David Cronenberg

The Master of Macabre

“I think a lot of my movies, most of them, are quite funny as well. So it’s like, you have a disturbing, maybe darkly funny dream and you feel the need to tell it to some people you are close to…”

Writer, director… comedian? According to David Cronenberg, it’s his strange sense of humour that has given rise to some of his greatest, and creepiest, ideas.

During a recent online interview with a German media outlet, David Cronenberg is interrupted by sirens coming from the street outside. As the interviewer pauses, and the camera waits on Cronenberg, you see his sense of humour materialize: He mouths along with the sounds, as if his voice has been transformed into a howling siren. This moment just might be the “real” Cronenberg, if you’re wondering what makes one of Canada’s most revered directors “tick.”

As an avid bookworm, Cronenberg admits that he often finds himself compelled to make movies out of novels that you wouldn’t exactly call “easy” reads – such as J.G. Ballard’s Crash, Patrick McGrath’s Spider, William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and, more recently, Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, starring Robert Pattison. Cronenberg’s next big project, Maps to the Stars (due out next year), is a screenplay by controversial novelist Bruce Wagner; it also stars Pattison – along with Julianne Moore, John Cusack and Mia Wasikowska – and is already creating a frenzy of anticipation among Cronenberg fans and Twilight fanatics.

But those who follow Cronenberg’s career closely will be most thrilled by a multimedia exhibit that opens at the Audi-sponsored TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto – and then travels internationally – featuring props and behind-the-scenes displays from Cronenberg’s many iconic films, including The Fly, Scanners and Videodrome. Running from November 1 until January 19, 2014, the exhibit happens to open during the same year that Cronenberg turned 70 years old – but he says it’s a simple coincidence. When his birthday is mentioned at the outset of our interview, he seems surprised – as if turning 70 is no big deal.

How does the recognition that comes with the upcoming TIFF exhibit measure on your scale of accomplishments?

I grew up, in a way, with TIFF. We sort of developed together – many of my films have been filmed here and they’ve been huge supporters for me, and I’ve been a supporter of theirs – so for me, this feels very Canadian, and very Toronto in particular. I feel much more connected with the Canadian film industry and, in fact, European film-making, than I do with Hollywood.

So yes, it’s very sweet what they’re doing. I mean, they’re doing stuff I don’t even know about, in a way, because I’ve just been shooting a film, and I haven’t really been able to engage completely with what they’re doing. That doesn’t seem to bother them, because it’s really their show and I’m just kind of tagging along. It’s only an accident, for example, that I turned 70 and it’s in my 70th year – they didn’t even know that. It just had to do with their own timing.

You’ve also been made an Officer of the Order of Canada, have a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame, have been named on many “Best Director” lists, received the Cannes Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award – and so on. Of these many moments of acclaim, which stands out to you as being the most significant, personally, and why?

They all actually have a unique feel for me. i have a couple of things from Cannes, and that’s exciting because it’s really one of the premiere competitive film festivals in the world, and one of the oldest ones. And French cinema has always been a huge influence on me. I’ve been made a Member of the Legion of Honour in France, which is the highest honour you can have if you’re a civilian. Anything that has to do with French stuff is special in that particular way. Of course, the Order of Canada is the equivalent in Canada and I’m 100 percent Canadian, born and raised. You can’t really separate one from the other; they’re all very lovely and delicious.

Also, Cannes validated Crash, a film that divided a lot of audiences.

Yes, it is a difficult film and they were courageous enough to show it – and not just show it, but put it in competition with everybody else and put themselves out there for having shown it. That was the toughness of [long-time Cannes president] Gilles Jacob; he was running the festival at the time and had been for so many years. He wasn’t afraid of the controversy that he knew was coming.

I was very naive. I really thought, “It’s based on an old book. Everybody knows the book. Who could it disturb?” [Laughs] Obviously I was very wrong, and he was very right.

He actually said to me he wanted it to explode like a bomb in the middle of the festival, and I said, “Well, I don’t think it’s going to do that.” But he was right, it did.

It had nothing really to do with honours – it had to do with creative camaraderie, support and toughness in terms of difficult creative events. I really appreciated Cannes for that.

Having said that, TIFF has done its own things. For them to make Dead Ringers the opening film of the festival [in 1988] was actually equally bold of them, because that too was a film that was very divisive and shocked a lot of people.

You have mentioned that Alfred Hitchcock liked to play with his audiences, and you use the word “shock.” Do you go about anticipating that your audiences will be shocked? Or are you really hoping to bring them into a story? You explore a lot of very troubling subjects, so what’s your motivation?

My approach is very different from what Hitchcock at least claimed his approach was. I don’t know whether he was telling the truth all the time or was so self-aware. He really liked to think of himself as a puppet master, controlling the audience’s every twitch and every laugh and every scream and so on.

For me, it’s quite different. I’m the one who’s laughing or screaming! [Laughs] I basically am saying, “I’ve had this very disturbing thought and there’s a story that’s really troubling me and it really seems to have significance. Maybe I’m not even sure what the significance is. So, I’m going to tell you the story so that you can see if you’ve had the same experience that I’ve had.” In other words, I feel much more “at one” with my audience. I don’t feel that they’re out there and I’m manipulating them like a magician on stage. I feel like I’m one of them and I’m inviting them to have the same experience that I did, or share my experience and see what they think.

In a way, it’s like having a disturbing dream. It’s not always disturbing – not all of it is disturbing. I think a lot of my movies, most of them, are quite funny as well. So it’s like, you have a disturbing, maybe darkly funny dream and you feel the need to tell it to some people you are close to, because for some reason it’s revealing of something. You’re not sure what and you want their reaction to it. That’s how it feels to me.

By saying that, you remind me of Stephen King – I love him as a writer, but it’s difficult to read his books because they’re so disturbing, and I always wonder where he comes up with these experiences. What you just said is what I would imagine: The stories come to him and he has to let them go – he wants to share them, so he writes a book about it.

I think that’s true with Stephen. I think it is.

It’s not that we are doing incredible, strange things out in the real world, but we are aware of what it is to be a human being in the world, and that in itself is strange enough.

There’s a lot of buzz about Maps to the Stars. How would you describe the movie’s central theme?

Bruce Wagner, who wrote the script – and has written many wonderful novels about Hollywood – has really deep, profound insight into L.A. and the movie biz. But not just the biz – I mean, it’s one thing to talk about celebrity, but what about people who are well-known because they are actually interesting and creative? Not just because they’re celebrities. They have creative pressures on them, not just celebrity pressures. The story does feature a child star who is continually being self-destructive, and certainly that’s a familiar story for Hollywood. I think it’s quite deep – but the depth really starts with Bruce, you know?

Early in your career, you made a conscious choice not to move to Los Angeles – actually, just as you were about to move, you got the funding to shoot your first film in Canada and decided to stay. As a Canadian director who has a healthy distance from Hollywood, what do you think defines our culture and arts in contrast to the American media machine?

I think it’s the difference between the two countries, you know? I mean, it’s all the things that we know. Hollywood is something that people love, and also are intimidated by, and are resentful of – and sort of hate. It’s always been such a powerful influence, from the beginning of film. Marshall McLuhan said that if he was an American in the middle of the stream, he wouldn’t have been able to have the insights that he had being in Canada. Which, especially then, was kind of a backwater where you could observe things from the outside and you could get a different perspective than you could if you were right in the middle of the American stream of media.

Being in Canada, I really think of myself as being halfway between Hollywood and Europe. I can be influenced by both, but not overwhelmed by either, and can therefore be free to develop my own sensibility. I think if I lived in L.A., the gravitational pull of Hollywood is so huge – it’s like a huge, dense planet – I think I would have been drawn to its core and I would have been making very different movies, you know?

They would have thrown $100 million at you, and at some point you would have said, “Okay”?

These days it’s $200 million. [Laughs] However, they’re not putting it directly into your bank account.

(More coming….)

Originally published in Audi magazine, Fall 2013