Interview with Guy Maddin
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GuyMaddinwOrchestraWeb.jpg (13079 bytes)
Guy Maddin with orchestra introducing the live show at a film festival.

Q. When did you think about presenting this film as a "live show"? While
you were making it? Or after? And what about the "reading material" for the
narrator? Did you write it after the shooting?

A: It has always been a dream of mine to give a spectacular, crowd-pleasing,
live-music presentation of a silent film. I guess I had it in mind secretly
while shooting, but I didn't dare mention it to anyone on the set, except
maybe as a joke. Poor silent film, it needs all the help it can get. Silent
film was once a real pop cultural force, featuring swoon-inducing stars
adored by millions round the world, something gobbled up by the masses in
virtually all the globe's time zones, something imbibed easily and with
pleasure, and yet even most hardcore cinephiles -- myself included -- have
to be in a special mood to watch silent film today; it seems somehow like it
might be work to watch a silent. Illiterates used to watch these things, but
now it's work? But I've noticed that if there is a live element to a show
the audience gives the night so much good will, the picture is suddenly
embraced as if it were its own premiere and the year were 1927! Well, I
wanted to throw so much "live element" at this thing I would guarantee
myself a ton of audience good will!!! It's worked beyond my wildest dreams.
For the first time in my career I feel like a showman, a P.T. Barnum, not
JUST a filmmaker! I love the feeling. I feel the movie is my most
uncompromising and yet it's been going over with audiences better than
anything else I've ever made!!!! I'm getting hooked on this feeling.

I was emboldened to use a narrator because I read in Luis Bunuel's
autobiography of his experience in childhood with silent film explicators --
people who stood on the stage and explained the most basic things
transpiring in a film to an audience not use to watching film. Exhibitors
in those early days weren't confident that viewers would be able to follow a
picture through an edit, that they might be disoriented by constant changes
in camera point of view, so these explicators talked them through it. It
sounded so charming. Then I read of the Japanese Benshi, narrators who took
on characters' voices during the projection of a silent film. Good Benshi
performers became stars in their own right, and often invented narratives
that ran at cross-purposes to the story being told on screen. Again, I was
charmed. I wanted a narrator.

The lines weren't written until the actual editing had begun. That's when
you can tell where it will do the most good. I tried not to use the narrator
much, just a little, and almost never for the relaying of fact, more for
seasoning, flavoring of the picture. Like a part of the musical score.

Q: In what ways do you think this type of presentation (I've seen in it in
Mexico, two weeks ago) make the viewing experience different? Aren't you
afraid that the spectator might lose the concentration in the film from
watching the sound effect guys or the narrator?

A: Well, it's live, which means that things can screw up, and they almost
always do. This creates a certain amount of tension in the house. But I find
that even if things do goof up, like a microphone going dead for a while, or
some feedback deafening everyone like it did for a few seconds in Mexico
City -- that was the first live performance of Geraldine Chaplin's career by
the way and she started out with a mute mic! -- that all these disasters
just put the audience on your side. They feel sorry for you, which is good
because I'm getting tired of feeling sorry for myself. They are soon pulling
for you, for the picture. You can feel this in live shows.

I'm not afraid the live performers -- the orchestra, conductor, sound
effects artist, narrator and castrato -- will distract form the movie
experience. I look at them as boredom insurance. This movie throws a lot at
the viewer, but I like the overload. Audiences are multi-taskers nowadays --
at home they watch TV while talking on the phone and instant messaging or
texting friends -- and this might be the first film in a long time that
challenges them to multi-task in the same way to which they've grown
accustomed. But I would be very disappointed if they felt they could text
friends during this!!!! I'm really counting on a spell to descend upon the
audience and make them forget what year this is!

I must say, though, that it has also always been a dream of mine to pull the
sound effects team, the Foley artists, out of the dark of their studio and
onto a public stage. Watching these people create the sounds they do, and
out of the most charming and unlikely items, is one the purest delights a
film-lover or just anyone can experience!!! THEY ARE HILARIOUS! It's easy at
times to forget they are there even, becuase the sound sfit so pefectly the
images. Then you remember, and you glance down at them and they are up to
the queerest mischief!!! So wonderful!!

GuyonsetMother6668W.jpg (12988 bytes)
Guy Maddin on set with Gretchen K
rich as Mother.

Q: You've said that this film is a kind of autobiography. Can you expand on

A: The film is 96% literally true. It's a little Grand Guignol melodrama about
abusive and self-absorbed parents sucking the life out of their children
just as the kids are growing too strong for their elders with puzzling
surges of adolescent sexuality. I set the story in a lighthouse. That's the
only part I made up. I realized while writing this why I've always loved the
Grand Guignol -- the gory, hysterical and horniest of melodramas -- and
that's because my childhood could be accurately described as a gory,
hysterical and horny childhood. Something always beyond belief to my friends
when I tell them of it. Now I get to show it to you.

Q: If you have to pick which one of the influences you have as a filmmaker
were the most important for "Brand Upon the Brain", who would you choose?

I would have to say the great Finnish composer Sibelius. My editor John
Gurdebeke used Sibelius as the temp music when we were cutting. He knew how
Scandinvian cool would best reflect the outer temperature of me as my inner
passions burn as hot as anything in the Mediterranean, as hot and strange as
anything in Bunuel, another favorite of mine. I like this mixture of cool or
hot -- something one finds in Isabella Rossellini with her Swedish and
Italian parentage. Well, there is something honest and epic in Sibelius, and
for an autobiographical confession like this, one needs to be completely
honest, even willing to make oneself look even more atrocious, heightened
symphonically and melodramatically. Everyone is a poet when remembering his
or her childhood -- everything gets lyricized when viewed through the
filters of childhood recollection! I'm not a good enough poet, however, to
make enduring poetry on my own, and I needed this great composer, and Bunuel,
too, to give me the courage to attempt this. I wanted the movie to have the
logic of childhood myths, and to be as psychologically true.
Once the movie was cut, our composer Jason Staszek, who is a GREAT composer
-- I'm convinced you will hear form him for many years to come -- took the
rhythms of the film and made an unbelievable new score, the one you will
hear at the performance. He is a genius, and he is the inside out version of
Sibelius, or the farthest thing form him, and yet going about things in a
completely different way, he arrives at the same honest and musically
logical places. He even goes further, because he had the advantage over
Sibelius of seeing the film and writing specifically for it. Awesome,
awesome, awesome!!!

Q: What are the different challenges you face as a filmmaker when you make
a silent film instead of a "talkie"? And what do you think are the
differences between this film and the rest of your work?

GuyMaddin_BenKasulke7320_we.jpg (7003 bytes)

Director Guy Maddin with cinematographer Ben Kasulke. Photo: Alan L. Weintraub.

The silent film is pure joy to make! What a shame there is so little call
for them any more. I hope it is obvious to the viewers how exhilarating it
was to shoot this. There is so much energy of an enchanting sort on the set
of a silent you just don't get on talkie sets. First of all, the director
gets to direct while the cameras are actually rolling. Ben Kasulke, my
cinematographer, and I got to run around the set with cameras whirring away
all day long, just sucking up images, shouting out commands and pleas to our
actors, running right at the actors, falling back from them, dropping the
camera on the floor while it's going and picking it up again, throwing it,
shaking it, vibrating ourselves and the lens -- anything to put the kinesis,
the pure energy of MOVING pictures into this thing!!! None of this would be
possible with actors standing around saying their lines. We were back at the
legendary moment in 1928 when film was just learning to express itself with
its full potential before the bolted-down microphones froze everyone into
yawn-inducing tableaux, static exposition dribbling out of the mouths of
statuary into the indiscriminate ears of a suckered public.

Compared to the rest of my film work, this really stands apart for me. I
really feel I stand the best chance with this picture of reaching something
previously untouched in the viewer, not just with the gimmick of the live
event, but with the recreation of universal childhood feelings, yearnings,

Q: It is well known that you have a sort of "Guy Maddin Film Festival" in
which you pick and choose some films from your private collection. Which
ones would you be choosing next and why?

A: I just tonight saw a film on DVD called SHOCK, with Vincent Price, a
wonderful noir from 1946 about a woman who sees her own psychiatrist murder
a woman, then get treated by the same doctor for the shock she suffers as a
result. I also love a noir called THE LOCKET, which is a story, within a
story, within a story within a story, all of these concentric narrative
circles built up like pearly layers around a little vaginal locket -- a
Pandora's Box source of all the troubles in the film -- once owned by the
film's femme fatale. It's so good. Those two would headline my personal

Q: Why the castrato? Why do you think it adds to the experience of
watching BUTB!?

A: I met this wonderful singer, Dov Houle, in a steam bath back home. He was
singing in a thick steam, such a gorgeous unearthly voice!! I thought I was
somehow in the women's steambath by mistake. Then the fog cleared and there
was Dov, warbling away. He's known around home as the Manitoba Meadowlark!!!
And he has no body hair at all!!!! I can vouch for that!

Q: You've been experimenting with different type of stocks, techniques,
styles, length and colors. Do you see the possibility of, one day, make what
a regular filmgoer would call "a regular film"?

A: Well, what constitutes a regular film keeps changing, evolving. I'd rather
wait and hope that regular films change enough to meet me halfway. That was
always my plan. And it's sort of working. I haven't really changed much, but
more people are checking me out. Maybe if I just keep waiting, the
mainstream will come to me and I can die with mass appeal. At least my death
will be a big hit!!!

Q: Are you working in something new?

A: I am just finishing up a new TV documentary about my hometown of Winnipeg,
Canada. It was commissioned by a TV network in Canada. It's been really hard
to make. I don't ever want to make a documentary. Not only are they way too
much work, but your story keeps changing the deeper into editing you go and
that's frustrating, tiring. You have to respect the subject so much and I'm
not use dot the kind of discipline it demands. I'm more used to following a
script. Still, I'm having a lot of fun doing it, and the journey into myself
(that I made as an unexpected side trip while on my journey into the city in
which I've spent my entire life) was really quite emotional, at times
depressing. I can't believe I live here, and how much time has gone by while
I've done so. Time that I'll never get back no matter how nostalgic my
movies get. All that was really draining and yet ennobling. I feel spent,
but great. Still, never again!!!

Q: Is Geraldine Chaplin coming back to Buenos Aires? Is she going to
narrate it in Spanish or English?

A: Geraldine Chaplin is narrating in BA and she's doing it in Spanish -- her
own translation, in fact. Wow, I love how supportive she has been. If one
needs a narrator for a silent film, what better link to the silent era than
a Chaplin?!!!! Her diction is incredible. When speaking English, she has the
same mid-Atlantic accent and singular cadences as her father. My skin was
creeping up and down in excitement while she read for me in Mexico City.
There she read in English -- there had been technical delays with the
translation -- but she is so committed to this project that she personally
adjusted her lines until she was completely happy with the, I'm so grateful
because I don't speak Spanish of any sort. She sounds so beautiful, another
musical instrument!!! So much good will! So much love!!! She has so much
occult chemistry with the projected images, with the cabalistic musicality
of all the live performers, that there is a real invocation of something
magic. I really hope the spell works in BA as well as I've seen it work
before. As a newly made showman, I feel I must guarantee it!!!!

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