Guy Maddin on 'My Winnipeg'

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Since 1988’s ‘Tales from the Gimli Hospital’, Winnipeg-born director Guy Maddin, whose ‘My Winnipeg’ opens this week, has established himself as one of the world’s most individual cinematic talents. His series of seductive, esoteric and dreamlike movies blend fiction, myth and homages to the silent era with his inimitable brand of puckish humour and visual poetry. With his latest, ‘My Winnipeg’, a ‘docu-fantasia’ on his Canadian hometown, he’s produced his most polemical, amusing and accessible film to date

Guy Maddin on 'My Winnipeg'
Guy Maddin

How did ‘My Winnipeg’ come about?

‘I never had any intention of making a documentary. But I’d heard that the Documentary Channel, for whom I’d made a short documentary with Isabella Rossellini, “My Dad is 100 Years Old”, were interested in me making a film about my home town. Assignments make me work harder. I want to please people.’

Did they know what they were getting?

‘They kinda did. I sent them a story outline that wasn’t quite there – it described a mixture of what we made and Fellini’s “I Vitelloni”. We planned to roam the city at night. And if you remember “I Vitelloni”, it takes place in the Winnipeg of Italy, a medium-sized town but full of charming places. The director of the channel finally nudged me over to an approach that was still documentary and was considered at least poetically true to the same degree as Isabella’s movie was. My film isn’t so much about Winnipeg as my feelings for Winnipeg.’

Your films enact a process of revivification, of resurrection.

‘Yeah! Since my very first movie I’ve tried to bring things back alive. My dead father is always getting halfway out of his grave in my dreams. Then my Aunt Lil, and more recently, Spanky the dog, who’s in “My Winnipeg”. He died about a month ago. Those dreams make me sad but I’m always happy to see the departed again.’

It’s also autobiographical.

‘It’s very autobiographical. Not that I feel anybody should give a shit about my autobiography, but you just decide to go all the way with yourself – you get so many more details, digressions and detours that really enrich.’

Did you set yourself any new goals in ‘My Winnipeg’?

‘I don’t have much discipline. The running time is one. I really want to make a connection with an audience more than I used to in the old days. Those are two goals I have. But I’m hanging on to all my other objectives, whatever they may be. Things evolve visually. I shot a lot of this film on HD video, hoping that it would help me break free from my thralldom to film emulsion. But the stories didn’t fit well in HD so I projected them against my fridge, re-shot them on film and they took on the look I wanted.’

Your film features a lot of expensive re-enactments.

‘I still like working in Poverty Row. Which is why I was really throwing to get actress Ann Savage to play my mother, because she’s the fiercest femme fatale in film noir history but she’s also the star of the most famous Poverty Row picture in film history, “Detour”. So to have that connection, across the generations, was good.’

And you examine your own psycho-sexual history

‘Yes, there’s the urine, sweat and breast-fed milk of my father’s hockey changing rooms and the smells of my mother and Aunt Lil’s hair salon. I’m the offspring of some unholy smells. When I’m poking around my memories for something that feels less used up, more vivid and fresh, you know, going around with my eyes shut looking for Proust’s madeleine, I’ll remember a smell and everything’s alive again.’

Smells are hard to get on film.

‘When I went to shoot my childhood home, the smells surprised me. I never expected to smell the same things, but there they were beneath the layers. Our old hairspray toxins were there. My home felt familiar. It made my knees buckle.’My Winnipeg’ is showing in the Maddin retrospective at the BFI Southbank.

Author: Wally Hammond


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