The experimental Canadian auteur sits down to chat about surrealism, dreams and the supernatural for his new film, Keyhole.
Guy Maddin, Canada’s prime exponent of retro, cine-literate phantasmagoria sits down with LWLies ahead of the release of his typically lunatic new film, Keyhole, to talk laughter, surrealism and the supernatural.
LWLies: Keyhole seems to be deeply rooted in Freudian psychoanalysis. How does it work when you're on set with so many different people each having their own innermost secrets?
Maddin: I know that all of us have our own, personal mythology. As children we are looking for our own ways, making mistakes, trying to build our own models of the world. When I am on the set I try to think as a three-year-old kid who doesn’t have much experience in life. I am learning constantly, but at the same time I'm trying to be very careful not to learn too much, to remain a child in a sense to be able to keep things primitive. Maybe I was guilty of cramming too much into this movie. Perhaps I should have had the courage to lose some stuff I had in my mind. The script had been narratively illogical in its early stages so the story went off in lots of directions. I wanted to make a movie that matched a recurring dream I had about home. What was it about? Every once in a while I find myself walking down the hallway always aware that there is someone sad in the room that I am getting closer to.
Keyhole is occupied by lots of topics you are obsessed with. Why do you seek to discover yourself through these keyholes?
I just like the sound of the title [laughs]. Maybe now I regret it, I am not sure… As a kid I spent lots of time looking for holes and trying to find out what was inside them. I had always thought it would be nice to look through these little holes to secretly watch what could happen behind closed doors. I didn't know that some French guys considered this idea in terms of female genitals... [laughs] I have my own key to all this. What is important to me is the mystery that shows up when you cannot see the whole picture. If you know how to hide certain things, you know the way to make a really good piece of art – and I am not talking about my movie right now. Let’s recall thriller movies, for instance, or those ones that have a crime narrative. Imagine that somebody is dead. You try to find out who the killer is. Therefore, you open door after door, often finding nothing. You are looking for the truth. When you finally get it – the game is over, there is no more pleasure waiting for you. In really good art the more you find out, the deeper the mystery is. I am happy to just keep opening the doors and making things more and more confusing.
Do you think that the world, as well as cinema, has become more rational nowadays?
Well, yeah. It seems that surrealism become eaten up by the world of advertising. It doesn't surprise or shock anybody nowadays. Surrealism has become a part of our cinematic vernacular, even if mainstream filmmakers obviously are not keen on it. However, on the other hand, I believe there is surrealism all around us that we do not really recognise anymore. Let’s say Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the movie is one non-stop surreal action picture! When you watch it, you just think that it is a simple genre action feature, but if you watched it as I did imagining Louis Buñuel sitting next to you, you would realise that Brad Bird’s movie is one of the greatest pieces of cinematic surrealism ever made.
You like doing everything on your own, how much freedom do you leave to your cameraman?
I like to collaborate with filmmakers who are good at what they do, because if they really are I can give them complete freedom. Ben Kasulke is one of these people. There was a day when I felt like shooting, the next day it was Ben's turn. I cannot tell his footage from mine now. He’s learned how to look through the lens into my world. We really trust each other. I collaborate with my editor in the same way. Basically, when I'm shooting I am constantly thinking about my editor and what shots to give him. I am sure that if I give him a specific image he will know exactly what to do with it and anticipate what the next one could be. It's a funny collaboration because you join forces across the space and time.
Speaking of space and time – cinematic experience has changed a lot because of advances in digital technology. In Keyhole you are working with footage taken from the silent era and are still called an experimenter, how do you respond to that?
I like to be considered as sort of a fake pioneer, a time traveller who dresses up in old clothes. I'm currently working in digital though and my next big project is an internet-based one. I am going to direct 100 short films in 100 days in four different countries, and I'm starting shooting in Paris with Charlotte Rampling and Matthew Amalric. So I feel like a real pioneer too! But you know, on the other hand, there is nothing new in me. When you are listening to your grandmother’s bedtime stories – if she is a good storyteller! – you totally sink into them. I am just like a grandmother who tells you a story.
Usually a melodramatic story, right?
A lot of people hate melodrama. Exaggerated truth is considered a bad thing, but if you think about it, hyperbolic truth is no longer the truth. It is the story. In a real life sometimes you get angry with someone and hit them, other time you steal something and run away. That is the uninhibited truth. At the same time the fact that you are scared, sad or angry remains authentic. I believe that good melodrama represents the uninhibited truth. But I still have a sense of fun and I like the truth to be monstrously exaggerated. My favorite John Waters' movies are like that.
Can you talk a little about the casting of Keyhole...
The cast for Keyhole came from very diverse backgrounds. There was Jason Patric, a very grounded, interior person, there was Isabella Rossellini who was just herself and there was a bunch of my friends taken from the sidewalks of My Winnipeg. Most of them do not have any acting experience. Finally there is Udo [Kier], with his rich filmography. I just decided that everybody had to be as good as Udo was! [laughs] I am joking – I just wanted everybody to remain themselves.
Let’s recall the Josef von Sternberg film The Scarlet Empress from 1934, with Marlene Dietrich with her German accent, C Aubrey Smith with a British one and John Lodge with his specific accent from somewhere in Arizona. Each actor has their own style, yet they were all speaking in a style that belonged to one person – the director. They were all forced into the same movie and because of this it turns into a fairy tale, a collage. However, when you have such talented people with such strong characters around, it is important to have a persona among them. Most actors try to be as naturalistic as possible rather than becoming a strong persona that drives the story. Marlene Dietrich was that kind of a strong, amazing actress. Udo is one nowadays – he has an unbelievably gorgeous voice which he knows how to modulate. It was a pleasure to work with him.
Watching Keyhole is like setting out on a journey. You feel ike a fearful kid sitting in a small, passenger car entering the ghost train at a funfair.
All the motives in the movie are connected with sadness, loneliness and are a bit ghostly at the same time. There is a recent tragedy in the air, but everybody is still functioning. They are like ghosts that have a dialogue with each other. Dialogue in Keyhole is sort of a vehicle that allows me to put everybody in one movie and immerse them into the same story. I see ghosts in the same way I see memories. I find it interesting that my dreams and memories start talking with each other as well. The very specific relations between them have been developed – sweet and melancholic like a sad song.
What about memories? Do you love having them or would you rather delete them just as Thomas Bernhard killed his past by writing 'Extinction' in 1986?
I have read lots of Bernhard’s books and I love them! I don’t know if he meant the same as what I do… he probably did. I am playing with memories that I am really obsessed with. Before turning them into film you have to find actors, set, costumes, etc., then you shoot it, go through the footage you got and pick only few images to edit. It takes months and when you finish the film, it needs to be shown at film festivals and then you need to talk about it over and over again. By that time, your memories have turned into something else. By the end of that process you start having false memories.
We're very interested in how you deal with humor. How do you go about introducing elements of humour into your work?
Whatever it is, it is rooted in my nature. I don't want anyone to think that I am a serious guy or a wanker so I include comical incidents within certain scenes. Besides, life is funny, isn’t it? I am a bit of a laughter whore and if I see laughter among the audience, it means that someone is paying attention to me.