Dreaming Bigger: Cracking ‘The Forbidden Room,’ Guy Maddin’s ‘Inception’-like Genre Explosion

Phi Films

Superheroes will clobber killer robots in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Mad Max: Fury Road touts a feature-film-length car chase. When Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens reintroduces the Millennium Falcon, faces will melt. But with race-against-time submarine set pieces, magic mountain men, volcano sacrifices, toe-tapping lobotomies, dong-swinging cave people, a brooding noir mystery, melodramatic love affairs, touchy-feely skeleton people, an island-size brain, and vampire bananas, Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room is trying to out-spectacle them all.

What Inception did for Christopher Nolan’s puzzled mind, The Forbidden Room does for a lifetime of cinema stored inside its creator’s head. It’s an artful apogee for Maddin, who began injecting memory into the sights, sounds, and theatrics of his films with his debut, 1988’s surreal Tales From the Gimli Hospital, a film that owes as much to Little Rascals as to James Whale’s Frankenstein. If caught in passing, the Canadian filmmaker’s work could be easily mistaken as being from a bygone era. His typical aesthetic tends to polish modern personalities with a monochromatic glow so distant from today’s standards that it may as well be a dream language. Maddin resides between experimental visual art and plot-driven pulp, an open-ended ambition that makes room for historical dramas (Archangel), vibrant fantasies (Twilight of the Ice Nymphs), gothic ballets (Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary), musical road movies (The Saddest Music in the World), and autobiographical re-creations (My Winnipeg).

Maddin conceived The Forbidden Room while developing and shooting a web-focused project, Seances. Both adapt “lost films,” the destroyed, irreparable, or misplaced work of silent-film and early-talkie-era directors. As early as 2010, Maddin wanted to “reinterpret holy texts and present them to the world anew as reverent and irreverent glosses on the missing originals.” He hired Evan Johnson, discovered while working at a Rug Doctor Carpet Cleaners, as a research assistant. The two sifted through the American Film Institute’s endless list of lost film synopses, plucking out any seedlings that could be grown into short films. As the project grew and grew, Johnson stepped up as co-writer-director, shooting the interactive Seances and theatrical Forbidden Room simultaneously in various studios around the world, from the Centre Phi in Montreal to the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. When it came time to assemble the short films, Maddin and Johnson took cues from the works of French novelist Raymond Roussel, known for nesting multiple stories inside multiple acts. The result is The Forbidden Room’s carefully concocted chaos, which ebbs and flows with emotional logic, the occasional exclamatory title card (Example: “Squid Theft!”) providing swift kicks in new directions.

The Forbidden Room premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, although the event’s indie stature doesn’t speak to the breadth and scope of Maddin’s picture. By land, by sea, by sky, by surreal fourth-dimensional space, The Forbidden Room tears through genre film history with enough vigor and glee to make Quentin Tarantino dizzy. Maddin himself calls it the “ultimate epic phantasmagoria,” a “glorious meeting between Italo Calvino, Sergei Eisenstein, and a perverted six year-old child,” and a colliding of stories in a “joyful delirium of the kaleidoscopic viewing experience.” Audiences that feast upon the film may not find words for it all.

I sat down with Maddin and Johnson to pull back a few of The Forbidden Room’s folds, unearthing the long-lost histories (and personal obsessions) that act as the mechanical beast’s gears:

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“How to Take a Bath”

Poet John Ashbery contributed the script for The Forbidden Room’s bookends, a short instructional video on how to bathe oneself in a tub. “I gave John a list of lost films and invited him to adapt as many as he wanted,” Maddin says. “He chose How to Take a Bath, a lost Dwain Esper movie. He was a director who made How to Undress in Front of Your Husband. I think he was the distributor of Freaks, that fell into legal trouble, and Reefer Madness.”

In the original lost film, split-screen techniques compared two women’s bathing experiences — one married and sexually experienced, the other a virgin. “It was just a big excuse to show women bathing, probably,” Maddin jokes. The adapted version subverts the premise with men, its off-cadence language emitting Tim & Eric–esque weirdness. Maddin settled on Ashbery’s contribution as The Forbidden Room’s introduction and outro when Roussel’s novels became the framing inspiration. “Roussel is the guy who compelled John Ashbery to learn French so he could read him. He became a translator of Roussel, and he’s a writer who — eccentrically, it would seem — chose to spend most of his life nesting narratives within narratives within narratives within narratives.”

“The Submarine”

Maddin conceived The Forbidden Room as a series of title-for-title remakes. The adaption process blurred when “the spirits of many other lost movies, and the spirit of loss in general, haunted our sets and demanded to be represented in front of our cameras.” So while submarine thrillers were popular as early as 1915, and there were specific lost films to note, The Forbidden Room’s version is a visual amalgamation, spanning designs and shooting styles from early silent pictures through World War II–era films. The segmented submersible also gave the filmmakers a built-in structural device.

“The process of the submarine, like the moving from one end to another, would suggest a kind of momentum,” Maddin says. Unlike his past films, The Forbidden Room strives to click into Hollywood’s classic mode: the three-act structure. Maddin admits it was a struggle. He never writes like that. “We bought screenwriting books! Even though we knew we were making a feature, we still found it easier to think of each story separately and wrote them. It was a matter of finding places for them.”

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“The Frontiersman”

One of The Forbidden Room’s main characters is a Daniel Boone–style frontiersman, traversing frozen tundras to assemble a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen–esque folk hero team to help save a damsel in distress. Though he exists in a vacuum, he inhabits an identity, even when contained in a condensed, archetypical box. Genre films of the early 20th century and today’s modern blockbusters have something in common: They’re light on the humanity. Maddin says of The Forbidden Room writing process, “You’re dealing with character types in a lot of cases, with quick sketches of entire features boiled down to a few minutes. You have to have types, but you have to make sure you’re being fair. If you’re not exactly being Chekhovian with your shading, you’re at least trying to be fair to humans.”

Writing these genre mash-up pawns became a balancing act. Maddin didn’t want to be too politically correct, either. “You also don’t want to just obey guidelines, like just be ideologically modern, and therefore just seemingly obedient to a particular time in political history. You want to be honest about the way humans are. And if that makes someone look bad, fine, as long as it’s not an ‘-ism.’”

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“The Volcano”

“If you had a volcano, you needed to throw a woman into it,” Maddin says of an exotic trend that emerged in films like 1932’s Bird of Paradise. Apparently, the machinations of early disaster movies became so ingrained in film culture throughout the 20th century that when Maddin and Johnson sat down to write their lost-film riff, they came out with a carbon copy of Joe Versus the Volcano. Neither Maddin nor Johnson had ever seen it. “We’ve inadvertently plagiarized so many movies by not getting out often enough.”

“The Cave Dwellers”

While Maddin routinely turns to antiquated techniques that displace his films from time, he’s dabbled before in the roaring color on display in The Forbidden Room. For his 1992 film Careful, Maddin mimicked Technicolor’s additive two-color process from the 1920s. Instead of full colorization, he could clash apricot skin tones with green in one scene, violet in the next, blue, then yellow, and then abandon it all for a full blast of red. He took a similar approach to The Forbidden Room, replacing narrative plotlines or identifiable source material with style. The film isn’t a jumble of ideas because his use of color eases your brain through it.

“When there’s a transition, you feel it with your retinas as well as your ear and everything else,” Maddin says. Working with Johnson, Maddin adapted tonal palettes from old two-strip Technicolor films. The technique from the 1920s involved filming two black-and-white strips of film with red and green lenses, then adding them together for an approximate full-color spectrum. When color options became limited, Maddin expanded the archaic technology’s scope. “We had to sort of invent a parallel universe of what two-strip Technicolor would look like if there were just more elements on the periodic table, or something.”

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“The Lounge Singer”

Every movie needs a musical number. The Forbidden Room found room for its showstopper in a damp, cerulean lounge. New-wave band Sparks provided Maddin’s film with “The Final Derriere,” their mere appearance a nod to lost films: In the ’80s, Jacques Tati hired the group to replace the director-performer’s legendary Monsieur Hulot character in his proposed final film, Confusion. Unfortunately, Tati died before production and the movie was never made. “They’ve described it to me as their greatest disappointment in their lives,” Maddin says. “So we at least got to work together on this, and it enabled us to squeeze a whole narrative into a little lounge act.”

Music plays a huge role in Maddin’s films, as essential to the cohesive end product as anything forged with picture: “I used to say that shadows were the cheapest set decoration. You could just unplug a light and add a sound effect or something. But let’s face it: You can steer a performance in a certain direction with music. I remember listening to Isabella Rossellini quote her mother [Ingrid Bergman], who wasn’t interested in acting, saying that she would virtually do nothing, confident in her face. If the director wasn’t saying anything, she wouldn’t just put anything on her face. She just thought when Ingrid Bergman walked down the stairs, the composer would supply the emotion somehow. So, I know from being disappointed in my earlier years with the way footage turned out or something, but there was still time to repair it without reshooting, namely, if a performer didn’t have enough gravitas, you could play a 33⅓ album at 16 rpm, and you’d suddenly have more gravitas on that performer’s face. If there was too much gravitas, you could lighten up the score, or put some crickets on the soundtrack or something. All of a sudden everything seemed darker or lighter. I was just — sort of before the ball left your fingers, you could just add one last sort of spin, and that was your chance, sound designing.”

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“The Napping Man”

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Quantum of Solace actor Mathieu Amalric appears in “The Napping Man,” a segment that appears at the center of the film and one that resonates most strongly with Maddin. “I wrote a manifesto back in the ’90s about how the sleeping actor is probably the best actor of all.”1

Johnson elaborates: “The ones we would be most inspired by were the ones where we felt personally connected to a synopsis. ‘A short tale about a cowardly man who’s afraid of his girlfriend.’ With Guy it was very clear when they shouted out to him because often, hearing the synopsis, it would just go in his ears and come out his mouth as a new script idea. We’re different types of beta male, and we would find ourselves in other types of cowards in the scripts. It was personal for everyone, and then we’d blend them all together.”

“Vampire Bananas”

A thread late in the film introduces the audience to a hoard of vampiric bananas — which actually have a folklore foundation. “There’s a weird contradiction in the vampire stories, where sometimes you’re bitten and you just die, sometimes you’re bitten and you turn into a sexy vampirette to be feared,” Johnson says. “But that little contradiction in the Aswang myth from the Philippines is: Sometimes you turn into another vampire that bites other people, and sometimes you just decay into a banana. A blackened, but redolently sweet banana.”

Every movie has room for comedy if you have the right comedian on set. “Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, and Chaplin had gagmen on set, just to think of gags that would be funny, to make the movie funnier. We would do a little of that,” Johnson says. “We would do a pass of the script thinking, We could use some gags, and just think of some lowbrow jokes. What we really wanted was a huge range of gag-brow.”

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“The Book of Climaxes”

For one of The Forbidden Room’s several conclusions, Maddin and Johnson took stray ideas, chopped them to bits, and exploded them across the screen in a fury. “Around the time, as writers, we became obsessed with cold opens, sort of the TV strategy of opening without context, and we realized that cold opens and climaxes are exactly the same thing if you take a climax out of context,” says Johnson. The above image stands in either for Escape From Brain Island or Return to Brain Island — the beauty of imaginary movies being that one doesn’t have to worry about plot. Maddin jokingly teases that they have enough lost movies to move forward on Forbidden Room 2 — appropriate, considering its blockbuster soul. “That would start with a book of cold opens, and then have maybe about halfway through a book of tipping points and a book of MacGuffins. And then maybe another book of climaxes — Book of Climaxes 2?”

Inception only dreams of having that many ideas.

Matt Patches (@misterpatches) is a writer and reporter in New York whose work has been featured on Vulture, VanityFair.com, and in The Hollywood Reporter.

Filed Under: Movies, Guy Madden, The Forbidden Room, Sundance, Sundance Film Festival, Evan Johnson