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Guy Maddin and The Séance Project

Guy Maddin, celebrated installation artist, screenwriter, cinematographer and filmmaker, is the distinguished filmmaker in residence at the University of Toronto’s Cinema Studies Institute and Innis College. 

Critically lauded and widely regarded as one of the world’s most innovative filmmakers, Maddin has amassed an array of international awards, including the U.S. National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Experimental Film (Archangel, 1991), the International Emmy for Best Performing Arts Show (Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, 2002), and the Toronto Film Critics Association Award for Best Canadian Film (My Winnipeg, 2008). The late Roger Ebert was a devoted Maddin fan, listing My Winnipeg as one of the last decade’s top 10 films.

The Séance Project, which is part film shoot and part art installation, is Maddin’s homage to lost silent films. The sprawling production consists of more than 100 short films, which will be filmed in several cities on two continents over two years. Maddin has already filmed at the Centre Pompidou in Paris as well as in Montreal and hopes to shoot scenes at the Museum for Modern Art in New York. The results of these shoots, viewed in-person by visitors to the museum and via live-streaming on the museums’ websites, will eventually be packaged into a live séance event that will be hosted by the director himself, as it tours the world.

“It is a unique opportunity for CSI at Innis College to be host to Guy Maddin, especially since he has decided to use the College’s Town Hall as a site for one of his Séance film shoot,” said Charlie Keil, director of the Cinema Studies Institute. “We are proud to be part of this distinctive filmmaker’s most audacious project yet.” 

Writer Ennis Blentic spoke with Maddin about his fixation with the ghosts of the big screen and his fascination with the filmmaking process itself.

Can you tell us a bit about the overall vision of the Séance Project?

At first, when I found out that a lot of my favourite directors, canonical directors like Hitchcock, Murnau, Griffith and Lang, had titles on their filmographies that had become lost – namely, films that once existed, delighted throngs and helped form the zeitgeist of their day, but which now, thanks to carelessness or negligence somewhere down the line, could no longer be found in any film archives nor in any form anywhere anyhow – well, it haunted me.  It drove me nuts, completist that I am. I decided I had to make my own versions of these films in order to see them.

I know I could never really see them; most would remain lost forever. But if I made a loose adaptation as obedient to the spirit of the original  and pretended to myself that this facsimile was truly the beloved director’s work, then I thought I would feel less tortured. What I was doing to myself reminded me of what charlatan spiritualists do to grieving survivors of a dead loved one, sad sacks desperate to make contact with someone or something terribly missed. I was duping myself, which is what film has always aspired to do, trick audiences – or if they haven’t always tried to trick, for certain documentaries have aspired to pure truths, they’ve all ended up tricking anyway, being dishonest somehow, and all filmmakers are charlatans. The more obsessed I became with the project the more I realized I had just scraped the surface of lost film, that I had put on my list of losties to recreate mostly the work of western white males.

Things really get interesting when one looks into the cinemas of other nations, for every continent made film during cinema's first couple of decades, and every creed, colour and sexual persuasion. I made so many exciting discoveries within minutes of starting serious research. I feel I understand the 20th century so much better now that I’m trying to hold up to us in the 21st the mirror image of our former 20th C selves!

You’ve said that “almost every director working in the first half-century of film history, from Murnau to Guy-Blaché, has lost at least one film to the quirks of fate.”  Why do you feel that it’s important to resurrect these lost films?

I’m haunted by loss. It just seems to me that loss is one of the motivating melancholic humours which can be put in a can and used to fuel great shared experiences. A lot of these old movies not stripped from us forever dealt with loss when their frames were still rattling through those golden projector gates decades ago. Now I need to remind people how fragile art and wonder can be. For one of the conceits of this project is that no sooner do I create films for viewers on the Internet to watch than I destroy them.

The films I show the visitors to my site will be destroyed afterwards so the project is about resurrection and loss all over again. I hope the films are good enough so that people will feel it’s a shame they have been destroyed.

What drives you or inspires you in your work?

Commercial success would have been nice, for I truly love to connect with audiences and bigger audiences would make me feel bigger – maybe even make me a monster. But luckily my career has remained diminutive enough that I still enjoy 100% artistic freedom. So while I still have that freedom, while I’m still capable of raising the tiny budgets I require, or while I am still an 8-point font “c” celebrity, I have the freedom to put on screen feelings direct from my wrung-out heart and addled brain without worrying too much if the box office will be big.

Like I said, I really want to make a connection to an audience, and it pains me horribly when I can tell a movie of mine has missed its mark with viewers, at least with the viewers who show up to the theatre. I am driven simply, like most artists, to make the best art I can. In the case of film, there is an especially binary code involved in creating because films are made for theatres that hold viewers. I want to connect with someone, not just anyone, although in my needier states I’ll take a laugh  or phlegmy chortle from any corner of the demographic.

Are there any filmmakers or artists working today that inspire you?

The Russian Aleksandr Sokurov really sends me, godlike. Andrea Arnold, Claire Denis, Roman Polanski, Sofia Coppola, Martin Arnold, the Brothers Quay, Matthias Müller, David O. Russell, Carlos Reygadas and Zach Snyder. They’re all so good, and for different reasons, I can’t even conceive of being jealous!  And maybe most of all, Béla Tarr, who, alas, has just retired.

Ennis Blentic is a writer with Innis College at the University of Toronto.