David Cronenberg is a giant in history of Canadian filmmaking, beloved internationally and yet, implausibly, somewhat taken for granted here in his home country. Sure, he gets attention for some of his previous works, and a dedicated group of genre fans are quick to sing his praises, but somehow, it doesn’t seem like enough given his impact on the world’s stage for his unapologetically Canadian sensibility. Back at Cannes after almost a decade, he returns to the Croisette with Crimes of the Future, a surreal, seductive film about artistic growth and the reticence to move forward. David Cronenberg and I spoke overlooking the Mediterranean about his latest film, what keeps him at home, how he reacts to the works of his own offspring, and more.
Do you get irritated by labels at all? “Master of body horror”or any of it?
They used to say on Wikipedia, I don’t know if it still does, “the Baron of Blood.” [It does.] When I was a kid and trying to get attention, I would say I’m the Baron of Blood, you know? Does that mean it should really be in my description in Wikipedia? Not really. Labels are meant to simplify, meant to be a button you can push. That’s their gift, but it’s also a huge flaw because it’s always oversimplification. I never used the expression “body horror.” I’d never heard of it until I was called it by somebody. I don’t even know who’s responsible for it. It stuck because it’s catchy and it’s a catch-all easy phrase to use, but I think it ends up being lazy because is that really what this is?
The laziness is interesting to me because, again, as one of the silly people who have been around for your career for a little bit, I remember when History of Violence came out and people said it was not really a David Cronenberg film.
Well, it absolutely would not have been what it is if I hadn’t made it.
There are people who say Crimes of the Future is back to being a David Cronenberg film and you know exactly what they mean. Is that at all a stricture?
Well, look at Fellini. “Felliniesque” is a term, but he made a couple of films that were not Felliniesque, but they’re still Fellini! It’s the same thing. It’s nice to be an adjective, Cronenbergesque or whatever.
I try to provoke Cronenbergundian, but nobody’s really picked up on that because it’s more letters.
You shot Maps at the diner OKOK on Queen Street and I was demanding they add a Cronenburger to the menu. I am very pissed off that they haven’t.
That would have been so great.
Would you support such a thing as a Cronenburger?
If Wahlberg can do it, so should Cronenberg?
A meta-textual element of your film, as it were, shall we? You are literally ripping apart, you have Viggo giving birth to things that go on to create new levels of art. You’ve done that yourself with your children.
Well, I do that all the time.
I’m wondering in a funny way, in the most fatherly and paternal way, do you see yourself in their art? Not in a derivative way, but in a . . .
Yeah, I see their creativity as connected to my creativity. With my son, there’s more than just a slight resemblance between his sensibility and mine, and yet he’s a very different person. Caitlin is more different, quite different, but we’ll see. She’s going to make a movie soon. She’s got a movie in the works and I have no idea what it’ll be, except that I did read the script a long time ago.
Can you watch Brandon’s films and see them as films?
Absolutely, I have no problem doing that.
Not just feeling nachas.
I mean, it’s after the fact that it’s nachas. But before, I can absolutely. Brandon has just sent me a link to his new movie, which is in the middle of being edited, because we discuss that. He wants to know what I think.
And what do you learn from him?
I do the same. I show him my film first of all. He’s one of the first people who gets to see it.
I’m going to throw out some words and ask what comes to mind. First up: Canadian.
It really means a whole lot. I mean, I am really Canadian. In the old days, we used to define ourselves against the US, because that was always the defining thing. We’re so close in so many ways, and yet so different, but they don’t recognize the difference. We do recognize the difference, one of those very Canadian things. I’m very Canadian, and the more that I went down to LA or to New York, the more I realized how Canadian I was.
Same thing. Very Jewish, not religious. Atheist. Total secular upbringing and still yet, Jewish. Very definitely. In the secular aspect of Judaism, which is study, philosophy, intellect.
The only place I feel 100% at home. Last week I was discovering how much I really do love Paris in the springtime, and maybe that would be the place I would live if I was going to live someplace besides Toronto. But because of the streets, because of living on Crawford Street near College and because of Sam Sniderman’s music store, and my parents’ life there and their meeting at Harbord Collegiate as teenagers, how can any place be home for me other than Toronto?
Sort of the same. I didn’t meet him until we were teenagers, so we didn’t go to grade school together, but Toronto born and bred.
So you knew him before he was in the band Lighthouse?
I knew him before Lighthouse, yes. I knew him before Saturday Night Live and the All Nurse Band. I knew him when I was 14. He said he used to be really impressed by me because I had a Ducati 750 motorcycle and wore leather pants. [Laughs.]
Did you see the Toronto production of Godspell that everybody was in?
I did not.
The thing that became the entirety of the entertainment industry with Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Paul Schaffer and all of that?
Those guys I didn’t know.
Is it in you to make something like a musical?
No. I mean, as a kid, I had an uncle who lived in New York, very much an American New Yorker, the brother of my mother. We would go to New York all the time. We’d take a bus. And the family would go to New York and I would go to see Brigitte Bardot movies on 42nd street because you couldn’t see them in Toronto if you were that young I was like 13, 15, something like that. So we would see The Pajama Game. I can still sing you some songs from that. We saw West Side Story, and when I was, probably 15, 16 years old with a duck’s ass hairstyle and when I was hanging around at intermission time, people thought I was a member of the cast because I looked like a juvenile delinquent in New York. Those two in particular were live Broadway hits that I saw with my parents.
I’ll give you another word: Chutzpah.
You had no path to do what you do. You made your path.
That is correct. What I had though, from my parents, was immense faith and love and confidence. They were very creative and artistic. My mother was a pianist, my father was a writer. My uncle Harold was a violinist, so there was always music. There were people rehearsing, opera singers would come to the house to rehearse with my mother accompanying. The house was made out of books, I mean there were corridors that were made out of books because my father had run a bookstore in the Depression, when no one was buying, called the Professor’s Bookstore. I think it was on College Street. That was my upbringing, so I did have that, and that was very strong, very strong. It wasn’t filmmaking, but it was very strong.
How did you make the jump? What was the film that you saw that made you think “I can do this, not only I want to do this, but I can do this.” Where did that cognitive leap come from?
That was David Secter’s film Winter Kept Us Warm. That was the one. It was a film he made when we were all in university together and it had never occurred to me to make a film, that I could have access to filmmaking. Films came from someplace else. They came from Hollywood or Europe. And then in this film was Jack Messenger and a couple of other people who were students that I knew and I was shocked. I mean, it was a shock that I don’t think any kid now experiences. To see people I knew in a real movie was impossible. How did that happen? They weren’t stars from another planet. And that immediately meant filmmaking was accessible to me. That was the huge leap right there. I give him and that film credit for that.
And six decades later?
Six decades later, David Secter no longer alive.
And David Cronenberg very much is.
Crimes of the Future opens in theatres June 3.
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