Back when Guy Maddin’s first few films made it across the border from his base in Winnipeg, Canada, they seemed like emanations from a very different time, not just a different place. Drawing on silent cinema, but adding a modern dimension of sexual knowledge, they found an eager cult audience. His latest feature, The Forbidden Room, was co-directed with Evan Johnson. Perhaps paradoxically, it feels like a collection of all of Maddin’s favorite ideas, though pushed to the limit. The direction and editing synthesize F.W. Murnau with ’60s avant-garde filmmakers like Jack Smith and the Kuchar brothers. The narrative borrows from experimental literature, interweaving a monologue about the importance of bathing (written by poet John Ashberry) with stories about a crew of men on a decrepit submarine and a gang of outlaws in the woods. The Forbidden Room, so fast-paced as it jumps from story to story, may be the closest anyone in North America has come to rivaling the adventurous storytelling of the late Raúl Ruiz. Around the same time, Maddin and Johnson (along with Evan’s brother, Galen) made Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton, a half-hour documentary about the filming of Paul Gross’s nationalist Canadian war epic Hyena Road. With primitive green screen and a mock-pretentious voiceover, it attacks the tendency of war films to romanticize combat, and without being self-righteous, as well as pokes fun at the mainstream Canadian film industry by depicting Maddin as a dead Taliban extra in Gross’s film. Prior to The Forbidden Room’s U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival, Maddin and Johnson sat down with us to talk about their collaborations and a future endeavor they feel can only come to fruition with a little help from Christopher Nolan.
How did Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton come about?
Guy Maddin: Well, it’s my first all-color documentary/cine-essay kind of thing. There’s nothing nostalgic about it. It feels good. Evan edited it, and I like the way it organically accumulated itself. I approached Paul Gross. We needed money. I say so right in the movie. We were hoping to get little filmmaker fees and enough money to make the movie. And that’s exactly what happened. The Forbidden Room had put us all in the red, so we took some time away from it to shoot and edit Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton. It did its job. We’re very proud of it too, so it wasn’t just a job for hire. Although it was a job for hire that we begged to be given.
Do you view it as a critique of
GM: I don’t think so, not at all.
Evan Johnson: That’s easy for you to say. You haven’t seen Hyena Road!
GM: We just saw the making of. I don’t know. It’s easy to think of a movie that’s sometimes nicknamed “Canadian Sniper” as being in our crosshairs, but I’m not sure it was our real target.
EJ: We pitched it to Paul Gross as his movie being our target. He was comfortable enough with his money and his film that he could withstand our criticism. But when we were making our film, we hadn’t seen his film, so it was never going to be a particularly authoritative attack. We did have access to its script.
GM: I like to think of myself as the graying figurehead while Evan and Galen did the real insurgents’ work.
Do you think of your films as expressing fantasies that filmmakers like Lang, Murnau, and Eisenstein weren’t allowed to at the time?
GM: Just because I’m allowed to put nudity in? No, not really. The question might apply especially to The Forbidden Room because we draw on the lost cinema of Lang, Murnau, and other canonical and non-canonical filmmakers from around the world. It was a way of adapting them to our purposes. I mean that, when you watch a film, you identify with it and you could even say you’re in it. So in this case, we didn’t have the scripts, just the synopses. You don’t know what they’re really about. We decided we could only make them about ourselves in a way. The subject never strays far from our own experiences. We’re not giving these titans’ posthumous explicit fantasies that they didn’t dare dream on screen. It was more of a matter of putting ourselves on screen.
Did you find working as a team an extension of working with co-writers like George Toles?
GM: I would look Bob Kotyk up when I was on set and in a panic somewhere. We’d then proceed with the shooting. It really did feel like an extension of the writing. We were trying to honor the script, without being bookish or tied to it. We were constantly having to adjust it on the fly. From inside the writers’ room on the set, we could decide how to adjust it. We only had a certain amount of time each day and we often had to do quick rewrites. There were no hurt feelings. If there were, there were quick apologies or clarifications. With George and I, we first worked together as writers and then he would visit the set to watch and see if things were going the way he’d like them to go.
EJ: I agree with that about our collaboration. While we were writing, we weren’t answering to anybody. We didn’t have to go through a producer or studio head. So we were visually conceiving the scripts as we wrote them. We almost began the job of directing them.
GM: We even shot-listed them.
EJ: That’s probably why the collaboration continued seamlessly.
GM: I do remember asking, “How do we do this?” And then we’d draw up storyboards and be satisfied and move on.
EJ: Sometimes our production designer, Galen, who’s my brother, would even be working while we were writing. The collaborations came really naturally.
GM: Galen supplied the music too, but it would be fun to have a composer there supplying music along with storyboards and set design. That simultaneity might supply the perfect movie someday, but you could never afford it.
I think most liberal Americans think of Canada as being much less racist than the U.S. I was really surprised by your discussion of it in the introduction to the short Sinclair on the Criterion My Winnipeg release.
GM: I can’t remember what I said, but I meant it.
You sounded pretty angry. Your persona tends to be pretty campy and jokey. That was the first time I’d heard you talk about politics. The film itself takes the style of Michael Snow’s La Region Centrale, but turns it a more overtly political direction. Are you interested in continuing down that path?
GM: If I’m smart enough to, I’d like to. I don’t want to be irresponsible. I’ve had a long career of being answerable only to myself and trying to stay with stories that are only about timeless dynamics of the way the human heart conducts itself. I find myself crustier and caring a bit more about that stuff. Evan cares a lot about it. It comes up in writing way more than it ever did. George and I used to be cavalier to a fault about politics, and I regret it. I’d like to make up for it.
EJ: To say “the timeless dynamics of the human heart,” that’s not really conducive to a trenchant political critique of the contemporary world. It says these problems are timeless, so we can’t do anything about them. Sometimes melodramatic material doesn’t lend itself to a political critique. But I love Sinclair.
GM: It was very simple. It was very glibly made, the decision to take Michael Snow’s camera. I know Michael Snow a bit and asked him if he’d ever lost a movie. He said he lost 20 minutes from La Region Centrale. So I asked if we could use his camera to shoot something. We planned to shoot Never the Twain, a Brad Grinter sexploitation film about a man convinced he’s the reincarnation of Mark Twain while visiting the 1974 Miss Nude World pageant. So we wanted to test out the camera first. I put it to the real-life tragedy of Brian Sinclair, who was ignored by hospital staff till he died and then basically ignored by our country. What better way to film him than the unblinking eye of the La Region Centrale camera? It really should’ve been 33 hours long, which is the length of time Sinclair sat in the waiting room. That’s my only regret about it.