Author: Smith, Adam
Date published: February 1, 2012
"If you live long enough you will transform," he says. Empire wonders now bodv horror to FreudandJung for disiatesi movie has transformed David Cronenberg
Has any other contemporary director provided as many stunning and disquieting images as David Cronenberg? Exploding beads (Scanners), greedy underarm proboscises (Rabid), baboons turned inside-out (The Fly) and external wombs (The Brood) are only a few examples of the kind ofmoistly rococo imagery he has spliced into horror cinema's DNA. It, then, surely can't entirely be a coincidence that hu latest film, A Dangerous Method, is about the birth of psychiatry, an area of medicine of which his detractors would no doubt suggest he avail himself.
Cronenberg rose to prominence among the horror cognoscenti with a run of groundbreaking, disruptive and utterly original horror movies during the lOsand '80s which shunned the usual drive-in grist of monsters or axe-wielding maniacs infavourofthe one thing the victim could never escape: their own body. Parasites turned their victims into raging maniacs in Shivers, Marilyn Chambers' botched plastic surgery turned her into a host for a ghastly vampiric virus in Rabid, while psychokinesis thriller Scanners provided, in its detonating noggin, one of the most paused, rewound and slo-moed images of the video age. This imagery found its apotheosis in his mainstream breakthrough, The Fly, a radical reimagining of the 'SOs camp classic, and Videodrome, which had James Woods transforming into a human VCR.
But over the last decade or so, Cronenberg himselfseems to have undergone something of a transformation. Though eXistenZ played with the by now familiar imagery of mutation and disease, Spider, A History Of Violence and the underrated Eastern Promues all eschewed the familiar surrealism and grue in favour of what, on the surface at least, appeared to bea more conventional attitude to story telling. His latest continues the development. Basedonastageplay by Christopher Hampton, A Dangerous Method is an account of the friendship and then angry rupture between Sigmund Freud and his star pupil Carl Jung, with Viggo Mortensen and the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender as the warring shrinks, and Keira KnightUy as patient-turned-doctor Sabina Spielrein.
The usual line on Cronenberg is that, given hh movies, you expect to meet a slaveringmaniac but then you find this incredibly civilised 'gentleman. Still, when Empire meets him while he's in London to accept an honorary BFI Fellowship, he seems to have some kind of strange, necrotic lesion on his neck - weswearwe can see small, insect-like shapes moving under the surface...
Otherwise he is, as usual, an incredibly intelligent interview subject during a wide-ranging discussion that takes in psychoanalysis, the absence of God and his being offered Flashdance. Which, frankly, is a movie we'd have killed to see...
EMPIRE: First things first. There have been a lot of rumours about a Fly prequel to be directed by you. Were you approached about that and will it happen?
CRONENBERG: Well, I did talk to Fox, because my agent found out that they were approaching people to do a remake of my film. He sort of said, "Well, you know, what about David?" And ▄iey said, "Well, we never thought of that!" I think they'd been to Guillermo del Toro and Michael Bay. I said, "Long ago I proposed a sequel to Mel Brooks when he said he wanted to make a sequel." ^O He didn't like what I proposed because he said it wasn't the same as the original movie "A sequel," he said, "should be more of the same." And I said, "Well, Mel, then I'm not interested." And he went off and did his sequels and tiiey had nothing to do with me and they weren't very successful. But I still had this idea in mind - which no, I won't tell you - and 1 said to Fox, "I'll write that idea up because, as I ▄iink of it, it could be interesting." And they were excited about it enough to pay me to write a script. And then for various reasons it kind of got bogged down. I don't know exacdy why. It seems now that it's not going to happen. But it's a script that I like and would do. It's not exactly a sequel, and it's certainly not a remake. More a meditation...
EMPIRE: Can you give us an oblique clue, at least? Does it happen in the same time period, for instance?
CRONENBERG: No. And that's a clue. And also it involves teleportation. Anyway, if it had worked out I would be in pre-production right now and that would be my third movie back to back. But it wasn't to be.
EMPIRE: Is it dead or just dormant?
CRONENBERG: (Pauses) Dead I think. Unless there's a regime change at Fox. yeah. It's over.
EMPIRE: Is it irritating that your attempt to do a sequel stalls while many of your films, including The Fly, have had sequels made by other people who were really inferior?
CRONENBERG: Well, it's happened a lot. 1 mean, there are about five Scanner movies. Scanner Cop and so on. I've not seen any of them but it's... Really, I would just like to get paid. But I don't because as a kid I just signed away all the rights (laughs). It doesn't bother me really. There was a mini-series of The Dead Zone but there was one of The Shining, too. Ve' Is Kubrick turning over in his grave? 1 don't think so.
EMPIRE: Congratulations on the BFI Fellowship, by the way.
CRONENBERG: Thanks. It's a huge honour obviously, particularly from the BFI as I've always been a fan of British
EMPIRE: You're also here to talk about A Dangerous Method, of course. So how do you view these publicity things after nearly four decades of doing them?
CRONENBERG: It's the agony and the ecstasy. On the one hand you really want people to be interested in your movie and I've certainly had movies where people weren't all that interested (laughs), so I'd rather have this. But it is a bind. You know, I've got to go to five cities after this, and then I go back to New York, and then I've got to go to LA and then Toronto, so it's good to interact with the authence basically. and journalists are part of the authence. So that's okay, but after a while it's very exhausting, and you're not making another movie. That's the thing. That's the downside.
EMPIRE: And is it painful constantly autopsying the film you've just made?
CRORENRERfi: Well, this is unusual for me because I have shot another movie in the meantime with Cosmopolis. This is me being Woody Allen, doing a movie a year. Except I've only done it for two years (laughs). I feel I'll be back here talking to you in this room probably next year about Cosmopolis. Which is good. But there is a grind element to it.
EMPIRE: Is there a sense that, like Allen, you 'came to Europe'? Spider and Eastern Promises were both shot in the UK and now A Dangerous Method in Europe as well.
CRONEMBtRG: Yeah, but Cosmopolis I shot in Toronto. No, not at all. First of all. Woody is so prolific. I mean, he's unique that way. I don't know of any other serious filmmaker who does a movie a year and has done that for 30 years. It's really outrageous. I don't know how he does that. But no, each project is entirely its own creature for me. I think Woody had trouble financing his movies in America. For me, in Canada, it's quite a different proposition, because you can do a Canada/France co-production. But I don't think there is such a thing as a US/France co-production. So I can stay in Toronto, as with Cosmopolis, and that was a Canada/ France co-production. It means, though, that I have to do the sound mix in Paris - which is not a terrible thing... Technically we could easily do it in Toronto, but we to spend some money in France. But no, I like shooting in Toronto. Of course it's fun to shoot in someplace you've never been that's exciting.
EMPIRE: What drew you to psychoanalysis, and Freud in particular, for A Dangerous Method?
CRONENBERG: I feel a very collegial connection with Freud because basically it's a desire to find out what's really going on, to figure out what's happening under the surface. You get the official version of your patient's reality, and then you say, "Well, what's really going on? Let's look in those little dark corners" And that's what psychiatry and psychoanalysis does, and it's really what I do too in some of my movies. Or some version of that. And the other thing is that Freud, one of the revolutionary things he did was to insist on the reality of the human body. In a time that we consider to be very repressed. Here was Freud talking about these things that you just didn't talk about. Body pans, penises, anuses, excrement... And he was very disruptive, and so, in some ways, have I been. Or at least, my films have sometimes been perceived that way.
EMPIRE: When you made the early body horror films like Rabid and Shivers, did you want to provoke? Did you think the ideas in these films would offend people?
CRONENBERG: No. Actually, I'm often really surprised about how offended people get. And then often they're suddenly not. In the fullness of time suddenly people's opinions change. At my age you have a very mellow outlook on these things because you've seen how these things develop. The elements the people have been shocked at before have now become part of the canon, and they don't shock anymore. But that was never a purpose of mine. I know people find this difficult to believe and they think that it must be that I set out to scandalise people in some way, but it was absolutely not the case. I mean, in the main I'm making a movie for myself. And I'm looking at things that surprise me and enchant me and engage me on many levels. I'm really just exploring the things that I'm interested in. I don't feel that I'm assaulting people in any way. Hitchcock liked to think that he was manipulating his authence. He thought that the authence were his puppets. He would pull the strings and people would laugh or cry or jump. And I never really thought of myself like that. Of course, there are moments where someone jumps out of the side of the frame and you want to figure out how to make that work. But that's a sort of low-level mechanical element...
EMPIRE: And there's very little of it in your movies.
CRONENBBtG: Very little. It can be fun for a moment, but it's never of the essence. It's not a big deal. It's not that interesting, basically.
EMPIRE: Was it intentional that you became a horror director?
CRONENBERG: It was just a natural thing. It seems calculated. I suppose, because so many directors got their start making horror films Even Coppola and Scorsese - at least, making a genre picture. You're protected a bit as a young, inexperienced filmmaker by the genre. In that even if you were a little bit inept, there was enough of an authence and enough of an understanding of the genre that you could pretty much get by. But in fact, in Canada, when I started, making a horror film was the hardest thing to do. I mean, it was completely not a good thing to do because there was no tradition of genre filmmaking at all in Canada. We had the National Film Board and they would make docu-dramas, almost. There was a movie called Drylanders, you know. It was about how hard life was on the prairies Vf.'. I mean, that you could get made and financed in Canada. But to make a horror movie it took a few years to convince people - the government in particular - to invest in it because there was no tradition of that kind of thing. In retrospect it seems like a brilliant plan (laughs), but really it was an accident because when I started to write my first script, I had no idea what would come up out of the typewriter. I had never written a screenplay. And it was not obvious to me that it was going to be a horror film.
EMPIRE: And you'd never really been a great film lover, an obsessive in the Scorsese mould?
CRONENBERG: No. Going to the movies was just like the air you breathed when I was a kid. It wasn't special. You went to the cinema on Saturdays But then later, at college I became very interested in the Art film' of the late '50s and '60s. It was a category then, it was a genre in itself. The Art film with the capital A. It would be Bergman and Truffaut and Antonioni and so on. But I was never 'obsessed' with movies. And one of the key reasons, really, was that it never occurred to me that I could make a movie. For kids now of course that's unthinkable but then here I was - a Canadian in Toronto. Nobody was making films. I mean, if you grew up in LA like Spielberg, of course everybody's cousin and uncle is involved in the movie business. But in Toronto nobody was because there wasn't a film business Literally. There was television. And there was good drama on television. That really had an effect on me. But once again, it was just the air you breathed, it came in through the pores, it wasn't an obsession. And it wasn't something that I thought I could ever have access to.
EMPIRE: Do you remember these ideas of mutation and parasitical infection, that would become 'body horror', first occurring to you?
CRONENBERG: I was always a nature-boy as a kid. I really loved natural phenomena. I loved it. Someone I was just talking to said, "Well, you did collect insects as a child," as if this was significant. But it's only to certain people Really, there are a lot of kids who are interested in bugs and frogs and what's the big deal? But I was like that. And I was interested in the life-cycle of insects because it seemed to me to be quite extraordinary. Really phenomenal and rather beautiful.
EMPIRE: You weren't attracted to conventional horror stories, then?
CRONENBERG: I was never really interested in the supernatural. Even before I could say that I was an atheist, the supernatural didn't interest me. Ghosts and stuff just seemed so unlikely. Whereas something like human parasites that could control you - well, there are instances in nature. Parasites do sometimes control the animals they infest. So it was kind of intriguing. Even their mentality. It's quite shocking, really, once you into it vl/ . And it's been around for millions of years. So it was very natural for me if I was going to be a filmmaker... It wasn't just genre filmmaking that wasn't encouraged in Canada, it was imaginative filmmaking. In the sense of fantastical. It came from one man - a Scot, John Grierson - who was the founder of the National Film Board, and his was a feeling that you document real people and their lives; that's what film and film directors should be doing. And in that case, any kind of inventiveness, even if it was a romantic comedy, would be considered frivolous and not socially productive That was his approach. Now, what I was doing was not socially productive at all. (Laughs)
EMPIRE: You might consider that the introduction of new ideas was socially productive...
CRONENBERG: Exactly! And John Grierson and I could have an animated conversation about that I'm sure. (Laughs)
EMPIRE: The other element you seemed to be drawn towards, and what made you very popular with horror fans and teenage boys, were gore and slime and viscera.
CRONENBERG: It was just my awareness of the human body. Really I'm not doing much different from Freud. He was saying these things matter and they happen to be of the essence of what we are, being human. And though it seems ridiculous, we seem to be quite obsessed by them and controlled by these orifices of ours - sexual and oral organs, eating and excreting and so on. These views seemed to be kind of ridiculous, or disgusting even. But then he was proved to be right. All of that kind of thing is much more accepted now, quite frankly. So for me it was just, once again, an awareness of the body. An insistence that die body is what we are That's die primacy of the human body. It's the first fact of human existence.
EMPIRE: For a lot of people that's a revolutionary thing to say. It throws the soul and God out of the window, for starters...
CRONENBERG: Yeah. If you take away the afterlife and God, you've taken away a lot of what many human beings believe in and what they think life is about. So yes, it is kind of revolutionary. And of course I'm not die first one to like that. It's odd how few people actually lead their lives tfiat way. Though perhaps many people manage to delude themselves into thinking that other things are going on.
EMPIRE: In many of your films, though, there's a sense of transformation into something - something different and perhaps better. It's not exactly religious, but quasi-religious. Almost like the Star Child at the end of 200 1 ...
CRONENBERG: I don't think so. Look, let's say that you're an atheist and you think that the human body is all that there is. Well, even in a normal human life you see a huge amount of transformation. Anybody who has a child, it's amazing what you see happening. And then you reach a certain age and you say, "I don't even recognise the person that I was. And what is the connection between me and that person 20 years ago, or 30 years ago, or when I was a child?" So really, it's a discussion of human life as it's actually lived. It's not more than that. And at that point I'd say it's not really religious at all. It's really a meditation on the human condition. If you live long enough you really can say, "I have transformed from a baby to an adult." But even beyond that, from an adult to another adult to another. If you live long enough you will transform. In my movies I'm giving a dramatic shape to that idea.
EMPIRE: So The Fly is about getting old as much as it is about getting ill?
CRONENBERG: Yeah. I mean, when it came out a lot of people thought it was about AIDS. I thought, "Well, that's fine. It could be about AIDS, it could be about some other disease." But beyond diat it's the universal disease, which is age. And that's not a disease. But it is inevitable for everyone. And so, if the movie has any universal appeal, it would really be on that level. Rather than, you only relate to the movie if you have AIDS or cancer of whatever. Well, not really.
EMPIRE: Seth Brundle transforms into something beyond human, though. As does Max Renn in Videodrome Long live the new flesh...
CRONENBERG: But have you never seen somebody who you haven't seen for many years and you're sort of, "My God, he got so horrible looking. He's fat and old and wrinkly. Senile almost a creature a monster"? The Fly, it's an exaggeration of that reality, it's a metaphor. It's not literal.
EMPIRE: The poet and writer Hugo Williams said that at dinner parties people should be introduced along the lines of, "Oh, this used to be David Brown." Or, "Do you remember when this was Karen Smhh?"...
CRONENBERS: (Laughs) Well, exactly right. I mean, go to a highschool reunion and it's kind of shocking. So, therefore for me, that's not religious. Because even Seth Brundle dies. And when he dies, he's gone. And that's because his body, however transformed, when it's dead, it's dead. There's no sort of 'ghost' of Seth Brundle So to that extent, it's not religious.
EMPIRE: There does seem to be this sense of another realm, though. A new reality Seth is moving into that he can't describe to humans. Or Max Renn's transfiguration in Videodrome
CRONENBERG: Yeah, but in the insect world you get a larva that looks like a worm, it's a caterpillar and then it ends up being a butterfly. The cliched metaphor of all time. But it really happens. And that's kind of the question - it's not really a metaphysical question, it's a very physical question. It's: is the butterfly the same creature as it was when it was a caterpillar? It's different in every possible way, but you can see the physical continuity of it. That's a real transformation, and there's nothing spiritual or metaphysical or religious about it. Certainly religions have used that kind of transformational imagery to represent the transmutation of the soul, and die butterfly flies and it's your spirit and so on. Well... (shrugs)
EMPIRE: You were rumoured to have written a butterfly sequence for The FIy...
CRONENBERG: (Laughs) I can barely remember what I was going to do... I think that was a dream sequence, quite frankly «. It was not anything else.
EMPIRE: You've aroused huge anger in some quarters. How do you feel, being painted as some kind of pariah?
CRONENBERG: I don't think I was ever a pariah. If you think about Crash here it had a completely different fate in Canada and France, for example. So I think of it as a British cultural pathology rather than my own. And I have a perfect viewpoint for that because I can see what happens in different cultures in different countries. They're not received the same way in these different countries. You say the film is the same so what is changing? It's the cultural sensibility of the people watching die film.
EMPIRE: What are your memories of the whole Crash debacle?
CRONENBERG: It's still banned in Westminster (laughs). You can be arrested for showing it. The thing is, I was rather surprised that this 20 year-old novel that had been well accepted as part of the J. G. Ballard canon when made into a movie was suddenly this shocking thing. It was really rather unexpected, from my perspective Once again, just to emphasise I didn't feel the movie was going to be shocking.
EMPIRE: But you must know enough about Daily Mail 'readers by now to...
CRONENBERG: (interrupts) I don't know anything about Daily Mail readers. I totally don't. But you see, I expected that they perhaps wouldn't even notice the film or go to it. Why would they even notice it if it weren't for the people who write for the Daily MaiP And we all know that the tabloids here have a desire to induce outrage - that's how they sell the papers. I definitely got the feeling that most of the people who were writing about it either hadn't seen it or just had to work very hard to generate the necessary outrage. You could feel people like John Bull VEv huffing and puffing to work up the anger.
EMPIRE: How did you feel about the whole thing?
CRONENBERG: One is, you're being assaulted. But you realise it's usually a culturally focussed, particular phenomenon and therefore you can't take it seriously. It was a year of 'outrage', though. But it's so peripheral to my experience of moviemaking, really. And I've made quite a few movies since then, and I haven't had that reaction to them. It feels like very past history, put it that way.
EMPIRE: You seem to have used the kind of imagery that upset these people in the past much less in films post-Crash.
CRONENBERG: Well, I think I did in eXistenZ. But you know, that's the past. I mean, I'm listening to what you're saying and thinking, "Well, I've heard this before." Mostly in this country, I gotta say. I don't talk about this stuff anywhere but in England. I've made half-a-dozen movies that have nothing like the Videodrome imagery in them. Or the Shivers or Rabid imagery. I don't think of my films like that. A Dangerous Method, for instance, is totally me. There's nothing in it that hasn't filtered through my sensibility, no-one else made this movie, /made this movie. When I make a movie, every other movie I have ever made is completely irrelevant to me. It has no meaning. I'm not interested in what I did before. It doesn't help me. Each movie is an entity, it's a kind of organic thing. Once you decide you're going to make it, it starts to reveal to you what it should be, what it needs to be. The movie tells me what it wants. I give it what it wants. To give this movie that kind of imagery would be wrong. But it's never even a question. I think it's partly because people don't understand what the creative process is from inside out. They know when they're consuming stuff, but they don't understand what goes into making it. I don't have a checklist of things I use. I don't say, "Well, I must have this otherwise it's not Cronenbergian, or Cronenbergundian." It's not a creative issue at all.
EMPIRE: It's a only critical issue, then. But if you believe in auteur theory you look for themes and similarities in a director's work.
CRONENBERG: Right. And not only a critical issue, but a marketing issue as well. Or it can be. In other words, is it genre or not? Who's interested in this movie, will it be Cronenberg fans who love his early horror films or will it not? And if it's not, who is the authence? Is it even worth calling it a Cronenberg film?
EMPIRE: "From the man who brought you Scanners, now Freud, Jung and the birth of psychoanalysis!"
CRONENBERG: Exactly. So it's of no concern to me while I'm making the movie. And as a critic really has to recognise, his process is not the same as mine. These things, though fun to talk about, have nothing to do with the way the movie is made. Sometimes critics lose sight of that. They really think that you must be thinking of the 'arc of your career' when you make a movie. And as I point out, you're not so in control of what you make, you know? You don't say, "At this point I need to do a historical drama so that people will take me more seriously." No, it's how do you know you're going to find the project and get it financed? All questions of why now, or why that was made then, unless you take the reality of it into account, well, you're just blowing smoke, basically.
EMPIRE: You've stayed away from the Hollywood studios. Was that deliberate?
CRONENBERG: No, no. I've been trying to sell out for years and nobody's been buying (laughs). I mean, very recently I was trying to make The Matarese Circle, an adaptation of the Ludlum book. It was going to star Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington. I wrote a script that Tom really loved and he was ready to do it. And then MGM went belly up. And that wasn't my fault. So would that have worked? Well, I ended up liking my script a lot. Whether it would have ended up being messed around by the studio if they had demanded rewrites, I'll never know.
EMPIRE: I read that you were in the mix for Return Of The Jedi...
CRONENBERG: (Laughs) For a few moments, yes. Here's exactly what happened: I was in the kitchen and ═ got a phone call, I remember this very well, and it was some guy from Lucasfilm and he said he had been authorised to ask me if I'd be interested in doing this third Star Wars movie. And I said to him, "Well, I'm not used to doing other people's material." And then it was, click, brrrrrrrr. I realised what they wanted from me was unbridled enthusiasm and gratitude that you might be granted this incredible opportunity. As soon as I didn't show enough of that, it was over. Literally in seconds. I was flattered though.
EMPIRE: And Top Gun?
CRONENBERG: Top Gun and Witness and Flashdance. That was (Columbia studio boss) Dawn Steel. She for some reason was convinced that I was the right guy to do Flashdance. And I just knew that I wasn't. I don't know how I would've screwed it up, but I'm sure I would have.
EMPIRE: Ever considered a comic book franchise?
EMPIRE: They're where multiplex cinema is at right now. Nothing could tempt you?
CRONENBERG: I have affection for those comics because I grew up reading Superman or Superboy, and Spider-Man. I grew up in the '40s and '50s when those things were an original part of the culture. But these young filmmakers, they have a weird nostalgia for a past they never had. They want to relive their childhood, or somebody's childhood. I don't have the desire to do that. Really. At a certain point you have to think, "Here I am, I've been working on this movie for three months and is it really feeding me? Is it just a technical drudge?"
EMPIRE: But when you think about it. The Fly is Spider-Man gone wrong.
CRONEMEK: Not really. No. A fly is an insect and a spider is an arachnid. So they're not even in the same category.