Guy Maddin’s first feature film, Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988) imagined an Icelandic sage unfolding in the northern community of Gimli, in Canada’s province of Manitoba. Shot as if it were a relic of the transition to sound film in the late 1920s, Tales was based on no specific prior film, but manifest an intimate feel for the sensibilities and techniques of that moment in film history. Many of his subsequent films - Archangel (1990), Careful (1992) - return to this murky period, but in later works, like the highly acclaimed My Winnipeg (2007), Maddin imagined such ephemeral forms as a turgid 1950s television show entitled Ledge Man.
Maddin’s productivity over the last 15 years has seemed ever more prolific and multi-sited, and slightly frantic. He has made shorts for gallery installations, for celebrations (like the 100th anniversary of cinema), for the National Film Board of Canada and, it seems in a few cases, for the pleasure of the exercise. Had he not embarked upon his recent trilogy of works (to be discussed in a minute), which remake genuinely lost films, Maddin would still be highly relevant to any consideration of “The Cinema(s) of No,” the focus of this dossier. From the gallery installation Hauntings (2011) through the recent on-line National Film Board of Canada project Seances (2016) and monumental feature film The Forbidden Room Maddin and his recent collaborators have been preoccupied with bringing lost or abandoned films to life.
Already, by setting Tales from the Gimli Hospital in a “minor” Canadian town, and making it a place of myth-making, Maddin was working against the tendency to consign certain places and sensibilities to the margins of film history. In recent statements, he has made it clear that restoring and remaking older films is about more than a connoisseurs' and completist excavation - it is also about giving voice to the genders, nationalities, languages and political movements which thousands of films took with them as they were lost, abandoned or destroyed.
Guy Maddin found the prospectus for this “Cinema(s) of No” dossier highly stimulating, and generously answered questions for this email interview, conducted in June, 2016.
(WS) Your engagement with lost or imaginary films has unfolded across a number of different projects now: the Hauntings installation, the feature film The Forbidden Room and now the National Film Board of Canada interactive project Séances. Can you say something about the genesis of these projects and the relationship between them?
(GM) They were all part of one big ardent ambition and Seances represents the achievement of that ambition. Hauntings, which was a modest set of 11 loops of rudimentary digital re-imaginings of lost films, was my first attempt at adapting over a hundred lost films for the internet. They ended up installed in TIFF’s Bell Lightbox building as part of its grand opening, an attempt to add some instant history, or hauntings, to a far-too-new building. I was underprepared for the shooting of the Hauntings. I had naively deputized about 7 young filmmakers to shoot the films for me, but they weren’t shooting from scripts, merely from wikipedia plot synopses I’d photocopied and supplied to the deputies. We were all shooting these things at exactly the same time I was shooting my feature Keyhole (2011) and had hoped to use the same sets we used for Keyhole, but the sets were never available to the deputies. We did use the same warehouse space and shot just a hundred feet apart, but the Hauntings deputies never got any sets. They were forced to improvise with whatever tree branches and cutlery they could scrabble together in lieu of sets; a sort of war broke out between the cast & crew of Keyhole and the art department from the feature even stole props from the Hauntings team, sometimes right in the middle of the shot.
Evan Johnson was my despairing Hauntings Co-ordinator, the first job he’d held in the film business, and he found it extremely stressful to have made so many enemies on his first film set merely by holding that ignominious job title. Everything was disastrous. I had to admit I had been fatuously optimistic about my experiment. I aborted the Hauntings project after two of the scheduled five weeks of shooting. Only a few of the Hauntings films would be worth editing together, but they remain uncut. Evan, recently elevated from the position of Disgraced Hauntings Coordinator to my co-director, and I stood back and assessed what went wrong. We resolved to dedicate our next shoot exclusively to the making of our short film adaptations of lost films. We decided we couldn’t improvise scripts on the fly from wiki synopses, we needed to write them all out first. So together with our friend Bob Kotyk, Evan and I wrote some fifty scripts based on the plots of long films. It was during this phase of the project that its conceptual lineaments truly focused themselves into the eventual state. We grew excited about the enormous potential of the project, now renamed Seances. The Forbidden Room, our feature film made up of lost matter adapted by us, came about simply because, even though we were making an internet interactive, we needed feature-film size budget figures for our project. We had already shot 18 films in 18 days in Paris, and had plans for another 25 days at MoMA, 42 days at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) and another 21 days at the Sao Paulo Bienale, when one by one the planned shoots fell apart because of producer indifference.
When the WAG shoot fell apart I was despondent. Not only that, I had promised WAG I would shoot in its space as part of its Centennial exhibit, Winnipeg NOW. I had no time to grieve the loss of 42 movies and 42 shooting days at the WAG, I had to come up with an installation for the Winnipeg NOW show to fulfill my commitment to WAG. That forced me into working with yet another sketchy producer. Ugh, anyway, it was my longtime producer and old friend Niv Fichman who came up with the idea of turning some of what we shot at Paris into a feature film. He also suggested we work with Montreal’s PHI Centre, an amazing institution in old Montreal. PHI saved us with money enough to shoot for another three weeks. Winnipeg producer Liz Jarvis came on board and steadied our foundering enterprise. I added another couple of films I shot on my own in Havana and at Bela Tarr’s Film Factory in Sarajevo. That got us 34 lost film adaptations in the can. They’re all edited now and up online at nfb.ca/séances. The Forbidden Room is a slender portion of material uploaded to this enormously complicated project I think there are small fragments of 17 different lost films in The Forbidden Room, while Seances contains the full 34 films, plus another 100 films created by altering the plots, colour-timing, scores and intertitles of the original 34.
(WS) I was there at the DHC Centre in Montreal in 2013 when you were filming part of the Seances project. It seemed in part like I was watching an artist install a work of contemporary art, but I also felt like I was watching a B director of the 1940s rush through the making of a low-budget epic in four days or something. I’m interested in your relationship to speed. You seem to make a lot of films these days, quite quickly. But you’re also drawn to the work of people like Abel Gance, who labored over films for too long and were known as perfectionists. Where do you see yourself in relation to fast and slow film-making?
(GM) Well, there would be no point in my being a perfectionist. The films wouldn’t end up any closer to perfection. I work in haste because my most reliable collaborator over the decades has been the happy accident. I love watching young children make art. They are so much in the moment. They don’t have a bunch of sophisticated equipment to make their art, just crayons or pencils, yet they make such immediately delightful stuff - sometimes. I’ve always tried to enter into that enchanted childhood state of creativity when on set. The only times I’ve been unhappy on set is when I’ve allowed a producer or DOP to bully me into taking more time. But an interesting thing has happened while working with co-director Johnson, and his brother Galen, who is our music, graphic and production designer now. I found that if I walk on the set thoroughly prepared for the day, prepared the way a quarterback must be prepared to carry out his plays under the most hectic and even punishing circumstances, then I could have it both ways: I could execute carefully composed pre-planned shots on the fly, get all the shots on my day’s list done, and still have plenty of time to improvise while being forced out of the pocket by chaotic circumstances. So, yes, I work quickly, which keeps the happy accidents coming, and keeps crippling perfectionism at bay, but I also get the shots I need, and sometimes they’re quite lovely I think.
(WS) When we think of lost or unrealized films, we tend to think of the silent period, maybe the early sound period as well. We know the statistics that are constantly repeated about the number of films from that period which are lost. But you’ve commented recently on all the films that have been lost throughout film history, from the margins of the film industry: films by minorities, grindhouse films and so on. And you’ve spoken of the role of sexism in consigning films to the lost category. How much do you think the loss of certain films has distorted our sense of cinema’s history?
(GM) Well, for most, their sense of film history is based on the few poster shots of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Bogart and Audrey Hepburn that have come to represent the past. Maybe Chaplin, though I see him less and less in social media now. But for those who care just a little more about film history, we’ve always been subject to the way history always reduces its number of active players and forces to a few. I found most fascinating how many women worked in film in the first few decades of the industry, not only as screenwriters, where the percentages were high, but as directors too. And I was shocked to discover how many countries - almost all of them, except for the poorest in Africa - participated in the young industry before filmmaking power consolidated in the familiar world capitals of film. And within each country marginalized groups often took a stab at movie-making. Not just Native and African-Americans, but also communists in America, and women in Egypt, Muslims in the Philippines, the Yiddish in Poland, and transgressive filmmakers everywhere. A lot of these films were lost quickly. Just like in Stalinist USSR, the Khmer Rouge in 70s Cambodia murdered many directors and destroyed their films as part of anti-intellectual purges. I felt it fascinating to research these films and filmmakers once considered provocative enough to earn such repressive responses. It was also an honour to attempt, carefully, to somehow represent their haunting absence from world cinema, and from its history, with our own adaptations for Seances.
(WS) Manuel Ramos-Martinez, who conceived this dossier for Furia Umana, suggest we might think about a “dark cinema” just as we think about a “dark web”. The “dark web” is that part of the web we never see. When we turn to cinema, some will claim that there are many more films left unfinished or incomplete than there are films that actually saw the light of day. So most of the history of cinema is invisible, submerged. Is that how you see things?
(GM) It’s certainly how I began to see things. Everything became a haunting absence to me, an ever-expanding, infinitely enormous absence with the gravity of a black hole. I was sucked into that view of the world and couldn’t get out for almost ten years. When I was a young housepainter I saw the world as an array of things that either did or didn’t need painting. Well, by the time my mania for lost, unrealized and aborted projects reached its fever peak, I saw the entire world as an organism whose entire metabolism ran on the variable differences between states of lostness, abortedness and unrealizedness. I can still shift back into the view in a second, but it took me a great deal of effort to get out of that mindset so I won’t. I finally decided I needed to get on with my life and make other kinds of movies. So I have pried myself away from what is probably the closest thing to truth I’ll ever know and start kidding myself with film again.
(WS) By imagining lost or abandoned films we don’t have to deal with the disappointment we might face if the originals turned up. In other media, lost and recovered works can more or less live up to their reputations - I’m thinking of Brian Wilson’s Smile project, for example - or they can disappoint and stink of commercial desperation - I’m thinking of the “rediscovered” prequel to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Have there been rediscoveries or restorations of films which you found really disappointing?
(GM) I was once really excited to film the fantastic-sounding Lois Weber pro-eugenics movie Where Are My Children? I had read online that it was lost. Then I turned up info that is wasn’t lost. I was crushed - the project turned me into a ghoul who wanted great films to be missing so I could go out and shoot them for myself - grave-robber me! Further investigation determined the film was not only not lost, but that I owned a copy on DVD. It was just sitting on a shelf in my living room, somehow. I watched it and it was GREAT. Truly great! But other films that turned up were simply of no interest to me. The lost colour Three Stooges film Hello, Pop! turned up the night before we were set to film it in Paris. We were all crushed. There were no toasts to Hello, Pop! that night. Just a bummed out gloom. I love the Stooges, but I have no interest in seeing it. But if Never the Twain – an American sexploitation film about a man possessed by the spirit of Mark Twain while attending the 1974 Miss Nude Universe Pageant – turned up, I would cut my eyelids off to see it! Who can figure on my reactions?
(WS) Someone once said that “all political careers end in failure” - that politicians keep going until, eventually, they lose. When you read biographies of film directors, it often feels the same: that careers typically peter out in a mess of projects that never got off the ground, or were abandoned; or that careers trickle away in a series of ever more spectacular flops. Very few of the classic directors of Hollywood were like Douglas Sirk, who walked away at the height of his success. I’m wondering if you have a theory of failure with respect to film-making!
(GM) Ugh, I try not to think of my own career too much, or the end of it. Maybe it’s over already. Maybe its entire run has been a failure. But I am inspired almost daily by the unfulfilled promise of Jean Vigo. To my mind there is no way he wouldn’t have kept making astonishing work after Zero de Conduite and L’Atalante. He was only 29 when he died. He had so much verve and anarchy in him - since birth even, for he was raised an anarchist! I’m sure he had enough to last another 15 year, if not much longer. Then of course, failure comes eventually. But so what? Failure is just another happy accident, only not so happy.