Sad Songs Say So Much


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 balletic Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary opens at Film Forum May 14—recently finished shooting The Saddest Music in the World, his Winnipeg-set musical starring a legless Isabella Rossellini. He is keeping a production diary for the Voice, 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.

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.

To give an idea of how daunting is Isabella’s legend, even our stills photographer (a veteran of some 40 Hollywood superstars during a half-decade of snapping in Vancouver) refused to face off against the ghosts of Herb Ritts, Mapplethorpe, et al., and Jody had to hire a courtroom sketch artist to take her place. So what if I have no publicity stills? Every director has those, but what charming souvenirs these drawings shall be!

DAY FOUR Jody says we have to suck it up and film Isabella ourselves, just like other film crews do. I know I’ll thank him for this edict someday, but I sure didn’t like his bossy tone this morning. Eventually, we warmed to the day’s work, mostly because we were wondering how to amputate Isabella’s legs on film. Eschewing digital effects as grotesque artifacts of the present, we had all sorts of Méliès-era tricks up our sleeves, but no one knew how they would turn out. Eventually, in a way I cannot under my producer’s gag order reveal, we removed her gams and replaced them with beer-filled, glass prosthetics, as per the script. Remembering that her famous father, Roberto, used to direct inexperienced actors by tying string to their toes and tugging whenever it was their turn to speak, I had Larry and Speedy tie a little fishing line to Isabella’s glass toe. I felt this filament somehow tethered me across time and through his daughter to the father of neorealism. I was instantly pebbled with goose bumps. I delighted in pulling at this thing to make her kick at me over and over while Luc filmed. I guess I did it too much, though, because soon the beer in the long glass legs started churning up and spilled up a yeasty froth over her garters and into her lap. Speedy daubed away at the extraneous head, according to him one of the worst cases he’d ever seen. Why does directing make me despair so much!!!

For years, I’ve been meaning to put into practice my Anatomy of Melancholy approach to directing. And now I finally get to! Having already copied out on index cards various descriptions of depression gleaned from Burton’s ancient tomes, as well as some 40 synonyms for sadness culled from a thesaurus, I now start each day by dealing out all 52 cards, face down, on the breakfast table full of actors who are to work that day. Each performer has a different, sometimes fuzzy idea of a word’s meaning—for instance, lugubrious or throboxyc, which is sadder? Actors love restrictions, and why not restrict them in the only fair way possible: with a lottery windfall of commands drawn randomly from a reference book?

The results have been sensational. The trite and the clichéd don’t stand a chance under such an acting system. Dialogue clunks from one line to the next with a fragile-X clumsiness, scenes unfold with a Ritalin-thirsty zing! Most importantly, the work done is in the same tenor as my planned super-primitive rip-and-paste editing style. I want to unlearn how to watch movies; I want to flip dyslexically the images of my film to jangle their readability for the viewers; I want to re-create the thrill I felt as a boy when I finally recognized three words in a row!

DAY FIVE Today I paid a scenic painter $2,000 not to sleep with the Polish soprano who’s been singing in the lunchroom the last three days. I have absolutely no desire to sleep with her myself; I think I’m going crazy!