In Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World, Depression-era Winnipeg plays host to the titular international competition (sponsored by Isabella Rossellini’s legless brewery baroness), a jostling spectacle of melodious misery that succumbs to vulgar Yankee Doodle enterprise, and climaxes in a delirious montage of flailing limbs, shattered glass, and spilled beer. After the Venice premiere, Maddin confessed that he spent the screening fixated on the Italian subtitles: “For all I know, they could have been translating beer as biscotti!” Adding to the confusion, most of Maddin’s interviewers hadn’t yet seen the film, “which meant I had to re-create it, and then be falsely modest about it.” To appease the director, we invited him to come up with three questions he would like to be asked about this new movie—and to answer them himself.
I noticed the credit “Screenplay by George Toles and Guy Maddin, based on an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro.” A screenplay based on a screenplay? Ish had written it in 1987. My producer Niv Fichman told me to Maddinize it and played broker. By kindheartedly fibbing, Niv got us to the point where we could nervously meet at a restaurant in London. It was there that the violent consummation of this arranged marriage took place and we found out how far apart we were. Ish and I, he with the grace of a diplomat and me like a hoser hockey player, we scrumbled about and somehow agreed there was a sensibility in common.
You’ve never given any indication of being someone who even reads the newspaper. Why have you now made something that seems to be a political allegory? Political satire couldn’t be further from my daily reveries, but it was pleasant to find it in Ish’s premise, how genuine privation has to be theatricalized to win the Sexiest Privation of the Year award, the way Ethiopia so cannily did with its drought in the early ’80s. Then hemlines dropped and the Bolivian earthquake took over.
You had an opportunity to work with someone plucked from the firmament of film history. What did you do to exploit this? With her legs buried in cushions to resemble amputee stumps, Isabella and I watched silent Italian diva films and flipped through porn magazines, and decided that her character had to have a fur pelt. It was a relationship cemented by Orville Redenbacher butter.