A Q&A With David Cronenberg From 2007

Hi, folks, I just discovered this in some old notes. I thought I’d published it but, obviously, I had not! I met the director David Cronenberg on the red carpet when I was reporting for Variety in the aughts; he was the nicest person I ever talked to on one of those assignments, which in hindsight were kind of thankless, despite it being very fun and weird to be the only person attending a movie premiere for the free eats. I had no health insurance and was paid by the hour through a rotten temp agency and I got a flat bonus of $75 to go to these after hours and write a glorified photo caption for the party pages, so long as I showed up on time the next morning. I have always loved Cronenberg’s movies and I buttonholed him for about ten minutes at the party for Eastern Promises, which I loved, and he was nice enough that he agreed to do an interview for a little mini-profile that, in hindsight, is kinda fluffy and embarrassing. But the interview itself was pretty good, and I am leaving it here unexpurgated.

So, I was watching the featurette on History of Violence about you guys excising that one scene that looks like something from Videodrome or Dead Ringers, and it seems to me that these last two films have really been a departure for you. Why is that?

Well, I don’t really think it’s a departure, creatively. I can see analytically that people might think that, but when you think, for example of Dead Ringers, that’s a story based on real people. M. Butterfly was also a story based on real people — historical occurrence — so the level of reality in those movies is actually, bizarrely, higher than this movie, in which all the characters are totally invented. So for me, creatively, it’s not that different. I mean even The Dead Zone, which did have some slightly supernatural elements, was a sort of a small town in America. You had a sheriff, just like History of Violence, you had a family story, so I don’t really think that this is all that different. I think it has more to do with the way I’m perceived in general than it has to do with any creative evolution.

I guess everybody kind of remembers Naked Lunch and Videodrome.

Yeah, yeah, and Scanners, and of course those were sort of sci-fi, bizarre movies, but I have done these other movies that intersperse with those, so I’m just jumping around. It’s really a lot like business as usual, not to make it too bland, because of course it’s not. Even though people for example see these movies as a kind of matched pair – and of course I understand why that might be thought — but creatively, Eastern Promises is completely different from History of Violence: It’s not an American story, there are no American characters and so on, it does take place in a big city instead of a small town. So for Viggo and I, it’s very, very different.

It’s that guy from Lord of the Rings who throws everyone off.

And there’s that, too – people say that they’re Viggo fans, but they’re really Aragorn fans! That’s quite different.

I sort of wonder what will happen if you ever get him to play a villain for you.

Well, he sort of does in this one.

But a redeemable character.

Well, we hope so.

So what attracts you to him as an actor? Why work with him again?

Well, I like to say that with Viggo, you don’t just get a solo violin, you get an entire orchestra. He brings a lot to a film that is quite extraordinary, with the depth of the research that he does. He’s a photographer and a poet and a musician and a composer and a publisher as well, and he brings all of that to a project but in a very gentle, collaborative way, you know. It’s just so subtle. But he does feed you things, a lot more things than maybe an ordinary actor would, and I point out particularly this movie. In the original script, tattoos were alluded to, but they weren’t a big deal, they weren’t a metaphor – the central metaphor that they became. And it was Viggo who discovered this book called Russian Criminal Tattoo and a documentary made by a friend of his named Alex Lambert that was called The Mark of Cain. [inaudible] been developed in this tattooing subculture in Russian prisons going back to Tsarist days, you know, long predating the Soviet Union, that has evolved, and the symbology that has evolved, and that was so fascinating it just exploded everything. Viggo basically said, “Okay, if I’m going to get tattoos, I wonder what they should be? Why do I have them?” And that research that he was doing on his own completely changed the direction of script.

You have to be pretty flexible as a director to accomodate that kind of thing.

Well, yes. I mean, yeah, I haven’t been on too many other directors’ sets, but it’s obvious that directors can be very territorial and can feel encroached upon by actors and other members of their crew, and this is not my approach. I am very collaborative, and I’m actually very lazy, so if someone else will do a lot of the work, I’m very happy for that. But the nice thing about that is that actors do respond to that. […] Are you still there? Ha – the plug just came out of the phone. No, I’ll keep talking: I really wouldn’t want my actors to feel that they had to improvise the dialogue; that’s not the kind of collaboration I mean. I like to stick to the script on that level. But there are so many other things that an actor can do for you. That’s why I don’t do storyboards and have never been tempted to: because I’m not interested in sort of manipulating them, even through space. I want to see what how they’re going to move through space: would you sit down in this scene? Would you stand at the window? Would you lie on the floor? I don’t want to do that with storyboards before we’ve even cast the movie; I want my actor to tell me what he feels like doing and work from there. And that all works rather well, actually.

Vincent Cassel actually spoke highly of you on that topic; he said that you were really willing to let things evolve naturally in such a way that it enabled him to give more to a scene.

Sure, sure — I’ve never understood why you would hire brilliant actors and then tell them exactly what to do. That doesn’t make sense.

There’s an approach to violence that’s really pioneered in your early work; a sort of implacable sense that you’re making the audience watch something that’s happening on screen, which you talked about in moral terms at the Eastern Promises premiere. I was wondering if you’d seen any of the films that draw on that, but in an amoral or even perhaps immoral way.

Yeah, I actually haven’t seen — you mean the Hostel and Saw movies, the sort of torture films, right?

Right.

I haven’t actually seen any of them, but I don’t think they relate directly to what I was doing, I mean the scenes of torture in Videodrome are fleeting and sort of played for a certain reason, rather than being the subject of the movie, so I actually think that, whether these movies have been influenced by me or not, I don’t think I’ve ever done that, nor have I ever done a slasher movie, basically.

Do you have an opinion of the trend?

Well, forgive me if I repeat myself and you’ve heard this, but this is a very strange time. I remember when Al Goldstein offered $50,000 to anyone who could show him a real snuff film — everybody talked about them, but nobody ever produced one. Now they’re available on the internet every hour of the day or night. You can see beheadings, throat-cuttings, women being stoned to death, mostly courtesy of Muslim extremists. And that’s never existed before.

Do you think it exists as entertainment?

I think that it exists to be seen, and the closeness of that — I’ve often been asked, in fact, I’ve been asked for 40 straight years, ‘Do you think people are now desensitized to violence?’ and so on. And I think in fact that people are more sensitized to violence than they ever were, certainly in North America, while Americans are being beheaded in countries people haven’t heard of by people whose motives are not understood by most Americans, I would suggest. And you can watch that on your computer. That’s never existed before. So let me say — this is very theoretical, with the caveat that we haven’t even seen these movies — maybe these movies are a response to that. People often go to horror films to confront things that they are afraid of, and maybe that is the fear, now, and maybe that is a fear that needs to be exorcised by confronting it in a controlled situation. That would be a possibility, you know.

Does Eastern Promises confront those fears with its images of a culture that’s very foreign and strange to most of us?

Well, I think people go to movies to live other lives. You want to get out of your own life and kind of become somebody else for a while, even if you wouldn’t want to stay in that life. There’s a kind of vicariousness that’s a part of all art, I think. You read a good novel, you get inside somebody else’s head – that’s part of what attracts you to them. So, if you’re going to be Nikolai, who lives a life that is fraught with danger, then I want you to experience his life as it really is. To me, that’s part of my deal with the audience. In every movie you establish a certain level of reality. So if you’re doing a Bourne movie, it’s sort of a fantasy reality. You don’t really believe that those car chases could really happen that way.

Or that you could kill a guy with a pencil.

Of course, you technically could kill a guy with a pencil. … And that’s completely legitimate within the reality that the film is creating. With Eastern Promises, we’re establishing a level of physical, street reality. We’re saying “these guys kill each other, and when they do, sometimes it’s not easy, and it’s physical,” and I take it very seriously. We’re really talking about the destruction of human bodies.

That always struck me about you as an adapter of Stephen King, because his work really speaks a lot about the difficulty of killing somebody.

Well, it’s easy to evade that reality. When we talk about violence, though, it’s easy to think about statistics coming from Iraq, and statistics coming from the tsunami and so on, but we’re talking about the destruction of a body and a unique one, at that — one that will not exist again. If you’re an atheist like I am, you don’t have the exit of “Okay, well, I killed this guy, but he’s in heaven now, so it’s not really so bad.”

Or burning in Hell.

Yeah, and I’m saying, “No, it is bad, because you’ve committed an act of absolute destruction. This creature will never exist again,” and I’m kind of insisting on the physical reality of that in this movie. Literally, we’re talking in the whole movie about five minutes of violence of a hundred-minute film.

But it’s so overwhelming.

My reaction to that is, “And so it should be.”

Right.

If I were doing a Bourne movie or something else, then it would be quite different because your agreement with the audience is different.

Tell me a little bit about The Fly: The Opera, just to completely change the subject.

Well, you know, talking about scaring yourself, that’s how I do it — because I’ve never done it before. There are a lot of film directors from Woody Allen to Friedkin to Terry Gilliam who’ve been doing this, and I think part of it is that the world of opera is kind of thinking that for that art form to survive, it has to revitalize itself, and, you know, how many times can you do La bohème?

Quite a few.

Yeah, it’s already done about 800,000 times and is there a limit, well, I don’t know. Looking for novelty and different approaches and so on – it’s obvious that there are a lot of film directors who are intrigued by that, and almost every one of them will say, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” And we’re right. We don’t. It’s so different from film. But my fallback position is that opera is not a director’s medium, it is a composer’s medium, and Howard Shore is the creative core of this opera, and he’s composed the score, and David Henry Hwang has done the libretto. And I’m only the director, so if I screw it up, the music will still be good, and the libretto will still be good.

Do you have an approach in mind?

Oh yeah, of course, but I don’t want to reveal it. I don’t want to spoil it. But I am working with Dante Ferretti. He’s done some of Tim Burton’s films, he’s done Gangs of New York, but he’s also done a number of operas, so he’s the guy with the most experience in terms of opera, working on this project. I have a particular approach, and in about a week, I’ll be working with singers for the first time in my life, and we’ll have the telepods there that we’ve designed, and we’ll see how it all starts to work.

Will you have Placido Domingo there to help you out?

No, because he’ll primarily be conducting the orchestra, and you don’t get the orchestra – I’ve recently learned – until about two weeks before the opening of the opera. So I won’t have a real orchestra to play with until then. You don’t get the real singers until then either, so we’ll be doing it with accompaniment pianists and understudy singers. It’s all so expensive to have a 77-piece orchestra playing, so you only have your moments when you can do that. […] It’s completely different, yeah, I’ve been talking to my friend Atom Egoyan who’s done it a few times. But I have to go now, so thank you!

Thank you. Can I ask you one more quick one?

Sure.

To close, just basically because I enjoy your literary adaptations, can I ask if you’ve you read anything good lately?

I read a lot of stuff for Eastern Promises — no novels, but one of the books I read was called “Black Earth,” which follows the development of Russia after the fall of the communism, by Patrick Meier, and it was just really, really excellent. I highly recommend it.

That’s great. Hey, thank you so much.

Thank you.

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Author: samthielman

Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic based in Brooklyn, New York. His blog is samthielman.com, his twitter handle is @samthielman, and if you can't find him you should check The Strand.

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