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Guy Maddin on “Brand Upon the Brain!”

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[Photo: Left, Sullivan Brown and Gretchen Krich in “Brand Upon the Brain!”; below, Guy Maddin on the set, both courtesy of Adam L. Weintraub, The Film Company/Vitagraph Pictures, 2007]

Guy Maddin’s latest — silent — celluloid concoction can only be called an event. Already a hit on the festival circuit, “Brand Upon the Brain!” will descend upon theaters in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles in the coming months, escorted by an orchestra, a foley crew and a live (celebrity!) narrator. It’s another delirious genre mash-up from the Canadian filmmaker, one that tells the sordid tale of one “Guy Maddin,” a child raised in a lighthouse orphanage by his psychotically protective mother and catatonic father. He falls under the spell of a cross-dressing sleuth, who investigates those curious holes on the back of the orphans heads… As purely entertaining as any of his previous work, it’s also his most haunting, as youthful mythmaking is turned into chiaroscuro nightmare, and the adult “Guy’s” obsessive remembrance leads him into absolute loneliness.

How did your association start with the Seattle-based The Film Company, the production company for the project?

I got a call in the middle of the night, like one of Josef Stalin’s henchman calling and saying “We want you!” — but what they were calling about was something pretty wonderful. As it turns out, The Film Company is a kind of crazy, quixotic, utopian not-for-profit, the only not-for profit film studio in the world as far as anyone knows. They have this weird little manifesto whereby they refuse to accept submissions and scripts from other filmmakers, they just approach them with the green light already flashing. You have been approved to film your project, the only condition is the project can’t exist yet, you have to start thinking about it the minute you accept the invitation. They can detect if a script’s been sitting around in a drawer for a while, if it’s got other producers’ breath on it. As it turns out, I didn’t have anything kicking around, so I had to create something specifically for them. They said they’d supply everything, so I didn’t even ask what the budget was.

Did they give you a deadline?

I’m an impulsive decision maker with everything, but especially when I’m on set. If things feel right, they feel right within the first couple of seconds. The more I have a chance to think about things, the more hesitant, the more cowardly, everything becomes. They told me I’d be shooting in a month. And that meant since I work in a highly artificial manner which requires sets and props, I had to get a script in shape soon, immediately. Luckily I had a plane ride to Paris, a long plane ride, to daydream. I remember reading a New Yorker article about the teen detective genre and its origins. The origin of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.

I decided to make this movie as much of an autobiography as possible, but I needed some sort of fictional construct for it. I decided very quickly that my childhood would be the subject, specifically this central episode of my childhood where my mother and sister were conducting a vicious war over the speed with which my sister was growing pubic hairs. I thought that turning one of the main characters into a teen detective might just be the MacGuffin that Hitchcock always used. He’d always inject something that’s not quite true into something to make everything more true. Then it was a matter of things falling into place during that plane ride, and then as soon as I landed I went to my distributors in Paris and e-mailed my treatment to the Seattle people and they started building sets.

What was George Toles’ involvement in writing the screenplay?

Before I got on the plane he started suggesting some other fictional relationships. We share writing credits all the time but sometimes he writes way more than I do, sometimes I write more. We have a writing credit kind of like Lennon/McCartney. George is more than just a collaborator, he’s the guy whose voice I hear everything I read in. He taught me how to read. So when I’m reading a book, it’s George’s voice doing all the characters, so he’s a collaborator even when he’s not collaborating actively. He’d be a collaborator even if he got hit by a bus.

Where did you meet him originally? How did you start working together?

I met him when my first marriage broke up back in 1980. As is often the case, my marriage had killed off all my friendships, so I found myself in need of new friends. The one friend I had left from my pre-marriage days had become a friend of his (he’s a film and English lit and theatre professor at a university back in Winnipeg). I started hanging around his film classes and theater productions, and the next thing I knew I was submerged Elia Kazan-style in a world of plays and theater and books. Before that all I used to do was go out night-clubbing and listen to British Invasion music. Very scenester, but without any real heft, any literary or filmic history to back it up. I started listening to vintage music. And all of a sudden I became a voracious consumer of all things pop cultural of the 20th century. I met him at a time when I became explosively inquisitive about all of those cool things.

Can you tell me about your other collaborators, starting with your editor, John Gurdebeke?

We started working together on another auto-biographical piece called “Cowards Bend the Knee,” and we discovered this, kind of by accident, this kind of facsimile of human memory that we prefer to use rather than the conventional flashback. More synaptical, neurologically based. We discovered it by just fast-forwarding through the rushes while we were binning them — on the computer, when you fast forward through things, you not only see things faster, the images are more like the way a stone skips across water, it’ll touch down upon an image and then skip a whole bunch and not show them to you. Quite often you’d go speeding past something you’d want to see, and then I’d go “no, no John, back up”, and then he’ll back up, and he’ll go past it again. And then forward again, so you slowly go scratching back and forth, more like a DJ, over the image.

We discovered that this process was really fetishizing the moment. I said, “you know what, this is the way I really remember things.” If I want to relive a favorite moment, I can skip ahead too quickly, and then go no, no, slow down, I want to approach this in really delectable slowness. And then I’ll go back and walk back and forth on it until all the flavor is sucked out of it and then I’ll go racing off to the next episode. You can only present facsimiles of memories of real life, that’s art’s job. This is a cool facsimile, really neurological seeming. It’s as good as any, besides… the flashback’s been used so much. Why not tap into our nerves?

At what point during the process did you decide you were going to do a live performance?

I guess I’d always wanted to do it. Things kind of occurred to me during the nine days of shooting in Seattle, but often I would just quietly mention I wanted something and it would show up. And so one day I passive-aggressively mentioned “I’d really like a live music performance,” and then it was discussed. Then I started adding foley artists, a singer and a narrator, and then I realized we would have to make this into a live event. The narrator strikes some people as an impurity, as it’s a silent film, but I learned from reading Luis Buñuel’s autobiography “My Last Sigh” that it was very common to have explicators to help viewers new to editing…

In Japan they did it all the time…

Yeah, the Benshi, there’s one left, the last Benshi. She studied at the feet of the last Benshi master, she’s considered the last Benshi master. I was thinking of getting her, then I thought, no, no, there was too much exposition for intertitles to handle alone, so I decided to dump most of the expository duties on to the intertitles, and let the narrators handle the seasoning. Isabella Rossellini and the original narrator in Toronto have very musical voices, so you could rationalize them as a 12th musical instrument in the pit.

How did you start working with Isabella Rossellini?

I met her once in Central Park, actually — and I’m not a very forward person, especially with celebrities. But, we’re both dog lovers, as it turns out, and just as she was coming towards me, she stopped to pet a Labrador Retriever, and started a conversation with its owner. And I thought, that Lab’s cute enough, I’ll use that as an excuse, so I started petting it too. I looked down, and she was basically ignoring me, but she had allowed the dog to hold her hand in its mouth, and I thought, aw, I’ll put my hand in the dog’s mouth too. And pretty soon both of our hands were in this big drooling dog tongue, in intertwinement. Very slippery. Before we knew it, the dog and its owner were gone, and we were left with our hands hanging in the air, dog spit dripping off. By that time I had worked up the confidence to tell her I knew her ex-husband a bit, or that I didn’t really know him, but that he bought one of my films for his archives, “Tales from the Gimli Hospital,” and that I was a filmmaker making a film, and that I had a part screaming to be played by her, an amputee beer baroness. We discovered we both loved Lon Chaney and silent films. We became instant friends, and it has been that way from then on.

I already see in B&W when I’m looking through a movie camera, and all of a sudden if she moves her head a micro-millimeter, the decades will fall away and my knees will buckle and she’ll become Ingrid or Roberto. She’s a time-traveler and you really need to have your seat-belt fastened when you’re filming her. When she walks around, she brings her own nimbus with her, wherever she goes. It can be as superficial as a little pulsing flash of similarity to Ingrid, especially when she’s talking, but she doesn’t really look like Ingrid. I made a movie where she plays her mother, and you have no trouble telling them apart. Ironically she looks less like her when she’s playing her. The vocal impersonation is spot-on, because there are no two people who have that Scand-Italian accent like them.

Do you consider and “Brand Upon the Brain!” and “Cowards Bend the Knee” to be your most autobiographical films?

They’re literally autobiographical. I’d say this one is 96% true. That’s not a promotional strength in any way — because why should my life be interesting? — but I did have a very Grand Guignol, melodramatic childhood and it’s a pleasure, an almost unalloyed pleasure to get it out. Sometimes I feel almost completely crushed with guilt that I’ve betrayed my family, broken a commandment. At least, it seems I’ve dishonored my mother sometimes. But it would come off if I had the courage to show it to my family as some sort of fantasy, and most people don’t recognize themselves in their own depictions of themselves.

So you haven’t shown it to your family?

My brother, who’s not in the story, has seen it. He said it hurt a bit, because people he loves are in it. But there are people who watch it and say that it is their life too. And Geraldine Chaplin, who narrated it for me in Buenos Aires recently, said “this feels like my life and yet my parents were wonderful to me, and it just feels like an übermother and überfather.” She said somehow it was her autobiography as well. That was the biggest compliment to me. By being specifically about myself I was trying to capture the essence of the way we make sense of the world as children, the way we construct false models of the world that become myths to ourselves. It was really important to me for that to work, and for viewers to feel like it was their childhood, even though they didn’t grow up in a lighthouse or have an abusive mother.

Well, becoming aware of your own sexuality is something everyone goes through…

I was trying to reassure the mother of a 13-year-old boy last night that he probably wasn’t getting into trouble right now, he was probably just masturbating for the fourth time that night. She didn’t really want to hear it but then I finally had to say…that’s what you do if you’re normal. Would you rather your son not learn until he was 21, like a certain friend we both knew? And she was like, “no, I want my son to masturbate now.”

I think that’s an important lesson…

Well, here’s hoping he’s masturbating as we say these words.

Are you doing more of these autobiographical pieces, or will you move away from it for a while?

I might have to move away. I notice whenever I make a film that I kind of use up that subject or setting. It’s as good as therapy, I don’t think it does work through anything at all, but it just makes you tired of it. The act of filming and editing things turns it into so much footage that needs to be dealt with, and by the time you’ve finished the whole process, you’re tired of it. So whatever scars I have from childhood didn’t heal over, I just got bored of looking at them. I’m ready to move on.

I do feel like an adult now, it’s strange. I quit having these dreams I used to have about my father that just kept picking at me with unfinished business about his death. I quit having them right after making the movie. I suddenly quit saving things, I found it easy to throw out my old baseball cards, and records — I all of a sudden got rid of my past, and I was a notorious pack rat and collector. My apartment was like a museum, it looked like the Quay Brothers had filmed there. Not anymore. Now my apartment looks like an Ikea showroom.

I think “Brand Upon the Brain!” is the most emotionally involving of your films so far, maybe because of how autobiographical it is…

Well, it’s something I’ve been trying to work towards but there’s been so much artifice, so much perceived irony and distance in my early movies, I’ve finally figured a way of getting past that. For some people it’s probably still too irony-clogged, but I think that the two can co-exist. I’ve been devastated by Douglas Sirk movies, and most people are, if they’re being honest. They can co-exist, and I’m just stubbornly going to keep fucking trying to make people accept that. It’s taking us a while to recover from that dalliance with postmodernism where emotional involvement with art was considered verboten. But let’s face it, that’s why it exists. Bedtime stories are there to scare and enchant, and those are the stories that count. You don’t want to tell a story to a child to make him think about form. And we’re all children.

“Brand Upon the Brain!” opens in New York on May 9th. For more on the film and the line-up of celebrity narrators, check out the official site.

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