The day after the New York Film Festival premiere of his latest cinematic fever dream, The Forbidden Room, Guy Maddin admitted that he was nursing an emotional hangover, still coming down from the previous day’s high. Nevertheless, the cult film sensation was as jovial as ever during his visit with us, launching instantly into a flurry of bizarre insights and tall tales, some more suitable for lunch than others.
This master of the inventive and hypnotic (Brand upon the Brain!, My Winnipeg, The Saddest Music in the World, Keyhole) was accompanied by Evan Johnson, his codirector and creative brain trust on the new film, which evolved out of a short-films project called Seances. Picking up the frayed strands of silent-era films and shocking them back to life, The Forbidden Room is a hallucinatory and perverse love letter to cinema history and an exploration of the medium’s boundless possibilities. With a cast featuring Mathieu Amalric, Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, and Geraldine Chaplin, the film unfolds in a string of explosive and hilarious stories woven together by dreams, sex, love, fantasy, and murder—Guy’s favorite obsessions.
It certainly wasn’t the first time Guy had been at Criterion, his Brand upon the Brain! and My Winnipeg being part of the collection. And as we peeked in on restoration artists working over an image of a young Dustin Hoffman basking in the sun, someone remarked, “You’ve seen all this many times.” “Yeah,” said Guy, “but it’s always a utopian refresh button for me.” Making our way to lunch, he caught sight of a piece of art by fellow Winnipegger Marcel Dzama, whose painting graces the cover of My Winnipeg, and decided to bring it with him into the kitchen. There we all sat down for a Mexican-themed meal—mezcal included—and dove right in.
What is your earliest childhood memory?
Evan: You stole mine.
He stole yours?
Evan: I told Guy my first childhood memory and he said, “That’s good, I’m going to use that.”
Guy: No, I don’t remember that.
Evan: It’s not that extravagant. I was at the top of a staircase, naked, and there were a bunch of teenage girls at the bottom of the stairs laughing at me.
That’s a relatively hot first memory.
Evan: That’s what Guy said!
Guy: Actually, I think my first memory was from when I was around two years old. And I have about three childhood memories. They’re not false memories, they don’t come from a photograph that I later thought I remembered or something like that. I didn’t know they were from such an early age, but I only found out in recent years that our house was added onto when I was about two, and I remember being handed down a ladder into the new part of the house because the stairs hadn’t been built yet. I also remember sitting in a field of dandelions, and my mother saying that soon I wouldn’t be sleeping in a crib. I actually slept in a crib a bit long, because we were waiting for the house to be added onto, so I was almost three when I was getting my own room. She decided to show me her breast and said, “That’s where milk comes from.”
Evan: That’s definitely your memory.
Guy: I have another that’s probably false, in that I can see myself in it. I’m riding a tricycle down this leafy lane from far away. But I’ve had this false memory for almost fifty-five years, so it’s an early false memory.
Do you not trust yourself to distinguish what’s real and what you’ve made up?
Guy: There’s something I’ve learned about myself, and it goes back to when I first saw Eraserhead and started looking up every interview possible with David Lynch. I loved him and everything he said, but then I noticed that in those pre-Internet days he had to repeat himself in interviews. I remember vowing to myself that if I was ever in a position to become famous, I would never repeat myself.
Once you tell the truth it’s off limits.
Guy: Yeah, I ran out of the truth pretty quickly and started to make things up, but then I ran out of imagination almost as quickly. So I started to lie even more, in combination with the truth, and repurposing—then stealing—other people’s truths and fibs. What I learned, though, years later, is that the lies I chose actually said as much about me as the truth. I was just curating lies until they made a shape.
Evan: The shape of a liar!
Guy: The shape of a liar, a bald-faced liar who can’t be trusted.
Do you have a favorite lie about yourself?
Guy: There were just so many little ones. I was always just extemporizing. There were some I thought were pretty cool at the time, but I’ve outgrown them, like places where I said I was born. But I pinpointed so many places where I was born that they probably form a constellation that says something about me more than one place would.
Where were you actually born?
Guy: I was born at Grace Hospital, in Winnipeg, which is the same hospital that Deanna Durbin was born in, of all people—the Winnipeg-born contemporary of Judy Garland who just died a year or two ago. It was in the same hospital, I like to think in the same maternity ward, maybe the same room even. I made that leap instantly, because I just pictured hospitals as a big room where all the babies were born, so it just seemed a given that I was born in the same room as her, but many years apart.
I’ve also claimed to have been born at the Winnipeg Arena between periods of a game—between the Winnipeg Maroons and the Trail Smoke Eaters—because I just wanted that to be true. I wanted it to be true that the wives sat in a special wives’ section of the dressing room to breastfeed their children, so that you could pass from one room that was mothers only to the changing room, which was fathers only, and the smells were different. The Winnipeg Arena I do remember as an olfactory riot, but I just added the breast milk and stuff. Actually, I was born in 1956, and I don’t think women breastfed in North America anymore—it was just the bottle. It was Nestlé’s.
So where and when can we see Seances?
Guy: This really vast universe of fragments, which will be the Seances website, will be up in the early spring of 2016. It’s a companion piece to The Forbidden Room. Both of them are our offspring. The project started as just an Internet project, but then in order to fund it we needed to make a feature film, which appealed to us anyway because we realized that by the time we finished this project, years would have gone by between feature films for me. So it immediately made sense for a number of emotional and practical reasons to make a feature film that also featured this project.
Is it easier for you to find funding for projects like that rather than features?
Guy: Over the years I’ve had trouble financing features, possibly because I have a reputation for being able to make them for so little money that I’m just offered less each time out. But I also have a reputation for being keen to make short films, so I have a lot of commissions, and I lit upon this plan to make a feature by suturing together a bunch of different short film commissions, like Send Me to the ’Lectric Chair. So at one point I cooked up this plan to make a crime film in black and white with Isabella Rossellini as a mother, and some other local Winnipeg actors, and various sets that looked the same. I just accepted every short film commission that I could, under the condition that I would be allowed to repurpose the footage to put it back into the feature. I had this rough story, which kind of ended up being my feature film Keyhole, which I unfortunately got full funding for, because I was actually having more fun secretly making the pieces of a feature under these conditions. But Isabella and I are codirectors on Send Me to the ’Lectric Chair. I shot it in Winnipeg without her, just using a body double, and then flew to New York with a camera and a costume and the pieces of an electric chair. We assembled the electric chair in Brooklyn and put her in it.
That electric chair is very peculiarly rigged.
Guy: Yeah, well, it’s a home electric chair. I believed that if we really understood our uninhibited thoughts, we would all have an electric chair installed in our living rooms for corporeal and capital punishment, domestic capital punishment, to be dispensed—and maybe a mother might find herself strapped in now and then. It’s kind of flimsily operated and poorly put together, the way a family would have put something together, so that it really ends up being corporal and quasi-orgasmic even.
Or even permanently pre-orgasmic.
Guy: Which is what families are all about.
Well, it’s clear that the mezcal is doing its work.
Guy: I don’t know why there were strippers there, but they were a great disappointment to me, because they agreed to be real strippers and be naked, and when they showed up they said, “No, we don’t feel like it.” They were coy strippers. Anyway, it was projected six stories tall in Rotterdam.
You never stitched it all together into one movie?
Guy: I never put it together, but there are a few other movies there. One of them, called Glorious, is fairly pornographic and involves an octogenarian, semitransparent grandfather and something I call ghost head. I showed it to John Waters and he just said, “Winnipeggers have the ugliest cocks.”
How did you cast that?
Evan: How do you think?
Guy: It was set in a family house, which also had a row of glory holes. Actually, before I’d ever seen Hausu, I was hoping to make the ultimate house movie without realizing it had already been done. But it was just a thing where every house would have its own row of glory holes and its electric chair and a few other things.
What would you say is your favorite movie?
Guy: When I’m asked that, I can’t even think of a single movie title.
Evan: You usually say Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol.
Guy: Well, luckily that is one of my favorite movies of the twenty-first century. I had a great viewing experience of it. I had an empty seat beside me, and I just imagined Luis Buñuel sitting in it—and he and I loved it. We were high-fiving each other, we were smoothing down each other’s goose bumps on our arms and necks and chests. It was a great viewing experience, from start to finish. Brad Bird directed it, and I met him at Telluride. He was sitting right next to me at a brunch, and he said his name was Brad Bird, and I thought Brad Bird was just a long version of Brad. I didn’t make the connection that he was the director of this film that had given me a piloerection. It gave me the biggest square footage of piloerection I’d ever experienced, and here we were just killing each other making small talk about the altitude and how you can get drunk faster. But I wouldn’t know what to say to someone who’s really made a movie that I loved.
Have you seen the other films in the franchise?
Guy: Last night we were at a party and an argument broke out between me, Evan, our production designer, Jia Zhangke, and Miguel Gomes about how to rank them in order of greatness. It ended up being four, three, five, one, two. There was a really bitter argument over whether it was two or one.
If we said “four, three, five, one, two” to Jia, what do you think he would say?
Guy: He might slap your face.
Going back to the supernatural, do you really believe in the occult?
Guy: When I hold a camera in my hands, I’m mystical and paranormal.
Are you kinky with a camera in your hands?
Guy: I’m not a very kinky person.
Are you lying?
Guy: I’ve already admitted that I’ve realized my lies tell more about me, and that if I try lying to you, I’m basically just stenciling out a version of my rotten soul right before your eyes. Who wants to think of me as kinky? Ick. I think ghost fellatio isn’t kinky, it’s just true.