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Tribeca Film Festival 2008: “You Can’t Cheat Documentary”: A Conversation with Guy Maddin

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Tribeca Film Festival 2008: “You Can’t Cheat Documentary”: A Conversation with Guy Maddin

Guy Maddin’s latest film, My Winnipeg, is a self-described “docu-fantasia,” a wandering, romantic, sympathetic, empathetic look at the inhabitants of his hometown—both human and metal. Indeed, the buildings that line the Winnipeg landscape receive as much attention as the people do in this history of the Canadian city. It’s appropriate, as Maddin’s documentary understands the complex and poignant relationship between space and time, and explores it in a manner that is employed rarely, and done well even less.

The other essay film (“docu-fantasia” as a category notwithstanding) that deals with this paradigm is Chris Marker’s masterpiece Sans Soleil. The debt that Maddin owes to that film, as well as Marker’s (and Maddin’s) greatest influence, Vertigo, is considerable; but because Maddin’s style is so specific, he’s able to absorb incredibly powerful influences without being dominated by them. To see such powerful, cinematic works integrated into a film that is so aesthetically different, and yet so thematically comparable, is a feat that indicates how impressive Maddin’s skill as an artist is.

Maddin was recently in New York for My Winnipeg’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. I was fortunate enough to engage him on these topics, and more, in a discussion—at Manhattan’s IFC Center—that proved to be as stimulating as the film itself.

To listen to the podcast, click here. The conversation is transcribed below, with minor edits for style and clarification.

ZACHARY WIGON: I’m Zachary Wigon, and I’m here with Guy Maddin for The House Next Door. His latest film, My Winnipeg, which has been described as a “docu-fantasia,” is playing in the Tribeca Film Festival this year. Thanks so much for being with us, Guy.

GUY MADDIN: Hey, thanks Zach.

ZW: I’d like to start off with something of a general question—although I’m not a big fan of general questions—but why a documentary and why now? What was the initial spark for making a documentary?

GM: Oh, man—it’s kind of strange, the genesis of my making a documentary. I think I once promised myself I would never make one because I’d heard so much about how you don’t even discover the subject of your documentary (a true documentary) until the editing process, and the shooting ratio is something like 100:1, instead of, for fiction films, 10:1. It just seemed like so much work, and then a lot of research, and I don’t like doing research. I never have—back in grade school, even. Then all this idea of objectivity and disinterestedness.

None of this stuff really interested me or anything. But a great thing has happened to me time and again in my alleged career, and that’s that whenever I take on an assignment, I really want to do well for the person who’s assigned me a project. And a lot of the better things I’ve made have come strictly from hunger. So I was broke, and I’d heard a rumor that Michael Burns, who headed up this documentary channel in Canada—this fantastic channel that just showed documentary twenty-four hours a day… I heard a rumor that he wanted to commission me to make something. I was so broke, I just phoned him up. And he really inspired me, he just said, “Why don’t you do Winnipeg? I’ve only been there twice. It’s your hometown. You care a lot about it. And I was enchanted both times I went there.”

I think one time he went there in the late-1970s to escort a 19th-century train to Alberta for Terrence Malick because they were shooting in Alberta… Days of Heaven. And the second time he came was to visit me on set of this little shorter docu-fantasia that I’d made with Isabella Rossellini to commemorate the centennial of her father’s birth, My Dad Is 100 Years Old. He just visited the set for a few minutes. It was a blasted, blown-out set that resembled post-war Rome, and it was twenty below inside. And Isabella Rossellini emerged out of the darkness like in a David Lynch moment, and whispered a few warm, moist, Scanda-Italian syllables into his ear. And then he had to get on a plane and fly away.

So both times he’d come to Winnipeg, he’d been under this sort of strange spell of other legends. And so he really wanted to see some sort of film that conveyed the peculiar enchantments of Winnipeg. Then he followed it up with the reminder, “And don’t just show us the frozen hellhole that everyone thinks Winnipeg is.” So I was really eager to take on this project because he encouraged me to make it a personal approach, to make it my Winnipeg. I no longer felt intimidated by the need to be objective, or even the need to do any research because all the research I needed to do would be, could be done, inside my own heart, or inside my own memories. So everything in the movie is just my feelings about the place. I didn’t have to hit the library or the archives or anything like that. So, all of a sudden, I was excited.

And besides, Winnipeggers, or Canadians in general, are such lousy self-mythologizers. Perhaps because Americans are maybe the greatest self-mythologizers, and I mean that as a compliment. I think almost every country in the world, actually, is comfortable with mythologizing its great folk heroes, its history, turning them into myths, turning them into distillations of the truth or reductions of the truth. You know, Abraham Lincoln for most Americans is just a myth. He really existed, but he gets reduced to a few character traits, you know: freed the slaves, got assassinated, and was tall.

ZW: It’s sort of the only way to preserve history for a mass audience.

GM: It is because people can’t remember all the nuances or anything. So sometimes real life figures get mixed up with fabulous ones, like Paul Bunyan and Davy Crockett, and half the people don’t know which ones really happened, and which ones didn’t, but it actually sort of adds up to a national identity. And that’s the one thing Canadians are lousy at. They don’t even remember any of their figures. And rather than making people bigger than life, they actually flip the binoculars around and make them smaller than life, or at worst… at best, life-sized. And there’s nothing less interesting than just being life-sized. You don’t stand any chance of surviving the passage of time. I’ve noticed this, and I just took it upon myself to mythologize Winnipeg.

ZW: Any thoughts of why Candians are poor mythologizers?

GM: My simplest notion on it—it’s probably right, though—is that, especially since radio and television were invented, Candians just feel dwarfed by Americans. Our population’s far smaller. We’re not that much different than Americans, but all the myths were just coming in a one way direction over the border. Whatever myths we had, Americans weren’t interested in. But like the rest of the world, we’re fascinated by American mythology, so we just feel muted. We knew it was pointless to talk to Americans about our myths, but we just got into the habit of not even talking about them among ourselves. So some really cool things happen in Canada and they’re instantly forgotten.

I know this doesn’t sound very interesting, but if you read literature from around the world, you realize that every country… all it takes is to have a family, and you’ve got enough crazy mythology going on. Then you have a tribe and ethnicities, and you’ve got great potential… fertile ground for mythologies. It’s strange that Canada is full of people just like Americans, but they’ve been sort of zombified into being mythless somehow. But I knew from the little trickles of oral tradition that do exist in Winnipeg that it has a super-intriguing history, and I was just determined to get it down on film.

ZW: You’re able to deal with your own personal memories in a way that enables the film to be very poignant about a very specific place, and going through very specific times. I think that the connection between space and time is really important in this film. But what I thought was very impressive was that you were able to make the film intimate enough with your own personal memories that it was poignant and moving, but, at the same time, it wasn’t so personal that you alienated people with radically dissimilar backgrounds.

GM: Right.

ZW: For me, anyways, who knows pretty much next to nothing about Winnipeg…

GM: I gotta presume no one knows anything about Winnipeg. (laughs)

ZW: ... I found the film to be very poignant. How are you able to do that balancing act? Of being personal and intimate, bringing out the poignancy, but not alienating some viewers?

GM: For some reason I draw more on what I’ve read than from what I’ve seen in films, even though a lot of people always assume that I’m packing my movies full of film references, when in fact I almost never am. But I’ve just noticed that some great literature becomes universally accessible through intense specificity. I thought I’d be so specifically Winnipeg-obsessive that maybe people would finally just be able to see… I dunno… there’d just be so many dots and points in the movie that finally the dots would blur together like a newspaper photograph into a picture of their own hometown, or their own family, or something. So I thought I could either back up and be more archetypal and hope people could see themselves in these archetypes, or I could just get really specific and hope—through this specificity—that people would see themselves. So I decided to go for that, and it pleases me if someone says, “Hey, that reminds me of my home or my family” or something. Or that there’s something for them to latch onto because it means I probably went the right way.

ZW: I think one of the reasons that that works is because so many of the film’s symbols, and the images in the film, are really open to metaphor, in a very direct way. For me, the most powerful sequence in the whole film was the sequence with the Winnipeg stadium, the hockey stadium that had been demolished. I also thought it was interesting that that was the only part of the film that you had shots in color. I wanted to ask you about that…

GM: Sure. Well the new arena that replaced it I shot on video and I just thought, “Well that’s more newsy. That’s in the present.” And in a few flippant moments I’ve even said that “the Arena doesn’t deserve film.” But that’s doing a disservice to video, a medium I adore as well. I just shot things that were clearly in the present, and there aren’t many things in the movie that are clearly in the present. I shot them in color and on video, and then the rest of the movie is just memories or lamentations or regrets, the usual compounds that make up our feelings during the day… during the present day. And I had originally shot a lot more of it in video and color because I really wanted to use this movie to help me break through to the digital realm. But I finally decided, just at the last minute, to project a lot of the video sequences that had been edited and re-photograph them on film, just to embed them in emulsion instead. Just consign them to the world of memory and lament.

ZW: This is a question I wasn’t thinking about getting to until later, but you sparked it now: The film’s style is so precise and you’ve crafted out something of a precise style over the years, but I thought it would be interesting to ask whether the style of My Winnipeg was quite reasoned or whether a lot of your style with this film was intuitive and if you were going on intuition with a lot of the stylistic choices? I’m thinking of, specifically, the refrains that you have, the sort of poetic refrains. And, obviously, the black-and-white photography. What was the genesis of that style?

GM: A lot of it’s intuitive. I just go with what feels right, just going with intuition. Sometimes I’m horribly wrong. Like my intuition was to shoot lots of video, but then it never did sit quite right with me and then I had to change it. Then the little repetitions in the narration—I really groped in the editing process for a form. I thought I could cheat the whole documentary-making process by just making shot lists and pretending the thing was one big fiction, and just shooting it like a narrative film. But you can’t cheat documentary, so I had to go back and shoot even more stuff that, as the editing evolved, demanded gaps to be filled.

And I had to come up with some kind of narration, and the idea of just sitting down and writing eighty minutes worth of narration really was too daunting for me. So I used to go into a recording studio for ten minutes a day and kind of just riff. I didn’t know how, and I had a number of different tones of voice, and I hate the sound of my own voice so I wasn’t really comfortable with it. But I finally settled on this one thing where I would attempt to hypnotize the sound recording technician, just by repeating things, over and over and over again. So I assembled many hours worth of stuff and then my editor kind of cut it down into the radio show version of the movie, and then used that as the equivalent of temp music. Most editors like to cut to temp music to help them just get started on an editing rhythm. But he just used my narration as temp music and then started cutting the picture to these things.

Every now and then we would watch the cut and we’d realize that my tone was too monotonous, that [occasionally] trying to hypnotize the listener is fine, but you’re just gonna put him or her into a coma if you keep it up. So I would go back and rerecord some things with a little more sprite in my voice or a little more melodrama. I’m no performer, but luckily, as the filmmaker himself, I get some kind of license to be mediocre.

ZW: (laughs) If you were putting together so much of the narration in post, then what I’m wondering is, when you started putting together the film, was there a script? How did you go about structuring it?

GM: Yeah, I really groped for an approach to this thing, and that’s where Michael Burns, the commissioning producer, was really helpful. Because my first inclination was to kind of remake Fellini’s I Vitelloni. I wanted to not just have myself wandering around town, but four of my dearest friends from my twenty-something most useless years. Just these kind of guys wandering around like lazy drones, experiencing the city and visiting things. And it was just too fictional. It was literally a remake of I Vitelloni set in Winnipeg, and it required too many actors. I was just approaching a documentary from the wrong point of the compass entirely. So [Burns] helped to right me and at least get me to the point where I could make my documentary an assembly of true feelings, true opinions, facts about local beliefs. The movie’s half factual accounts of first nation’s beliefs about legends and rumors and things like that. Then, within those beliefs, there’s all these regrets and lamentations. It’s kind of an emotional thing.

I guess I was really emboldened by the writing of W.G. Sebald who just goes on these walks and then goes into little reminiscing digressions and things like that. I certainly wouldn’t flatter myself that I’m Sebaldian, but I abandoned I Vitelloni and decided to think Sebald. And, of course, whenever I’ve tried to plagiarize someone, I’m so inept at it that it becomes unrecognizable. So I don’t mind admitting that that was my starting point and that it’s become something else altogether.

ZW: I think a lot of the reason for that is that you have your own unique aesthetic.

GM: Yeah, I could never imitate him. That’s why I’m pretty brave in taking on something, and even treating it as a outright plagiarism at first, or a plagiarism of spirit, ’cause I know…

ZW: ...you’re gonna absorb it and you’re gonna synthesize it into your own way of making films.

GM: You bet. Yeah.

ZW: It’s interesting that you abandoned the I Vitelloni influence because I was thinking about the lack of people in so many of the cityscapes. A passage that I thought was really powerful and was particularly interested in, visually especially, was the sequence where you’re driving through all those back roads and talking about the two taxi companies. It was striking to me how you see so much of Winnipeg, but you almost feel like the city and the buildings and the cityscapes dwarf the people inside the city. I wanted to ask if you were trying to do something with using spaces as metaphors for people, what the connection is that you see between spaces and environment and characters and the people who live in those spaces?

GM: I’m really pleased the way all those things have fit together in the movie and I’m extra pleased that you’ve noticed it. I’d like to take credit for thinking all that through beforehand, but I think it just fit together nicely because I tried to make sure I was being emotionally honest about everything. When it came time to put these things together, they did all sort of belong in one movie because they all came from me and my feelings about things. And the city is, at least my Winnipeg, is the Winnipeg I grew up with and which was once very thronged with people. But as the city, like so many of the other cities in North America, has donut-holed, and its downtown has emptied out, and everyone’s moved to suburbs—which I have no call to visit ever—so my Winnipeg is now a ghost town peopled only by sleepwalkers who dimly remember that they once belonged there. So it is kind of emptied out. The places I like to go to don’t have many people in them, and there must be people there. There’s 700,000 people in the town, but I swear I only see about the same hundred over and over again.

The city gets most beautiful in the winter when everything is just covered with this ectoplasmic and slightly iridescent snowfall. It’s mostly dark, and it’s really special then, and you get proud of your city when the very air you’re breathing is crystallized. It’s frozen precipitates, which resembles pixie dust, and every now and then you’re just completely awed by how beautiful it is. And that’s my Winnipeg, and it does feel kind of haunted because, when you’re out walking the dog, you know… walking is what makes you most (as we’ve seen in Sebald and other great writers of “walk literature” like Rousseau) ... you get really reflective, you get a little bit lugubrious and meditative.

ZW: Sometimes you fall.

GM: Yeah! (laughs) Sometimes you fall right on your tailbone. As a matter of fact, every Winnipegger falls at least once in the winter. So you see people at the end of the winter in various bizarre casts and things like that. “I don’t remember when I fell, but… it hurts.”

So the overall tone of the movie is a lament, but also… it’s strange, because the truth is really strange. You can’t make up this stuff, and every city has its really odd histories. I’m really lucky as a filmmaker. I get to travel a lot. A lot of people ask me, “Why are you still in Winnipeg?” Well, it’s my home, but also I get to leave it whenever I want to, unlike a lot of Winnipeggers who’ve been there for their entire lives. I’ve noticed every other city is just jam-packed with its own folklore and odd stories and really strange things. But I’m really lucky, I get to put it on film.

ZW: So many Winnipeggers never leave, hence the poignancy in all those train shots. In terms of structure, I think that’s your one visual through-line in the entire film. That’s there pretty much the whole way through.

GM: Yeah, I sort of thought of that after I’d finished principal photography. I was lying in a couch in Los Angeles watching TCM and a Sherlock Holmes movie. I think it was called Terror on the Train or something. I don’t know what it was. (ed. note: Terror by Night) The whole thing takes place on a train and I realized that Winnipeg is there because of the trains. I love train movies. Trains are very sleepy and dreamy things. And a little bit claustrophobic—my preferred style of shooting. So I just realized I had to, as annoying as it was to my producer… I had to go back and have a train set built and cram a bunch of people in and just shoot this sort of framing device. So the I Vitelloni thing eventually got replaced by a train thing, something to make everything sort of cohere.

ZW: You keep mentioning ghost stories. Two films came to mind when I was watching My Winnipeg, in terms of the connection between memories and ghosts, because I think memories and ghosts are kind of the same things. Those two films are Sans Soleil, the Chris Marker film.

GM: Yeah, it’s a fantastic film.

ZW: And the other one is Vertigo, which is…

GM: Vertigo’s my favorite movie. Almost every movie I make is a fragmentary remake of Vertigo. It’s just a movie that hit me hardest. Although the first time I saw it I fell asleep, strangely. I was very tired, and there’s just something about those reels that Hitch gave to Bernard Hermann and said, “They’re all yours, Bernard!”

ZW: (laughs)

GM: You know where Scotty is just driving around in front of rear-screen projection tailing Madeleine Elster. It’s just such a great welding together of symphony and image, and it’s a big liebestod and all that stuff. Since I tend to think of my life in melodramatic terms, it’s a really perfect film for me. Maybe because it’s sort of singed itself into my DNA, I can’t help but at least speak—a bit anyway—using its vocabulary.

ZW: And it’s interesting because you use that vocabulary, but in such a different way, ’cause your own style is still there.

GM: Yeah, you’re the first person that’s ever even mentioned that, so I should put a pin in honor of you, a Winnipegger medal, on your bosom right now.

ZW: The sequence that really did it for me was when you move back into your old house for a month. Yhat’s like Scotty creating Madeleine all over again.

GM: Yeah, yeah. And it’s mad, and it’s doomed.

ZW: It’s an attempt to recreate the past in this really, really possessive way…

GM: “Put your hair up!”

ZW: (laughs)

GM: I literally… when the restored version of that film came out I happened to be in Paris, and I went to the theater where it was opening. I went at least six hours early expecting a big line-up, and I was the only person in line for the first five hours. But when Madeleine Elster finally emerges with her hair up from that greenish-blue mist, I actually peed my pants. Not a whole bladder-full, but just a little bit.

ZW: (laughs)

GM: You know, just enough to make me uncomfortable for the rest of the screening. But I was also proud that. If I’m ever gonna pee in my pants, it’s got to be at that moment.

ZW: If you make a list of the top five scenes to ever happen in cinema, that’s gotta be…

GM: Yeah, well I had goosebumps the size of hardballs rippling up and down my back, and then my bladder let go. And, obviously, I’m very proud of that. It was like Vertigo and I renewed our vows at that point.

ZW: So, lastly—I’ve always wanted to ask a filmmaker this and you have finally given me the opportunity to. I wanted to ask you what you think the relationship between cinema and memory is, and if you think cinema and memory are two permutations of the same thing?

GM: That’s a very lovely question and I don’t know if I can give an answer that’s as lovely in return. It feels like I have to be a French philosopher or something to answer it properly.

Just to give kind of a clumsy answer: I do think that they’re inextricably related. When you’re taken somewhere by any story, but especially by cinema because it’s just so accessible, you’re constantly double-checking and cross-referencing with your own memory. So even a story that takes viewers into the future or into some other place… it’s always simultaneously taking viewers into their memories. And, for me, memories can be—obviously there’s a million varieties of memory… But certain kinds of memory just literally release some kind of narcotic in my brain. And I’m tripping. And I’m loving it. And it’s legal. And it’s private. And it’s illicit. All at once. So when film is working best for me, I’m kind of skating along its surface, and leaving the surface now and then, and then touching down again, and getting a little bit delirious. But I’m still aware of how beautifully put together everything is, maybe on a second or third viewing, but it’s really working subconsciously. It’s almost working in the ways music works. Because of all the art forms, music takes the shortest route to the heart.

ZW: Yeah. It’s the most immediate.

GM: Yeah, and you don’t even have to think about why it works. It’s just working and you may never understand why it works. So when movies are working too, it kind of reminds me of music. The best kind of movies—you’re enjoying them at the level that you understand immediately, but then there’s also another level where it’s just taking you somewhere.

ZW: You don’t have to intellectualize it.

GM: Nope.

ZW: Like music you don’t have to intellectualize.

GM: Yeah, exactly. You turn on the radio and… feelin’ good. Or something like that. In your car. Or you just put on your favorite discs at home. And you can rationalize all sorts of reasons later, but it’s either getting to you or it isn’t. There’s obviously other music you have to warm to more slowly, and that might be your most profound musical pleasures. So it’s the same as cinema, but you’ve got all these memories to sort through, and sometimes it does take you a few viewings of a movie to really marry you up forever to this picture. So there’s many things, both literally and metaphorically, linking memory and film.

ZW: I think that’s a lovely response, actually.

GM: Oh well, I tried.

ZW: No, that’s fantastic. Thank you so much.

GM: OK. A million thanks. What a pleasure.

ZW: Signing off from The House Next Door, this is Zachary Wigon, and we’ve been with Guy Maddin.

GM: Fantastic.

Zachary Wigon studies Film Production and Comparative Literature at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he is the editor of the film studies publication, the Tisch Film Review. In addition to writing and directing short films, he also writes film criticism for FilmCatcher and maintains a cultural theory blog, Between Fear & Commitment.