The film director on working with Isabella Rossellini, his outsider status and why his career is based on "avoidance and cowardice."
Guy Maddin and Isabella Rossellini host a film screening and chat at the Wexner Center on Saturday, Aug. 24. (Credit: David Filipi)
Director Guy Maddin might have a lifelong love affair with silent film, but in conversation he remains anything but. In a recent phone interview the celebrated art-house director, who appears alongside actress and longtime artistic muse Isabella Rossellini during a visiting filmmakers conversation at the Wexner Center on Saturday, Aug. 24, spoke at length about his struggles to make his first film, the utter meaningless of the Academy Awards and why he's comfortable working outside the mainstream.
Alive: It sounds like Los Angeles is agreeing with you. Do you actually live out there full-time now?
Not officially, yet. I haven't done all the immigration things. I have a home in Winnipeg, and my wife has a lovely apartment here. We visit each other, and alas, we spend a lot of time keeping up with each other on the phone. We're slowly working things out so we can live here, ideally. I love this city, and it has nothing to do with being a filmmaker. I love it in spite of the fact I'm a filmmaker. The city [wife] Kim [Morgan] shows me is full of amazing little nooks and crannies. It has some great bookstores, great little restaurants and little places where our favorite actors dropped dead or were murdered [laughs]. Then there's a fantastic beach in Santa Monica I love. I think in a previous life I haunted the pier in Santa Monica or something. The other day when my soul was troubled for some reason I went and floated face down in the Pacific Ocean, and whatever was troubling me washed away.
Alive: You're appearing in Columbus with Isabella. How would you describe that creative partnership at this point?
We haven't done much together lately, but I think we're going to. We're going to have a little chat - an offstage chat as well as an onstage chat - to see how we're feeling about things. I remain an ardent fan of her work. Since I met her in 2003 she's become a director and she's gotten her degree and she's become a writer. I think this publishing house out of Germany hired a ghost writer to do her autobiography, but they canned the ghost writer when they got Isabella's notes and they realized she had her own unique and perfectly charming writing voice. It's a voice that dominates her movies, the ones she writes, and ones I directed like "My Dad Is 100 Years Old." She's both a little girl and an elegant sophisticated citizen of the world and a bawdy sailor and a gracious and tactful person. All these things come into play in her writing. It's a real trick she doesn't even think consciously of. It just comes naturally. It's the way she speaks in person.
I loved working with her from the start. She always expressed an interest in exploring her little dark regions, and just being brutally honest. She's not interested in just being glamorous. I've heard her say, "I've spent decades being glamorous in the modeling industry, I don't need to be glamorous now. In fact, I revel in being unglamorous." You can think back to "Blue Velvet" for about 20 examples of how she unglamourized herself to canonical effect. She's been doing it ever since. In one of her "Green Pornos" I think she's a snail that defecates on its own face, and yet all the glamour pushes through anyway. You can't help but notice no matter what is going on she looks gorgeous. She's so poised. It's really cool when someone is way more than one thing at a time. It causes a maelstrom of thoughts and doubts and speculations and keeps your eyes riveted. I should just call it the Molly Ringwald Effect. I would watch [Ringwald] and she'd be fashion-model gorgeous in one shot and really unconventionally interesting in the next, and you'd just keep waiting and watching to see which Molly would show up. But when I started working with Isabella, well, sorry, Molly, but I quit thinking about you very often.
Alive: Why do you think you two keep returning to that creative partnership? Is there a sense she draws something different out of you as a director?
I'm not sure about her reasons, but I have my suspicions. All those things she does are things I've always aspired to, and that's why I recognized them in her. I set them as goals for myself: to try and be funny and poignant at the same time; to try to be brutally honest and mischievous at the same time; to not fuss over all the literally minded details. She told me one of the reasons she asked me of all people to direct the tribute to her father, Roberto, the Italian neo-realist, was that in making our first movie, "The Saddest Music in the World," she recognized that same can-do aesthetic. It was like, "Let's just get it done already." She mentioned her father often tied string around the toes of his actors and just yanked it when it was their turn to talk. Whatever it took to get the picture made.
Isabella and her father did pickup shots together in the kitchen, and then Isabella and I did pickup shots together in my kitchen, and I think that clinched it. Well, actually, if that didn't clinch it, what clinched it was that because of her love of her father – she has an ongoing relationship with him even though he's been dead for 30 years - she has some sort of belly-philia. He had a little pot belly that she speaks of often, and she loved it so much that when it came time to make "My Dad Is 100 Years Old" she asked me if I would consider lending my belly. I was still thinking of losing 30 pounds at the time, but she asked me if I would volunteer my belly to play Roberto Rossellini. What an IMDB credit that would have been, you know? "Roberto Rossellini's Belly: Guy Maddin." I turned it down because I was hoping to slim down a little bit. I didn't. I should have just taken the part. My friend Isaac Paz, who's a 400-pound Nicaraguan mariachi musician, took on the role instead. I guess it would have been tidier if I had played [the part], but I'm just too vain [laughs]. As it turns out, Isaac had to do a lot of lip-synching with his belly to Isabella's impersonations of Roberto. I watched this guy who probably hadn't done a stomach crunch in his entire life doing a series of stomach crunches to make it look like his belly was talking. He told me the next day he couldn't move because he had just spent three hours doing stomach crunches in an effort to get his navel to look like it was speaking. Thank god I didn't have to go through that. I probably wouldn't be able to tie my shoelaces to this day.
Alive: In an Onion interview Isabella mentioned that, like her father, you're beloved by a small circle of film fans, but would probably never do a big box office. Was mainstream success something you ever really wanted?
No. I still look back at someone like Peter Greenaway, who's had a higher profile and more prestigious presence than I, but all of a sudden in 1989 his "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover" just crossed over and became a big hit, and then he went back over to art houses and galleries. So anything is possible if the stars align and just the right project comes around. You never know. I'm always interested in reaching more people. It's not something I've ruled out. But 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. I have a great job as the Distinguished Filmmaker in Residence at the University of Manitoba. It gives me complete artistic freedom because I'm paid enough money to take on projects without worrying about having to get the budget up high enough to get a large salary or anything. I have the freedom to do whatever I want, and if one of those projects happens to be something that interests a lot more people than usual I won't be annoyed.
Alive: At the same time, you once mentioned in an interview that it wasn't a good sign "The Artist" won Best Picture at the Oscars. Is there any sense if the Academy actually recognized one of your films you'd feel like a complete failure?
[Laughs] I guess. I still feel sad about "The Artist." I still haven't even seen it properly. I've seen bits of it over fellow passengers' shoulders on airplanes, and it seems perfectly wonderful and really smart. The Academy Awards, I've been watching them long enough to know they've never really mattered. They're awards. They're dumb, right? My favorite moments are when George C. Scott and Marlon Brando refuse their awards. And they should be refused. But they're still wonderful to watch because people talk about them like they used to be so much better. It's like ["Saturday Night Live"]; it's never been good [laughs].
Alive: You mentioned the silent film era, and people tend to point to that influence in your work. When you were getting your start did you feel like you were more of a patchwork of those influences?
Well, when I started my first movie, which was a short called "The Dead Father," I didn't have a visual style. I was just trying to make a film. It wasn't until about halfway through shooting that I realized my shots looked ugly. 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, and what I ended up with was something that at times looked noir-ish or silent movie-ish. Then because I was worried about the vocal skills of some of my actors I just didn't let them talk. I wasn't even particularly watching any silent movies at that time. But I realized with my limitations I should stick to the very few strengths I had. So I avoided dialogue for a while, but it wasn't because of a love of silent film. In fact, it was only then I started watching silent film and learning some of the things they did. It was just like a young baseball player in Little League realizing he had a good arm and could hit singles and deciding Roberto Clemente was his favorite outfielder. You tend to practice the things you're good at. I'm sure he 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. Very early I realized my weaknesses, but instead of working on improving them, I worked on the few things I was good at. It's really a whole career based on avoidance and cowardice.
Alive: Do you feel like there was a moment where you really found your voice as a director then?
I wanted to be a writer instead of a filmmaker, but I was a good enough reader to realize I'd never be a good enough writer. I decided somehow early on there had to be some way of taking those little, narcotic tingles good writing gives you and creating them as a filmmaker.
Alive: Can you recall the first time you captured a moment on film that really gave you that same tingle?
On my first movie I tricked my friend, John Harvie, who was a real muse for me, and Dr. Snidal, the dean of medicine at the University of Manitoba, into coming up to my attic. I put the dean of medicine in this steamer trunk and got my pal, who was a law student, to close the steamer trunk on his on-screen dead father, and I remember feeling it was kind of goofy, but kind of poignant because these two people who were just a law student and a dean of medicine … turned it into something sort of moving. There was one light, and it cast really nice shadows and made my attic look really good. Then I added some music from Faust or something like that to it and it just felt like a real movie all of a sudden with the motion and strangeness and beauty. I was thrilled. Then I was an impossible asshole with too much swagger for a good decade after that. I lost almost all my friends. Filmmakers are so horrible.
Alive: That's surprising. In everything I've read you're extremely self-critical of yourself and your work.
Yeah, well, that's true. But I've also noticed with filmmakers - especially young male filmmakers - they feel like the whole world is rotating around the axis defined by their spinal cord. They forget to say "please" and "thank you" during the course of making a film, and they think if they give a script they've written to someone to read they're actually doing them a favor. I've been all those things. When I watched all these people coming up after me doing all those annoying things I had these immense, core-crippling cringes. It's good to realize that. I've been able to pull aside a few younger filmmakers and say, "Good, you've made one movie. Now on to the next."
Alive: In general, your work has a strong attachment to place, be it a city or even just a house.
After I made the first few features I kind of got lost for a few years and wondered why I was even making movies. Then I realized I had to make movies about things that mattered to me. I'm kind of an obsessive person. I pay a lot of attention to what my dreams are up to. My dreams tend to be very emotional. They're full of longing. If something that was lost is restored to me in a dream I'm just so happy until I wake up and realize the dream isn't true. I just decided long ago to make movies about things my dream-director uses to produce such longing in me. Strangely, the act of making a film reduces all this precious material of obsession to just so many units in a big project, so things that once mattered to me, like my childhood home or the longing to see my father again, just become so many shots to be storyboarded, lit, shot, edited, sound mixed and talked about until finally you find yourself not even remembering the original feelings you experienced. They become your films, which are basically inventories of your mistakes. You can cure yourself of your obsessions by making a film about them.
Alive: In that regard, did filming "My Winnipeg" make it easier to leave your hometown for L.A.?
Yeah. It cured me of each individual obsession I dealt with in there, like my obsession with the Sherbrook Pool and the Winnipeg Arena. I didn't care anymore that those places were gone or torn down. I actually managed to help save the Sherbrook Pool from being torn down, but I don't care anymore. It no longer seems to be the source of all ambiguous sexuality in my libido. It's just an old swimming pool now. But Winnipeg is a little more complicated because I have this great job at the University of Manitoba. My mother is still there. She's 97 years old and in a deliriously wonderful dream state right now and has never been happier. Then the family cottage in Gimli is nearby, so I'll always have some kind of connection to Manitoba. But the movie and Kim, of course, helped cure me of Winnipeg. And that's a hard disease to beat. You don't want to get that one.