Interview: David Cronenberg

I’d like to think that David Cronenberg needs no introduction. One of Canada’s greatest and most well known filmmakers, Cronenberg has been making feature films for almost 40 years now with little sign of slowing down. When Cronenberg makes a film – regardless of how it’s perceived by critics – people tend to stand up and take notice.

And yet, he’s far more casual than you might expect. Perfectly relaxed at a table in a downtown Toronto restaurant, he gives off a friendly vibe. He’s confident without being arrogant, bringing with him a Canadian sense of politeness that he likes to joke about. Despite making some of the darkest and most boundary pushing films in Canadian history, Cronenberg doesn’t see himself as a dark person. Just someone who’s mind tends towards dark places.

He’s currently promoting his debut novel, Consumed (in stores now), and his latest film, Maps to the Stars (opening across Canada this Friday), a tale of Hollywood secrets written by someone who lived within the city of realized and broken dreams (screenwriter Bruce Wagner) that’s been directed by someone who has strenuously and successfully avoided ever working within the system.

Cronenberg sat down with us to talk about his latest film, his career, his book, why actors love him, why it took Maps to the Stars almost twenty years to get made, and why he never made the jump to Los Angeles.

While you make a lot of your films in Canada, you’ve had to spend some time in Los Angeles. Have you ever experienced the same degree of toxicity that Bruce Wagner put into his Maps to the Stars screenplay first hand?

David Cronenberg David Cronenberg: Yes, I have. In one of the French newspapers, it might have been Le Monde, the headlines over the article for the film was “Je ne déteste pas Hollywood.” Because they felt I must hate Hollywood, and that I must have been waiting for years to do this attack on Hollywood. And when I saw that, I said “Absolutely not.” I have no desire to attack Hollywood. I don’t even think of the movie exactly as an attack on Hollywood. Hollywood doesn’t owe me anything. Most of my films have been co-productions between Canada and Europe. It’s all Eastern, not Western.

On the other hand, over forty years of filmmaking, I’ve certainly spent time in Hollywood. I’ve never made a movie there, and maybe A History of Violence was a close as I ever came to making a studio movie. That was with New Line Cinema, so that’s even up for debate. I’ve basically never been a Hollywood filmmaker. I haven’t had that kind of specific experience, but I’ve had many meetings with studio heads and networks about potential TV series and so on, and some of those things were more absurd and more ridiculous than anything you’ll see in the movie.

I knew when I read Bruce’s script that this was true. This is not a satire. This is reality. And the feedback that I’ve gotten from all sorts of directors and studio people says exactly that. “You’re right. This is our life. This is the life we live.”

To a certain degree, even if it’s not satire, to fully realize something like this and bring out that darkness, you and Bruce have to share at least somewhat of the same sense of humour about things.

DC: Well, that’s that absurdity of the human condition, isn’t it? Once again, that’s not unique to Hollywood. Any human endeavour has those aspects. Look at various forms of pop culture that can skewer any business, be it Wall Street, or Silicon Valley, or Dilbert – the cartoon, which I love – I don’t have those experiences, but the absurdity of that is real despite being exaggerated. Life in a cubicle with a pointy haired boss over you is something I can understand and relate to without specifically living it.

Bruce Wagner and I, for whatever reason, really cross sensibilities. In fact, now that I’ve written a novel and I’ve read his novel Dead Stars – which has no direct relationship to Maps to the Stars, even though some people thought that was the case, it isn’t – and I saw amazing connections in our two books; references, touchstones to things that are out there in the world. We aren’t copying each other, but we’re obviously responding to the same zeitgeist with the same kind of antennae. But there’s a rare communality of sprit there between me and Bruce, which is rare. We’ve been friends since I read his first novel, Force Majeure, back in 1992. We’d been looking to do something ever since and this was the first time that we managed to do that.

Since you guys get along so well, how attached was Bruce to the script and did you feel comfortable ever taking liberties with his material?

DC: I absolutely felt comfortable with the situation. I mean, Bruce is a total professional, and he was on set every single day. I never had that except if it was my own script. And he was only supportive. And he only wanted to be there not to protect his script and complain, but to follow the process. He was excited about it, and he’s directed a couple of movies himself. He felt he would learn something from watching the way that I work because he had never done that before.

The deal is that if I’m directing, I have complete control, and that’s something I wouldn’t have if I was doing a studio film, but it’s something I’m very used to as an independent filmmaker. The financing is hell, but once you’re on the set it’s great because you have complete control. I mean, when I was doing Cosmopolis, Rob Pattinson said to me, “I’ve never seen this before.” I said, “Seen what?” He says, “You make all the decisions right here on the spot and then carry them out.” And I just said, “Rob, it’s just you and me making this film, no one else.”

When you do a studio movie, if you want to change the colour of a character’s sweater in a scene, you have to get on the phone, call someone at the studio, get in touch with an executive, argue, fire the costume person, all of these traumas have to happen for the simplest things. I’ve never had that experience, and I’ve never had anything other than total freedom. That’s partly by luck and partly by design. I avoid working in situations where I’m going to have a horrible time.

But with Bruce, I was just there to protect the script. My involvement with the script over the past ten years was to update it, tighten it, and get rid of extraneous stuff. Bruce could have written 800 pages of that stuff, easily. In fact, Dead Stars is about 800 pages of different, but similar stuff. It’s a fantastic book. I recommend it. And Bruce always encouraged anything I wanted to do. You have to have trust. On a studio movie, I think that you don’t have trust. That’s why they’re always second guessing you. But in an indie film, trust is the nature of the game.

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You said you were working for ten years to get this made, so what was happening before that was stopping the film from getting made back when you and Bruce first started collaborating?

DC: The changes were very much just about bringing it up to date. He actually wrote the script twenty years ago when he was despairing about being able to write his novel. His references in the film, as you know, are very current. He’s talking about recent TV shows, and recent cultural events and stuff, and he was real fearless about that. I was always worried about that because I thought things like that would date my films, but he was never worried about that.

What would happen was we would update it right to the last minute of shooting. There are references in there that are in shooting scripts on the internet that never made it into the film. That was really what changed most with the film itself. Early on I walked him through it and would say, “You don’t need this scene. You’ve done it already. You don’t need to do it again.” That’s the other kind of thing I would do. I like a short, tight script that I can’t throw anything away from. I don’t want to waste time on anything I might throw away. I’ve gotten enough experience to know how to do that now. It takes a long time to figure that out.

But on the business side, the reasons why it took so long to get made was really pragmatic stuff. It had to do with the treaty between Germany and Canada. You say, “What” What are you talking about?” (laughs) But that’s exactly right.

In a co-production you are very limited in terms of the actors you can have and the money you can spend. You have to spend the money in the co-producing countries, and you have to have actors and technicians from those countries. That means I can only have one American actor, and there is technically only one American actor in this movie, and that’s John Cusack. Julianne Moore very recently got a British passport, so she’s actually a dual citizen. She got that about a year before we shot because her mother is Scottish. You can’t spend over a certain percentage of the budget in third country, like the U.S., or Australia, or any non-participating country in this co-production.

For a long time I had a problem because Bruce is American, and Bruce wrote the script, and you’re not allowed to have a screenwriter from a third party. Then I also couldn’t spend the money to shoot for five days in L.A. because I knew that to make the film look convincing I had to shoot for five days in Hollywood. I couldn’t do it.

Until the latest German-Canadian co-production treaty, which allowed for you to have a screenwriter from a third country, that meant Bruce could still be involved. I wasn’t ever going to take the screenwriting credit from Bruce and say that I wrote it. That’s a thing that sometimes happen in order to get the movie made, but that was impossible here. Then it also allowed us to spend more money than before in America, so I could have those five days of shooting.

But it really only had to do with that and trying to find ways around that. It had nothing to do with the subject matter because there were always people who thought it would be good. They were never Americans, mind you.

I did go to one very well known American independent producer thinking that could be one way of making the film. If there’s an American producer with American money, I could use more American actors and spend as much money in America as I wanted. He said, literally, “I could never do that to this business that’s been so good to me.” So he wasn’t going to make this movie.

No audience is thinking about these things when they watch the film, but as a filmmaker you have to think about all these things because that’s how the film gets made.

You also just published your first novel, Consumed, which a lot of people have been terming a return to “body horror” for you. Would you consider going back to horror at some point?

DC: No, and I don’t really see Consumed that way, you see? It didn’t feel like anything that I could have written as a younger filmmaker making horror films. I couldn’t have written that. The content is just where my mind goes. What can I say? (laughs)

First of all, as you know, “body horror” is not my term. That just stuck and now I’m the creator of the “body horror” genre, even though I’m not sure what it is. (laughs) I don’t think it’s horror with the body at all, but a fascination with the body. Anyway, that’s a whole other conversation.

But I never really felt like I turned my back on any genre at all. Horror, let’s say, or sci-fi. I just feel like I’ve done it. Most of the projects I get offered in those genres these days are often just remakes of my own movies. They’ve been so influenced by the films that I’ve done that people seem to think I would like doing them again. For me, that’s just boring. And I have many other interests.

I had tried to make A Dangerous Method for ten years. Dead Ringers, which you could say falls a bit into that category despite being a realistic story based on two real guys, I would have done that ten years before I did if I could have. That one would have been made in 1978 instead of ’88 if I go the financing for it, which I couldn’t.

I think I mixed up what people think of as low-budget horror films or whatever, but it really is just so random for me. You just don’t have enough control in your career to say, “Now I think I’ll do this kind of movie.” Do whatever movie you can get financed when you can as long as it’s a move you want to make.

And Consumed, as I say, for me had nothing to do with my movies, really. It sounds ingenuous to say, but I mean it. When I started it, I started it as if I had never been a filmmaker. Each time I make a movie, it’s like I never made another movie. I don’t think about my other movies when I go to make the next one.

Of course, being a critic, you have to look at the whole art and the artist and all of that. But as a filmmaker and as a creative person, that doesn’t give me anything. One guy said, “Was your novel influenced by your early movies?” And I said, “You kind of got that backwards. How can my own films influence me? They come from me!” But that’s just kind of a critic’s way of thinking as opposed to the reality for you as a creative person.

Imagine you sit down at your computer and you decide you want to write your first novel. Anything’s up for grabs. Nothing you have ever done in the past will prepare you for this. It’s a whole new thing. That’s how I think of it.

Actors that have worked with you really seem to love you.

DC: Yes. (laughs) That seems to be true.

What do you do that’s different?

DC: First of all, I’m very sweet. (laughs) I’m very Canadian. I’m very gentle. I don’t believe in humiliating and breaking down actors to get their best performances. There’s all kinds of weird theories that some directors have, and some believe you have to torture them to get what you need out of them. I have a very pleasant, fun, entertaining film set, where everyone can be funny and humorous and everyone can collaborate. Everyone will be listened to, and actors love it when you notice them, and you notice everything they’re doing, and you’re observing it and appreciating it.

You’d be surprised how little that happens. I only know this from the actors that I’ve talked to on other people’s film sets, which hasn’t been very many times. But they say a lot of directors are so worried about the technical side of things – so worried about the lights, the background extras – that they’re barely noticing the script and how the dialogue’s being delivered. I’m not like that. I’m very focused on what the actor is doing and what their face is saying. I’m collaborative, and gentle, and attentive, and they like that.

I have not found that actors like to be humiliated. Who does? I don’t think that helps them at all. I think that makes them weak, and I want them to have strength. Even if they’re playing a weak character, they have to have some kind of strength as an actor. I want them to feel secure and observed. Those are very simple things that they obviously don’t get from every director.

Maps to the Stars - Cronenberg

There’s something interesting in the casting of Maps to the Stars in that respect, because you have people like Julianne Moore and John Cusack, who have done every kind of film there ever could be at every level of budget possible, and you have people like Mia Wasikowska and Robert Pattinson, who are on their way to becoming those same kinds of actors. With this film, how much were the actors able to relate their own experiences to you, and how did their experiences inform the direction of the film?

DC: Well, it’s not so much a discussion, but it always did come out that they experienced that. Mia and Rob have done a lot of movies, and especially Rob has done a franchise with all the big studio craziness that goes along with that. He’s kind of seen the worst of this, and they all knew the reality of it all.

Really, I don’t have those discussions unless I see something going wrong. These actors were all right there. The only thing I said to them – and I said that to all of them – was, “Don’t worry about satire or humour or exaggeration or anything else. Those things in the script will take care of themselves. You must play this absolutely real to the emotional level that is there. Everything else will be fine if we all do that.” You have to get your actors into the same movie, basically, and that’s all I have to say to them. And they just knew and I never had to have that discussion that you’re saying because they just naturally brought their own experiences and understanding of the characters immediately. I never had to tweak or fine tune them. When we’re choreographing a scene, that’s when we’re really collaborating the most, and that’s where they contribute the most by talking about how they move through a scene. They’re all so accurate. I was only doing one or two takes for everything. They just all got it immediately.

But what you’re saying is true. Rob is playing probably the most naive character in the movie, and Mia’s also naive, but only to the Hollywood side of things and not the family craziness. They’re not movie people. They aspire to it, but they’re not in it yet, and that just comes naturally from the characters.

But John said that he was Benji, and although he wasn’t playing that character, he knew it really well. He was a child star, and he did stuff like that. I know it wasn’t as crazy as what Bejni does, but the pressures of having so much money and so much power before they’re really mature enough to handle it. A lot of people have said that character seems based on Justin Bieber. Well, when the script was first written, Justin Bieber wasn’t even born yet. (laughs) But that kind of a character is a universal thing that comes up.

Of course, Julie said she knew any number of actresses that just disappeared from the industry at the age of forty. They had been really hot and been huge stars, and then suddenly they don’t get any more calls because they hit forty. So she didn’t have to look very far for the tone. They were there the whole time.

A lot of directors have spent time in Canada trying to make it to Hollywood, and you’ve managed to be successful without doing that. How have you managed that?

DC: Really that just came down to a crucial moment in my career. It was when I couldn’t get my first movie made, which was Shivers. I went to L.A. with my friend Norman Snider, who co-wrote Dead Ringers with me, and we rented a red Mustang convertible. I visited Roger Corman and American International Picture and all these guys to talk to them about my screenplay. Everyone I showed it to thought they’d never seen anything like this screenplay and that they’d absolutely make it. I thought, “Okay, I’m going to have to move to L.A.”

I came back to Toronto to a message from Cinepix in Montreal, who I had been talking to, and they said that Telefilm Canada – which at that point was called the Canadian Film Development Corportion – had finally agreed to put money into the production so we could make it here. And that was the crucial point.

It was government support, which everyone in Europe gets for their filmmaking. It’s only in America where there’s really no government support for film. That was really the turning point. I was thinking if I was going to have a film career I would have to move to L.A. When I realized I didn’t, that was the starting point.