[Editor's note: SF360 participates in Bay Area cinema company Fandor's Guy Maddin blogathon with the republish of this 2006 interview Johnny Ray Huston conducted for us when Maddin was the recipient of a major award at the San Francisco International Film Festival. He also appeared at the Festival two years later with My Winnipeg, and was back in town in July, 2008 doing a live presentation for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.]
Due to brilliant works such as his 2001 short The Heart of the World, Guy Maddin is a more-than-worthy choice for the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award, but I’d like to suggest that he also deserves praise for his writings about film. For example, "Death in Winnipeg," his account of time spent on the set of a recent TV movie about the Osmond family, is one of the best and funniest pieces of journalism my bloodshot eyes and addled brain have beheld in the past decade. That article and other scribblings by Maddin can be found in "From the Atelier Tovar: Selected Writings," a beautifully-designed tome featuring hyper-compressed descriptive wit that is signature Maddin. In conjunction with Maddin’s SF visit, I recently spoke to him about his second career as a film writer, as well as other topics.
SF360: I hear music behind you.
Guy Maddin: I’ve been listening to [Jean] Sibelius. I don’t have a very good knowledge of the classical music world but I’ve been editing a silent movie I shot in Seattle last year—it’s going to have an original score, but it’s fun to edit to temp [music]. He [Sibelius] has so many colors in his paint chip book, and I’ve been digging around. I just keep it on in the background. Three or four times into listening to something, I realize I’m in love with it. I play music constantly when I work. I just moved into an office with paper thin walls and I’m driving my neighbor nuts. The first thing I did was put on my lucky Olive Fremstad—a shrill recording from 1916. The neighbor came right over and said, ‘Howdy and welcome—what is this?!?.’
SF360: It could have been worse for him—you could have cranked up the Florence Foster Jenkins.
SF360: I want to ask about your film writing. One of my favorite pieces is your account of the filming of the TV movie ‘Inside the Osmonds’ [‘Death in Winnipeg’].
Maddin: I started my career as journalist in 2001. I was pretty broke, and I knew [Film Comment’s] Gavin [Smith] as a programmer. I phoned him and said I had the idea for an article about the Osmond biopic. When you become a freelance writer you’re soaked in desperation, and I decided to become one that second. Gavin very kindly suggested I contact Dennis Lim at the Village Voice. Of course, that era is coming to an end, unfortunately. Simultaneously, Gavin gave me a job reviewing DVDs. The exchange rate [between Canada and the U.S.] was grotesquely wonderful then. The Village Voice pays quickly, so I was out of trouble. I worked hard on those pieces. I may be retired from writing now. It’s hard for me to have that fear and joy that I had in the early days. It didn’t take me long to get burned out, but I did.
SF360: Your Osmond account is thrilling, it’s packed with so many great details.
Maddin: I really did get possessed by everything. I had my crushes and wanted to work on the set. I had my notebook with me.
SF360: What did you think of the finished movie?
Maddin: I was pretty delighted, It was everything I’d hoped it would be. I watched it again recently when it was on TV at 4 a.m. It’s pretty rich — it comes at you from every point of the compass. Sometimes they get it right and it’s great, sometimes they get it right and it’s bizarre, and then you ask yourself, ‘Why are they doing this?,’ and the answer comes. Then you wonder who the hell was watching, and why [was it filmed] in Winnipeg?
SF360: Most people associate TV and Hollywood productions with Toronto and Vancouver.
Maddin: Odd things are happening. There are all sorts of movies shot here [in Winnipeg] now. I’m shooting a documentary for the Documentary Channel, a Canadian network. They’ve commissioned six filmmakers to make civic portraits. Three Canadian filmmakers and three international filmmakers. I signed on early. I had nothing to do this winter, and I find whenever I’m given a scary assignment for something I can’t do, by the end of it I’ve learned a lot. Directing a ballet [for Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary] when I didn’t know ballet, for example — you dive in and wrestle it away from its original intentions. The strange things happening [in Winnipeg] are filmic things. I couldn’t get a crew because there were American movies being made. It’s not uncommon to go into a bar and find it filled with Los Angelenos.
SF360: I heard you recently worked with the legendary Ann Savage, star of the 1945 movie Detour.
Maddin: I’ve wrapped her already. She came out of retirement after 51 years. The last thing she’d done was something on TV with Cesar Romero. She puts Bette Davis in the shade.
SF360: There’s never been a sneer like her sneer in Detour.
Maddin: That movie captures every milquetoast marriage in 67 minutes.
While I was working with Ann, in the bar every night Harry Dean Stanton would be having a beer with Jeff Daniels. Luke Wilson, Tea Leoni, and Ben Kingsley were all staying in hotels within a block of my office. You’d see them bumping into each other while jaywalking outside the coffee shop in the morning. All of this was going on while I was trying to crew my movie. All these people who claimed they’d work for me were busy. Ann Savage and I fought through and I got her to pistol whip a few people.
SF360: Another early piece of yours I enjoy is your Guilty Pleasures collection for Film Comment.
Maddin: Most people don’t feel guilty about those pleasures. George [Kuchar] is great. My conscience is clear concerning my love of him. The Charlton Heston picture I might have included, ‘The Naked Jungle,’ you feel like you owe someone an explanation if not an apology for loving that one, but I love it unapologetically.
SF360: One of your journals in ‘From the Atelier Tovar’ has a great account of visiting Chicago partly to see Kenneth Anger in which you wind up being mugged by a man named Dogg. Did you ever end up meeting Anger?
Maddin: I did. I managed to shake his hand. He was wearing silk pajamas and had just had his teeth capped and hair dyed for a public appearance. He was trying to escape all the Anger nerds he’d shortchanged by showing up late and leaving a half hour early. He was willing to give me a handshake while going up the escalator, but the escalator wasn’t moving. He got confused because his body wasn’t rising away from me. Everyone forgets to walk on seized-up escalators. He was getting more and more irritated, and there really was nothing left to say. I figured I’d shaken the hand of a changeling. I almost never even bother to approach celebrities, but he was in a film [1935’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream] with Olivia De Havilland. I need to make these little handshakes across epochs.
SF360: In ‘From the Atelier Tovar,’ you really capture what makes Martin Arnold’s and Peter Tscherkassky’s movies so amazing. I love your description of Arnold’s ‘Alone: Life Wastes Andy Hardy’ as ‘spit-sprayingly funny.’
Maddin: I’ve really wanted to see his [Arnold’s] most recent work, Deanimated: The Invisible Ghost, which is an hour long. It’s an installation, not a film. He digitally removes, eventually, every character from this 1941 Bela Lugosi movie. I wrote about Peter Tscherkassky in reviewing Anthology Film Archives’ Halogen Canticles program of movies made from footage found from other movies. It showed the work by the obsessives, the Cornellioids, doing their own versions of Rose Hobart, and then the film that inspired them, the source of their found footage. It was really strange writing about these New York experiences while in Winnipeg. I got drunk in the experience I imagined having in the [New York] theater. I had a certain smalltown boy awe, imagining the packed houses lined up for that Ed Begley and Rita Hayworth picture that inspired Lewis Klahr.
SF360: What is happening with your fellow Winnipeg filmmaker Noam Gonick [Hey Happy; Stryker]?
Maddin: He’s an angry young man, he’s getting ready to make something. He’s got some kind of secret project going on out at his beach cottage — a place built in the middle of mosquito-infested prairie in the middle of Western Canada’s biggest nude beach. He’s cooking something up pretty mischievous out there, an Iraq war movie called American Privates. He’s also developing a TV sitcom, strangely enough. I think it’s called Retail.
SF360: So tell me a bit more about this Ann Savage project. What is it?
Maddin: It’s this doc I’m making for television, but it’s feature-length so it’s also for film. It’s about Winnipeg, with Ann Savage playing my mother. It’s a real documentary, I just couldn’t get my real mother to do what she does in front of a camera. Meanwhile, it was hard to get Ann Savage to go the distance my mom is willing to go. She did a brilliant job. I’m in post-production on that, and on a silent feature film called ‘The Brand Upon the Brain’ that I shot in Seattle. It’s a silent film meant to be accompanied by live music and live sound effect artists and a narrator.
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