Guy Maddin is a hoarder of uncanny images, from the candy-colored Alpine tableaus of “Careful” to the frozen horse heads of last year’s “My Winnipeg.” A commission from the Rotterdam Film Festival centers around another: Isabella Rossellini blasted out of an electric chair. It’s the basis for his new short film, “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair,” part of the Urban Screens series at the festival, which is projecting three works onto office buildings throughout the city. It’s an archetypal Maddin film, conflating sex, death and film history in a manic seven minutes. I spoke with him at the festival about the new work, collage parties, Thomas Edison and the hazards of Dutch public transit.
How did you get this assignment, and how did you conceive it?
I was approached by the producers Keith Griffiths and Simon Field, who are both friends of mine. They just phoned me up in early December and apologized for the short notice, but asked if Isabella and I would like to make something. Keith said it would be a public loop of some sort, anywhere between two minutes and seven hours long. I immediately started thinking I better shoot something that’s just three minutes long, and got it in my head right away that it should be Isabella Rosselini sitting in an electric chair getting zapped over and over again. I’ve been to a lot of collage parties lately that I’ve been throwing with my friend Paul Butler in the hopes of generating image ideas for my next feature.
What’s a collage party?
They’ve saved my sanity. You show up for a day or seven days at a wonderful place, a cottage with 600 pounds of old magazines, books, glue sticks, X-Acto knives and bottles of bourbon, and you tell just one or two story ideas to humble artists. Some of Canada’s greatest living artists were there, and other times it was developmentally disabled kids at a community club — they make some great images. Paul made an image of a nude woman being blasted out of an electric chair. They forgot to fasten her seatbelt, and I wanted to put this into effect right away. Now, I was immediately told no nudity, I was immediately told no strobing, so strobing became the new taboo. It would throw the citizens of Rotterdam into epileptic fits flipping on the sidewalks.
We dialed down the violence of the electric chair until it more or less stimulated Isabella instead of blasting her violently through the roof. We clothed her in prison garb modeled after Louise Brooks’ costume in “Diary of a Lost Girl,” and then we built an electric chair even though I had a lead on the original chair used at Auburn State Prison — the one photographed by Andy Warhol — a collector in Toronto has it. It was built by Gustav Stickley, the famous designer, and it looks like really nice furniture, but it had a few straps on it, it had some burns, so we built a chair that looks a little more expressionistic. It was designed to fold up portably and travel because Isabella couldn’t make it to Winnipeg to shoot so I shot everything except her close-ups.
Where did you shoot?
Just in my usual little studio space, the Atelier Tovar in Winnipeg, and I shot everything but her. Then I flew to New York with the electric chair in a suitcase, along with some panties, stockings, garters, her costume, a wig, 20 rolls of film, two cameras and no work visa. We shot with some sparklers purchased in Pennsylvania, because they’re illegal in New York. I had a sparkler mule bring in some of these deadly fireworks to Manhattan. Everything was so sketchy. I was flirting with Rotterdam taboos and New York State laws and work visa issues and the whole thing was very exciting. And it was over within a few days since the phone call from Keith.
When it’s projected onto the building, some of the floors still have their office lights on.
I haven’t looked. It was like that during the dress rehearsals and I just assumed that late workers would be fucking with the rectangulation of the whole thing.
A silent protest.
Yeah. They wanna work. I’ll send them to the electric chair.
Was it as easy as telling Isabella you wanted her in the electric chair and she went for that?
She’s game for anything. We’re co-directors, sort of. I always direct her and she always directs herself. She understands melodrama and I just said think Falconetti, think Renée Falconetti, and I’ll pretend to be Carl Dreyer channeling Thomas Edison or something like that. I realized that Edison is more of a capitalist than an inventor, you know, stealing patents from people and making money off them, that was his real contribution, especially to movies, because the second movie ever made was “The Kiss,” I think, which is already softcore porn. He conspired to acquire the patent on the movie camera even though he didn’t invent it. And after he invented the electric chair, he would hold these public demonstrations where people or animals, where stray dogs and cats were violently fried alive.
Yeah, he framed an elephant, called it mad, and electrocuted it. And that was the world’s largest electric chair — it was basically an ankle bracelet but he wanted to entertain people and frighten them. Godard said you only need a girl and a gun to make a movie, but Edison seemed to be ahead of him somehow. He knew that all the murder and mayhem that America could think up was enough to fuel a film industry. So I think he was a great film theoretician without realizing it.
I wanted the set to look like a living room. An electric chair in a living room. As if Thomas Edison had convinced all of America that everyone should have an electric chair there, maybe to try family members for domestic crimes committed.
Instead of the naughty chair, you get a really naughty chair.
Right. And many parents would have sat in many hotly wired electric chairs if that were the case. Maybe America would be a better place. [Laughs] With capital punishment in every home.
So you said you hadn’t looked at the projection?
Not much. I came in a day early before the opening to sort of supervise the “gamma,” the contrast of the brightness. I’m not sure what “gamma” is.
The audio stoplight warnings for the blind at streetcorners — sometimes during the projection their audio syncs to the film.
That’s perfect! I always thought the real musical score would be just street sounds around Rotterdam, the squealing streetcars, the song of tires and musical bells, but I didn’t know about that blind traffic light. It’s quite a soundscape out there. And there are more ways to get run over in this town. I’m half suspecting I’ll get run over by a barge in a canal one of these days.
I’m deadly afraid of getting struck by a bike.
You could be maimed and clipped. I don’t know what the Dutch have come up with here, where like five streetcar tracks converge on a canal and then you see a bus coming on the sidewalk. An old pot-smoking craftsman on a bicycle might just kill you, just pedal you down.
This whole project only took a week?
Yeah, while the film from the Winnipeg half of the shoot was being processed, I was collecting fresh emulsions of Isabella’s face in Manhattan and then moving back home and that was it. My condition for doing it was that I got permission to re-use the footage in my next feature.
Whenever I accept a short film commission, I get permission to use the footage from it and so I’m slowly assembling clips… and in this financially depressed time, you need to. It’s a Frankenstein feature film built together from a bunch of dead short commissions.
You’re going to pull from “‘Lectric Chair” too?
I wanted an electric chair in the next movie, too, I decided. And Isabella, even though she’s not available, she’s going to be in Spain shooting a movie when I’m scheduled to shoot in late March, I think I can just fly over with some wallpaper and some garters and a suitcase full of film or something! [Laughs] And cut her into the movie.
You’re turning into Orson Welles.
Yeah, I finish these films though, that’s one difference. Believe me, I’ve thought of it, because there’s something pretty depressing about all those unfinished Orson projects.
Do you want to talk about the feature you’re working on?
I’m hoping that it’ll have live performative elements. I don’t know what those will be. I’ll have live music of some sort. I’m building a bunch of futurist and very primitive synthesizers for use in the actual story. It’s a crime film, like a film noir, but without guns — I want to prove Godard wrong.
You’re throwing down the gauntlet.
Yeah, exactly. I think I can make a crime film without a gun.
[Photos: Guy Maddin; “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair,” courtesy of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, 2009]