If any of the 2004 film releases deserves the title as the quirkiest film of the year, The Saddest Music in the World is a very strong contender. Set in not-so-cinematic Winnipeg, it is a barrage of expressionist imagery bound together by a story that involves a legless beer baroness, the reunion of two brothers and a competition to find the saddest music in the world. The period is the Great Depression and the dark, stylised, sometimes cartoonish imagery captures the soul of the era (or, at least as we know it via the medium of film) perfectly.
Director Guy Maddin, whose credentials includes the cult hit Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Archangel, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs and Tales from a Virgin’s Diary, based his script on a story written by Anglo-Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro which was sent to him in 2000. ‘When I first saw the script I wasn’t so interested because it was set in contemporary London,’ says Maddin. ‘My films are very stylised, fairy-tale-ish so I spent two years reworking it, quite slowly, as in the meantime I made two other films. But the final result really is just an adaptation of the original script.’
‘I put all my obsessions in it and spent time getting those things in place. Some people may call it bizarre, but I think there’s always a reason for all those elements to be in the film,’ says the director.
It took considerable cachet to lure star names to join the cast of a project that Maddin himself admits is usually described as ‘bizarre.’ Among them are Isabella Rossellini, in a terrific turn as the impaired beer goddess; Mark McKinney, from the Canadian cult comedy troupe Kids In The Hall; and the Portuguese Maria de Medeiros, whose pixie, almond-eyed face also graced the screen in Henry and June and Pulp Fiction.
Was it hard work to get Rosselini on board? ‘It was quite easy, really. I sent the script to her agent and soon after that I received a phone call from Rosselini herself and she immediately agreed to be in it. She then came round and we spent time watching movies together. She’s really connected to film and fashion history. She’s very human, a fantastic person,’ says Maddin.
The film was shot in February 2003, in the mercilessly cold Winnipeg winter in a disused factory called the Dominion Bridge. ‘It’s an abandoned steel factory in Winnipeg and temperatures were, like, –28?C. Isabella Rosselini was tougher, maybe because of her Scandinavian roots, but Maria de Medeiros, who is 100% Mediterranean, suffered a lot and we could see the life disappearing from her face. But all this helped us get in the mood of the Depression period, it enhanced the delirium in the film.’ Maybe because we tend to hurry things up when it’s cold, he also managed to get the film in the can in time for the Venice Festival last year.
Why did it have to be Winnipeg? ‘I chose it mainly because I’m from there. I feel Canadians are the worst self-mythologisers in the world. For some reason, in all countries they make their national heroes bigger than life. Canadians are very bad; they feel their history is worse than everyone else’s. I thought I’d give the old Hollywood treatment to Winnipeg.’
One of the most enticing aspects of The Saddest Music in the World is the texture of the imagery, which sometimes looks very aged, like decaying nitrate. ‘We used a variety of cameras and we pushed all these different film stocks together, some of which I bought on EBay. We also shot on Super 8 to get that ‘impoverished’ effect,’ says Maddin who likes to emphasise the melodramatic effect as well.
‘I think in the film world there’s an obligation to be naturalistic and movies are scolded for being melodramatic, which I don’t agree with,’ he says. ‘I like music, ballet, lo-fi music and the painter who throws paint on the canvas. I don’t want to sound too arty but I don’t make things to be laughed at, I like making something that is serious. I try to make things that are entertaining but in a way that you can’t find anywhere else.’