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Still collage images courtesy of Guy Maddin/Haunted Hotel

Inside Guy Maddin’s sexy, surreal new augmented reality show

The cult filmmaker’s latest project is Haunted Hotel – a voyeuristic new AR exhibition that can be found in the corridors of London’s BFI

In August 2022, Guy Maddin received some bad news. Or, rather, it was something he didn’t receive. Although the 66-year-old Canadian director voted in Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films poll in 2012, the BFI’s movie magazine didn’t send him a ballot for the 2022 edition. In response, Evan Johnson, the co-director of The Forbidden Room, published an open letter to Sight & Sound, claiming that Maddin couldn’t get out of bed: his dog was sick, his ex-wife had married Guillermo del Toro, and he was facing an existential crisis. “He’s become convinced that he’s no longer culturally relevant as an artist,” Johnson wrote, “despite the fact he has three films playing at the BFI London Film Festival this year.”

When I meet Maddin on the first day of the London Film Festival, it’s for Haunted Hotel: A Melodrama in Augmented Reality, an exhibition that’s free to view until October 30. In the BFI corridors, Maddin’s a celebrity, which makes the Sight & Sound snub a little confounding. “I got out of bed, fell on the floor, then rolled under my bed,” he tells me. Thankfully, he did eventually receive a belated ballot, and Sight & Sound are doing a special interview about his votes. I inform him that his three films aren’t part of the London Film Festival’s retrospective section, but an official “Guy Maddin season” – an even greater compliment. “I don’t know anything. I was under my bed!”

Haunted Hotel is part of the LFF Expanded programme, much of which is at 26 Leake Street (including the VR film On the Morning You Wake (to the End of the World), which I can personally recommend). However, Maddin’s augmented reality show, a collaboration with Lilian Hess and headraft, is located at BFI Southbank, just outside NFT2. On the wall are esoteric collages that are also off the wall, both literally and figuratively, when viewed via AR technology. One example is a pair of Lynchian curtains that open, layer by layer, depending on where you stand, until it reveals naked members of ABBA wearing carefully placed kitchen foil. “You want the viewer to feel compelled to travel in and discover things,” Maddin says. “Maybe next time I’ll add more nudity.”

I note that, historically, porn tends to be the first to take advantage of new technology. “Probably when the telephone was invented, Alexander Graham Bell was making the first obscene phone call, and Thomas Edison was lighting up a skirt,” Maddin says. “Edison spent half his career and money on trying to invent something that would separate ore from iron. I think he died a bitter man. ‘My mistake. If only I’d concentrated on the pornographic aspects of extracting minerals from the ore!’”

Nobody makes films like Maddin – at least, the ones who did are no longer alive. An acquired taste, Maddin specialises in hypnogogic images that have seemingly been unearthed from dusty vaults dating back to the 1930s, or perhaps the perverted part of your subconscious. In the 90s, his films, nearly all black-and-white, were loving pastiches of pre-1950s cinema; more recently, 2015’s The Forbidden Room purported to be a collection of lost films (including Sparks singing about derrieres), all shot on scratchy 35mm, two-strip Technicolor, and other outdated shooting methods. Ironically, Maddin pays attention to new technology. Seances, an online project, created a randomly generated version of a film that’s immediately deleted from servers once watched by the viewer. With Haunted Hotel, he’s the London Film Festival’s first AR commission.

Maddin’s fascination with collages started decades ago at gatherings in Canada in which artists drank wine and cut up magazines, often trying to shock each other. “I got ripped off by gallery collectors who never paid me,” he says. “But I don’t care. It’s part of pretending to be part of the art world.” Last year, representatives from the London Film Festival visited Maddin’s collage exhibition in Paris and suggested an AR project. Maddin pitched a plot synopsis full of melodrama, betrayal, and references to Wilkie Collins’ novella The Haunted Hotel. “I was in second-hand bookstores, looking for pictures of pianos and Venice, but I couldn’t find any! But I like challenges. If I had the whole internet to download images from, I’d be paralysed.”

In the exhibition, the overall narrative is impenetrable, and it’s unclear if there’s a correct order to view everything – especially as visitors mess up the queue by loitering around the racier pictures. However, there are repeat themes: voyeurs, peepholes, and a foreboding soundscape by Magnus Fiennes on the headphones you’re handed when walking in. “It’s the 19th century but there’s ABBA, ZaSu Pitts from Greed, and Fernando Rey from a 70s Buñuel movie,” Maddin says. “It’s all over the place. With a 2D collage, you’re happy if two combined elements are refreshing to the eye. But with this, there has to be a whole outer layer to see through…. I put in lots of secrets to hide within the collages.”

“Some people say that Robert Eggers copied me. But he didn’t. I think we copied the same thing” – Guy Maddin

Although Maddin established a cult following in the 90s, his proper breakthrough didn’t arrive until his seventh film, 2003’s The Saddest Music in the World, a monochrome comedy with musical numbers, about 100 different filming styles, and Isabella Rossellini as a beer baroness whose legs explode. Ostensibly it was an adaptation of a Kazuo Ishiguro screenplay. “When [the producer] told me we would be working with Ishiguro, I quit my job to work full time on it,” Maddin says. “I had no income for two years… I had to keep rewriting and rewriting until I had his permission.” After Maddin takes 10 minutes to explain the intricate writing process, I tell him the main takeaway is that none of Ishiguro’s original words made it to screen. “It’s true, but that’s unfair. The premise is Ish all the way…. the allegories about people competing for the world’s sympathy – that’s pure Ish. I’m no writer. I can’t write better than Ishiguro. My films aren’t exactly clear.”

At the BFI’s Guy Maddin season, The Saddest Music in the World will play alongside Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary and his comic memoir My Winnipeg, no doubt to a loyal crowd. Although Maddin’s last feature, The Green Fog, didn’t get a theatrical release in the UK, it screened at BFI IMAX at the 2018 London Film Festival to a boisterous audience. One imagines that if, say, Robert Pattinson appeared in Cowards Bend the Knee, Maddin would get the fame he deserves. After all, much of the praise thrown at The Lighthouse also applies to Maddin’s filmography – particularly 2006’s Brand Upon the Brain!, a silent nightmare also set in a lighthouse. “Some people say that Robert Eggers copied me. But he didn’t. I think we copied the same thing.”

Over a 70-minute conversation, Maddin is full of stories, including how Brand Upon the Brain! played in New York theatres with a live orchestra and guest narrators. One night, Lou Reed dozed off while reading the text aloud. “I was honoured that Lou fell asleep during the performance. You could hear him snoring into the microphone.” Maddin laughs. “The musicians were disgusted, actually. But I was like, ‘Come on, it’s Lou Reed. He’s been rubbing people the wrong way his whole career. This is perfect.’”

Along with the BFI’s “Guy Maddin season”, there could be a more general “Guy Maddin season” approaching if his scripts get greenlit. During the pandemic, Maddin wrote seven features and “enough to fill five television networks” with Evan and Galen Johnson. “The boys and I have a TV series in development,” he says. “If that doesn’t go, we have a feature film. If they’re both greenlit, it’s a wonderful problem to have. Hopefully, we’ll spend the winter prepping. There are three of us. Maybe we can make three movies at once!”

Haunted Hotel: A Melodrama in Augmented Reality is free to view at BFI Southbank until October 30. 

October 14: The BFI has been in contact to clarify that Guy Maddin was always on the list to contribute to Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films poll, and was invited to, just not at the same time as the critics.