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Believe it or not

Interview: Guy Maddin tells the truth
By PETER KEOUGH  |  July 8, 2008

VIDEO: More from Guy Maddin

Urban myths: Maddin’s Winnipeg is the city that always sleeps. By Peter Keough.
Even the titles of his films are a little weird: The Saddest Music in the World, Cowards Bend the Knee, Brand upon the Brain! And then the images: Isabella Rossellini as a double amputee with artificial legs made of glass and full of beer; a girl who keeps her father’s severed hands preserved in a jar; Maddin’s father drilling into the skulls of orphans to extract the “nectar” that keeps Maddin’s mother eternally young — that last filmed like a silent three-reeler with iris shots and intertitles. In short, Guy Maddin makes Luis Buñuel and David Lynch look like Ron Howard. So it makes sense that he not only is Canadian but hails from that most Canadian of cities.

My Winnipeg is, he says, a documentary about his home town, and he insists that everything in it is true. I can believe that 5000 Nazis took over Winnipeg on “If Day” in 1942 and maybe even that his mother starred on a TV show that ran for 50 years called Ledge Man in which every day she talked a man out of committing suicide. But one of the film’s claims I just can’t accept, and when I get a chance to talk with Maddin, I have to ask him about it.

Tell me that the story about the horses freezing solid in the river was a legend, because otherwise it’s just too sad.
It is sad, and it did happen, and you can double-check that one. Eleven horses had their heads stuck for the course of winter above the surface of the ice. But the movie as a whole is about one-third fact, one-third legend, and one-third opinion.

So it’s your basic Michael Moore movie.
It may be looked at that way. I wanted to make it like a film equivalent to a W.G. Sebald book, where he sets out on a stroll and ends up digressing and winds up in a really interesting place. It doesn’t matter whether Sebald really went on the stroll or not, he’s managed to cobble together a wonderful trip, and you realize the landscape that he covered with his feet doesn’t matter as much as the landscape of his heart.

But Ledge Man — this is a landscape of the heart, I’m assuming.
No. It was a TV version of a movie called Fourteen Hours. It was on TV when I was a kid. But it’s not in the IMDB or anything . . .

But your mother didn’t star in it . . .
She did. She’d dash off from the beauty salon and act in it. She was on the show the entire run, but there were different men over the years. Some of them went over the edge because they weren’t paid anything. Sometimes the camera man would go on the ledge for a while if the actor didn’t show. I remember watching her on the set.

Your films have always been autobiographical. Wasn’t the first about your dead father?
It was. It was called The Dead Father. He had died a few years earlier, and I kept having dreams in which he kept coming back, not to life, but coming back to the family. I dreamed he had not died but had gone to live with a better family. He was only coming back to pick up something that he forgot, and I had 30 seconds to convince him to stay. It was like a game show. I would fail every time, but I could remember his voice in my dreams and I couldn’t in my waking life, and so the dreams left me feeling distraught, but they also left me feeling wonderful because I was hearing and seeing him very clearly. Capturing these feelings on film was what I set out to do.

In My Winnipeg, you mention your brother, who committed suicide as a teenager.
I sort of took it as far as I felt it needed to be taken. I just mentioned that he’s passed away. It’s something that affected everyone in the family enormously. It’s the Everest of our family past. So it had to be mentioned, but it’s a big subject, best dealt with in another medium.

Do you find your films therapeutic?
I do find them therapeutic, but in a way that surprised me. I choose a subject that I’m obsessed with or a subject that’s been haunting me. But making a movie requires hard work. You spend a year, a year and a half, making a movie, and then you end up talking about it and sitting through it a number of times and you’re just sick of it by the end of the process. So what once was the object of your obsessions becomes something that almost induces coma or nausea. Not at this stage — I’m happy to talk about it now, but at the end of this year, say, I won’t want to talk about or think about or even want to live in Winnipeg. So, yes, it is therapeutic, but it’s more of an aversion therapy than a working-through of problems.

But I’ve exploited my poor family enough already. I think I’ll leave it at that. I’ll go back to conventional filmmaking without autobiography. I think the character Guy Maddin has made his last appearance. If someone wants to put out a Guy Maddin action figure, you’re welcome to.

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