Berlin 2012: Guy Maddin Talks About ‘The Artist’ Stealing His Thunder as a Silent Film Director (Q&A)

Guy Maddin - P 2012

As his latest film, "Keyhole," a disjointed version of The Odyssey, gets set to screen in Berlin, Canadian cult director Guy Maddin talked to The Hollywood Reporter about "The Artist" stealing his thunder as a silent film director, about avoiding color on-screen, and his 2000 opening night triumph at the Toronto International Film Festival.

THR: Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist is impressing film fans and critics. But you've been making black-and-white silent films on and off again for a few decades. How do you feel about this upstart picture that could find Oscar as it foregoes color and dialogue?

Maddin: I haven’t seen The Artist yet. I’m really curious about it. A certain part of me wants to hate it, because I feel it doubles back to a use of film vocabulary that no one was interested in. And I sort of had it all to myself for a while. Another part of me fears I’ll love it.

THR: You’re a big fan of silent films. Why?

Maddin: To me, it doesn’t matter if someone, or everyone makes movies silently.There’s so many ways to tell a story, to develop an atmosphere, to make people laugh or freak them out. And whether the actors talk or not is really such a small part of the whole thing. It (silent film) does get mentioned a lot in connection with what I’ve done. But it¹s nice to see the movie (The Artist) is such a hit, and that people can still uniquely understand silent films just the way the masses did from the start. It’s nice to know it's just like riding a bicycle.

THR: You often use narration in your films, and live performance, singers and foley artists at festival screenings. And you do talking films. So why do fans of your films feel their silence is golden?

Maddin: I actually didn’t make a fully silent film until I’d been making movies for over ten years. But there’s something in my films that reminded people of that era. I think it’s because I decided not to limit myself to any current year in which I was working. It just seemed like making movies was like being a painter or a songwriter: you should be able to use any kind of words you wanted, or none at all, or any size brush stroke, or make your music with any instrument you wanted.

THR: What about rarely using color in your films. Was that something you did early to save on production costs, and when did it become a creative choice?

Maddin: You’re right, It was cheaper at first, as I scrambled to get props or locations which I could get for free. And I never had the luxury to color code things, or take a borrowed item and paint it. So I could never afford to make a distinct palette for a film. And then there’s nothing like making movies to learn way more about how they’re made. So I never gave color much thought until I started avoiding it. Then I sort of realized how much careful planning goes into color, and how much psychological weight certain colors take on in a colorful movie. And the more I thought about color, the more color phobic I became.

THR: When people talk about your black-and-white, silent film aesthetic, they often cite your six-minute ode to Soviet-era propaganda films, The Heart of the World, which played on opening night at the Toronto International FilmFestival in 2000. Can you recall that night, and what it meant to your career?

Maddin: That’s the only time - and my chances improved because it was a short film - where a movie turned out exactly as I intended it to. I got really lucky. Maybe I’d been resistant about making a pure silent film for so long.I feel like I spoke the language fluently, having watched so many silent films from different countries. And the film’s images fused perfectly with the music I got from the Soviet Union, and had the dynamism of Soviet Agitprop. I always find propaganda kind of ridiculous anyways.

THR: Your latest film, Keyhole, which you¹ll be screening in Berlin, is black and white. Why that choice?

Maddin: That fits the themes of what is gangster and ghost hybrid movie. Both those genres scream out for the black and white and the silvery and the luminous and frightfulness of the dark, and the good guys and the bad guys always trading places. And since the movie is saturated in nostalgia. That all demands that I pick up my black and white equipment one last time, at least.

THR: How do you feel about returning to Berlin to screen Keyhole, afterToronto?

Maddin: I've had a great relationship with the Berlinale over the years. The Forum has given my previous films My Winnipeg and Brand Upon The Brain! two incredible slots and massive programming positions. I owe so much to festival directors Stefanie Schulte Strathaus and Christoph Terhechte. Then last year I was on the jury. It was the absolute zenith of my career to personally present Bela Tarr his Silver Bear for the Turin Horse. Wow! That film will still be ascendant long after we're all dead. I also got to hang out with my super-cool fellow jurors, Sandy Powell, Isabella Rossellini and Aamir Khan. And now I'm back again, with Keyhole. What an honor. It wasn't too long ago I was sneaking into screenings there, now I'm a guest again. I'm thrilled.