In which Winnipeg director Guy Maddin abuses his editor and strands his actors while making Brand Upon the Brain!
An interview with Guy Maddin is more like a rollicking conversation with an old friend than a formal exchange of questions and answers. Thus, when contacted by phone at his Winnipeg home, Canada’s most fanciful filmmaker began the discussion by bewailing his monthlong travails with a local telephone company. After that brief preamble, though, everything was motion pictures in general and Brand Upon the Brain! in particular, the director’s new expressionistic horror movie. Maddin insists his latest is “a lot more autobiographical than you might think”, even if it was shot around the waters of Puget Sound rather than the more familiar shores of Lake Winnipeg.
The very notion of shooting a Canadian movie in Seattle, the exact opposite of what Vancouveites have come to expect, obviously appealed to the filmmaker’s perverse sense of humour. As he put it, “It felt like I was sneaking into their bedroom and feeling them up while they slept, leaving them to try to figure out what had happened when they woke up in the morning. It felt good. To indulge in still more lurid analogies, it felt like I was stepping out a little bit on my Manitoba film crews, who have been loyal and faithful but who are starting to look a little plain in my eyes. So here was this studio in Seattle inviting me to make a picture with complete artistic freedom so long as I used a Seattle cast and crew, the swinger’s rule being that I had to go down and use these people. That’s how I found myself in the rather sexy environment of my first foreign film shoot.”
As for the improbably autobiographical elements in Brand Upon the Brain!, even if the central character is called Guy Maddin, it’s hard to imagine that he grew up in a lighthouse orphanage overseen by a mad-scientist father and a mother who put a new spin on the notorious Countess Erzebeth Bathory’s evil quest for eternal youth.
The director explained things this way: “I was making a childhood-recollection film, and when children are really young they’re always trying to make sense out of the universe, just as, a little later on, they’ll be trying to make sense of their inner sexual desires. Inevitably, they construct gropingly incorrect models of the ways in which the world works: first the presexual, then the sexual world. Personally, I think it’s these erroneous models that provide the foundation for the ways in which we look at the world as adults. Things are wildly off-kilter before trial and error normalize them, and, from the vantage point of adulthood, just about anyone can become a poet through the act of thinking about their childhood.”
As for the veracity of the film’s events, “People never remember the exact chronology of their childhood, so I wanted to re-create how we remember things in a way that was both poetically and psychologically true. I always laugh sardonically when I read the words based on a true story. I don’t care less if it’s true or not; I just want it to be psychologically plausible. The most bogus films are based on true stories anyway. You can still have people flying and beaming up and morphing into monsters, so long as you have psychological plausibility.”
To get that childhood-memory feel, Maddin reverted to that most basic back-yard mnemonic tool: the Super 8 movie camera. It’s also a film that relies heavily on iris shots (particularly when the omnipresent mother is spying on her pubescent son through a telescope), flashes of faux Technicolor (most of the film is shot in black and white), and lap dissolves for dramatic, as well as archaic, effect.
“It’s a pretty heavily edited film,” the director admitted. “I burnt out my editor making it, and he deserves a lot of the credit for getting the story told. When I started, I just had a big list of shots and no script, which must have left the actors feeling very stranded, because actors usually feel their way into a plot through dialogue, and they didn’t have any. [Brand relies exclusively on voice-over narration, courtesy of Isabella Rossellini, and a number of intertitles to make its nonvisual points.] I managed to assemble about 15 hours’ worth of jaggedly blurry, jiggly shots in which I tried to find faces, hands, or something else for the editor to make sense out of. We wanted to re-create the way that memory comes in little flashes and in the wrong order, like a stone skipping over water. Sometimes we’d slow down on a really treasured memory, thereby fetishizing it, and even replaying it a few times in a manner different from your standard flashback. Sometimes we’d even give sneak previews of shots to come. We called this neurological editing. My poor editor. He couldn’t move for three months after finishing this movie. Neither could I.”
As one would expect from world cinema’s canniest postmodernist, Brand Upon the Brain! is chock-a-block with antique-film references. “Well, Victor Sjí¶strí¶m is there for sure, because, being Icelandic-Canadian, I wanted to include something Scandinavian, and I always respond to his temperatures. And when we cut to temp music, as we often do, we used [Jean] Sibelius, so the Finnish temperament came through as well. F.W. Murnau is never very [far] from my mind, and since this is my first chance to use real natural light in 20 years, that probably explains Robert Flaherty’s influence.
“I’m scared of being outside, by the way, which explains why I hate looking at the Weather Channel before going to work.”
For once there aren’t any amputations in a Maddin movie, but the shadow of incest, the other key component in castration anxiety, hangs dark and thick over every second of Brand Upon the Brain! When asked what a strict Freudian might make of his oeuvre, the director didn’t seem to bat an eyelash. “I’m not anxious about castration,” the filmmaker laughed. “It happened long ago. It’s all behind me now and I haven’t a care in the world.”
What’s before him now is grandfatherhood (even though he is only 51), pedagogy (he’s been asked to teach Icelandic studies by the University of Manitoba, even though some members of his community still haven’t forgiven him for his Tales From the Gimli Hospital), and the completion of Winnipeg, his inevitably nontraditional documentary look at the hometown that he, unlike so many other talented fellow citizens, refuses to leave.
“Marshall McLuhan lived across the street from where I live now,” Maddin elaborated, “and he had this theory that you can actually help a city by leaving it. In my case, it probably would. Nevertheless, I’ve stayed for a number of emotional and business reasons. Manitoba is the most generous province to filmmakers, by far; it has the best artistic environment for artists of all sorts, and all my muses, both human and geographic, are here. And then there’s my soul, which gets low on juice rather quickly. When I need to recharge it, I just go to Gimli. The odd trip to Lake Winnipeg fills the holes, and I feel good for a second.”