Canadian indie filmmaker Guy Maddin describes The Green Fog as a “parallel-universe version” of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Adapting a celebrated Alfred Hitchcock suspense thriller like Vertigo was already a formidable task. Gus Van Sant’s poor, critically panned shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho demonstrated the risks back in 1998.
The ante was only upped when the adaptation of Vertigo, commissioned by the San Francisco Film Society and Stanford Live, was entrusted to three Canadians, two of whom had never even set foot in the City by the Bay, where the classic film is set. To complicate matters further, they had only six weeks to watch, select, and splice together repurposed Bay Area footage from an extensive assortment of studio classics, documentary and experimental films and ’70s prime-time TV, to create a “parallel-universe version” of Vertigo.
But award-winning Canadian auteur Guy Maddin (The Heart of the World, My Winnipeg, The Forbidden Room) and his Development Limited co-directors, Evan and Galen Johnson, were up to the challenge. The result, the collage-based film, The Green Fog – A San Francisco Fantasia, scored by local outfit Kronos Quartet, premieres Sunday — closing night of the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival. Director Guy Maddin helped SF Weekly piece it all together.
How did you assemble The Green Fog?
At Christmastime, I had six weeks off from Harvard, where I teach filmmaking, and my collaborators and I had 200 titles that we wanted to check out, from Erich von Stroheim’s Greed to Mrs. Doubtfire. We next tried to find equivalents of what we saw in Vertigo in these other movies and also archival footage from the Prelinger Archives, stuff dating back from before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Working closely with a fair use lawyer to make sure there’s no plagiarism, we used small bits until we Frankensteined together something, working so closely, as Hitchcock did with his composer Bernard Herrmann, with Kronos Quartet to create a kind of big, operatic, emotional dark viewing experience that matches, chord for chord and shot for shot, Hitchcock’s masterpiece. Then Evan and Galen cut the film back in Winnipeg, while I was back at Harvard teaching.
What was the most challenging part?
Sifting through all the footage within the time limit. You can fast forward, but you don’t want to. You want to see and experience all these films. Watching 200 movies shot in San Francisco and, at the end of the day, discussing how this could be done was challenging and thrilling. Then it’s just a matter of Evan and Galen editing it till the wee hours of the morning. And it’s tough communicating by email only, when I’m in Cambridge. We don’t even phone each other.
How would you describe the film?
Since so many directors have paid tribute to or plagiarized from Vertigo, there are oftentimes shots that pop up from other San Francisco movies that already resemble Vertigo. So it’s an adaptation of an adaptation — something that has the trajectory of the story.
So I can’t be Hitchcock, but I can take the next best thing, the discount everything approach, and that’s just watch everything and try to cobble together this movie. Then, no matter how gorgeous or ugly it may be, at times, all the scar tissue is beautifully swathed in Kronos Quartet music, and the whole thing makes a really strange night’s entertainment. It’s as if Kronos Quartet scored a reflection of Vertigo or Vertigo reflected in a broken mirror.
How did you settle on the title The Green Fog?
That will become apparent when you see it. But I knew there was a lot of fog in San Francisco; it’s a cliché, even. For some reason The Green Fog came to me when I saw this schlubby friend of mine, a cashier at Whole Foods, here in Cambridge, who just showed up at work one day with a really bad hair and beard dye job. But his beard wasn’t dyed right to the roots, so it was kind of like a green mist had settled over the top of it. So I nicknamed him “The Green Fog,” and I realized that that’s the title it needs to be.
You’re well known for your collage films and art. What appeals to you about assemblage?
I guess it’s the big Kuleshov effect, where you take one image and then combine it with another to create a third unlikely or unpredictable effect. I also like watching older movies in the context of now and seeing just how bracing and even hurtful the political insensitivities of another time period can seem now and how ignorant, in retrospect, people were, or, on the other hand, how sensitive to the insensitivities of the general public the screenwriters and directors were, decades ahead of their time.
Creating collage with The Green Fog allows us to continually recontextualize footage from the ’70s, ’50s, and ’30s into a 2017 viewing experience, so it excites me a lot.
Why was Vertigo ripe for recontextualization?
Vertigo still addresses a lot of concerns that Evan, Galen, and I have as filmmakers, and that it’s really a lot darker than most film critics acknowledge, when they say it’s a dark example of the male gaze at its most pernicious.
So it’s just really exciting, using footage from other movies to really accentuate some of the stuff that’s present in Vertigo. Through the warped magnifying lens of some decaying film emulsions, you can actually see some of these things a little bit differently from a slightly different angle. It’s a way that I find actually brings Vertigo to life more than another viewing of Vertigo.
How were three Winnipeggers up to the task of recreating a San Francisco-based film for the San Francisco International Film Festival?
I’ll give you a diplomatic answer: Because San Francisco International Film Festival was the first festival outside my country that had me. In 1989, director Peter Scarlet invited me there. I had a great time. I got really drunk at Tosca Cafe with [film distributor and sports team owner] George Gund III, serving up Maurice Kanbar SKYY vodka behind the bar and ended up having the time of my life. I haven’t enjoyed a film festival as much since.
I’ve since been back many times. The festival honored me with a Persistence of Vision Award, in 2006. And I’m also friends with San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan from back in his days at Toronto International Film Festival. So when he invited me to do this, I talked to Evan and Galen, and we were on it. They’ve never set foot in San Francisco. But I think the sheer ridiculousness of three rubes from Winnipeg making a San Francisco city symphony really appealed to us. It got even more quixotic when we decided to remake Vertigo, but it’s challenges like that that I’ve always liked.
When first contemplating your Vertigo adaptation, you must have flashed on Gus Van Sant’s disastrous Psycho remake. Since that remake and its director were almost universally panned, were you worried that you might suffer the same fate?
I did think about it a bit and then totally forgot about it. But I kind of loved that movie. You’re constantly thinking about how well it works, where it didn’t in the casting. It made you think of every possible element, the lighting, the camera movement and the effect of having Anne Heche instead of Janet Leigh or Bill Macy instead of Martin Balsam. All of that is exciting to me, so I loved it.
I love Gus for making it. He’s my big rival now, so the throw down has been made. But we are delivering another thing altogether, so we’re going to trash Gus and his limp plagiarism.
The Green Fog – A San Francisco Fantasia, Sunday, April 16, 7 p.m., $40-$50, at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., sffilm.org/festival