Canada’s weirdest filmmaker, Guy Maddin has crafted a body of work since the 1980s that first comes off as classical-cinema homage but, looked at deeper, is rather a decades-long interrogation of one man’s troubled psyche.

On the occasion of his debut feature Tales From the Gimli Hospital being given a new 4K remaster and opening at New York’s IFC Center, Maddin joined me over Zoom to discuss his early work. Deliberately archaic and fantastical, the film embeds multiple narratives in one—drawing on death, childhood, Icelandic history, and things even more beguiling. Maddin, in his typically verbose and upbeat manner, was happy to look back at the circumstances surrounding his film’s protracted, demanding production. 

The Film Stage: On the occasion of this film being restored, are you the kind of director who can really go back and watch their old films? Because it seems like there are plenty who say they absolutely cannot because they just see all the mistakes.

Guy Maddin: No, I’m the kind that does not enjoy it. If I’m forced to, I’ll do it. Like, I had to rewatch this to supervise the color-grading for the 4K transfer. And I didn’t enjoy it. [Laughs]. Well, at first I could only do it in five-minute bites. But then, once the color grading was all there and I knew it was a job to do, I enjoyed it in a way that was surprising. I certainly have never been able to rewatch my movies after a premiere. After I’ve seen them with an audience I know exactly what I’ve made, where I’ve failed to make a connection, that sort of thing. So I’ve never wanted to.

But when you’re watching something you made 30, 40 years ago, it’s a different thing altogether. There are so many people that have aged into an unrecognizable state or passed away. So many people that you were once close friends with who’ve grown estranged. So many trees that have been sawed down or buildings raised that the film actually becomes, in its end credits especially, a kind of a necrology. And so there’s a real melancholic sweetness to watching this. And then every now and then I’m kind of astonished that I even had the energy to make the damn thing, you know?

When I made this, my first feature, I didn’t even know it was going to be a feature—I just started working on it. And I had to do almost everything. I wasn’t processing the film in the lab or anything, but I was casting and making every call to arrange for every shoot, to finding locations, and arranging for props. The only thing I didn’t really do was make the women’s costumes—I didn’t know how to sew very well. But after a while I did all the makeup on the women, which explains why it’s so terrible. I was emboldened by George Kuchar’s sloppy makeup precedent in his underground films, which I adore.

So just watching it, I was kind of proud of just how much work I put in. I haven’t had to do that kind of work on a film since then. So I got kind of exhausted and satisfied watching the film. And what a strange inventory of experiences, too, that shot-by-shot would trigger? It took me 18 months to make the movie because I made it Eraserhead-style, or Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise-style. I’d shoot for a while, process some stuff, kinda think of some more stuff, add it. And just the weirdest and most beautiful things and friendships grew, evolved, solidified, broke up during the time. Even though the film’s only 64 minutes long, I seem to get 30, 40 years’ worth of memories out of it.

Was there a trauma in your life you were addressing making the film?

A little bit. I wouldn’t call it a “trauma”––it was an aggravation. [Laughs] It was something every young person goes through. I just had gone through it a little older. It was just a love triangle that had really upset me, where I always felt I was on the wrong corner of the triangle. Just a male rivalry. There was a woman, another man, and me. And I just always felt like the other two corners of this triangle seemed to have it made; but that wasn’t true, I realized now. But at the time I was really tortured. And I felt compelled to make the movie about the illness of the delirious fever that such a state of mind resembles—of just being jealous and obsessed and driven. I was just so driven by jealousy and so confused I just lost my bearings entirely.

I remember thinking that at the start of this relationship, I thought I was straight. But by the end of the relationship, I just never felt more queer questioning in my life, because the woman corner of the triangle sort of melted away and that just left this sort of teeter-totter with two men on it and we had so much momentum built up from our rivalry, from our hatred of each other, from our jealousy of each other, that it kind of transformed into a sexual tension. And so it transformed from a sexual rivalry into almost a sexual attraction or something beyond sexual attraction. It just became a compulsion. And the woman disappeared for many years and the two of us men were left sort of steamily engaged in some bitter rivalry which had as much attraction as it did animus in it. It’s very strange.

So it wasn’t a trauma; it was just extremely delirious and unpleasant and then intensely pleasurable. And I’ve never spoken to this other guy about it. But it sure did convince me that sexual intensity sits on a spectrum, but it isn’t so simple. And I’ve just never been more confused in my life than I was during those months leading up to and including the making of the film.

Considering the subject matter of the film, was Icelandic—your heritage—a frequent topic of conversation growing up, and something that really formed you?

Yeah, it sure was. I grew up in an Icelandic-Canadian beauty salon. My mom and my aunt Lil ran this place called Lil’s Beauty Shop in the neighborhood of Winnipeg, Canada, where the Icelandic diaspora settled after a volcanic eruption in the 1870s that sent a bunch of Icelandic refugees to Canada.

These people, a lot of the Icelanders, are still alive from that time when I was a kid. They lived to be ancient specimens of homosapiens. And at least their children or grandchildren were. Icelanders always talk about the past as if it is in the recent past or even in the present still. And they seem to make no distinction between the dead and the living. And they have a kind of narrative distance. My mom who never read books or anything but she had mastered the narrative distance that sagas have, the way they speak of characters as if they’re figures embroidered in a tapestry or something. They always have this sort of extra-wide shot for storytelling. And my mom had mastered that without even being conscious of it. And so there was a kind of a saga-like flavor always hanging in the air with the hair spray of the beauty salon and the sing-songy Icelandic accents of the women as they screamed out their genealogies beneath the roar of the hair dryers.

And I was kind of pushing back against that, I guess, because I just thought it was normal to grow up in such a strongly ethnic milieu. But I felt like I was a child of the ’60s, of the space age when I was a kid and I always resisted all this ancient lore. So by the time I was old enough to pick up a camera, 30, and make something about this, the secret banner under which I worked just was a dictate—aggravate my family, that sort of thing. So I made the picture to annoy my parents.

I was a staunch Buñuelian at the time, and I knew that an oyster needed an irritant to a grain of sand if it had a chance to produce even the ugliest pearl. So that was my irritant: irritate my family and I hoped, working with this irritant, that I could produce something pearly. But I had a lot of fun making it. It was so primitive and I was so confident.

I remember, when my daughter was four, I just watched with amazement as she just picked up a crayon and a piece of paper and drew something that was so joyous and primitive. It was a shoe shape and then she put someone like Fred Flinstone in a car in it with the feet dangling below, like Fred’s do, but with shoes on him, so it was a man wearing shoes driving a shoe around, and then she glued a seashell and some noodles and pronounced it finished. The whole thing took about a minute-and-a-half, and it was a masterpiece. And after weeping with pride and love for my daughter, I decided: if I ever make a film, I wanna make it with the same joyous rush of giddiness.

And so it was an ongoing treatment to my daughter—who grew old as I worked on this picture for eighteen months—that I would work with using her methods as much as possible with a camera. You still have to take time to reload and you still have to phone people and tell them to show up at a certain time and you’re reliant on their promptness and stuff like that, but I still—once everything was in motion, ready to go—I channeled my four-year-old daughter’s creative genius. And she’s actually still a very good artist; she didn’t outgrow it.

Photo by Philippe Migeat.

Well, on that note: who were some of the really important collaborators in making this film? The people who really helped and taught you how to realize your vision?

Well, I wore almost all the hats. The credits at the end are mostly just to pad out the running time to make it a feature, but that sounds really ungracious. But there were people in my life without whom I could not have made this. My longtime best friend George Toles, who’s a film professor that I’d fallen in with a few years earlier—he was always a tremendous influence. And he read my what-passed-for-a-script—which was a few ideas written on four post-it notes—and he made a few suggestions. He helped me with the dialogue at the beginning and the end of the movie. And there was this local filmmaker John Paizs and another one named Steve Snyder that opened my eyes to the possibility that you could even make a movie in Winnipeg.

Now it makes sense that anyone can make a movie anywhere with their iPhones, but at the time I didn’t know there were film cameras or film labs or people calling up actors and making movies in Winnipeg. So once I saw the loudness, once I was exposed to these local filmmakers, and they were very generous with their experiences and let me hang out on their sets. I could never have done that without them. And then, probably, a guy named John Harvey who was always dreaming movies into existence. He never actually made any, but he was just one of those muses that inspires people wherever he goes to this day, and he’s kind of a local legend. But I consider those people as important as any—as Rodgers would consider Hammerstein or anything like that.

And also, I just felt like I was good friends with Luis Buñuel just because I watched his movies so often—especially L’Age d’Or—that I felt I knew him. And when I read his autobiography I felt it was my autobiography. I was a little bit crazy and a little bit delusional and overconfident that I could make this thing. And it pretty much turned out the way I thought it would. I don’t know why anyone would wanna make it—you have to ask yourself after watching it—but I did. So I would name, say, Buñuel—and maybe Eric von Stroheim of all people—as collaborators after. But Buñuel was still alive even when I thought of making films, but Stroheim had died right around the time I was born. Often even I’d entertain the deliriously narcissistic fantasy that I was his reincarnation.

I’m from Winnipeg, so I’m actually kind of curious to ask: was there really a strong film culture there in the ’70s and ’80s? Was there a thriving cinematheque and did art films open there?

I’m not sure. I came to film so suddenly. I know the Winnipeg Film Group was founded in 1973 or 1974. I started hanging out there in 1982. And I remember John Paizs telling me not to hang out there too much because everyone had sort of grown idle from just over-discussing their film projects and not actually making them. So he said: just get in, get your equipment, and get out as quickly as possible. And that was good advice. He’s always had tons of practical advice. I guess a lot of people were inspired by his example and were making, I suppose, imitation John Paisz movies. I was even accused of imitating him, but I don’t see the similarity myself. I guess I shot on 16mm like he did and occasionally had narrators like he did. But there were other filmmakers as well, but I don’t know if they would screen outside of Winnipeg much in the ’80s. 

The cinematheque, I think, was founded in 1982. And Dave Barber, who just passed away a year ago, worked there forever and for 38 or 39 years. And it was a great place to go. And it started to bring in all the great film-festival films that didn’t have huge distribution. It brought in the marginalia that is often way more important than any other movie released in a year, and it was pretty important. It was hardly the big screen, though. The screen is about slightly smaller than a large-screen television. [Laughs] But I’ve had great memories there.

There’s a story with this film, that it was notoriously rejected by TIFF. Can you remember when that happened and did you feel almost like you’d made something kind of punk rock?

It’s interesting you invoke punk rock. I was a huge punk and post-punk music fan at the time. And I liked the do-it-yourself attitude in the music so much that I thought that if I just make a movie that’s DIY, that all those people that love that music would love the movie. But those people were often the first people to walk out, these sort of scenesters, local scenesters from the punk bands and post-punk bands I admired. They were often the first ones to walk out on the screening, and I have a hunch that they didn’t think much about cinema. They were thinking mostly about their music and then Star Wars and stuff. But I did feel that I was making something that people would be ready for somewhere; it just seems to make sense that this was the next step for cinema. It’s certainly a step in the opposite direction than the Marvel comics universe is taking it now, and I just think there’s a place for that still—it’ll just be done digitally instead of with film.

But when it was rejected by TIFF. Yeah, I remember exactly where I was. I was sitting in the office of the Winnipeg Film Group with my friend who ended up being the film’s producer after it was finished—Greg Klymkiw. And he had an inside man on the selection committee, Geoff Pevere. He was one of three people on the selection committee; Piers Handling and Kay Armatage were the other two.

And Geoff was a huge fan and a huge, ardent supporter of the film, but he said—no matter how hard he tried—he couldn’t convince Piers and Kay that the film’s effects were intentional. And I think a point could be made on behalf of Piers and Kay that they weren’t entirely intentional. [Laughs] I was always willing to embrace the accidents I had on set with my camera and my actors. So not everything was intentional, but their effects were intentionally kept. And the eventual film was intentional, but—watching it again recently—I realized just how lucky I was that all the accidents were happy accidents. But I did have the confidence to know to include them in the final cut.

But they just saw the film as a smorgasbord of incompetence, whereas Pevere seemed to be on to something that he felt I was intentionally onto. But ultimately it made me very angry after a couple hours of this back-and-forth over the phone, hearing that, ultimately, the film had been rejected. At first I was just pulling for Geoff because I’m one of those sports fans that pulls for underdogs all the time, and I was pulling for him to convince the other two against all odds. But by the time the film was rejected I was furious and the true nature of my narcissism was revealed. [Laughs] I really felt I’d made a great movie and it had been rejected.

And I was already planning my next movie, a World War I melodrama, Archangel. So I was already speaking in great war lingo, and I think I drafted a letter in severe terms, some sort of diplomatic correspondence proclaiming the extreme umbridge I had taken at the rejection from TIFF and that they had better prepare themselves for action, basically, demanding that their seconds call on me in the morning or something like that. It was ridiculous. But I needed to be full of irrational emotions at the time. Buñuel was waving his pom poms from the sidelines at the time because mad love is his great subject in L’Age D’or and I just felt that I needed to be passionate in the extreme while making these movies, and I was. And to be passionate about the oddest things, and I was.

And I’m no longer passionate about the dead spaces between scenes which reveal only some optical crackle on the soundtrack and blacks that aren’t really black but are more of a soupy gray. I used to be obsessed about that stuff, and it’s interesting to see, watching these films now, what I was once obsessed with and what I was by making movies in this fashion, insisting that other people get obsessed with these things as well. It’s very strange to see now.

I know you’ve done a lot of teaching at the University of Manitoba and also recently at the University of Toronto. Has talking to younger people and teaching them really been reinvigorating artistically?

I actually like it. It’s too bad that teaching almost completely destroys your momentum as a filmmaker because you often have to go to another city and you can’t be with your collaborators. And now I work with Evan and Galen Johnson, two Winnipegers that are really brilliant, and I love working with them. But when I go away to teach in another city, I can’t see them in person and it’s harder to collaborate by Zoom or by email. But having said that: thank God I do have teaching to fall back on because I actually really do enjoy it. And I’ve become very slowly a better teacher.

I think at first I used to just show movies, talk about them for a few minutes, and let people out early. But now Zoom really helped during the pandemic; it helped me become a better teacher. You actually had to prepare your classes a bit more and you had to figure out a way to get people to talk about these movies, and the students really drew me out in ways that surprised me. I found out I actually did have two-hour-long lectures inside me. I just couldn’t prepare them, but in conversation with students they would draw out all these things I felt and believed and they would sometimes teach me some things about the pictures as well. Often, actually, I should say. And I’ve always felt at the end of a class—even one that didn’t go as well as the previous weeks—that I felt really performatively satisfied and that someone had at least learned something. And at least the students I had spoken with… there are many students on Zoom that can just mute their cameras and go back to bed, but no, I found it really satisfying.

And sometimes walking home—I’ve also taught in Boston—walking home after class, you’re just replaying it the way I used to replay my the highlights of my game after a game of hockey. When I was in my 30s and 40s, I used to play hockey and, after the game, you’d walk home with your frozen toque on and just replay your smartest moves. And I find myself doing that with teaching now, too. It’s something I really enjoy; it’s really satisfying.

Tales from the Gimli Hospital Redux opens Friday, October 14 at the IFC Center, featuring Q&As with Maddin on Oct. 14 & 15.

No more articles