Unlocking THE FORBIDDEN ROOM: A Q&A with Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson

by Pam Grady

[The Forbidden Room is playing in theaters across North America and is currently playing at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco.]

Guy Maddin’s first feature in four years is a fever dream, an evocation of lost films, populated by doomed seamen, wandering woodsmen, endangered damsels, a sentient volcano, a mustache with memories, and so much more, layer upon layer of two-strip Technicolor surreality. forbiddenroom-posterShot live at Paris’ Pompidou Centre and Montreal’s Phi Centre, The Forbidden Room stars the director’s longtime collaborators Louis Negin (one of his five characters offers helpful instructions on how to take a bath), Udo Kier, and Maria de Madeiros, alongside newcomers to the Winnipeg auteur’s off-kilter universe, including Mathieu Amalric, Charlotte Rampling, Adele Haenel, and Geraldine Chaplin.

The utilitarian theater inside the Park City, Utah public library may seem like an unlikely place to unfurl such a spectacle, yet that is where The Forbidden Room made its world premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. It was in an equally plain room overlooking Park City’s quaint Main Street that Maddin and his co-director/co-writer Evan Johnson sat down to talk about their phantasmagorical adventure in cinema.

EDF: Where did this start? There are so many levels and layers, bathtubs and submarines, bananas and flapjacks.

Guy Maddin

Guy Maddin

Guy Maddin: Men getting into a bathtub with a banana in it. It sounds dangerous. Where did it start? I don’t know.

Evan Johnson: I don’t think it started. It’s like the beginnings all grew into one another and now we have to figure out where it started.

Guy Maddin: I think we have to talk it out and come up with an official line. It will be a lie, of course. I’m sorry, but because we choose this one particular lie, it’s just very telling in its own right. It’s that lie and not any other lie. Eventually that lie just becomes the truth and then eventually, it really was the truth all along. Having given you the lifespan of a lie, now we have to come up with it, ’cause we can’t remember the lifespan of the story.

Evan Johnson: A lot of the stories, they were often just written all at once, or several of them at once, some of them designed to fit together, others we knew would be errant, but we tried to work them in.

Guy Maddin: Some of them spontaneously combusted… almost.

Evan Johnson

Evan Johnson

Evan Johnson It was the process of researching lost films that spurred the whole thing on.

Guy Maddin: Sometimes one of us would come to the writers’ room with a dream that actually happened that seemed to thematically rhyme with all the stories. And so that dream would just be a matter of transcribing it, casting it, finding some props for it, and shooting it.

EDF: What’s it like directing in the foyer of the Pompidou Centre?

Guy Maddin: Fun. I thought it would compel me to be more on my toes. I really liked — with the live elements of Brand Upon the Brain! and My Winnipeg — being a showman instead of just a filmmaker. You tell yourself you’re a filmmaker and everything relaxes, the pace of everything and the whole ethos of things is more “fil-im.” But once you’ve got that PT Barnum schmaltz—that’s not quite right, he didn’t work in schmaltz—but whatever, some sense of showmanship, I thought it would make me work faster and that the final product would have to be somewhat showmanship worthy, as well, because there would be a lot of audience. It would be a continual reminder. But just like anybody in a reality show, you quickly forget that there are people watching and you just fall into your old ways. Every once in a while someone would drop a piece of iceberg lettuce on us from the balcony above or you’d look over and there’d be a man who’d been alarmingly present for many days in a row, just staring at you. And then there was a very cruise-y bathroom on the side of the set and you’d hear sort of marshland mating rituals resounding from it at all hours. But other than that, it was just like shooting anywhere.

ForbiddenRoom production designWe shot each segment separately, one per day, so it was kind of strange starting in a different world each day. Quite often, when you’re shooting a feature, if you don’t quite finish that day’s shooting, you say, ‘Well, OK, drop everything and we’ll resume tomorrow.’ But with this, at least if you had a bad day, you could sort of quarantine it. But there was kind of a Promethean thing where just every day was the first day of shooting. That got pretty mentally exhausting.

EDF: The Pompidou Centre quickly agreed to your proposal to shoot there publicly, but they also gave you a three-week window that was only six months out. What does that kind of time pressure do to your creative process?

Guy Maddin: I like it. I like being given a panicky deadline, I really do, because a lot more is possible in a short span of time than you really think. So, we had a lot of writing to do and a lot of prep to do. We didn’t have any money to do it with. We didn’t know that. We thought we had more money than we did. I went over there first, or I went over with Galen [Johnson]—I can’t remember—yeah, I went with Galen, our production designer not knowing we didn’t have any money. That fact had been withheld from us.

forbiddenroom-still2Evan Johnson: That’s for the best. You wouldn’t have gone had you known.

Guy Maddin: No, no, absolutely not. And Galen had no art department employees. He had 12 French girl volunteers who kept morale up. Or was it eight? There were a lot of them, but they didn’t have any particular art department backgrounds. Many of them were film students, but they had no experience with materials or anything. They were really nice, troupers that showed up every day and worked hard. Slowly, we were able to get a little bit of money and a little bit of momentum going and hire a crew unit. It ended up being the kind of low-budget film shoot that I usually have—in public. Then we came back to Canada and shot with much more planning and with all the lessons learned bitterly by, I guess, being unprepared, after all, in Paris. Now, if we cared to, we could shoot in public for the rest of our lives.

EDF: Talk about the way it looks, because it’s kind of amazing.

Evan Johnson: We shot it digitally and didn’t like how that looked, like an odd video. The lighting was fine and the DOPs were great to work with—

Guy Maddin: I just couldn’t see it. I was really depressed. I was really, really depressed. I was really having trouble getting my mojo.

forbiddenroom-still3Evan Johnson: I think at one point, we just decided to brazenly forge ahead and we would fix it later, which is a horrible thing to think, usually.

Guy Maddin: I’m used to getting rushes that look good, so you get positive reinforcement regularly, but this was just accumulating mountains of…

Evan Johnson: The truly dimwitted thing we did, that color and texture treatment we did, we did it to all of the rushes. We didn’t edit the movie and then do it. We did it to every piece of footage.

Guy Maddin: So we could get some editing momentum, get a feel for how it would look. You want to be able to respond as an editor to how it looks and feels.

Evan Johnson: That’s sort of the secret to it. No one else would do it. It’s such a waste of time. It takes an enormous amount of time. Those looks started with… we wanted a sort of two-strip Technicolor look. We started from there and got sort of sick of the usual Technicolor, two-strip color, so we would twist them into uglier or stranger color combinations.

Guy Maddin: As if in a parallel history, there had been more looks for two-strip color.

forbiddenroom-still4EDF: Also, because you talk about them being “lost” films, the saturation is such that they look like they’ve been sitting for decades in a closet.

Evan Johnson: A fetid closet at that.

Guy Maddin: My favorite effect is just the buckling of the emulsions every now and then, like really blue every now and then… I know a lot of people who follow me would think I would be the last holdout, the last person to use film and that I also ride a penny-farthing and wear a boater and spats. But, no, I’ve always been a bottom-line person. If things could just be done now, I’m happy, so I’m happy to go digital.

EDF FilmStripFor more about The Forbidden Room and Guy Maddin:

PamGradyPam Grady is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Box Office, Keyframe, and other publications. She is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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