By Dan Persons
Wait, MY WINNIPEG is a documentary? You mean all the stuff about horses freezing in the river and becoming a major attraction for strolling lovers, and the law requiring that former homeowners be permitted entry into their old abodes for the night, not to mention the rooftop homeless community and the faux Nazi invasion, all that stuff is real? Yup, the director swears it. But then again, the director is Guy Maddin, he of the dream-state narrative and the retro shooting style, the man who has made a virtue of taking incredible notions and making them feel as if they’d always been part of the landscape. Tapping pasts both personal and municipal, wrapping them in a Mobius strip fantasy about an endlessly thwarted, train-bound escape from the city of his youth, the director has created a factual film that feels no less incredible than his most surreal efforts. Cinefantastique Online’s Dan Persons had a chance to sit down with the director:
DAN PERSONS: So… have you or haven’t you escaped the city?
GUY MADDIN: Well, yes and no. I had an apartment in Toronto briefly, but I guess the whole experiment of living there had to be aborted — I had a lousy landlady. I know I’ll probably always have an excuse [to go back]. It’s not so much that I’ve always wanted to leave, but people just keep asking me with each passing movie. I’m sure George Romero and John Waters got that over the years, too, just, “When are you going to leave?”
It makes sense to leave, but it makes sense to make movies in Winnipeg. Even if I lived in another city, I’d go back and make them there. I know every nook and cranny, it’s inexpensive, I have a great relationship with the funding bodies. It makes it almost impossible to leave.
What was it like shooting about an actual place?
A lot of it felt mischievous. I was giving the city the good ol’ mythologizing treatment that every other culture in the world gives to themselves. Canadians are just so shy; they’re incapable of mythologizing themselves. Every other culture in the world has a national identity — they boil down things, they intermingle real people with fictional ones, Abe Lincoln and Paul Bunyan share the same stage in American identity.
There’s something about being very similar to Americans yet being right next to them that prevents us from defining ourselves. If you ask Canadians what they’re like, they’ll just say, “Well, we’re not Americans!” What does that mean? “It means we don’t boast, we don’t exaggerate.” We take all of our national figures and events and present them in life-size, rather than giving them a sort-of emotional truth. My manifesto for this was to take all these facts and turn them into ecstatic truths — to use Werner Herzog’s term for it — and just present them with some sense of glory and enchantment. It felt like I was doing good work, long overdue work for the city and the country.
How did that translate into presenting your personal side of the story?
Because I felt I couldn’t disentangle my own family history from my own city, [I went] back in and sublet a portion of my childhood home. I was able to get my old bedroom, and the living room, and the kitchen, and a little piece of hall with the runner in it — important rooms for me. It was at times disturbing to go back in there, because, well, I missed it, and a lot of thing’s I’d forgotten about were coming up at the strangest of times. And at times I felt mischievous, because I felt I was playing a cruel joke on my family.
At other times I was quite overwhelmed, completely wracked with sobs, weeping copious tears. But I realized they were tears of pride and not genuine, emotional tears. I thought I was so damn clever that every now and then a surge of pride would overwhelm me, and I’d actually have to sob out loud — that’s one of the most embarrassing confessions I’ve ever made. I’d think, Oh wow, what a cathartic moment! No, actually, I was just building up a pride tumor — no catharsis involved.
What led you to cast Ann Savage — the prototypical femme fatale from the prototypical noir classic, DETOUR — as your mother?
Well, sketching out these scenes, I realized I couldn’t get my mother to do them. She’s ninety-two and her vision is going and she couldn’t work these long days. I realized I had to get an actor. So I was e-mailing my friend Dennis Bartok, who used to run the American Cinematheque at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in L.A. He asked me what I was up to and I said, “I’ve just finished the outline on MY WINNIPEG, and if only Ann Savage were alive to play my mother, I’d be set.” He said, “Ann Savage was just at my wedding last week. I’ve got her phone number.”
He was really excited, because she hadn’t been in a film since 1955, she hadn’t heard a slate in over half a century. She had a cameo as a nun in some movie, but she’s chosen to forget that. She’d apparently been turning down a lot of offers from DETOUR cultists — the parts in the scripts were always too close to DETOUR or tributes to DETOUR. She was just flattered that she was being approached as an actor, not as a cult figure. So I was able to trick her into coming to Winnipeg.
How many different cameras and film stocks did you use on this film?
I can’t remember the total, but I can run them down for you: I used Super 16, 16, Super 8 — I wanted to use regular 8, but it’s hard to get — miniDV video and HD video, but a lot of that just got embedded in the images in the rear-screen projection. Then there’s stock footage and still images and animation. And then the various formats are combined in one shot.
Do you see yourself finally forsaking celluloid for digital?
I was hoping — because I’d bought this HD camera — that [MY WINNIPEG] would help me get at least a temporary separation from film altogether, help me break through that barrier and just get an understanding with film that I can have a covert relationship with HD every now and then. But at the last second, a lot of the stuff that was edited into the movie in HD just didn’t sit well with me as HD stuff. I finally just projected the movie onto my fridge and filmed it with a 16mm film camera, and just converted it to film emulsions, which is where most of that stuff really belongs.
The shadow animation for the stable fire is great.
Yeah. It’s not something you could use in every movie, I guess. I’d been friends with [Andy Smetanka], this animator from Missoula, Montana, which I believe is David Lynch’s birthplace. Shadow animation was used a lot in pre-Soviet Russia, and Winnipeg has been such a crucible for Communist sentiments that that tenuous connection seemed to be the one that determined for me the only kind of animation that could be used.
All the works I’ve seen of yours have been shot in controlled environments. What was it like…
Going outside? It was very liberating, actually, being able to switch formats and just go for a walk, just to get the kind of detail that only nature can supply, a hundred years of architecture can supply as a backdrop, as opposed to building everything indoors. It’s a lot less work. When I started making my films, in Canada there’s such a tradition of Canadian realism that I wanted to break from it. It was of no interest to anyone else outside of Canada, but it was important to me to go artificial. But that was twenty years ago, now. Everyone went artificial in a big way for a long time all over the world — it’s anything goes now. So I’m not really married to anything. But it did feel good to get out there.
How much did the town know about your plans and your outlook for the film?
Virtually nothing. They were very cordial; I’m friends with all those people. No one else knew what I was up to. I could walk around with my video camera — all the night-vision stuff is just a video camera, me, and my dog. I just sort of went out on these long dog walks, started brooding about my place in history, and came back with all these notes in my head. I finally learned to take a notepad with me, standing out in the middle of winter taking notes with this dog: “C’mon, let’s go!” It was kind of a covert operation for the most part. Luckily, I’m known enough in the city that people return my calls, and I can get into places like the [then-slated-for-demolition] Winnipeg Arena.
Other than that, they had no idea. They haven’t seen the movie yet; I’m going to show them in June. I’m really hoping they just run me out of town on a rail, just get rid of all the vacillation on my part, once and for all. Have no choice — I have too much choice now.
The ultimate one-way ticket?
Yeah, just be sitting on a train, tarred and feathered, the ultimate one-way ticket in one hand, stuck… stuck to the tar.
- Review: Brand Upon the Brain