt he did well (framing, establishing mood and so on), doing away with elements like linear plot structure and dialogue. Maddin even stumbled onto the film’s noir-ish look by accident when an inability to correctly stage scenes forced him to work with a single light source.

“I didn’t know how to use the basic, three-light setup, and so I ended up with three nose shadows on every actor. I started unplugging lights until I got down to one nose shadow, and then I moved the light until the shadow was in a flattering place,” he said. “Then because I was worried about the vocal skills of some of my actors I just didn’t let them talk.

“It’s a whole career based on avoidance and cowardice.”

Though Maddin filmed “The Dead Father” on a shoestring budget of less than $5,000, relying on an amateur cast consisting of friend John Harvie and University of Manitoba medical professor Dr. Dan Snidal, the finished product still showcases the surrealist style that has become a hallmark of his best films (“My Winnipeg,” “The Saddest Music in the World”).

“I remember feeling it was kind of goofy, but kind of poignant, because these two were just a law student and a dean of medicine who … turned it into something moving,” Maddin said. “It just felt like a real movie … with the motion and the strangeness and the beauty.”

From the onset, the director has fearlessly embraced his outsider status, compiling a filmography that plays like one long, fever-induced dream sequence. He has little interest in those benchmarks traditionally used to chart industry success, like box office take (“I’m in my 50s and it’s not like someone wants to hitch themselves to my 50-year-old chariot and ride it to a big box office”) and Academy Award statuettes (“I’ve been watching them long enough to know they’ve never really mattered”).

Even a recent move to Los Angeles is a concession to his recent marriage rather than the film industry. Current plans are to split time between his wife’s California home and his hometown of Winnipeg, Canada, where he still serves as the Distinguished Filmmaker in Residence at the University of Manitoba.

“I love [Los Angeles], and it has nothing to do with being a filmmaker. I love it in spite of the fact I’m a filmmaker,” Maddin said. “It has some great bookstores, great little restaurants and little places where our favorite actors dropped dead or were murdered [laughs].”

Once the director finishes work on “Seances,” an ongoing project encompassing a film shoot, an art installation and, hopefully, an interactive website featuring user-generated content, he hopes to take time off to more fully explore his Hollywood home before it becomes little more than a final resting place.

“I think I need to take a few years to read, recharge and enjoy married life,” he said. “Or maybe if I keep making films at the rate I’ve been going, which is pretty fast for me, I might just scrape the last stuff out of my brain and fall over into my already open grave.”