David Cronenberg on the "Cronenbergian"
David Cronenberg has already done "home previews" for his hotly anticipated upcoming feature, Maps to the Stars. The new film stars Julianne Moore, Robert Pattinson, and John Cusack, and was partially filmed in Hollywood, well outside Cronenberg’s usual Toronto turf. It feels decidedly odd to ask the director how “Cronenbergian” the film is—it's like asking Philip K. Dick to rate one of his novels for “phildickian” content—but some of Cronenberg’s films in recent years (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method) haven’t been especially Cronenbergian by fan estimates.
“I don’t even really know what that means,” the director responds. “For me, A Dangerous Method was totally my film. Nobody else wanted to make it, nobody else would have made it, and nobody else did make it. And if you ever saw the first film I ever made”—the 1966 short “Transfer”, which will screen on April 6 and 7 as part of the Cinematheque’s upcoming Cronenberg retrospective—“it was about a psychiatrist and a patient, talking about transference. Sometimes people fasten on to a film or a couple of films that you’ve made that they like, and that becomes you for them. But it’s not you for you!”
Case in point: Fast Company. Shot in Edmonton between Rabid and The Brood, and dealing with the drag racing and funny cars, the film has none of Cronenberg’s signature elements of body horror, kinky sex, and decay, but it’s still very much a Cronenberg film.
“I used to race cars, and to people who know me as a motorcyclist and a car racer, that movie is very much me,” he says. “But for people who just know my horror films, that is an anomaly. They can’t understand why I would make that film.” It is recognizable to those familiar with Cronenberg’s aesthetic as having his camera eye, but “it depends on the sensitivity of the viewer, whether they can really perceive that or not. Some people can only see story and characters, and they’re not attuned enough to visual style to say, even though it’s a drag racing movie, it has many things in common with Videodrome, visually. You have to have an eye to be able to say that.”
Of course, the Cronenbergian content of a Cronenberg film is not necessarily a guarantee of its success among the director’s fan base. 1999’s eXistenZ features themes of feuding corporations and distorted realities that evoke Videodrome, as well as numerous gooey grossouts involving puckered, Naked Lunch-like “bio-ports”, gristle guns, and mutated amphibians in your Chinese food. It seems so self-consciously Cronenbergian that one might ask if the director was trying to deliberately reference his own past work.
(He wasn’t, he says. “I don’t ever do that, because I’m inside it, and I can’t see. It’s like they say, a fish doesn’t know it’s in water... You’re inside your own sensibility, you’re not copying yourself.”) Nonetheless, the film was still a commercial disappointment, sinking quickly out of sight. What happened there?
“I think The Matrix was a problem, honestly,” Cronenberg offers. “It sort of came out at the same time, that might have skewed it. It was also not well-handled in North America. It was the number one film when it came out in France, for example, but I had problems with the release of the film through Dimension and Bob Weinstein. It was really short-circuited by them. They lost faith in it because of a bad screening, or a screening that wasn’t really hot, and as a result, instead of releasing 700 prints, at minimum, as per their contract, they released, like, 35 prints, which is not very much, considering the size of the U.S. I think it never got promoted properly, and that has an effect all the way down the line. But it has been discovered by quite a few people after the fact, and written about. It does have its fans, in retrospect.”
Some of these fans may recognize Cronenberg’s homage in eXistenZ to Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, in the form of a junk-food bag from “Perky Pat’s” that Jude Law munches from at one point. (That novel, like eXistenZ, features competing versions of reality, a common theme in the work of Dick.)
Cronenberg-heads probably already know that the director was considered to direct Total Recall, but may not realize that he was also in talks at one point about an adaptation of Ubik, a futuristic novel about parapsychology, technology, and the afterlife (the project is still in development, but without Cronenberg’s involvement).
“For various reasons, it fell apart,” the filmmaker explains. “I had meetings with Philip Dick’s daughters; that’s the closest degree of separation I’ve had from him, and it was exciting to me, really. But I think when it comes to the crunch, it’s hard to find a producer who will really do The Stigmata, for example. It’s still pretty disturbing, I think. There are about a hundred movies that could be made from Dick’s stuff, but I think people are afraid of it still, which is a testament to the power that his work has.”
Maps to the Stars and other upcoming projects
Let’s return to that question about the Cronenbergian content of Maps to the Stars, rephrasing it slightly: does it contain elements of body horror; the visceral, flesh-based subgenre that Cronenberg is seen as pioneering?
“For me, all my films are very fleshy,” he answers. “They’re also very funny. People have asked me when am I going to do a comedy, and I say, ‘I do nothing but’. Still, you can imagine, what’s the most common thing you’re shooting in a movie? It’s the body. It’s the human face. So to me, all of my movies are concerned with the body, no matter what. I think A Dangerous Method was really very body-focused. Even though the bodies are often in a lot of clothes, there’s the way the clothes are meant in that era to shape the body, to hide the body, to represent seriousness because [for instance] you’re wearing a black coat.”
As for Maps—Cronenberg is a good with suspense even in interviews, it turns out, but he finally gives an answer —“I would say that Maps to the Stars really feels very much like me to me. It is also very much Bruce Wagner, who wrote the screenplay, but it’s taken me 10 years to get that movie made, so I have to say that obviously there was a compulsion there for me to not let go of it. I tried several times to get it made, and I finally did. What more can I say? I really needed to make that movie.”
He adds: “And it’s certainly got some horrific scenes. Some of them are only horrific emotionally, mind you. I say, only. But there are a few pretty good body moments, too, I think you’ll find.”
Another upcoming release that Cronenberg fans can look forward to is Nightbreed: The Cabal Cut, a significantly expanded, alternate version of the 1990 Clive Barker film that featured Cronenberg in one of his largest acting roles. He plays a psychiatrist with a dark secret named Philip K. Decker, who is pitted against a horde of monsters hiding in a cemetery in Calgary. As of the interview with the Straight, Cronenberg had not yet seen this new cut of the film, pieced together from various sources—some in fairly rough shape!—by restoration director Russell Cherrington. When I inform Cronenberg that his resurrection scene at the end of the theatrical version is cut from the new one, he quips, “No sequel for me,” and then jokes that “if it contains less of me, then I’m not in favour of it”.
Cronenberg needn’t fear: there are substantial additions to his screentime, including scenes where he explains his relationship to a particular mask his character sometimes wears, scenes where he argues with said mask, and a scene where he kills one of the Nightbreed and parades about with his severed head.
He also gets a chuckle at the U.S.-style private militia headed by a brutal redneck cop played by Charles Haid, which could be read as a sly Torontonian poke at Americans (or at least Calgarians). The Cabal Cut is still a work in progress, yet to have a Vancouver screening. A DVD/Blu-ray of a finished “director’s cut” of the film—distinct from The Cabal Cut—is also in the works, but has no release date as yet. Go here for more.
Devotees of David Cronenberg can also look forward to the release, later in the year, of his first novel, Consumed.
“I have publishers in about 17 countries,” he says. “It’s Hamish Hamilton, which is Penguin, in Canada, and it’s Scribner, which is Simon and Schuster in the U.S., Gallimard in France, Fischer in Germany, Fourth Estate in the U.K. I’ve even got a Romanian and a Hungarian and a Brazilian publisher. It will be out in the English language countries on September 30.”
The theme of the book? You can practically see Cronenberg’s sly smile. “Ah, well—you’ll have to wait!” he says.
The retrospective David Cronenberg: From Within opens at the Cinematheque next Thursday (April 3) with a screening of the Vancouver theatrical debut of the director’s cut of Videodrome, presented by UBC Cronenberg scholar Ernest Mathijs.