Guy Maddin on Directing a ‘Docu-fantasia’ About His Hometown

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Once a cult director whose rarefied, pseudo-silent films were known only to a select group of cinephiles, Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin has recently become a mainstay of the art-house circuit. What’s even more impressive is that he has done it through a series of complex, personal films: Last year, his first-person family psychodrama Brand Upon the Brain!, which screened in New York with live narration, music, and sound effects, became a bona fide indie hit. Now Maddin’s back with the funny, powerful film My Winnipeg, a noirish documentary in which Maddin ruminates on the bizarre, often eerie history of his titular hometown. Vulture spoke with Maddin on a recent visit to New York about dead cows, unreliable narrators, and getting (run) the hell out of his own hometown.

You’ve described My Winnipeg as a “docu-fantasia.” Can you explain?
That’s just a label I threw on because I wanted to avoid arguments over whether it’s a documentary or not. But it’s a useful starting point. Rather than having to research facts, I just conducted all my research in my memory and in my heart. I got to rant, I got to squirt some bile.

Which all begs the question a lot of your fans are asking: What’s real and what’s not in My Winnipeg?
Virtually everything in the film is real. It’s either real, or it’s a wish, an opinion, or a legend. There are no outright lies in the film.

Animals don’t fare very well in this film, do they? You keep referring to your dead dog Toby, horses freeze, squirrels get fried on electrical lines, and the bison stampede.
Yeah, and I even left out some stories that were just too disturbing. A friend of mine told me about how she had a family farm right on the edge of the city, with one of those cow ponds, where the cows drink water. And then late one autumn, one of the cows just died. It fell over in the pond, and then the pond froze, with the cow on its side, so that it had two legs under the ice and two legs above the ice. And just happened to make a perfect hockey goal – for a winter’s worth of half-court hockey. Apparently like a million goals were scored on the belly of that poor dead cow that winter. It’s just a Canadian prairie boy’s winter!

How is the Guy Maddin of this movie different from the real Guy Maddin?
Not all that different, actually. My goal with these pictures, masochistic as it might be, is to reveal myself. Not because I’m exhibitionistic, but because my movies have been described as bizarre for so long that I fear I’ll be thought of as some kind of wanker. I don’t mind representing myself as someone who bullies an old woman or outs family members – because that’s exactly what I am doing. By just being as honest as possible about myself, I thought maybe I could achieve something almost literary — about how cowardly I am, how wrong I’ve been about a lot of things.

What prompted this recent personal direction in your work?
It goes back to Cowards Bend the Knee, which I made in 2003. I had just been through a bad, stormy relationship, and I finally got around to reading Euripides around that time. I devoured them like telenovelas. And one of them, Elektra, basically was my relationship with this girl. I couldn’t believe it. All I had to do was rearrange some things — I had to make Orestes into a boyfriend figure who was forced into doing all these horrible things by a temper-tantrum-throwing woman with a daddy complex. Next thing I knew, I had a script. And I felt masochistically liberated — just having to stand behind every craven act, like a confession.

What do the folks in Winnipeg think of the film?
They haven’t seen it yet. I am, in fact, trying to escape from that place. But I’m really hoping that the citizens of Winnipeg will run me out of town on a rail after I screen this thing there at the end of June. It would take all the vacillation out of it.
—Bilge Ebiri