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Categories: Interviews

Thomas Humphrey interviews Guy Maddin, acclaimed director of “The Forbidden Room”.


As a film which seems both oneiric and narcotic, Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room is certainly not for the light-hearted. Made up of numerous narrative fragments which arrange and interweave themselves in a series of constantly slipping concentric circles, the film definitely proves to be quite the brain-boiler. It is perhaps not a film to be embarked upon lightly, but as a viewer, you will certainly know whether or not it sounds like the kind of film you will love.

There will be plenty of people who do love this film, too, filled as it is with a wonderful sort of B-movie-meets-exploitation-oddity vibe. So if an uncanny-yet-amusing ghost-walk through countless North American cinematic traditions is the sort of thing you think you’d enjoy, then you probably should check out The Forbidden Room.

If there’s one thing everyone should be able to agree on, though, it’s the fact that the Canadian director and visual artist behind it certainly shows no sign of slowing down. If anything, his restless creativity seems to have come into something of a second wind thanks to his collaboration with his previous understudy, Evan Johnson. 

Johnson co-directed The Forbidden Room, and is also currently working with Maddin on an ambitious online project titled “Séances.” This innovative, short-form venture also centres on fragments of lost films, and will soon be nearing completion in early 2016.

What made you decide to make a film like The Forbidden Room?

I guess I’ve always wanted to see how many films you could put within other films before you just broke people’s brains. Now I think I’ve learned that it’s patience that gets broken first, and then it’s brains. But I just thought it’d be fun to see how you could use different genres and palettes to help people keep track of what narrative stratum they’re in.

The palettes in this film are very impressive, how did you create them?

Well, I always just suck up all these images, and then I get depressed when they have this really charmless digital quality to them. I’d also describe myself as a near-Luddite, too, so what I would then do is pass them onto my co-director, Evan Johnson, and his brother Galen. They had this cool way of cooking the images with software somehow. 

Ultimately, I think that meant we ended up with this thing that had one foot in analogue (or at least the spirit of it) and another foot firmly planted in the internet, which I’m really pleased with.

Did avant-garde filmmakers like Paul Sharits really influence the way you collide or destroy images and colours in this movie? 

I don’t think he did, but I think what I’ve learnt is that if I’m not aware of someone’s work and then end up doing something similar, that’s often because everything’s always been done before and you just pick it from other people who influence you. 

I guess maybe people like Bill Morrison and Matthias Müller and Martin Arnold were bigger direct influences, in terms of what you might call contemporary, experimental filmmakers. They were huge influences on me. There were plenty of others, as well.

Buñuel’s L’age d’or just completely changed my life when I was twenty-four, so that’s probably a big influence. I just knew when I saw that film that, hey, maybe I could do this. I had a camera, and I knew a bunch of people who couldn’t act. I mean, there’s some great performances in L’age d’or, but it was important for Buñuel that the acting be terrible sometimes. 

You have scenes where his leading lady, Lya Lys, just reads script from a book. Also that happens in Zéro de conduite by Vigo, where he has one of his actors just clearly reading from a page of dialogue. It was really exciting to me that a movie could be great, but not prohibitively finessed – you didn’t need to have excessive levels of technical expertise.

Those all sound like quite avant-garde influences.

Yeah, but even stuff like Journey to the Centre of the Earth on TV was a great influence on me. As was this other film, which I never knew what it was called for the longest, because I only found out recently. I thought it was just called Man on a Window Ledge, but it was actually called Fourteen Hours.

That movie was about a guy who stands out on a window ledge for fourteen hours before getting talked in. I thought it was a weekly TV show at the time, but it’s just a movie that I saw on TV as a kid. But yeah, it seems that a guy just threatening to commit suicide every week was something I thought would be a weekly show [Chuckles]. Maybe there was just a lot of suicide in the air when I was kid. I guess there was Marilyn Monroe.

Anyway, I put a version of this film in my movie called My Winnipeg, but I actually just called it “Ledge Man,” because I was scared the makers of Man on a Window Ledge would find me and sue me, but it didn’t even exist [Laughs]. I should have just googled it maybe.

The Forbidden Room

The Forbidden Room does seem to contain lots of allusions and references like that, too.

Actually, I don’t know that I ever made an allusion in this film, because I don’t really care about making references. I don’t like it when someone’s clearly making a reference to a book or a movie and I don’t get it. Then I feel stupid. So I don’t put them in my film.

But I did make a list of all the genres I could think of, and it’s long! There were all these hybrid genres and it kind of becomes like listing the Seven Deadly Sins, because most of your sins are these kind of compounds anyway. The sloth-lust is a good one, for example: that compound is responsible for “procrasturbation.”

Just off the top of my head, though, I listed a submarine genre, a trapped-in-a-mine one, the aviation picture, the musical, the western. Then there was the war movie, the all-children movie, the all-dog movie, etc, etc. We did shoot an all-dog actually, but it didn’t make the final edit, because we couldn’t afford animal wranglers, seeing as they’re somehow more expensive than actors. So, to save money, we used cardboard cut-out dogs. I’d recommend that as a technique, actually.

One genre you seem to have drawn on heavily is the exploitation film. Were you ever worried that referencing this genre might cause certain characters in your film to be objectified?

I wish I could objectify people – maybe that would be more effective [Smiles]. I will say that there were certain political sensitivities which only really occurred to us later on this project. Say you’re adapting a lost Chinese film, for example, should you fill it with Chinese actors only?

Or if the film is a women’s prison picture, should all the actors be women? If it’s a blacksploitation film, should all the actors be black? We just decided that the cinema afterlife of these films is colour-blind, gender-blind and age-blind. So one of our adaptations did feature a love story between two middle-aged men when originally it was a love story between a man and a woman.

One thing I really did drop the ball on though – or rather I shat the bed, if you like – I wish there was more diversity in the film. In the cast that is. It mostly ended up just being a bunch of white folk. But it just worked out like that.

We had a lot more diversity when we were shooting all the films for our online project, but not as much as I would have liked and I remember being disappointed. Then by the time I’d finished selecting the films from the website that would go into the feature, somehow that got past me. I should have been keeping an eye on it. Instead, I ended up with a nearly all-white cast. 

I think Slimane Dazi is born in Algeria and Kathia Rock is a Native American, but other than that I think everyone is just white French or white Quebecois. So that was a little bit disappointing, especially after we’d paid such close attention to doing things like gender swap-outs.

I think I feel good about the gender politics in my film, actually. Until somebody really blows a whistle at me and makes me feel bad, I feel okay about it. I just wish there was more diversity in the cast, but I didn’t get it, it slipped through my fingers…

Was it very hard to stay in control of a project like this? How hard was it to write the screenplay?

I’d say it involved a lot of hard work. Sometimes it was easy. I would have a dream which just seemed to rhyme with everything in the movie and all the other movies. Generally speaking, though, Evan, Bob Kotyk and I would just take one adaptation at a time (oh, and John Ashbery, he adapted one too), and we’d wrestle with it until we produced a story that we liked. 

We also made plot clarity a top priority – believe it or not – because as a standalone, each individual unit is very clear. It’s only when you start moving them around within a larger framework that they begin to change. We knew it would get more difficult as we went along too. 

I mean I have a very short attention span anyway, and it’s only very rarely that I can actually follow even the simplest of movies. I remember even having trouble with Pretty Woman – maybe that was the last time I did drugs, actually. Somebody had made me hot-knife hash beforehand, and I couldn’t follow it. But I have difficulty following most movies on a first viewing; so it’s usually only on a second viewing that things clear up.

I knew the way we structured The Forbidden Room would lose a few people too, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to try to make it as clear as possible. Maybe it was more that I wanted to make it a bit of hard work. I still wanted it to be work that would pay off on the way out of the concentric narratives that make up the movie, though. I think the real pleasures lie in pulling out of these concentricities in the film.


Do you also enjoy pushing the limits of linearity, or exploring the importance that it should have in films?

No, I would quite like my next picture to be…I don’t know about linear, but definitely lean and muscular, full of a couple of surprises and twists. I’ll probably re-read my “how to write a screenplay” book, and I’d also quite like my next film to be about 75 minutes long. I’d like it to be emotional too.

I mean the very nature of this project makes emotional identification – or engagement of any sort – pretty difficult, or even impossible. So I think I’d like to hit all the classical targets, but I’d like it to be original too, so we’ll see. But I do have a little check list of things I want my next movie to be. I’m not interested in killing narratives, though, because I’m always drawn to the bedtime story.

So would you say there are even features of The Forbidden Room which in reality are quite classical?

It definitely has a three-act structure. But since it doesn’t have a protagonist, an antagonist and a few secondary characters (because it actually has forty-seven characters), you can’t just take everything Robert McKee says and apply it The Forbidden Room.

You can sort of take the colour or temperature of each act though (as Mckee would describe them). Then you can just sort of structure it so that you know that the most worrisome or darkest night of the soul always has to happen in the third act, before some kind of resolution. That meant that when Evan and I were deciding what stories we would place where, we could at least try to maintain that kind of consistency.

We were always able to measure the progression of the film’s emotional temperature, or get out psycho-sexual tuning fork. We aligned the fragments so that the first act is a little more frenetic out of the gate, and the middle section has a bit more of a holding pattern (which is even idyllic at times) and then things get dark. It’s then you just get that unsplooging Book of Climaxes in the film, which had to be sort of surgically implanted like an old monkey’s gland from the ’30s or something. 

That kind of structuring process sounds quite different to what you will be planning to do with your “Séances” project. Could you tell us a bit about that?

Yeah, that project started a few years ago when I think I just decided that I wanted to make something for the Internet, and I’d had this mania for lost films. It seemed that every time I looked up my favourite directors there would be these lost films. And I had a lot of short film projects at the time, sort of keeping my body and soul intact, so whenever I got a commission I just stole the plot for some lost film and made that.

It occurred to me then that I’d actually like to make lots of these, hundreds even, and then put them online as fragments. So that’s what I’m actually doing now, and “Séances” will be up and running in the early months of 2016, hopefully. The idea is that fragments of lost films will begin conversing with each other, rather like spirits at a séance. They’ll hopefully collide in non-sequitur, almost endless permutations.

Ultimately we hoped to shape the project or its theme around maybe the Native American genocide, too, because that kind of loss is something that really means a lot to us Canadians. It wasn’t anything that was ever going to be overtly spelled-out, though.

The Forbidden Room is out in UK cinemas on December 11. 

Thomas Humphrey

A freelance film journalist and acting director of the Nottingham Alternative Film Network. This network aims to champion short films, and tries to bring great features which UK distributors overlook to the city.

Posted on Dec 7, 2015

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