In the somewhat chilly screening room in the basement of Toronto’s Thompson Hotel, the cast and crew of David Cronenberg’s big screen adaptation of author Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis have assembled for a press conference to talk about a film many thought couldn’t be made. It’s not exactly the first time such a thing has come up in the lengthy career of one of Canada’s most widely known directors. Having previously adapted such controversial and daunting works of literature J.G. Ballard’s Crash and William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Cronenberg chose to take a much more faithful and straightforward approach to his work here.
Seated to his left is his lead actor Robert Pattinson, nervously gnawing on a toothpick, but remarkably relaxed when it comes to answering questions about his character and his role as a celebrity. Best known for his role as Edward Cullen in the Twilight juggernaut, the actor, who also dabbles quite frequently in independent cinema, stars as Eric Packer, a 29 year old financial wizard the audience spends an almost full 24 hours with as he attempts to cross New York City just to get a haircut amid a crisis of personal and global finance.
Dork Shelf was on hand to talk with and witness Cronenberg and Pattinson talking about their latest effort and the challenges of adapting DeLillo’s work, Pattinson’s fans, and why the film despite its timely nature isn’t exactly symbolic of the current Occupy Wall Street movement. Also included are some comments from actor Paul Giamatti, who was also on hand to discuss his unusual preparation for his brief role as one of Eric Packer’s former co-workers currently out for revenge.
David Cronenberg on adapting DeLillo, writing the screenplay for the film in only six days, and the changes between the book and the film.
David Cronenberg: It was the dialogue that was the backbone of it and I thought that it was typical Don DeLillo dialogue, which is realistic because Americans do speak like that, but it’s also heavily stylized. I do think of it as being a bit Pinteresque in that it has a real stylized rhythm and tone that you can recognize from a mile away and that the punctuation really matters.
I literally had the computer here and the book here and I transcribed all of the dialogue into screenplay form and I just asked if it was a movie or not and I thought, yeah, it was. Then I just put in a whole bunch of action stuff and that was it.
When I had finally met Don DeLillo and he had read the script by that time – I hadn’t had any direct contact with him at that point – he said he was really interested to see how I was going to handle the journal of Benno (Levin, Giamatti’s character) and you see it very early on in the novel. He said “I was interested to see that you dealt with it by leaving it out.” And I said, “Well, sure”, because I can’t do that sort of thing in cinema. My experience in now having adapted quite a bit of things that there are some things that you have to accept that there are certain things that you can’t do in movies that you can easily do in novels and vice versa. I don’t give you Benno’s journal, but I give you Paul. I give you his voice, and his face, and his movement. It’s a de fault swap. It’s the cinematic way of giving you that character.
Other changes in the book… The scene with the Didi character played by Juliette Binoche, that scene originally took place in her posh New York apartment, and I thought that was going to be boring and that I’d rather they did that in the limo, especially since I was feeling that we were going to see the entire film as being from Eric’s point of view. When he was in the limo, we were in the limo. I just felt it would be more interesting. Also, there was this orgy scene in the book. There was an idea that Eric and Elise would have this reconciliation while there was this movie scene orgy was being shot and there were 150 people lying around naked on the streets of New York – with no police around or anything – and he and Elise just take off their clothes and lie down together and they have this sort of rapprochement on the streets of New York. So I just thought, “Well, that’s not going to work.” (laughs) I really thought that it was, in the book, just like a fantasy of Eric’s and the realization that it was all over. It was all in his head and it just wouldn’t work in screen.
Cronenberg on his affinity for adapting books and authors many have deemed as being “unfilmable.”
David Cronenberg: I really don’t think of it in those terms. I just read the book. I just liked it and thought it was complex. And I don’t really analyze, I mean, in the way that I approached the script and the acting. It was basically brain dead. There’s no rules or agenda. Some people think that I have a whole checklist of things that I look for in a project and I don’t.
I was kind of surprised by Cosmopolis because I had read DeLillo and I knew that Scott Rudin had purchased the rights to his novel Underworld and I thought that you could make 12 movies out of that book and I wonder which was going to get made. Of course, none of them got made, and I was surprised that two days after reading the book that I could say that I wanted to make a movie out of this.
Certainly the entire idea of trying to film “unfilmable” novels is not in my head at all. I think they’re filmable and that’s why I film them. (laughs) It’s not as if that’s a challenge I’m looking for. On the contrary, the easier it is to work the happier I am. I’m fairly lazy that way.
The thing is that a lot of screenwriting is abysmal. It’s a different style of writing and completely different from novel writing. Usually the only thing that ends up on screen from the screenplay is the dialogue, so your grammar can be bad, and often it is from some really professional filmmakers. Terrible grammar. Terrible spelling. Inept writing. But their narrative structure is okay and the dialogue is good, so you can still have a career. But none of that would pass muster in a novel, even in a bad one. I do appreciate good writing because in something like DeLillo there’s such depth to what he does and such a resonance. The dialogue is fantastic. It’s like the bible in that there’s a quote for every occasion in Cosmopolis, and I can’t take any of the credit for that because I just transcribed all of his dialogue. There’s a complexity here that you don’t get from most screenplays.
Cronenberg on making his actors say the lines exactly as they are written in the screenplay.
David Cronenberg: That’s not just the way with this movie, but with all the movies I do in general. I don’t want the actors to be screenwriters. They’re not designed to work like that. If you’re making a movie like Cassavettes and everyone’s improvising and that’s understood and you’ve got actors that are used to it, that’s a whole other thing. Basically I want them to stick to the script, but within that there’s tonnes of things that an actor can bring to you. It’s the choreography and the tonality, the pitch, the rhythms, and the pauses.
The key to it all, actually, is in the screenplay, as it always is. Here, it’s when the doctor says to Eric to “let it express itself.” That’s how I felt about the screenplay.
Robert Pattinson on overcoming his own fears about the role and working with Cronenberg on a DeLillo adaptation.
Robert Pattinson: He told me to stop worrying. (laughs, turns to David) You hired me basically in the throes of a panic attack. I think you just said when we started shooting that what will be will be. It’s a really difficult thing because the problem with acting now is that people all interpret it to be something that you have to analyze or psychoanalyze everything. That’s been like that since the 50s, and before that actors just ever really thought about their voice, and face, and movement.
So you read something like DeLillo – and I’m not some sort of post-modernist scholar or anything…
David Cronenberg: Your agent said you were.
Robert Pattinson: So it comes down to thinking about creating an interpretation of DeLillo that’s completely original in two weeks, which is completely ridiculous. (laughs) But there’s something about the construction of his writing that’s so easy that you don’t need to add anything to it and you just encouraged me. There were no rewrites in the script. Normally, that’s the first thing you’re thinking about as an actor because the script’s just SHIT. So, you really have no ground to stand on in the first place and you’re so used to just changing it all the time on every single movie. On this once you get to the point when you realize that we aren’t changing anything in the script and that it’s fine, it’s YOU that’s the problem. (laughs) At least then you know one thing.
I guess that’s kind of my process right now. I have to go through the motions of feeling like I have to go through a panic attack now. (laughs) I know the first scene with Jay Baruchel in the film… It didn’t help that I completely removed everything that I could use to work the scenes. I had these completely tinted out sunglasses and stuff and the most plain suit you could have and stuck in that seat. On top of that, Jay was so scared he was practically crying. Both of us were absolutely terrified. (laughs)
We did more takes for that earlier scene than for later scenes, but I think a lot of it came down to David just being calm. Just knowing that someone is actually watching the monitor and paying attention means a lot, because when you really start to flounder is when you get it into your head that no one’s really watching. Any direction at that point is helpful or else you’re just going to try and take it on yourself to control everything. And you can’t because you aren’t behind the camera. Then you start trying to picture yourself outside yourself, which is impossible. It becomes an awful experience. It’s just a trust thing. If you think that someone’s watching something and you trust their opinion, you can just follow your instincts and not be so detached.
Robert Pattinson on how very little his life mirrors that of Eric Packer.
Robert Pattinson: The relationship to Kevin (Durand, who plays Eric’s bodyguard Torval) and that relationship to security is something I kind of had an idea about, but the isolation of Eric is totally different. It’s self-imposed and he’s chosen his life. There’s very little resemblance to reality.
Paul Giamatti on preparing for a pivotal and dialogue heavy role in Cosmopolis while filming Rock of Ages at the same time.
Paul Giamatti: Fortunately the other movie was not terribly demanding on me. It’s a musical where I don’t have to sing or dance or anything. I just have to show up and crack jokes and things like that. I was a little bit pissed off that I had to do both at the same time. (laughs) It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. I was panicked about it; the length of it and the language, so I was bothering everyone I could on this other movie to read this thing with me, and I was fortunate enough that Malin Akerman made a great Rob Pattinson. (laughs) I was actually a little disappointed when I got here and it was really Rob, but god bless that woman. She sat with me and read that over and over again with me because I needed that security, but it was nice to fold one film into the other.
We shot the whole thing all in one go. We had something like six days blocked out to shoot it, but we finished it in about three. We kind of broke the scene up into big sections. It was reasonable. It wasn’t even like a play. We broke it down into a bunch of mini-plays within the play. Each section, it’s like, “Jesus Christ, was that already five pages?” It was intense.
David Cronenberg on why he never instructed Giamatti or Pattinson to play their characters as if they were symbolic of anything in particular.
David Cronenberg: You don’t really ask an actor to play a symbol. You can’t really say that you’re a symbol of Wall Street or of American capitalism. Because how do you play that? You can’t do that. It’s only after the fact that you can analyze things in that way, but on the set we don’t talk about that stuff. It’s funny because it’s been pointed out that something like the Occupy Wall Street movement isn’t anti-capitalist. It’s pro-capitalist and saying that they want in on some of the action. There aren’t any anti-capitalists in the film although some might read it as an anti-capitalist screed on some level. The symbolism thing is tricky.
David Cronenberg and Robert Pattinson on dealing with the actor’s high profile on set, crowds, and why his younger fans are being so positive towards his new on screen role.
David Cronenberg: Was it a huge crowd, really? I thought it was just three girls. They were noisy at times, but… I mean, it’s not completely out of my experience. The premiere in Portugal that we had… Now that was something unusual because it was this red carpet that was about a mile long and littered with literally a thousand screaming girls. And not all of them were Portuguese, either because I could clearly hear some of them saying “Come to Russia! Come to Russia!” So I knew they weren’t Portuguese. That was kind of like The Beatles, and I hadn’t experienced anything like that before, but aside from that it wasn’t totally out of my experience.
Robert Pattinson: At times it’s nice, but sometimes it’s hard to imagine just why people would sit around and just watch for a long time, but this film was a little more frightening because we had just finished the first scenes and I had just stepped outside of the limo and there was this big crowd, and it was big shot like where we had shut down the whole street with me and Kevin. And this was in New York and they were shooting Men in Black III at the time and just about that time Will Smith jumps out a window and a huge explosion goes off and everyone’s waiting to see what’s going to happen and then we’re over here barely even opening our mouths and that was that. I was so terrified that people who were waiting around were just going to spread the word that we were the most boring film ever. (laughs) But yeah, here in Canada people are generally nice.
David Cronenberg: Yeah, we’re pretty chilled. But one thing, just to say it. The girls who would be hanging out at Geary Avenue at three in the morning were very sweet and kind, and they had read the book! It was quite extraordinary. They made a T-shirt for us that said “Nancy Babich” on it with a picture of a pistol. I wore that and they went crazy, but that’s interesting.
Very early on we realized that a lot of people were making these Cosmopolis fan sites on the web, and a lot of them were actually quite beautiful. A couple were even better than the official website.
Robert Pattinson: In London, when we were doing interviews together someone asked us what the tagline was, and we were asked about it and when we heard it neither of us knew what it was. I just found out the other day that it was from one of the fan made posters and all these journalists thought it was the real thing.
David Cronenberg: They were making these posters and they were reading the book, and the comments were actually commenting and discussing DeLillo’s book, and these were girls who were previously reading Harry Potter and Twilight. Now they’re reading this and they still want to see the movie, and I think there’s nothing at all wrong with that. For me there was no real downside to that.
Robert Pattinson on what he thinks Twilight fans will think of Cosmopolis.
Robert Pattinson: I think they’ll like it. I mean, you hope that there’s something about what you bring to your job that people like about it and they don’t like what you do in a completely abstract way. Like they don’t say “I’m a Twilight fan and therefore I only like Twilight even if I DON’T like it.” And I liked the Twilight scripts in the same way I liked this.
Come back tomorrow for our one on one interview with actor Kevin Durand about his role in the film and check out our review here!