Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson Interview

If Aliens end up on our shores and ask us to recommend a movie, I’m nominating (among a few others) a film by Guy Maddin. It’s possible they’ll be as baffled as we humans are, but equally charmed by his collision of image, time, space and performance. His films feel like they’re alien artifacts anyway, some trans-dimensional art where the history of cinema took a different track sometime in the early 20th century. This is Twilight Zone cinema, and to experience these works is often a sheer delight.

Beyond the playful (some might feel bonkers) aesthetic lies narratives that seem equal parts silly and profound. It’s the nesting of these elements that fuels his work, and his latest, Forbidden Room, is even more nested than usual. A puzzle box within puzzle boxes, where even Volcanoes express their dreams, there’s a lunacy and profundity that’s intoxicating.

Along with his co-director Evan Johnson (a long time technical assistant who is now formally credited as full collaborartor), we spoke to Maddin during TIFF about his latest aventure.

I saw Forbidden Room at Sundance with an audience not quite prepared for what you guys were laying down. As you’ve mentioned before, it’s already a weird place to show a film. 

Guy Maddin: It is. And the DCP was flawed that day.

Oh, that’s interesting.

GM: The left and right sound channel slowly drifted out of synch and they were 15 seconds out of synch by the end so the music became soupier and soupier, which is fine. As a matter of fact, Richard Lorber bought the movie based on his affection for the soundtrack, but there were lines of dialogue that were repeated. And sometimes 15 seconds apart and inexplicably, so it was driving me crazy, but not one person. . . .

Evan Johnson (left) and Guy Maddin (right) at Sundance last January.

There’s something about your filmmaking though – that absolutely seems aesthetically coherent. We all assumed you were doing it on purpose.

GM: I got the benefit of the doubt. It was agony for me, but it did play a lot better once that was fixed, and we’ve tightened the screws on it a bit since then too. It was 2 hours and 13 minutes and now it’s 119 minutes, so it’s just been tightened, nothing removed. We just sped it up. We just pressed 110%.

How do you know when to draw the line between coherence and incoherence? Is it at the script stage, is it you’re editing and making things tighter?

Evan Johnson: Do you think that we drew the line? You’ve seen the flim, so, we were walking the line. That was the idea.

You’re well aware that there are filmmakers who just don’t give a damn about the audience, that just want to do this as an experiential thing and don’t give a fuck what’s going on. I’ve never felt that disdain from any of your films.

GM: We care about the audience.

EJ: There’s so many steps to making a film. Before you start writing there’s a step and then you’re writing and then you’re doing pre-production, and then you’re making it and then you’re editing it. And then you’re tightening the edit. And at every stage, there’s just a push and pull of ok, we’re making it more incoherent, and then we have to back away to coherence and clarity for the audience, you know.

And how do you maintain that line when you guys have seen it so many bloody times that you forget what people don’t know.

GM: Man, you get sick of it eventually. So you take a rest. It played quickly at Sundance and Berlin and then I took many months off from it and then came back to it. I’m glad we had a chance, it cost a little extra money, just to revisit it a little.

EJ: Yeah, but it’s not clearer now, it’s the same. It’s better. . . .

GM: When we were writing each individual story, which we wrote separately, we were writing them for the website initially because they were all full length short adaptations, meant to be 20 minutes long.

So these were going to be individual films, not an anthology?

EJ: Sort of.

GM: Yeah, that’s right. They were never going to be seen one at a time.

EJ: That’s not entirely true. It’s complicated. By the time we were writing the films for Montreal, we were knowing that they would be blending together into a feature film and it needed certain rhythms and rhymes.

GM: That some of them would be going in to features. But the first 18 scripts we wrote, we had no suspicion.

EJ: But most of those aren’t in the film anyway. What I’m saying is a good chunk of what’s in there was written to be in there together.

GM: But we still wrote them separately.

EJ: We wrote them separately, that’s right. But we knew they would be coming together at some point.

GM: Yeah, and we wrote in places where a volcano could have a dream, or whatever.

You’ve collaborated technically previously, but this is when you’re explicitly co-directing. How does that work? How are you each maintaining your voice, given Guy’s previous dominant position and how are you giving up slight directorial control to a collaborative role?

GM: I’m happy to give it up. I’m a good collaborator. With actors, I always want to listen to them, I encourage them, and even other crafts people. I listen to them and if for some reason we just don’t get along, I don’t like it. So I welcome it and Evan and I get along really well.

EJ: His voice is strong, the style is strong, the “Guy Maddin style”. If I suggest things and he likes them, it’s not like accepting my ideas throws your style out of whack and people would be like it’s not a Guy Maddin film anymore.

GM: Well, they get translated, I guess.

EJ: Yeah, they get translated through him. On this project I was working with the goal of maintaining his style. I was not going to knock him off course or anything like that.

Because of that, are there limitations to the expectations of your style? Are you finding now it’s harder and harder to keep surprising audiences?

GM: I’ve been hurt by really well meaning collaborators, like craftspeople that are helping me who are actually trying to imitate me. I’m trying to evolve and they’ll be presenting work which is an excellent imitation of where I was a movie or two ago, and I want to keep going. That’s why Evan was really good because i wanted to work digitally and Evan’s really good at that stuff and I’m still clumsy.

I still only know how to work analog cameras and things and he’s a digital man, so he can bring me along.

It was nice to really go through the scripts, more than just one draft, but to go through the many, many drafts and make sure that they served our purposes and that we weren’t accidentally saying something we didn’t want to be held accountable for. It was very rigorous but most importantly, we have a rapport which allows us to critize each other very directly without it ever getting personal. That is something that never happens between two Canadians. There’s usually so much passive aggressive stuff and hidden things and a horseshoe and a velvet glove, all sorts of weird misdirections. It gets too confusing.

This felt like it blew a lot of toxins out of my system and we got a lot done more quickly.

I’m no fan for the fetish of analogue for its own sake. I’m old enough to laugh at kids buying Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, which was digitally recorded, on vinyl. 

EJ: How could you buy Brothers in Arms on vinyl? There’s nothing that is more a CD than Brothers in Arms!

There for sure will be people who see this as you going to the dark side and employing CGI and other digital techniques.

GM: I could just say it’s shot on film for all anyone knows.

That’s my point, that people are responding to the aesthetic, not the technology, but they believe they’re responding to the technology. Could you talk about you learning this stuff and if you could talk about the tools that you used that are contemporary to make things that echo things from the 1910s.

GM: Well, it may sure look like I’m doing it, but I’ve never been interested in just imitating the past. 

Film has always been an industry and an art form, and its industrial haste always outstripped the evolution of the art form, so that almost always perfectly unexploited artistic potential is left.

So you’re in a sense reclaiming aesthetic quirks that were too quickly dropped because something else was provided more novelty

GM: Yeah, they just got abandoned and were not fully exploited yet. They weren’t exhausted. Maybe it’s more like clothing fashion that way – How do you exhaust a miniskirt?

When I see an old movie by the right director, it feels fresh and brand new. If it’s Frank Borzage, Mernau or Ed Wood, it just feels like something timelessly fresh is there. I always saw myself as just going back and using public domain vocabulary units to my own purposes.

Also I just didn’t have the technical or aesthetic polish to present the kind of contemporary schema that modern movies do so I thought it was a way of standing apart from everybody. Also, the way I understand literature or movies is always by entering through the fairytale door or the bedtime story and then getting my bearings. If something is more or less a fairytale, I start to understand it, if it isn’t, I’ll quit looking at it that way and start looking at it another way. But when assembling stories, I still start with some types, start with some autobiographical reference points and try to find myself in a fairytale. I then then hop aboard the guided missile that is the process of filmmaking and try to steer it with my inner thighs.

“Types” is an interesting word because – here you mean types in terms of tropes, but of course your film also has types in terms of font styles.

GM: That’s true – I’m a font!

I’ve always been unhappy with the fonts I’ve got in my movies, usually because I’ve supplied them myself, but in Evan’s brother, Galen Johnson, he’s a font fiend. He’s always huffing fonts out back.

EJ: One of the fonts in there he designed by taking letters from one of our grandma’s handwritten letters and finding just the right T or something.

What digital tools were used?

EJ: Adobe After Effects. That’s the only think I know how to do. It’s a lot of work, a lots of steps. We shot the footage on raw digital…

GM: …it made me so depressed!

What was it shot on?

GM: There was a C300

EJ: …and Sony F3, and a Canon T2I Rebel [consumer camera], and in Montreal we used a Black Magic. And they’re very flat and no contrast with the settings we were using and so we wanted a little punch in the image.

GM: I like “pop” in an image

EJ: I think I promised, even in the Paris shoot, that I can make it look good. I didn’t know how, so it was utterly false confidence. So I had to spend the next two years figuring it out. 

The Forbidden Room

Any specific plugins you want to share?

EJ: They’re secret! For texturing there’s no plugins – we made photographs and made video files out of individual frames of filth and blended them together. All the digital morphing stuff, when the image buckles and churns, that is a technique related to data moshing where chunks of information in a video file go missing so the file tries to fill in the blanks. At some point I felt it was a moral crime to even make it look like it was shot on film, without admitting that there was digital, so the pixel motion morphing was an attempt to admit our crime and our dishonesty.

GM: The website will be even more digitally confessional. 

Guy, you’re not nerdy about this stuff yourself?

GM: I’m learning it though – I”m teaching digital filmmaking at Harvard now and I’ve got to learn how to do it! 

Does this excite you creatively, not just technically?

GM: It does. I just saw how versitile it was. What I used to like about shooting on film was I had a trusty old camera that had a light leak in it and I could put black and white film in it which automatically changes the way the we see the world with our naked eye. I sort of understood the translation that went on from real life to film. I lost my mojo when I just looked at the viewfinder at the back of a raw video camera. But now I’ve got my mojo back, relizing there’s more versitility and that we can make it look that way. I used to be able to see in Black and White by looking through a viewfinder on a film camera but now I can see in whatever Evan’s going to make it look like. So I’m more confident. 

EJ: We may abandon this as a look

GM: Yeah, I think we shot our load on it. As a matter of fact we’ve got this other film, Bring Me The Head Of Tim Horton, which has a completely different look. 

I think the eye likes to look through things on the screen – not always, there’s the classic open frame, the man with a clear blue sky and a desert, everything’s so clean and crisp. But mostly the eye likes little obstacles, likes to work gently to look past things. I like the stuff that’s been hung like a veil, all this After Effects stuff. To me it just pleases. It literally is – I dunno, it’s not seven veils, but there’s a couple there that are fetching and aluring. 

I’m excited about film again.

So, big question – when are you done? When do you stop futzing?

EJ: We did all the texturing and stuff to all the footage so that was just a matter of going through the one thousand files that are five minutes long each. Texturing it all too a long time.

So you sent dailies to the editor that already looked processed?

EJ: Absolutely.

GM: It’s the only way you can get into the spirit of it

EJ: It’s the way you produce organic mistakes in post. Post production houses aren’t usually into making mistakes, they’re all guarded against mistake making

GM: And happy accidents have been our most faithful ally all these years

So that’s one thing to worry about, a sudden lack of accidents with the move to digital?

GM: I was very worried about that, yeah.

EJ: There were far more accidents than you could ever hope for by doing a strategically sloppy job in post.

I thank you for your wonderfully sloppy accident of a movie!

EJ & GM: Thank you!

Read our review of The Forbidden Room here.

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