Sad Songs Say So Much

Prosthetics and Process: A Shooting Journal

Guy Maddin—whose quasi-autobiographical film cum peephole installation,Cowards Bend the Knee, is on view at the Tribeca Film Festival this week and whose balleticDracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary opens at Film Forum May 14—recently finished shootingThe Saddest Music in the World, his Winnipeg-set musical starring a legless Isabella Rossellini. He is keeping a production diary for theVoice, the first installment of which appears below.


DAY ONE For months I'd been planning to mark the inaugural day of production by planting an elm tree. There are trees planted by Victor Hugo strewn across Paris, bulging with more lore than deciduous rings. Similarly, 200 years from now, I want this, the picture I've been waiting so long to make (with a $3.5 million budget, a 24-day schedule, and real movie stars), to be remembered in the towering, tortured, mossy limbs that will welcome visitors to the place where The Saddest Music in the World was shot.

I am a camera: Saddest Music star Isabella Rossellini with beer-filled prosthetics.
photo: Jody Shapiro and Isabella Rosselini
I am a camera: Saddest Music star Isabella Rossellini with beer-filled prosthetics.

The day was to start with this simple arboreal event, then proceed to the first scenes in the schedule—a couple of Two-Strip Melancolour funerals featuring Maria de Medeiros and Mark McKinney. But when we went to fetch the elm sapling in the backyard of my birthplace, we found the ground so hard with permafrost—the overnight low had bottomed out at minus 44 degrees—no amount of work with pick and shovel could so much as chip the soil. I called for the art department to arrive with blowtorches and chisels, which eventually loosened the soil but also charred the roots of the slender, slumbering treelet. We tried tree after tree in this fashion, but always burning, hacking, or snapping them off short. Late in the day, we finally got a frozen lilac bush out of the ground—it had been my Aunt Lil's—and, wrapping its roots in a burlap bulb, plopped it into the shallow grave that we were able to claw into the tempered tundra of our studio grounds. There was no time left for shooting, so we decided to start fresh tomorrow. Now I've got Auntie's old bush, already grown to full height, planted to commemorate not the first day of production, but the day before. At movie union rates for all the would-be tree surgeons, I don't even want to think about what this has already cost.


DAY TWO Yesterday forgotten. Morale high among cast and crew, probably because we all wear hockey jerseys donated to us by the Burtonians, a beer-league team whose devotion to Winnipegger Burton Cummings, erstwhile lead singer of the Guess Who, reached apotheosis in their silk-screening his locally mythic face across the proud chest areas of their uniforms. Rehearsing and lighting, we strut around in these things with sheer sassitude! Feeling that happiness depends on structure and hierarchy, I set my rank as director apart by donning jodhpurs and an imposing fez.

Cameras ate up those color funerals like so much popcorn. The sun we needed for our slow stock streamed in through the skylights all day long, and we simply followed it across the sky by rotating our little cemetery set upon the lazy susan, some 40 feet in diameter, that we had built specifically for this project. We'll soon be ahead of schedule. Even had time left to pull the drapes over the skylight to shoot a little night scene.

This movie, about a competition to determine which country has the saddest song in the world, is my first musical, and even though we don't shoot any numbers for a few days, the studio is teeming with artistes who lurk deep in the shadows of this cavernous space and practice endlessly their various laments. Trying to get them to stop playing when we're shooting sound is difficult. First, you've got to find these guys. Spent about 10 minutes today tracking down a Norwegian who had hidden himself behind some broken crates to play seafaring songs on his accordion. The mariachi band has really hit it off with the klezmorim, and they jam for hours on the only song they both know, producing an infectious hybrid gem out of Engelbert Humperdinck's "Spanish Eyes." We're all crazy happy. But tomorrow, things will be different: Isabella Rossellini.


DAY THREE We're terrified of Eeez-uh-bellllll-a, as she mellifluously pronounces her name. If I were named Isabella, I'd never have the poise to str-e-tch my name out so gloriously. I'd somehow cram all those letters into one abrupt, sheepish syllable, like I do with the name I use now. Gosh, she's wonderful! Disarming and unpretentious. She arrived at the Winnipeg airport wearing no makeup and expressing a sincere wish that she'd saved us money by flying economy. This is her Scandinavian side, I'm thinking.

Why are we terrified? Because she's been photographed by the top hundred photographers of the last half-century, and now I have to face her with my little Super-8 camera—it's hard not to think of all those who came before me. I've warned her my camera is small, and she seems understanding, but now comes a love scene between her and Mark. Must just jump in. But I can't. My equally intimidated cinematographer Luc Montpellier can't either. My producer Jody Shapiro lights upon a great solution. Since the love scene requires very tight shots, why not just give Isabella a camera and let her photograph herself while acting? And so we did; we put a wide-angle lens on it to keep everything in focus, and Miss R. simply held it in one hand, pointed it back at her own face, while she acted opposite Mark with the rest of her body—and all her soul! The extension of her camera-toting arm is explained in the reverse shots, where her ardent hand, now free of the camera, clutches at her "lover." Pure movie magic! Now she gets a camera credit, too.

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