If there's an artist Guy Maddin likely never dreamed he'd be working with, it's probably Paul Gross, the genial "Canadian populist," as Maddin likes to call him, whose latest starrer/directorial effort, the Afghan-themed war epic Hyena Road, is opening this weekend along with Maddin's The Forbidden Room.
"Working with" is perhaps too strong a term to describe what happened when Maddin and a two-camera crew got permission from Hyena Road co-producer (and Forbidden Room co-executive producer) Niv Fichman last year to travel to Aqaba, Jordan, to Gross's set in the desert. Maddin, "flat-broke, down, out" at the time, got to be an extra, playing a slain Taliban fighter – but, more important, was getting the okay for Maddin to shoot enough material for a "cine-essay" on the making of Hyena Road.
The resultant 31-minute film, cheekily titled Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton, for which Maddin shares the directing credit with Forbidden Room collaborator Evan Johnson and Evan's brother (and Forbidden Room production designer), Galen Johnson, predictably bears little to no resemblance to any other "making-of" exercise. Maddin himself describes it as a "formally radical, ill-tempered retort to Paul's digestible adventurism." Which I guess means it has disco music and shots of Gross and Guy Lafleur, an epigraph on war by Sun Tzu and behind-the-scenes clips, an animated hovering creature that's part-drone, part-alien insect from The Outer Limits and a plummy-voiced, Herodotus-spouting announcer intoning about "sleeping on the abandoned chesterfield of ontology."
Maddin says Gross, whom he first met a few years ago at "some CRTC hearings where we hung out a lot and got along really well trying to out-quip each other," was "really generous with his time" while Maddin and company were in Jordan. Most crucially, a couple of days after his arrival on set, Evan Johnson realized that "we'd get the best footage if we just figured out where their camera was standing, then we put our camera next to them and stole their shots. The idea was we could remake their movie."
Back in Canada, Maddin and Johnson discovered they weren't the first to practise such cinematic poaching. Explains Maddin: "There's a making-of-movie called Cuadecuc, vampir, from 1970, that actually did, by coincidence, what Evan thought up. [Catalan director] Pere Portabella put his camera on the set of a Jess Franco film called Count Dracula.… He shot his own version in black and white instead of colour, knocked out the soundtrack and somehow turned it into a very mischievous, secretive, palimpsestic evisceration of Franco. Not Franco the director, Franco the dictator." (This would be Francisco Franco, whose fascist regime controlled Spain from 1939 through 1975).
During the editing of Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton, Johnson and Maddin chanced to watch some of Portabella's cult classic and were mightily impressed. So much so, in fact, that Johnson subsequently "drafted" what he calls The Cuadecuc Manifesto. There appears to be no formal text, as yet, of this manifesto. But, as Johnson puts it, it's essentially a call for the creation of two, three, many Cuadecuc, vampirs – "the idea being that every big-budget film should have a companion experimental art film as a kind of aesthetic insurance, so that there's a chance if the big-budget film is no good, the art version will be."