Lost Film Spirits: A Conversation with Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson

The two filmmakers discuss re-making lost films for their collaged anthology feature, “The Forbidden Room”.
Daniel Kasman

The Forbidden Room director Guy Maddin and co-director Evan Johnson

After its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Guy Maddin and co-director Evan Johnson's The Forbidden Room had its international debut in the Forum section of the Berlin International Film Festival. Together, they've made made a feverish collage of false extracts from old movies, a half forgotten, groggily recalled, dreamily regained experience of cinematic potential.

Originating from the Seances project, these self-described fragments are more like truncated (or over-extended) skits riffing from the conventions, memories and suggestions of Maddin's most beloved of periods in film history, the end of silence and beginning of sound: the queasy, delirious, awkward, voluptuous late 1920s and early 30s. The skits, some starring recognizable actors as grotesques (Udo Kier and Mathieu Amalric) or as Golden Era gods and goddesses (Maria de Medeiros as a woman "born to be a widow," Roy Dupuis as a brawny "sapling jack") and equally populated with unknown faces and strange voices, are riotously funny, filled as they are with the oddest of verbiage (two men are described as "eye-keen of aim" and "long of earshot") and indescribably off-kilter line-readings.

These are decidedly not ideal films dreamed by a cinephile but rather are the distorted vision of an impassioned and perhaps obsessive film-goer of 1930 falling asleep in a cinema and dreaming surreal extensions of the flat psychology and flagrantly artificial sets of the era. (The film's bookends of an enrobed elderly swinger explaining the methodology and pleasure of taking baths in scenes which look like early 70s pornography suggest something more televisual, like a late-night drug infused fantasia watching a local station's re-runs of the totally unknown.) The 130 minutes of whimsy and pseudo-decayed fragments are structured somewhat obviously as dreams-within-stories-within-dreams (hilariously but arbitrarily: one tale is the dream of a volcano, another is located inside a broken pelvis). As abortive and manic melodramas of doctors, tropical isles, humid nightclubs and snowy forests pile atop one another, the film resembles one of its (several) amnesiac characters, such as the lady whose qualities keep being both forgotten and added to throughout her winding and foggy microscopic noir-horror fragment: first she's an amnesiac, then flowergirl, then singer.

The opening credits, featuring a cavalcade of old fashioned style movie title cards, the dense and textured sound design, and the heavily manipulated, deeply scarred and jumpy image texture lacquered in early two-strip Technicolor, hand-tinting, and other era-specific mimicry, make the film a vivid aesthetic pleasure. Yet it is as fervid as it is flaccid, close-ups and furious montage piqued and telling, but just as often over-extended and untelling. The Forbidden Room feels at once inexhaustible and completely exhausting: paradoxically, it's a rapid-fire and constantly refreshing slog. Still, the film's utterly unique and anti-nostalgic silliness, an extrapolation of some of the stilted datedness of the era's films and the giddiness produced by such purple splendor of bygone aesthetics, goes a long way. (What it does not do is excuse the irksome gender politics of so many dopey-lost-unconscious women being pawed over and/or intently pursued.) Recalling Mathieu Amalric's pronunciation of "Chihuahua," the surprising appearance of a Chinese vampire (!), or the preparations and farewell the ghost of Udo Kier takes for his family has me in stitches just thinking of it.

Above all, and besides for the wonderful, zany humor, what I liked best is that the film is not some fevered regurgitation of cinema's past but that it in fact suggests and indeed takes the form of an alternate history of film: it poses a detour around 1927 that movies—American, Soviet, German, French and more—almost traveled down but never did. And like all movies that are successfully created around the idea of possibilities—be they the work of Alain Resnais or Raúl Ruiz—you come out of the theatre not thinking "Ah, it could have been..." but rather "What can it be?"

I had a chance to chat with director Guy Maddin and co-director Evan Johnson in Berlin after the premiere of their film there.

NOTEBOOK: This is a pleasure, as I’ve been watching your films, Guy, for years and in fact fell for the early ones before even being inaugurated into—

GUY MADDIN: —into the pleasure dome!

NOTEBOOK: Completely. I encountered your movies while watching international art-house movies, before I knew much about anything about old Hollywood, early Talkies or late silents. So I “found” this era through your films like Careful and Archangel. And now you’re re-imagining the era very specifically. Can you both talk about how the feature film The Forbidden Room relates to your art gallery project Seances you guys are working on?

EVAN JOHNSON: This was shot at the same time as the Seance project, with many of the same actors and many of the same stories. The Seance project itself is a project you [indicating Maddin] initiated, it came out of your early obsession with re-created films that were lost that you wanted to see.

MADDIN: Yeah in the early ‘90s it occurred to me that if a film was lost the only way I could see it was if I made it. [laughs]

JOHNSON: So you made Odilon Redon [The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity (Odilon Redon)]. Was that the first lost film that you made?

MADDIN: Yeah,it was based on what I thought was a lost film, Abel Gance’s La roue—which isn’t lost. [laughs]

JOHNSON: Not even close to lost!

NOTEBOOK: …It’s on a really nice DVD, actually.

JOHNSON: It’s four hours, not lost!

MADDIN: I made a four minute version…and there’s a four hour version that’s beautifully restored.

JOHNSON: And then The Heart of the World is a…

MADDIN: …Another “Abel Gance” film…

JOHNSON: …a recreation of La fin du monde

MADDIN: Not lost.

JOHNSON: You thought was lost. Your version is less anti-Semitic than Abel Gance’s version.

MADDIN: Yeah, I didn’t know Abel Gance had that certain tendency.

JOHNSON: But then Guy got serious about an Internet project for which he would make many of these lost films and they would all mingle together. So he hired me as a researcher, and we began researching lost films.

MADDIN: Soon his ideas for the project far surpassed my ambitions for it, which were pretty basic. He came up with some great conceptual ideas, and I thought I’d better make him a co-director before I was working for him. We’re partners on the project.

NOTEBOOK: Evan, can you talk about your research?  Was it primarily focused on films that were made and lost, rather than films that were planned but never made?

JOHNSON: There are some major books, usually written in the 1970s, full of lists of lost films. Usually they are very canonical Hollywood or canonical European directors.

[2:49] MADDIN: [in-elligible]-Euro-Hollywood.

JOHNSON: Yeah. We wanted to see them! That’s where the obsession began. The lost [Josef] von Sternberg film, The Case of Lena Smith, in particular. A couple minutes of that exist, beautiful.

MADDIN: So good looking.

JOHNSON: And a few lost [F.W.] Murnau films, particularly 4 Devils. Those were the big ones, the big blockbuster lost films. Initially we were just going to remake those, but as our obsession grew, it grew. Pretty soon we were reading the AFI film database. They have a database of virtually every American film they could find reference to since the early 1900s. There are just thousands of film synopses of films from, say, 1914, 1915, divided by genre. There’s like a whole host of “syphilis scare” movies, was there not?

MADDIN: There are some amazing genres that are out of vogue now. For some reason—I don’t know, I thought it was still a problem. It’s not not a problem.

JOHNSON: These AFI synopsis, I don’t know if it’s a group of people or what, but they write in a house style that’s beautiful.

MADDIN: It’s like haikus.

JOHNSON: Yeah, it’s concise, two or three sentences at most, and there are plot twists mid-way through clauses in the second sentence that leave you shocked! Your jaw on the floor, your pulse racing.

MADDIN: It was very easy to get excited about re-making a movie you just read three sentences about. Or just the title—the title intrigues.

JOHNSON: At that point we expanded outward from Hollywood to world cinema. It was still the greats of world cinema: [Kenji] Mizoguchi has a lot of lost films, and [Mikio] Naruse, and [Yasujiro] Ozu—who seems to have the greatest, most tragic crop of lost films. I’m a giant admirer of his silent films, I think Ozu's silents are his best work. He, of course, didn’t remember shooting any of his silent films.

MADDIN: Did he drink too much?

JOHNSON: That’s what they say. In interviews he literally remembered nothing about shooting these silent films.

MADDIN: The first fifteen years of his career!

JOHNSON: The thing about those are, not only are the films lost but anyone who had anything to do with them can’t remember anything about them being made either. So we expanded from the canonical directors, to things outside the canon.

MADDIN: We got greedy at that point, expanding in many different directions. Lost exploitation pictures. Lost Islamic women’s pictures….

JOHNSON: —We got demographically obsessed—

MADDIN: …lost eugenics pictures. There were so many things going on in film, the history of the world, basically.

NOTEBOOK: That strikes me as the danger or the pitfall of this project: you could do this for the rest of your lives.

JOHNSON: Yeah we gotta stop. That’s why the movie is too long.

MADDIN: We felt like a bag of ball bearings dropped on our marble floor. But luckily, because of the exigencies of space, time and money, we just stopped anyway. So we wrapped up this feature, and we’ve got enough footage to cobble together a few more—unclamoured for!—features. And the Internet interactive, which will be launched later this year.

NOTEBOOK: And these are all related to the Seance’s performance recordings?

MADDIN: Yeah they’re shot “of” them, shot at the same time, in many cases using the same scripts and everything. The Seances is just another project all together. Each movie that we shot will have many variations that will recombine and collide with each other in fragmentary form, with something like 500 billion permutations. Every time one person visits the website to watch a little, perhaps, non-sequitur [CHECK] adult in a  pleasing way, a visitation of lost movie spirits, it’s a one-time only combination. The program, once it’s finished its little projections, will “lose” that title forever. It’s a website that creates and then loses a movie.

NOTEBOOK: Was it a challenge, then, to almost do the opposite and put The Forbidden Room together as a kind of “sealed” or finished  feature film?

MADDIN: Yeah, it’s literally the opposite of the website because it’s some kind of consecration meant to be permanent. The way I feel right now, if it got lost that’d be okay. [laughs]

NOTEBOOK: A lost film of lost films.

MADDIN: Exactly. Maybe it would be more legendary that way, rather than…reviewed.

NOTEBOOK: While some of these films inside The Forbidden Room are based on longer bits of research or filmmakers you are familiar with, were some based on far less, on pure speculation?

MADDIN: We would shoot one title a day, in public at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Phi Centre in Montreal. The movies sort of came out somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes long, pretty fine-cut edited footage. Maybe there were a couple that were very short, but they’re all about the same length.

JOHNSON: That wasn’t the question.

MADDIN: Yeah I know! [laughs] I’m practicing my Henry Kissinger strategy.

NOTEBOOK: Alright then—Is there anything in The Forbidden Room that you absolutely wanted to make that’s totally unrelated to a pre-existing film, rather than “I really wish I could see 4 Devils.” Was any of it, rather, “I’ve wanted to make this movie"?

MADDIN: That feeling was definitely there at the beginning of the project, but then, I think, like everything, it just became a matter of what can we make of this, what can we shoot, what do we have money for.

JOHNSON: You didn’t want to…none of us wanted to make a Murnau film, you know? 

MADDIN: We ain’t Murnau! There’s only one.

JOHNSON: That may be one of the more direct…attempts…at a style. There’s a stretch in the movie that’s based on a lost Murnau film…

MADDIN: —The black and white part—

JOHNSON: …Yeah and we tried to go kind of expressionist.

MADDIN: There’s a lost Murnau film called Der Janus-Kopf that’s a Jekyll and Hyde story.

JOHNSON: But most of the time we wanted to avoid an attempt at a pastiche of a great director. What, we’re going to make an Ozu film? That’d be, I think, stupid and arrogant. 

MADDIN: Especially since I can barely make a Guy Maddin movie!

JOHNSON: It was a manner of deciding that we had the freedom to make it in your [indicating Maddin] style.

MADDIN: We also thought of ourselves as a the medium for these lost film spirits. And the medium always speaks in his or her own voice. Same within paranormal seances, same as in the seances that are just the seatings in the dark in Paris, which is just the movie schedule, where the medium is a director or some other fraud in a jeweled turban. They’re both mountebanks, they’re both projecting things for people who want to believe what they see. And by the end of the evening, when the lights go on, they can discuss amongst themselves whether they were enchanted or not.

NOTEBOOK: Was there something about the “live” directing of the Seances which changed the way you two worked when you were shooting for The Forbidden Room?

MADDIN: You mean directing in public?


MADDIN: I had a real practical reason for directing in public. I really wanted to diversify my filmmaking career into the museum world. I wanted to install myself as an installation—and maybe get some of my collage work for sale. Of course, the project was dreamt up just in time for the 2008 recession, which really hit the art world hard. But I also thought that the act of direction and even the performances of everybody, if it was done in public, that everything from top to bottom would be more performative, highly charged and more energetic. It would produce more spontaneity, and that would find its way to the screen. But I think most people just got, like those involved in reality television, they just got used to the presence of observers, and forgot about them. So I don’t think it made much difference, actually.

NOTEBOOK: Have you had much interchange with people either during the installation or about this movie who aren’t familiar with this era of cinema you’re dealing with?

MADDIN: I’m just assuming most people don’t know much about it. We wanted to make sure the stuff stood on its own. As a matter of fact, it always saddens me when people feel there’s a lot of references that they’re missing. Because I don’t want to make people feel like they’re failing a test when they’re watching this. We never reference anything. I almost failed 12th grade English because I couldn’t find symbols and allusions or anything like that, and I vowed once I started making movies that I wouldn’t put those things in—so they’re not there. We just have the attitude that when we put together the films, we like them to be presented like they are made, handmade, constructs of some sort. The way children’s art is. Or the Oscar Micheaux or Ed Wood’s films are. Underground films. Every film, for me, I’m aware of how they’re put together.

NOTEBOOK: This one in particular feels super handmade, everything seems touched by many people. How has working with digital has facilitated what you can do with the look and texture of the image for a film like this?

MADDIN: A lot. Evan does most of that, I’m still just shooting. But I know when I shot film, happy accidents happened and I would just decide whether to use them or not. I guess now you have to almost create happy accidents?

JOHNSON: No, no. You create an environment that produces accidents. I did the texture and the color with Galen, my brother, our production and graphic designer, and we would add these effects to the entirety of what was shot. All the rushes, not just the fine-cut movie. It was really labor intensive, but it’s the same kind of strategic sloppiness. Sometimes you’re being extremely meticulous, and sometimes you know when to screw up or let go, or just hit “render” on the computer and leave and…

MADDIN: …find out later what you did…

JOHNSON: Yeah, that’s a way to find happy accidents digitally. And there are digital some digital accidents in the movie.

MADDIN: And they’re digital.

JOHNSON. Yeah, you can fake analog film so much, but we wanted to blend the histories of analog and digital so that they kind of screwed up together.

MADDIN: There’s nothing analog about the Internet interactive. I just felt no need to perpetrate a charade that this is all, indeed, on film or something. Besides, I don’t want to be considered a living anachronism or anything like that.

NOTEBOOK: I thought the film felt even freer than what you’ve done in the past, perhaps because of that?

MADDIN: It’s way freer, I think. Because of it’s structure, too.

JOHNSON: Maybe too free? But that’s for another time…

MADDIN: Yeah, we’ll reign ourselves in next time. [laughs].

NOTEBOOK: One final, but important, question: What is it that’s so amazing about Udo Kier?

MADDIN: [laughs] He’s got a great voice, and piercing eyes, AND HE’S OUT OF HIS MIND. Those three reasons, right there.

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