Back Talk: Guy Maddin

Back Talk: Guy Maddin

The Canadian filmmaker discusses his new film, My Winnipeg, and the importance of cultivating a personal mythology.


Adrian Bellesguard

Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin injects a cocktail of nostalgia, fairy-tale mystery and existential terror into a highly stylized world that recalls the herky-jerky dreaminess of early twentieth-century cinema. A fan of “aggressive artifice,” he cautions that viewers who seek realism should “be careful what they wish for, or they’ll end up watching a security camera endlessly in HD with Odorama or something. We’ll all just end up being security guards.” His works include Tales From the Gimli Hospital, Cowards Bend the Knee, The Saddest Music in the World, Brand Upon the Brain! and, most recently, the documentary My Winnipeg.

You’re working on a screenplay with John Ashbery. What’s it about?

It’s called Keyhole. It’s an adaptation of Kleist’s Penthesilea, which is a mad love story. It’s the Amazons versus the Greeks, and there’s an Amazon warrior that’s pretty hot, and Achilles. I’m setting it in a twentieth-century gang situation. These guys are all holed up in a big house, more like a massive apartment block that I grew up near. My other obsession right now is houses and architecture. I don’t even dream of people anymore, I just dream of places. Haunted homes. And I always just try to follow my dream life.

Are you an insomniac?

No, I can sleep anywhere. Back in my house-painting days I used to literally sleep on top of the ladder. I’d learned how to lock my knees straight and sort of lock my elbows around the top rungs, so if I started to fall off when I was sleeping it would hurt my elbows and I would wake up.

That’s like on Cheers when Woody falls asleep with his eyes open at the bar.

I can do that. I can do that. And I’ve literally sleep-driven. I am a sleepwalker. I’ve sleep-driven up to the lake. It’s a route to the cottage that I’ve taken over a thousand times, but I drove up there late one Tuesday night after a fringe play–and was not just kind of drowsy. I had my eyes open the entire time, but I was dreaming about the things that people dream about–not driving things–and woke up when I got there.

My Winnipeg seems to mix fiction and the fantastic, like Garbage Hill–the sledding hill that’s made out of garbage that breaks through the snow and impales children. What’s real, and what isn’t?

It’s all real. The movie’s more or less broken up into three things: emotional rants; accounts of legends, so it’s real that they’re legends; and facts.

What about the TV show in My Winnipeg that your mom was on, Ledgeman?

No. That one’s kind of a legend… That one’s kind of true ’cause there’s public access TV and my mother used to appear on things like that. My earliest childhood memory is that this thing that she did once or twice was on every day.

The family unit in your movies is such a stew of cruelty and pettiness.

It should be emblazoned on our family coat of arms. I don’t know what the symbol for pettiness would be–a grain of salt?

I didn’t mean your family in particular…

No, no, our family holds unbelievable grudges. We’re secretly Hungarian or something. The trait of pettiness is a relative term. Some people are less petty than others. Our family’s petty. No, no, I am. My mother is. My brother and sister have chosen to forget everything; they’re amnesiacs. Can you be a petty amnesiac? Yeah, you can. The few things you remember, or misremember, are unbelievably petty. And rage-inducing. Yeah, that’s us. [Chuckles.]

Why do your characters always have to be autobiographical?

In the last three longish movies I’ve made they’ve been kind of my family. I’d always been making autobiographies, but more or less just using myself as a scientist would use a piece of litmus paper: I’d dip myself into situations, and I’d do something really cowardly and petty, and so would my characters. But then I finally decided, what’s the point of taking a character and vivisecting him unless you put something at stake? So I started putting my name on these things. I think I’m going to quit doing that now, ’cause actually I’m coming to terms with my family and I really love them, and they’re, you know, they’re human and…

What is your interest in personal mythology? Does everyone need one? Does every place?

I don’t want to bore Americans with how lousy Canadians are at self-mythologizing, but it had become something important to me. To define ourselves as Canadians is impossible. We always define ourselves by what we’re not–we’re not American. What does that mean? Well, we don’t exaggerate. We don’t brag as much. So whenever we describe our historical figures or our cultural figures, we describe them in life-size terms–and there’s no more surefire way to consign someone to oblivion. I just thought, No, no, I’m going to tell the story properly, the way old Hollywood would.

Can you talk about If Day, the scenario in which, in order to drum up local interest in Victory Bonds, actors simulated a Nazi takeover of Winnipeg?

This is an example of how lousy Canadians are at self-mythologizing. If Day is very similar to Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast. In America legend quickly boiled that experience down to probably apocryphal accounts of people committing suicide and dying in panicky exoduses. But in Canada I’d never even heard of If Day until halfway through shooting this movie. And it was in my own hometown! And it wasn’t just a radio broadcast; it was 5,000 people in Nazi uniforms. I think instantly we just went, Well, it was a fake invasion, so no point in really talking about it. It was completely forgotten! And it took an American friend of mine down in Missoula, Montana, to tell me about it.

You published your journals a few years ago. Why?

I make a few mistakes… They were my diaries with, like, confessions about exactly where I’ve masturbated and things like that. I don’t know. I haven’t read them, so I’m not sure what got edited out.

You haven’t read them?

I never did read them. I just wrote them. I had moved to Toronto for a few months, and I didn’t trust the movers with the stuff that moved, so I was literally carrying them with me the day I arrived, and heading out for a coffee ’cause I couldn’t get into my place yet. And I met an old friend, and he was with someone, a guy named Jason who was a publisher. And he just said, “What have you got there?” I had three of those old Moleskine notebooks under my arm. I said, “Oh, they’re my diaries.” And he said, “Jeez, I’d love to read those.” I go, “Want to read them?” You know, I don’t care. I had never read them. Someday I want to, when I’m 70. I said, “I want to edit them into something, maybe when I can write well enough.” And he said he would love to look at them. And then he phoned me a couple days later and said he’d love to publish them. I was really leery–not about the things I said; I knew I wanted to stand by them. But I just thought it was missing an opportunity to publish them properly many years from now. But he talked me into just getting them published. I said OK.

Is there an engine room, or is there always another door?

I wonder. Sometimes I feel like I’ve gotten to the engine room, but I’m wrong. But that’s good. As long as there’s something that feels true about, something that viewers can identify with. I know a lot of my viewers can’t identify with anything in my movies when you just get responses like, “That’s bizarre,” or “I really like your movies–I hate narrative!” That’s always been the most troubling enthusiastic compliment I’ve always received.

So your films are misunderstood by their fans?

Sometimes. And then on the other hand, I’ve often wondered if even I’d like them.

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