An Interview with Guy Maddin: Brand Upon the Brain
by Matthew Vasiliauskas
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In many cases, it is the often-warped remembrances of childhood that provide the greatest examples of joy, intrigue and fear. Looking back on one’s adolescence is like opening a pop up book, where the distorted, fantastical characters and events transport the individual to some of the most mystifying regions of the imagination. Perhaps someone who was able to capture the essence of these feelings and experiences better than most was the Polish author Bruno Schulz.
Born in the small town of Drohobycz in Southern Poland in 1892, Schulz was one of the premiere European authors working between the two world wars. However, with the Nazi occupation of Poland in 1942, Schultz was forced into a Jewish ghetto where he was eventually executed. It was only years later that Schulz’s contributions to world literature were fully realized, especially with his work Street of Crocodiles.
Following the dream-like memories of a boy’s time spent in a small Polish town, the book fully embraces the creative potential of childhood actions. In one instance, the young protagonist is sketching on his floor with some crayons, and it is only when he reaches for a red crayon that something unexpected happens. Schulz says, “And when I took a red crayon in my hand, happy fanfares of crimson marched out into the world, all balconies brightened with red waving flags, and whole houses arranged themselves along streets into a triumphant lane. Processions of city firemen in cherry red uniforms paraded in brightly lighted happy streets, and gentlemen lifted their strawberry-colored bowlers in greeting. Cherry red sweetness and cherry red chirping of finches filled the air scented with lavender.”
The explosion of detail and emotion as a result of simply picking up a red crayon illustrates the incredible amount of passion existing within the minds of most children, and it is this belief in the vivid possibilities of childhood memory that has propelled filmmaker Guy Maddin into creating his latest project, Brand Upon the Brain.
The film tells the story of a young boy, also named Guy Maddin, who lives on a mysterious island with his teenage sister and dominating mother in a lighthouse which doubles as an orphanage. Guy’s overbearing mother watches every move the brother and sister make, while his father, a scientist and inventor, secretly conducts experiments in their basement.
When the new parents of recently adopted children discover mysterious head wounds on their young, teen detectives Wendy and Chance Hale, brother and sister sleuths known as the Light Bulb Kids, visit Guy’s island to launch an investigation.
As the investigation progresses, it leads the kids into the darkest regions of the island and spins dangerously out of control as the terrible secrets of Guy’s family are revealed.
Brand Upon the Brain was produced by The Film Company, a Seattle-based production outfit headed by Jamie Hook and Gregg Lachow, who between them have more than 25 years of experience within the independent film community. The Film Company allowed Maddin complete creative control, with the only stipulation being that he had to shoot the film in six weeks and use an all Seattle cast and crew.
As with many of his previous films, Maddin shot the picture on Super 8, creating and image and feel both primitive and progressive, and it is the kaleidoscopic meshing of sounds, score and visuals that ultimately paints a dizzying illustration for the audience. In many ways, it is as if Maddin has plucked the most personal and distorted memories from his past and flung them onto the projected screen like insects on flypaper.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Guy Maddin to talk about the film, and the process which helped him to develop such an original take on adolescent remembrance.
Matt Vasiliauskas: I’m just curious as to how this idea first came about, and sort of in general what process has allowed you to develop and generate your story ideas over the years?
GM: I’ve been thinking about doing a childhood recollection movie for a long time because some of my favorite films are these incredibly, enchanting childhood stories. I really like Curse of the Cat People and Forbidden Game. Zero for Conduct is practically my favorite movie of all time. And I like the genre, if it is a genre, or sub-genre in literature as well. My favorite writer is this guy Bruno Schultz, a Polish writer who wrote between the wars, and wrote exclusively about childhood. And his way of doing it, seemed almost like an experimental filmmaker in a way. He recognized that really young children, while they’re making sense of the world, develop all sorts of models of how the universe works. And it’s a real process of trial and error, and a lot of the times the models are enchantingly incorrect. One example I remember from one of his stories is when his mother started hanging the laundry up outside rather than inside and that brought the warm weather, instead of the other way around. He reversed cause and effect. The warm weather allowed his mother to hang the laundry outside, and it’s the perfect example of when your in that enchanted state and almost every experience is a new one, you view the world with a certain kind of wonder. And when you’re reading him, you actually become a child again. You still strive for logic and sense, but you disable it to the point where you’re experiencing wonder again.
I chose to do it because I knew the window for making this movie wasn’t going to be open very long. This offer to make the movie stood as long as I was willing to shoot it in about six weeks. So I knew I wouldn’t have time to write dialogue, but there’s something silent movies still do better than talking pictures, and I think the lyricism of childhood recollection is one of them. Or at least the stylization silent films offer, and the instant, aggressive, not realistic, but mannered and artificial vocabulary silent movies have to have is best suited for the feelings I was going for. So I thought now is the time, and besides if I wait any longer I may not remember my childhood. It was a perfect fit at the time, and the means with which I would have to make it was a perfect aesthetic fit with the subject matter. It was something that was lurking in the back of my mind.
And I made it very quickly, and I stopped thinking too much. I don’t think I ever thought about one element in the movie for more than a couple of seconds. I knew I wanted the movie to be very elliptical. For years, I’ve had a Post-It note on my fridge that says, “More Elliptical.” So it just kind of came about in one big piece, in about nine days worth of shooting. Just getting 200 shots a day instead of the usual 20 and things like that. I felt like the Super 8 camera I was holding in my hand was like a high-powered dust-buster that was just sucking up images. I was just really busy, and in fact lost 17 pounds while shooting for 9 days, running around, and chasing children around the beaches. And we didn’t have walkie-talkies or anything like that, so if you wanted to convey a message to someone who was four hundred yards away you ran over to them quickly, and then ran back to where you where shooting. So it was a wonderful time.
It was like being a child again. You know those childhood nights where because you’re a child you just feel like running and running until your lungs burn, and you finally go home and drink a gallon of milk and go to sleep. Or just lie awake in bed because you’re so excited. It felt like that for the first time in 40 years. So I really did relive my own childhood. Not just on the screen but on the movie set as well.
MV: In a previous interview some time ago you mentioned that when you were younger you would flip through your family photo albums and they would read like text to you. And I think that statement relates perfectly to Brand Upon the Brain. For me, the film is like this fantastic picture book. The editing together of voice over, title cards, music score and distorted sounds is just gorgeous, and I’m wondering why did you choose to structure and edit the film in this manner? And how does it benefit not only an audience but you as a filmmaker?
GM: First of all, I think when anyone thinks about his or her childhood, they become a poet and an artist instantly. Because you suddenly shift back to those false models of the world, and you can’t help but get some of those feelings at least when you first experienced them under the false model system, and because our memories are so riddled with gaps.
In connection to the film, getting from one point to another was of no interest to me, I would just shortcut straight to it. So you can’t duplicate the way we remember exactly, but you can at least offer a stylistic facsimile, and using this kind of neurological editing where you’re just sort of running along your nerves with some of them sticking out, and some of them you slow down for if they’re nice, and some of them you steam pass if they’re of little consequence and other ones just pop up against your will.
I don’t make any claim that that’s the way we remember, but I was trying for this neurological facsimile instead of just a conventional flashback, which I have as well.
MV: As with many of your previous films, the images are just so powerful, and I’m wondering whether you carefully map out your shot designs or is it more casual or experimental?
GM: Yeah, nothing’s careful. I tried to keep things reckless. The only thing I thought about for more than a second was casting. And I cast by email, using QuickTime files of auditions that were sent to me from Seattle. And I just wanted to make sure the faces were very distinctly different from each other, and that there would be no chance of confusing two characters. But I just wanted to make sure people looked right for the movie.
But then after I assembled the members of my family in front of my camera I basically said ok, in this scene we’re going to do, I don’t know, then I would call an audible on the line and even after the camera was rolling I was improvising things and calling out actors names telling them what to do. Basically just going from memory, and keeping the camera rolling until I thought I had the scene covered. So I really like doing my own camera work, and I had another guy as a DOP, Ben Kasulke, doing work as well. He would choose just sort of a 90-degree different angle than I did so we would have excellent coverage. And I would just recreate the scene while keeping the camera rolling, shouting out things, and if you do your own camera work you can find the image that pleases you, but if someone else is doing it you have to explain it to them. But in this case I can go oh man I’ve framed way too loosely, and then you can just start running towards the subject and now not only do you have the desired frame, but you also have some motion, and it helps when your editing to always cut on a move.
I tried to keep the shooting neurological as well, and just going with my first instinct. Because since it was an autobiography I knew that everything that came out of me would be autobiography as well, including the camera moves. So I thought of all the projects to go with my instincts, this would probably be the best one.
When you watch Zero for Conduct, you get the impression that Vigo did the same thing almost. He probably didn’t go in with a lot of planning. That’s the impression you get, it might not even be true, but the impression you get is a delightful looseness to everything. And it excuses the quality of acting skills among the performers. You almost embrace the fact that some are way better than others, and that’s part of it. The way a kid will make up a work of art from finger paints and a shell, and a bolt glued to a piece of paper with some fabric on it. It’s just all these unequal elements.
MV: And I know the main character of the film is named Guy Maddin, so I’m wondering just how autobiographical this film is?
GM: Yeah, not that it should matter because I always laugh out loud whenever I see a movie trailer that says, “based on a true story.” What do I care if it’s true or not? You know, it’s not going to be true enough where you can consider it a history book. But yeah, there are huge chunks of autobiographical elements, and you’d be surprised which ones are almost literally true, such as the burial of the father at high tide. Except it happened to my grandfather not my father. He was buried during flood season, and my mother had to strip the clothes off his Rigor Mortis twisted body, and sow a funeral burial suit on him. And she had to straighten this old man’s limbs out and then tie them up and bind him into a coffin that her brothers built, and then they all had to stand on the coffin to make it sink into a grave full of water.
So a lot of these episodes in the movie are either one’s I just grew up hearing, or one’s I grew up experiencing.
MV: In a previous interview you said something to the effect of, “I don’t think differently, I love differently.” To me, that was incredibly touching and I’m wondering what continues to drive you to do what you do, and is there anything inside or outside of cinema which you are passionate about or would like to accomplish?
GM: Yeah there are some things, although I lived off the enchantment of childhood memory for so long, and once I’ve finished a movie, and after the process of just turning something that’s enchanting or beloved into so much footage that needs to be edited, you tend to get sick of that subject and use it up. And it’s better than therapy in a way.
I think I know enough about what I’m doing to be confident to keep growing and developing, so I do have some new grounds to conquer. But I’m still most intrigued with the human mind and the human heart and its most intoxicated and discombobulated states. The old German romantic and surrealist in me intersect to the point where I am one with my camera. I still think those forms of expression have a lot of potential. Surrealism certainly seemed to exhaust itself in a hurry. But like modernism as well, it seemed like one of those movements that got left behind where it still had tons of potential. Same as silent film. It’s a shame that these things are thrown out in the industrial haste. Why can’t they just be put to one side, the vocabulary units of various styles, and then reused?
If you were a pitcher, and every time you got a new pitch you threw away the other ones you had, you’d only have one pitch all the time. Where it would be great to have a fastball, a slider, a curve ball and even a knuckle ball. So I don’t want to throw away any of my pitches.
Matthew Vasiliauskas is a filmmaker and film critic living in Chicago.
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