Exclusive: Guy Maddin on His Winnipeg

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The films of Guy Maddin are certainly an acquired taste, because they’re often so bizarre that they’re not movies you soon forget, and once you’re hooked, there’s no going back, even if it’s impossible for anyone to fully understand from what demented recesses of this crazed mind comes some of his wilder ideas.

In the past, he’s been compared to the likes of David Lynch and John Waters in the way he mixes whimsical and perverse fantasy in with the mundane and yet his new movie My Winnipeg may be his most accessible film to date, a loving travelogue and tribute to his home city of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Like his previous film, the silent movie Brand Upon the Brain!, it’s filled with semi-fictionalized auto-biographical memories of his youth, showing his childhood home and haunts, as well as a recreation of some of the city’s most fascinating urban myths and legends. It might not turn Winnipeg into the next big tourist vacation spot, but it certainly gives a better idea how Maddin has become one of the city’s most well-known filmmaking exports.

ComingSoon.net met up with Maddin at the Soho Grand Hotel where some high fashion photo shoot was taking place and all the beautiful young people in the restaurant made us stand out like a sore thumb. As we learned the last time we interviewed Maddin, he is a naturally funny guy with lots of great stories to share, which may be why his films are always so entertaining.

ComingSoon.net: I believe the last time we spoke you mentioned that “My Winnipeg” was a commissioned film, right?
Guy Maddin: It was kind of commissioned. I had made a short film with Isabella Rossellini called “My Dad is 100 Years Old” for the Documentary Channel in Canada, and then I heard a rumor that the guy who runs the Documentary Channel–ran it, he’s been fired since–Michael Burns, I heard a rumor that he was so pleased with that movie–which made me happy to hear–but he wanted to invite me to make a longer documentary. I’d never wanted to make a documentary; it just requires too much discipline. Isabella’s was a documentary, but it was more of a “docu-fantasia.” The only research she had to do was her memory and in her heart, but Michael invited me, said he would pay for the documentary if I made one about Winnipeg, and he said, “Make it very personal.” Once again I realized, “Hey, if it’s personal, I won’t have to do any research. I could just research my memory and my heart and go from there because I hate research.” I also tried to cheat in other ways because a documentary requires a filmmaker be disinterested, objective, usually, or at least traditional documentaries. There’s plenty of exceptions we know about, but the most daunting aspect of the traditional documentary is the shooting ratio. (That’s the amount of footage shot compared to the film’s running time.) An indie picture usually has a ten or twelve to one shooting ratio and a documentary has hundreds to one shooting ratio.

CS: Yeah, it can be anywhere from 400 to 600 hours of footage sometimes.
Maddin: Yeah, then it takes a year just to log the footage and I didn’t want to do that, so I figured I would come up with my agenda, my stories, my anecdotes, either find the footage, whatever it was, whether it was found footage or recreations, or whatever. Then I would treat it like a fiction film even though it was a documentary, or “docu-fantasia,” so I tried cheating it. I kept the shooting ratios down, but you still had to find your subject in the editing, so it is a documentary in those respects, or some kind of hybrid anyway.

CS: It seems that style in general involves a lot of footage and images and a lot of edits. Did you have some idea what stories you wanted to tell?
Maddin: It’s kind of funny, the day after I made that call and got the project I found myself in Paris showing “The Saddest Music in the World” at the Pompidou center, and someone just said, “What’s Winnipeg like, what’s with the water there, what’s going on,” and so I decided to just describe the Winnipeg for this audience, and I spent about ten or fifteen minutes describing Winnipeg. It really went on for some reason. I’d never really done that before and I found myself touching on most of the subjects that ended up in “My Winnipeg,” and so I just turned straight back to my hotel room and wrote an email to Michael Burns saying, “This is a kind of proposed outline for ‘My Winnipeg'” and he said, “Go ahead.”

CS: Did you still do any kind of research at all?
Maddin: A little bit. I ended up accidentally chancing upon some things as friends of mine in Winnipeg found out I was making a movie about it they would suggest other anecdotes, “Did you know this happened, or did you know that,” the oddest thing is that one episode in the movie that seems the most implausible of all, I didn’t know about at all, is the “If Day” episode about the fake Nazi invasion, it was part of a war bonds campaign, I didn’t even know about that until halfway through shooting, it’s strange, and that’s a good example to find out what’s different between Americans and Canadians, for some reason. Canadians have always fought with their national identity and if you ask a Canadian what they’re like or what their national identity is–define a Canadian–they’ll always describe as what they’re not. We’re so similar to Americans–we always watch American television and things like that–so we say, “Well, we’re not Americans.” Well, what does that mean? “We don’t boast, we don’t exaggerate” so we have our historical figures and historical events, but we present them in life-size terms as accurately as possible. Nothing is mythologized, nothing is boiled down, reduced, exaggerated, nothing is heightened…

CS: Until this movie…
Maddin: (laughs) Until this movie… but every other country in the world except Canada, because we’re shamed into being so literal-minded in Canada by just how well Americans self- mythologize. Every other country does too I’m sure. It’s the nature of the campfire story. From every culture humans have ever been involved in, except for Canadians… so I just decided to give Winnipeg myths the same treatment that every other country gives them.

CS: We’ve seen a lot of biographical movies about yourself and your childhood and your mother. Were any of those pictures real family photos from your childhood and family home?
Maddin: That’s true. It had been an obsession of mine to go back to my house. My childhood house actually had been subdivided into four residences, so I was only able to sublet part of it, but luckily, the part that had my bedroom and the living room.

CS: You actually went back and did shoot in your old house?
Maddin: Yeah, I went back there. It was great… and depressing.

CS: I can imagine. Some of these stories are obviously urban myths and have been fictionalized, but some of the stuff actually did happen to you?
Maddin: Almost everything happened actually, but some of the things are presented as… I break the movie into three parts: opinions, like emotional, childish opinions, about the arena, like that; myths that other people believe, like there’s forks beneath the forks or the séances. I don’t believe in séances. I don’t believe in that paranormal stuff, but Winnipeggers do. And then facts, and then some perhaps improperly-remembered family episodes, but I’m putting them out there as emotionally true anyway. They’re remembered as well as I can. In other words I guess I’m an unreliable narrator in a literary traditional sense, but I’m at least honestly telling you right now that I was trying to be as reliable as possible, but still trying to be enchanting.

CS: I was going to ask about “Ledge Man,” because I can’t imagine that’s a real show.
Maddin: It’s not on IMDb, but it was actually a local show, but local public access television shows aren’t all on IMDb either. So my mother went off and worked on “Ledge Man” every day and things like that. I could’ve used actual footage of my mother, but I wanted to be consistent in using Ann Savage. I was so proud of tricking Ann Savage out of retirement, she’s my favorite femme fatale of all in “Detour” and she hadn’t heard the slate crack in fifty-one years. So I was pretty thrilled, and every episode of “Ledge Man” that I remember seeing was exactly like that, and I was able to go on the old set of it and just use the old set.

CS: Really? The show was actually filmed in Winnipeg?
Maddin: Yeah, it was shot just down at the TV station which is actually right next to the Winnipeg Arena. There were so many things to mention that I had to keep it down to eighty minutes, and the TV station is also being torn down now.

CS: You’ve had so many people play you and your family over the course of years, and you had all local people except for “Brain Upon the Brain!” obviously.
Maddin: Yeah, a Seattle guy, the Seattle version of me. I even had a person play me in a live event in Chicago once. A guy overbooked me into a bunch of events in Chicago and I finally just put my foot down. I was brought in and paid a thousand dollars to talk one night and the guy booked me to five events, so I just quit and went home, and he hired an impostor to play me. I read reviews of the event afterward and he got away with it. I met this guy before and he had more hair than I do. I mean he was ten years younger than I, but he weighed at least hundred more pounds than me. He was like a cartoon version of me or something like that, but it passed and that was the heartbreaking part.

CS: Did he just do a lot of research?
Maddin: No, he just showed up. I’m not exactly a household name, so if I ever molest you, or say anything wrong to you out there, it’s not me, it’s the other guy.

CS: Wow, he might still be out there pretending to be you.
Maddin: I hope he’s having more fun than I am.

CS: I wanted to ask you about the found footage because I honestly couldn’t tell which footage was found and which you created.
Maddin: There weren’t many movie cameras in Winnipeg over the years, but there was one great still photographer. I didn’t want to make it one big montage of too many still photos, so I took every bit of moving motion picture there was in the Manitoba Archives and used it, so the horse heads are there, the Holly Snowshoe Club. There’s a little bit of the train track footage just outside Winnipeg, leaving Winnipeg, from part of a documentary account of heading out of Winnipeg and up to the Hudson’s Bay. I just used as much as I could because I wanted it, and then I had to recreate some things through animation, and then just actors and stuff like that.

CS: What did the Documentary Channel and the government of Winnipeg think when they finally saw your movie?
Maddin: The documentary channel, the guy who commissioned it, was super tickled and really supportive, Michael Burns, he loves it. He’s since been fired, possibly because of this for all we know, but he’s very proud of the two pictures we’ve made together: the Isabella Rossellini one, and this one. I think he’s working for the Olympic Games and he’s working on commissioning a bunch of other filmmakers to make the city diaries.

CS: There seems to be a lot of anger in this movie, like the arena is one thing you mentioned, as well as bit of sadness. Have you ever thought of leaving Winnipeg or is it just sort of what it is?
Maddin: Oh you bet. No, that part of the movie is literally my creed. I literally am always talking about leaving. I feel I should, mostly because my daughter moved to Toronto when she was ten, and I still saw her often. I would go to Toronto three or four months at a time and have her back at the summer cottage for two months every year, so it’s just six months of the year, but I always sort of felt I should be there. Torturously enough, the Province of Manitoba (where Winnipeg is) really aggressively supports filmmaking, and the Province of Ontario (where Toronto is) doesn’t, so I’m kind of stuck there by my career, luckily my career has lots of off-time so I could go there a lot, but it just sort of seems like I should just live there permanently. Lately, I’ve been renting apartments in two places, but that’s just cost prohibitive. Toronto is not quite as expensive as New York, but I already feel bad enough I don’t own a house and here I am renting in two cities.

CS: When you talk to a New Yorker they mention everything they hate about New York, and then of course they’ll never leave, and I got the same vibe from this movie.
Maddin: I think it’s actually kind of universal that way. I guess everybody’s got to go on a neverending rant about his or her own home.

CS: What would you like non-residents of Winnipeg to get out of this movie? Obviously tourism might pick up.
Maddin: (laughs) I’m not counting on the tourism.

CS: People can now go visit your childhood home when they pass through Winnipeg, I guess.
Maddin: Yeah, and I met the Minister of Culture in Manitoba and he said, “What can I do for you, Guy?” and I said, “I want my home at 800 Ellis protected as a heritage building so that no one could tear it down.” Then he called back two weeks later–he actually followed up on it–and he said, “Bad news, you actually have to be dead before we can protect your childhood home.”

CS: So someday.
Maddin: Someday. It’s a race between which structure falls apart first, me or the old house.

CS: I wanted to ask you about the hockey thing. We haven’t seen your love for hockey in any of your other movies, and I was curious about that…
Maddin: It’s hard to shoot sports movies, I guess I cut off your question.

CS: Actually, that’s kind of where I was going with it.
Maddin: I don’t like many sports movies, I like “Fear Strikes Out” with Tony Perkins and Karl Malden, but that’s got other stuff going on, it happens to be a sport, it’s a coincidence, it’s really about the father, son dynamic, sports to me just have to be watched live and fictional sports don’t really interest me that much, but I love sports, Ron Shelton made all those great sports movies and he’s kind of figured out a formula, so I’ll just leave that to him.

CS: What’s it like living in Winnipeg as far as being one of the preeminent filmmakers there? Do you get recognized on the streets a lot?
Maddin: Just lately my celebrity quotient has ratcheted up just a little bit, as a matter of fact. I went to my corner video store recently with some overdue DVDs and all the late fees were completely forgiven because I’m Guy Maddin, so that’s one of the big perks.

CS: It wasn’t a big headline in the local newspaper: “Guy Maddin Returns His DVDs late”?
Maddin: (laughs) Controversy! Every now and then it feels exactly the same as it always did, but every now and then someone lets on that they’ve known who I was all along during a conversation that I’ve had… when I meet someone.

CS: I see, so they act normal like, “Hey, nice to meet you” and then later on they admit knowing your work.
Maddin: Yeah, Missouri is the Show-Me state, but Winnipeg is a real hard-boiled, very difficult to impress populace. It’s the town that booed Neil Young off the stage early in his career.

CS: Wow, it’s a good thing he didn’t give up the music business.
Maddin: (laughs) Yeah, when he comes back now he’s cheered, but it’s tough. When I showed my last picture “Brand Upon the Brain!” there just this winter, there were sixteen hundred people in the house, and I finally said, “Okay, you’ve got me. You could squash me right now if you want. You are the very same people, and I know because I’m one of you, that booed Neil Young off the stage. I know how we’re wired, so now I’m the vulnerable one. I’m at your mercy.”

CS: Have you showed them “My Winnipeg” yet?
Maddin: No, in late June they could squash me. I’m going to try to get them first.

CS: Do you like you’ve gotten everything you have to say about Winnipeg out of your system with this movie?
Maddin: There was much more to say. I literally could have done “Winnipeg Alexanderplatz” with this, but I didn’t want to try everyone’s patience. There was just so much, because the history and the folklore and the myths of the place had been ignored for a hundred and twenty years. A funny thing happens when I make a movie about something. It’s usually something I’m obsessed with in the first place, but I take something that’s real and true and worthy of obsession and I just turn it into a job that has to be done. So much footage that has to be edited, and stuff that has to be screened and then eventually talked about, and by the end of the whole process I usually get so sick of it that I’ve cured myself of it. It’s not a kind of therapy where I’ve identified a problem or a trouble area and work myself through it. I don’t solve anything. I just bury the whole thing in ennui, so I will be cured of Winnipeg.

CS: I remember you went to Seattle to do “Brand Upon the Brain!” I was curious if you are still traveling more and trying to find other places to shoot.
Maddin: I like the idea of shooting other places and I love the idea of shooting in New York. I was this close to shooting at Bard College; I would’ve been just wrapping yesterday on a project but it fell through at the last second. I’d like to shoot something in Paris, another city I like, and I have some friends there, so I could see myself shooting in New York City next actually.

CS: Last time I talked to you, you had a few things in the works including another movie with Kazuo Ishiguro (co-writer of “Saddest Music”). How’s that going?
Maddin: Yeah, it’s moving slowly and it’s all tied to me; it’s all my fault. I’m just not writing it as quickly as I should, but I’m really lucky that I have this. In a way, talking about “My Winnipeg” is slowing me down on that. I’m really lucky I have a film to promote, but it’s preventing me from daydreaming uninterruptedly about other projects, so it’s just slowing me up, but in the next month or so I should be able to give myself to it entirely.

CS: You’ve become really intrinsically linked with Isabella Rossellini. Even when they showed this movie at Tribeca, they showed her short movies about bugs beforehand. Could you talk about your relationship with her? Most people know her from working with David Lynch on “Blue Velvet” and many call you the “Canadian David Lynch.”
Maddin: Yeah, I’m always getting David’s sloppy seconds, but I adore Isabella and she and I think alike in many ways. I really admire her writing voice. The bug movies are very clever and smart and stylish, and she’s got a really playful tone. She’s also unapologetically pornographic and raunchy, but she’s elegant and charming. She’s everything I’d love to be. In her own autobiography “Some of Me,” it wasn’t ghostwritten. I think it was originally planned to be ghostwritten, but she handed all of her notes over to a ghostwriter and the editor just said, “No, you’ve got your own writing voice,” which is similarly a simultaneous hybrid of childishness and sophisticate and bawdy and innocent and morbid and touching. These are qualities that great writers have actually, and while she doesn’t have a mastery of English–she’s got sort of a slight Zsa Zsa Gabor mangling of words now and then–but she actually has a great writer’s voice.

CS: Did you guys meet when you were making “Saddest Music in the World” or did you know each other beforehand?
Maddin: I met her in Central Park actually. We were both petting the same dog, and our hand ended up… well, I admit I saw her petting the dog, but I went over to pet the dog. I’m a dog lover, too, and I noticed the dog was holding her hand in it’s mouth, so I let it hold my hand in it’s mouth too, and so our hands were sort of held in place by this drooling Labrador retriever. Then the Lab went away and then there were just these two sort of spit-covered intertwined hands and we just struck up a conversation.

CS: I think that’s the most romantic story I’ve ever heard in my entire life.
Maddin: Yeah, it was really hot. (chuckles)

CS: Are you two going to try to do some more stuff together?
Maddin: We talk about it always. She’s busy right now making her own movies, but I think I can convince her to be in something. I want to write something really nice for her.

CS: Since I just interviewed Werner Herzog earlier, I wanted to make things interesting and swap questions, so I’ll ask you one of his. Would you ever consider pulling a boat up a mountain?
Maddin: (laughs) I adore Werner Herzog, we’d never met, I posed for a picture once at the San Francisco Film Festival, we both got awards at the film festival, but I could tell all the photographers, all the paparazzi were framing me out of the photos. (laughs) But anyway, he’s the greatest raconteur in movies, if not in movie history.

CS: It’s kind of odd, you both have very different movies in cold places. I asked him about his mother but he didn’t want to get into it.
Maddin: Yeah, I don’t want to talk about the boat, actually I’d prefer not to discuss it.

My Winnipeg opens at the IFC Center in New York on Friday, June 13. Also, check out our interview with Werner Herzog here.