David Cronenberg likes to tell the story of how Martin Scorsese was scared to meet him, because he imagined that such horrific films as Shivers, Rabid, The Brood and Scanners must be the products of a diseased mind, someone who, in the flesh, would be (in Scorsese’s words): “a combination of Arthur Bremner and Dwight Frye as Renfield in Dracula, slobbering for juicy flies.” As Cronenberg, a mild-mannered 59-year-old Canadian who looks about as frightening as a university geography professor, recalls with amusement: “I said, ‘Marty, you made Taxi Driver, and you’re afraid to meet me?’”
Nevertheless, on the basis of the director’s diabolical ouevre, Scorsese had every reason to “be afraid, be very afraid.” Of his original screenplays, Crimes of the Future involved a mad dermatologist and a disease which wipes out women; Shivers turned the residents of an apartment block into psychotic nymphomaniacs; in Rabid, a vampiric female spreads a disease which turns its victims into violent crazies; in The Brood, a doctor finds a way to physically manifest psychoses in the bodies of his patients; Stereo (an early short) and Scanners deal with telekinetics with terrifying powers; Videodrome and ExistenZ each involve audio-visual media (TV shows and video games respectively) that interact with their audiences in horrifying ways. Yet his adaptations – Stephen King’s chiller The Dead Zone, (Martin Sheen’s first stab at being US President); twisted love stories like The Fly, Dead Ringers, M Butterfly and Crash; the fractured narratives of William S Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Spider – are equally disturbing, justifiably earning Cronenberg the sobriquet “the king of venereal horror.”
The fact that he has also been variously dubbed “The Baron of Blood” and David “Deprav-ed” Cronenberg misses the point: that all the horrific happenings in his films – intelligent diseases, exploding heads, a woman who grows sex organs under her arm, twin doctors who invent instruments for perform gynaecological surgery on deformed women, a scientist who turns into an insect – are facets of the human condition. Indeed, while many of his films deal with the mutiny – and/or mutation – of the physique, Cronenberg is equally fascinated by the workings of the psyche, from psychosomatic illness to psychotic impulse. In Dead Ringers, for example, he dissected the unique bond between identical twins, using what used to be called ‘trick photography’ to put Jeremy Irons beside himself; in Naked Lunch, the narcotic-spawned visions of Burroughs’s alter ego Bill Lee (Peter Weller) spring to literal life, as Lee’s self-loathing at his own homosexuality and drug addiction manifest themselves physically; in Videodrome, cable TV boss Max Renn (James Woods) is troubled by hallucinations of a violent and sexual nature after becoming addicted to ‘snuff’ (and not the kind that Victorians carried in little tins).
Cronenberg – who once suggested that “sex might be the invention of a clever venereal disease” – has also confessed to a fascination for the forbidden, and from his early shorts to his frightening features, Cronenberg has not so much courted controversy as invited it home and date-raped it – most notably in Crash, which fell foul of Britain’s censors and tabloids, not necessarily in that order. Orson Welles likened directing to presiding over a series of accidents; with Crash, Cronenberg took him literally, filming an apparently unfilmable novel in which the protagonists (played by James Spader, Holly Hunter, Deborah Unger, Elias Koteas and Rosanna Arquette) get their sexual kicks out of car crashes, whether real, staged or imagined – a strange kind of ‘auto-erotica.’ (The film also touched upon Cronenberg’s own passion for automobiles: a keen amateur racing driver, he once made a film about racing drivers – Fast Company – and hopes someday to make another.)
Cronenberg’s newest film, an extraordinary adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s novel Spider, also picks the brains of its protagonist. In a career-best performance a million light years from Dustin Hoffman’s showy Rain Man role, Ralph Fiennes plays a former mental patient who, upon being released back into the community, returns to the landscape of his childhood – both literally and figuratively. Re-visiting his old East London haunts, he struggles to piece together the troubling events of his past, and to reconcile his fractured memories with his equally unreliable sense of reality. It’s a theme which, thirty-six years on, echoes Cronenberg’s earliest short film, “Transfer,” in which an obsessive former mental patient invents things to worry and disturb his psychiatrist, who nevertheless remains unappreciative of his efforts. Thankfully, Cronenberg’s inventions – also designed to worry and disturb, but above all to provoke thought – have been met with rather more appreciation.
DH: How did you come to choose Spider as a project?
DC: The first thing I read was Patrick’s script, which came with Ralph Fiennes attached (as they say). It’s very unusual to get a script with a letter from an actor’s agent saying ‘We certify that Ralph Fiennes wants to play this role’ because it leaves them very vulnerable in terms of negotiations. So I thought, ‘Well, this is serious.’ And when I read it, I was reading it with Ralph in mind, which is something I don’t normally do because I’d rather let the character develop in my head without putting a face to it or a specific actor.
DH: Is that true of your own writing as well?
DC: Even more so. I don’t write with actors in mind because I want the character to suddenly surprise me and go someplace else where that actor perhaps can’t go or won’t want to go. But in this case, after about three pages, I thought, ‘God I can’t imagine anybody who would be better than Ralph for this,’ so I didn’t fight it at all after that. It was only then that I read the novel, which was really quite different.
DH: So what was it that struck you about the story?
DC: The first thing that struck me was that I was Spider. When Gustav Flaubert talked about Madame Bovary, he said, ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi.’ So imitating Flaubert I’m saying ‘Spider, c’est moi.’
DH: Given that Spider is a muttering, maladjusted mental patient who thinks his father murdered his mother and replaced her with another woman… how exactly are you Spider?
DC: I mean it! People say, ‘Well, wait a minute – I look at you and I see Spider in the movie and how can you say that?’ and think you’re being flippant. And I’m not, really, because if one is honest with oneself, and if one has a kind of existential understanding of how the world works, it does not take much to imagine with just the slightest twist of your own particular fate – whether it’s a physical thing, destiny, a stroke, disease, a financial disaster, an emotional disaster, an identity collapse, an artistic disaster perhaps – you could be this guy wandering the streets, talking to himself in a language that noone else understands. I feel less than one degree of separation away from Spider.
DH: Do you think you might be even more like Spider if you hadn’t had your films as an outlet?
DC: No I’d probably be fine as CEO of some company that made tape recorders.
DH: Or an actor – you’ve appeared in Don McKellar’s Last Night and Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, among others. How did that come about?
DC: I think to begin with it was John Landis putting me in Into the Night, which is where I met Jeff Goldblum. And then after you’ve done a few things people can actually think of you as an actor as opposed to ‘stunt casting.’
DH: You also had a cameo in The Fly, delivering Geena Davis’s baby.
DC: Ah, but it was Geena (Davis) who put me in there because she wanted somebody she trusted to be in that position with her. Otherwise I wouldn’t have cast myself. And I did wear a mask.
DH: You had a mask in Nightbreed, too – when you were brutally killing people. Did you get a kick out of playing a psycho?
DC: Yes, absolutely! Nightbreed was my biggest role. I was in London for three months to shoot that, so that was a very interesting experience for me and I learned a lot. People have said to me [of acting], ‘Does it make you more sympathetic to actors?’ And I say, ‘Absolutely not!’ But it certainly made me understand where actors come from, why they are obsessed with their clothes and their hair and their skin. It’s because that’s all they’ve got to work with. Your body, your voice, the shape of your hair – those are actually your tools of your craft as an actor, whereas with a director it’s much more abstract. You’re behind the camera and it’s your mind that’s out there.
DH: How did you end up in the latest Friday the 13th movie, Jason X?
DC: [Director] Jim Isaac is a friend, and he’s worked on many of my movies as a head of special effects, and he was directing this movie in Toronto and he asked me if I would play this role. So it was a matter of friendship for me to do that with him, and fun, because here he was suddenly being the director and I was being the actor, which is not exactly a reversal of roles, but [close].
DH: I can’t imagine any of the pseudo-post-modern horror movies – Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, etc. – have interested you.
DC: Not at all. I sort of watched five minutes and I’m really not very interested. Post-modernist horror films, it just doesn’t work, you know? It’s not that I don’t get them – there’s nothing to ‘get.’
DH: Were your own horror films – Shivers, Rabid, The Brood – an attempt to imbue the genre with something more meaningful?
DC: Absolutely. They were no less meaningful to me than Spider or Dead Ringers or anything else. What I wanted to be was a film artist, and I was interested in that genre, and the fact that they were horror films helped get them financed. In retrospect it seemed like a brilliant strategy, because in Canada one of the few ways that a director could get to make a film was to do a low budget horror film, and when I sat down to write something it was Shivers. But I could have written anything – it would have been much easier in Canada to get a movie about farmers on the prairie and the struggles of prairie life.
DH: The word ‘Cronenbergian’ would mean something completely different.
DC: Yes, something like ‘Canadian neo-realism.’
DH: As well as being your most financially successful film, The Fly is arguably your most subversive film, in that it appears to be a popcorn horror flick but actually deals with weighty intellectual and existential themes which are extraordinarily well developed.
DC: Yes they are. The other thing that people rarely realise is that the movie is basically three people in one room, and were it not embodied in a science fiction context, it would not be considered a genre film, and it would be a very difficult film to take, because [the plot is] two people meet, they fall in love, he gets a hideous disease, gradually deteriorates in front of her, and then she helps him kill himself – that’s it.
DH: Did the success of The Fly make it easier for you to make films?
DC: It’s never been easy for me to make films. Either the financing part is hideous and the creative part is fantastic, or the reverse. If you have to choose, I’m going to say let the financing part be hideous and then, please, once I’m on the set let me happy. And that’s how it was Spider because we would come to the set in the morning and not be sure that there was going to be a set – literally. I wasn’t sure that there’d be anybody there because we weren’t able to pay anybody for the three weeks that we were in England, and when we left London we still had not paid any of the crew, and this was not a crew that owed me anything because they weren’t my crew that I worked with for a long time, and still they were incredibly faithful and showed up and did their work, and that’s amazing, and not common. But you don’t want to do that – you want the people that you’re working with to feel secure and happy and know that they’re getting paid. Obviously it wasn’t a big budget, so they weren’t getting paid their top dollar. But some of those people had just been working on Harry Potter and they were very happy to be doing a movie that wasn’t Harry Potter.
DH: In fact it was more like Dennis Potter.
DC: Oh that’s a good one. “Dennis Potter and the Sorcerers Stone.” Very good.
DH: But Spider is reminiscent of Dennis Potter, particularly “Blue Remembered Hills” and “The Singing Detective.”
DC: Well, it’s English, and there’s the childhood thing and the back-to-back houses. And in fact “Lipstick on your Collar” was something that I saw when I was thinking about the street that Spider lived on, and I actually did some enquiries about where was that shot. And I met Dennis Potter and talked to him about doing a movie version of “The Singing Detective” which somebody is now doing with Robert Downey Jr – althought to me it doesn’t seem quite right to do it in America, because it’s so bound up in the trappings of film noir, and part of what was delicious about it was that it was English yearning for Hollywood. So if it’s set in Hollywood I’m not sure it’s going to feel the same. Ultimately when it got compressed into two hours, it didn’t work any more. Besides, the original was so damned good, I thought if I can’t make it something unique that’s good on its own – not just an inferior version of what’s already been done – why should I do it?
DH: Let’s talk about some of the other films you didn’t make – or haven’t yet.
DC: I’ve been pretty lucky in that most of the scripts that I’ve written have ended up getting made. Red Cars (unproduced original screenplay about Ferrari’s sixties racing drivers) is one that has not yet gotten made and I don’t know if it ever will. There’s a lot of interest in it, constantly, but there are problems because a lot of people who are portrayed in the movie are still alive. And it deals with Ferrari, which is a brand name. And also people sort of want it to be a classic sports story, and it isn’t because I wrote it, and I’d be bored doing the classic sports story. To me it’s more interesting and unusual than that, but that is what makes it difficult to get it made.
DH: You spent a year on Total Recall, which I’m sure would have been a different movie.
DC: A very different movie. For a start, I wanted to cast William Hurt, and the difference between Bill Hurt and Arnold Schwarzenegger, this probably tells you everything! I spent twelve months doing re-writes of the script myself, and then I was sitting in a roomful of people who were all saying, ‘You’ve done the Philip K Dick version,’ and I said, ‘Well, yeah.’ And they said, ‘We don’t want that. We want “Raiders of the Lost Ark Goes to Mars.”’ I said, ‘Jeez, I wish we’d all had this discussion twelve months ago, it wouldn’t have wasted all our time!’ So in a nutshell that’s it. I was doing something that I thought was faithful to Phil Dick, and also to my own sense of the complex understanding of what memory is and identity, which actually leads us rather handily into Spider because, bizarrely, enough it would have been more like Spider to the extent that it’s an examination of memory, and how it’s a created thing, not a video documentary of your past but something that you’re constantly upgrading, altering, changing, shifting, editing. To an extent, your memories are your identity, and in Total Recall that was something that I’d really gone into in great depth.
DH: You weren’t really going to direct Basic Instinct 2, were you?
DC: Absolutely! We were in pre-production, we hired Richard Sylbert as our production designer, we were casting – I mean, we were going [ahead]. But you don’t have time or tape enough for me to tell you that story. Let’s just say that it had to quote Woody Allen “a classic Hollywood ending” – Sharon is suing the producers, and I’d like to sue the producers but I don’t have the energy or the resources to do it. The reason I wanted to do it was because I thought it was a great script and I thought Sharon would be fabulous in it and I thought we could surprise people and confound their expectations because it was a very perverse, dark, complex script and very erotic as well, and I thought if we were allowed to do what Sharon and I and the writers want to do, it could be really good. Well, it was not to be.
DH: Is it true you are planning to remake Crimes of the Future, one of your earliest films?
DC: No, that’s a misunderstanding. I was thinking of recycling the title for my next film, which is now called Painkillers (original screenplay about a self-mutilating performance artist who infiltrates a group of radical art terrorists). The film comes from a natural outgrowth of my feeling about the body. I’m exploring the idea that if the body is reality, all of our perceptions are through the body and that if you change the body, you change the world. I’ve been interested in performance artists and the whole subculture since a fellow student of mine (at the U of Toronto) wrote a short story about a man who did surgery as a performance, literally cutting off his own hand. I remember reading that story and being incredibly shocked and impressed by it.
DH: The title reminds me of William S Burroughs, whose (ungrammatical, beautiful) dying words were, ‘Love – best painkiller what there is.’
DC: That’s true. I hadn’t thought of that, actually.
DH: How did you and Burroughs get on during the making of Naked Lunch?
DC: We got on really well. We spent a lot of time together and we actually went to Tangiers together with (producer) Jeremy Thomas. It was the first time he’d been there for I think almost 20 years, and I actually got to see him re-meeting Paul Bowles after 20 years – it was fantastic. He was, in his own strange way, very congenial and very supportive and funny. And he loved the movie.
DH: Filming Naked Lunch seemed like an impossible feat, yet you followed it with Crash. Are you deliberately challenging yourself by tackling apparently unfilmable books?
DC: All books are unfilmable. You have to totally betray the book to be faithful to it. I discovered that on The Dead Zone – there’s really no way to translate, no Movie/Lterature Dictionary. So once I understood that, I had no fear. Every time is the same whether it’s The Dead Zone or Naked Lunch or Spider – the two forms are so different. You can’t just shoot the book that’s sitting on the table. Once you start to delve into it, you immediately come immediately up against the impossibility of doing a so-called direct translation, so it’s a kind of weird witchcraft/sorcery that you have to do.
DH: Were you more surprised or disappointed about the media response to Crash in England?
DC: I was both surprised and disappointed. Of course the film was controversial, but what I was exposed to in England was something beyond a reaction to a film. It got so personal to the extent that the press were attacking (producer) Jeremy Thomas and his children, trying to suggest that he was some kind of mafioso who did porno films. It got pretty sick and pretty bizarre and I was disappointed in the human condition as it’s expressed in England, as opposed to anywhere else where it was not like that. And I really started to have a full appreciation for why the British press is derided and despised around the world, because they deserve it. I think every contemptible human bias is exemplified by the press, from hypocrisy to… you name it. I have a great affection for English cinema, and some of that is expressed in Spider. My father was an Anglophile, and I used to read books that English kids, from science books on butterflies in England to Boys’ Own stuff and Horatio Hornblower. So I felt kind of betrayed (by the Crash controversy). People can not like your movie – they can even hate the fucking movie – but they don’t have to react the way the press did. And it wasn’t just the press. I mean, it got really quite silly to the point where people were making it a social issue in the weird way that it’s done it England.
DH: Why do you think that is?
DC: It’s sort of like an island mentality. Of course there’s the class system and the anger and the weirdness that has always come out of that, but there are other societies that came out of a class system so what is the difference in England? Maybe it’s because it’s an island, there’s a sort of fortress mentality, the fear of being contaminated or infected or something.
DH: That’s also the theme of many of your films: not the fear of death, which many artists explore, but the fear of how the body can turn against you. Is that a valid fear for you?
DC: Living in a form that’s unbearable to you, and not being able to alter your understanding of life and pain and so on, to the extent that you could still live with it? I think it is ]a valid fear] for most people. When most people hear of somebody that’s, say, dying of Lou Gehrig’s Disease – where your mind is top notch and your body is becoming more and more paralysed – all you need is normal human compassion and empathy to understand that, and also to hope that it doesn’t happen to you or someone close to you. It really isn’t different writing a character who is victorious and triumphant and positive than doing someone who is in dire straits and in some horrific situation – the process is really the same, in that you are trying to experience it vicariously somehow and then when you come out of that you feel, you feel that your understanding of the human condition and what it is to be a human being is broadened. And it works whether it’s dark stuff or whether it’s bright stuff.