Double Exposure: Guy Maddin & Courtney Stephens
A few days before this conversation took place, Guy Maddin had just wrapped shooting on Rumors, his anticipated new film starring Cate Blanchett, and executive produced by Ari Aster. The project is a leap in scale from the oddball arthouse experiments for which Madden has long been beloved, among them Archangel (1990), a black-and-white war melodrama that exemplifies his idiosyncratic brand of film history pastiche, and his hometown fantasia My Winnipeg (2007), one of Blanchett’s Criterion Closet picks.
Over Zoom, he joined Courtney Stephens, the LA-based filmmaker responsible for works such as the found-footage essay film Terra Femme (2021), a travelog told through women’s home movies from the 1920s-1950s, narrated by Stephens, which began as a series of live presentations and eventually morphed into a film; and The American Sector (co-directed with Pacho Velez, 2020) which travels the country visiting all the stateside relics of the Berlin Wall, crafting a multi-layered, symbolically resonant, haunting portrait.
Beyond the more immediate links—for one, Stephens co-directed the video clip for Sparks’ “What The Hell Is It This Time?” with Maddin’s long-time collaborators Evan and Galen Johnson—we wanted to bring Madden and Stephens together in conversation to explore their shared concerns over questions surrounding place, fantasy, fairy tales, truth and lies. The result is a meeting of minds between two endlessly curious, inventive, deeply considerate artists.—Annabel Brady-Brown
GUY MADDIN: My first feature, Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), that was made like a cruddy pearl, one layer at a time, each layer a little rough; I get the feeling your films might from like that, too, where you get a big cache of home movies and start sorting through them, let your ideas layer up.
I loved your quote about how a professor of yours said that film isn’t the best for expressing ideas, but it’s really good for expressing emotion; I’m paraphrasing brutally. But, on the contrary, in your films you’ve figured a way to get incredibly beautiful ideas across, and with a lot of emotional mustard on them. Some of them are sketched indirectly in the air and hang for a while, and [the viewer] is busy beholding all the beauty evoked by your spoken words—spoken live [in Terra Femme], I might add, that’s a thrill. The ideas stay with you. At the end of the film, you can’t help but keep thinking and thinking about them.
You could never make a film like that from a script, from the ground up. It’s something you have to feel your way through. I’m not going to mansplain to you how you make your films, but I saw so many rhymes with how I try to make mine.
COURTNEY STEPHENS: That’s an honor. I feel so lucky to have been exposed to your films when I was learning about film language, which I’m still learning. I re-watched My Winnipeg (2007) last night and it has such a great infinite scrapbook quality. Coral reefs are such a nice metaphor for that accretion process; they take a long time to form and yet the form is still basically improvisational. For me, an ideal process is one where you can concentrate on the process of collecting and then the collection becomes an alphabet you write with. You figure out what the material is capable of later.
Terra Femme (2021)
GM: [Before making] My Winnipeg, I’d heard that documentary filmmaking involved so much scary work of the kind I was not prepared to do. It was commissioned by the Documentary Channel in Canada, a TV network; I hoped to take a shortcut by scripting the doc and shooting it as a piece of fiction. But after I shot all the stuff I’d scripted, I found I still had to discover my subject in the edit. And the subject kept changing. While I was out for dog walks, I found myself thinking of additional material to include. It’s like my dog talked me into a screenwriting partnership.
CS: So the fictional overlay was there from the beginning?
GM: For my entire life, I felt Winnipeg was a big donut hole in the center of the continent, that all the Hollywood films and TV shows that I grew up watching did not acknowledge its existence, which seemed interesting to me. Ten-year-old me was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice if someone made a movie all about Winnipeg?”
As a kid, my aunt would take me to live travelogs at the old vaudeville theater in town. These travelogs would be voyages to a faraway city or land. Even though I didn’t have the words for it, I knew from white Hollywood’s version of all of these places that these worlds were not being honestly represented onscreen… I already knew Hollywood had a way of elevating a place—that’s what it felt like then—by heightening and omitting aspects, by mythologizing it. I thought, “Maybe someday, someone’ll give that treatment to Winnipeg.” So with the scripted parts of the Winnipeg movie, I set out to create fictions that might mythologize the city in ways viewers of another era, or a boyish Guy Maddin, would understand, in the way that people used to understand those old movies. They were full of misinformation but people interpreted, or ascribed a need to push back against, the myths onscreen. Obviously, this way of watching film was of a different time and place. And since making My Winnipeg 16 years ago, I’ve come to believe I’d make it differently now.
CS: Formally, or… ?
GM: For one thing, the language in it quickly became insensitive. Or, it didn’t become insensitive, I was insensitive when I wrote it. I did get to perform it live one last time, about three years ago, and I was able to change some of the language on the fly, to take the edge off certain brutalities I’d moronically included. No, I’ll stand by the truthiness of the film. It’s a 100 percent honest documentary about what I wanted Winnipeg to be like—not necessarily historically accurate, but as I proceeded through its making, I realized it was dishonest to not mention my home and family in a portrait of my home city. They’re inextricably connected. And I needed to express in this portrait what the city living inside my heart looked and felt like. Stupid city!
CS: Those are some of my favorite parts of the film: the sleepwalking Winnipeggers who visit their former homes. Or the part where you location scout your own childhood home, like Goldilocks: one’s too wide, one’s too dark. Re-watching, it reminded me of the search for the sound in Memoria (2023)—how do you retrieve a memory that has itself entered the space of cinema? I guess trying to locate the past in the present is always the road to disappointment, but disappointment is a good engine for fiction.
One of the things I love in your films is how we never really know what time we’re located in, because you’re playing so much with different eras of cinematic language. I remember seeing The Saddest Music in the World (2003) in college. I had not seen von Sternberg or much Soviet cinema at that point, and yet I sort of had a feel for this stuff through cultural osmosis. It was like being put in contact with things that were residing in my own unconscious, but having no idea how they got there—this huge cultural inheritance that’s awaiting, and also kind of winking at you.
GM: That’s perfect, you’ve been my perfect viewer. Some other people, too, seemed to get what I was up to, because they instantly knew not everything in the film was true. They would come up to me after Q&As and say, “That film could easily be about my hometown.” They didn’t care about the lies! So, I learned a funny thing about lying, which has really fallen out of style since Trump buried us in lies—you get some pushback for fibbing now. But I did most of my lying, not in the film, but during the Q&As afterwards. People would ask, “Is this part of the movie true?” As a matter of fact, in Reykjavík once—this is, I’m warning you, a name-dropping moment—someone with a high, beautiful, Icelandic accent asked, “Is it true about the horses freezing in the river?” I looked up, and it was Björk. I thought, “Good God.” I had this policy that during Q&As for certain questions I’d lie every second time and tell the truth every second time. And it was time for Björk to get a lie. I said to myself, “I can’t lie to Björk!” Then I went, “No, I must lie more to Björk.” I really elaborated about the frozen horses, and followed up with what the whole winter was like, improvising great heaps of nonsense for her.
A funny thing about lying, but I found that in that moment, you curate your lies. The first few come to mind: “Martians put the horses there.” But you reject them, “No, no, that’s not to my taste.” You try again: “They were put there by labor unionists.” Nope, rejected! Then you find the lie you like most and that becomes your new truth. After a while, the lies add up to a portrait of you, an arrangement of the lies you most like to tell. And in arranging this crap you reveal everything about yourself. You might as well be telling the truth. There’s a kind of lie you tell that is a perfect reflection of what you want the world to be, what you wish you were, and the kind of mischief you want to project out into the world. In short, it’s you you’re describing, and with your pants down around your ankles.
CS: And I suppose what you think other people will tolerate from you.
GM: Yes, exactly. In other words, people could make their own assessments of me based on my lies and truths… Anyone could get to the bottom of things pretty easily, but my movie was about Winnipeg, so no one cared. Or rather, I think they wanted to believe it all, because the city is clearly an underdog.
CS: It occurs to me some of my early viewings of your films must’ve happened when I was living in Berkeley and San Francisco, where the apartments I’d move into always had these reliquaries of inherited VHS tapes left over from roommates past. Bootleg classics like Todd Haynes’s Barbie film. I did a lot of early viewing that way. And what was so great about the bootleg is that you couldn’t really verify anything, you didn’t even know if you’d even seen the whole film, if someone had interfered with it, how it was actually supposed to look. Some had so much decay you could barely see them.
CS: But it was all the more magical to stumble on these precious artifacts, which felt like they’d been placed there specifically for you to find. I guess it’s a little like the idea of making a film for your younger self.
GM: Yeah, who knows? It’s such a hypothetical situation. Had that film I made already existed before I was born, I wouldn’t have felt a lifelong need to make it. Instead, I got a chance to make up for 90 years of abandonment-by-media all in one 75-minute movie…
[That makes me think of] this quote from you that I love, I actually wrote it down: “Film measures how time runs out.” Holy smokes. It’s with that feeling, though not put into those words, that I’ve watched movies my whole life.
CS: It’s really poignant with home movies, screening what you imagine to be the most precious moments of people’s lives, which amount to a couple hours of footage. There’d be a honeymoon, maybe, a particularly beautiful spring, another trip, a birthday, you’d see people age, maybe an anniversary, and then no more reels. [Making Terra Femme] It was especially poignant to me when there were none of the predictable events, where a life was documented totally in landscapes, for example... It was hard to resist the metaphor of film running through the camera where you are not the camera, you are actually the piece of film.
My Winnipeg (2007)
GM: When I was a kid watching movies on American TV stations being broadcast over the border in faint, snowy signals, there was already a sense, because the broadcast qualities were crummy—sometimes, the signal would surge up in a cathode blizzard of snow, disappear for 20 minutes, then all of a sudden return. Everything seemed fragile, from the past. This impermanence produced the sense that time had already run out for a lot of these people—both the ones on TV and the ones watching it.
My dad would watch these broadcasts with me, and he’d tell me which of the actors were now dead. There was a morbidity to the way we ingested movies. We gobbled up death, greedily! It was fascinating to my young mind. I still have something of that way of watching. I need to know the necrologies of all the actors, the birth and death dates. Max Baer, Jr. of The Beverly Hillbillies is still alive, but everyone else from the cast is gone, that sort of thing.
Of course, great writers can produce on the page time’s great flow, but with film, it’s immediate in ways children can feel instantly. That’s why film is so related to spiritism, seances, and ghosts, because of course, the instant one is photographed that person becomes two: the person captured in the image taken, and the person who continues to live, age, and eventually die. When you’re watching, you can’t help but feel the gulf between the two.
The instant I’m watching a movie, I need to know the year it’s made. I’m so obsessive that now I don’t even need to look it up—not in pictures out of Hollywood, anyway; I can tell whether something’s made in 1930 or ’33, pretty accurate distinctions. It’s this feeling that if I can figure out how time flows, then maybe I can stop or even reverse its course. That’s what has compelled me to make movies, as piteous as that sounds.
CS: I’ve been thinking recently about how specificity functions within films—like spoken references that will almost certainly be lost to time. But it’s those specifics that often give the movie its power to transcend. In so many contemporary films I get the feeling a focus group has boiled out anything that might not be totally and enduringly legible. But when you watch movies like Night Moves (1975) or Bloom in Love (1973), the conversations are so in their time; that’s part of what makes them feel alive and accessible, even if the specifics are gone. It’s different to watching a Dreyer film where the transcendence comes from the way it enters mythological realms. It feels to me like you move between these modes. I was struck by the scene [in My Winnipeg] with Citizen Girl; she’s turning on the lights at some particular—
GM: A store, yeah, Clifford’s.
CS: Right. It doesn’t matter that we know what Clifford’s is or not, it just conjured the feeling of local knowledge, which itself is a universal. Though I wonder if these things function the same in nonfiction. Sometimes particularity does foreclose a film in its moment. In The American Sector (2020), we were making this film during Trump’s presidency, and people sometimes mentioned him. We debated whether to let his name into the film—in the end we didn’t.
GM: At the beginning of my career—as a pushback against the cinema of Canada, about which I didn’t know or like much—I decided not to set any of my movies specifically anywhere. I thought, maybe I can make a movie universal by setting it in no specific place. But there are so many indicators in a film that eliminate a bunch of other spaces. There’s almost no such thing as no place.
By the time I made [Archangel] my second movie, I made it in a very specific place, and felt it richer to dig into the details of that, in an attempt to achieve something universal. I don’t know why I had these highfalutin dreams of achieving something universal. Just achieving something watchable would’ve been a more useful goal. I ultimately had to surrender to the impulses I had, which were to go for big feelings, and I think I always failed. To transfer big feelings from your heart to the screen, you have to use transplanting machinery and techniques that don’t come so naturally, at least not to me.
CS: I guess artifice can be part of the transplanting machinery.
GM: It had a practical element, for me. I found it easier to set a movie indoors because I got too nervous watching The Weather Channel to see if it was going to rain or snow on our shoot. My fear made artifice necessary. And then I became a von Sternberg fan. The accumulation of artifice and mannered performing styles in his films, you know, like when he directed all the actors in the Shanghai Express (1932) to talk like trains, that really excited me.
I had in my heart goals of creating something like a cross between von Sternberg and George Kuchar, sort of drag queen-like performances, which I would then, since I’m Icelandic Canadian, tamp down into a Scandinavian coolness, so that my drag queens would be less disinhibited and more straight-faced. But these queens would be there in spirit, their disasters exploding at the seams of the plot. Repressed hot messes!
So where does artifice come in? Just everywhere. I’ve always made my way into films as if they were all fairy tales, even though only some are. This was my way in, through the folk-tale door, then once inside I’d figure out where I really was and make my way from there. But this has always meant an awareness of gesture size, the kind that can only be made through metamorphosis from the real to the artificial. I just like it, it feels good to me. Maybe this all dates back to when I was a child, when my grandmother would sit on the bed to tell me bedtime stories. Sometimes she even sat on my feet and I didn’t want to humiliate her by telling her. My grandmother was real, and so was the pain in my feet, but everything she described was sketched out in heightened ancient Scandinavian arcs and curlicues. Never literally true, but always as powerful as any truth could be.
The American Sector (2020)
CS: I was interested to read that a Henry Green novel served as a basis for Archangel (1990).
GM: Yeah, Back, it’s his least-known novel. It’s similar to Vertigo (1958), in some ways. The character in it meets someone he’s convinced looks exactly like his dead true love. I really just wanted to adapt the novel. But by the time my writing partner George Toles and I had finished, we’d bent everything so far toward our personal manias that the Green novel was gone. We added our own sense of mischief, of dream anesthesia.
CS: In Archangel, it’s fun to see the snow being chucked in front of the camera, even when it’s pretty clear we’re inside. I guess the North is always, from the European point of view, a space of phantoms, ghosts, spiritism. I wonder if there’s an unreality to it that is useful to you?
GM: Yeah, the North is always—the Franklin Expedition, they famously all started dying of lead poisoning, and hallucinating a lot. And the Edgar Allan Poe novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, is full of beautiful Polar hallucinations, and was written long before anyone had gotten near the Poles. The poles have always compelled explorers to heighten mystery more than dispel it. I was very glad to see your film Terra Femme start off with this Polar footage. I love love love that movie, by the way.
CS: Thanks! When that film was still an illustrated lecture, I got invited to perform it at the Royal Geographical Society in London during a conference on Decolonizing Geography, which felt precarious given the location. I attended a panel on “occult geography,” where scholars talked a lot about the role of fantasy in landscapes, how the residue of earlier events hung over spaces, and haunted buildings. One professor talked about how the British navy conscripted 19th-century clairvoyants to try and locate missing expeditions, like Franklin’s. A few of them said Franklin had achieved the Northwest passage and the sailors were now partying on a tropical island, but by then the ships were frozen in the ice. I always wanted to put that story in a film because it felt like the kind of travel in projection that movies offer.
Maybe it comes back to the question of specificity, too. In Terra Femme I was working with what felt like private longing and private experience captured on film. But it also felt important to offer a critique of the film travelog as media. It was hard to balance context and also try to protect diaristic work, applying contemporary documentary discourse to films that weren’t, in many cases, intended for public viewing.
GM: I think there’s great respect for your source material in Terra Femme. There’s respect just wired right into the film’s DNA [because] you’ve contextualized it in your own voice. We all know what it is. The travelogs are really smartly put together. I feel like I’m standing, watching from the banks of time’s great inscrutable flow, knowing these people are long gone and the films these women shot are beautiful. You figured out an organizing principle for these otherwise unrelated travel films made by women, to make it all so moving and powerful. It’s hard for me to “eff” the ineffable methods by which you managed to create your awesome effect.
[For myself] I liked the idea of the North because I liked the idea of getting lost. The same thing with arriving at the truth through the lies of Hollywood. Even as a kid, you could tell Hollywood movies were almost completely white, and you knew from living in the world that Hollywood was excluding things and people, so something was up. There was a feeling it was done out of a sense of decency. It quickly became obvious not everyone was allowed to participate. In the same way, and to put it all too blithely, I’d noticed they never got snow right in movies; snowflakes always looked like soap flakes, as if real snow were somehow indecent, or unruly. Then, as censorship loosened up in the ’60s, and depictions of sex became more common, real snow also revealed itself more often. But this seemed to come at the price of decoded knowledge. Back in its heinous censorious days, there was an inexorable truth to be revealed if one knew how to look.
So when I set out to make Archangel, I was determined to get fake-looking snowflakes, to present the same kind of ‘so untrue it’s true’ look that revealed so much to me in old cinema. I ended up using freeze-dried potato flakes to toss around. We shot in the summer, in a very hot studio. Everyone was covered with sweat, and the freeze-dried potato flakes would stick to the sweat, and turn into mashed potatoes. So everyone smelled terrible, but somehow edible. I had all sorts of hope of releasing fluffy snow to descend upon my sets, as in a child’s snow globe, in that gentle, dreamy way. But the freeze-dried potato flakes we used are like fragments of razor blades. When launched by a fan, they just shoot through the air. They don’t land in a hypnotic descent, they just dig into things, or dissolve into food upon skin. So the artifice was as wonky, crude, and disgusting as in a George Kuchar film, and that pleased me instantly.
I really felt in the zone making Archangel. I would instantly accept with glee almost anything that happened out on the set. I must’ve come off as some sort of megalomaniac, because someone would helpfully point out, “The snow isn’t falling very well,” and I’d go, “That’s good!” Johnny Depp as Ed Wood in the Tim Burton movie really reminded me of my own set demeanor then. You know, when the Tor Johnson character tries to go through a door that he’s way too wide for and it wobbles the entire set, and Wood pronounces, “That’s perfect.” I was locked into the same sort of delusional visionary trance.
CS: Okay, I also have a name-drop: my grandmother’s cousin was Norma McCarty, who was Ed Wood’s first wife and actress—she was in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). I only discovered this when a friend of mine recognized her in a picture at my grandma’s house. Of course, my grandma had no idea Wood had become the figure he has, and was shocked.. Anyway, the connection hasn’t helped me ascend in Hollywood. Though I thought of him recently on set when a scene involved scattering ashes made out of flour and kitty litter.
GM: Great kino gods! I’m impressed! I love Ed Wood, I won’t hear anything against him. I’ve learned a lot from him.
CS: Can you say anything about the film you just wrapped with Cate Blanchett?
GM: I could say a bit, although I’ve signed all sorts of nondisclosure agreements…
CS: Do you feel it’s going to be consistent with your previous work, or will people call it a departure?
GM: It’s part of one big career continuum, though not in ways that will be obvious to everyone. Nor maybe anyone! The script is a disinhibition of the manias that get my partners—Evan and Galen Johnson, with whom I made The Green Fog (2017) and The Forbidden Room (2015)—and me out of bed with a leap every morning. I believe it’s one of a kind. People used to say of Archangel, “But why would anyone have made such a film?” With this new picture, I think people will ask, “Why did Cate Blanchett sign up for this?!!!” I guess that’s all I dare say.