Guy Maddin revisits 'The Saddest Music in the World'by Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
Twin Cities movie fans can look forward to a distinctly odd experience tomorrow night as maverick Canadian director Guy Maddin visits for a screening of his film "The Saddest Music in the World."
The movie is a cult favorite which combines his two obsessions: his hometown of Winnipeg, and making films in the style of the 1920s and '30s. Maddin promises stories galore as he provides a live commentary during the screening of the film.
St. Paul, Minn. — Guy Maddin is one of those people who just see the world differently. He does things differently too.
He claims he pitched the lead role in "The Saddest Music in the World" to Isabella Rossellini the first time he met her. He recalls it was by chance, in a New York Park where she was petting a dog.
"And the dog, a big Labrador retriever affectionately put her hand in its mouth," he said. "And I never know what to do with a celebrity.
"I put my hand in the dog's mouth too, and soon our fingers were all intertwined with saliva and a lab tongue, and then the dog was gone and our hands were sort of left interlocked, slippery in space. I told her I had this part for her and everything was keen, and we went ahead."
OK. It's a totally bizarre story, but perhaps one of the less strange ones from the making of "The Saddest Music in the World."
The film is based on an early short story by Booker Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro. (He later won the Booker Prize for "Remains of the Day," which became an Oscar-nominated film.) The original story was set in London in the 1980s. Maddin said several directors and screenwriters had worked on the Saddest Music script.
"But none of the mating rituals between these various directors and Ishiguro resulted in a consensus approach to the project," he said.
Then someone suggested Maddin should do a total rewrite. He was able make it his own by resetting the story to Winnipeg in the 1930s. It became the tale of a Canadian brewery owner Lady Port-Huntly, played by Rossellini, who makes an announcement heard around the globe on the radio.
"We will be hosting a world wide contest to determine which nation's music truly deserves to be called the saddest in the world," she says.
It's Lady Port-Huntly's theory that Prohibition and the Depression are going to end, and she needs to come up with ways of bolstering Canadian beer sales in the U.S. She believes gloomy music might do the trick.
Musicians come from all over to Winnipeg in deepest winter, lured by the prize of $25,000. Maddin said he loved the idea of people competing for money by trying to prove their music is the saddest.
"There's really a very uncomfortable and unseemly limbo down to see who can get lower and be perceived as the most deserving, and it really permits of no dignity for the participants in these competitions," he said.
The story allowed him to shoot the film in black and white, capturing the luminous glow of the Depression-era movies he loves so much.
The script is ripe with strange characters, sexual intrigue, and even a pair of beer-filled prosthetic legs.
But then the weather took a bad turn, even for midwinter Winnipeg.
"For the entire shoot it was minus 40 at the warmest except for a couple of days at the end when it went up to minus 25," he said. "And the studio, I was promised it was insulated and heated, and it turns out it wasn't."
Thus the cast and crew had to make the film in way beyond frigid conditions, mounting huge music and dance sequences while wrapped in parkas.
Things then got even stranger when he looked through his camera at Isabella Rossellini, and felt intimidated when he remembered she had posed for many of the world's top photographers.
"My knees stared to wobble and I almost fell on her," he said. "I was straddling for the very first shot. So I came upon the idea of letting her, just to break the ice, of letting her photograph herself. The camera I was using is very light and hand held, and I just gave it to her and told her to point it at herself to do the first few close-ups." Rossellini ended up with a camera credit on the film.
Guy Maddin said he has never laughed as much as when he made the film - nor been so crazed.
He promises to tell some of those stories at his appearance at the Talkies at the Heights Theater in Columbia Heights on tomorrow evening. He'll provide a live commentary on stage as the film plays.
"It's always been my cockeyed goal to try to make a movie which produces laughter and tears simultaneously," he said. "Now that might may even be impossible. Maybe not. But it's something to shoot for."
Now, you may think this is all very weird, but consider this. When Guy Maddin is asked if his Winnipeg sensibilities might be similar to those of people living just to the south in Minnesota, he says, it's a possibility.
- All Things Considered, 06/17/2009, 4:53 p.m.