Cutting, connecting, and conjuring: editing with Guy Maddin

Mike Olenick, Film/Video Studio Archive Project Manager

Jun 18, 2020

Isabella Rossellini in a scene from Guy Maddin's film Keyhole

With the one-of-a-kind interactive work Seances now streaming Out of The Box, filmmaker and Wex Film/Video Studio Archive Project Manager Mike Olenick took the opportunity to share his experiences working with codirector Guy Maddin and his team on this and several other projects. Links have been added to point you to free or low-cost ways to watch the films he discusses.

Chris Stults, Mike Olenick, Jennifer Lange, Guy Maddin, and Dave Filipi after the world premiere of Keyhole in Toronto

Chris Stults, Mike Olenick, Jennifer Lange, Guy Maddin, and Dave Filipi after the 2011 world premiere of Keyhole at the Toronto International Film Festival

We’ve shown numerous films directed by Guy Maddin over the years, but you might not realize that the Wex has also had a hand in creating some of those films. Maddin was the recipient of a 2008–09 Artist Residency Award in Film/Video, which supported the production of Keyhole, starring Isabella Rosselini and Jason Patrick. In conjunction with this award, Maddin also received an editing residency in the Wex’s Film/Video Studio. Called the Wex’s best kept secret, the Film/Video Studio provides postproduction support to artists and filmmakers on a wide variety of projects, ranging from shorts to features, video art installations to documentaries, and everything else in between.

I used to be one of the two full-time editors in the Studio (I currently oversee the program’s archive), and I was lucky to be able to work on Keyhole. I didn’t know it then, but Keyhole was the first of four Maddin projects we’d support with residencies in the Film/Video Studio, and I was an assistant editor on each of them. In addition to Keyhole, there were a series of shorts collectively called Hauntings I, The Forbidden Room, and Seances. Screening Seances this month in The Box has caused me to reflect on all these projects and the ways they overlap and connect. Working with Guy was a turning point in my editing career, as well as a personal highlight working at the Wex.


Isabella Rossellini in a scene from Guy Maddin's film Keyhole

Isabella Rossellini as Hyacinth in Keyhole; images courtesy of Monterey Media

Assembling the first cut of Keyhole was a crash course in narrative film editing for me. At the time I’d just finished some freelance work as the editor of one of Jennifer Reeders’s first forays into narrative filmmaking, Seven Songs About Thunder, and I’d mostly edited experimental films and video art before this. Keyhole was a huge challenge to edit: I was working in Columbus while the production was in Canada, there were lots of characters to juggle, famous actors played some of those characters, it was shot with multiple cameras simultaneously, and there were a few special effects involving a ghost.

While Guy and all of his collaborators were a delight to work with, I felt a self-imposed pressure to make sure my edit included anything of value from all the various takes. I surmised that I was the only person who’d ever have the time to watch every single frame of footage they shot, and I wanted to make sure no one would need to dig deep into the hard drive to find something obvious that I had missed.


Jason Patric as Ulysses in Keyhole

Jason Patric as Ulysses in Keyhole

One scene in Keyhole stands out as being difficult to edit. In retrospect, it’s a fairly simple moment that follows Ulysses (Jason Patric) as he leads Manners and Denny into a room filled with objects and memories. The scripted scene was fairly straightforward, but when I reviewed the footage I noticed that the dialogue trailed off after a few lines and that none of the other dialogue for the scene was recorded. I realized this scene would be more abstract than it was on the page, and I was going to have to tell the narrative with pictures, not with words. When you watch a film you have sound effects and music to help you, but when you’re putting the first pass of something together you have none of those elements to guide the way. You have to decide how to build it and the pieces can fit together in an infinite number of ways.

I kept peeking at this scene as I continued to cut Keyhole, and I decided to save it for last so that my editing brain could absorb the rhythms and nuances of all the other scenes. Assembling it really changed the way that I thought about editing narratives: my main goal was no longer to duplicate what was on the page, but rather it was to analyze all the footage at my disposal and decide what it could potentially become. It’s an idea that still guides me today, especially when I’m editing films for Jennifer Reeder or for myself. I’m happy to say that these strategies paid off in the long run, and this moment is intact in Keyhole’s final cut, with some smoke, sound effects, and music added to breathe some life into the sequence. If you’re curious, this scene occurs approximately 31 minutes into Keyhole.


Udo Kier in the Guy Maddin short Hauntings I

Udo Kier in Hauntings I

Guy also shot a series of shorts simultaneously with Keyhole called Hauntings I, and I assembled a bunch of these films too. They were inspired by films that had either been lost or that directors wanted to make but, for one reason or another, were never able to complete. I think he originally planned to shoot 100 of these shorts, but the demands of making Keyhole put this larger project of remaking lost films on the backburner. 

A few years later, he was given the opportunity to shoot a new series of shorts on a set built inside of the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the idea to remake lost films was revisited as Seances. I was asked if I (and the Wex) could be involved on this project, and in 2012 I suddenly found myself editing a handful of shorts that would eventually become Seances. The experience was really different from Keyhole: these were shorter films, there wasn’t pressure to finish them quickly, and I had more tricks up my editing sleeve after working on Keyhole. I made some rough cuts of a handful of the shorts before the project died down without being completed. Guy had this epic and seemingly impossible vision to mash-up these films with a bunch of yet-to-be filmed shorts in order to create new films that lived on the Internet. But for a couple years it seemed like this project would, ironically, never see the light of day.


Ariane Labed in Guy Maddin's Seances

Ariane Labed in Guy Maddin's Seances

In 2014, I got an unexpected email saying something to the effect of, “We’re going to shoot a bunch more shorts for Seances AND we’ve also figured out a way to turn some of them into a feature film at the same time. Are you interested in working on this?” I had to read it more than once because it sounded absolutely crazy. But I was more than 100 percent interested, and thankfully so was the Wex. I was thrilled that Seances wasn’t dead, it had merely been resting and was ready to spring back to life. A second round of production started in Canada while I resumed cutting the footage shot in Paris. I handed off my cuts to the editor in Winnipeg so that Guy and his collaborators could continue working on them. They had to both build the website for Seances and put together The Forbidden Room, the feature film that they mentioned. Though I had a hand in editing a lot of scenes and knew some of what they were planning, I had no idea how it would all come together and what, if anything I worked on, would remain intact in the final cut.

In January of 2015 I travelled to Park City, Utah, because one of my own shorts, Red Luck, was screening at Slamdance. As luck would have it, at the same time and just down the street, The Forbidden Room was having its world premiere at Sundance. I was absolutely thrilled that I might catch some of my editing on the big screen after all these years. I hadn’t seen their progress since I sent them my work and had no idea what the film would be like.

I was mesmerized from the start: The Forbidden Room opens with one of the most gorgeous opening title sequences I’ve ever seen. Early in the film there’s a reimagined version of one of the Seances that I edited, where Udo Kier has brain surgery to help him quell his unhealthy obsession with women’s behinds while Geraldine Chaplin, playing Master Passion, whips frantically, mythically towering over the film’s proceedings. To my delightful surprise, this narrative short was condensed into a music video interlude. But what kind of pop music could possibly play over this imagery? It could only be an original song called “The Final Derriere,” performed by Sparks, one of my all-time favorite bands. Coincidentally, I discovered Sparks in the Wex’s Film/Video theater back in 2008 when one of their songs played over the end credits to Olivier Assayas’s film Boarding Gate.


But, like The Forbidden Room, I digress. In the midst of theFinal Derriere” sequence there’s an interruption as Udo Kier cries out “Ostler!” It’s a line from another short I put together back in 2012 where Matthieu Amalric, playing the ostler, gradually gives more and more of his mother’s laudanum to his girlfriend, Ariane Labed, which causes the death of his mother, played by Charlotte Rampling. This narrative thread returns near the end of the film and explodes with melting passion on the big screen as Amalric’s and Labed’s bodies merge in a kiss. It’s a far cry from the simple edit I put together years ago and so much better in this new context. When I first put together the material I had no idea that it would eventually find its way into a feature film.

In 2003, when I started working at the Wex, I never imagined that one day I’d be working on projects like these. As I look back on these experiences, I realize how much they shaped the editor that I am today. It’s been great to revisit all of these projects and get lost in them as a viewer. I hope you’ll take a chance and spend a few minutes watching Seances this month in The Box. If luck is on your side, when you pick your film you’ll catch bits and pieces of some of the shorts that I had the pleasure of first assembling years ago. If Charlotte Rampling, Matthieu Amalric, Ariane Labed, Adèle Haenel, Amira Casar, Udo Kier, Jacques Nolot, Maria de Medieros, or Elina Löwensohn grace your screens, then there’s a good chance that you saw something that I once edited, deep within the secret recesses of the Wex.

Mike Olenick editing one of Guy Maddin’s projects in the Film/Video Studio

Mike Olenick editing one of Guy Maddin’s projects in the Film/Video Studio