Out of the Past: Guy Maddin on Keyhole
If, in a few years time, you find Guy Maddin’s Keyhole on late night TV while channel hopping you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled across an old Universal horror picture. It opens on a dark and stormy night. A gang of hard-boiled noir-types are holed up in a creaky mansion to avoid the law, but spooky apparitions walk the halls. It shouldn’t take you too long to realise that Bela Lugosi isn’t about to put the willies up Abbott and Costello anytime soon, though. If the naked old man chained to his daughter (Isabella Rossellini)'s bed doesn’t clue you into the fact that there's something fishy about this black and white ghosts and gangsters mashup, the 13-year-old spectre wanking in the cupboard under the stairs who shouts “Yahtzee!” whenever anyone bursts in on his alone time definitely will.
Since his early shorts – long before Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist charmed the world – Maddin has been appropriating the visual grammar and techniques of silent cinema to create dreamy, idiosyncratic films about memory and loss. Keyhole instead takes its iconography from genre films of the 30s and 40s, but the filmmaker's same melancholic themes abound. The first half of the film follows Ulysses (Jason Patric) as he searches the crumbling house to reunite with his wife (Rossellini), whom he hasn’t seen in years, while in the second half we see the action through the eyes of Manners (David Wontner), the son Ulysses abandoned and can hardly recognise now. This is of course the Canadian filmmaker’s woozy take on The Odyssey.
Maddinites will be delighted with Keyhole’s demented humour (Homer's cyclops makes an appearance here as a dusty wooden dilldo that guards the house’s labyrinthine corridors) and knockout visuals (Maddin using digital for the first time) but its familiar genre elements and semblance of narrative might also help this one-of-a-kind director find the wider audience he deserves. Maddin spoke to me from his home in Winnipeg about Keyhole ahead of its UK release.
On Homer’s The Odyssey
“When I read Homer I realised he’d been abandoned, either literally by a dad who split on him, or through his father's death, because The Odyssey is the ultimate deadbeat dad story. A guy goes off to battle and doesn’t come home for nineteen years, meanwhile he’s getting his brains banged out by some woman on an island, and then he finally decides to go home and vaguely remembers his wife and his son.”
On grief and abandonment
“My father died when I was about 21. It’s not a tragedy but it was sad for me. For some reason I was too cowardly to experience the grief straight out, and subconsciously I made some sort of deal with the devil, or some sort of dream director, that I’m going to grieve in tiny instalments spread out over a very many years. And so instead of feeling an overwhelming sadness the day he died I would feel this weird sadness mashed up with a kind of giddiness in dreams. I would have these dreams maybe two hundred times a year for a couple of decades afterwards where it turned out my dad never did die but had abandoned our family for a better one, and that he was just returning home for a couple of minutes to pick up a razor or some aftershave or a glass eye that he’d forgotten. And then I had a couple of minutes to convince him to stay, that his original family was better than this family that he had chosen when he abandoned us.”
On the character of Ulysses (Jason Patric)
“I thought that if you’re going to dream your father’s return you might as well make him some sort of dream alpha male and make him a man of danger and of great romance. Even though I’m 56-years-old I had no trouble accessing my inner child for this one because it’s a real storybook dad that comes back, some sort of cool gangster, and his affections are kind of questionable. He’s quite chilly to his own son in the movie.”
On Keyhole's genre elements
“The gangster and the ghosts in the movie are strictly genre elements that I wanted to get in. I’ve been told for so many years that my movies are impossible to classify and that I’d be doing a distributor a favour if I could just make a genre picture – make a horror movie, make a science-fiction film, that sort of thing. I considered making a gangster movie or a ghost movie, but then I decided to mix them together.”
On Keyhole's haunted house setting
“In Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space – god I love the way that guy writes – he can talk about any little corner in a house and what it means and what it feels. The phenomenology of it, a little space under a stairway, a basement, a closet in the kitchen, there’s just sort of a poetry to each of those spaces and the guy can really riff. I just thought that if I was making a story about a father returning home that I should try to poeticise the home somewhat.”
On acting and naturalism
“I like the idea of casting actors just off the sidewalk with some of the best actors I can possibly find – putting stage actors with screen actors. To me it’s more dreamlike, where the sources are never limited and everything is kind of cobbled together. I like having the freedom to have the picture in focus sometimes and blurry sometimes; it’s the same thing with accents and acting styles.”
On the emotions in Keyhole
“There’s so much emotion saturating the film for me that I think I got kind of drunk on it, like a sponge cake with two gallons of rum in it or something – grief rum. I got so drunk that I kind of forgot the serious craft involved in getting those feelings up on the screen so everyone else can access them. So the film ends up being at eleven on the abstracto-meter. I’m proud of the tone, though, and I’m proud of the dreaminess of it. The movie does feel exactly like my dreams and I almost feel like warning viewers to just drop their expectations of following a story with conventional resolutions at the door.”
On shooting on digital
“A bit of my previous movie, My Winnipeg, was shot on digital but this is my first one going start to finish. I’d been dying to do it for a number of years and convinced myself that I would do it the instant I wrote a digital script. I felt that I’d written a film script with Keyhole, but then I finally decided that those distinctions were beside the point: we were seventy thousand dollars short and by coincidence we could save seventy thousand dollars by going digital. So I made the plunge; that was the big push between the shoulder blades and I shot digital. And I really liked it.”
On contemporary filmmakers he admires
“I really like these Austrian/German guys Matthias Müller and Martin Arnold, experimental filmmakers. Sometimes they repurpose previously existing footage, sometimes they make their own films but, I don’t know, they are the only ones that really get my synapses going. And perhaps not surprising to you but I really like David Lynch and Terrence Malick. Tree of Life is such a direct shortcut to the director’s childhood that I thought it was pretty had hitting. I love the directness. No irony. It’s beautiful and lyrical and all that but it just went straight back to that time. There are some embarrassing trip ups in the movie but there’s just something about that aim directly from the heart straight into the past that I really admired. I was shocked that Malick imitators have only started to proliferate now after he’s been in the business for forty years.”