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Interview: Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson on The Forbidden Room

The filmmakers discuss with us the making of The Forbidden Room, its Russian-doll structure, and future projects.

Interview: Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson on The Forbidden Room
Photo: Kino Lorber

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 Hyena Road?

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.

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.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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