A dark and stormy night. “Man’s weather,” we’re told. Gangsters and their respective molls hole up in an old house that resembles a skid row antique shop and envelops an inner courtyard bog that doubles as a cemetery. This place was once the home of the gang’s boss, Ulysses (Jason Patric), who’s come back to, as he puts it, return what was lost. Somewhere there’s a room where his estranged wife (Isabella Rossellini) converses with her chain-draggin’ naked narrator phantom dad (Louis Negin). There are electrified ghosts, a homemade electric chair, a radio kept tuned between stations, and a stuffed wolverine named Crispy. Organized crime meets the occult in Keyhole, a film that somehow looks like it was made in both 2012 and 1933, in both a Hollywood studio and a decrepit Winnipeg manor slated for demolition. It becomes difficult to discern the living from the dead. “I’m getting fed up with being kept in the dark,” complains one of the characters, as though he’s a medium inadvertently speaking on the audience’s behalf. Except we’re not fed up. (Right?)
Guy Maddin’s latest feature-length quasi-autobiographical philmic phantasy, his first to be shot digitally, would put you in a trance if it weren’t so crowded with riddles, antsy lyricism and pervert-hilarity. It’s based on Homer’s The Odyssey, though the characters never leave the house. Keyhole is a journey inward, and perhaps back in time, made of digressions, discoveries and double-crosses, building toward a strangely consoling finale. I met with Maddin to discuss the film on the eve of its theatrical release. He was much hairier than the last time I saw him. He looked like a Viking in a suit.
A hairy Guy
This is a pretty long one, so I divided into parts. French parts.
1. LE BARBE
JB: I like your beard.
GM: Thanks. It gives me a new attitude. I can enter a room beard-first now.
JB: You look, I don’t know, Nordic.
GM: Thank you for not comparing me to Santa Claus.
JB: What prompted this beard?
GM: I just didn’t give a shit anymore. I quit shaving. I had to trim it a few times because it got quite ZZ Topish.
JB: I saw a recent photo of you where it looked bigger than your face.
GM: I know. Hair grows! And quickly. Turns out I’ve got some testosterone somewhere. But seriously, I just didn’t want to turn into an old woman. Nothing against women, or old women, but I just didn’t want to be one. So I grew a beard. It was getting ambiguous for a while there.
JB: I think you look like a man.
GM: Thank you!
JB: There’s often a relationship between facial hair and relationships. I know men who had facial hair and then got married and felt obliged to lose the facial hair, but in your case it seems the reverse has transpired.
GM: Most women don’t like the beards. My wife likes beards fine. Maybe she likes how it conceals my face. My beard has changed the way I talk to audiences. I used to feel more boyish, more mischievous. I could get away with saying something coy, or even lecherous.
JB: A lecherous Viking.
GM: I no longer discuss the herpes I was once so fond of. I only talk about film now.
2. LE VOILE
JB: Speaking of concealing, Keyhole begins with this nearly naked old man drawing a curtain shut. Is that right? I don’t trust my memory. Does he open it or close it?
GM: No, he opens it… No. Wait a minute. Maybe you’re right. [Laughs]
JB: I feel better now that you can’t remember either.
GM: Man, I’m going to have to watch it again. [Laughs] I do know that it’s Louis Negin dressed in a pair of underwear instead of the nudity he dons for the rest of the movie.
JB: Underwear is a form of concealment.
GM: I would have barely recognized Louis wearing underwear. I got so comfortable with his nudity. At one point I was shooting Isabella Rossellini with Louis in the foreground. My hands were kind of trembling, so I rested my elbows on either side of his knee. I subsequently realized that the camera was still shaking so I sandbagged it on his scrotum. But then there was something blurry in the foreground so I kept re-focusing until I realized it was his genitals. So there’s this real interesting shot in the film where you have this curtain at the top and in the middle is Isabella and at the bottom is Louis’ bag.
JB: Huh. I find your shift into digital cinematography interesting because in moving away from celluloid you’re moving away from film grain, which is also a veil, a kind of barrier between the viewer and the action. But with Keyhole, which is your fist digital feature, you keep filling the frame with gauzy drapery and fog and chains, always keeping us at a distance from the action.
GM: I think when you’re dealing with memory and things that have transpired in a home, things you take for granted until it becomes another layer of yourself, you’ve got to work with visual obstacles in order to heighten pleasure, to make memories more precious, or just to get at the memories. They also just make the shots more beautiful. I’m not the strong formalist that Jacques Tati was, shooting in 70mm with modernist furniture and architecture and supersaturated colours. I’m working with a low budget and I’ve got to create something that looks like a plausible film world, something capable of evoking memory. Obstacles really help. I like to close the frame down with genitals or bottles or knickknacks. At first my affection for obstacles was just mimicry. I love Josef von Sternberg, how he broke up a frame, with Marlene Dietrich at its centre, tucking her in beneath the shadows of veils, and then making her dialogue a kind of veil too. In the hands of other directors she’s nowhere near as interesting, just another face with an Elmer Fudd accent, really. With von Sternberg she was about as mysterious and gorgeous and powerful as a woman can get. I remember an observation I made years ago watching Buñuel movies. I don’t know that anyone ever actually raises a fork full of food to their mouth and gets it inside and chews it and swallows it, or ever successfully has sex. There’s always something that intervenes, usually of the character’s own design. I guess Buñuel’s abiding belief was that people create their own obstacles in order to heighten pleasure or make things more desirable. It seems to me like a good rule of thumb. I only have a few rules as a filmmaker. I like Hitchcock’s rule that in order to create suspense you keep the audience in the know and the characters in the dark, rather than the shock-cut horror movies that keep the characters in the know and the audience in the dark. It’s hard for me to follow that rule because I’m not the greatest storyteller in the world, but I like it. I like believing that people create their own obstacles. I think I’ve made my own career obstacles by making these things that we’re talking about right now. [Laughs]
3. LE TEXTE
JB: You mention storytelling and it reminds me that I’ve never really asked about the nature of your collaboration with George Toles, your co-scenarist.
GM: It’s different each time and has evolved over the years. When I first started with Tales From Gimli Hospital, I read George the story and he suggested some changes and wrote a few lines. I think Archangel, my second feature, might have been the best balance between the two of us in terms of contributing story elements. He wrote some really musical, stylized dialogue. He’d only viewed himself as a film analyst and academic writer and instructor, so he shocked himself most pleasantly to discover he had a knack for creating things. Then he started going away and writing things and just giving them to me to make. That wasn’t a happy balance for me because I like being there from the start. I like to understand the script from the inside. Perhaps the nadir of our relationship was when he gave me Twilight of the Ice Nymphs and I don’t think I understood it but shot it anyway. That’s bad, to understand it ten years later and realize how much you’d mishandled it.
JB: I haven’t read The Odyssey in a long time…
GM: I read the Wikipedia entry.
JB: But I know George’s writing has deep roots in literature. Was that part of his role with Keyhole, to smuggle in the literary contraband?
GM: It was my idea to use The Odyssey. It’s the ultimate deadbeat-dad story, about the father who goes away and figures he’ll come back after 19 years. It reminded me of the dreams I used to have in which my dead father would return home almost every night for a decade or more to convey his displeasure at having had to live with us, that he’d found a new home that was better, that he was just coming back to pick up his aftershave or something. I’d have one minute to convince him that our family was worth living with and I could never do it. The dreams would always leave me feeling abandoned, but they also left me with this nice feeling, because I could hear my father’s voice and remember his gestures exactly. I seemed to have better access to my memories of my father when I was dreaming. So I decided that I wanted to make one last autobiographical purge, revisit my dead father dreams and combine them with some other family legends, the death of my brother, the reactions of those who remained to the absence of those who’d left, things like that. In other words, ghosts. I wanted to use The Odyssey as a basic structure for this, so the movie starts off like a preparation for a journey. About a third of the way in the various ghosts are already starting to argue amongst themselves. They push the director off the set. [Laughs] By the end it’s just ghosts talking to each other and the director might as well have left. I was just there to make sure the frames looked as good as possible, to direct the actors and make sure the light was textured. By that point the script feels like something written by a Ouija board, rather than George or me. Besides, George’s first and only attempt at a draft was three hours long. I amputated a huge voodoo subplot. I didn’t have any voodoo practitioners in my family, and I wanted to keep this as personal as possible. Though I think some might find it impenetrable.
JB: The incorporation of genre, or in this case, genres, can function as a kind of veil.
GM: Genre gives people an anchor, but I sort of cheat the genres. The ghosts are more like memories than anything especially threatening. They’re not scary. They’re just sort of sad. Meanwhile the gangsters have thrown all the guns down into the furnace. I didn’t want to have to keep track of who’s got a gun and who doesn’t. I just wanted the guns there at the beginning so we have people trying to shoot their way into a house. That was George’s great idea.
4. LE MATHÉMATIQUES, LA PARESSE
GM: I’m usually too lazy or disorganized to keep my own diaries, so for each movie shoot I hire a diarist. Way back when Careful was shot I hired Steve Snyder, who’s a colleague of George’s at the University of Manitoba. But he rapidly became too lazy to be on set and instead just sat in the greenroom, where he’d hear secondhand complaints about what an asshole I was. So he just wrote all that down, and probably got that half-assed wrong too. When I read his diary I knew that he failed to record the facts, but there was an emotional truth to it, it seemed to capture the feelings of that shoot. He’d mythologized the events, just by being grumpy. That really emboldened me to make Cowards Bend the Knee and then Keyhole, to take things that really happened and then flip them around. It’s an old trick gleaned from my left-brain days as a math major, this thing called absolute value, where everything with a negative or a positive sign just becomes a positive entity. I like the idea of doing these absolute value treatments of things that were negative.
5. LA RÉALISATION, L'ANGOISSE
JB: Let’s talk about your relationship with actors. I felt there was a breakthrough in Keyhole with how much ownership the actors take with their roles. Jason Patric seems perfectly comfortable adopting a performance style from another moment in film history, a little Sterling Hayden, a little Tom Neal. On the other hand he seems to be giving what is very recognizably modern, Jason Patricy performance. Do you talk to your actors about performance style, or about psychology? Do you just hand them a wolverine?
GM: Yeah, just take this wolverine and go! [Laughs] I tend not to talk to actors. As a rule I’ve cast them just because I saw them in a play and just say, “Perform this like you did in that play.” Or “Perform it like a sleepwalker.” Or, “You know, you’re delirious!” But in the case of Jason, George and I intentionally wrote him a part where he’d have to do 80% of the work. Jason said he wanted a role where he could harness the whole picture onto himself if necessary. Doesn’t exactly make him sound like a team player, but he was up for a big challenge. He also said he didn’t want to do an old, stylized “Why I oughta…” He didn’t want to do gangsters from an Abbot and Costello movie. He wanted to stick with naturalism, but the dialogue that George writes has this mannered musicality. I like the tension between Jason’s naturalism and George’s mannerism. It creates that weird hybrid that you just described. Jason’s all about interiority… You know, it’s kinda fun to talk about performance after so many years of no one ever asking a single question about performances in my movies. Thanks!
JB: You’re welcome.
GM: Anyway, everyone in this movie was a little different. Udo Kier gave a very fine performance in a small role.
JB: It’s a very tempered Udo Kier performance.
GM: Yeah, you don’t see that very often. He was out to prove he could do that.
JB: Of all the contexts in which to prove that, it’s kind of hilarious that he’d choose one of your films.
GM: It is. [Laughs] I love his work. He was originally meant to play Big Ed, the gangster, but ACTRA had forbidden the casting of three foreigners at first and I had to take the part from Udo, which broke my heart. By the time ACTRA had changed their mind I didn’t have the heart to take Big Ed away from Daniel Enright, who does a great job with it, so Udo wound up with a smaller part, but I think it’s a better part for him. I’m still working with Udo. I just finished three weeks of shooting with him in Paris.
6. LE PASSÉ, LA FIN, LES VAGINES
JB: I like very much the end of Keyhole, this idea of restoration, of putting things back where they belong, trying to suspend the past. It serves the story well, but it also feels like a metaphor for the whole Guy Maddin Project.
GM: Yeah, the hopelessness of it all. [Laughs] Having the father and son get together to start putting things back was the reason I made the movie. Of course, I was so lazy that when it came time to put things back we didn’t even have anything to put back. You’d think I would have had a lot of artifacts from my own childhood or something, but nope! I like the idea of having people remember things properly, just getting things right. When I go for a long walk I cast my mind back into the past. And into the future. I just contemplate my place in time. The sidewalk flowing beneath me is time’s great flow itself. Most of Keyhole was dreamt up during dog walks, as was My Winnipeg. Walking the dog and daydreaming melancholically about very funny things.
JB: Ulysses’ peeping into the keyhole is like looking deep into a vagina, looking straight into the womb, and thus back in time.
GM: In France they wouldn’t even call the movie Keyhole because it’s too common a euphemism for vaginas. They called it instead Ulysse, souviens-toi! Or Remember, Ulysses!
JB: That’s good too. It sounds nice in French.
GM: There was originally a slightly different ending, which I shot, in which Anders, the son, later on, married and living in a little bungalow, returns to his childhood home, holding the key to the front door that he gave to his drowned girlfriend. But we cut it and chose to imply that the same damned thing happen every night, a dream, perhaps dreamt by a dead person. It seemed more universal. By that point everyone’s so goddamned lost in the film it doesn’t matter anyway. So be it.