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Just as we almost lost Martin Scorsese to the Church, we almost lost David Cronenberg to Science. Growing up in ’40s and ’50s Toronto, son of a journalist father and piano teacher mother, Cronenberg Jr favoured insects and microscopes over football and baseball. Sure, he liked to go to the movies, but he was by no means a cinephile; if anything, it was his friends who dragged him along.
It was only natural, then, that he should attend the University of Toronto as an Honours Science student in 1963. Luckily for us, he switched to English Language and Literature a year later, his love of the arts (“I wrote my first novel when I was 10!”) finally winning the battle for heart and head. Soul didn’t come into it, mind, Cronenberg inheriting his parents’ unshakeable atheism. It was this disbelief, married to his fascination with biology, that would inform his work when his career path took a second swerve (or a third if you consider he once toyed with the idea of becoming a veterinarian) into filmmaking. Watch student featurettes Stereo and Crimes Of The Future and you’ll witness key themes in embryonic form: flawed science, disease, transformation, disintegration, chaos, liberation…
“To pretend everything is okay is fakery,” he says when Total Film meets him for breakfast at the Cannes Film Festival. He’s here to promote A History Of Violence, a seemingly routine drama (peaceful man must embrace violence to protect family) that steadily reveals itself to be a searing take on identity, small-town repression and political aggression. “My parents never tried to candy-coat the truth, to give me a false optimism that everything will be okay when we die,” he continues. “That’s why my characters must confront life’s tears: they must earn their peace.” Likewise Cronenberg doesn’t see the many scientists in his films (Shivers, Scanners, The Brood, The Fly) as playing God. There is no God, so they’re only doing their best, however blindly, to assist man’s evolution.
Looking over an exceptional body of work that includes Rabid, Videodrome, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch and his masterpiece, Crash, it’s hard to believe a 23-year-old Cronenberg taught himself the mechanics of filmmaking by trawling through manuals. It’s this pragmatic approach that perhaps explains the formal control – the severity and austerity – of his movies. But such cool-headed discipline only aids the process when dealing with such heated themes as sexual ‘degeneracy’, reality bleeding into fantasy and the S&M smeltings of machine and flesh.
Cronenberg chuckles, his preternaturally bright eyes flashing beneath a shock of Eraserhead hair. “My films freak a lot of people out because they think they’re kind of depraved,” he says. “I like that.”
Let’s start with A History Of Violence’s source material. David Cronenberg choosing to adapt a graphic novel comes as something of a shock...
My agent sent me Josh Olson’s script; it was only later I learned it was based on a graphic novel. I’d worked with Josh on the script and I’d also done a rewrite of my own before someone mentioned the graphic novel. I said, “What graphic novel?” Normally something like that is written on the front page so I had no idea. At that point I read the novel and felt we’d already left it behind. It was of no consequence.
It seems you’ve worked hard to graft on extra layers of meaning...
That’s exactly what it was and that’s an organic metaphor so I appreciate it. We’ve seen the story many times before in many Westerns: the retired gunfighter who has to put on his guns again. But it’s a matter of the filmmaker expressing his sensibility. Hop-Along Cassidy is a wonderful film about a guy defending his homestead; there’s a Roy Rogers version of the same thing that’s not so wonderful. A substantial filmmaker brings substance. Look at George Stevens with Shane.
Violence permeates the entire film. Are you saying that it’s in our make-up, inescapable?
I think it is. We’re the only creatures in the world who can idealise something, who can abstract. We can imagine something that doesn’t exist, like a world with no war. It seems almost simple when we imagine politicians getting together to solve these f*****g problems, you know? But we can’t achieve it. That is the nature of our particular beast. But it doesn’t mean we should give up.
Are you suggesting that violence is sometimes justifiable? Viggo Mortensen’s character kills to protect his family...
That’s the drift. I mean, the first two guys who come into his diner are very bad guys; they’ve killed children so they deserve to die. I’ve set it up so that we think that. I want the audience to approve of the act of violence so that later, when other acts happen that are more disturbing, your complicity makes you uncomfortable. Of course, the urge to survive, to protect your genetic heritage, is basic and cellular: amoebas do that. The difficulty comes when technology is involved and it becomes a political agenda. Then your administrations policy is effectively based on an old Western movie.
God bless America, eh?
Well, yes… but I have to say there’s probably no country in the world that doesn’t use its own mythology as its own propaganda. Militant Islam has its own version of that – “God wills this… These are infidels” – so I wouldn’t lay the entire rap on America just because it’s the most powerful country in the world right now. When Britain had its own empire, the self-justification sprang.
How do you see A History Of Violence fitting into your body of work? Many of your key themes are absent.
I don’t have a checklist of things when I’m reading a script. I take on projects intuitively and it’s not until I’ve made the movie that I realise why I wanted to make it. In retrospect, I could say that this movie would make a good double-bill with Spider because they’re both about identity and family and, like The Dead Zone, it has an Americaness to it. The Dead Zone’s the closest because both movies are about families in a small town. They both even have sheriffs!
As always, you refuse to pass moral judgement on your characters. Many people would be appalled, for example, by the sex-craved creatures in Shivers or the symbiotic twins in Dead Ringers...
I basically think all humans are equal. I don’t think there are too many people who view themselves as the consummate embodiment of evil. It’s a confusing existence we have. It’s short, it has limitations, it’s scary. We wouldn’t have time to absorb everything and become mature if we lived for a thousand years. We’re all trying to engage our society; we’re all scrambling to find meaning in our lives. I have empathy and pity for my characters.
Equally, you view disease and mental disintegration through different eyes to most. Is it fair to say you find it transgressive and liberating?
Being revolted, repulsed or horrified is a very limiting reaction to me. Disgust is actually an animal function; we have a consciousness that supercedes that. To comprehend physical life on this planet we must use our rational insight and come to terms with what it is to be a human being susceptible to disease. If we turned away from everyone who was sick or deformed or demented, we would never have the knowledge and understanding of the human mind and the human body that we have now. I’m pushing it a bit further than most are willing to go, but surgeons and doctors don’t find revulsion, either. They find beauty.
You’re a fit man but you’re now in your 60s. Do you think that your films become more personally relevant as you get older?
Absolutely. I’m 62 and I’m at a point in my life where I know more dead people than living. All the people I grew up with have died. It’s strange, because you do get to a point where you say, “This is for real, isn’t it?” It was theoretical before, but now it’s close to home. It’s palpable. And I must say that nothing has happened in my ageing that’s made me think my approach to all this was wrong.
Does it feel cathartic to make movies like Rabid, The Brood and The Fly? Does it work out your fears?
Making any art – even movies about death – is cathartic. It’s a positive act, an act of creation. Woody Allen makes a film every year. When he’s asked why he makes a film every year, he says, “Fear of death.” I can understand that: if I wasn’t making movies, I’d be obsessing about death. If you’re making a film about death, you’re at least thinking about it in movie terms rather than living terms.
Critics always try to find trigger points to explain your work. Some have pointed to the deaths of your parents...
Yeah, the parent death thing keeps coming back but I was writing about death and decay long before my parents were dying and decaying. Their deaths only confirmed that I was doing it right. Look, everyone’s parents eventually die but not everyone makes films like I do. I really think it’s cheap… It’s not even Freudian. I mean, just recently somebody writing about The Fly asked me, “Would you confirm that your father died of cancer?” Well, actually, my father didn’t die of cancer so, jeez, sorry to have blown that connection.
So many of your movies address sexuality head on. Your characters can only taste liberation if they embrace their desires, right?
Sex and death go together like bacon and eggs. I wish I could take credit for being the first one to think of that, but human art began with that perception 50,000 years ago. Sex is a way to conquer death. It’s also an affirmation of the body, the health of the body, the pleasure of the body… There’s a reason people who have just escaped death tend to be very sexy: if death is everywhere then we’d better reproduce right away. It’s an encoded, genetic thing.
It must annoy you, then, when people hit you with the “pornography” stick.
It depends completely on the cultural context of that particular critic. It’s not surprising that Alexander Walker [the late film critic of the Evening Standard] hated Crash, given his Englishness and his age. He wasn’t of the mindset of the movie I was sending out, whereas the French critics loved it! Walker said that my movie was “beyond the bounds of depravity”. I think it was a very passionate, very eloquent look at the desperation of human existence. I’m thinking high art, he’s thinking low pornography.
And yet you handled the material with control. How could anyone accuse it of being salacious?
I did my job but I don’t think he did his. I can understand him not engaging with it on a personal, visceral level, but I’d have thought there was enough there intellectually to see that you cannot call it pornography. People who like porn would be totally bored by Crash. It’s not a w****r’s movie.
Talking of sex, you were linked to Basic Instinct 2 for a while there. What happened?
My approach was to forget Basic Instinct and to regard it as an original script rather than a sequel. It was a really good thriller, very intelligent and extremely smart. That’s the missing part of the puzzle for the people who thought it was a strange fit.
No more strange than Flashdance, Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop, all of which you were offered...
But I never considered those. I just said “no”. Basic Instinct 2 was different – it could have been terrific.
So what curtailed your involvement?
There was an actors’ strike in the offing. Everyone was in a panic to get the shooting done before the strike, so outrageous amounts of money were being offered to actors to play roles that they probably shouldn’t have done. I wasn’t happy with the proposed casting and neither was Sharon Stone or MGM. Basically we said, “We don’t want that guy, we’re not that desperate”, so it all fell apart.
But you are going to adapt Martin Amis’ London Fields?
It’s a possibility but not a sure thing. I hope so because Martin Amis is a fantastic writer. Again, people think it’s a strange fit – London, darts – so they wonder why I want to do it. Well, the brilliant writing goes a long way!
Okay, let’s shift from your proposed future to your genre roots. Did it irk you that so many people saw only the gore in your early movies?
I was a kid filmmaker trying to carve out a niche. I was happy to play with the genre guys. I mean, Carpenter, Romero and myself were all playing together and we took a lot of strength from each other. We also took a lot of hits together! It’s been a long road from being a genre filmmaker to going to Cannes and winning prizes, but I’ve never turned my back on the horror genre. I’ve never felt like I was climbing out of the ghetto.
So you didn’t mind people labelling you ‘The Baron Of Blood’?
It was a title I invented myself, so I have to take the hit on that one! No one ever called me Dave “Deprave” though, so whoever wrote the blurb on the IMDB completely made that up. It sounds like some name I was called as a kid or something. Still, I have to smile.
Your work is less visceral now but it’s every bit as confrontational. How do you find the energy to still rattle the right cages?
I take that as a huge compliment and I hope it’s true. It’s not by any particular effort of will, though. Making a film is a long process, two years minimum, and I don’t have many groups of two years left as I get older. I have to be passionate to commit.
Many filmmakers of your generation don’t view it that way. They now churn out safe, uninspired work.
Well, there is a metabolic shift as you get older: I no longer have the fire in my belly to race cars [his other great passion], much as I love the sport. I guess it’s possible that an artist could shift that way as well, especially in the movie business where you can acquire a reputation and then coast for a bit, taking the money without really caring about what you’re saying. I’ve seen a lot of other filmmakers get comfy and boring. I hope that it never happens to me.
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