When he was in his 20s, Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg staked out his claim in moviedom with a variety of student films and made-for-tv efforts. His early work showed unique thematic relations that he would explore in ways often described as cerebral, primordial, methodical, and even inscrutable. Starting with Transfer (1966), From the Drain (1967), Stereo (1969), and Crimes of the Future (1970), the doctors, surgeries, institutions, viruses, and psychic turmoil were all in their embryonic stage and just beginning to blossom inside Cronenberg.
When he was in his 30s, Cronenberg really let loose with shockers that were uniquely visceral or bizarre, but also bold and ingenious, such as Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981), Videodrome and The Dead Zone (both 1983). These films alone gave Cronenberg a well-earned place in the pantheon of great horror film directors.
Then, in his 40s, Cronenberg had a huge hit with his remake of The Fly (1986) and from there launched himself into the arthouse crowd with Dead Ringers (1988), Naked Lunch (1991), and M Butterfly (1993).
In his 50s, he caused a scandal in Cannes with Crash (1996) and later put his unique spin on the dangers behind virtual reality-video games in Existenz (1999).
Now, just a few weeks shy of his 60th birthday, Cronenberg returns to the screen with his latest film, Spider, based on the neo-gothic novel by Patrick McGrath (pronounced “McGraw”) and starring Ralph (pronounced “Rafe”) Fiennes as the eponymous and schizophrenic character who is trying to make sense of all the intermingling webs of his memory. Although still in its initial stage of exhibition, Spider has already begun to net Cronenberg some of the best critical reviews he has received since The Fly.
Literary Soul Food
“There are books you read because they’re a diversion, and there are books you read when you’re in spiritual trouble. They are soul food; they really do balm the soul. I want my movies to do that, get to the soul.” David Cronenberg, from Cronenberg on Cronenberg.
Pablo Kjolseth: To use the preceding quote as a launching pad to discuss your latest film, does Spider fall into this category, and if so why?
|A few weeks shy of his 60th birthday, Cronenberg returns to the screen with Spider|
I’m asking my audience to have a similar experience to what I’ve had, but from their perspective. Any audience is going to bring their own culture, education, awareness of movies and everything else to a movie, so I don’t try to predict their reactions or manipulate those reactions. I’m really telling myself a story and inviting them to listen in. Spider has sadness, tragedy, and even humor. So, yes, I think it does completely fit that bill from that long-ago interview.
I take the art of cinema seriously and I think it should do what art can do, and I would separate it from pure entertainment alone. It’s meant to do more than that. Cinema has incredible and vast potential. What Hollywood normally does is it runs in a very narrow groove. It’s very powerful, and we have great affection for Hollywood films, but they don’t remotely tap the great potential of what cinema as an art form can do. It’s left to independent filmmakers to explore that vast potential.
PK: Your father was a bibliophile. You grew up in a house with corridors that you cite as “literally composed of books.” Do you think such love affairs with literature are waning with each generation, and if so, what kind of impact do you think this will have on how future generations think?
DC: Literature is a very different animal from, let’s say, the movies because it is based on the structure of language. Without language you don’t have self-awareness, you don’t have self-consciousness. So much of what we are, as humans, that differentiates us from any other animal that we know, and probably from anything else in the universe, is the self-awareness, the higher consciousness, that we can have, which is so hugely language-based.
Movies, of course, use language, but there’s a level of abstraction in a book, a novel, that is much more extreme than in film. You cannot photograph an abstract concept. If you want to generate abstract concepts from your film, that is to say thoughts and connections, you have to do it by photographing actual physical objects. Of course you can invent them with computer imagery, but it amounts to the same thing.
So it’s a very different process that happens in your nervous system and your brain when you watch a movie, even one that has a lot of dialogue, than what happens when you read a book. They’re very, very different. I don’t think that we will ever let go of literature. I don’t think it’s possible, because (literature) does something that’s very unique and is not supplanted at all by the cinema. The two things are very different.
The popularity of reading novels might wax and wane, and certainly there are a lot of very depressed novelists right now who feel that their art form has already hit its peak, and now hit its nadir within their lifetime. Most of them are still writing, but they feel that their audience has gotten smaller and smaller. On the other hand, reading has not decreased at all.
In fact, the computer has really enhanced a strange form of letter-writing through instant-messaging and email, and I’m not saying that the art of letter-writing has been revived because the kind of writing that people do in email is not like the kind of writing that they did when writing a beautiful letter was considered a mark of culture. When, if you couldn’t write an elegant and beautiful letter, you were not considered a cultured person. Well, we don’t have that now. But reading is still as important as it ever was and has been enhanced in a very strange way by the computer. The fortunes of the novel might well wax and wane… but reading is essential to thought.
Adapting for Film
|I asked Ralph Fiennes to develop a kind of hieroglyphics, or cuneiform, or runic script, that Spider can read but we can’t read because he’s very paranoid.|
DC: I was sent the script by someone in Toronto. At that point I didn’t know anything about Patrick McGrath. I hadn’t read his novels. The first thing of his that I read was his script for Spider, and I thought it was terrific. I got very excited about the possibility of me doing it, especially since it came with Ralph Fiennes attached — he’d been involved with the project for about four years before I got the script, and he was very interested in playing that role.
After I read the script I started to read Patrick’s other novels, starting with Spider, and I found a whole, rich, and very interesting world considered by some to be gothic, or neo-gothic, as I think Patrick is revitalizing the classic gothic genre. Spider, in a strange way is perhaps his least gothic novel. Gothic would mean, huge, lonely mansions perched on the edge of cliffs with thunderstorms and people in capes sweeping around with a lot of great emotion and tragic density. Spider is a more modern novel than that.
PK: In the book, Spider’s inner voice, his narration, is very eloquent and active, and at complete odds with how he expresses himself to the outside world. Tell me about the decision to strip away the first-person narrative used in the book.
DC: I think in the book you don’t really know how he connects with the outside world. Certainly when he’s speaking to himself in the form of the journal — and the book “Spider” is his journal — he’s a beautiful writer. He writes very fluently and beautifully with wonderful metaphors and great structure because Patrick McGrath is a wonderful writer. That works as a literary conceit — that this man who is basically suffering from schizophrenia, and his personality is disintegrating, and he is having great trouble distinguishing interior from exterior voices, and is hallucinating quite mightily — that he could at the same time write such a clear, self-aware account of himself, as a literary conceit, it works, and you want it to work.
But as soon as you apply that to the Spider who was created for the screen, also by Patrick, you can see that they are two different people. The Spider in the movie is very inarticulate, not very self-aware, and he can barely speak. When you had a voice-over supposedly representing his inner thoughts that were very beautifully literary and rounded and balanced, you don’t believe it. You simply don’t believe that this man could speak that way or have those thoughts. Immediately, I said to Patrick, “I think this is you not being able to let go of the novel – but you’ve gone so far in creating a new, cinematic Spider that we have to go with that one and forget the novel version of Spider.”
So I took away the voice-over, and I still have him writing in a journal but I asked Ralph Fiennes to develop a kind of hieroglyphics, or cuneiform, or runic script, that Spider can read but we can’t read because he’s very paranoid. He doesn’t want other people to read what he’s writing because, in a sense, he feels that he’s taking evidence from a crime that has been committed, and he’s very possessive of that and very worried that someone else will read it and so that’s why he writes in this strange script in the movie.
PK: Before you tackled them, many people would have described Naked Lunch and Crash as impossible literary works to translate to the screen and yet you did it. Have you ever read a book that even you thought was un-filmable?
DC: I actually don’t even think about that when I read. I don’t read books for their movie potential at all. And I do read a lot. And I absolutely don’t read books thinking about moviemaking. It’s just not in my nature to do that.
Basically, my party line is that all books are unfilmable. They are totally unfilmable unless you shoot the pages. The two media are so completely different that you are only giving the illusion of filming a novel but, really, you can’t. So a complete re-invention is required. You sort of make up a version of it and then call it by the same name and that’s your movie.
|For me, special effects are just another tool to have in your toolbox. You use it if you need it.|
DC: I think there’s a tendency with my films for people to focus on special effects and gore and strange metaphorical, physical, transmutations, which I have done and will probably continue to do in some movies. But I have to point out to them that the Dead Zone didn’t have these 20 years ago, and neither did Dead Ringers, and neither did M Butterfly. These are things that maybe some fans are obsessed with but they seem to project that onto me, thinking that I too am obsessed with these things and they are therefore very confused when I seem not to be, or when I do a movie that doesn’t have them.
What I say to them is that, if I’m really interested in the particular film that I’m making, and if I find that I’m passionate about it and really want to make that movie, then that’s what I focus on. I don’t worry about what I’ve done in the past or what I might do in the future. I don’t think about the arc of my films. I sometimes have to remind journalists and critics not to confuse their process with mine. That kind of analytical approach is useful for them, but it doesn’t do anything for me as a filmmaker. For me it’s all intuition.
So, when I’m making a movie like Spider, I don’t read the script and say, oh, unfortunately, there’s none of my signature themes like this and this and this, and no special effects and so I won’t do it. That’s not how it works at all. I read the script and say, this if fantastic, it could be very powerful, and very revealing for me to do, and then I just try to make the best version of that movie that I can.
Certainly if one is talking about transformation, well, I could point to Miranda Richardson as my special effect in the movie because she certainly transforms. But it’s done by acting and costume and makeup. Not special effects makeup, just normal makeup. It’s basically acting, it’s not special effects.
For me, special effects are just another tool to have in your toolbox. You use it if you need it. But you don’t insist that you use the screwdriver when the hammer is really what you need. I don’t think of effects as being any more special than costume, lighting, camera angles, choice of lens, editing, and all those normal cinematic devices.
PK: In Chris Rodley’s book you refer to how, since Videodrome, you’ve made use of preview screenings… was this the case with Spider?
DC: I think you’ve misunderstood. I hate previews in the Hollywood sense. I loathe those. It’s very valuable to have an audience see your film before you’ve completely finished it. But to do it in a Hollywood structure, where you have people filling out cards and focus groups and studio executives looking nervously over your shoulder, that’s an abomination. Really. I loathe them.
What I do is very simple. I show the movie to my friends, and sometimes to friends of friends, in very small groups, and then I just talk to them about their responses to the movie. Because what I’m looking for is not for people to tell me how to make the movie… that’s my job.
It’s very strange how in Hollywood that’s been twisted around so that it’s the audience telling you what ending they want. I think that’s completely ridiculous and certainly has nothing to do with film as art. It has to do with film as product. It’s like product research and marketing research. If you’re making a car and shoes, I can see doing that. But, nonetheless, it’s nothing that I want to get involved in.
At the same time, when you’re making a movie you get very close to it and you sometimes lose perspective. Sometimes you think things are obvious which are not, in fact, obvious, and sometimes you think that things are very understandable when, in fact, they’re very confusing. So you show it to people to see if they understood things, how they reacted to certain things, to make sure that what you want to have happen is happening. In other words, you’re not asking the audience to tell you what to do, you’re making sure that you’re achieving what you thought you were achieving in the editing room.
If you need an extra line of dialogue so that something’s clear that you want to be clear, that’s when you find it out, when you talk to people about it. That’s the kind of preview that I do, and I wouldn’t even call it a preview because then, of course, it gets confused with this sort of Hollywood version of a preview which is quite a different thing.
|I have absolute freedom, not just final cut — it goes beyond that|
DC: Spider is not what you would call a high-concept movie. Those other ones you mention are. Independent film financing is a very difficult game to play. The reason you do it is because you get to make movies that are not traditional, big budget movies. They’re more interesting. And the freedom that I have as a director... I have absolute freedom. There’s no one that I have to answer to, there’s no one looking over my shoulder, I just work with my artistic collaborators and we make the decisions ourselves as to every aspect of the movie, not just final cut — it goes beyond that. I wouldn’t get that on a Hollywood film.
The financing, however, is very difficult. But, there are a lot of financiers who are interested in smaller movies that they can own a bigger percentage of. They know they are providing an alternative to Hollywood. They have no access to the Hollywood machine. They know they’re going to have to be working with directors who don’t do those kinds of movies. So the people are there, and the potential is there. And there are a lot of distributors who are independent, who can only distribute independent movies.
The other aspect of it is that you take the script, the director, the actors, and maybe take them physically as well, and you take them to various countries, and you try to sell the rights. You try to find a distributor who will buy the rights to France, Italy, Japan, and so on, and you eventually, if you’re a producer who has done this a lot, you’ll have a network of distributors who are interested in what movies you are making. And they tell you how much they will buy the movie for in their respective countries.
When you add all that up, that’s your budget. So for example for Spider, which I initially budgeted at 10 million dollars, based on the script and the shooting schedule, I found that we could not raise 10 million dollars. We could only raise eight. So in order to get the movie made, I deferred my salary, as did Ralph, and Miranda Richardson, and Patrick McGrath, and the producers… we all liked the project so much that we said we’d defer our payment and if the movie makes money, then we get paid. This is not, certainly, normal in Hollywood. But it was either make it for eight, or don’t make it. And we wanted to make the movie. These are the good aspects, and the difficult aspects, of independent film financing.
PK: If money, time, and talent were no object, do you have a dream project that you would tackle that have otherwise not pursued?