- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2008

Canadian auteur Guy Maddin is known as much for how his films look as for what they say. Most of his films, which include the Isabella Rossellini musical “The Saddest Music in the World,” look as if they were shot in the 1920s or ‘30s rather than the present day.

You might assume his visual style is carefully premeditated. The truth, however, is humbler.

“The images just seem to come out of the camera that way,” Mr. Maddin says. “I think it’s because I’m not a technologically clever person. I can’t even clean my cameras, but I don’t let anyone else do it. There’s gunk in there; I just leave it like that. I also don’t know how to read a light meter. I try to write scripts that fit in with that style.”

What’s become a trademark was simply an accident.

“Like so many other filmmakers, the written word has always come first for me. With my first few films, I never gave any thought to visual style,” he says. “My technical ineptitude came up with a lot of shadows.” He found this gave his films more atmosphere than the “bland” look that resulted when he hired a capable crew.

“I quickly banned people who knew anything from my set,” he says. “It enables you to work quickly and not get bogged down in mad, Kubrick-style obsessionism.”

You also might think that an auteur like Mr. Maddin, whose films are so singular, chooses his projects carefully, based solely on aesthetic considerations. Again, the truth is less romantic.

His new documentary “My Winnipeg,” about his beloved hometown, was commissioned by Michael Burns, former programming director of Canada’s Documentary Channel. “I heard a rumor he was going to ask me to make a documentary about Winnipeg,” Mr. Maddin recalls, speaking by telephone from New York. “I was so broke, I called to ask if there was truth to this rumor.”

Mr. Maddin can’t help but confound expectations - even his own.

“My Winnipeg,” opening Friday at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, follows a version of the 52-year-old filmmaker, played by an actor, who debates leaving the Canadian city in which he has always lived. Before doing so, he needs to confront his past, so he rents his childhood home and hires actors to wear his family’s clothes and re-enact painful moments. It’s a history of the city and a history of one family’s experience of it. How much of this “docu-fantasia,” as the writer-director calls it, is true?

“By coincidence, almost all of it,” he says. “It’s about 33 percent solid fact, 33 percent local legend, and 33 percent one man’s opinions and rants.”

Mr. Maddin says using actors enabled him to get closer to the truth. He decided not to use his own mother in the film, but instead have actress Ann Savage play her. “My mother would have inhibited herself,” he says. Miss Savage “nailed my mother more than my mother would have.”

In fact, that dramatically heightened portrayal is one reason why Mr. Maddin’s documentary about Canada’s seventh-largest city is, in many ways, a very un-Canadian work. “We don’t exaggerate; we don’t boast,” he reminds this reporter, a fellow Western Canadian.

Americans, he says, have a “massive mythology” that shapes their country, while Canadians “may be the only nationality in the entire world that’s too sheepish to self-mythologize.” That’s just what Mr. Maddin set out to do. He hopes that although he may not have always captured a literal truth in the process, he has given birth to a “poetic” or “psychological” one.

Canadians didn’t seem to mind: “My Winnipeg” won the Best Canadian Feature award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Independents avenue

Spend an hour with Dan Boylan and Guy Taylor, and you’ll notice that they constantly pepper their discussion with the specifics of filmmaking - setting up shots, coaxing performances out of actors, the logistical problems of doing a “guerrilla shoot.” That might not seem odd for a couple of passionate young filmmakers, but it’s striking given that these two are self-taught and just started making films 15 months ago.

The cousins want to do for Washington what James Joyce’s “Dubliners” did for that Irish city. “Washington’s the center of the world,” Mr. Boylan says, yet there’s little great cinema or literature that captures it. “It’s a far more complicated and interesting place than Hollywood sees it.” Their films eschew the partisanship on which this town often seems to thrive. “More interesting is to make the screen electric,” Mr. Boylan says.

These two young men - Mr. Boylan is 37, Mr. Taylor, 31 - are perfect Washington characters themselves. Full of ambition, they have grand plans. Slightly more than a year after they embarked on their filmmaking careers, they already have been to Cannes. The pair have made three short films, which they call their D.C. Trilogy. They presented one part of it, a slapstick terrorism comedy called “A Free Radical,” at the world’s most prestigious film festival.

“It was a zoo without a keeper,” reports Mr. Taylor, who goes on to describe how the two sneaked into a Miramax party, where they handed promotional postcards to the assembled luminaries. A fundraiser at a friend’s home netted them $6,000 for their expenses. They say the experience was worthwhile just for all the business cards they collected from producers and financiers.

The cousins grew up in the same house in Boston - their mothers were identical twins who married two men who were friends - and they followed similar paths. Mr. Boylan “wrote a couple novels I never did anything with,” while Mr. Taylor wrote a poetry chapbook. They both worked for a time as journalists in the intervening years. (Mr. Taylor was a reporter for The Washington Times.)

Both their journalistic work and their experiences outside the country inform their films - Mr. Boylan has spent more than seven years of the past 10 outside the United States, including a stint as a Fulbright scholar. “Classified” is a thriller about a White House operative in a time of war, while tragedy strikes in “Moment of Silence” when a soldier who has seen combat returns home to his wife.

Mr. Taylor was excited to discover that the film with the most buzz at Cannes was Steven Soderbergh’s “Che.” “It was shot on a $4K digital camera,” he marvels. Digital film has really meant a revolution in filmmaking. “The [cost of the] means of production drop, and it’s accessible to characters like ourselves,” he says. “We’re going to make movies and do it as seriously as we did journalism.”

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