TORONTO--Guy Maddin movies aren't just about the stories, they're about the lighting.
When Mark McKinney was meeting Maddin about possibly starring in The Saddest Music in the World, the Winnipeg director surprised the Kids in the Hall alumnus with a surreal screen test.
"At the last meeting he took a table lamp and moved it around my face, making--" McKinney starts to hem and haw like an elderly doctor performing a painful exam. "He's a visual artist as well, so he was looking for bone..." The actor laughs. "I don't know what."
Sitting in a room at the InterContinental Hotel as he awaits his film's North American premiere at last September's Toronto International Film Festival, Maddin has no problem explaining what he was looking for under those lights. (The movie opens Friday [April 30] in Vancouver.) "Unlike theatre, so much of your performance [in film] is based on how you look," he says. "So I just wanted to know if he was going to be easy to photograph or difficult. So it was just a simple matter of moving a light around a little bit. I didn't put a big rubber glove on and go at him, but it probably felt like I was doing that. To him. It probably made him nervous." Now Maddin laughs.
Maddin saw what he wanted and cast McKinney as a slick expat Canadian turned jingoistic Broadway producer who competes with his family to try to win a $25,000 prize for playing, you guessed it, the saddest music in the world.
The Saddest Music in the World is, quite literally, a dark comedy. Not only are the themes dark--it's set in Winnipeg during the Great Depression and features funeral dirges from around the planet being presented for the benefit of a mysterious brewery mogul (Isabella Rossellini) with beer-filled glass legs--but it's shot primarily in black and white. The few scenes that are in colour focus on death. "I know old movies used to also market themselves as not necessarily all-colour, but they would just say 'with colour sequences'. And I always found that charming that you could switch over to colour as a sort of a special present to viewers for a little while," Maddin says. "It was usually musical numbers that were shot in colour, so I just thought, rather flippantly, that I'll make some funerals colour. It was just sort of a caprice. I knew it would please the distributors a bit more, but I wasn't commanded to do it."
The sepia tone of Saddest Music--which has earned four Genie nominations (including best achievement in direction) and a U.S. Comedy Arts Festival Film Discovery Program jury award for best director--is uniquely Maddin's, and there aren't many directors who can legitimately claim a unique look. His previous films have earned two U.S. National Society of Critics awards for best experimental film (1990's Archangel and 2000's "The Heart of the World"), an International Emmy (Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary ), retrospective showings throughout the U.S. and Europe, and a growing cult following.
However, Maddin claims his signature style was initially the result of artistic evolution, not aesthetics. "It kind of evolved rather quickly in a sort of Darwinian-natural-selection sort of way. I found out about halfway through shooting my very first short movie that I could actually create an atmosphere by unplugging lights. And it made lighting setups a lot simpler too. When I got down to just one light there was a nice strong black shadow, and shadows are the cheapest and most effective prop, I find. And they're free. And pretty soon I was composing shots that were very noir.
"So it became sort of my philosophy for much of all the other aspects of filmmaking: not pushing the acting too much at first; not pushing the narrative too much; not cluttering up the soundtrack with much more than just some sort of ambient crackle. And then I slowly just added, ingredient by ingredient, a few more sophistications--just to return to the Darwinian metaphor, I guess, just the way a creature might evolve."
Like animals on the Galápagos Islands, Maddin's style thrived in part thanks to isolation. "Most of the people that I showed my initial efforts to hated them anyway, so I didn't have any aesthetic allies in Winnipeg. So the fact that it was remote and had few filmically obsessed people was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. I was able to just learn all this stuff on my own through trial and painful error."
Maddin feels Saddest Music is the next step up his evolutionary ladder. "Unlike my most recent films, which still had lots of German-expressionist features, this one is slowly getting a little more 1930s American," he says. "My visual style doesn't evolve as quickly as Hollywood's, which is changing every season."