Extending a Sense of Malfunction: An Interview with Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson about The Forbidden Room
By Aaron Cutler
The chief subject of Guy Maddin’s filmmaking is often said to be cinema, but running deeper than that is human memory. The Canadian auteur has made black-and-white and variously tinted color films whose aesthetics recall works from the silent and early sound eras and whose plotlines involve people pained over thoughts of their loved ones. In some cases, the protagonists are amnesiacs writhing to recall their former lives; in others, the characters desire to forget dolorous pasts, but cannot. These cases are all treated with more than a touch of black humor, along with pathos stemming from recognition of the suffering inherent in being a rational animal.
Three of the 59-year-old Maddin’s films will screen this Saturday, December 12, at the Museum of the Moving Image within an ongoing film series connected to the exhibition Walkers: Hollywood Afterlives in Art and Artifact, which presents a variety of artworks related to different modes and eras of Hollywood filmmaking. In Maddin’s feature-length My Winnipeg (2007), the filmmaker fights in voiceover to recall childhood memories of his hometown, an effort that involves enlisting actors (including film noir great Ann Savage) to reenact family scenes. The shorter Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton (2015) again features Maddin presenting a version of himself, this time onscreen as a cynical filmmaker daydreaming out his ideal war movie while stranded on the Jordanian set of fellow Canadian director Paul Gross’s more mainstream recent battle saga Hyena Road (2015).
The afternoon’s third film, The Forbidden Room (2015), is an epic feature-length work that shares its name with a long-lost 1914 Hollywood melodrama directed by prolific Canadian transplant Allan Dwan. This new Forbidden Room (whose US theatrical premiere run came earlier this year) is made up of myriad narrative, star-driven shorts, all of which (in various ways) are remakes of older films that are now considered to be lost as well.
While Maddin resonates hauntingly as the lone authorial voice in My Winnipeg, both Tim Horton and The Forbidden Room were co-directed by him and by the 32 year-old filmmaker Evan Johnson, a former student of his at the University of Manitoba. (The pair’s production designer, Galen Johnson, further shares directorial credit with them on Tim Horton.) Johnson—whose work can additionally be seen via four short, playful, deceptively profound “cine-essays” exploring different facets of Manitoba life that are located on the Criterion Collection’s home video release of My Winnipeg—merits attention as a filmmaker in his own right.
Johnson’s contributions to his and Maddin’s films include a remarkable usage of digital postproduction effects whose varicolored distortions create senses of ghostly games involving spectral beings that emerge and dissolve before our eyes. An ongoing sense of fragmentation exists both at the films’ narrative and visual levels. Tim Horton and The Forbidden Room differ from Maddin’s solo films in the sheer boldness of their digressions into nightmarish, delirious sketches that consume attention for long stretches until the works escape back into the comfort of pre-established framing stories. Like the mind of the pink-skinned figure of “Guy Maddin” that drifts while its bearer passes time in a desert, and like the minds of the myriad aristocrats, dancers, doctors, farmers, singers, woodsmen, and other figures tormented by visions throughout The Forbidden Room, Maddin-Johnson’s films live at constant risk of rupturing, despite always coming back together.
This possibility will expand in the pair’s next major project that will premiere, an online-only effort called Seances that will combine segments from The Forbidden Room with other materials in sequences unique to each new visitor. I spoke to Maddin and Johnson during the New York Film Festival about the history of their artistic partnership, and about the connections between the works that they have made together and might realize still.
How did you begin working together?
Evan Johnson: I first met Guy because he was my teacher. I was a 19-year-old film student at the University of Manitoba and I took his class on melodrama. The films that he showed were life-changingly strange to me, and his ability to convey their essence was powerful. L’Age d’Or (1930) seemed preposterous and ugly at first glance, but it came to bother me in the middle of the night by offering a kind of beauty so new that I couldn’t integrate it into my mind. Then there was one of Guy’s favorite films, Tod Browning’s The Unknown (1927).
Guy Maddin: I teach that one in every class, no matter the theme. That and Zero for Conduct (1933). I’m even friends (I think) with Luce Vigo, Jean Vigo’s daughter, who appears in The Forbidden Room and who gave us permission to shoot some of her father’s unrealized scripts. We considered them to be lost films because we lost Vigo—
Johnson: Much too young.
Maddin: So Evan eventually began doing odd jobs for me, and we became friends through that. We watched a lot of movies together and came to know what we both liked.
What inspired The Forbidden Room?
Maddin: It evolved out of an Internet project called Seances, which will launch in the spring of 2016. The project began with my discovering, through very dilettantish researches, a mother lode of narrative potential lying in lost films. It’s scary to consider that much wondrous (and un-wondrous) work from the brief history of film is already lost to us. Often in other art forms—such as writing and painting—turning points in the form happen in corners and in little, out-of-the-way places, and important shifts can continue to be traced back to near-forgotten influences. Once a movie is lost, though, the chance to credit influence to its filmmaker is likely gone.
Johnson: There is a part of me that likes the idea of some films being lost, especially if they can be rediscovered many, many years afterwards, when the world can no longer understand the conditions of their making and they can be seen in all their strangeness and thingness.
Maddin: There is a cumulative effect to seeing stuff from the last century that helps us understand its many stages. The lost films that I was learning about were made at times when different cultural attitudes from those of today were encouraged. The films dealt with topics like eugenics, passing for white, and capitalism run amok, and offered propaganda from various points on the compass. I found it fascinating to see, locked up in the amber of book appendices, all of this pop culture-taught history that buttressed up against my understanding of official history—due precisely to how I had been missing over eighty percent of pop culture and thus unable to access its zeitgeist.
Johnson: Allan Dwan made over four hundred films, more than three hundred of which are considered lost today. We had a number of his lost films on our radar because of their delicious-sounding plot synopses. He was directing as early on as the mid-1910s, in many instances making melodramas with plot twists that no one would attempt to stage today. As we did in several cases, though, we made reference to Dwan’s lost film The Forbidden Room primarily because we liked the title. The rest came from our imaginings.
How did your imaginings materialize themselves?
Maddin: I thought that it would be fun to adapt the plots of lost films to contemporary times with some recontextualizing tissue built in. The only way that I could do so, I felt, would be by remaking them as interconnected short films.
Johnson: I was initially Guy’s research assistant on the project, then at a certain point we were writing scripts together, then shotlisting together, then planning the shoot together, and then suddenly we were on set.
Maddin: Evan was thinking in conceptual terms while I stayed focused upon many small pictures. He worked himself into a co-creator position. He and I designed an internet-interactive way in which anyone online could hold séances with the spirits of lost films and be presented with the shreds of spirits interrupting each other to form unique viewing experiences out of lost matter. It was Evan’s idea that the program would always destroy the title that had just been generated, resulting in screenings that could never be replicated.
Johnson: The Seances films will be randomly generated combinations of sequences, while The Forbidden Room was designed in the shooting.
Maddin: Canadian funding bodies are interested in new media projects like Seances, but they haven’t gotten their funding levels up to the right point yet. We thought that if we could make a feature-length film from our material, then we could access an appropriate budget. The two projects now considered companion pieces by us—Seances and The Forbidden Room—could thus fund each other, buttress each others’ existences, complement each other, enrich each other. So they’re our two offspring. We love them both equally. The Forbidden Room is, in fact, one big Seances viewing experience. It just won’t be destroyed.
What are the major differences that you see between these two projects?
Johnson: With Seances we wanted to design something that could produce delight, sometimes at the risk of creating boredom and dreariness. We want to be genuinely surprised by what happens with Seances. The Forbidden Room’s unfolding is not random in any way. The film’s sequence of events was very carefully and considerately ordered.
Maddin:The Forbidden Room is also a shared experience. It’s ideally meant to be watched more than once with friends and strangers in a theater. Seances will most likely offer private viewings. Since those sessions are one-time-only, we want people to feel special if something works well for them and a little tortured over their inability to share it. The experience has to become word-of-mouth at that point.
Johnson: The footage from The Forbidden Room will all present on the site in one form or another, along with videos from other websites and parts of the internet pushing through.
Maddin: There will digital artifacting, data-moshing, and signal-crossing, both at the surface level and in the storytelling. We had the idea that the spirits of these lost movies would be confused and that the characters in them might sometimes change as a result. A husband and wife could become a brother and sister or a father and daughter, and their professions and social classes would also transform. So it’s like a Kuleshov experiment, only with many more variables rolling around.
How did you want your footage to seem both old and new?
Johnson: The general idea for both Seances and The Forbidden Room was to make the footage look beautiful, but also broken, falling apart, melting, decaying, and subsequently cobbled together. Mimicking the look of aged, poorly-cared-for film was obviously part of this strategy. Since we shot digitally, though, and were creating digital effects to mimic film, we thought that it was important to extend a sense of malfunction through a kind of digital abuse that would sometimes break from the picture plane. Selecting color palettes was a matter of me, Guy, and our production and title designer Galen determining what kinds of feelings we wanted, and what kinds of old movies we might borrow from.
Maddin: Our sequences sometimes behave like silent films and sometimes like sound films. I’ve always loved that most glorious of Hollywood years, 1929, when the bulk of the part-talkies were made purely for financial reasons. Silent films were shelved during the explosion of sound, then slid off the shelf later on to have some dialogue scenes or musical numbers added to them by an anonymous filmmaker. The late addition of sound to a silent film, sometimes as much as two years after production’s completion, seems surrealistically besides the point, gimmicky to the extent of logic-defying brilliance.
L’Age D’Or is maybe the best of the part-talkies, and a film that Buñuel made as a part-talkie on purpose. I love the freedom that the part-talkie filmmaker holds to decide when actors speak. There are so many ways that language can be stylized in films. We usually think of stylization occurring through writing and performance, but I find punching big holes in our ability to listen to be the most exciting kind of stylization there is.
Do you hope for viewers to be able to follow The Forbidden Room easily?
Johnson: Yes. Once we had generated The Forbidden Room’s raw shooting material, the goal (believe it or not) was to make the film as coherent and as rigidly, logically structured as possible.
Maddin: It was very carefully mapped out.
Johnson: Mapped out clearly.
Maddin: Not just put in a blender.
Johnson: With all of the mistakes controlled and curated into special sequences. There are essentially two layers at which things are happening. The first is an overall nested story structure, divided into three acts. Act 1 gives a story within a story within a story within a story, and what comes out of those stories. Act 2 is a story within a story within a story within a story within a story within a story, and what comes out of those. Act 3 is in many ways the same as Act 2, but darker and messier, and more concerned with failure and doom.
We knew that this structural nesting would be complicated to follow, so we tried to make the deeper rhythms of the film as conventional as we could. Each little story would have a beginning, middle, end, and protagonist. The protagonists would be different from one story to another, but their energy would move in a common direction.
Maddin: Some things help. There’s a search for a girl (played by Clara Furey), and there’s a progression from one end of a submarine through a bunch of rooms to another. There’s a compiled book of climaxes, found deep within the submarine’s hull, that gives the poor viewer a chance to feel, maybe, like an end is coming soon. When you start piling stories on top of one another that all contain their own conclusions, it might become hard for a viewer to sense a greater one. We were concerned about that multiplicity of self-contained tales becoming too tedious and disorienting, but I’m pleased with how it ultimately came out.
Johnson: What is probably my favorite story deals with the failure of a man (played by Mathieu Amalric) to remember his wife’s birthday. It contains the primal panic and selfishness of a dream. “Why can’t it be my birthday?” he wonders, which seems to me like a metaphor for the nightmare of having a self.
Maddin: I like a sequence involving female skeletons that rub themselves up against a man who’s been imprisoned inside a poisoned leotard. The story is a simple one, but it’s the story of my life. Bones, the bones of women, rattling around, on, or near me—sigh—while my own bones dissolve, my own soul dissolves. I’m still wearing that leotard.
How does The Forbidden Room depict gender relations?
Johnson: I think that all of Guy’s movies parody his vision of masculinity.
Maddin: It’s probably unavoidable that there would be some gender politics in the film. The filmmakers with whose works we were dealing (including ourselves) were all male, and the stories we offer are there for the viewer to parse out and decide for himself or herself where on the douche spectrum they sit.
Johnson: The gender politics can be off-putting in The Forbidden Room, but they’re there in the way that they are for a number of reasons. For instance, the raw materials with which we were working were very often films with melodramatic standards that differed from contemporary society’s more lateral thinking.
Maddin: We were also writing the stories with autobiographical impulses.
Johnson: Autobiographical self-loathing from the dying art of man.
Maddin: Men tend to hope to impose themselves on women. Since film is oftentimes wish fulfillment, they use it to impose themselves on women who haven’t asked for the imposition, with dire or at least highly inconvenient consequences. The Forbidden Room shows this with its variety of stories about men and women relating. If it’s not exactly a cry for change, it’s at least a plangent and self-loathing confession about the way things are.
How has co-directing been?
Maddin: For me it’s been reinvigorating. I felt like I had written my last black-and-white script with Keyhole (2010). My enthusiasm had hit rock bottom and it was time to move on. I wanted to be pushed firmly between the shoulder blades into a big pool of pixels and digital color.
It can be frustrating to work with my fellow Canadians. They’re often non-confrontational, so you spend your time navigating a stiff breeze of passive aggression. No such problems with Evan—he and I are always very direct with each other. I was the one who said “Action” and “Cut” on the set of The Forbidden Room, but he was there the whole time as a fellow filmmaker. He was basically the director of Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton.
Johnson: But there was a lot of back-and-forth on that one.
Maddin: Evan thought of the structure. He edited a bunch of footage that we found and that had been given to us, and he constructed the conceit behind the whole thing. I wrote my own voiceover, but didn’t really get up to much insurgency—it was Evan and his brother Galen who went out and created the havoc.
Johnson: Up to now I’ve mostly worked in Guy’s shadow, which I don’t mind at all. I’m not particularly concerned with the purity of my voice. Tim Horton feels like a personal work, close to something that I would make without Guy—although Guy is obviously in it, and we spent all kinds of time together working on it. I thoroughly enjoyed hiding behind his persona and getting away with certain kinds of mischief knowing that he would provide a cover for me. Obviously The Forbidden Room, as people say, is even more of a Guy Maddin film than Guy Maddin’s films usually are.
Maddin: Which is because of Evan.
Johnson: Sure, I’m just helping you to be more of yourself.
Maddin:Tim Horton was a bit like returning the favor.
Johnson: That doesn’t mean that if I have the privilege or opportunity to make films again, they will be just like Tim Horton. Every film is something new.
Maddin: That was a nice little sui generis thing.
Johnson: I feel like sui generis is the only kind of thing that I would ever know how to make.
Would either of you like to say anything else?
Maddin: I can’t think of anything. Maybe Evan can speak.