“Paying Rent in Winnipeg”: Guy Maddin’s AR Project Haunted Hotel
Just in time for Halloween, Guy Maddin is inviting London Film Festival attendees to his Haunted Hotel.
The Canadian auteur behind films like The Saddest Music in the World, My Winnipeg and The Heart of the World has long explored both installation pieces and filmmaking as an expression of his worldview. With Haunted Hotel he’s managed to blend the two, creating what he calls “a melodrama in augmented reality” for LFF’s Expanded programming. The project, which allows visitors to use iPads to look into and beyond Maddin’s storyboard-like collage art, is set to audio by Magnus Fiennes, giving it a distinctly cinematic feel.
Filmmaker talked to Maddin about his Haunted Hotel, which is now available to view in the lobby of the BFI Southbank theater in London.
Filmmaker: You’ve done a number of art installations in the past, but Haunted Hotel is your first foray into extended reality or augmented reality. Would you call what you’ve done with this project filmmaking, or do you call it something else?
Maddin: It’s on the spectrum with live action filmmaking and animation. Augmented reality collage is on there somewhere.
Filmmaker: What drew you to this media?
Maddin: Sometimes the answer to the question, “Why did I want to get into it?,” is simply that I had nothing else to do. Also, I’ve been curious to see how it works. It’s not that I’ve mastered filmmaking—far from it. If I had, I’d be at a massive press junket right now or doing something different. I wouldn’t be paying rent in Winnipeg, if you want to put it that way. I’m very happy with what I’m doing, but I find myself wanting to explore more—in spite of the fact that I haven’t mastered two dimensional narrative filmmaking yet. I’m still learning and growing.
I find myself interested in expanding into the gallery world or the internet. At first, I started to do it in service of my movies, hoping maybe I could raise my profile in other nooks and crannies of the art world, and that would help me find my audience with my films. Maybe my ideal viewers aren’t even looking for films, maybe they’re looking for other things I’ve made. I’m just hoping to challenge myself and learn something. I am more comfortable with straight filmmaking, but this was really comfortable [for me] because it felt like I had permission to make an opaque film narrative that’s just mood. Something that feels like the shape of a movie, but isn’t quite one—in other words, like most of my movies.
I was very wary of hopping into augmented reality because I didn’t know anything about it, but [LFF Expanded curator] Ulrich Schrauth was kind enough to invite me. He came over to Paris last year for one of my collage shows at a gallery. He then invited me to consider making an augmented reality 3D installation involving collage. I didn’t even know what that meant, but I agreed because it sounded exciting. I got Ulrich to promise he would take me by the hand and steer me away from well-traveled pathways. Because he knows that world so well, I wanted him to warn me if my ideas had become really platitudinous or trite.
I had been reading a Wilkie Collins novella called Haunted Hotel, and I thought I would take its contours as an objective for when I was sorting through old books and magazines for images to make a narrative out of collage. It’s easy if you just consider them storyboard panels for a movie that you’re going to shoot, but then just don’t shoot. That being said, even if it weren’t a public domain novella, the lawyers for the Collins estate would be hardpressed [had we adapted Haunted Hotel into a film]. So you’re limited by the images you have, your magazines and by your own abilities.
Filmmaker: One thing I loved about your project was that by using AR technology, you were able to put secret levels into each collage. As viewers, we could sort of peer around corners and into new worlds. How did you work with the tech team to achieve that?
Maddin: That was one of the first themes I thought about for this story: Secret betrayals and eavesdropping, objects that people were looking for. I thought, “Well, that’d be perfect for a 3D collage,” because you could force visitors and viewers to start looking for or finding things, and it might just create a sense of what’s been hidden. That’s when a good story evolves. There’s not much that’s Aristotelian about this AR thing, but it evokes movie-like feelings for a few moments at a time. Because it’s made by a filmmaker, it reminds people of the faint outline of a movie dissolving in the air.
Filmmaker: How did Ulrich help you team up with the right technicians who could make your vision a reality?
Maddin: I don’t know, really. He just did it. He hired a producer named Lilian Hess, and I think she already had this team of technicians, Headraft, from Germany somewhere. I forget which city—they just live on a Zoom call as far as I know—but they’re German, and they’re really lovely people to deal with as a complete Luddite.
When I was making the collages, I was planning up to 10 different layers of interest, and I always had a relative distance each layer should be away from another. I thought it would be tough over a Zoom call to explain that, but they just intuited and nailed them. It was as if it was self evident how far away from each other every single layer should be. They have good taste.
Filmmaker: When they made a draft of the image, how would you review it?
Maddin: Well, I just have an iPhone 7, and I was supposed to use an iPad. I downloaded the software onto my phone, and it wasn’t quite working right. So it wasn’t until I came [to the BFI Film Festival] yesterday and got the iPad out that I saw how it worked. I suppose I could have bought an iPad and done it properly, but even then, some of my collages are almost movie poster sized, so it just wouldn’t have been the same. There wouldn’t have been as much pleasure.
Filmmaker: Can you see how another filmmaker could use this technology? As in, if another filmmaker came to you and said, “I’m really into your project, but I’m wondering how I could do something similar to make a movie,” can you see how it could be exploited in some cinematic way?
Maddin: One of my filmmaking partners, Galen Johnson, used it on his birthday. He was feeling sorry for himself because he was alone on his birthday—not because he has no friends, but because it was the pandemic. He used augmented reality to put a bunch of people dancing and drinking in his apartment and just watched those people and pretended he was hosting a bunch of friends whose permanent addresses just happen to be in the uncanny valley.
As far as your question, I don’t know. I still love straight narrative. I’ve worked in internet interactive and stuff like that, but I still like a movie with a binary experience, or [between] a movie and viewer. I like it when, as a viewer, you’re in the director’s hands. Yes, of course there’s potential to be exploited in augmented reality. It’s really cool, and I really enjoyed working on this project, but as a filmmaker, I wouldn’t know how to take it beyond even the primitive first step.
Filmmaker: How do you put together collages? What’s your source material?
Maddin: I’ve bought film and art coffee table books over the years. You buy those things to look at, because you love them, but in my case the secret motive is also that I can impress visitors to my apartment by showing them what good taste I have. But I realized I haven’t shown anyone these books in 30 years, nor have I even had anyone over to my apartment, so I might as well just cut them up.
The first time I cut up a book, it really hurt. It felt really blasphemous. I even cut up an antique book from 1932, Wildflowers Of America or something. It’s really beautiful, but once you’ve cut one page out of a book, it’s ruined. I got so many collages out of it, but still I always felt guilty, so I found it again at a secondhand bookstore and bought it for $60. Then I needed more wildflowers for a collage, so I cut that book up too. I’ve just realized that more people would see the images in these books if I made them into collages and put them on display at the BFI Southbank than if they were just sitting all closed up and gathering dust in my apartment.
I’ve also hosted a number of collage parties where other people come over and flip through the books, not to admire my great taste, but to look for something to rip or cut out and glue, and that was more fun. We all got along and had a good time. All these repurposed images made for a really rewarding and accidentally therapeutic practice. It’s really relaxing. It’s good for everybody to get together and drink a little bit (or a lot) of wine, listen to some music and make collages. You’re simultaneously relaxed and exhausted, like a visit to the spa. You’re utterly enervated but renewed somehow. I recommend collage parties. Just invite people to bring some old printed matter and go nuts. Time flies.
Filmmaker: I read an interview you recently gave to the BFI where you mentioned that you’re a rather harsh critic of your collages. How critical are you of your work in general?
Maddin: It’s weird. My friends from the collage parties all agree that when you’re working, you can get quite intoxicated with yourself and go into a kind of a collage-making trance. All of the sudden you’ve made 40. You think, “These things are gonna sell like hotcakes,” and you’re going to be famous. In the morning, there’s only about five that you like, then about a week later there’s only one. After you’ve been doing it for a few months, you might have a half dozen that you’re pretty proud of, and that’s about it. A lot of it just naturally falls away.
Filmmaker: Are you similarly critical of your own films?
Maddin: I’m in agony when I have to watch my old films. When I’m making them, at least I can do something about my doubts. Once it’s committed, it’s so expensive to go in and change a film. Once it’s done, unless you have a lab or something like that, you have to live with your final choices.
I had my first feature film restored recently, and I was able to make a couple of tweaks to it. I tightened it up a little bit. I probably removed two seconds here, four seconds there, but the whole thing suddenly felt 20 minutes shorter, even though it’s only 27 seconds shorter. I just wasn’t as good of an editor when I first made it.
Filmmaker: Film is a pretty democratic medium, in the sense that if you make a movie, a lot of people can generally find a way to see it, especially these days. XR doesn’t make things as easy, because you have to have a headset or be in the gallery where it takes place with the artist. If everyone could just log on and see Haunted Hotel at home, would you want your show to go wide? How do you want people to experience the project?
Maddin: I’m supposedly a showman. I want as many people as possible to be able to see my stuff, but I also know that I appeal to a slender demographic. That’s why it’s important that my stuff’s as accessible as possible, because maybe there’s 37 people in the world that like what I made, so I need to find every one of them for whatever thing I made.
I don’t think there’s any plan to put Haunted Hotel online now, though, because it’s strongest in-person. I think it’s going to be touring a little bit in the UK, but we’ll see.
Filmmaker: I just think it’s interesting to think about the future of the technology, and if we’ll get to a place where you could pay $16 to go sit somewhere in a headset for two hours and watch a movie, versus having to fork over $300 to get one at home. I’m interested in how XR becomes increasingly commercially available.
Maddin: The internet’s been great for democratizing regular movies, especially if you just want to pirate files. I’m a big fan. I don’t want to rip off artists, but studios have already done that in most cases. If I’m just ripping off a studio, I’m sorry, I’m not going to feel too bad about it. I’ve heard people theorize that even seeing movies in theaters will be more like going to the opera. Something to do once or twice a year only, and you’ll pay a lot of money to do it. The rest of the time, you’ll just be streaming it at home. We’ll see.