One of those dreamy, dreamy things

Guy Maddin on Isabella Rossellini and The Rabbit Hunters

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Isabella Rossellini in The Rabbit Hunters
Isabella Rossellini in The Rabbit Hunters

Guy Maddin’s The Rabbit Hunters, co-directed with Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson, stars Isabella Rossellini as a “merged version” of Federico Fellini and Giulietta Masina. Marcello Mastroianni and a red scarf, David Niven in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter Of Life And Death (aka Stairway To Heaven), commissions and Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, Luis Buñuel and a line from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Héctor Babenco’s widow Barbara Paz and her dance to Singin’ In The Rain, Ella Emhoff and knitted pants - all came up after Guy Maddin shared with me his memories of Bertrand Tavernier, who died in Paris at the age of 79 on March 25, 2021, the date of our conversation.

Guy Maddin with Anne-Katrin Titze: “Fellini and Giulietta Masina are merged together so often in Fellini’s dreams …”
Guy Maddin with Anne-Katrin Titze: “Fellini and Giulietta Masina are merged together so often in Fellini’s dreams …”

“Last night I dreamt that I was alive again,” we hear Isabella Rossellini say to lure us into the Fellini-inspired rabbit hunter world of paparazzi and movie premieres, seen through a filter of dream logic. The red-scarfed protagonist aches for tickets to his own opening night. There will be missed planes and freight elevators dropping us off in a starlit cornfield where more spectres await. “Mama,” says Isabella and we can’t help but make a little leap to real life genealogy, thus adding an extra layer to the merged identities. Lacy veils resembling those Jayro Bustamante gave to his weeping women in La Llorona and an extraordinary woollen birth canal, make this a film of tactile fabrics, woven together by sounds that haul us into an enchanted cinema past.

To quote Stairway to Heaven: “May I bring you up to date, sir? We are not alive at all.” Or, as Conductor 71 says “After all, what is time? A mere tyranny.”

Guy Maddin: “It’s one of my favourite lines in all of cinema, the opening line of Rebecca.”
Guy Maddin: “It’s one of my favourite lines in all of cinema, the opening line of Rebecca.”

From Winnipeg, Guy Maddin joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on The Rabbit Hunters.

Anne-Katrin Titze: At the beginning of The Rabbit Hunters I thought of: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” It’s a line that comes to mind for anyone who has seen Rebecca.

Guy Maddin: It’s one of my favourite lines in all of cinema, the opening line of Rebecca. I’ve never read anything about Buñuel’s opinion of that line but it seems to me that he would approve of it. That it’s right up there with Wuthering Heights or something as one of the great surrealist entry points into a movie. My partner [Evan Johnson] and I both keep dream journals and when we found out that Fellini’s dreams might be copyrighted, we found out that we had so many dreams of a similar temperament that we just shot our dreams. We don’t really name Fellini in the movie anyway. It was just commissioned for his centennial last year.

AKT: Nothing against commissions! Claude Lanzmann made Shoah as a commission. It took twelve years to make and he went all over the place and ended up with over nine hours of a film, but it started out as a commission.

Guy Maddin: “Probably the best idea was getting Isabella Rossellini to play a merged version of both of them somehow.”
Guy Maddin: “Probably the best idea was getting Isabella Rossellini to play a merged version of both of them somehow.”

GM: I didn’t know that. But that makes sense though, in a way. What a project, holy smokes! I love commissions. They’re an instant boost in your confidence. Someone out there actually trusts you to deliver something for them. They actually think highly enough of you. You want to not disappoint and over-deliver in a way. But sometimes the budgets are just too low and the time constraints are really what does us in most often, but I like them. The Rabbit Hunters isn’t pretending to be much. We decided to merge. Since Fellini and Giulietta Masina are merged together so often in Fellini’s dreams; a lot of anxiety over her health and over missing planes would connect them. Probably the best idea was getting Isabella Rossellini to play a merged version of both of them somehow. Without naming them, so that people would have to find a visual similarity.

AKT: I think we get that it is the two of them merged and that she encompasses both of them. The wearing of the red scarf includes Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini’s alter ego, in it as well. The only time I ever saw Marcello Mastroianni in person was in Paris. He was coming towards me right by the church of Saint-Sulpice and he was wearing a red scarf!

Guy Maddin: “There’s something very primal, it seems, about plane dreams and missing planes.”
Guy Maddin: “There’s something very primal, it seems, about plane dreams and missing planes.”

GM: What a memory! God, Marcello and the scarf coming at you!

AKT: He was looking straight at me, I loved that moment. My little encounter.

GM: Did he just keep right on walking or did you have an appointment to interview him?

AKT: No, no appointment and I kept walking. I was too young. I wasn’t going to stop. I was too scared. I just kept it as a memory.

GM: There’s a perfect memory. Maybe it would have been ruined if you somehow stopped. You’ve got to think that. Can’t live with a regret that enormous. It was strange, we ended up dividing Fellini’s identity in half anyway because Isabella couldn’t come to Winnipeg to shoot the movie and so I got a body double for her in Winnipeg. It was just like a 60-year-old man. So in half the shots she is an aging man.

AKT: I’m sure she is happy to hear that!

Guy Maddin on Anne-Katrin Titze’s encounter with Marcello Mastroianni: “What a memory! God, Marcello and the scarf coming at you!”
Guy Maddin on Anne-Katrin Titze’s encounter with Marcello Mastroianni: “What a memory! God, Marcello and the scarf coming at you!”

GM: No, no, she’s great. She is fine. And I just flew to San Francisco with a tiny green screen. My partners and I flew there, we decided to at least get a good trip out of this, and shot her against green screen and composited her into the movie. So she’s divided in half in a number of ways. We made no attempt to be utterly convincing with our compositing or with the body double. It was just one of those dreamy, dreamy things. It really isn’t pretending to be more than a continuous tower of posthumous anxiety dreams that Fellini might be having about his long-suffering wife.

According to Isabella, who knew Fellini and Giulietta, the infidelities that she endured over the decades were just mountainous. And yet he was devoted like crazy. I guess some might just use the word bastard to describe him, I’m not sure. Well, they had something and a lot of love and they died within a few months of each other. I don’t know, they’ll be forever linked. Even though it’s just a handful of films that they worked on together, those were the first ones I encountered and I always think of them as the same person in a way.

AKT: I don’t think of them as the same person, but it’s very difficult to think of him without thinking of her.

Peter Carter (David Niven) with Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) in Stairway To Heaven
Peter Carter (David Niven) with Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) in Stairway To Heaven

GM: Yeah, I guess that’s more accurate. I’ll retract my statement. I don’t think of them as the same person. I think of her as a remarkable performer and talent and enduring heroically some sort of unknown species of suffering and him just being Federico being Federico.

AKT: She showed the world the cost of that. She was in a way the face of his frivolousness. I think many people would side with her.

GM: Absolutely.

AKT: Because she positioned herself as such and she is such a terrific clown, giving tremendous performances. And that comes across. I really loved your short. I was worried a bit about the title The Rabbit Hunters. I love how you don’t even remotely have the shape of a real rabbit, just this white flat fleece thing.

GM: I think it was a ski mitt or something. I’m not sure what it was. Someone showed up with some fur and I said good enough. That was perfect.

AKT: Did you see the Babenco film? I can send you a link. It was the last conversation I had about Giulietta Masina. Héctor Babenco’s widow Barbara Paz, who made the film, is doing a dance to Singin’ In The Rain in it and she was impersonating a version of Giulietta Masina, it’s beautiful.

Guy Maddin on the rabbit: “Someone showed up with some fur and I said good enough. That was perfect.”
Guy Maddin on the rabbit: “Someone showed up with some fur and I said good enough. That was perfect.”

GM: No, I’d love to see it, please do send it! I’ll bug you if you don’t. Thanks for even showing the slightest bit of interest in this little thing.

AKT: The missing plane incident in your film made me think of the Powell/Pressburger movie where David Niven plays a pilot. A Matter Of Life And Death or Stairway To Heaven it’s called. It has that beautiful quality that some of those films have about the in-between life.

GM: It’s amazing how first with trains - trains feel at a Freudian level like they’ve been around for about three million years, but they’ve really only been around for a couple of centuries. And planes less so. My aunt, not great-aunt, was born before the plane was invented. But already it seems very primal, the anxiety produced by missing a plane and where it takes you. I guess it’s the airborne nature of it. There’s always the fear of crashing down to earth. You know, the ancient Icarus thing, I guess, but there’s something very primal, it seems, about plane dreams and missing planes.

Guy Maddin: “I thought my dream would be just to take one last trip through the old birth canal, as knitted by my mom.”
Guy Maddin: “I thought my dream would be just to take one last trip through the old birth canal, as knitted by my mom.”

The idea that Waylon Jennings missed the plane that Buddy Holly was on and got to have an extra 45 years of life after. And then someone else getting on that plane. And the idea of someone getting on a plane and they fly heavenward. It just all feels so archetypal. And I have them all the time. My dead-father dreams often include my father at the end getting on a plane and flying away from me and abandoning me all over again. I know that Fellini had a million plane anxiety dreams.

At the beginning of Toby Dammit [Fellini’s segment in Spirits of the Dead] there’s a fantastic cockpit scene that we really love. We watched that over and over again. We wanted to be careful not to infringe on copyright, but since Evan and I both have plane anxiety dreams, we don’t have a fear of flying at all, which might bite us in the ass, yet. We felt we could use our dreams, and we could prove in a court of law they are our dreams because you could maybe carbon date our diaries or something. They predate Fellini’s death even.

AKT: One more point about your visuals. I loved this kind of crocheted birth canal that you invented, that they are crawling through. Where did that come from?

Guy Maddin on filming Isabella Rossellini for The Rabbit Hunters: “She’s divided in half in a number of ways.”
Guy Maddin on filming Isabella Rossellini for The Rabbit Hunters: “She’s divided in half in a number of ways.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

GM: There were a bunch of - do they call them afghans in New York? - just little blankets that you wrap around yourself when you’re chilly, afghans they’re called here. My mother made a whole bunch of them. So I wasn’t going to see my mother anymore so I thought my dream would be just to take one last trip through the old birth canal, as knitted by my mom. You know, my mom used to knit me pants and things like that. A true outsider artist. With no concern for the fact that a teenage boy actually had to wear these knitted pants. “You just tell ‘em you’re making your own style,” she’d say. Try saying that while your face is being punched in! But she knitted pants, which I mostly put in a drawer for a long time. But these afghans came in handy. She knitted a lot of them and we just made a birth canal and then just put Fellini or myself or whatever it was going through there, through mom’s homemade birth canal one last time and then the set had to be taken apart. And then the pandemic came.

AKT: You know that the US Vice President’s step daughter is actually making fashion like that? She is making pants almost like your mother’s, you should check them out! You should look her up!

GM: Really? This is Kamala Harris’s stepdaughter? I haven’t memorized all their names yet. I can’t even remember her husband’s name.

“Last night I dreamt that I was alive again,” we hear Isabella Rossellini say to lure us into the Fellini-inspired rabbit hunter world of paparazzi and movie premieres.
“Last night I dreamt that I was alive again,” we hear Isabella Rossellini say to lure us into the Fellini-inspired rabbit hunter world of paparazzi and movie premieres.

AKT: Emhoff, Doug Emhoff. The daughter is Ella. Some of the clothing she makes looks exactly like the birth canal in your film. Thank you so much!

GM: Great talking to you. I can’t remember the last time I saw you. We spoke in the fall but I think that was just a phone call, no image.

AKT: There was no image, we did a live e-mail exchange for the New York Film Festival. No, we haven’t met in a long time. So it was good to see you.

GM: Maybe over ten years. So, great, thanks, always nice to hear from you! Please don’t be shy! And you’re going to send me a link to the …

AKT: Babenco film, yes I will.

GM: That’d be great. I would love it. Much appreciated.

Coming up - Guy Maddin on hacking my dreams, elevators and escalators, Franz Wright’s Kindertotenwald, Lois Weber, Haruki Murakami, Mathieu Amalric and Arnaud Desplechin’s dreamwork, thinking of numbers, Fellini’s dream journal, The Director’s Notebooks, and an enchanted place called Riminipeg.

The Rabbit Hunters was commissioned by the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) to honor the centenary of Fellini. The world premiere of the short was screened with Fellini’s documentary fantasia Fellini: A Director’s Notebook on March 11, 2020 at BAMPFA, just before the pandemic took hold of Canada.

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