Talking History and Technicolor Aesthetics With Matthew Rankin, Director of ‘The Twentieth Century’

Posted in Interviews, Movies, Theatrical, TIFF 2019 by - December 13, 2019
Talking History and Technicolor Aesthetics With Matthew Rankin, Director of ‘The Twentieth Century’

Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century is, undoubtedly, one of the most creative directorial debuts of the past many years. The film invokes comparisons to Guy Maddin, and many other cinematic traditions, in its fascinatingly bizarre historical retelling of the life and times of William Mackenzie King. We sat down to talk with the director about his film and the through process behind some of the more idiosyncratic choices.

TW: Would you take it as a compliment if someone were to come out of your film and say, “I don’t know what I just saw, but I think I liked it?

Matthew Rankin: The Twentieth Century is like a dream. It’s all based on people and events in Mackenzie King’s young life, and it’s also drawn from his diary, but it is sort of re-purposed as a nightmare he might have had in 1899. It’s like a reprocessing of historical events through this dream-like prism. It is oneiric. I would describe it as a Murdoch Mystery on an ayahuasca death march. But it’s also proposing a kind of subconscious Canada, a parallel Canada, or a Canada from Mars.

Your films in the past have taken on historical subject matter, and specifically Canadian history. What is it about Canadian history that you find compelling, and what do you hope to achieve out of your version of historical repurposing?

I consider myself very much a formalist, and I love abstract cinematic language. But I also love narrative, and I look for ways of getting into abstract emotions of history specifically. There are events in history that you cannot empirically measure, like what is the feeling of having a nervous breakdown? What is the historical materiality of an obsession? These are things that scientific historians can’t assess, and it is the role of the artist to do that. I would also say that working from stories in history gives me a structure upon which I can hang my visual ideas. I like stories that are a little bit imperfect that I can try to improve and embellish.

What were some of the challenges in moving from a short background to feature filmmaking?

The biggest challenge was “doing it like a pro.” I come from a tradition of filmmaking where I’d start shooting, and then when I have the images I would stop shooting. There were tiny crews. This was a much larger crew, and there was a real learning curve in that regard. Before we’d just keep shooting if we weren’t finished.

Let’s talk a little bit about the aesthetic, namely, Super 8, 16mm, with a technicolour vibe. What inspired the aesthetic of The Twentieth Century?

I love the quality of colour film, and I love The Wizard of Oz, and I wanted the film to have that kind of quality. The Wizard of Oz was a big visual tuning fork. I also love 16mm. With 16mm you have a certain amount of artifice that can be allowed. In high resolution you would see too much detail in the fake sets, but 16mm provides this gauzy buffer of grain that is kind of timeless. It has this effect of synthesizing the artifice. If I had shot the film on digital, it would have been a gigantic mistake; you would’ve seen too much detail. 16mm distresses the image in a way that I like.

What inspired some of the weird touches in the film. One of my favourites, to provide an example, is the Giant Canada Goose Boat. What inspired some of those inventive visual touches?

That one specifically was inspired by Abel Gance’s Napoleon. It’s one of my favourite films. There’s one scene that’s a huge snowball fight in the first part of the film where they pull young Napoleon in a sleigh that was in the shape of a swan. That was a direct steal. I took that idea and turned it into a goose for Canada.

What are some other references that you’ve thrown into the film that you’re hoping audiences pick up on?

There’s a lot of references to Fellini’s Casanova. I love the artifice of Fellini. We have one scene that takes place on an ocean. The ocean was made out of garbage bags, and the people off screen were waving like you would do with your parachute in gym class. But that scene is a direct reference to Casanova, which is itself a direct reference to the theatrical tradition where you would use silks to create undulating waves.

Why William Mackenzie King?

He choose me. I read his journal. He was a compulsive diarist, and I too am a lifelong diarist. I really identified with the worst expression of himself. I do think that within the Mackenzie King journal and his life there’s an opportunity there to raise questions about “Canada,” and what that means. I also saw the story as a prism through which to construct a satire.

What are you doing next?

It’s a completely different thing. It’s a neorealist Iranian film, completely in Persian, and shot in Winnipeg. At this point it’s without title, but it’s being workshopped.

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Thomas Wishloff is currently an MA student at York University. He is new to the Toronto Film Scene, but has periodically written and podcasted for several now defunct ventures, and has probably commented on a forum with you at some point. The ex-Edmontonian has been known to enjoy a good board game, and claims to know the secret to the best popcorn in the world.
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