A Fairy Tale Childhood: An Interview with Guy Maddin

Canadian cult director Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain! was truly a spectacular event when it toured movie theaters in 2006 and 2007. It’s not just a silent film, but a silent film with an orchestra, foley artists making sound effects, live narration by performers including Lou Reed, and a singer billed as a castrato. It just came out on DVD (August 12) from the Criterion Collection and the surreal, seemingly archaic movie gets a similar spectacular treatment, with optional narration tracks by Isabella Rossellini, Laurie Anderson, John Ashbery, Crispin Glover, Guy Maddin, Louis Negrin and Eli Wallach.

Maddin’s films, including, Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), <>Careful (1992) and The Saddest Music in the World (2003), often look like damaged artifacts dredged up from an archive of lost 1920s and ’30s cinema. His most recent, a “docufantasia” about his hometown called My Winnipeg, was released in theaters this summer.

In Brand Upon the Brain!, a character named Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs as Older Guy Madden) reminisces about his childhood at a lighthouse, where his domineering mother and madscientist father ran an orphanage. They’d occasionally tap into the kids’ brains for life-renewing fluids. A harp-playing teenage girl detective arrives to investigate, and young Guy falls in love. But when the sleuth disguises herself as a boy, Guy’s sister becomes smitten, too. The Criterion DVD includes a documentary on the making of In Brand Upon the Brain!, an essay by critic Dennis Lim, a deleted scene and two new Maddin short films, It’s My Mother’s Birthday Today and Footsteps.

Although the Maddin’s childhood, as depicted in Brand Upon the Brain!, doesn’t match the one in My Winnipeg (which shows him living at a beauty parlor rather than a lighthouse), Maddin insisted in an interview that the bizarre Brand Brand Upon the Brain! is not that far from reality.

How autobiographical is Brand Upon the Brain?

People would be surprised to find out what percentage of it literally happened that way. I’ve pegged it at about 96 percent. … It’s true I didn’t grow up in a lighthouse. I grew up in Winnipeg. But I did grow up on a beach like that, on the shore of Lake Winnipeg. My sister and mother’s relationship is identical to that. My sister’s teen life and the trouble she had with a boyfriend that turned out to be a girl, and the internecine warfare between her and my mother, and my crush on this girl — all are true.

All of the little episodes around the campfire, and the burial of my father — that was only slightly altered. That was transplanted from the burial of my grandfather, who was buried in a flood season. My mother and her mother, they made a truce over my grandfather’s body out on the farm during flood season. They had to cut his clothing off him because he’d been twisted up by rigor mortis, and then bind him and then sew a burial suit onto him, while my mother’s brothers dug a grave — which was full of water, naturally, it being flood season in the Interlake. It’s a very low-lying land between Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba. And then all six children had to stand on the coffin to sink it, while this father was sort of held down by his victims and buried, one sloppy spadeful at a time.

All that stuff’s true. It’s all true. It’s all true. I didn’t have time to make up anything for this movie. I had to write it very quickly. And that’s why it kind of all adds up in a weird way. Usually when you get a script, there’s also sorts of things you have to boil down and things that stick out and don’t quite fit — like a badly built fence. But this one sort of came out in one big piece.

But people are going to look at this film and think it’s total fantasy.

That’s fine with me. Then that lets me off the hook with my family, all of whom will never forgive me for making this. I feel really guilty about it. I break at least one commandment in there, about honoring your mother and father. And I’m not a religious man, but you can understand when you’re in quieter times, just watching your family being raked over the coals — during rehearsal, say, when there’s no one in the audience and you’re just there with the orchestra and the narrator — man, I feel really guilty about this whole thing.

But then I feel great, megalomanically entertaining, when the theater fills up and I feel the interaction of the audience. I forgive myself.

Does your mother know about the movie?

She knows about it. I think she would think it’s a fantasy. I don’t think people recognize themselves as readily as you think they would. Everybody has a different take on things. And I love my family. I love them without qualification. I just feel obliged to tell the story.

My Winnipeg

What happened to growing up in Winnipeg that was the source of all these strange things coming out in your films years later?

My childhood was just strange, I think. I think it was just strange. And it was always framed up as fairy tale or expressionistic something for me.

For instance, when I was young, I had a brother, who took his own life. I was six. It didn’t really hit me hard in any way. I mean, I loved him and everything, I guess, but I was too young to understand it. But it was explained to me that, since he’d taken his life on the grave of his ex-girlfriend, that he’d gone to heaven to be married to this girl and that he was where he wanted to be.

Later on, when I was reading
The Sorrows of the Young Werther or something like that, I started to realize that my childhood had been a German Romantic one or a fairy-tale-ish one. On my mother’s side, they came straight from Iceland, which is I guess is one of the most remote and Lutheranly austere countries in the world. They came and settled in this really remote region of the country and had no contact with city life that even remote Winnipeg offered. So my mom had sort of a 17th century Lutheran upbringing. You know, the witch burnings and severe flagellations and chastisements and things like that.

So this is the kind of ethos brought into play in my own childhood. It makes it hard for me to get along with my mom (now 90) to this day, and for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren to get along with her, because she just literally comes not from last century, but about three centuries ago. And so there’s a lot of sulfur and brimstone.

How did you connect with the Film Company in Seattle to make
Brand Upon the Brain?

They’re really this visionary, utopian, not-for-profit collective, who want to do everything 180 degrees away from Hollywood. They approach filmmakers with a green light already lit. They approached me with a middle-of-the-night phone call a couple of years back and said, “Would you like to come to Seattle and work with an all-Seattle cast and crew? We’ll pay for everything. You just supply a script. We don’t even care what the script is. You have complete artistic freedom. We just like you and want you to come.”

I wrote a script, e-mailed it to them. Some guys built some sets, costumes. Everything was done by e-mail, including casting. QuickTime files of auditions were sent to me. They agreed with me that working quickly is best. I like just attacking a movie. So in very short order, I was flying to Seattle, landed, did a quick costume check, saw everybody naked. They sort of stripped down for me. Gave me big West Coast hugs and kisses in the nude, and got me pretty excited about making the movie. I gave a quick tour of the sets that I’d seen only in sketch form and jpegs. And then the next morning we started shooting for the first of nine days.

I lost 18 pounds in nine days, just sort of running up and down the sands of Puget Sound, shooting long days, just gobbling up images with two Super8 cameras going at once, me and the director of photography, both just shooting, shooting, shooting — sometimes without even looking through the lens, just kind of vacuuming up imagery with the cameras — almost like Dust Busters, these little Super8 cameras. And then we spent a long time editing the movie after that. Because it’s a pretty intensely edited piece.

There are a lot of very quick edits in it.

Yeah. For these autobiographical movies, John Gurdebeke, my editor, and I have tried to use more a neurological editing style — where memories are jumbled a little bit, and sometimes skip ahead and fast-forward, until you get to your favorite memory. And then things are slowed down and fetishized while you suck the flavor out of that memory, and then skip ahead — maybe too far ahead, and then come back.

Just sort of a facsimile of how the nervous system might work. It’s only a facsimile. I don’t claim that it’s a better form of memory than the good old-fashioned flashback, but it’s something that I wanted to use.

The Saddest Music in the World

What were your early experiences with film or the idea of expressing yourself as an artist?

I didn’t really become a filmmaker until I was 30. I was 29 and ten months old was when I finished my first little short. I’m a late starter to all that stuff. I watched a lot of movies when I was really little, but then became a football fan until my mid-20s, and then started looking at stuff. I think it really helped that I came late to film — by late, I mean, 26 or something, which is when I started watching movies. And that’s when I started reading, as well.

I brought a kind of desperate realization that I was way behind everybody in books and film — and maybe some species of maturity. I think it does make a difference to approach these things as an adult, but for the first time — so you can be both and adult and a child at the same time. Maybe I’m lucky that my start as a reader and a viewer was delayed, because I really had that desperation to do something about this delayed exposure to all things smart. And I had the time, since I was a slacker, to do something about it.

And then I suddenly found myself possessed, with nothing special, but with an off-the-rack desire to express myself somehow. I was a good enough reader to know that I could never be a great writer, but primitive film struck me as a good analogy to primitive music. I really liked the Ramones and British punk music, all that. I really liked the fact that my favorite musicians barely knew how to play their instruments. So maybe I stood a chance. Never could I be a good film technician, but maybe I could be a basement filmmaker.

And so I decided to try to express myself there. And all of my attempts at effects in film were literary effects — not bookish, but going for metaphors. Going for the kind of tingles that a good metaphor can get. I was always trying for that. Failing, of course, and getting something else. That’s why the movies are probably a little odder than I thought they would be, because they’re all failures to reach metaphoric heights. Metaphors just don’t work in films like they do on the page.

Your films seem like homages to various kinds of early cinema, whether it’s silent films or movies from the period just after sound was added. Did you watch a lot of those?

Not much. Yeah, I did have one romantic notion — that if I just went back and started at the beginning, I might end up taking film to a different place this time. I always liked the idea that I would get to live my life a second time. I’ve always had that notion.

I tried to talk a little bit in
Brand Upon the Brain! about how I can never quite feel things right the first time things happen. When my daughter was born, I wasn’t happy enough, I felt. I thought, “Well, the next time she’s born, I’ll be happier.” You know? And when my dad died, I didn’t grieve enough, and I thought, “Well, next time he dies, I’ll grieve properly.” I don’t know, it’s kind of an odd feeling.

When I first picked up a camera, I thought, “I’m going to start at the beginning.” It was actually plausible that I could rewrite film history, one movie at a time, and work my way up from primitive silents to part talkies to Technicolor musicals and then exploitation pictures and the whole gamut. It didn’t even occur to me that it would cost too much money to finish even my first picture, which it did, and so I was delayed. So I’m not paying any homages, I don’t think. Occasionally, I’m plagiarizing things, but I think I’m such poor plagiarist that I defy you to find out what it is I’m plagiarizing.

The grainy quality of
Brand Upon the Brain! reminds me of some ’40s and ’50s films, and the editing reminds me of early Soviet films. Was that deliberate?

No. I’m kind of at the point now where I just have my own vocabulary, which has heavy accents from other eras and then just my own. It’s whatever I felt.

I just feel that film has always been industry as much as it had been art. It’s been the industry that has hastened it along far too quickly. Everyone is familiar with the belief that the silent era was just beginning to peak when it was abandoned completely in the haste of the industry. If you just go back along the roadway of film history, you can find all these great vocabulary units and tropes. You can just dust them off and use them. So that’s what I do. I just collected all these things, and I use them whenever I feel like it. They still feel fresh to me.

You know, whenever you first encounter German Expressionism or Russian Constructivism, it seems so modern and exciting. And it doesn’t seem musty at all. You can feel the influence of that stuff in modern furniture design and architecture and music and even in graphic arts. There’s a reason that stuff feels really modern. It was so strong, and it was abandoned really quickly — by film, anyway, while it moved on to other hot trends.

I’m happy to use these things. They still work really well. I suspect some things from early film were just created something so strongly and out of something so primal that I suspect they’re as timeless as the best fairy tales and Bible stories and cave paintings and things like that. I think they’re just good.

Other than making this film in Seattle, you typically make movies around where you live, right?

I’ve made every film in Winnipeg and Gimli. They’re 60 miles apart. Gimli’s the summer home we have on Lake Winnipeg, and Winnipeg is where I live the rest of the time. So, yeah,
Brand Upon the Brain! is my first foreign film.

So are you just comfortable living and working in Winnipeg?

Is it my Baltimore, like for John Waters? Yeah, but every time you make a film, you tend to use up your subject matter. It goes from something being highly personal and beloved into so much footage that needs to get edited, and you end up getting sick of what you’ve shot. And by the time you’re finished it, you’re done with it.

So I’ve just done my childhood, and I’ve found that it actually changes the way I dream now. Because I’ve finished
Brand Upon the Brain! I no longer have these incredibly nostalgic dreams about my childhood and the unfinished business of my family. It feels like it’s finished now. And [since I made My Winnipeg], I’ll be finished with Winnipeg. It’ll certainly be finished with me. I say it’s a docufantasia because the city is so trippy and dreamy and sleepy and trance-y that any documentary on it would have to be a fantasia, if it were being honest.

What has it been like working with Isabella Rosselini in
Brand Upon the Brain! and The Saddest Music in the World?

Wonderful. We’re good friends. Um, what did she just say? She sent me an e-mail, it was very cryptic. It said: “You drive, I’ll clean.” I don’t know what that meant.

Robert Loerzel, a freelance writer in Chicago, is the author of
Alchemy of Bones: Chicago’s Luetgert Murder Case of 1897. He blogs about music and arts at www.undergroundbee.com.