INTERVIEW: Guy Maddin on Cowards Bend The Knee

Guy Maddin is one of the most intriguing film directors currently working, with one of the most distinctive styles in contemporary cinema, earning him an international cult reputation. He has worked with the style and imagery of the transitional period between late silent and early sound cinema to produce some of the most disorientating – and flat-out funny – films of the last 30 years. He is far more than a mere hipster pasticheur, however; his films interrogate the very codes of cinema itself, produced in a unique artisanal style that is perhaps closer to the artist’s film than mainstream cinema. Indeed, what many (including myself) regard as his best film, Cowards Bend the Knee, was originally produced as an art installation, and consequently is one of his least-seen works.

When Matchbox Cineclub, which is dedicated to uncovering rare and underseen films, asked me to programme something for this year’s Scalarama, a celebration of underground cinema, and Ela Orleans told me her dream was to score a film by Guy Maddin, the choice was obvious – have Ela score Cowards Bend the Knee. Both Guy and Ela’s aesthetic seem to uncannily match each other’s, both producing work that is haunted by traces of the past but not burdened by it, both producing work that is beautiful and dreamlike.

Here’s an interview I carried out with Guy ahead of the screening.

BRIAN BEADIE: Firstly, I’d like to thank you for being so helpful with this screening for Scalarama. Essentially, we’re producing an alternative version of your film. What do you think of multiple versions of films – perhaps in reference to Seances or The Forbidden Room?

GUY MADDIN: Well, I’m extremely honoured to have this new score, especially since it’s composed by Ela Orleans. She’s a magnificent talent. Wow! Ever since I first stepped into an editing room over 30 years ago, and started moving the component parts of movies around, their shots, their sound effects, etc, I’ve been amazed by how music affects the image. I know it’s not literally true, but it might as well be, I swear different pieces of music can make a shot darker or lighter, long or shorter. The right music cue can make a shot unforgettable, the wrong piece can make a shot disappear completely – it’ll pass by without anyone noticing. I swear music can even slightly improve, completely repair or even destroy actors’ performances. With this in mind I’ve always wanted to have different versions of my movies kicking around. Seances (2016), an internet interactive project I worked on with my new collaborators, Evan and Galen Johnson, featured countless alternate versions of our film adaptations of long lost films – some versions had alternate colour palettes, others had different edits, different plots even, and different video textures, but most important of all, each had multiple scores. This project was one big roiling Kuleshov Effect, with so many variables rolling around like a bushel of ball bearings set loose on the deck of a ship. It was mind-boggling to me, and when we finished I was saddened to think I probably wouldn’t soon get a chance to play with such variables. But now there is this chance, with Cowards and the wondrous Ela! Cowards will now be a completely new film. I wish I could insert this new version into my filmography as a 2017 addition – I would seem much more hardworking than I am!

Mark McKinney and Isabella Rossellini in The Saddest Music In The World (Guy Maddin, 2003)

I understand that Cowards Bend the Knee was shot on the set of another film – The Saddest Music in the World, almost like an underground version of that film, or that film’s dark subconscious. Do you think more filmmakers should do this – the best precedent I can think of is maybe Pere Portabella’s Vampir-Cuadecuc?

You just mentioned one of my favourite films of all time. I don’t know the exact story behind Portabella’s presence on Jesus Franco’s set of Count Dracula (1970). I wonder if he was hired to shoot a behind–the-scenes making-of, or if he had something more sophisticated up his sleeve all along, but what he did has eventually come to represent the creative freedom we can deploy in the way we make accounts of things now, 47 years later. He simply shot his own version of Franco’s Dracula. Franco shot in conventional theatrical release sync sound 35mm colour, Portabella in 16mm hi-con B&W, with a timelessly avant garde sound design. The Dracula story is familiar enough to all viewers, so Portabella was free to add gloss upon gloss in a personal vein to the Franco. Every now and then he catches Franco’s crew, the big camera, the make-up and props people, even visitors to the set show up, but then it’s back to the story, which, it turns out rhymes nicely with the dictatorship of Generalissimo Franco back home in Spain. It’s so dreamy, so sneaky – way, way sneakier than Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or. So this Vampir is among the titans. Evan, Galen and I went to Jordan a couple of years ago to shoot a movie behind-the-scenes of a Canadian war film called Hyena Road. Evan had, without prior knowledge, come up with the idea that galvanized Portabella, simply to steal all of our host picture’s production values, at no cost. Hyena Road had a budget of $12million, and we had $60k, so getting to use all the wardrobed extras, the enormous village set built for the other film, and the explosive effects, this was a tremendous saving, and enabled us to put something together with incredible visual impact, with our cameras literally beside the host film’s. We sat cheek-by-jowl with the DOP for the host. We were like tick birds on a rhino. The host film’s director was incredibly generous to allow this. But feelings later soured between us when he felt we had betrayed him in spirit, and we probably had. We had no dictator to poniard, but we had a few things to say about war films in general, and way came off as extremely ungrateful to our hosts, who had even paid for our film!

Cowards Bend the Knee was shot during pre-production on The Saddest Music in the World, while the sets were being built. The latter film had an enormous budget compared to Cowards, maybe $3.5million compared to $12,000 for Cowards. But, boy, did I feel mischievous making the lower budget work. It seemed like I was shooting tests, getting ready for the bigger days of shooting ahead, but instead I was discovering a new way of shooting. I said goodbye to the tripod to which I had been enslaved during previous work and, for the sake of haste and storytelling efficiency, went completely handheld. The script of Cowards would be shot in highly-improvised camera movements. The story has about seven or more – I can’t remember – characters that needed to be connected by camera movement. I didn’t have time to storyboard the film, so I would arrive on set, call action, and just start drawing connections among all these characters, their faces and their hands – the movie has a hand “thing” – and soon I discovered the power in swish pan connections, collisions, conjunctions. I was writing sentences with my camera, automatically, following impulses that seemed right, the way Jack Kerouac wrote his sentences in the seconds after waking. Not all films can be shot this way, but there was something about this one, maybe its autobiographical nature, that made this approach feel right.  It certainly feels alive, like an alert memory and neurology were behind the camerawork.  I say memory because, while I wrote the script, I never once consulted it during the shoot. I was simply retelling an episode from my life as I remembered it, or as I remembered dreaming it over and over.  The whole thing was shot in a fever hotter than a pepper sprout, for five easy days. It came out in one honest-seeming piece! And by honest, I mean emotionally honest. It’s not literally honest, my life was never as literally shadowy, grainy or soft focus as this film, and I’ve never once had my hands surgically removed.

Cowards Bend the Knee was originally shown as a peephole installation. Would you like to speak about the role of voyeurism in the film, and generally in your work?

The film was originally commissioned by The Power Plant Gallery. The curator there gave me a chance to enter the gallery world with an installation. I had no idea what to do, but after long discussions with the curator – for I truly wanted to make something honest and apt for him – we decided we would concentrate on some guilty feelings I’d been carrying with me since early adolescence, when I had drilled some peepholes in walls in an attempt to watch naked people. What a creepy little sociopathic kid I was, though I suppose you could say I possessed a “healthy curiosity” about sex. Still, I would not want to hang around this younger version of myself now. Anyway, to atone somewhat, however spuriously, I decided to make the most luridly confessional movie I could dream up, and then make it available for viewing through peepholes drilled in the walls of The Power Plant. The public could see me at my worst and maybe some karmic accounting would balance the great ledgers in Heaven. Also, thanks to a quirk in the Power Plant’s air conditioning, a strong eyeball-dehydrating breeze shot out of each peephole, blasting drywall fragments into the eyes of gallery visitors. Few got to see my confessions all the way through; many considered suing me, suing the gallery. Everyone was extremely angry with me, some because of what I confessed, others simply because their eyeballs now looked like throbbing red snooker balls.

Gretchen Krich in Brand Upon The Brain! (Guy Maddin, 2006)

The film forms part of an autobiographical trilogy – I confess I haven’t seen Brand Upon the Brain! How did you approach this, and how important do you think it is for a filmmaker to create a mythology around themselves?

I’ve read in places that I’m a narcissist. It’s probably true, though I never once suspected I was one while making this film. I come off so horribly in the movies – I thought I was presenting myself to the film word as its most puerile self-flagellant, maybe the most puerile and self-pitying since Jerry Lewis. I loved operating from this position, and turning literal facts into their fairy tale euphemistic substitutes, to carry on the gospel of Werner Herzog, who has long preached the superiority of “ecstatic truth” over mere fact. Since their invention, motion pictures have been the most powerful tool of mythologisation – like any artist, I just wanted my share of immortality, the budget-discount immortality film offers, maybe 20-50 years of immortality at most. This seemed so typical of the bargain-crazed cheapskates that live in Winnipeg, this seemed like the best way to be honest about why I made films while also achieving my goals. I truly felt that self-lacerating autobiography was the way to go. It works to masterful perfection for John Cheever in his truly great Journals, maybe the best diaries ever published. I thought, let’s go for this. But there is a thin line between self-hatred and self-pity. I never knew how close I was to treading over into Jerry Lewis tonal territory. I’m not the one to say, but I think I just danced back and forth over that deadly border, especially in Brand Upon the Brain!, where more than one critic has accused me of indulging myself in pity for my childhood. But Cowards is more pure, and while no one can say if they ever possess any self-knowledge at all, I truly felt I was finding out things about myself while making this movie. I felt I was unpeeling revelation after revelation. You might ask why I thought anyone would care about me, why any viewer would want to submit his or her eye to all those drywall bits, but, inspired by Cheever, I felt I just might be able to delight, surprise and astound the way the great artists do. You can’t do any of those things unless you try!

Again, I understand the film was financed and exhibited by the art world, rather than the film world. How important do you think galleries are in providing alternatives to commercial cinema?

I love working in galleries and museums. I wish the financing of the film world permitted more of such cross-pollination. I always believed that the arts existed on a continuum, that someone interested in creating paintings or sculpture would also want to write about it, that movies and cave paintings were more related than most regular movie-goers suspected. I guess I was too quixotic for my own good, but I felt that movies belonged in the art world too, especially movies since they synthesise all the other arts, and that even as financially compromised and corrupted as the art world is, so bring in the movies to the museums, I say! Especially their very making! So, when I got a chance to shoot Seances and The Forbidden Room in public, in the foyers of the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Centre PHI in Montreal, I leapt at it. I wanted the museum habitués to see, ant farm-style, how a film was assembled from the little scraps of nothing that typically make up the worlds I shoot. The transformations of utter garbage into the almighty Word of Truth is worth a peek, I thought. I still believe it. But maybe I just like all the glamorous people that show up at gallery openings.

Your work has always focused on a certain period of film history from the late 20s to the early 30s. What fascinates you about this period?

I’m finally leaving the old days, those most oneiric days of the haunted screen, behind. I’ve spent more time in those two decades than the decades themselves did! That’s just wrong. So I’m modernising, and switching to new forms of expression, but I can probably never match the feelings I had while working out the old musty vocabularies. Film, in its industrial haste, was always discarding vocabulary units still in perfect working order. No one else seemed interested in these old, sometimes still shiny parts of speech, so I felt my biggest advantage was simply retracing the route taken by cinema during its short life here on earth, backtracking down the road and reclaiming these unwanted tropes and tones, brushing them off and sticking them into my new projects to see how they worked as repurposed moving parts in new mechanisms. Why not, there was no law against it, and it struck me that wasn’t mildew I smelled, it was excitement. A lot of these old things were good as new, and since no one alive had encountered them before, they struck me as downright revolutionary.   If they ever seemed to reek of pastiche or something corny, that’s probably because of my penchant for framing everything in story structures that were basically fairy tales or melodramas. But that’s another story. My favourite tales are from the Old Testament and from the Greek tragedy days of Euripides. There is something both over-familiar and fresh in those things too. Days of Heaven is a good example of how the Old Testament can be made influentially modern! In my most pathologically optimistic and narcissistic days I wanted to make movies as fresh as a Malick take on the Old Testament.

Darcy Fehr and Melissa Dionisio in Cowards Bend The Knee (Guy Maddin, 2003)

I see this period as being one when certain grammars of film were being discovered and laid down, which you can then use to disrupt conventional ‘realism’, which is why I find your films genuinely radical. Would you go along with that?

Yes, I forbid my students to use the word “realistic.” It has no meaning in a discussion of art. Psychologically plausible, that’s another matter, but realistic doesn’t mean a thing to me. I suppose I rationalised my methods to fit this immutable position of mine, but so be it.

Similarly, your films disrupt and interrogate traditional representations of masculinity, such as the hilarious shower scene in Cowards Bend the Knee. What interests you about this?

Masculine, ugh, I don’t like many men who are truly masculine in the old sense of the word. The sooner we chuck all those taxonomies, including alpha males, the sooner the world will get comfy. The sooner the alpha dogs feel the humiliation they long to inflict on the world, the more wonderful the buttercups will smell!

Although a film like Cowards Bend the Knee captures the look of late silent cinema perfectly, it’s editing strategies are totally avant-garde, and could only have been produced with the aid of digital. How and why did you arrive at this editing style?

My editor John Gurdebeke and I chanced on this style while fast-forwarding through all the footage because beginning to cut. We felt the footage was tremendously improved when his Final Cut skipped over certain parts, came to a rest on others, and seemed to rock itself into one moment, fetishising it, whenever we took a closer, less rushed look at anything.  We felt this was a new way of representing memory on film, a more neurological way. Think of your first kiss, say, you want to approach it with enough pre-roll to recreate your anticipation from long ago, then you want to skip over all the boring parts, or you have to skip over some parts because they’re long forgotten; then when you get to the kiss, you want to sow your memory down, even replay certain parts of it, till all the flavour is sucked out of it. When you’re finally satisfied with your memory you go racing off to the next succulent recollection. We found we could euphemise this type of recollection using the scrolling – that’s what it’s called, technically – that results when one fast-forwards digitally. I see David Lynch used a bit of it in an early episode of Twin Peaks: The Return. It still works. It’s not for every story, but for a nervous memory film I love the way it works.

In my blurb for the film’s advertising, I called the film ‘perhaps the most authentically surrealist film of the 21st century.” How important is surrealism to you?

Surrealism is everywhere now, has been for a long time, especially in advertising, where it works the best. It’s hard to make a feature film purely surrealist now without it becoming tiresome, but there are still ways. I’m glad to have tried my best to keep the movement alive somehow, to present it as it was originally presented, as a transgressive genre off by itself, but I do have more classical interests. Mind you, so did Bunuel. BTW, may I make a recommendation of Hebdomeros, the surrealist novel by Giorgio de Chirico. John Ashbery called it by far the best of the surrealist novels and I agree with him. What a dream! The reader forgets each drop-dead gorgeous sentence as soon as he or she reads it, so rhythmically dreamy is the next sentence, and the next and so on! Never have I been so submerged in dream than when marching through that book’s pages. I read it 25 years ago and shall never forget the experience, even though I can’t remember a single word from it – never could!

Most filmmakers go to Hollywood, or somewhere else, but you’ve stayed in Winnipeg and mythologised it. How important is the city, and the Winnipeg Film Group to you?

Man, talk about sucking the flavour out of something. I have had my grave back-hoed open here, it’s ready for me, but I wish I could live long enough to enjoy another city for a while. It helps that I started teaching at Harvard a few years ago so I split my time between Cambridge and home, but the drivers there are such assholes, not the gentle farmers who slowly careen about the dusty streets of Winnipeg. I truly hate the drivers of Boston. I love the people I know, but then, Dawn of the Dead-style, they become something else, asshole zombies, whenever they climb into a car! I wonder if I can ever escape the comfy temperaments of the town that hosts my grave.

Finally, since this is a live scoring event, how important is music in films to you?

Music is everything to me. EVERYTHING. Film is music! The perfect film for me is one that operates like music, takes music’s shortcut to the heart, is structured like music. Uses the same narcotic effects as music. So even if music is literally present in the film or not, its presence must be felt somehow, even if only in the writing of the script. Hitchcock’s The Birds has no music, but the story works like a symphony! But I prefer my music in my soundtrack, up front and loud. There it can distract from the papier-maché cheapness of my sets!

Brian Beadie


See Cowards Bend The Knee with Live Score by Ela Orleans at Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow on Thursday 21st September, 2017.

Tickets from CCA: Book online / 0141 352 4900.

Cowards Bend The Knee with Live Score by Ela Orleans, poster by Marc Baines