Our Bodies, Ourselves: David Cronenberg
Highlights from Issue 25: The Documentary Issue
(Courtesy of Corbis)
Thursday, September 13, 2007
The following interview originally appeared in Issue 25: The Documentary Issue in winter 2006. David Cronenberg’s film A Histoy of Violence was in theaters. Cronenberg’s latest, Eastern Promises, opens on Friday, September 13th.
OUR BODIES, OURSELVES:
From Issue 25: The Documentary Issue
By Nicolas Rapold
The strangest thing about David Cronenberg’s films is not the exploding heads, or the car-crash sex, or the VCR in James Woods’s stomach. No, the shivers come when you realize they’re all about us — about how our bodies determine our identities, and vice versa. The Canadian master of creep-out has long attracted audiences with a taste for body freakery, but his shocks are also among the most cerebral around. Cronenberg’s filmography chronicles an ambitious search for new, visceral ways of expressing basic anxieties about the facts of being flesh and blood: maternity in The Brood (1979), aging in The Fly (1986) and desire in Crash (1996), to name but a few. And when that sensibility rubs up against the issues of the day, you get films like Videodrome (1983), eXistenZ (1999) and, most recently, A History of Violence — one of the top-rated films of 2005. The film’s centerpiece is a transformation, a man whose past comes alive — and it’s perhaps no surprise that Cronenberg has rather a porous sense of his fictions and our reality.
Stop Smiling: Have you ever considered shooting a documentary?
David Cronenberg: Weirdly enough, I think the way I direct is like documentary. I was at a symposium in Telluride about documentary, and one of the main topics of discussion was how objective you can ever really be. A lot of guys there considered themselves to be fiction filmmakers. I think of myself as a documentary filmmaker, because I have the actors block the scene, and then while they’re doing it I’m figuring out how to shoot. The way I work is very spontaneous. I don’t try to control everything. I don’t come to the set with a preconceived idea of how the scene should be played. It makes my assistant directors nervous because I don’t have a shot ready the night before.
When people ask if I watch my movies I say that I can’t, really, because they’re literally like documentaries of what I was doing that day. Every shot is like a minidocumentary: I can remember what was going on in the shot, what was in my head, and I can’t really see it as a movie. During A History of Violence, my wife was shooting a behind-the-scenes making-of, which will be on the DVD. So, while I was directing, I was thinking of this documentary being made. The two blurred together. I think documentary is great. When I was beginning filmmaking there were a lot of very strong documentaries, in the early Sixties. Then documentary disappeared for a while under economic and other pressures, but for various reasons it’s been making a comeback.
SS: In the Sixties, you helped run an underground film co-op. What was that like?
DC: It was based on Jonas Mekas’ [Filmmakers’ Cooperative, in New York]. My influences have been Hollywood and Europe, but when it came to actually picking up a camera, it was all New York underground. That was the inspiration: Do your own thing, you don’t have to go to film school. The Sixties were very compelling. You could just go and do it, like the film co-op in New York and the underground film movement in general: Kenneth Anger, Ed Emshwiller, the Kuchar Brothers and so on. Those filmmakers came to Toronto, and we had cinethons where we would show 24 hours of underground films, nonstop, at a theater that was devoted to underground filmmaking called Cinecity. Those were pretty heady days, pretty exciting.
SS: In the Seventies, you directed a string of genre films that are full of complex ideas. One of my favorite scenes is in Shivers [a movie about a contagious sex mania that strikes a building]. A guy finds a rabid couple midstruggle, but he doesn’t know whom to shoot — he can’t figure out who’s attacking whom.
DC: First of all, if you’re a Freudian, that’s a perfect primal scene, because it’s like a kid seeing his parents having sex, and not knowing what’s going on. Is it violent? Should he be worried? Whimpers, screams and moans — you don’t have any place to put that, except some kind of nastiness. You don’t know who’s doing what to whom.
But it’s also the idea of how mysterious other people’s sexuality is to anybody else, which is one of the excitements of coming in touch with someone else’s sexuality. The components that go into the construct of one’s sexuality are pretty intriguing. There are cinematic influences, literary influences, physiological ones, family emotional ones. It’s not a given. I’ve had the experience of seeing a couple in public and wondering, what is the nature of this relationship? I’m imagining what their sexuality might be, and not being able to at all — and maybe not wanting to know either.
SS: Your most recent film, A History of Violence, also works with genre. What were some of your goals with the movie, as a filmmaker?
DC: On the simplest level, I wanted to make a good, interesting thriller. I wasn’t thinking in genre terms specifically. It had to work emotionally, in terms of narrative. If it doesn’t work on that level, then all your other aspirations are for naught. So it was pretty straightforward, basic filmmaking to get the most juice out of the idea of the script.
SS: You also got so much out of the actors, especially Viggo Mortensen. His physical transformation from Tom into Crazy Joey is astonishing.
DC: Viggo is a complete actor. He is very visceral, but he’s also very cerebral. He can connect the two. He really understands the meaning of the body. Actors are so much body. I really understood that when I did some acting myself. You’re standing only about 10 feet from where you are as a director, but you’re in a completely different world. As a director, no one cares if you’ve got zits on your face, or you’ve got the flu and you’re coughing. As long as you can say “action” and “cut” you can still direct. But as an actor, your body is your instrument. Any good actor knows his body language, the way you stand, but when you couple that with my own body orientation, my awareness of that, you get a very visceral performance. The emotional significance of the body is always present.
SS: For his character, you tap the idea of body memory: Tom’s body remembers being Joey’s body. Viggo really brings out the change — it’s as if his old facial bone structure emerges.
DC: Joey would be bodily quite different. This is very good to discuss, because I’ve never had anyone mention this aspect. When Jeremy Irons was playing the twins [Elliot and Beverly Mantle] in Dead Ringers, the posture was the key. Elliot stood on his heels and therefore would stay up, and Beverly would stay on the soles of his feet and slump forward. A very physical difference, but it led to many psychological things. It was the same with Viggo. Joey stands and walks differently. Joey, in order to become Tom, was an actor. The movie is about role-playing on many levels (for example, the cheerleader that Tom’s wife dresses up as). Tom would have to be a method actor in a way. This is a 20-year performance that had to be flawless.
SS: A different sexual vibe comes out of his new body, too. Being Joey involves an infidelity to his old sexual self, and his wife is repulsed by but also attracted to him, as in the sex scene on the staircase.
DC: It’s as if the two of them on the stairs are betraying the two of them in bed. They’re both being unfaithful. That’s what makes it delicious but also gives a sour taste, too. You can see both of them feeling a hopeless desperation.
SS: A History of Violence has a distinctive visual look. How did you go about achieving that?
DC: I’ve worked together for many years with my director of photography, Peter Suschitzky, and my production designer, Carol Spier. Carol and I have collaborated for 30 years, Peter since Dead Ringers in 1988. Each movie is a different thing. We let the movie tell us what the style should be. That develops over time, not by the imposition of a concept. The first shot we do is pretty critical. That’s where all the things we’ve thought about come to a head. The lens, the light, how realistic it is, or like Spider, how subjective. Peter works the same way I do, fairly spontaneously.
I don’t use storyboards. It’s like sculpture, working with the material that’s there. I like to see the actors on the set in their real costumes. That’s when we start to choreograph the scene, and the choreographing of the scene provokes the angle and the lens. It’s all very organic.
SS: You use a special lens in History — a 27mm. What effect does that have?
DC: The 27mm doesn’t separate people from the background. If you do a close-up with a 50 or 75mm, the background goes out of focus. I wanted to include the life around all the characters, to not ever isolate them. Even though in a way Tom is isolated, we don’t know how much in the beginning. I wanted to suggest a sense of community and family. Everything is in focus in the way that everything has significance. But you don’t get the distortion, as with a 17mm wider lens. It’s quite different than if I had shot everything with 75mm and cut between isolating close-ups.
SS: The title of the movie is intriguing. It suggests an ambiguity about how much Tom decides to do what he does, or how much it just comes out of who he was.
DC: The title can also be thought of as a question: Is someone with a history of violence destined for more violence no matter what? Given the species we are, we’re fairly violent. But individually, is it possible to change the course of your history? I always feel that it is. If you think of this movie as a study of identity, the idea is that by force of will you can become someone else. That it’s not given to us in DNA irrevocably. I’ve always thought that identity is something that took a lot of creative will to create and maintain. Spider is a study of a man who cannot maintain an identity; he keeps falling apart, fusing with other identities.
I believe that every morning when we wake up, we have to reassemble ourselves, remember who we are, what we are, where we are, what is expected of us, what we expect of ourselves. You can assemble yourself in a different way if you really want to. So that’s another aspect of the movie. Everybody in the movie changes.
SS: It’s a history of professional violence, specifically — there’s the line about Tom’s being “so good at killing.” And you avoid Mafia clichés by using an Irish underworld, which feels fresher, more tribal.
DC: Yeah. That’s the thing. One of the things I brought to the script (along with the sex scenes) was that Tom and another character should be brothers. And it was exactly that. Even though there’s family in Mafia movies, I felt this could be a legitimate mob movie without being clichéd. I was also thinking about Ed Harris and William Hurt, and knowing I wouldn’t want them to play Italian. So Irish was good. The Irish mob hasn’t gotten its due, although Scorsese has a film coming out about them.
SS: What projects are you considering next? I’ve read that London Fields might be in the works.
DC: Yes, that’s one possibility. There is a good script, maybe not completely finished, co-written by Martin Amis. We’re trying to find a way to finance and structure it. It would be an independent film, which takes a long time to finance. I don’t know if it would be my next film, but I would like to do it.
SS: There are several promising ideas in the book to adapt: the apocalyptic air, the main character’s body cosmology, her clairvoyance.
DC: It’d be interesting. I don’t know how much of all of that would be in the movie. You really cannot translate a book. You have to re-enact it. Amis was really responding to premillennial anxiety, which is now postmillennial anxiety. I think we forgot about the millennium totally — we’re just thinking about now. There was that feeling that all the computers would stop working, and when they didn’t, it’s on to the next anxiety. How much would that play now that we’re postmillennial? Those are all interesting questions. The movie is going to be a distillation, in a way. It cannot be it in detail. It’s always an interesting process.
SS: You’ve adapted several books. Do you prefer that to writing original screenplays?
DC: Writing an original screenplay is very hard. In a way, it’s like writing a novel and then adapting it at the same time. There’s a reason why a lot of filmmakers who started writing have stopped. For example, here I am at my age, History of Violence is out there, getting good reviews, doing okay. Can I take two years to write a script that then might not get made or that I might not even want to make? Or would it not be better to get involved in a project right away that is more advanced because it was a novel or a play? That’s usually the temptation. When you’re starting out you have no choice. Will I ever write another? I don’t know.