Once upon a time many years ago, I interviewed Guy Maddin for Zoo Magazine

Dear Shaded Viewers,

About a decade ago The Saddest Music in the World was playing in Paris and the actress Maria de Medeiros, who is featured in the film, introduced me to the work of Guy Maddin. Years later she introduced me to him personally when he had a retrospective  at Centre Pompidou in Paris. I screenedThe Saddest Music in theWorld  at ASVOFF years ago when Maria de Medeiros was on my jury.

NVU with Guy Maddin, I stalked him until I finally got him for this interview and  it remains one of my favourite interviews ever.


DP: I know that I am starting in the middle of your career but I was fascinated and totally amused by your description in one of your production diaries on The Saddest Music in the World for the Village Voice. The images that you conjured up with the hyper sensitive mic and the journey inside the mouth of Maria de Medeiros had me rolling on the floor. What is your approach to sound in general and what is the “hallucinatory joyride that is ADR?”


GM: ADR is automated dialogue replacement! It’s dubbing, basically, but from one language into the same language, so that you can get clean recordings of flubbed lines or speech which has been murked up by fans, passing planes or offscreen sneezes. The process is very meticulous and requires the director to sit in the dark with a movie screen version of the actor whose readings are being doctored, the real living breathing version of the actor sits there, too, in complete blackness, in front of a microphone wired directly to headphones on the director’s head. All others in the room, caterers, technicians or  girlfriends, are cloaked in shade. Everyone looks at the filmed lips of the long-ago shot performer. The headphones place you, the director, right inside the living actor’s mouth, somewhere on a molar near the rear, right beside the tongue. You can hear the tongue sloshing around in their, like a seal at the zoo. You can hear it getting ready to pounce on a verb, slink up to seduce an adjective, hold a noun down by the wrists. The replacement of dialogue can take days and believe me it’s not healthy to spend that much time inside another person’s mouth. You fall in love with them, you hate them, you identify with them – you go crazy! No amount of showering rids you of the feeling you are glazed in their saliva.


DP: Would you say that you are addicted to bad sound and visual distortion?


GM: I know what you mean by bad sound, but it ain’t bad, it’s different. I don’t like the fact that all movies have more or less the same criteria, the same standards of sound recording to which they hold themselves. It’s like saying all painters must use the same size brush. Absolutely absurd. I like sound that is spread on the canvas in really raw ways, or even thrown there. I just think film artists should have as many options as other artists when they are working with sound. I don’t want to give people headaches with my sound, I just want to get to them somehow. Certain murky, buried sounds are like foggy landscapes to me – positively dreamy. I like dreamy sound, but now always. I like a sound to serve its purpose without arbitrary industry standard restrictions.


DP: In The Dead Father you intentionally included obvious mistakes and that then became an element in the overall aesthetics of your films, how did that evolve, at first it was an accident and you liked the way it worked?


GM: Yes, I over-exposed a bunch of film and the guys at the lab were too lazy to show me how they could fix it with the turn of a dial in printing, so I just left a bunch of over-exposed stuff in the film. It looks cool, it reminds viewers they’re watching a movie, and it reminds the filmmakers who are watching to have their light meters checked. I just learned early on to go with most mistakes. Clumsiness has a far more vast imagination than I do!



DP: When did you become so fascinated with the silent films of the twenties and black and white cinematography and what is it about nostalgia and artificiality that appeals so profoundly to you?


GM: When I was in my own filmmaking infancy, I suddenly found it possible to empathize with other filmmakers from the infancy of the art form. I was, quite arrogantly, reliving the Edison years, the Lumiere years. At least I was discovering things for myself much the way these guys did, and I felt the same unbelievable highs they must have felt. Only then, when I started working on film myself, did I come to understand, or even want to understand, silent film, experimental film and all sorts of melodrama. Only then did I begin to feel how interconnected photography, painting, opera, fairy tales, dreams, sex  and practical jokes were. It was like God vivisected the arts for me and let me look inside. I haven’t learned everything there is to know, or I would be a far more accomplished director, but the world became visible to me, suddenly, in wholly new ways. It was so exciting. Much like my attitude towards sound, I felt that I should be allowed to combine all the above-mentioned elements in any way I saw fit. Since I work almost entirely outside the industry, that’s what I chose to do.

For reasons I still can’t comprehend I was for a few years pathologically nostalgic. I had a lot of family crap to reprocess. I just threw everything I had under my control, and a whole bunch of stuff I couldn’t control, at my camera, shot it and cut it together and just tried to stay honest while doing so. For some reason this reminds people of silent film. I think what I make is more closely related to fairy tales, actually. Fairy tales are ancient, but timeless. For most people, silent film is just ancient.



DP: In Careful you worked with the fear of sound and everyone whispering so as not to cause an avalanche, where you grew up, was it very silent?


GM: No, I grew up in a beauty salon, you will be happy to know. And in the early sixties, hair dryers really roared!!! Loudly!!! And the hairdressers and customers shouted over top of them. Everyone in my family developed piercing voices in order to cut through this din. Every waking moment was a complete cacophony!!!


DP: When you wrote The Saddest Music in the World, did you have Maria de Medeiros and Isabella Rossellini in your mind? Together in one film was genius.


GM: Yes, we wrote Isabella’s part for her. And we wrote Maria’s part for someone like Maria, then after trying to figure out who out there working today was like Maria de Medeiros, we realized we could just ask Maria de Medeiros. I love both these women very much, as actors, personae and friends. Both seem to have stepped straight from time machines. They don’t just bring their formidable presences with them before the camera, they drag with them decades of history which predates their births.


DP: How do you work with the costume designer and how did you come up with those glass legs with the bubbling beer…


GM:I have had only one costume designer this century, Meg McMillan. She thoroughly immerses herself in the film, lives among the bolts of fabric which will eventually garb the performers, surrounds herself with piles of books, gets inside the characters’ heads – and without the benefit of ADR, either. She just does it through paranormal means. I really love her hunches, her fashion sense. Like all the great designers, gay or straight, she’s hot for women!!! She wears their skin!  The glass legs I had an oboe-player, who is also a glass-blower, make them after listening to the score of the film.


DP: Decay is almost an obsession in your work, how would you define it and how do you make it appear so fresh?


GM: I only use the freshest decay in my films. The decay in my emulsions is checked constantly and strictly to make sure it is absolutely new. Whatever happens after I’m dead I can’t be responsible for.


DP: I know the story of how your grandmother accidentally poked out the eye of your Dad; I imagine that as a child the whole idea of a missing eye had a profound effect on you?


GM: Well, on his first birthday, she clutched my dad to her bosom, where an unpinned brooch pierced his little eye. How heartbroken she was! She spent the rest of her life poking her own eyes out in family photographs, the poor dear. This sounds like a myth, but it’s true. A number of events in my family history, all the big events, come of as plot twists in an opera, and so I have never had any trouble making sense of otherwise inscrutable Greek myths, bible stories, ethnic folk tales and  riddles. They just seem part of the factual continuum of life – and it doesn’t matter if something actually happened or not. If something is still being retold year after year, it’s more true than true anyway. That understanding of narrative and myth is the profound effect my dad’s eye had on me.


DP: Your father appears to be a strong reference in your films what was your relationship with him like?


GM: I think my relationship was very normal. As a teen I argued with him over the length of my hair and my laziness. Nothing special. But he suddenly died before I could win any of the arguments. He left me feeling like he ran out on us by dying. I felt deserted. I dreamt of this desertion for decades – I know that was too long – and only recently did I have a dream long enough, one of those all-nighters, to really fight it through to the end with him. By dawn, at the end of the dream, my father had changed races, getting quite a bit darker, and gotten on a plane and flown away. I haven’t seen him since. That was about a year ago.


DP: Most directors use short films as a vehicle to features, you do not have that approach at all what is it about short films that appeals to you and why?

GM: Once again, filmmakers have something in common with other artists. Why ignore this fact. Novelists quite commonly return to the short story. Every narrative has its perfect length. Why not make shorts, I ask? Besides, when I get lonely, I can surround myself with actors and craftspeople and have some fun working. A short can be whipped into existence almost overnight. I do it to help me meet people. It’s my Lava Life.


DP: Can you tell me the two stories, one about your piggyback ride and the ears of Bing Crosby between your thighs and the other your elevator experience with Kenneth Anger?


GM: When I was six my father took me on a trip to California. WE met Bing Crosby one afternoon and he gave me a piggy back ride. I was wearing shorts and my bare thighs gripped Bing’s famously large ears very hard, for I was afraid of falling off his neck. His ears folded backwards and practically scalded me with their heat and celebrity power. I can still feel them there on my inner thighs, an impression left like the scorches on the Shroud of Turin. Bing is a god to me. Bing is God.


Kenneth Anger is Satan, apparently, and that’s cool with me. I love him dearly. I met him on an escalator. There’s no way he remembers me. He was running away from me at a hotel in Chicago while I called after him. Even though he was 70 at the time he was really flying. He shot down a hallway then mounted an escalator, only the escalator was turned off. You know what that’s like. It turned his legs to rubber and he sagged a bit, giving me my chance to catch up. I grabbed his hand to help him up and wouldn’t let go. I think he put a mini-curse on me to get away, for as soon as I made contact he had disappeared.


DP: Do you remember the first Kenneth Anger film that you saw; was it Fireworks, or something else? If you had to choose an all time favourite film, what would it be?


GM: It was Fireworks, which really stands up – amasterpiece! Eaux D’Artifice si maybe the greatest! But my favourite is Puce Moment, by far. I could watch it all day. A fashionista would be intested toknow it starts with the most increble fashion sequence in the history of 16mm filmmaking: One 20’s vintage dress after another shaken before the camera and removed to reveal yet another, over and over again, in glorious Ektachrome the sheers, beads and silks in every colour of the spectrum until puce is finally unveiled! Puce is the ever-changing colour of the flea! And it’s gorgeous. And the film is gorgeous!!


DP: And among your own?


GM: I’d rather not talk about my films in a sentence so close to others devoted to Kenneth Anger. He deserves a respectful space around his titles.


DP: How would you describe your emotions at your very first screening?


GM: Very nervous. Even though only my immediate family was present at the screening, I became paralyzed with fear of public speaking while introducing the film. There were only six people present. I was such a delicate nut in those days.


DP: How did it feel to be the youngest recipient ever of the Telluride Film Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award, how old were you at the time?


GM: I felt like an imposter. I was 39. Jody Foster got the award, too, at a slightly younger age. So I feel less of an imposter.


DP: At what point in your career did you consider giving up on filmmaking?


GM: I think about it all the time, but what else am I going to do. Other people get lonely and they can’t pick up a camera and just summon a bunch of people to gather round them. I am blessed. But it’s a profession that beats you up enough that you often dream of quitting. They’ll miss me when I’m dead, you say.


DP: Did you ever consider leaving the Canadian borders and venturing off to Hollywood?


GM: I’ve gone off to Hollywood a few times, but it makes my penis shrivel up till it’s very very small. I don’t know why, but I don’t like it very much there. I just wish people returned your calls in Hollywood. Maybe my penis would actually get as big as it once was if I hired a few people to phone me from Hollywood area codes. I wouldn’t even have to pick up the phone, just look at the caller display, and —whooooooop!


DP: Over the past few years you’ve been quite prolific and you also changed your style of editing to work the way the human memory works can you expand on that idea?


GM: Well, I’ve made a number of films that involve flashbacks, or to be more precise, I have made a bunch of autobiographies that forced me to think of my past. I thought I would try a new facsimile of memory. No one who is remembering times gone by actually does so in strict chronological order. Rather, they rush past much that is dull or forgotten, they slow down over the really delicious parts, they even play these great moments over and over a few times before moving on, perhaps too quickly, to the next idea. Sometimes they must backtrack when they remember something left out, so the order even gets jumbled. So I edit in this fashion, slowing down or speeding up shots, repeating them, transposing the order, leaving much out, sometimes really important stuff gets left out. The first time we tried cutting like this I became really exhilarated. It’s not a perfect imitation of memory, just another facsimile, but it’s one which suits me.


DP: I read somewhere about you getting sick and all your life you have this feeling of being touched by ghosts, do you think that sensation translates into your work? What does it feel like and is it something that will never go away?


GM : In 1989 I got a cold. Sometimes you get a cold in your throat, sometimes in your sinuses. Mine got into my spinal cord. It left me feeling little neurological pulses and tickles, about ten per minute, all over my body. Every body part was molested by invisible fingers, or so it felt. These phenomenoa are known as myoclonic spasms. I take medication to reduce them, but for a few years they remained undiagnosed. I made two films, Archangel & Careful, under the guidance of these ghostly fingers, which often nudged me in certain directions while I worked on the set. I always obeyed these mysterious spirits. I would put a camera where they ordained. It turns out they weren’t ghosts at all but misfiring nervous impulses, impulses firing completely randomly. It was like making a movie by Ouija board. I liked the idea of letting other powers decide. I relieved me of a lot of pressure.


DP: Do you feel haunted by anything in real life?


GM: When I’m at the family cottage on Lake Winnipeg, a place which seems to inhabit all time at once, and every leaf turned over seems to be turned both by long dead ghosts and those who have yet to live, and there seems to be all the joy and sorrow of the world in every breath of the wind of this inland sea. That place “seems” haunted. But I don’t believe in that stuff.


DP: When we spoke earlier in the year you were working on a project of a series of films for TV looking through a keyhole, did you ever make them?


GM: I haven’t made them yet.  I hope to make them soon, this summer, out at the lake in fact.


DP: What are you working on now?

GM: I’m developing a couple feature length scripts. I’m actually doing an adaptation of Inland Empire, the Lynch film. Not quite the same story, or the same concerns, but my gloss on it. I want to do my own version. I liked the Salome craze of the late 19th Century, when Wilde, Moreau, Beardsley and later, Strauss, all did their takes on the fable! I’d like to do my take on Inland Empire.


DP: I got a kick, not to mention a lot of pleasure, out of watching clips of your films what are your thoughts about having them on you tube?


GM: I am very pleased to see them up there on Youtube. I put them there after all.




DP: Would I be safe in saying that now your obsession is in doing what you want to do and feeling good?


GM: I am completely obsessed with that. Makes me sound kind of selfish doesn’t it? But I’m doing it all for you!


DP: Thank you for your time and your work.

GM: You are very welcome! I am honoured to be asked such delightful questions!


So there you have it from the archives of DP this was for the film issue of ZOO.












Diane Pernet

A LEGENDARY FIGURE IN FASHION and a pioneer of blogging, Diane is a respected journalist, critic, curator and talent-hunter based in Paris. During her prolific career, she designed her own successful brand in New York, costume designer, photographer, and filmmaker.