DATE November 19, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Robert Downey Jr. talks about his career
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross. And this is the actor and also singer
Robert Downey Jr.
(Soundbite of "Smile")
Mr. ROBERT DOWNEY Jr. (Actor): (Singing) Smile though your heart is aching.
Smile even though it's breaking. When there are clouds in the sky, you'll get
by. If you smile through your fear and sorrow, smile, and maybe tomorrow
you'll see the sun come shining through for you. Light up your face with
gladness, hide every trace of sadness, although a tear may be ever so near.
That's the time you must keep on trying. Smile, what's the use of crying.
You'll find that life is still worthwhile if you just...
BIANCULLI: Robert Downey Jr. singing "Smile," a song written by Charlie
Chaplin, whom Downey portrayed in a terrific 1992 movie biography. The song,
which features Charlie Haden on bass and Allen Broadbent on piano, is from
Downey's first CD showcasing him as a singer-songwriter. It's called "The
Futurist," and will be released next week. Downey has sung and recorded
before, including on a couple of "Ally McBeal" soundtracks, but he's made his
mark as an actor, one with a troubled history of substance abuse. In addition
to "Chaplin," Downey's films include "Less Than Zero," "Natural Born Killers,"
Short Cuts," "Wonder Boys," "Bowfinger" and "Gothika." Terry spoke to Robert
Downey Jr. last year when the movie adaptation of "The Singing Detective" was
released in theaters. It was a time when Downey, after long bouts with
substance abuse and losing such redemptive jobs as his dynamic role on "Ally
McBeal," was proudly sober.
TERRY GROSS, host:
You always strike me as a really brave actor; someone really willing to take
risks. And a lot of the personalities that you've played in your films are
those really edgy personalities: people who are obsessive or they're liars or
they're just--you know, they're kind of over-the-top in some way or the other.
And the roles that I think of--the movies I think of there, "Pick-up Artist,"
"Two Girls and a Guy," "Wonder Boys." I just think it's so much fun watching
you on screen.
Mr. DOWNEY: Oh, thanks.
GROSS: There's a scene--oh, God, I forget what the song is--but there's a
scene in "Two Girls and a Guy," which is a James Toback film in which you're
basically lying to everybody in your life in that movie. And there's a scene
where you break out into song and I'm forgetting what the song is.
Mr. DOWNEY: Oh, Jackie Robinson's "You Don't Know Me?"
GROSS: That's it. That's it.
Mr. DOWNEY: Yeah.
GROSS: Can you just talk about that scene a little bit?
Mr. DOWNEY: Oh, yeah, he's a--he goes into his apartment, the two gals...
GROSS: This is it. Yeah.
Mr. DOWNEY: ...philandering or hiding in the loft closet. And he gets home
and he calls both of them on the telephone and tells them they're the only
one. And, you know, we know that's about to blow up. But he's still thinking
everything's cool and he goes over to his piano microphone and sings to
himself in kind of that less-than-serious way.
GROSS: Why don't we hear that part of the scene?
(Soundbite of "Two Girls and a Guy")
Mr. DOWNEY:. (As Blake Allen) (Singing) Ba da da, ba do. You give your hand
to me and then you say hello, and I can hardly speak my heart is beating so.
And anyone can tell, no, you don't know meeee-eeeee-eeeee. No, you don't know
the one who dreams of you at night, afraid and shy, honey! I let my chance go
by, the chance you might have loved me toooo-oooo-oooo. You give your hand to
me and then you say goodbye.
GROSS: It's a really fun scene, I have to say. And you've been singing more
since then. You sang on "Ally McBeal." You sing the final song in "The
Singing Detective," even though your character is lip-syncing in the credit
sequence at the end, you're actually singing. Do you like to sing?
Mr. DOWNEY: I've always liked it. And I've always encouraged people who say,
`I can't really sing.' I go, `You know what? It's fundamentally impossible
for the human body not to be able to produce, hold, carry and interact in
complex ways with tones and music and all that stuff.' It's our nature.
Three-and-a-half billion years of DNA saying, `Sing.'
GROSS: So what do you most like to sing?
Mr. DOWNEY: I've composed stuff since I was 17.
Mr. DOWNEY: I have a big stockpile of stuff. Again, you know, here's my
fear, you know, I'm confident about my work, I know it's good, I just wouldn't
want to release it as a lark. I would want to really, really--and I was with
Sting in Chicago just a day or two ago and went and saw him in Grant Park for
a big fund-raiser for Save the Music. And, you know, he will sell no wine
before its time. And so, you know, I kind of am cautioned against doing that,
you know, instant gratification--`Let me put out some of the stuff I've
written,' you know. I'm pretty--I'm told I'm kind of a perfectionist in my
work as an actor and it doesn't even hold a candle to how I feel about music.
BIANCULLI: Robert Downey Jr. speaking with Terry Gross last year. He has a
new CD out, his first, and here he is performing one of his original
compositions. The song is called "Man Like Me."
(Soundbite of "Man Like Me")
Mr. DOWNEY: (Singing) This is a night I've been dreaming of forever. The
mirror takes a look at my face. I'll never set foot in that rat hole again,
but I'll drive to your place. I spit gravel as I back out of the back door
when the 20s rolled around in my hand. It's funny now when I don't show up on
Monday, they go nuts and eat their hearts. Well, what do you think of that?
She says you're throwing life away to move with a man like me. She's not
blind, she just don't have a mind to see. This is a habit I'm breaking now
forever. I'm weary from trying to shake it. So when I ask if you will give
me your hand, I take it, right now from your mother's side of town. Oh. She
says you're throwing life away to move with a man like me. And she's not
blind, she just don't have a mind to see.
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2003 interview with Robert Downey Jr.
GROSS: So how old were you when you got your first agent?
Mr. DOWNEY: I was doing a play at The Colonades(ph) across from the Public
Theater when I wasn't bussing tables at the Central Falls right down the
street on West Broadway. And I was in a play called "Fraternity" about SMU
and someone came to see one of the other actors in it who wound up having an
interesting career himself, and they asked if they could talk to me and said
that they'd be interested in signing me.
And the funny thing was I really was working as hard as I could when I did
that little play and I didn't expect much out of it. But I'd get there an
hour and a half before curtain and I'd do--I was, you know, like 16 or 17--I
would do yoga and I would run over the scenes and I would go out and touch the
lights. And, you know, all this kind of a really ethereal approach to doing
like a little `60-seat theater, who gives a damn' play. You know, but I
needed that and I ritualized it and it's funny, you know, it's almost like I
never have worked as hard since in a certain fashion as I did right at the
very, very, very, very beginning of theater.
GROSS: Who were you hoping to become? Was there an actor or a certain type
of actor that you think you were modeling yourself on?
Mr. DOWNEY: Let's see. Later on when I was already up and running, Sean
Penn was a big deal. Before that I was hugely affected by Matt Dillon, Ralph
Macchio, Scott Baio, you know, all the guys who seemed like, `Wow, look at
them go!' And then when I got out to California, the whole Brat Pack thing
was already sealed up and rolling and I thought they were all amazing.
GROSS: But what about older films? Did you watch a lot of older films when
you were getting started?
Mr. DOWNEY: Well, let me put it this way. I remember my dad bringing me to
see, like, "Slaughterhouse-Five" and "La Grande bouffe" and Truffant movies.
And, I mean, it's just amazing the things that I saw before I was 10 years
old. And now there's the rating wars.
GROSS: Wasn't "La Grande bouffe" the movie where they eat themselves to
death? Isn't that "La Grande bouffe?"
Mr. DOWNEY: Exactly. Wasn't that great?
GROSS: I hated that film.
Mr. DOWNEY: It was awful, wasn't it?
Mr. DOWNEY: Yeah. I just remember the scene where the couple is making love
and someone's knocking at the door and the guy says, `I coming.' And I was
like, `Why is that funny? God, I don't get anything.' And then as often as
not we'd be watching other movies and my dad would just stand up and say,
`We're gone.' I'd be like, `Why?' He goes, `Oh, this thing is
(unintelligible).' And we didn't even make it through the opening credits.
He didn't like the visual and we splitting.
GROSS: Well, that might have been helpful, though. Was he always pointing
out these things that you never would have noticed as a child if you didn't
have a filmmaker father to point them out?
Mr. DOWNEY: Sure. But aside from that, I was given a very, very specific
education. You know, I mean, Preston Sturges was, you know--we named our
Yorkshire terrier after him. Kubrick, as I said before, that was our cat.
You know, I mean it was like everything was about great directors in our
household, and writers.
BIANCULLI: Robert Downey Jr. speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2003 interview with actor and now
singer-songwriter Robert Downey Jr. He made his acting debut at the age of
five in the 1970 film "Pound," which was written by his father.
Actor-director Robert Downey Sr. was a filmmaker with a definite rebel streak.
He directed the films "Greaser's Palace," "Hugo Pool" and the 1969 classic
satire "Putney-Swope," about a washed-up all-white advertising company that is
transformed into the all-black radical Truth & Soul Agency. Here's a scene
from the beginning of "Putney-Swope" before the ad agency gets hip. They're
working up a new product campaign.
(Soundbite from "Putney-Swope")
Unidentified Man #1: Gentlemen, I'd like you to meet Dr. Alvin Weasley.
Dr. Weasley is one of the most respected motivational researchers in the
country. Harvey's Beer has dropped 84 percent, so Dr. Weasley will tell us
how the American public really feels about beer. Dr. Weasley.
Unidentified Man #2: Beer is for men who doubt their masculinity. That's why
it's so popular at sporting events and poker games. On the superficial level,
a glass of beer is a cool, soothing beverage, but in reality, a glass of beer
is pee-pee dickey. That's it.
Unidentified Man #1: Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.
Unidentified Man #3: Pee-pee dickey? We paid for that?
Unidentified Man #1: Twenty-eight thousand, and we got off easy.
GROSS: Your father was a filmmaker. What did you think of, like, moviemaking
as a life?
Mr. DOWNEY: I didn't think of anything else as a life. I mean, I knew I had
friends whose fathers were doctors or works down at the--you know, the
sporting goods store, which was great because I wanted a BB gun. You know, I
mean it was like--it just seemed like--and I have to credit my folks with
this, you know. It was a very organic approach to something technical,
artistic and kind of otherworldly. You know, my mother is a very, very gifted
actress and singer and comedian. And my father was primarily a writer who
decided that he should direct what he wrote to kind of keep it true to his
original intent. And he's an amazing director, a very influential director.
But more importantly than that was I had this sense of if you wanted to do
something that seemed like only a small percentage of people on Earth were
chosen to do that you could do whatever you wanted. My dad always says this.
He goes, `Anybody can act, hardly anybody can direct and nobody can write.'
So in descending order I'm kind of, you know, I get the bronze medal, you
GROSS: Well, your father, Robert Downey, is most famous for his film
"Putney-Swope," which was a comedy about the advertising industry and about
Mr. DOWNEY: Yeah.
GROSS: What impact did it have on your life when that film became popular?
How old were you then?
Mr. DOWNEY: I was three or four when it came out. I think what it was is
there was a this huge reaction to it, particularly from, you know, the 10 or
12 guys you know that are my dad's age who've really kind of formed the
artistic element of maverick filmmaking since. So he was very much revered
and hailed this just, you know, superinnovative guy. And so the only impact
it really had on me was I knew that my dad was something really, really,
GROSS: Was there a lot of structure in your life when you were growing up?
Mr. DOWNEY: Oh, sure. Yeah, there was a structure. There was a structure
all right. Kind of like--that's how complexes are created, out of structures.
GROSS: So, really, was there, like, discipline and structure or were you
pretty free to do whatever?
Mr. DOWNEY: Well, I went to school, you know. I went to school, I was in
judo, I was in chorus and drama. And that's all I got. Nothing else.
GROSS: You dropped out of school at the age of 17, right?
Mr. DOWNEY: Yes, gladly.
Mr. DOWNEY: Things had gotten to the point where Mom and Dad split up, Dad's
going back East. He says, `You can stay or you can go.' And then he left and
I was, like, `Why am I staying with a buddy of mine from high school in a
garage in the Venice Canals? I've got to get out of here. I've got to go to
New York.' So I went back to New York where I was from and then I started
working in theater and kind of put a little career together. And I couldn't
have done both. I couldn't have finished out the school year, waited till
summertime and then gone back East, I wouldn't have made it. I didn't have
any dough. I had a job at Thrifty's but all of us got fired because two of us
were stealing and, you know, it was just time to move on.
GROSS: So did you go for, like, acting training or did you just go right into
Mr. DOWNEY: Kind of both. I realized quickly that I was never going to get a
Casio commercial or a Dr Pepper spot because I just couldn't bring myself to
say, when the lady comes in and says, `You're the Pied Piper and everyone
wants to be like you. Now let's get the next group in.' And I was like, `Oh
my God. I've got to go.' `No, no, you don't have to go. Come in here we're
doing the auditions.' It was like, `No, swear to God, I don't know how to
sell a little keyboard.' Well, of course, now I would because I'm technically
proficient. But I learned, you know that little movie out--Todd Graff's
GROSS: Oh, I love that film.
Mr. DOWNEY: I went to Stage Door Manor.
GROSS: Did you really?
Mr. DOWNEY: Sure.
GROSS: This is a summer camp for the performing arts.
Mr. DOWNEY: Yes, and Loch Sheldrake it was initially, and Todd Graff and I
were in, you know, plays and learned stuff and I got to...
GROSS: Now wait. One of the funny things about "Camp," about the movie is
that they do these, like, overly sophisticated, ambitious, like Sondheim
musicals, these, like, 12-year-olds. Were you a position like that?
Mr. DOWNEY: Oh, yeah. (Singing) Join us now we're on a marathon. "Jacques
Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris," Jules Pfeiffer presents.' I was
like, `Who are all these people?' It was like, `Shut up. Light a Newport.
Come here kid.' It was great. Never forget it. And then there was regional
theater and then there was off-Broadway and musicals and so, you know, in my
own way, you know, when I'm out West, you know, there's very few people who
were afforded the kind of training I was. Like, what did you do? Well, I
surfed and I went to Baja and went to Club Med and got some drink beads and
then I, like, did a movie. You know, it's like I had it a little different
GROSS: Well, I really want to wish you good luck, you know, with your
Mr. DOWNEY: I'll take it.
GROSS: ...and with your life and with everything. And I really thank you for
doing the interview. Thank you very, very, very much.
Mr. DOWNEY: Yes, this was good.
BIANCULLI: Robert Downey Jr. talking with Terry Gross last year. His first
CD as a singer-songwriter will be released next week. It's called "The
I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "Smile")
Mr. DOWNEY: (Singing) Light up your face with gladness, hide every trace of
sadness, although a tear may be ever so near. That's the time you must keep
on trying. Smile, what's the use of crying. You'll find that life is still
worthwhile if you just smile. Ooh.
BIANCULLI: Coming up, the dreadfully sad. Filmmaker Guy Maddin, his film
"The Saddest Music in the World" is just out on DVD. And the incurably happy.
Film critic David Edelstein reviews "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Guy Maddin discusses his film career
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Guy Maddin has been called the best filmmaker you've never heard of.
Visually, Maddin's work is inspired by silent films and German expressionism.
His movies include "Tales from the Gimli Hospital" and "Dracula: Pages from a
Virgin's Diary," a film adaptation of a ballet version of the Dracula story.
Terry spoke with Guy Maddin earlier this year about his latest movie, "The
Saddest Music in the World," which has just been released on DVD. It's a
surrealistic comedy set during the Depression in Winnipeg, one of the coldest
places in North America, which also happens to be the place where Guy Maddin
grew up and still makes his home.
The film stars Isabella Rossellini as the owner of a beer brewery. She
launches an international contest to find the saddest music in the world. Her
life, and the lives of all the main characters, have been transformed by
tragedy and grief. That may not sound very funny, but this is an odd film,
inspired by Depression-era musicals, silent movies and touches of Tod
Browning's "Freaks." Here's Rossellini in a scene from the film.
(Soundbite of "The Saddest Music in the World")
Ms. ISABELLA ROSSELLINI: (As Lady Port-Huntley) We at Muskeg beer, are proud
that Winnipeg has been chosen four years in a row by the London Times as the
world capital of sorrow in the Great Depression. In recognition of this
honor, we will be hosting a worldwide contest to determine which nation's
music truly deserved to be called the saddest in the world. Aspiring
virtuosos of tearful melody are welcome to travel here and lay claim to the
jewel-studded crown of frozen tears and $25,000 in prize money. That's right.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Guy Maddin, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Your movie, "The Saddest Music in the
World," is adapted from a screenplay that was written by Kazuo Ishiguro, who
wrote "Remains of the Day."
Mr. GUY MADDIN (Filmmaker): Right.
GROSS: But his screenplay was set in the '80s, and yours is set in the 1930s,
during the Depression. I think you probably reworked a lot of the original
concept. Talk about your idea for what the contest would be like to find the
saddest music in the world.
Mr. MADDIN: Well, the original premise of such a contest was Ish's, and he
saw it as a political satire mostly about the way it's kind of sad that
countries that are already suffering from the worst deprivations imaginable
still have to pretend to be even worse off than they really are just to get
some sort of international sympathy and charity, and that everyone is forced
into this undignified limbo contest of exaggerating their misery just to get
And for me the contest was a great backdrop for the way families and people
and love manipulate each other in much the same way that countries do. And it
was a great chance for me to have an orgy of self-pity, not just among nations
but among family members. You know the way families really mess with each
others' minds. And so I just found sort of a microcosm within Ish's political
satire. And my obsessions are always with family melodrama anyway, so it was
just a matter of putting that peanut butter on Ish's chocolate and coming up
with something that pleased us both.
GROSS: Let's talk about the music a little bit. There actually is a contest
in the movie for the saddest music in the world, and representatives from
countries around the world show up to perform their music and vie for the cash
reward. How did you go about finding performers from around the world to use
in this contest? 'Cause you have real performers from different countries.
Mr. MADDIN: Yeah. Most of them live in my hometown of Winnipeg.
GROSS: Oh, really?
Mr. MADDIN: Yeah.
GROSS: Oh, I imagined you going around the world actually...
Mr. MADDIN: That's right, on a big talent search.
GROSS: ...putting classifieds in newspapers around the world.
Mr. MADDIN: That's right, going to Moscow and...
Mr. MADDIN: ...Stockholm.
Mr. MADDIN: Yeah. We just put an ad in the paper and actually dealt through
the Winnipeg Folk Arts Council and just arranged for a massive audition. We
just told various, you know, El Salvadorian musicians, Portuguese fado
musicians, Ukrainian bandurists to show up in costume with their instruments
in full plumage and to play the two saddest songs they had in their
repertoire. And we just invited them all to come up to this very tiny,
crowded ballroom we rented in a hotel. They all had to ride up in an
elevator, a very tiny elevator, so a big mariachi band would crowd out of the
elevator while the Heather Belles, the all-female highland bagpipe troupe
marched in. And it was great just to see the clash of colors, plaids,
sombreros. It was really exciting, and I realized I kind of had half my
musical problems solved right there at the audition. It was just a matter of
picking my favorites from this and just getting a nice balance of colors and
costumes and musics from these people.
GROSS: How did you explain yourself to them?
Mr. MADDIN: I kind of didn't, and that was kind of fun, just looking at the
sheer puzzlement on their faces. And at one point in the auditions, I always
encouraged the last group of musicians to stay on while the next one came on,
and I would have them play at the same time and actually have them try to
cross-pollinate or actually get down lower. I was thinking in terms of limbo,
and I would tell the Klezmer clarinetist to get down below the Ukrainian
clarinetist and try to get down lower, lower in pitch and lower in physicality
and literally compete and cross swords with clarinets. And it was really kind
of fun to watch these people literally competing for the tears of the judges
and me and my producers musically. And it was all just sort of playing itself
out the way it did in the movie.
GROSS: Yeah, it's kind of like a battle of the bands except that they're all
playing incredibly sad music.
Mr. MADDIN: Yeah. And it really was just like I guess just watching the
self-pitying aunts at a tea party just going at it and trying to top each
other's stories of woe. I grew up in a family where people did that all the
time. We're Icelandic, and all stories about our family are about tragedy and
misery and, you know, plagues, blight, volcanic eruptions, etc.
GROSS: Let me play the song I'd probably vote for if I were a judge in this
contest for the saddest music in the world, and I'll just play an excerpt of
this. This is a Mexican song, sung from the point of view of a mother who's
singing to her dead baby. And as we hear the song, we'll also hear the
announcers who are announcing this contest as it happens. And, of course,
they're totally undercutting the tragedy with their absolutely clueless
explanations of what's going on. So why don't we hear the scene?
(Soundbite of "The Saddest Music in the World")
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing in Spanish)
Unidentified Man #1: The singers are giving us a sad peek into child burial
customs down Mexico way.
Unidentified Woman #2: The Mexican mama is being very firm with her dead
infant. `Now go away,' she wails, `you are dead. Don't sneak in at night to
nurse from my breast. That milk is only for the living.' To Canadian ears,
that may sound harsh.
Unidentified Man #1: Well, I guess dead children, like any other kind, have
got to learn.
(Soundbite of cheers)
GROSS: A short scene from Guy Maddin's new film, "The Saddest Music in the
Guy, tell me...
Mr. MADDIN: I actually have a songwriting credit on that song, by the way.
GROSS: Oh, did you co-write it?
Mr. MADDIN: I cannot read music, but I wrote the lyrics. I can't speak
Spanish, either, but I had the singer translate it and I just have to trust
GROSS: What went through your mind as you were writing this?
Mr. MADDIN: Well, I just...
GROSS: I mean, how did you come up with this idea of the woman singing to her
Mr. MADDIN: Well, there's nothing sadder than that. But, you know, in spite
of the recent epidemic of dead child movies that have been put out there, I
find it extremely difficult to even approach the magnitude, the enormity of
such a feeling. So it had--the only way to present it for me was to undercut
it instantly somehow and just to let off the clear message that I wasn't going
to try to reach anybody's heart at that point. It just had to be goofy.
BIANCULLI: Guy Maddin speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. More after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview recorded earlier this year
with filmmaker Guy Maddin. His latest movie, "The Saddest Movie in the
World," has just been released on DVD.
GROSS: I'm thinking back to the last interview that you did on FRESH AIR
after your ballet version of "Dracula," and somehow we were talking about
grief, which of course relates to this new movie, and you had mentioned that
your brother killed himself when he was 19, that he shot himself on the grave
of his girlfriend.
Mr. MADDIN: Yeah. When I was seven or just turning seven, I remember
thinking it was quite thoughtless of him to do that just a week before my
birthday. Yeah, it was, you know, obviously a horrible tragedy and it's the
worst thing that can happen to parents. I was young enough that it was turned
into a romance for me, the idea that he got to go to heaven with his
girlfriend and that they were somehow being richly married there, and that our
two families, the family of the dead girlfriend and my family sort of
considered each other in-laws as a way of making sense of this gesture of
their sadnesses. It just seemed very romantic to me, the idea of, you know,
very "Wuthering Heights," you know, the idea of just giving your whole life
for the love of somebody.
And maybe that's what made me more receptive to romantic literature later
and--I don't know. But it seems like the little garden from which I sprung
was well watered with tears. It didn't--this isn't self-pity talking, it's
something I just observed as a way of growing up. Like I said, I couldn't
have had a happier childhood. I loved it.
GROSS: How did your brother's girlfriend die?
Mr. MADDIN: In a car accident. You know, it was horrible, but--and it just
ruined him, you know. It was--he hung in there for about six months and then
couldn't take it anymore.
GROSS: There's a car accident in this movie, too.
Mr. MADDIN: Yeah, there is, although the words `car accident' don't mean
anything to me. They probably are horrible words to hear for the girl's
family. But I don't know, all the trappings of that incident were kind of
just--they were just as artificial as a TV show to me at that age. So I don't
cringe or tweak when I hear those words.
GROSS: It didn't scare you to death that your brother in one gesture was able
to take his life away?
Mr. MADDIN: Well, you know, I don't how to make sense of what I thought of
it. I know I was given his bedroom the very night that he did it, and he had
a way better bedroom than I did. So, you know, I was pretty happy about that.
I shared it with my other brother, who couldn't stand the sound of my night
breathing. You know, it sort of haunted him a lot. And I immediately thought
I was him and, you know, immediately started thinking what it would be like to
die or to kill myself and, you know, in those ways that every child daydreams
about just wanting to go away when things don't go right, to remove yourself.
But, you know, I never really seriously considered it. It was just kind of a
play daydream that I like to replay all the time.
GROSS: I'm thinking back to something else you said in that first interview
that we did. You said that when people who were important to you died, you
felt you didn't grieve at the time and that you even had to fake tears at
their funeral. And I was thinking, you know, this just seems so connected to
me, to this new movie, "The Saddest Music in the World," because, you know,
one of the characters just is incapable of grieving and he kind of walks
through life as if it were...
Mr. MADDIN: Yeah.
GROSS: ...like a bleak comedy. And another character goes through life,
because her grief is so deep, she falls into amnesia. Her only way of
Mr. MADDIN: Yeah.
GROSS: ...is just totally to forget.
Mr. MADDIN: I guess you're very astute, Terry, because I think you have
picked up on some kind of autobiographical trait that I've put in the movie,
maybe without even thinking about it. I know when I was in my mid-teens, my
father developed a very serious heart condition and I just lived in terror of
him just dropping dead of a heart attack. And the words `heart attack'
literally launched me--whenever I happened to hear them on TV or in a
conversation would launch me into a procedure of elaborate superstitions, you
know, crossing my fingers, knocking on wood, backing out of a room left foot
first, and all sorts of elaborate, strange, exhausting procedures.
And I think when my father finally did have a heart attack and die, that--or
when he did die of some heart-related thing, that a fuse went in me and I
couldn't grieve. It was everything I had feared and worse because it really
happened. And I just felt nothing. And I felt a bit ashamed of myself for
not feeling anything, but I'm sure it's common that some people just can't
feel anything. I guess it's just simply being in shock, although it didn't
even feel like being in shock. I remember actually kind of enjoying all the
company and sympathy I was getting around funeral time. It's pretty gloomy
stuff we're talking about, but then I did grieve on the installment plan. For
years, I was revisited by my father in regular dreams, just probably a
pathological number of dreams. And so these characters, this woman who
virtually is visited with amnesia when her child dies, is kind of just a
version of that, I guess. It's just a matter of her being faced with
something that's just unbearable and amnesia's the only way to go. Amnesia
and nymphomania, as it turns out.
GROSS: That's right, she's got that, too.
Mr. MADDIN: Yeah, that's two Band-Aids on top of a trauma.
GROSS: Let me quote two things about sadness that are said in the movie. One
is, "What good is memory? Why make yourself sad?" And the other is, "Sadness
is just happiness turned on its ass. It's all show biz."
Mr. MADDIN: Yeah, I'm just trying to make sense of what sadness is. I know I
don't like being sad very much, and the weirdest things make me sad. I don't
GROSS: Like what?
Mr. MADDIN: Sometimes a movie that's mediocre for some reason. I like a
really bad movie or a really good movie. But a movie that just
somehow--there's a certain combination of notes that mediocrity combines to
form and that just about has me suicidal. For some reason, the second
"Matrix" movie had me on suicide alert. I had to make some hot line phone
calls after walking out of that theater. I don't know.
GROSS: Why? Because mediocrity wastes your time or because there's something
emotional in a mediocre film? Like what is it?
Mr. MADDIN: Yeah, well, I started daydreaming a bit about my brother,
something I almost never do, and I know he was a bit of a science fiction
enthusiast and kind of a technical freak. You know, he built a stereo with
his bare hands when he was 15 years old, and built a radio station and was
arrested for broadcasting, you know, from a pirate station when he was a young
teen. And so I just started thinking of--I was sort of daydreaming that I was
watching this movie with him for some reason. This is something I've never
And then the movie was so overwhelmingly filled with effects that he would
never have been able to comprehend at his young age. But then it was so
incomprehensibly boring at the same time that I remember just sort of thinking
that maybe my brother would decide that he should have lived all along just
because these movies are so cool and so technically slick and the excitement
of science would have made it worthwhile to keep on living. And then I
realized I was losing him as the movie got worse and worse and that by the end
of the movie, he was back in his grave and I was looking for one for myself.
I don't know.
GROSS: Oh, gosh. This is what happens when your mind wanders when a movie's
really dull, I think.
Mr. MADDIN: Yeah. I probably just should have gone to see, you know,
"Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" again.
GROSS: Was that better?
Mr. MADDIN: That was way better. I love that movie.
GROSS: There's images of hockey in several of your films, and I know your
father was the treasurer and manager of Canada's national hockey team.
Mr. MADDIN: Right.
GROSS: You described yourself in our first interview as spending most of your
childhood in front of the television with your dog.
Mr. MADDIN: Yeah.
GROSS: Did you play hockey, too?
Mr. MADDIN: No, I didn't, and believe me, that was the source of unbelievable
shame. Growing up in Winnipeg, Canada; father featured frequently in the
city's newspaper, you know, talking about Canada's national hockey team, and
not being able to skate. I don't know. I just spent too much time in front
of the TV. Even my dog was stupid and a very--you know, not even
paper-trained or anything. It was a--you know, we were both very
underachieving organisms. And I finally couldn't stand the shame anymore, and
I bought a pair of skates when I was about 18, and just went out after dark
and taught myself how to skate and then just fell in love with it. Became
obsessed with it; dropped out of the university and just spent all my time
playing hockey with 12-year-olds until I was good enough to join a team, and I
still have that kind of learned-late skating style. I skate too straight up
and down, and you know, people know I was a late-comer to the game. But
believe me, it just--every stride I take on the ice feels like I'm undoing the
shame of my childhood, and I'm not quite done yet. I'm still playing; I'm 48
years old now, and I still play and I'm not kidding. Every stride I take
feels like I'm repairing damage.
GROSS: Too bad your dog didn't live long enough to undo his reputation.
Mr. MADDIN: Yeah. No, my dog lived a pure life--underachieving to the end:
didn't even get out of bed to die. Died on my feet while I was sleeping.
GROSS: Well, Guy Maddin, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. MADDIN: Oh, thanks so much, Terry.
BIANCULLI: Guy Maddin, speaking with Terry Gross earlier this year. His
film, "The Saddest Music in the World," has just been released on DVD.
Coming up, a much happier and more absorbant movie subject, "SpongeBob
SquarePants." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New film "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
A movie based on the very popular cartoon show "SpongeBob SquarePants" opens
today across the country. The optimistic sponge has charmed children, their
parents and grownups who don't even have little kids. Film critic David
Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
Many of us suffer through insipid kid shows for the sake of keeping our
young'uns company, partly to monitor what they watch, partly in the hope that
an occasional parental interjection like, `Now why would he want to do that?'
will break the trance state before they become entirely passive zombielike
receptacles. We've come to look on Stephen Hillenburg's "SpongeBob
SquarePants" as a gift, a joyful spasm of whacked-out surrealism featuring one
of the sweetest characters in cartoondom.
This kitchen sponge-shaped sea sponge with two widely spaced front teeth and a
laugh like a dolphin on a sugar high is TV's most happy-go-lucky optimist, a
child-man who takes joy in even a minimum-wage, dead-end, fast-food job--at
the bottom of the ocean, no less. Each episode is nautical whimsy bordering
on nonsense, with ukulele music and flower-cloud backdrops. It's
old-fashioned squash-and-stretch animation wedded to a slacker, stoner world
view, and at 11 short minutes, the length of a "SpongeBob" cartoon, it's just
"The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie" is quite a bit longer than 11 minutes. It's
not a padded-out short. The film tells a classic story with a classic
screenplay structure. To save SpongeBob's boss at The Krusty Krab, Mr. Krabs,
from execution, SpongeBob and his imbecilic purple starfish pal Patrick embark
on a heroic quest to recover the crown of King Neptune, the tyrannical ruler
of Bikini Bottom.
Who framed Mr. Krabs? Why, that insanely jealous one-eyed proprietor of the
rival restaurant, The Chum Bucket, Plankton. Here's the first encounter
between the tiny gloating protozoan and our porous yellow hero on his way to
the opening of The Krusty Krab 2, which SpongeBob is sure he'll be
appointed to manage. He's so ebullient, he doesn't even realize where he's
stepping, or whom he's scraping off the bottom of his shoe.
(Soundbite from "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie")
Mr. LAWRENCE: (As Plankton) So enjoy today, Mr. Krabs, because by tomorrow,
I'll have the formula that everyone will eat at The Chum Bucket, and I will
rule the world! All hail Plankton! All hail Plank--ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!
Mr. TOM KENNY: (As SpongeBob) I'm ready, promotion. I'm ready, promotion.
Mr. LAWRENCE: (As Plankton) Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!
Mr. KENNY: (As SpongeBob) Ooh, I think I stepped in something.
(Soundbite of screaming)
Mr. LAWRENCE: (As Plankton) Not in something. On someone, you twit.
Mr. KENNY: (As SpongeBob) Oh, sorry, Plankton.
(Soundbite of popping noise)
Mr. KENNY: (As SpongeBob) Are you on your way to the grand opening ceremony?
Mr. LAWRENCE: (As Plankton) No, I am not on my way over to the grand opening
ceremony. I'm busy planning to rule the world!
(Soundbite of laughter, then silence)
Mr. KENNY: (As SpongeBob) Well, good luck with that. I'm ready, promotion.
EDELSTEIN: That's Tom Kenny as SpongeBob, using a Pee-wee Herman on helium
vocal attack, but making it brilliantly his own. `Well, good luck with that,'
says SpongeBob, proving he doesn't even comprehend evil. It's a measure of
his decency that he'd risk his life for Mr. Krabs after being passed over for
manager, and after a post-heart break ice cream bender that leaves him a
All this is amusing enough, but I kept waiting for the story to zigzag and go
hurtling off into the furthest reaches of absurdity. It does, sort of,
finally, but the path is pretty straight, or as they say in the screenplay
biz, linear. King Neptune, voiced by Jeffrey Tambor, is a dull despot,
imported from a more conventional cartoon universe, and his friendly daughter,
a bespectacled mermaid named Mindy, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, is only
mildly more diverting, thanks to Patrick's habit of drooling and babbling,
`She's hot' whenever she's in the vicinity.
Things pick up when SpongeBob and Patrick, mistakenly convinced of their
invincibility, do a nonchalant soft-shoe slap and tickle in the midst of an
abyss as sundry humongous tentacled creatures prepare to eat them. And there
are two amazing live-action encounters, one with a friendly David Hasselhoff;
the other, an unfriendly cyclops, actually a deep-sea diver fond of drying out
sea creatures and turning them into kitschy nicknacks. Here, Hillenburg and
his animators subject us to the horrifying spectacle of SpongeBob and Patrick
drying out into a real kitchen sponge and a dead starfish. It's enough to
make you pray to be back in the cartoon universe, which you are pretty fast,
There's plenty to treasure in "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie," but for all
the spit-and-polish animation and the rollicking soundtrack, this isn't the
yellow one's finest hour. I know Hillenburg didn't want to make a SpongeBob
episode stretched out. He wanted a movie with a beginning, a middle, end, and
a stirring, inspirational message. But I like my SpongeBob fleeter, more
bubbly, without that big, heavy anchor of a plot to weigh him down.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(Soundbite of "SpongeBob SquarePants" music)
Mr. KENNY: (As SpongeBob) Oh, yeah.
Mr. BILL FAGERBAKKE: (As Patrick) Yeah. Go, SpongeBob.
Chorus: Hurray! (Singing) Now that they're men, we can't bother them. Now
that they're men, they have become our friends. Now that they're men,
there'll be a happy end. They'll pass the test, they'll finish the quest for
the crown. They'll pass the test and finish the quest. They'll pass the test
and finish the quest for the crown.
(Soundbite of cheering)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.