Guy Maddin Haunts the Lightbox With His Cinematic Spooks
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Guy Maddin Haunts the Lightbox With His Cinematic Spooks

Guy Maddin doesn’t harbour any particular resentment towards the Toronto International Film Festival for rejecting his first feature, 1988’s Tales From the Gimli Hospital. With the benefit of twenty-plus years of hindsight—during which time Maddin has cemented his repute as one of Canada’s most important filmmakers—the decision of the TIFF bigwigs may seem like some great slight. But you can’t really hold it against them. It’s probably easy to regard an anachronistic 16mm film chock full of necrophilia, buttocks-grabbing contests, and fish-intestine hair conditioner as some bizarre midnight movie oddity, and not a calling card for a cinematic heavyweight.
With the modest success of subsequent features such as Archangel and Careful, and the more immodest failure of 1997’s Shelly Duval–starring faerie fantasia Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, Maddin proved himself more than just a flash in the pan cinematic curiosity. In 2000, the festival commissioned Heart of the World, a six-minute ode to Soviet-era silent films, and in 2007 TIFF rewarded Maddin’s “docu-fantasia” My Winnipeg with much-deserved Best Canadian Feature honours. Now Maddin’s back on TIFF’s stomping grounds with Hauntings I & II, an installation commissioned for the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of its Essential Cinema exhibition.

Recalling his project with Heart of the World, Hauntings has Maddin revisiting the styles of filmmakers he has long admired (many long forgotten). A series of silent shorts, Hauntings constitutes Maddin’s unique imaginings of abandoned, lost, or otherwise forgotten films. It’s a clever complement to the Essential Cinema exhibition, allowing the Lightbox to showcase artifacts that have slipped through the creaky floorboards of cinema’s history.
Maddin and TIFF now have what seems like an extremely healthy relationship, one that over the years blossomed, or at the very least congealed, into an exceptionally productive partnership. We’re all lucky that Guy Maddin is so willing to dust off the skeletons in his closet. And just as lucky that the big wheels at TIFF keep encouraging him to do so.
We chatted with Maddin about Hauntings, his new “talkie,” the skeletons rattling around in his closet, and the power of “ectoplasmic odours.”
Torontoist: Last time we spoke you mentioned this idea of doing something where you remake lost films or forgotten films. So how did it go from being just this nascent idea to an installation commissioned by TIFF?
Guy Maddin: Well I’d been thinking of doing for a long time. I’ve been literally haunted by the idea that there are these really intriguing titles by some of my favourite filmmakers that I’d never get to see, whether it’s because they’re lost for the time being, or permanently. I told myself years ago that the only way I’d get to see any version of these is if I made the adaptation myself and watched it.
Wasn’t your first commission for TIFF [2000’s The Heart of the World] also a sort of a remake of a lost film?
It was my first wholehearted adaptation of a lost film, Abel Gance’s La fin du monde. I had read a very short, one paragraph synopsis of it and decided to adapt it for my own purposes. I also adapted La Roue, also by Abel Gance, into a short film. Thinking it was lost, I made my own four-minute version. But it turns out it hadn’t been lost. It just wasn’t available on video. And it was recently released in a four-hour version. So you have my four-minute version and as well as the four-hour original. But these things were never attempted to be remakes; they were just adaptations. The same way authors of the nineteenth century would do different versions of the same story.

It’s interesting when you say that you finally found La Roue on home video. Because a lot of times these “lost” films may be finished but just suppressed from release. Or they were projects that were abandoned. Or there were just rumours about a director working on a secret project. How did you choose which kinds of lost films you were interested in for Hauntings?
At first I made very specific distinctions: I wanted to know if a film really existed or not. But then, as I once described it to a friend, I became more generally interested in films with no known final resting place. It’s as if these films are condemned to wander the earth in limbo. Or they’re resting somewhere in un-consecrated ground. There’s something unholy about them.
Then I started thinking of the aborted projects. There was Hitchcock’s famous The Blind Man, with Jimmy Stewart as the recipient of a pair of new eyeballs. And he would see the image of his donor’s murder in them. It was to culminate in a climax at Walt Disneyland, but Walt Disney called it off. I guess he didn’t want the director of Psycho sullying his brand or using it for nefarious purposes.
So I liked this idea of aborted projects. And then just unrealized ones. I like this idea of hope withering and dying on the vine. It’s kind of sad as well: kind of the Miss Havisham of film spirits. Something that never quite dies. So I lumped them all together in a mass grave and then proceeded to exhume these lost, aborted, and unrealized projects.
When you finally got around to putting the wheels in motion, which of these films did you exhume?
Well, I’m working on a longer-term project with the American poet John Ashbury and the National Film Board to make over a thousand of these things. But for the Lightbox, [Artistic Director] Noah Cowan and I talked about how brand spankin’ new the place is, and how it wasn’t haunted by any film history or any ghosts yet. So I volunteered to haunt the joint. I sort of put on my curator’s hat and came up with my array of canonical and non-canonical titles that have haunted me over there years. So there’s a Mizoguchi, a von Sternberg, a Lang, an Alice Guy, an Oscar Micheaux: just filmmakers that have really intrigued me.

“[We] talked about how brand spankin’ new the place is, and how it wasn’t haunted by any film history or any ghosts yet. So I volunteered to haunt the joint.”

There’s so many more I would love to fit in. Ed Wood, you know, had so many lost films. Alas, Oscar Micheaux was often called “the black Ed Wood” and he made the cut because his films were so much more intriguing to me. There’s a lot of stuff about people “passing” for white in his films, and I like the idea of these films “passing” as something else entirely.
Do you know about the rumoured Orson Welles Batman movie? Think you’ll ever get around to that one?
No! But I’m always happy to take a suggestion. Orson was going to do a Batman picture?
Well it’s probably just a rumour or a hoax that has been circulating over the years. But anyway, the story goes that Orson Welles was going to do the first big screen, live-action Batman film.
It’s entirely plausible. It seems like the kind of thing he’d want to pile onto his plate to give him a million more excuses not to finish anything.
Well the story goes that it was nixed because he wanted to play Batman, and this was I think in the early 1960s, when he wasn’t exactly at his physical peak.
No! He was already fumbling through magic tricks on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts!
But forget Orson Welles. Did you bring this Hauntings project to TIFF, or did they approach you about it?
Well Noah Cowan approached me and asked me if I wanted to do some magic lantern shows, and I told him how I was thinking about this Hauntings project. And it turned out I could give myself a sneak preview of these pieces by doing a few for the Lightbox. It happened to work perfectly with what they were planning at the Lightbox. Noah and I just had a few back-and-forth conversations. It all came together fairly easily.
As an installation, how are these films going to be screened?
The films all play in one room, all eleven of them. There’s no soundtrack, because I didn’t want it to be massive and headache-inducing, especially for the security guards. They’re mute ghosts; scored by whatever sounds the city of Toronto brings.
So you have a pretty healthy relationship with the festival?
It feels good right now. I don’t want to infuriate other filmmakers with boasts of what a great relationship we have, as if we’re some happily-married couple. But they’ve been tremendously good for me and I’ve liked working for them. I love commissions. I like deadlines and restrictions. I’ve been happy to showcase my films at TIFF, always.
Well did the festival not reject Tales From the Gimli Hospital way back in the day?
They did. But that was a long time ago. [Current TIFF co-director] Piers Handling was there, and [current U of T film and women’s studies professor] Kay Armatage, and [Toronto Star film critic] Geoff Pevere. I think those were the three on the selection committee. And I think it was Piers and Kay versus Geoff. But I’ve since become great friends with all three of them. And Piers has more than over-apologized, in public even. He’s been very elegant about the whole thing.
It looks like they’ve more than made up for it.
It’s like a revenge wet dream, having the festival’s most important power brokers apologizing to you in public. But I don’t need to hear it anymore. I love the guy now.
And of course the festival commissioned Heart of the World, which many consider your masterpiece.
It’s the one movie I’ve ever made that turned out exactly as planned. That doesn’t usually happen with me. It happens with Stanley Kubrick maybe, but it doesn’t happen with me. [Laughs.] They’d all turn out masterpieces if they turned out exactly as I planned them!
Do you think that’s a result of it being a short, or a commission? Are you able to be more precise when you have to colour within these lines?
Things just fell into place. Sometimes I fall into a zone and find myself producing images that I’m far luckier to get than I deserve. It just happened. But I like making shorts and features. I just shot a talkie this summer, which I hadn’t done in a while.
Is that Keyhole?
That’s right.
There was a recent interview with Kevin McDonald where he mentioned it.
He plays a sort of gangster in it. It’s a gangster picture in a haunted house. The film is my tribute to the Bowery boys, where spooks run wild. It has Jason Patric, Udo Kier, Isabella Rossellini, and Kevin McDonald. And a bunch of other dubious Winnipeggers and young Torontonians thrown into the mix.
Do you have any skeletons rattling around in your closet? Any projects that are haunting you and you’d like to get back to work on?
Yeah, I put some of my own aborted and lost and unrealized projects right into the Hauntings shooting schedule. I figured that shooting them as four minute movies might be the only way they ever get done. It was fun to exercise these films from my own dusty drawers. And I didn’t shoot them on film, I shot them on digital.
So all the films in Hauntings are shot on digital?
They are. I had a lot of fun experimenting with different digital looks this summer. Plus it’s nice to be able to immediately see what you’ve got right there, instead of sending it off to the lab for five terrifying days, waiting for something to come back only to be met with sweet depression and soul-crushing disappointment. I’m kind of hooked on digital shooting now. But I’ll never throw away my Super 8 camera.
It must be exciting to work with this new medium, after having so thoroughly tamed Super 8 and 16mm and all the other film formats.
It’s great. All the happy and unhappy accidents that helped me to develop a style are starting all over again. Just when I stopped having accidents, I started having new ones based on abject ignorance. Like I didn’t know you had to re-format a memory card when you switch it from one camera to another, and I’d end up losing everything I shot.
But eventually you work the kinks out.
I try not to learn too much. In the late ’90s I learned too much, but enjoyed a renaissance when I un-learned everything in time for Heart of the World. But these Hauntings reflect that. They run four to ten minutes and some are very tightly edited and some are a lot looser, allowing each one to emit different ectoplasmic odours into the building.
Guy Maddin’s Hauntings I is on display in the main gallery of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, which opened yesterday. Hauntings II is being projected on the north facade of the Lightbox from dusk ’til dawn until September 19.
Stills from
Hauntings I & II courtesy of TIFF.
Want more TIFF 2010? Torontoist’s complete coverage of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is all right here.