EXCL: Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain!


For most people, a summer movie-going experience entails piling into a megaplex with all their friends to see the latest blockbuster, but leave it to Winnipeg filmmaker and auteur Guy Maddin to come up with a summer film experience unlike any other. Brand Upon the Brain! is his latest black and white silent movie which will play in three major cities with an accompanying orchestra, narration by guest “interlocutors,” live Foley sound effects and even a male castrato. Like many of Maddin’s previous films, the movie offers up a pseudo-autobiographical tale from Maddin’s past, this one involving a remote island orphanage/lighthouse where Guy’s parents conduct experiments on the orphans in order to find the secret to eternal youth.

Maddin’s bizarre live film experience has been the toast of the film festival circuit for the last year, starting with its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival and culminating with its recent performance at the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this week.

For most filmmakers, talking to the press must be a bit of a chore, but for Guy Maddin, it must come across as some strange form of therapy… much like his movies.

ComingSoon.net: Can you talk about the origins of the movie? I know you’re a big fan of silent, black and white films, but what was the impetus of doing something like this, where you add all of the sound live?
Guy Maddin: I was approached by my producers, who come from this really odd, quixotic, utopian visionary not-for-profit film studio, The Film Company. They’re out of Seattle. They don’t accept scripts. They just approach filmmakers with a greenlight already illuminated and say, “We want to invite you to make a film. We’ll pay for everything. You just have to come to Seattle and use our all-Seattle cast and crew. We have set designers, wardrobe, make-up, hair, editors, composers, everything. You just come. Like the old Hollywood system except it’s not-for-profit, and you can’t use an old preexisting script that’s got other producers’ breath all over the title page. You have to write something new and you have to start in a month.” I knew that I had to do something in a hurry and I didn’t have time to make-up a lot of stuff, so I took some episodes from my childhood, one key sort of pivotal coming-of-age moment. I knew I didn’t have time to write dialogue, but I knew I had time to wing a film poem together, especially if I left out the dialogue and started writing it later in the editing process, using title cards or narration. A lot of it was in the nature of the invitation to make the movie. As the movie was coming together, I was really shocked at how pleased I was with it. Normally, I’m quite cynical and pessimistic about my projects, but maybe because I made it in such a hurry and couldn’t afford to make-up anything, that it had to come out in one big autobiographical slab. Whenever I tried to put some sort of fictional construct on it, it would almost always fall away. It came out in one big whole, and I’m really proud of the picture. I thought what a shame that no one really wants to watch silent films, but I do know that when there’s live music, it certainly buys a lot more good will in the room.

Then I was reminded of Foley artists, because the way I was shooting it, I could hear things and I thought I wanted sound effects as well, and the only way you can have those in a live performance is by having Foley artists. They’re really delightful artists to watch at work, but they always just work in dimly lit basement studios and they’re not used to any attention. They developed social problems and things like that. I love them dearly, my Foley artists, Goro, Caoimhe and Andy, and they really like performing it turns out. I invited them to come out and expected them to say that the cost would be too high, but no, they embraced it and sacrificed a lot of pay to come out and perform. When it became apparent I needed a narrator, I remember the Benchi narrators of Japan and the early interlocutors of film that helped cinema’s first viewers understand what an edit was. They sort of explained, “She is going to the window now. Don’t worry, her face is big because the camera’s closer,” things like that. I read of those in Louis Bunuel’s autobiography, then I loved the part talkies where silent films were reinvigorated with small talking or singing sections shot a full year after they’d been shelved and then re-released as part talkies. So I went back a year after the film had been shot and shot a little song and that needed to be performed live, too. Then I found the Manitoba Meadowlark in a steam bath in Winnipeg and realized that the song sung by my sister in the movie has to be sung by this castrator. It basically was everything but the kitchen sink.

CS: So “interlocutor” is a real word and not something you made up for the role of the narrator?
Maddin: It’s a word they used to use in minstrel shows and Vaudeville. It just means anyone who converses with someone else, like to “inter-locute” between two people, but it usually meant the host of the show, an emcee basically.

CS: What was the timeframe from when they contacted you to when you started filming?
Maddin: It was less than a month to finish the script, not that that’s an amazing story—I actually think the script is pretty good…for me anyway (chuckles). Yeah, it had to be less than a month, because the art department needed the script to start building sets and to start assembling wardrobe and props in a week or so, The script really didn’t exist much as a script. It was kind of a big outline that I showed up on set with and a list of props and sets I thought we might need. I was lucky enough that all the cast were ready for all the days, and we just showed up on set with all the actors, and I would put them in front of my camera, and basically, I’d just start shooting. I was emboldened ’cause I read that that’s the way Fassbender made so many movies. He would just assemble everybody to do a blocking first, then just attack them with the camera. It was kind of the reverse of doing spoken word rehearsals first, and then figuring out the blocking last. I would just block and then shoot the rehearsal and then move on.

CS: What was it like shooting in Seattle after shooting most of your work in Winnipeg over the years?
Maddin: Yeah, this was my first foreign film. I liked it. I just landed in an airplane, met all the actors, they took all their clothes off to show me what they would look like in their costumes. That was a great way to get to know them instantly, seeing them all naked. I didn’t order them to strip or anything, but they just sort of did. It’s sort of like in Europe, you kiss on the cheek, and in Seattle, you just strip buck naked. I’m making more and more trips to Seattle I find. Then the next morning I was just shooting. I visited the sets right after landing as well, make sure they worked like they did in the JPEGs sent to me, and they did, and away we went.

CS: You’ve done so many autobiographical movies, so do you have a pretty good line-up of young actors to play you in the movies you do?
Maddin: I’m kind of glad I was forced to switch it up a bit because I didn’t want to give Darcy [Fehr], who first played me in “Cowards Bend the Knee” too much bargaining leverage, but also the idea that I can be interchangeable. Obviously, every movie director, every author, is putting so much of him or herself into their own work, so I just thought, “Why not be honest about it and say it’s me?” In that way, it actually felt better being honest, more confessional, more self-damning. The masochism felt better, and I can make more of a humiliated spectacle of myself. I feel better about it.

CS: Can you tell me about the childhood moment that influenced this movie?
Maddin: The episode that I remember was when my older sister hit puberty, and it really troubled my mother. She just didn’t like the idea of the kind of thoughts that were whirling around in her head. I think she just tried to will every last pubic development back into her body. It reminded me of the way the vampire hunters in “Dracula” hate it when the women start sleepwalking because it means they’re restless in their self-conscious. My mother just disapproved of my sister growing up, so it led to big confrontation, an all-out war with a lot of collateral damage. Then entering the picture was this romantic figure who was really charismatic and wonderful, and whose gender later turned out to be a big surprise to everybody. It was really an odd interlude in our life, so there was this spectacularly internetian war followed by some sort of Shakespearean plot twist. I’ve been really lucky that my childhood has been incredibly melodramatic, so I’ve barely had to leave that trough when thinking of… most filmmakers only have one childhood movie in them and then they use it up, but I feel like I can keep going back to that thing.

CS: When you see this movie after it’s been assembled, is there anything that surprises you, like “Where on earth did that idea come from?”
Maddin: As stylized as it is and as unreal as a silent movie by definition is—it’s in black and white with no audible speech—there are moments that are so uncannily spot-on that I feel terrible watching it, especially in rehearsal, when there’s no one in the audience and it’s just me and the orchestra and the narrators and the Foley artists. I just feel like I’ve betray my family and broken a commandment by dishonoring my mother and father.

CS: Have they actually seen the movie or been in the audience?
Maddin: No, no, no, luckily not. My mum’s going blind, and I love her dearly and I always will. The movie is a Grand Guignol teen detective child reminiscence horror movie, as well as being 96% true, so it’s kind of odd. But I can’t really show it to any of them, but that’s okay. They’ve figured out sort of that I’m going to hell anyway.

CS: Was Jason Staczek already familiar with the music of those old time movies or did you have to get him up to speed on them?
Maddin: What a stroke of luck running into that guy, because he had to write 100 minutes of music for the thing. Music is everything to me. Of all the artforms, music takes the shortest route to the heart, and as a filmmaker, you hope that you have some good music, so you can bumper ride all the way on that shortcut. He just has such a flexible temperament, and he was even volunteering to degrade the music in early exchanges of MP3 files that we were sending back and forth. He just really understands that the music had to embrace the images properly. So many collaborators have hidden agendas and say they want to do what’s best for you, but they really just want something good on their demo reel, but this guy is so sweet and really hard-working and really gets it. The temp music that my editor John Gurdebeke and I were using was really big and bold and dynamic and I really felt the movie needed that and then Jason Staczek had the courage to replace that with stuff that doesn’t try to overpower the movie a lot of the time. I was really scared when I first heard it and then the more I listened, the more I realized it serves the movie so much better and that he’s a genius.

CS: I got to see this at the New York Film Festival, but you’ve got it to the point where you can take it on the road?
Maddin: That’s right, starting with 14 live shows over seven days in New York, then over to Chicago and L.A. I just sort of take [the theatre] over for awhile. The most expensive part of the show is shipping the Foley equipment and people, but musicians you can pick up in each town because they can read music. There’s no way of writing Foley cues that people in various cities can just look at and read, so you have to take these people that know the movie really well wherever you go.

CS: Will you be attending all of these doing Q ‘n’ As?
Maddin: I’m going to go to all the ones in New York for sure, because there’s a different narrator at each show. People like Eli Wallach doing one, and his wife Anne Jackson, and then Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. Isabelle Rosellini is doing another one, the poet John Ashbury, this guy Tunde from TV on the Radio. It’s a really odd mixture of people. I think it’s on the website and it’ll be announced in the schedule, which will be locked down very shortly. I guess cause it’s partially theatre, it’s subject to change I suppose, if someone gets laryngitis, but that’s the kind of terror I’ve learned to love. I never suspected I had a theatre person in me, but I don’t think I can ever go back to normal movie-making again where I just worry about getting the projection and the volume right. Now, there’s just so many balls in the air.

CS: How have the Foley artists been acclimating to the live thing, because obviously they’re used to doing a lot of rewinding, getting the right take, etc?
Maddin: They’re loving it, because also Foley artists don’t do ambient noise. They don’t do like wind or distant traffic noises or rain sounds. They do specific sounds: door closings, foot steps, punches and things like that, so they had to broaden their vocabulary and construct a wind machine and sheets of thunder. They immediately started thinking visually—that was thrilling—because the best thing to make the sound for tapping into a young child’s brain for nectar apparently is hard past wrapped in a wet shammy, but when viewed from the cheap seats or from any seat in the house, you can’t tell what that is, so they switched over to celery which sounds almost as good, but is so vibrantly green and instantly recognizable as celery… except in Mexico where noone eats celery, and then you can’t buy it. They were going to have celery imported but I thought, “Maybe you should try and find a Mexican equivalent.” It’s kind of like the Foley money shot when the celery comes out, that’s the moment where the audience really sort of orgasms over the Foley artists.

CS: I’ve never heard the term “Foley money shot” used and I don’t think I’ll ever hear that again.
Maddin: Maybe that one doesn’t get used often enough in the industry. The Foley artists are real boredom insurance, because you get to look back and forth between the movie screen and the Foley artist and you see this Grand Guignol thing happening on the screen and then you look down and see the Foley Captain chewing on celery and twisting it around. It’s kind of fun.

CS: Did you think about having a camera on them as an inset on the big screen or a separate display?
Maddin: I think we’ve recorded them at least during some rehearsals for some sort of DVD bonus. I don’t know how that can be incorporated in an interesting way. Another example of them really getting into the spirit of live performance: one Foley effect they have to supply is of 12-year-old me urinating into a pot, so I think they’re planning some kind of ruse, the kind that Olympic athletes use to try to switch someone else’s urine for their own, and I think they’re planning on spraying some warm water into those nice seats right next to the Foley artists to see what kind of commotion they can start.

CS: After the live shows are done, you’re also going to release a version of the movie with prerecorded music and narration. Did you try to record that live at one of the performances?
Maddin: I did a studio version and it does sound different, just like any album you get from your favorite pop performances, the live vs. the studio performance. It does sound different, and I’m really tempted to pirate our live performance somehow. I hired a pirate in Toronto actually, because it’s a really strict union house and we weren’t allowed to record anything, but through a third party, I hired a pirate to record it, then the pirate never came back to me. You just can’t trust pirates anymore!

CS: Do you have any idea what you’re going to do after finishing up this tour?
Maddin: I gotta do a bit of this, then I gotta finish up a feature-length “docu-fantasia” on the city of Winnipeg. It’s not a mockumentary, it’s a real documentary, but it’s kind of a W.G. Sebald peregrination through my hometown for network television in Canada and hopefully, that will play the film festival circuit as well. I’m also working on a collaboration with the poet John Ashbury on an internet-interactive narrative labyrinth movie, and I’m in the early stages on a feature-length bigger budget collaboration with Kazuo Ishiguro, who worked with me on “The Saddest Music in the World.”

Brand upon the Brain! kicks off its New York City run tonight (May 9) at the Village East with two performances narrated by Crispin Glover, followed by 12 more performances in the next week, before heading to Chicago’s Music Box Theatre on May 18 (all narrated by Glover) then Los Angeles’ Egyptian Theatre from June 8 – 10. You can also read a report on the New York Film Festival screening here.