Winnipeg auteur and recent Order of Canada recipient Guy Maddin has achieved a near iconic status in the filmmaking world with his almost surrealist, dreamlike, and deeply personal features and shorts. His most recent feature, Keyhole, isn’t any easier to peg down or categorize, but casual moviegoers and genre fans might just find it to be his most outwardly accessible film to date.
In his take on the ever familiar story of Homer’s The Odyssey – which has served as big screen inspiration in the past with everyone from Jean-Luc Godard to the Coen Brothers – Jason Patric stars as a gangster who returns to his childhood home not only to hide out, but to also reconcile his own feelings of alienation and distance from his family. Blending 1930s noir, Greek mythology, and 1950s horror elements into an artful package isn’t an easy task, but it’s exactly the kind of challenge that Maddin has thrived on over his 26-plus year career.
The incredibly well spoken director of Keyhole (out this Tuesday, July 24th, on DVD and Blu-ray from eOne Films) talked to Dork Shelf about his approach to material he was previously unfamiliar with, his personal reasons for creating such a story, the casting of Jason Patric, trying to find just the right haunted house, and why it ultimately didn’t matter that he didn’t do well in art or English in school.
Dork Shelf: Keyhole is very deeply steeped in The Odyssey and James Joyce, and I think when a lot of people approach an adaptation of these works, the approaches are wildly different and it’s easy to get lost when writing something like this to ultimately achieve a final goal. Was this sort of adaptation a challenege for you?
Guy Maddin: Yeah, it is, but it wasn’t like The Odyssey was really that much of a beloved story for me. I had a bunch of feelings about homes and what they mean to all of us and the kind of emotional attachments or traumas that we associate with them, and I was looking for a very durable structure to sort of drape with all of these little narrative episodes I had. I was curious about just some of the most ancient texts there are around. They have to be durable because they’re still in print, these dusty old classics, but I found through reading some Greek tragedies that they can be real page turners. Euripides’ body of plays can be read like a bunch of telenovelas in the right voice. (laughs)
I honestly checked out The Odyssey first on Wikipedia of all things and I looked at the plot synopsis and thought “Holy smokes!” There was a bunch of stuff in there that really concerned me or that I was interested in. There was this deadbeat dad story, he might be dead or alive or maybe he just went away and never came back. The father might be something that was dreamt back to life by a son that really misses him. It’s basically about things that are gone and removed from someone who loves them and now they’re coming back either in a dream or in reality, so for me it seemed like a perfect story to tell. I’m definitely not some ancient Greek scholar determined to bring this story back to life in a modern day setting. (laughs) It was more the reverse. I just thought after I read the synopsis of it that it was such a useful skeleton to use.
DS: That seems like something that would scare a lot of people off when dealing with material like this. There seems to be this burden on the writer or filmmaker that seems to trigger flashbacks or send them back to grade school where if they think they don’t get it exactly right that they’ve failed.
GM: Absolutely. You think that you have to find all the symbols in it and things like that. Listen, I was terrified by all my high school English teachers and I even managed to get a D in 301 English in Grade 12. I once promised myself once I started making films that I would never put in anything intimidating like that in my films. I wouldn’t hide symbols of things, you know, that sort of thing. But strangely, the kind of filmmaker I have sort of evolved into has that similar effect on people, anyway. (laughs) But I definitely don’t hide symbols to things that could solve the whole riddle of what they’re seeing like it’s a crossword puzzle or anything like that. I’m more just trying to create feelings in people and atmospheres that you can remember.
When I first started making films in the mid-80s, I felt that Canadian film lacked any real atmosphere, especially an atmosphere that mattered to me. The kind of atmosphere you get on the page from a really great book; an unforgettable tone or something that stays with you both while you’re reading the book and a long time afterwards, and I kind of set out way back when to create that, and once I kind of learned a bit and knew what I was doing, that’s when I started making films that I felt were about stuff that mattered to me, and if I was really honest with myself I thought they might find their way into other people’s feelings, as well, and that it might matter to them in some way, too.
This one here is something pretty abstract in some ways, and I realize that, so it’s probably almost impossible for anyone to literally know exactly what’s supposedly happening, but I didn’t care. The feelings that I have when I’m awake are just as genuine I have as the one’s I have when I’m dreaming, and I just decided to dissolve the borders between waking and dreaming for this movie and go with whatever feelings seem to compel me to put them on screen.
DS: I actually think this is something far more accessible than I found when I had to read The Odyssey. This is like that template grafted onto a William Castle haunted house film and a 1930s pre-code Warner Brothers gangster film. Do you think, then, that there’s something sort of kindred between your work and something that’s perceived as being impenetrable in the same way as Homer or Joyce?
GM: Yeah, it’s funny how that happens sometimes. I read The Odyssey when I was setting this up from the (Richmond) Lattimore translation and it did feel like, “Holy shit.” Homer or whomever he was could have been blind or possibly gay (laughs), but the one thing that comes across fluidly is that he had a father who either died when he was very young or one that deserted him. You know, there’s just no way that he could have thought of that story with that much passion unless something like that happened.
My father died when I was 21, and he was a great father, but for some reason I didn’t grieve the day that he died. Maybe I blew a fuse and I couldn’t grieve because it was too overwhelming or maybe I just consciously chose to grieve on an instalment plan just a little bit each night in my dreams, and he would come back to life every night. I would forget that he died and that he had a funeral and everything. I misremembered him at times and dreamt that he had gone to live with a different family, and I would dream that he would come back to just get a pair of socks or a razor or something like that.(laughs) At that point in my dreams I would only have about a minute to convince him that our family was good enough to stay with, and I would always undoubtedly fail, so he abandoned us every night on the instalment plan, and he abandoned us night after night over many years in these dreams. These dreams made me feel abandoned every morning for a few hours, but they also left me feeling like I had just had a very recent meeting with my father. I could remember his voice and all his gestures perfectly in my dreams unlike what I couldn’t do in my waking hours, they were this bittersweet thing in the same way that good literature is. It’s always a mixture of things in the same way that life is. You have to take everything together at once. Those dreamy feelings I got were what made me want to make movies in the first place. When I read the synopsis to The Odyssey I knew this was the story I wanted to tell because I had been dreaming a lot about my childhood home and what houses mean to us. I’m not sure why James Joyce chose to retell it, but I know why I did.
DS: And it’s that dreamlike quality that drives us all to the movies in the first place.
DS: Do you think your upbringing also lent something to the mob movie element of this film in that it’s a different kind of familial structure?
GM: Yeah. (pauses) You know, I’m 56 years old now, so I was 15 or 16 when The Godfather came out, but I watched The Untouchables on TV a lot as a kid. To my then unsophisticated eyes I thought it was a near perfect period recreation of the 1930s. (laughs) You watch it now though, it’s terrible and it looks like the 60s, but I don’t know. There’s something scary about that sort of cast of characters in a gangster world where people would appear to have really close, loyal bonds one second and then be backstabbing each other or killing each other the next, which seemed like a completely melodramatic and uninhibited view of an actual family, and I kind of like that, that nightmarish view of a family where you could be really close and killing each other within seconds. That just really stayed with me as this childish obsession that stayed with me as an adult.
It’s the same thing with ghost stories, too. When I decided to help myself by making something that’s sort of a genre film, I thought it would be a natural mash-up to take the ghost story and the gangster picture and put them together.
DS: It helps that you also cast someone like Jason Patric as your leading man because he has the kind of face that lends itself well to playing either a paranormal sceptic or some who would be giving Edward G. Robinson a hard time in one of his movies. He can really embody staying cool, calm, and collected one minute, but then next he could be snapping on you and things can get really intense.
GM: And that’s the way he is in real life, too. We’d just go out drinking and I would think he would just punch me in the face if I wasn’t keeping up with him. (laughs) He also knows the story from the inside. You know, his father was Jason Miller who played Father Damien in The Exorcist. So when he was seven years old he was hanging out on the set of this William Friedkin movie and he was hanging around watching Linda Blair rotate her head, and he was really freaking out. Then his father left him shortly after that when he was seven and basically told him he was the man of the house now. So, he knows that story from both sides. And he is the ultimate alpha-male too, and he’s able to occupy that space in the movie. I knew when he expressed some interest with working with me – well, maybe more of a willingness than an interest, actually – that I thought I had better exploit this power that he has, so we wrote this part that was huge for him, just knowing that it would be great to have a really strong performer in there to just haul the entire picture across the finish line. I’m really, really glad it worked out with him. We’ve become good friends and I think he’s become proud of his work in the picture.
DS: When you’re doing this movie about houses and something that’s so near and dear to your heart, what do you look for in a house that you would design or go to film in?
GM: At first I didn’t know what to do. I started off by looking at real houses because I thought there was no way that I could build a set that would display the detail that I really, really lived in and well loved house could have, but I just couldn’t find one that was big enough that anyone was willing to let me have, so we ultimately had to build a set.
I just wanted a house that had a little triangular roof. I grew up in a flat house, kind of like one of those Monopoly styled house or hotels, just kind of like a block. When most kids drew their houses in kindergarten with a triangle on top, I would just draw a square. I flunked art, too, by the way. (laughs) But just those spaces, like the one’s under the stairs or an inexplicable window from one room to another; just odd little nooks and crannies and things that audiences will remember, but it’s a tough task, and I think it might be more the subject of a film essayist than I could convey. If Chris Marker was willing to take on a house or Ken Burns in a 19 hour documentary about houses, I would probably be the first in line to watch.