Kino Lorber

Interview: Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson on The Forbidden Room

Who do you perceive as your audience? Do you think people must have seen your previous films to understand The Forbidden Room?

GM: I don’t think so. If someone just saw one movie right now, it’d be The Forbidden Room. When I first started, I picked up a camera hoping to get laid. I didn’t, really. But I was hoping my audience would be the people I was attracted to. I was initially disappointed and then gladdened by who the motley crew of people came to see them. My audience has changed a bit, but I’m just grateful they exist. I’m often astonished to find out someone has seen something.

Didn’t My Winnipeg make a recent poll of the 10 best Canadian films ever made?

GM: Yes. There’s an odd list for you. No, I’m very honored to be part of the list. If I think about it, I probably beat out some good friends. I’m very competitive.

John Paizs?

GM: John is super-important to me. He’s not in the top 10, but maybe he should be. His movies made me want to make movies. In 1980, when I awoke from a deep, dead slumber and decided I had something inside me that wanted to come out, I saw L’Age D’Or, 42nd Street, Eraserhead, Foolish Wives, and the films of John Paizs.

What is the Cuadecec Manifesto?

EJ: I never actually wrote the manifesto. We just conceived it. While we were in Jordan shooting Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton, we just decided that the best making-of film possible could be at every opportunity to put our cameras next to the main film’s and we could edit their film together, with a boom mic here and images of their crew. It’s essentially a parasite’s aesthetic. You’ve just stolen their production values.

GM: I never thought about it like that, but boy that sounds parasitic!

EJ: I felt that that’s what we should do, and then discovered this film called Cuadecec Vampir by Pere Portabella, who I’m told is somehow related to a yogurt fortune. He made this beautiful film on the set of Jess Franco’s Count Dracula, with Christopher Lee. He shot a really ominous and beautiful documentary, with almost no talking. Christopher Lee reads a passage from Bram Stoker near the end, but otherwise there’s no sync sound. It’s very haunting and dreamy. It feels like somehow it’s a fully realized fiction film that’s also a parasite on this other film’s values. We felt like every big-budget film should have a crew making an art version of the main event, as a kind of aesthetic insurance, that if the main film doesn’t amount to much, you’ll have a backup film for the art world. We want to make one on a Christopher Nolan film.

GM: If you can put that in print, that would be great! We’re making a public appeal to him to use his set. We do have a way to reach him through the brothers Quay, who are friends of mine. But anything would help.

Was The Forbidden Room entirely shot in public?

GM: Everything you saw on the big screen was shot either on the Centre Pompidou in Paris or the Phi Center in Montreal. People could watch as much or as little as they wanted to over the course of the day. It was my bright idea. I’m not sure it was so smart. We thought I’d be a better showman from the get-go if I was trying to enliven the set. They’re so slow and intense in a very boring way. You can’t tell who the director is. You can’t tell who the actors are half the time. Most of the crew members are just texting each other. It’s dull. I just wanted to bite off way more script pages than we could chew each day and keep it hustling. I was often a little bit hurt if there were fewer people watching than at a previous time. I think it served its purpose. Plus, the actors were looser. All their accomplishments were on public record, and I think they were more adventurous and uninhibited, therefore more honest. I barely had to direct them at all.

There are a lot of actors who appear quite briefly. Were there any you approached who wanted larger parts?

GM: Well, it was always presented to them that the project would exist online in small fragments that interacted with each other. There’s this interactive Internet companion piece that’s going up called Seances. In some configurations, a minor character might be the star. Next time, a completely different hierarchy of stars might be produced by the program that drives our site. I can’t speak for our actors. Some of them might prefer to be on screen more, because it winds up being a feature film with an ensemble cast. But I think everyone who participated in the project was up for it and its unpredictable results. I watched it recently in Paris with two of the actors who aren’t in it that much, and they were both very happy.

In your early films, there’s a sense of isolation that seems to come from making very low-budget films in Winnipeg and not feeling very connected to the outside world. Do you think that’s changed as you’re more or less guaranteed a wider audience?

GM: I don’t know if you’re ever really guaranteed wider distribution. But I did really enjoy working in Montreal and Paris with new people. If I go back to Winnipeg, it will help the film community there. I think everyone should travel around a lot and work abroad for a while. It reinforces everything in both directions. I really feel less isolated. How could I feel isolated when I’m in the Centre Pompidou working with Mathieu Amalric and Geraldine Chaplin? I’m not in Kansas anymore.

How did the “Russian doll” structure come about?

EJ: We had separate inspirations. You’ve said you were inspired by this John Brahm film, The Locket, which has a three-layered story. I don’t know when you first saw that.

GM: Maybe 10 years ago.

EJ: We were both inspired by this French writer, Raymond Roussel, who likes to nestle stories within stories for mysterious reasons. You’re never quite sure what you as a reader are getting out of it, but it feels like you’re getting something. It feels like he understands the nature of story, and then he gets deeper and you feel like he doesn’t understand it at all.

GM: In fact, he might be the person farthest away from understanding the nature of storytelling.

EJ: Maybe his whole digressive narration is a way to figure out how to tell stories, because he doesn’t know how to do it. All of that intrigued us, and we wanted to make a film that partook of these mysteries. For us, having to take a bunch of stories and assemble them into something that had one grand flow did feel like we were studying story structure. That sounds very dry, but it’s part of the motivation for me.

GM: We were examining our own personal mistakes. There was a confluence between studying story structure and life mistakes. Anyway, that’s a basic, jumbled answer.

EJ: It was also just a challenge. Roussel’s often considered mad. I liked the idea of no one knowing our motivations, although here we’re explaining them. It just seemed like an unlikely endeavor, but it was the only way to present all these things that fired us up. It seemed like a long shot that we’d pull it off, but that appealed to us.

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