Q&A: Director Guy Maddin, Peeping Through the "Keyhole" of His Haunted Past
In “Keyhole,” the latest joyfully bizarro neo-antiquity from the cobwebbed archival vault of Guy Maddin’s mind, an electrocuted thirties gangster called Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric, channeling Warren Beatty’s Bugsy Siegel perhaps) goes searching in a Gothic-horror haunted house for Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), his personal Penelope, dragging Manners, the bound and gagged teenage son he doesn’t recognize, and the Ophelia-like Denny along with him. Udo Kier, most sinister of German actors, shows up as a doctor with an X-ray revealing a handcuff-shaped malignancy – and has a Whale of a time as this movie’s Ernest Thesiger. Black and white except for fleeting dabs of color on a curtain, behind which lingers Ulysses’s bejeweled, diseased daughter, it is one of the more baffling (and sexy) movies written and directed by the great Winnipeg auteur – but as a perverse suffusion in bygone Hollywood styles and tropes it makes that sweet confection “The Artist” seem like a journeyman’s effort.
Since completing “Keyhole,” Maddin has embarked on his most ambitious project yet. “Séances” is a suite of 100 shorts, written by poet John Ashbery, in which the director and his actors communicate with the “sad, sad spirit of a long-forgotten or lost films.” They include lost works directed by Ernst Lubitsch, William Wellman, Lois Weber, and Marshall Neilan, and unrealized projects by the likes of Erich von Stroheim, Jean Vigo, and Alexander Dovzhenko. The first batch were completed at the Centre Pompidou and the next group are intended for MoMA, where they will be shown. Maddin, who is also planning to novelize his film “Archangel” (“though no one will read it”), recently took a 40-minute break to talk to ARTINFO, for which J. Hoberman will review “Keyhole” on Friday.
What prompted you to do a mash-up of a haunted house film and a thirties gangster movie?
It seemed like a natural marriage somehow, and it had been done before when the Bowery Boys and Bela Lugosi had gotten together, though I guess the Bowery Boys aren’t gangsters. I’d always wanted to do a genre picture. The closest I’d come to making one was a ballet version of "Dracula," a dance-horror film. I was shocked because that film was meant to be programmed once on Canadian television but, despite their common sense, more people went to see it than to my other films. I chalked it up to the fact that it was a genre film and they knew what they were going to see. I’m not so sure I’d go see a dance version of Dracula, but, anyway, they did. A lot of people had been telling me — and I always thought it was a compliment — that my movies are impossible to classify, but they said, “No, it’s not a compliment and it’s really hard for your distributors.” So I thought something that could be easily described might help people a bit. Of course, I ended up making something else altogether. Being a Canadian, I’m not very good at keeping track of who has a gun and who doesn’t and who has the upper hand, so I just had all the gangsters dump their guns down a trash chute in the first few minutes because I got tired of trying to figure it out. And then the ghosts aren’t really scary ghosts. They’re the kind of ghosts that Hamlet’s father is, memories of people.
Were you influenced by Paul Leni’s “The Cat and the Canary” or James Whale’s “The Old Dark House?”
No, I don’t know either of those films that well. I’ve seen big chunks of “The Old Dark House” and I love its atmosphere. And though I love Leni’s “The Man Who Laughs” and even own a copy of “The Cat and the Canary," I’ve never gotten around to watching it. I was really influenced a lot by this installation made by the filmmaker Martin Arnold, who made “Alone, Life Wastes Andy Hardy.” In “De: Animated: The Invisible Ghost,” he took Joseph Lewis’s 1941 film “The Invisible Ghost,” starring Lugosi, and started sealing the characters’ lips and removing dialogue from the soundtrack, which made the awkward silences seem far more naturalistic. Then he removed some of the people, which makes you pay more attention to the empty house. And then there’s finally five minutes at a time where there’s no people in the movie and things slow down. It’s mesmerizing, and and I was really excited by that.
I was mostly influenced by dreams I’ve had recently in which I start thinking of my childhood home that I’m wandering around in all by myself, but each room seems to be full of emotions, some of them really melancholic, some of them sweet. I’m just happy to be there, no matter how sad a dream might be. I was also influenced by Gaston Bachelard’s book “The Poetics of Space,” which attempt to explain or poetically riff on the feelings produced by various spaces in a shelter that someone can call home, even if it’s just a cardboard box, a palm frond, or a mansion. And I set out with these ludicrously over-ambitious goals to somehow make an adaptation of all these things, using the framework of "The Odyssey" where a guy goes from the back door to his bedroom, and the ultimate deadbeat dad story, to try to take care of a lot of my concerns. It was way too much and my project ended up being none of the above.
The family setting suggests it’s very personal.
My mother, who is 95 and has dementia, is a bit of a poet and almost a psychic. She has been talking a lot about her early memories, some of which are grotesquely misremembered. I don’t believe in the paranormal or ghosts, except when I’m holding a camera in my hands, but she’s really been coming up with some bizarre memories about an episode in my childhood, around the time my brother took his own life. The shot that rang out when he did was sort of like the tuning fork being whacked for the next few decades in my family and set the tone for my dreams. It feels like I’ve longed in some weird, counterintuitive way for those years in which that really sad thing happened to my family, but I think of them as idyllic years for some reason instead of years of incomprehensible sadness for the people closest to me. When I was ten I wanted to be seven again. I think it’s because I never quite grasped it at the time and I always felt if I could just replay it, I could understand it more. Everything is one of these second-times things.
Strangely enough there is a second time and a third and a fourth, through infinite times, because my dream life is this constant settling of accounts with my father, who died suddenly when I was 22. I guess I grieved on the installment plan because he would return frequently in my dreams and I would get a chance to talk to him a bit about why he’d left. In my dreams, he hadn’t died but always abandoned us to live with a better family. I always had about a minute to convince him to stay with us but he never did. But over the years, during these one-, two-minute visits that he made almost every night for a few years, I got a chance to get to know him a bit better and I think I finally understood that he was right to leave. I had a New Age girlfriend once who encouraged me to get rid of my ghosts. “Next time you dream of your father,” she said, “tell him you love him but it’s time for him to go away and then he won’t come back in your dreams.” And I was thinking, that’s a species of murder. He can still be alive to me in my dreams and you want me to kill him? Jeez.
So this film is like this great big compost heap of sweet and melancholy memories. It’s probably the most honest thing I’ve made about the way I think and feel, although not the most readily accessible. If I had just read a Robert McKee screenwriting book, I could have made it so accessible with one more pass of the script by showing how much progress Ulysses had made and what kind of setbacks he’d had. I could still have hung all my dreamy concerns on it, like so much laundry draped over this really sturdy Homeric structure. But instead I just put everything in a blender. It’s got a lot of atmosphere though at least, I feel.
It strikes me as one of your more psychological films, what with Freudian keyholes and a character called Pick, metaphorically picking locks. And there’s an Oedipal triangle in there, too. Were you conscious of all that?
I didn’t even think of the name Pick until you mentioned it, believe it or not. I just sort of chose that name. I often discover during the act of talking about the films afterwards exactly what I was up to. I work pretty intuitively and I just try to avoid being accused of being a wanker, so I put honest things in so they stand a chance of adding up to something when the smoke clears or when I have distance. A lot of times, I haven’t quite figured out why I’ve made the movies I have until years later. I vowed years ago to quit repeating myself in interviews, but I ran out of the truth really early. Then I started bullshitting and I ran out of lies really early. So then I started to reshuffle the truth and the lies into as many permutations as I could have and the weird thing was that the lies that repeated themselves ended up being the closest thing to the truth about why I was making the movies. It was a really strange form of therapy.
When we learn that Ulysses has been to the electric chair, we realize that he is a ghost himself, like the Nicole Kidman character and her kids in “The Others.”
I always keep in mind the Faulkner quote about how we all live in the past and present simultaneously. In my dreams, I’m the only one walking around inside my childhood home, a home that still exists and that’s occupied by a guy exactly my age, but a My Lai survivor, a great guy, sleeping in my bedroom. But I can’t find anyone there and I often think I’m like that Kidman character. I maybe dreaming of my future, and when I die I’ll be assigned that house to haunt and I’ll be just walking around by myself and unable to see anyone living in it.
I think of Ulysses being dreamt into a return by his son, and I bet you Homer either lost his father to death or abandonment very early. “The Odyssey” just seems like it’s a giant wish-fulfillment fantasy. So I picture the movie as one big dream or memory — and for me that’s the same thing as a ghost anyway — by the son, who turns out to be the protagonist in a little switcheroo at the end. And then since I think of that protagonist as my own dead brother, I think of it as a dream by a ghost. The protagonist is probably not alive, but he’s remembering, maybe the way a house remembers. It was just a way of just mixing together the past and the present in a Faulknerian way, but thinking of that future when we’ll all haunt things.
I don’t know. Ironically for a movie called "Keyhole," I refuse for it to have a key. I don’t want it to be solved like a crossword puzzle. No one laminates their completed crossword puzzles and hangs them up in an art gallery. I just wanted it to feel like a swirl of sweetly melancholic recollections.
It’s quite an erotic film, there being the dusty penis and the gold dust in Denny’s pubic hair.
Well, I had to get my references to "The Odyssey" in, and somehow the Cyclops either had to be a penis or a television set. And the pubic hair? Well, that’s the way they panned for gold in Homeric times. By the way, the dusty penis has been removed for the American release. I don’t mind though. I want it on the DVD so I can show my granddaughter. I just felt that any house that’s haunted by memories and incidents is haunted sexually as well. I had a scene, which I deleted, where the naked grandfather figure blows six family members in a row; he called it a six-shooter. It’s shot and edited and it will be on the Blu-ray. I was never quite comfortable with just one blowjob in the movie. It seemed like one was an awkward number. It needed to be sort of a really horribly discomfiting total. But I was happy to cut it for the theatrical release.
“Keyhole” is the first film you’ve shot digitally. Did it make a difference?
Yes. I’d been meaning to dive into the digital world for a long time. Even though a lot of people who know my stuff might have assumed I’d be the last person in the world to switch over to digital, that I’d be riding around on my penny farthings with a bowler and jodhpurs and puttees, I never wanted to be one of those pee-stained, quirky guys. I’ve never been that interested in just imitating the past. I feel that I’m free to use vocabulary from any of the years that the art form’s been around. So I’ve always piled decades’ worth of film language units onto my artist’s palette. For the longest time I felt that film was emulsions, the medium for memories and for longing and things that were once lost, but I’ve realized that that’s ridiculous. Photography was only invented in 1837 and all those feelings have been around for millennia. An artist should be able to represent things in any form. I ran a few digital tests and found that I could make the movie look pretty much the way I wanted it to with as much and even more control, because you can look right at the viewfinder of your camera and see exactly what you’re getting rather than waiting for it to come back from the lab a week later. So I really like shooting digitally. Plus the little Canon 5Ds that we used were every bit as portable as the Super 8 cameras I had been hooked on for the previous ten years.
Do you think too much is made of the influence of silent cinema on your work?
I don’t know. I didn’t really make any silent films until “Cowards Bend the Knee” in 2003 and “Brand Upon the Brain!” in 2006. I think what it is that people might be responding to in my work is what worked best for silent films. My understanding of what melodrama is and what Expressionism is grew out of the fact that I didn’t want to have people talk much in my movies. I didn’t like the sound of Canadian accents when I was first starting out. I still don’t much, and I’ve wanted to keep the films as quiet as possible. And then I didn’t know how to light really sophisticatedly, so I just started unplugging as many lights as possible until I just got something with atmosphere and that was quite often a one-light setup. It produces really dark black shadows and really big pools of darkness where the spaces are suggested.
It was around that time, in the late eighties, that I encountered this very simple definition of Expressionism as a piece of art in which the external landscape reflects the character’s inner landscape. It was just a simple lightning-bolt received method of deciding how to design the way my movies would look. If the characters were sleepy and delirious and constantly being buried and reburied in blankets of forgetfulness, as in my movie “Archangel,” say, I would fill the movie with gentle snowfalls and make them dark and shadowy and full of ignorance because blackness is just a lack of knowledge. And I started watching more silent movies to see how they were put together and realized that a lot of them felt like fairytales or operas without words. Reading books, I always entered through the fairytale door, got my bearings, and then figured things out from there, so [the way I tell stories] goes back before silent movies. I wasn’t even particularly a fan of silent movies when I started making movies that looked like them. I’ve since watched a lot and I’ve started watching more and more film noirs and Russian or Soviet films as I’ve realized that my films resemble them a little bit. So I sort of reinvented the wheel, and very clumsily, because it’s an oval at best in my hands, sometimes a triangle. Every now and then I come close to an evolutionary step in film history, but it’s actually a genuine chancing upon something rather than a cop
Have you seen “The Artist?”
I saw a bit of it on an airplane the other day. It looked likeable enough, but I want to hate it and I’m am scared I’ll like it. I know it’s probably likeable enough, but probably without much staying power. That’s my guess, or my wish. I have no idea. I’ll get around to seeing it. I’ve been very busy lately.
Well, here comes this mostly silent movie that wins all these Oscars, and yet you’ve been riffing on silent cinema for years.
Yes, well, that’s nice, but I haven’t been making Academy Award–winning movies. [laughs] I allowed myself one tiny hope for an Academy Award once when I made my short film “The Heart of the World.” It had done so well at film festivals I was hoping some members of the Academy had seen and liked it, and that it might be nominated. I thought, Shit, if I’m nominated, there’s no way I would go the Academy Awards, but it wasn’t. I think that was my only chance, you know, as some sort of novelty division. But no, I won’t have to worry about big awards like that!
Trailer for "Keyhole":