Shooting a Documentary-Fantasy on 16mm, Super-8, MiniDV, HD - and a Cell Phone

For audiences familiar with Canadian director Guy Maddin’s work, the very idea of him making a documentary seems like a joke. His entire oeuvre is steeped in fantasy, pastiche and film references, often recreating a past or place that only ever existed in the cinema. One would never have suspected that a dose of reality would invigorate Maddin, but that’s exactly what the challenge of making My Winnipeg, even on his own eccentric terms, did. It follows two main narrative threads: Maddin (played on-screen by Darcy Fehr) tries to stay awake on a train leaving Winnipeg by recalling odd stories of the city’s past. Maddin also makes a film about his childhood, starring his mother (played by Ann Savage, star of the classic film noir Detour) in a series of Freudian vignettes. Maddin’s style continues to draw upon silent cinema, but here he uses a variety of cameras to create a unique look. Watch the trailer, then read the Q&A.

F&V: What combination of cameras did you use on My Winnipeg?

Maddin: As many as I could. No 35mm or IMAX, but everything else. 16mm, Super-16, Super-8, MiniDV and HD. A lot of the HD stuff appeared in the rear-screen projections, which were then filmed with 16mm and Super-8. There’s also archival footage and animation. There are some still photos as well.

Even with all those different formats, the film has a consistent look. Was it hard to achieve that?

I’m not very technically proficient, so with me at the controls, there was always the same level of mistakes no matter what camera I was using. So I think that’s where the consistency comes from. I should add that I used a cell phone as well. There’s a consistent roughness and primitiveness that pleases me.

What did you use the cell phone for?

Just capturing some sidewalk action, which I then put into murky rear projection for the train scenes. I saw something that I liked but didn’t have a camera with me, so I just borrowed a friend’s cell phone.

Has digital technology changed the way you work?

Especially the way I edit. I also really like using video for rear-screen projection. When you used film for it, it required you to sync up the shutters on both the projector and camera, or you’d get a flickering background. With video the frames are all itnterwoven. Digital technology makes it effortless. On Final Cut Pro, you can slow down or speed up performances in ways that would have been impossible with linear editing.

When did you start using rear projection?

With The Saddest Music in the World. I’ve used it now in My Dad is 100 Years Old, a little docu-fantasia I made with Isabella Rosselini. I got hooked on it there. I saw that it had a lot of potential. In the future, I can really make the dollar stretch by building miniatures and then just embedding them as giant architectural features in my rear screen projections. I think I can really make enchanting little worlds involving that simple technology.

My Winnipeg doesn’t refer explicitly to the practice of Canadian cities doubling for American cities [on film] but it struck me as an implicit reproach to that idea.

Canadian cities dressing in American drag? That was on my mind, but only in a tangential way. I wanted to portray Winnipeg the way American cities are portrayed in Hollywood mythology. I wanted to give Winnipeg a profile of mythic proportions. That’s all. I didn’t want it to be as famous or glorious as New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, but I wanted it to exist like Cleveland, Kansas City or some of those second-drawer America cities do. People who haven’t visited them still have a vague idea what they’re like. I wanted the world to have the same vague idea what Winnipeg is like.

Are you interested in whether the people leave the theater wondering what’s true?

It doesn’t matter to me, although all of it is true. I don’t really care if people believe me or not. It’s natural that when a film first comes out, people question it, but over the years, a film sort of stains itself into viewers’ minds. The version that’s on film is what’s important, far more so than what existed in real life. It’s just a coincidence that everything in My Winnipeg happens to be true. What’s on film is the real truth.

I was really impressed by your treatment The Child Without Qualities [published in his book From the Atelier Tovar]. At this point, do you have any plans to make it into a film?

Some of the episodes in it made their way into Brand Upon the Brain! I’d have to revisit it. I haven’t read it in ages. I think I’m through making autobiographical films and will have to retreat to more conventional fiction, but that doesn’t mean I can’t keep strip-mining my childhood. There are still plenty of odd things that happened in my highly melodramatic life that are worthy of being projected onto the screen.

Did the Documentary Channel approach you first about My Winnipeg?

Kind of. I heard a rumor they were going to approach me, and I was so broke that I phoned them to ask if it was true. I just wanted to speed things up. It turned out it was true. It was commissioned by them.

What was your initial response to the idea of making a documentary?

I never wanted to make one. I have so much respect for the amount of work and rigor they require. They require a relative objectivity, a massive shooting ratio, the kind of discipline not to decide what your subject is until you’re in the editing process. None of that stuff interested me. When I was told by the Documentary Channel that I was to deliver a highly personal documentary about Winnipeg, I realized I wouldn’t have to do any research, other than my own memories. That really thrilled me. I realized I could make a documentary if it was about myself as a resident of a city in which I have mixed feelings. That way, the movie touches on something universal although it’s very Winnipeg-specific and very Guy Maddin. There’s so much specificity that I hoped it would push through some barrier to become universal.

Was it always your idea to narrate it yourself?

I wanted someone like James Mason or Lorne Greene to narrate it. Lorne Greene is Canadian and he was the voice of CBC news on the radio. He’s just great, and I lost my virginity listening to him narrate Lorne Greene’s Nature Wildlife Hour. I know a number of Canadian actors with great voices, voices that make Dennis Haysbert sound like a castrato. My producer said there are so many queer, implausible and enchanting episodes in the film that no one will believe them if I’m not the narrator. My voice isn’t anything special, but he thought my presence anchored it. I’ve hated the sound of my voice, but after a week of mixing, where you have to listen to every line about a hundred times, I not only learned to like the sound of my voice, but I got kind of a crush on myself.

Did you ever think about acting in the film as yourself?

I can’t stand watching myself on film. I do make a brief appearance in the documentary account of the last urination in the trough at the Winnipeg arena. That’s me. I was there by myself and put the camera on a tripod while taking the last pee as the wrecking ball was literally thumping.

Are you exaggerating at all about the role hockey played in your childhood?

Not at all. I was literally born in the changing room. There was a blizzard that night, and my mom went into labor. Things were happening quickly. There were two team doctors there to officiate over my birth. Rather than having me get born in a car halfway between the arena and hospital, I was born there.

What was the most challenging scene to shoot?

Some of it was emotionally challenging, but I was shocked at how easy most of it came. I was surprised how hard it was to go back to my childhood home. I knew that it would bring back bittersweet memories of a place I miss and which I revisit frequently in my dreams. I didn’t know that it would hit me as hard as it did and in the ways it did. I’d forgotten about the smells of the place. Even though other people had been living there for decades, it still had the Maddin smell. I guess it’s encoded in the house DNA. The creaking of the floors brought back memories. Every once in a while, a certain sound would break my heart in half. But it was very satisfying to go back and play this odd charade.

What inspired you to cast Ann Savage as your mother?

She’s the only person in the world who could play the part. I thought she was dead, though. I’d lost track of her. I keep track of who’s living and who’s dead. I read the obits all the time. I just hadn’t heard about her lately. If I’d lived in L.A. or San Francisco, I would have heard about her or seen her at one of the frequent appearances she makes at film noir screenings. But I didn’t know that. I was just telling someone who lives in L.A. that I’d finished a shooting outline for my movie and was really lamenting the fact that Ann Savage was unavailable. He said “Ann Savage was at my wedding, and I have her phone number.” It took me about six weeks to talk her into coming out of retirement. She was really thrilled, because all the other scripts she’s been offered in the past thirty years have been Detour-related. She doesn’t want to go there again. She feels that movie stands on its own. She doesn’t want to make any parodies or tributes, so she was able to sink into this role that had nothing and everything to do with Detour.

Do you plan to publish any more of your diaries [excerpted in From the Atelier Tovar]?

I think so. I got a great email from an ex-girlfriend the other day. It was an unbelievable tribute to me, the most vitriolic dumping a man has ever received from a woman. It’s like the opening pages of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, except that it’s an accusation, not a confession, about how vile a person I am. I could put that on the first couple of pages of volume two of my diaries. It would be a great way to launch my further adventures.

Are you working on a new film now?

Yes. I’m working with the poet John Ashberry on an interactive, choose-your-own adventure movie labyrinth for the Internet. I was going to shoot something at Bard College in upstate New York, but it collapsed. The new film is being financed by the Wexner Center in Columbus. I’m quite grateful to them. I might even shoot it on American soil, like Brand Upon the Brain!

I was curious whether you’ve taken the journey outside Winnipeg that your alter ego takes in My Winnipeg.

Maddin: I teach in Winnipeg every fall. That’ll keep me there a little bit. I have taught in Toronto in the past. I would love to teach at NYU or some place in New York every now and then. I like the financial security my job in Winnipeg offers me. Also, it’s close to the family cottage on Lake Winnipeg. Even if I just got a second home somewhere else, I would consider that an escape. I’d get to live in the city of my past and present. It would be great if I could go to bed in Winnipeg and wake up in New York.