What you need to know about surrealist films from the ‘The Forbidden Room’ directors

Anthony Schwab
In a NYFF movie, “The Forbidden Room” the terrified crew of a trapped submarine find themselves on a voyage into the origins of their darkest fears.

“The Forbidden Room” directors Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson approach film with a sense of phantasmagoria, making movies that are not just visual narratives, but interactive art forms. Canadian director Guy Maddin is no stranger to avant-garde film—he began making his unique, surreal films in 1985 with “The Dead Father,” and has since been acclaimed by critics for his salute to his hometown, “My Winnipeg.” His latest, “The Forbidden Room,” is his longest and most ambitious film yet. Working in color for the first time, Maddin and co-director Evan Johnson mix together dozens of strange narratives to create a homage to long lost silent films. WSN spoke to Maddin and Johnson about working in color, their upcoming installation-art film “Seances” and their cinematic influences.

WSN: One of the most striking things about “The Forbidden Room” is the coloring. I saw in an interview that you (Evan Johnson) had done more of that.

Maddin: Yeah, I was just despairing over the lack of any organizing principle in the palette. We had to rent props and set dressing. We couldn’t control the color on set. To me, the reason I’ve been avoiding color for years is I just felt color had to say something or create a feeling and that just turning the camera on the real world for these highly artificial plots was exactly the wrong thing to do. So I was really despairing during shooting, but he reassured me he could do something.

Johnson: Some of the color is easy to get in the movie. If you shot all the footage through two color channels and just leave the red and the green then you have two strip technicolor. Other times the color, like in the scenes between the lumber jacks or the sampling jacks in the forest, those took weeks and weeks of trying to get it right.

Maddin: It was rough, horrifying.

Johnson: It looked like it was in a dark warehouse with no snow and so sometimes it was arduous and sometimes it was fairly simple.

Maddin: That was the one movie. Each movie was supposed to have its own palette to help viewers figure out which narrative stratum their at. But you had the most options. There were some sections where the sampling jacks looked like they were candied apples and others where the sky was aquamarine, others where it was grey and the faces were terra cotta or the faces were pink or blue-ish. I liked them all because they were so unnatural, but I think the one we finally arrived at was a complicated recipe.

WSN: Did you use green screen?

Maddin: Very little because we were shooting in public; we wanted to make sure the public could follow. There were just a few shots where we needed to composite a few things just to fit.

Johnson: Yeah, most of it is live rear projection, backwards.

Maddin: Yeah, and that helps the actors interact with it. Often, where an actor is acting with himself or herself you would, if you wanted to double the number of people in a scene or whatever, you shoot them and then project them and put people in front of that. I guess technically that wasn’t kosher with the actors union. All of a sudden you have to pay people double so you have to be careful. But it was fun working with simple, ancient rear screen tricks. And it was fun to watch I’m sure.

WSN: In a lot interviews you’ve talked about admiring directors like David Lynch, of “Eraserhead,” and other filmmakers who’ve made things that were very complex without being very slick.

Maddin: That was a huge experience for me watching “Eraserhead, for a number of reasons. Like David Lynch I was the father of an unplanned pregnancy, who then got married. I know he’s since denied that “Eraserhead” was about that experience but there’s no way. He’s exactly 10 years older than I am, his daughter is exactly 10 years older than my daughter and my early parenting days were exactly like “Eraserhead” except my daughter was a lot cuter than that skinned sheep or whatever it is. What was exciting to me was that he would make a movie that would hit hardest in such a small demographic, the stunned father. I really liked the use of non-actors and the really stylized performances and the tremendous milage of the sound design, which clearly influenced the next 35 years of filmmaking.

WSN: Could you talk a little bit about the “Seances” project and how that led to making this?

Maddin: We just wanted to make something for the Internet, art for the Internet. We just thought it could reach more people. I’d been working hard over the years with distributors to reach as many people who might like my stuff. By the time we worked on this project, Evan and I were just hoping the Internet could reach everyone who might like our stuff faster. Who knows who that might be. So we started this thing exclusively as an Internet project, which we called “Seances.” In Paris where we shot it it was called “Spiritismes” because “seances” are just movie screenings. Everything that we did is going to be uploaded as a companion piece to “The Forbidden Room.” This will all be launched in the late winter or early spring of 2016. It will present to anyone online an infinite number of permutations of fragments of movies that were adapted from lost films and create one of a kind new experiences for each visit and then lose that. The program will destroy that combination. The website actually creates out of lost material a brand new movie and then loses it.

WSN: What are some of your favorite silent films?

Maddin: I like “The Wind” with Lillian Gish a lot. There are a number of ones with Lon Chaney that I like a lot, maybe “The Unknown” is my favorite.

Johnson: Yeah. I like “The Unknown” a lot. I think it’s like 45 minutes long.

WSN: Have the two of you been influenced by any film writers or critics?

Maddin: Evan reads critics more than I do.

Johnson: I was shaped a lot by Jonathan Rosenbaum. I don’t know if I’ve been successfully shaped by him. Also, a former screenwriter named George Toles who I’m a big fan of. I usually like all of the big American film history books.

WSN: What is it like teaching at Harvard University?

Maddin: I have been teaching there for a month. I’m actually missing a class right now. My TA is teaching.  I’ll be heading back tomorrow morning. I’m going to come back for one night to the Film Forum on Columbus Day, or Genocide Day as we like to call it in Canada. So there will be a special Genocide Day intro and Q&A of “The Forbidden Room.”

WSN: Do you know what you will be working on next, Evan?

Johnson:  I’m still working on “Seances” for the next few months, and then we have a script we have to finish. We got a grant to write a script.

Maddin: We have to return the grant if we don’t finish it.

“The Forbidden Room” is playing at the Film Forum on 209 W. Houston St.

Email Anthony Schwab at [email protected]

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