Interview: Guy Maddin on autobiography, Euripedes + Cowards Bend the Knee

Ahead of our Tales from Winnipeg season, which features Guy Maddin’s Cowards Bend the Knee, with Ela Orleans’s new score, Cathy Brennan spoke to the director about the project

In 2017, we commissioned Ela Orleans to write and perform a new score for Guy Maddin’s 2003 film Cowards Bend the Knee. It was a connection suggested by journalist Brian Beadie, a dream project for Ela and, it turned out, a dream come true for Guy. For our first online programme, Tales from Winnipeg, we’re thrilled to present the film with Ela’s studio recording of the score for the first time, and delighted to have Guy’s participation – he’ll introduce the film and joins Ela for an hour-long In Conversation afterwards. Before that, Cathy Brennan spoke to Guy to get his thoughts on the film’s origins.

Cathy Brennan: In your 2002 interview with Robert Enright, you said you thought that Cowards Bend the Knee might be your last film. Given how prolific you’ve been in the years since, how have your feelings about the film evolved?

Guy Maddin: Wow, I don’t remember saying it would be the last film. I tend to be self-pitying and melodramatic, so I probably just say that before every film. What I say now has evolved into “I’m going to make this as if it’s my last film.” In other words I’m going to give it my best shot and hope that it represents  what I’ve been trying to do all these years in the best possible way.

I can barely watch any of movies as they age because they represent the work of someone I no longer am. It’s embarrassing, it would be like watching yourself struggling with some things that you’ve long ago since learnt how to do. A lot of people wouldn’t be that comfortable with having non-filmic work put on public display a couple of decades after they’ve made it.

I’ve always viewed my films as inventories of errors rather than an accumulation of accomplishments. There’s a couple of exceptions: I like watching The Green Fog, a movie we made in 2017. We actually watched it with audiences a few times . And I’ve watched Cowards Bend the Knee now maybe five times over the last 18 years and been quite proud of it, actually.  

There’s a few things I’d change;  the  first six-minute chapter gets off to a bit of a slow start, but, then, once it gets going, I’m very proud of it. I remember the feeling I had while I made it. I felt like I was really in a zone, you know, where every time I pointed my camera I found something worth shooting. I made plot connections in my head as I was shooting. It was a real frenzy of creativity and I just made this  humble 62-minute long feature. To make it in five very short work days -really just half days-was something I’m very proud of.

Like I say, it just came out in one piece there’s so many autobiographical elements in it I could just assemble my cast of characters and keep them all handy at all times and then start putting them through their uninhibited motions, their disinhibited emotions based on real life events. I dunno, I wish I could make all my films like that.

I followed up by making another silent film that also played with live musical accompaniment Brand Upon The Brain. And that came out in one piece as well but just not quite as insanely. It’s more of an epic and it’s much longer. This one [Cowards] really felt as crazed as I was when I lived the events.

Maya Lawson & Katherine E. Scharhon in Brand Upon the Brain (Guy Maddin, 2006)

I wanted to ask a bit about your working relationship with Ela. How did it start? What are your thoughts on her score for Cowards, and do you have a favourite section in it?

I love the whole score. Ela may have a different version of this but I think she just asked if she could make a score and I said “yeah” and then she sent me her work as it progressed. I think she just worked through it in order or at least that’s how I got it – Chapters 1 through 10, in script order from her.

I’m very grateful for her opening, the chapter 1 score because I basically just DJ’d the original movie with old classical music chestnuts and the piece of music I had put in there before was so dreary. The opening six minutes felt like 20 minutes and felt like just a list of character names to be memorised for a test, or something like that. She just came up with a piece that brought it to life much more. It didn’t change the visual content, but it sure seemed like it did. It quickened the pace of the cutting. The pure exposition clumsily conveyed by me in that chapter was just made more pleasurable to assimilate, made it seem more part of the story rather than just exposition shovelled down the throats of the viewers. So, I’m most grateful for that.

I love the way she keeps shifting gears and even when she brings vocals in at one point which surprises me and which comes as a really welcome surprise. I don’t think I really thought of a favourite section, but I’ve just kind of marvelled at her sense of pacing and how she changes it up. I often think in baseball metaphors, so I don’t know how useful that is for you over there [in the UK], but just the way a pitcher is more successful if he changes speeds and location and curves each pitch in the idea is to keep the variety coming. So, in Ela’s case, I just like the way she startles the ear every few minutes and it just feels right. She’s got a really strong intuition for it.

I hesitate to use the word, because it sounds so corporate but there’s this great synergy between Ela’s score and your film. I believe you you mentioned in that 2002 conversation about the atmosphere, while filming  Cowards, being very mischievous, and I sort of detect that same sense of mischief in her score, particularly with sound effects. I think there’s one bit dressing room and Dr Fusi just smacks one of the players on the butt and there’s a cartoon “thwack” sound.

Some of the sound effects came over from the original soundtrack, but she was smart enough to keep them, another she deleted, and then others she created herself and I think she created that one. I dunno, she’s just she’s just really on the right wavelength, that’s all I know.

I’ve had other alternate scores done for this very movie, actually. It’s been really interesting comparing them, but Ela really comes closest. Not closest, Ela is a true collaborator. I was going to say she comes closest to getting what I’m up to but, no, it’s more than that. A collaborator’s actually supposed to make you look better, and she does do that.

It’s kind of like you know Bernard Herrmann and Hitchcock not that I’m Hitchcock. It’s just you can feel when Bernard Herrmann’s score in Vertigo was actually making the movie way better, and I love that. but I just think of it as a collaboration among all of its makers and you can feel the with Ela in that first chapter. She really gets the movie going off to the start that I failed to supply. I remember an anecdote about Vertigo where Hitchcock handed the reel where Jimmy Stewart is just driving around for 10 minutes in front of rear screen projection. And he [Hitchcock] just handed it to Herrmann and said, “This reel is all yours,” you know, something to that effect. It feels good to make a movie, knowing you can just hand something off to somebody and know they’ll make you look better.

My version of synergy is, every now and then, I come up limping and have to hand it off to Ela and I know she’ll haul me out of the trenches and across no-man’s-land in spite of all the mustard gas and deliver something that looks a lot better than my carcass.

That’s really sweet.

Oh, yeah.

Cowards Bend the Knee with Ela Orleans score poster (Illustration by Marc Baines, 2020)

If you don’t mind. I just wanted to shift the little bit to talk about about the Winnipeg Film Group. The documentary Tales From was kind of a whistlestop tour of the history of the group.

I haven’t seen it, you know? It’s strange. I’m in it, I think, but I was scared to watch it. I can’t stand watching myself.

You were in it for about five minutes and come across very well, if I may say so. I just wanted to know a bit more about the role that the film group had on the production of Cowards specifically.

Right. I don’t remember them having much to do with Cowards. Let’s see, I owned the cameras. I had about six Super 8 cameras just in case one broke down, I’d keep five spare Super 8 cameras in the boot of my car and whenever one wound down I’d run out and go get another one. I own the light I think we only used one light most of the time we might have rented a few lights from the film group and as a member I got cheap rates – $10 a light a day or something like that.

Since making Cowards, the film group have taken to distributing it and they’ve been very good about that. But I remember making the film almost secretly. I was in pre-production on another film at the time in 2003  I shot The Saddest Music in the World which was a much bigger budgeted movie. It was $3.5 million then. Still small I guess but the biggest I’ve ever had. and Cowards Bend the Knee was $5,000 to build a few sets and to get the film stock purchased and processed. My producers on Saddest Music in the World would have been very upset to know I was working on another project so during pre-production I would sneak away for the greater part of five days in a row and shot Cowards Bend the Knee. And, so, no-one really knew about it other than the cast members of Cowards and and then some of them later appeared just a few weeks later in Saddest Music in the World.

It was 18 years ago that I shot it  in like October or September 2002 so there are  snow plows just out of frame all the time. There’s some real hockey ice and a nearby hockey rink that we went to on the very first morning and shot off all the hockey, so slightly out of script order and then went back and shot all the dry land stuff in this snow plow garage. I don’t recall anyone noticing and I would have meetings about Saddest Music in the World that I would have to hop in my car and drive a few blocks over to the other studio to make Cowards and then come back and keep shooting Saddest Music. Of the two, I loved making both those movies , but I really love the outlaw aspects of making a movie on the sly. Normally you think of guerrilla filmmaking you think of hiding from the police and not using permits and and running from one suspicious person to another out on the streets, but I covertly went into the snow plow go up and was hiding from no police officers at all. I even insured the movie shoot in case  someone fell to their deaths at the Winnipeg Arena. So it was legitimate that way. I just didn’t want my producers the other film to know so in that way it’s a strange form of guerrilla film-making. Another example of how sketchy and sneaky I am sometimes for no reason when I could have just been straight up and said, “Hey, I’m shooting this thing, please permit me to miss a few hours of work in this other place.” Instead, I had to prop up a dummy that looked like me in my office of this other shoot and set it off so I could make my escape Alcatraz-style.

The secretive nature of the production fits that underworld, psychological aspect of Cowards, like the salon/bordello and the secret wax museum.

I think everything everything fitted but that just repressed the whole endeavour and seemed to make it even more urgent and more explosively powerful when I did let spill on some really humiliating confessions. because the movie is nothing if it’s not a big ejaculation of shameful reminiscences and ejaculations were far better for being shot illicitly.

I just want to picture it back to the Film Group. This is a bit of a selfish question, but when I was watching the documentary I found myself making a list of films and film-makers to watch.  Are there any young filmmakers working at the group now whose work you’re excited by?

Yeah, I haven’t seen much lately, but I know Matthew Rankin has made a feature recently called The Twentieth Century, which a lot of people loved. I’ve seen the shorts made leading up to it and I really like them and so I would say that one’s worth a look among the new ones.

I also like Mike Merinec. He might be working just outside the film group. You know what film co-ops are like:people fall in love with each other and then there’s inevitably some kind of falling out. So Mike’s working may well have been made after a falling out or something. There’s often a board that’s at odds with the film-makers and all sorts of inner intrigue. Or people start sleeping with each other accidentally and grudges start to form and all sorts of stuff. That’s just sort of inevitable. It’s sort of like a rock band in that way.

One last question: your film films often hark back to the past. How do you think the meaning of that backward-looking perspective changes depending on how a viewer engages with the film? For example, if it was shown in a cinema or through an online screening like Matchbox are doing with Cowards Bend the Knee, where people may be watching on their phones or tablets.

Yeah, it’s beyond me, in a way. I kind of just made it the way I did. I started off in 16mm and always assumed I would move graduate to 35mm and then, God knows, maybe even 70mm Cinerama. Y’know, big budget Hollywood films. But I quickly stalled after getting a chance to make a film in 35mm in the late ’90s, a film I didn’t like at all, and so I wandered around in a desert for a few years.

Then one of my students, a guy named Decko Dawson, with whom I made a short film called Heart of the World which is shot in both 16 and Super 8. This student of mine had this film that just looked so cool and I just realised that 35mm and all the corporate sophistication that I was just starting to get whiffs of could be just ignored utterly. If I made a plunge back into the more primitive gauges of Super 8 where green and shadow, the tendency towards high-contrast imagery because it has an auto aperture on it, would just plunge me more into a kind of a mythic past.

Since the subject matter that interested me most was the dawn of my memory and even my prehistory, sort of a mythological figuring out of my earliest years or my earliest attempts at being sexual or ethical. Just those early primitive attempts at doing the right thing seemed almost Euripidean in their flaws and murkiness and timelessness somehow. I seem to be making exactly the same mistakes as characters in 2,500-year-old Euripedes plays and I seem to be making them with some atavistic connection to the darkest roots of such mistakes.

It just seemed like the lower the gauge, the deeper I punished myself into the very Earth, the depths of my most murky thought processes. The kind I guess when you’re just beginning and you’re just forming your lips into a hungry circle in the hopes you’ll be fed, to the slightly more sophisticated point where you’re lying to a friend to seduce his girlfriend.

It just all seemed to line up: the black and white, the wordlessness. I guess silent film is just one step closer to cave painting than talking pictures. They’re just images saying things. Now I do have intertitles with plenty of text and I’ve even thought recently about replacing all those with bright, crisp, new digital ones. But I like the way I shot the intertitles in that movie with the same kind of reckless spirit with which I shot all the humans acting things. It turns out they’re all out of focus, but I decided to keep them anyway because I felt this should come out in one piece. And so it did.


Tickets for Tales from Winnipeg are on sale via Eventive here.

An edited/alternative version of this interview appears in our Tales from Winnipeg zine (free for weekend pass holders, available to purchase separately here).

Keep up-to-date with the Tales from Winnipeg Facebook event page here.

The season is part of Film Feels Connected, a UK-wide cinema season, supported by the National Lottery and BFI Film Audience Network. Explore all films and events at filmfeels.co.uk.

The season is supported by Film Feels Connected, Film Hub Scotland and the High Commission of Canada in the UK. #CanadaGoesDigital

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s