A stalking success story 

Andy Smetanka parlays an obsession into feature film work

There’s a fine line between stalking a celebrity and doggedly pursuing a hero for professional advice. Local filmmaker and longtime Indy writer Andy Smetanka knows the line, and he’s not ashamed to admit that, maybe, he crossed it. After all, eight years ago he traveled from Missoula to Michigan, and then borrowed his parents’ Subaru to drive with a friend to Winnipeg, all in an effort to pass some time with his personal filmmaking deity Guy Maddin.

“Let’s talk about some of the finer points of stalking,” says Smetanka by way of introduction. “I’ll tell you everything I know.”

He can laugh about it now because, unlike most stalker stories, Smetanka’s ends in triumph. But at the time, his Winnipeg jaunt had the makings of an embarrassing disaster. He never formally set up a meeting with Maddin, instead arranging to stay with Maddin collaborator and easier-to-find university professor George Toles, ostensibly to interview the screenwriter for a zine article. He assumed meeting Maddin was part of the deal, but there were no promises.

Meeting Maddin raised another issue—Smetanka had no idea what to say to him. He was a fan and an aspiring filmmaker—Smetanka watched  Maddin’s eerily beautiful Careful, the tale of an alpine village tormented by the constant threat of avalanches, more than 100 times—but wasn’t sure how that translated to interesting conversation. Mostly, he was terrified that he and his friend would simply come off “like total dorks,” he says, and yet didn’t really care.

“All I knew was that we had to get up there,” he says. “He had such a profound impact on us and we wanted to meet him, of course, but mostly we just wanted to go up to Winnipeg and absorb some of the strangeness for ourselves. And the thing is, he’s never addressed it since. He’s never been like, ‘Hey, dude, so how crazy is it that you just sort of came up here and stalked me once?’”

Needless to say, Smetanka, Toles and Maddin hit it off. They shared coffee and toured the city. They talked shop, a lot. They also chewed the fat, a lot. At one point Smetanka remembers driving Maddin to an abandoned mattress warehouse where he was shooting his latest film and, partly out of nervousness, asked about Winnipeg’s lispiest intersection, his favorite in Missoula being Lester and Sussex. Maddin responded with the most Nabokovian, Portsmouth and Ramsgate, without missing a beat.

Their fast friendship continued after the visit, with Smetanka sending both Toles and Maddin his latest projects—mostly Volumen music videos shot, like most of Maddin’s work, in fast-edited black and white—for feedback.

“Guy was always enthusiastic and supportive, so I kept sending him things,” say Smetanka. “He still asks about Volumen—he loves them.”

Over the years, Maddin’s films gained more acclaim and Smetanka started working almost exclusively in stop-motion silhouette animation, including an extended video for The Decemberists’ The Tain. Then, in 2006, Smetanka called Maddin with an equipment question and the Canadian director sidetracked into some nagging problems with his latest project. Specifically, he wasn’t sure how to recreate epic historical events for an offbeat documentary of his hometown. It didn’t take long for the two to realize Smetanka’s animations may be the answer.

“He said something to the effect of, ‘Run something by me and I’ll likely tell you to help yourself to creating that image,’” recalls Smetanka. “But he didn’t even hold me to that. He just let me send him things.”

Smetanka hadn’t been to Winnipeg since he stalked Maddin for two days in 2001, but suddenly found himself recreating the city’s skyline for things like a Bolshevik revolt and a bison stampede at Happyland, the local amusement park. He felt a little bit of pressure to deliver some authenticity, to at least offer an outsider’s romantic memory of the city. What he came up with received nothing but praise from Maddin—and a $5,000 payday.

“The footage transfers came today and they are SENSATIONAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!,” wrote Maddin in an early e-mail. “PERFECT! PERFECT! PERFECT! I love the Bolshevik boner! Astonishing.”

Smetanka’s animations ended up being a substantial part of what critics are calling Maddin’s best film. My Winnipeg debuted at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival—with Smetanka in attendance—and won best of festival. In the United States, it landed on Time magazine critic Richard Corliss’ list of 2008’s best films and prompted Roger Ebert to begin his adoring review, “If you love movies in the very sinews of your imagination, you should experience the work of Guy Maddin.” My Winnipeg manages to take all of the fantastical and endearing elements of Maddin’s previous work—the rhythmic narrative, the melodrama, the dry humor, the grainy black-and-white footage, the mesmerizing surrealism—and package it into an accessible “docu-fantasy.” He still compares Winnipeg to his mother’s, um, “lap” and “fur,” but it’s gorgeous and poetic. Really.

“I think it’s this fluffy, pillowy movie that people just feel comfortable with,” says Smetanka. “But I’m biased.”

Despite the film’s critical acclaim and Smetanka’s well-deserved pride, seeing the film has proven difficult for most U.S. fans. My Winnipeg screened in some major markets and handpicked northern cities that may actually care about Canada (or Maddin), but it never received wide release. The U.S. DVD has also been indefinitely postponed, although the Canadian market already has access to it. There’s even a book about the film—featuring Smetanka’s artwork on the cover, no less—but still no DVD.

“That’s the thing with a Maddin film—it’ll open in New York, Los Angeles…and Fargo, and nobody will ever hear another thing about it,” says Smetanka. “It’s what makes him so cool to discover, but pretty frustrating when you want to brag about working with him.”

The wait will finally end for local audiences next week. Smetanka arranged for a special Missoula screening—one night only—to show off the project he’s been talking about for years, and the filmmaker he’s been obsessing over for even longer.

“It’s been this great thing to walk around with on your arm, but it’s hard to be excited about it without being able to share it,” says Smetanka. “This will be the coming out party so friends know that I haven’t been making all of this up.”

My Winnipeg screens at the Crystal Theatre Wednesday, May 27, at 7:30 and 9 PM. $7.
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