Guy Maddin interview: we enter The Forbidden Room

Feature by Philip Concannon | 03 Dec 2015

Misfit director Guy Maddin brings cinema's past to life in new film The Forbidden Room. He tells us about trying to create a sense of disinhibited wonder on set while his actors avoided falling saliva

Guy Maddin has just arrived in London and the jet lag is starting to kick in. “I'm delirious, I'm in a trance,” sighs the 59-year-old Canadian as he slumps into his chair. “I'm spilling id all over the place. I'm sorry, I'll mop up the mess for you afterwards.” We are meeting a couple of hours before his new film, The Forbidden Room, receives its UK premiere, but this will be no ordinary screening.

The film is being shown at BFI IMAX, the largest screen in the UK, and it's hard to imagine what the Guy Maddin experience writ large will feel like, particularly for a viewer still feeling the effects of a transatlantic flight. “I've been warned that the IMAX experience can be almost physically overwhelming at first,” he says, "so I will watch the first few minutes just to see what the heck it looks like. I'll probably puke.”

Still, The Forbidden Room is an experience worth having on the biggest screen you can find, as this is a film designed to overwhelm. When we suggest to Maddin that a second viewing is required because there's almost too much to take in on one sitting, he's delighted:

“I'm glad you said ‘too much’ because I wanted the movie to be too much. You know, I have regrets about my ten other feature films because I always wish they were shorter; I feel I just called them finished a bit too soon and often a few months later I wished I could go back into the editing room and trim them, tighten the screws. The director's cuts of all my movies would ironically be much shorter rather than longer. But this one, editing it was a counter-intuitive experience because I really wanted viewers to feel at the end that they had been washed up, panting on a far shore having just barely survived drowning in a narrative tempest.”

The phrase “narrative tempest” is probably the neatest summary of The Forbidden Room that you're likely to find. (Although the director also offers a pithy tagline: “It's packed with crap!”) Maddin layers stories within stories within stories, pulling us ever deeper into a labyrinthine world that encompasses flapjacks, vampires, volcanoes, skeletons, moustaches, advice on the correct method for having a bath, and Udo Kier pinching buttocks.

All of this could be described as very Maddin-esque, but the roots of each story contained within The Forbidden Room actually lie in lost artefacts from cinema's past. For the past couple of years, Maddin has been working on interactive work Seances. The project has seen the filmmaker collecting the titles and sometimes the plot synopses from films that are no longer extant and re-enacting them in his trademark frantic, surreal, hyper-stylised fashion. The circumstances in which Maddin shot these films, however, was unusual, even for him.

“Film sets are really boring, you've probably been to a few, you can't even tell who the director is, who the stars are, it's just a bunch of crew members sitting around scratching themselves and texting,” he says. “They work hard too, but not often and it's boring to watch.” You could probably use a lot of words to describe Maddin's set, but boring is not one of them. He and his actors filmed in the lobby of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, with the French public milling around, observing from the sidelines and occasionally strolling right through the set, past some of the most acclaimed actors in contemporary French cinema. “You know, Charlotte Rampling and Mathieu Amalric are amazing naturalistic performers, but you're asking them to improvise, there's an atmosphere around, people are watching, in the Pompidou Centre people can watch from above so you have half-chewed baguettes falling out of mouth-breathers on to the performers below... and we just kept rolling!” 

Maddin laughs as he recalls the kind of instructions he'd shout at his cast: “Just wipe the saliva off Mathieu's cheek, keep going!”

The director admits to being something of a showman, having delivered live narrations and orchestral scores for films such as My Winnipeg and Brand Upon the Brain! in the past, and it seems he was in his element in this bizarre environment. “It helped create a sense of disinhibited wonder on the set, which was fun,” he recalls. “I didn't direct anybody. Everybody showed up, there was no time for rehearsals, and I put them in a trance at the start of each day, supposedly, invoked the spirit of a lost film and invited it to possess my actors, to compel them to retrace the long-forgotten plotlines of this lost picture.”

‘I really wanted viewers to feel at the end that they had just barely survived drowning in a narrative tempest’ – Guy Maddin

This idea of bringing lost films back to life is a tantalising one for cinephiles. How often have we dreamed of stumbling across some dusty old film cans that just happen to contain a classic from cinema's earliest days? We wondered how Maddin would react if one of the films he has resurrected suddenly turned up out of the blue, and he admits that his immersion in this project led to some very selfish thoughts:

“I became very ghoulish. When I was in Paris, we had planned to shoot a lost Three Stooges movie called Hello Pop! but it was found the day before we went to shoot it!” he recalls with horror. “Whenever I'd hear about movies being found people would say, ‘I guess you're pretty happy that movie got found.’ No! I didn't want that movie found, I don't want any movies found! I wanted more things to be lost. Whenever I found something interesting online I was heartbroken if it turned out not to be lost because I couldn't shoot it.”

Nevertheless, the sheer volume of films that have disappeared over the years suggests that Maddin's Seances project is the kind of thing that could have continued indefinitely. “There are a couple of movies I wish I'd shot,” he says, “and the project at one time was going to be much larger. But I had to mercifully euthanise it in the end – it was killing me.” 

The full interactive project will appear online sometime in 2016, but perhaps inevitably, Maddin still frequently finds himself musing on the ones that got away. He talks about an American exploitation film from the 70s called Never the Twain, which is the story of a man possessed by the spirit of Mark Twain who visits the 1974 Miss Nude World pageant. Maddin's idea was to combine this ingenious premise with a Euripides play called Hypsipyle, concerning a group of women who decide to slaughter all the men in their lives, and film it with the automated camera that Michael Snow used for La région centrale. Obvious, really.

“I wanted to install it at MoMA,” he says with a laugh, “to just let naked women slaughter men for the day while the camera shot in the other direction.” Maddin briefly falls silent as he contemplates this image, and then a broad grin breaks out across his face: “That's actually still got to be done, let's face it.”

The Forbidden Room is released 11 Dec by Soda Pictures