Guy Maddin on Haunted Hotel: “If you see Björn from ABBA looking behind a curtain, you too are curious about what’s behind the curtain”

The latest project from the berserk genius of Guy Maddin finds him cranking up the lurid melodrama using the cutting-edge technology of augmented reality.


In Gimli, Manitoba, on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, cold nights have arrived and “everyone’s closing up their cottages for the winter.” At one point during my Zoom with the area’s most famous filmmaking export, Guy Maddin, he’s interrupted by a friend knocking on the door of his family home to say their goodbyes for the season.

Maddin himself is due to fly to London, where his latest project – a ‘melodrama in augmented reality’ called Haunted Hotel – is about to get its world premiere on display as part of the LFF Expanded programme at the BFI London Film Festival. Comprising a succession of multi-layered, three-dimensional scenes created out of book and magazine cutouts, its story hints at the kind of sordid mystery and trauma that have been the lifeblood of Maddin’s work since his early features Archangel (1990) and Careful (1992).

What’s decidedly new is the embrace of of-the-minute technology by a filmmaker indelibly linked with the antique aura and bygone aesthetics of silent cinema.

I wanted to start by asking about the brief from the BFI London Film Festival, and how that came about.

I had a two-dimensional collage show at a gallery in Paris about this time last year. And Ulrich Schrauth, who directs LFF Expanded, and Tricia Tuttle, the director of the festival, came over to check it out. I was so honoured. They took me out for coffee and asked if I would like to try experimenting with collages in three dimensions, and possibly have a show at the London Film Festival. I instantly said yes, because I had grown tired of working in just two dimensions, and it was time to work in three. Bring on the fourth dimension, I say now. 

It was set right away during that first coffee that I would make collages out of old books and magazines that represented something like storyboards for a movie. A hypothetical movie.

Given such an open sense of possibilities, how did the outline for Haunted Hotel first take shape?

It really helps to have deadlines. Ulrich said, “Okay, you are going to do storyboards for a movie. What’s the plot of the movie?” I was reading Wilkie Collins’ Haunted Hotel at that time, and decided to take the general outline of that plot, which is available on Wikipedia in a very short synopsis, and just crank up the melodrama, crank up the gothic – so that it would have more jagged edges in its plot line, and make it a little more lurid.

Haunted Hotel: A Melodrama in Augmented Reality (2022)

Were you already engaged with what other people were doing with augmented reality or virtual reality, particularly other filmmakers?

Very little. I just put my hand in Ulrich’s and said, “Please, if I start steering this whole thing into already overly travelled pathways, please yank me out of that and set me straight.” 

I have a friend who was alone for his birthday, so he downloaded some augmented reality software for his iPad and had some virtual people come over and dance in his apartment to take the edge off his loneliness. So I’d seen what it can do from a practical perspective. It can ward off loneliness with pretty sketchy facsimiles of friends. But it’s an online experience, so everything’s a sketchy facsimile, anyway. Ulrich assured me that no one had done a storyboard suggesting a movie before. So that was comfy for me.

I was interested to hear you say you’re ready for the fourth dimension, because I watched The Forbidden Room (2015) recently, and had to remind myself whether it had been made in 3D originally, because I remember it showed at the IMAX here, and it’s so immersive. Obviously you’re heavily associated with antique aesthetics, but it feels like in the last few years you’ve really wanted to engage with modern technologies like digital and now augmented reality.

I made a conscious point of trying to shake things up because if you’re just going to make old-timey references to old-timey film vocabularies, that felt like a dead end to me. Even 10 years ago, I approached the director of the Centre Pompidou in Paris and asked him if I could shoot The Forbidden Room in the foyer of the atrium of the building live in public. I thought that it would be fun to shoot a movie – little chamber pieces, little camera spiels like the ones that ended up in The Forbidden Room – in public. It would be performance art or something like that. It would be an ant farm where people visiting could see how a movie’s made.

I guess that was a necessary stepping stone for this augmented reality. I’m intrigued by it. I’m also less comfortable with it, which is challenging, and I like challenges. I always feel that I entered cinema through some side door while no one was looking and don’t really belong in this world anyway. The more I can cook up some credentials in other ways and create distractions for myself, maybe no one will notice and kick me out of the film world, and maybe I could prolong my stay here.

How do you map out a project like this? Were you dealing with actual paper cutouts to begin with and then you handed over the footage to the technicians?

Yeah, that’s basically it. I wrote the treatment, and then worked on making collages over a few weeks. I made 100 or whatever. I got feedback from Ulrich and Lilian Hess, who Ulrich assigned as producer to me, just like a film producer. We worked together and they gave feedback on what they felt worked and what didn’t. The collages have many depths: once you hold up the iPad and they pop from 2D into 3D in the gallery, you start seeing the other layers that are hidden. Since this was a plot with all sorts of double crossings and intrigues and secret betrayals, it was an excellent chance for me to hide characters or things that were going on behind the scenes within each collage.

First you see the outer 2D layer, and then I had up to 10 other layers where you could put backstory or subtext or something more pornographic. It was a matter of planning all that out on my kitchen table and then photographing each of the layers and sending them in order so that the technical team could see what’s underneath and what can be looked around and found. It ended up working out. If I can ever get financing to make movies ever again, I’ll just make 3D collage movies.

Haunted Hotel: A Melodrama in Augmented Reality (2022)

It’s subtitled A Melodrama in Augmented Reality. Is the story it’s telling essentially the Wilkie Collins story?

Yeah, but with some hyperbolic extensions here and there. I’ve practically forgotten the original story, but it involves a romantic betrayal and an escape to a hotel in Venice. I found a bunch of old maps of Venice that I made collages out of, but they fell away as less interesting than the pieces we had. So it’s the contours. Even if you’d done a doctorate on Wilkie Collins’ Haunted Hotel, you might not recognise it immediately when you come in. It ended up being a narrative with a shape and a flavour all its own.

You’ve included lots of images of spying and peering and pulling aside curtains. Is voyeurism a key theme of the story as well?

Yeah, it is. Investigations. What little I knew about 3D collages, I thought that anything that drew the eye in, drew the curiosity in, such as images of people looking behind something, would be more likely to create viewer interest in looking behind that curtain themselves. So if you see Björn from ABBA looking behind a curtain, you too are curious about what’s behind the curtain.

I spotted Fernando Rey in there too. Which Buñuel film is that?

He’s in a handful. So it would be either That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). Not sure though. Buñuel is my God. My atheist God.

You’ve said before that making movies is a kind of therapy for you. Was that the case here too?

At first, no, because I was so uncertain about everything. But collage-making is therapy as well, a different kind. With movies, I tend to dig up poorly repressed childhood or young adult memories and deal with them melodramatically. Even if I’m trying to make an incredibly faithful reproduction of an incident that happened in my life, the process of making a film about that instantly fictionalises it. You have to cast people to play the originals. You have to wardrobe them, you have to apply makeup, you have to light them, deal with them as actors, edit them. By the time the whole thing’s done, you’ve pretty much erased the original memories and replaced them all with the facsimiles that you’ve come up with. But since you’ve been in control of it, it helps you understand what happened and it’s a form of therapy.

It’s just not everyone can afford to make a movie about themselves. And besides this is real homemade therapy; probably some psychiatrists would suggest that what I’m doing is just damaging myself even more. 

But making collages with a glass of wine and some music on and cutting up old books, and rearranging the images to make new collisions – basically to make an Eisensteinian montage out of still images – all that’s very therapeutic. But only in the way a day long trip to the spa is therapeutic.

By morning, about 80% of them reveal themselves to be terrible. And you throw those out and then about a week later, there’s another culling because you realise you’ve been kidding yourself about how interesting they are. But if you’ve had a productive night, you’ll get one or two okay, or even very pleasing, collages out of it. 

When I first heard the title Haunted Hotel and saw the main still of the guys at the piano, I imagined it was going to be another black-and-white Maddin project. So I was surprised to find all that garish colour in the collages. You seem to be embracing colour much more in the last few years.

It’s very conscious. I didn’t want to be the guy who just made black-and-white films. I’d been scared of colour for a couple of very practical reasons when I began. I knew of movies like Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) where colour means so much. I didn’t want to shoot a movie in colour and have colours take on accidental meaning. And at a more practical level, when you’re getting props or borrowing costumes, you can control the palette much better when it’s black and white. If I shot those early movies in colour, there would be no palette. It would just be a dog’s breakfast of colours; extraneous colours that battled each other.

The act of collage helped me understand palettes a lot more. It comes naturally to some people; there are so many natural artists. I’ve often collaged with people at collage parties, and learned that other people have very pleasing senses of colour. I really feel that after thousands of hours of making collage, I’ve come to understand how colour works much better. And The Forbidden Room is so colourful and so wild and so off putting in places, that I was pretty happy with that exhausting exercise in colour. I feel I’m finally at least as in control of colour now as, maybe not Vincente Minnelli, but at least the average colour filmmaker.

How did you work with Magnus Fiennes on the music and sounds?

Ulrich said, “Let’s assume we’d like people to stay at each collage for 90 seconds, say,” so suggested that Magnus compose music cues that were that long and that if people wanted to stay longer, they could stay for another 90 seconds or whatever. But that the music itself would encourage people to stay long enough to absorb stuff. It’ll be interesting to see how that works. I don’t have enough experience with augmented reality. I know a friend who’s a curator at MoMA in New York said that they did a study and found out that the average visitor to MoMA spends six seconds in front of each work of art.

With my collages, it would take more than six seconds to discover just how many 3D elements there were concealed within it. But they might be done well before 90 seconds is up, we’ll see. But the way Magnus made the music was to create cinematic atmospheres, so even if people just speed through the whole thing, his music will still be very effective. 

It’s made with a certain amount of idealism. It’s such a new art form in a way. By taking on new technologies, I’m indulging my old fantasies of treating antique film technologies as if they’re new and playing around with them.

But leading on from that, as you’re someone who’s engaged with the appeal of lost silent films, I often wonder what the future for VR and AR works is, from an access and archival perspective. A lot of them are site specific or seem to depend on audiences being in the right place at the right time, otherwise they’ve missed them. Are you hoping to take Haunted Hotel to other festivals?

Yeah, Ulrich mentioned that it could tour around the UK a bit, I’m not sure right now. I hope the show is considered a success. I know some of my friends back in North America have expressed interest in seeing it. I don’t really know much about it, I just made it. Back in the old 2D collage-making days, I was selling the odd one, which would hang in someone’s living room after they gave me a little bit of money. But this is something else altogether.

Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988)

You’ve just had a restoration of Tales of the Gimli Hospital (1988) at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Is this the start of some of your early work, which is difficult to see, becoming more available?

Yeah. There were never proper digital transfers done to them, but now there will be. Gimli Hospital and Archangel and Careful will get 4K restorations and hopefully get out there. Whether they have theatrical runs or not, it’s almost beside the point. The fact that they exist in a proper high resolution transfer means they can then show up on streaming services and then they’ll be available for anyone who’s curious, and not just utterly forgotten. The movies aren’t perfect, but there’s something odd about them. I have no idea why I made them exactly that way. It was so long ago. But I’ve revisited all three now, briefly, and I’m more pleased than displeased with them.

[At TIFF] I watched Gimli Hospital with an audience and this was a film that had 50% to 80% walkout ratio when it first came out 34 years ago. There were no walkouts this time. The film has not been improved. It’s just that I think the people that show up to it now know what to expect. They’re a little kinder and end up being less disappointed or aggravated. I think this is perfect timing for the films to be brought up to par technically. Maybe they’ll get a little second life or in the case of Archangel, a first life, as it was stillborn when it arrived.

Why was that?

Archangel (1990)

I remember the premiere. I was pretty optimistic about it; I made exactly the film I wanted to make. And when it premiered at TIFF in 1990, just practically everyone walked out. I think it was 90% of walkouts and the few people that remained were sleeping. I had a new print struck of it a few years ago. I hadn’t watched it in decades. It screened in Winnipeg, my hometown, where it’s the toughest audience playing for a hometown. But there were no walkouts then either and the film suddenly seemed to be working again. It died pretty quickly at the time. But I met the poet John Ashbury through Archangel because he said it was his favourite movie one year or something like that, and we became friends after.

You suggested earlier that you were struggling to get a new feature funded at the moment. Is that still the case?

Yeah, but it’s not a unique story. It’s something you just see. I’ve made further progress than I ever dreamt possible into the Hollywood system. And we’ve all read stories of things just slogging down in development. But I’m also at a position where I could wake up one morning with a phone call telling me to get to work because everything’s greenlit and it’s time to go. 

Are you someone that keeps up with contemporary cinema? You’re so associated with silent cinema and the past…

The old me would’ve said, “Yeah. I watch new movies all the time. I just saw Singin’ in the Rain (1952),” or mention some 70-year-old Technicolor movie.

I teach film as well. And some of my students have an encyclopaedic knowledge of film made in the last 10 years. I can’t match that. But I do try to get out to the big screen. I have seen, say, Barbarian, which I saw on its opening weekend a few weeks back. I’ll get out and I’ll try to see things. But I guess my answer is “Somewhat.”

Haunted Hotel: A Melodrama in Augmented Reality is available to experience for free at BFI Southbank from 5 October.

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