Back in March, Jonathan Marlow spoke with Guy Maddin about the early works that established him as one of the most critically controversial and delightfully eccentric filmmakers working today. Last month, on the occasion of a retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive, Marlow and Maddin picked up their conversation again, this time focusing on Maddin's two most recent features, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary and The Saddest Music in the World.
Marlow: How did this idea of coming to the Pacific Film Archive come about? Did Edith [Kramer] approach you?
Maddin: Edith made a phone call to me. I was quite excited to talk to Edith - I hadn't talked to her in a few years.
Marlow: Since 1993, right?
Maddin: Yeah, but she's one of those people whose opinion really matters to me. Whenever I made a movie, I used to send a tape of it for her to watch and then wait for her response. Sometimes you could tell if she was busy and hadn't had a chance to see it properly. She'd say, "Congratulations," and then she would cite something that she liked about it, usually something that happened in the first few minutes. I was beginning to get frightened that I had fallen off of her radar altogether. To get a call way back whenever it was, last February maybe, about coming here when I was already getting sick of traveling. I had sort of sworn off all trips but I accepted this offer in a second.
The chance to do a retrospective plus the carte blanche [to show the sidebar, "Director's Choice"] was a tasty piece of bait. It was fun to pick other movies. It was great talking with Edith and then she quickly delegated it out to Steve Seid. He's really an amazing programmer. He really knows his stuff. A lot of people say that he's maybe the best programmer in the country and things like that. It was really nice to work with him. He's really funny. He's kind of a merciless kidder as well. There's not even a molecule of obsequiousness in him or anything. I feel like he's a friend already, somehow, although we probably won't ever speak to each other ever again! At least not for a couple of years.
Marlow: You've definitely had a flurry of productivity over these last few years.
Maddin: Maybe I can be back here eventually or soon or something.
Marlow: When Saddest Music screened at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival, the staff were apologetic that you weren't present to introduce it.
Maddin: I'd had it. I'd had it with travel. I think it was happening during the school year and I was teaching, for one thing. I had just traveled so much and I'd talked about the movie so much that I didn't think I was capable. Now it's getting a French release so I'm going to have to go there. French film press. Staggeringly huge. I'll have to do a lot of interviews. I'm just going to have to gird myself for another blitzkrieg. Maybe I should think up a new mythology for the movie or something.
Marlow: Perhaps you can try some of those ideas out now?
Maddin: Yeah, I'm dry I think.
Marlow: Is that the hardest part? After you've worked so hard on the film, to have to go around and explain it to these people who probably don't have a clue.
Maddin: Sometimes it was kind of fun. When I made Archangel, a movie which, while I was making it, I was very hubristic, I thought that I was making something wonderful. Then, when it came out, I realized with a very painful blow to the skull administered by the public that the movie was incomprehensible. I had a lot of fun talking about it and trying to make it more accessible to people, trying to literally hide in these interviews explanations and enlightenments and ways into the movie and things like that. That was kind of a fun challenge. I never got tired of that because I liked the movie enough. It was just this little movie of mine walking around on leg braces. I gave it all the special attention it needed.
Marlow: Were you giving conflicting explanations for the film?
Maddin: I was giving any explanation.
Isabella Rossellini in The Saddest Music in the World
Marlow: You were trying to provide any detail that could provide a gateway into the story?
Maddin: Yeah, whereas with Saddest Music in the World it's somehow a movie that can stand more on its own. I quickly found myself running out of things to say. Maybe this came with age but I felt less mischievous; I found myself less interested in lying. Not very playful. The biggest challenge was Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, where I had to talk about how, since it was a movie set in the forest, I was going for a "deciduous" acting style. Trying anything to help people into what few sylvan charms were in there. But Saddest Music in the World seemed to stand well enough on its own. I really preferred reading or hearing what writers had to say about it rather than hearing me myself saying it. I wanted to give myself the pleasure of reading some takes on it or hearing about it, you know? But then you're standing there with a microphone or a blank piece of paper and you've got to say or write something. I found myself using up all the material that I have. When you're a director and you are talking about your movie, you're pretending to be a viewer and talking about the viewing experience.
Marlow: How did you and George [Toles] approach the story? Were there any special challenges in taking the story and adapting it into a film?
Maddin: One of my favorite stages of filmmaking is the writing of the screenplay - my other favorite part is the sound edit. The treatment was really fun. The screenplay was kicking around since 1985, I think, and it was something that Ish [Kazuo Ishiguro] had written before he was a famous novelist. We were told, not by Ish but by our producer, that we could do whatever we wanted to make it "live" as long as we kept the basic premise and the title and Ishiguro's name on there as a pedigree. One of the first things we did... George and I have almost never collaborated in person. We just talk on the phone. Our friendship was formed over the phone. He's a person that has a phone-shaped dent in the side of his head from 1968. You can put a phone in there and you can just hang it up.
Marlow: He does his best thinking through this device?
Maddin: Yes, and he's really strangely articulate. He speaks in these long, complicated sentences but with correct punctuation - dashes, colons, semi-colons, exclamation points, periods, pauses... and then, just when you think the whole thing is going to topple over in some dramatically incorrect mountain of participles, he just finishes it up in a couple of words and the whole thing stands there, shimmering. He's a real Nabokovian that way. He's fun just to listen to, so we've always just collaborated by editing out all other things except for the sounds of our voices over the phone. The more excited we get - I don't know about George but, judging by the dent in his head, he is probably the same as me - I start pressing the phone further into my ear and by the end of the conversation I usually can't straighten my arm up, my tendons are close to snapping, my head hurts - but we peeled away all the things in Ish's script that didn't thrill us and added some personal obsessions of our own. We came up with a structure that we felt could support all of the throughlines in a clear, audience-friendly way without sabotaging any of our concerns.
We were quite excited after just one ten- or fifteen-minute conversation. Then it was a matter of having one more conversation like that. Even though it was a short conversation, I still remember my head hurting, so I guess that I was excited. Then, my job is always to write it out in purpled prose to get right away to the tone of the movie. At least that's what I like to do. I'm sure that people in the industry don't want to read that and I've probably done myself no favors by writing in that way. Trying to write in the style of the last decade of the 19th century or something like that; trying to get some flavor of decadence into the project, something frightening to the producers but something that gets my mouth watering for the project. I wrote a 29-page treatment just based on our conversations.