Looking at David Cronenberg‘s resume you might think the man would be a monster, or at least a mad scientist. Quite the contrary. When I jumped on the phone for an exclusive interview with the legendary director, whose films helped shape my sensibilities as both a consumer and creator, he was soft-spoken, gracious and eloquent. He’s the kind of person you could interview for hours.
Cronenberg’s latest film Map to the Stars, which is available now in theaters and on VOD, is an unexpected return to his horror roots. The film stars Julianne Moore as Havana Segrand, an aging starlet bordering on irrelevancy, John Cusack as her phony, equally damaged therapist, and Mia Wasikowsa as his unhinged daughter, Agatha – who bears Cronenberg’s signature bodily disfigurement with the burn scars that mark half her face and much of her body. Through their characters and those around them, Cronenberg’s film, adapted from a seething script by Bruce Wagner, tackles the incestuousness and destructive nature of Hollywood, and the spiritual, psychological, and physical horrors that accompany it.
During our conversation Cronenberg talked about making film’s he feels only he can direct, how the script for Maps to the Stars changed over the decade he tried to get it made, the misconception that he hates Hollywood, how his independent films have shaped the content of big studio pictures, his thoughts on Josh Trank‘s “Cronenbergian” approach to Fantastic Four, the honor of becoming an adjective, why he couldn’t wait for film to disappear, and a lot more.
When you look at scripts, the ones you don’t write yourself, what do you look for? What speaks to you, and how has that maybe changed over the years?
DAVID CRONENBERG: I don’t have any rules. I know that some critics who’ve analyzed all of my work and so on, and find connections, and themes and imagery, and undoubtedly those things are there, but they seem to also think that when I’m making a movie I have a checklist of things that there must be – body transformation or identity – and, in fact, it’s all intuitive for me. It’s all spontaneous. I just don’t have a list of stuff that I can check.
With Bruce [Wagner]’s script, I first read it ten years ago, and each time I tried to get the movie made and failed, a couple years later I’d come back and read it again and wonder if I’d still be excited about it. I thought maybe if things shifted in my head or my life, then suddenly I’m not interested in this anymore, because obviously that’s a possibility. And each time I read it I’d say, “Wow, I’ve never read dialog like this before, and it’s still relevant, it still excites me, I have to make this movie. I can’t let it disappear.” That’s as far as it goes though. I don’t have a specific list of things that I could safely check off, and say “Okay, this has eight out of twelve, so I’ll do it.” Nothing like that.
With a script that’s been around for twenty years, and like you just said, that you tried to get made for the last ten, how much did that script change over those years? Did it evolve a lot?
CRONENBERG: I think from the twenty years to the ten years it probably didn’t change much because nobody was there to ask Bruce to try different things, but once I got involved basically I did what I often do, and that’s just cut out things that I think are not essential. I cut it down. I’m not interested – I’ve never made a movie that was two hours long. I think most the movies these days are way too long. Two hours and twenty minutes, boy you better have something really interesting to say to be that long. That’s my feeling. So I cut it down to the essentials because Bruce could have written a thousand pages with those characters, or more characters, because he knows that terrain so well. I really just had to shape it a bit or cut it back.
After that, it was just a matter of updating it because Bruce writes very topically. His references in the movie are to current TV shows and to current actors, and of course over ten years that changes. Not to mention technology. When he wrote the first draft there were no cell phones, things like that. How does the answering machine work? In the first draft it would have been an answering machine, and then by the time we get to the scene with Havana meditating and hearing a message from her agent, it’s not a cell phone that she can throw. Just little things like that, but the basics of it had not changed at that point. Once I had done my trimming and shaping it really as just updating those little details.
You’ve been very open throughout your career as to why you like to work outside the studios and make things as independently as you can. I know you’ve said that you and Bruce aren’t fond of the term “satire” to describe the film, but did you intend it to be a critique of Hollywood?
CRONENBERG: The French newspaper ‘Le Monde’ billed an interview that they did with me, they quoted me saying “Je ne détest pas Hollywood”, I don’t hate Hollywood, and that’s because the French critics assumed that I probably over the years has this simmering hatred and antagonism toward Hollywood and all that. Absolutely not, I have great affection for Hollywood, as most people do – it’s past and the wonderful actors that were Hollywood actors and studio actors. So it’s really, for me what’s attractive is the relationships, the dialogue, all of those things that are really part of the human condition no matter what industry you’re in – ambition, greed, cruelty, anxiety about your career, sexual manipulation – all kinds of things, which you could apply to any human endeavor.
Of course, it could have been set in Silicon Valley or Wall Street, but the thing about Hollywood is that it’s all very visible, what happens. People are on the red carpet, they need to be photographed, they need to be seen, and they want to be on the screen. It used it to be just a big screen, and now they want to be on every screen possible including your cell phone screen. So it gives a special attraction to a filmmaker to be making a film about Hollywood people as opposed to, let’s say, Detroit and the auto industry. But the dynamics of the relationship and the power and the struggle of career and all that, that’s really universal. So if there’s any bitterness that you detect towards Hollywood, or anger, I think that comes from Bruce. It doesn’t come from me, because I’ve never been obsessed with Hollywood. My life has never depended on working with Hollywood. Therefore as a director I’m kind of like an actor, and I’m playing the role of Bruce Wagner. I’m taking his tone and his position, and I’m expressing it, just the way an actor takes on a role.
Josh Trank recently said that his adaptation of Fantastic Four has “Cronenbergian” elements and is inspired by your films. As someone who largely works outside the studio system, what is it like for you to see a major studio franchise film influenced by your voice and your work?
CRONENBERG: It’s fine. Once you’ve contributed your voice to the cinematic conversation, it’s out there, and it’s up for grabs, absolutely. So I don’t complain. In fact, I take it as a compliment – as far back as Alien, for example, which totally ripped off things from my movie Shivers – Shivers featured a parasite that lives in your body, bursts out of your chests, jumps onto your face and jumps down your mouth, and suddenly you see this in a studio film, which was hugely successful, Alien. The writer of the script, Ben O’Bannon, had seen Shivers, we know that he had seen my movie and, shall we say, appropriated it. So this is not new stuff for me. When you come up with something original and it really strikes a chord in people, it’s going to imitated, it’s going to be appropriated, and it’s actually kind of nice when someone just flat out admits it. That’s actually pretty good. Not everybody does.
The other question I have about that is the fact that “Cronenbergian” has become a commonly used adjective. Is it strange for you to hear people use your name as an idea or description?
CRONENBERG: Well, you want to become an adjective [laughs]. I love Fellini, and it’s very easy for someone to say Felliniesque or Kafkaesque and I suppose that’s the crowning glory. It suggests that you’ve made a real cultural contribution in terms of metaphor and recognition. It’s a shorthand. You say, “I had a really Kafkaesque experience” and people immediately know what you mean. So that, too, is a compliment. I prefer Cronenbergundian. I keep suggesting it, but nobody’s really picked it up.
Like a lot of directors, you have actors that you like to work with repeatedly – Robert Pattinson and Viggo Mortensen most famously – what are the qualities in the creative partnerships that make you want to reteam with actors?
CRONENBERG: Well, first of all, you don’t do an actor a favor by miscasting him or her, so the fact that you enjoyed working with an actor once doesn’t mean that they’re right for the next movie, so you still have to be pretty rigorous in casting correctly, casting the right actor in the right role, because if you do that wrong, even for good reasons, your chances of making a good movie are really slim. So, there’s that. Casting is such a strange black art, I could go on about it for hours, but I like actors who have a great sense of humor, who are really professional, who have some kindness and compassion and are not maniacs [laughs]. Just the kind of things you would look for in a friend, that kind of thing. Intelligence is always a great thing, and talent, of course, is a great thing, when you’ve got both of them – and I’ve worked with many actors who have both – then you’re in the driver’s seat. It’s like driving a Ferrari instead of a Volkswagen.
You mentioned how technology has evolved over the last twenty years, and how that affected the script for Maps to the Stars, and you’ve touched on technology some of your films – Videodrome, eXistenZ. How has that technological evolution over the course of your career changed you as a filmmaker?
CRONENBERG: I don’t really think it has changed me as a filmmaker, because I could always really anticipate it. There’s been digital editing for many, many years, and sound recording on a film set has been digital for many, many years long before the visual part became viable to be digital. I was really happy to get rid of editing film on the moviola, and happy to get into word processing and leave typewriters behind. You have nostalgia and affection for the past of typewriters, which I featured in Naked Lunch, but really you don’t want to work with them. Those are from the industrial, mechanical age – all those things, including the moviola, which is like an agricultural thing, it’s like a tractor, it’s horrible. It rips your film, you can’t hear anything, they’re very clunky. What you want is something that works more the way your mind works, which is very nimble and leaping from moment to moment, and not in a linear way, but back and forth, and up and down in a sort of mosaic way. So I was really anticipating that.
I wrote my first script on a computer in 1985. That was The Fly, that was the first movie I wrote on a computer, so I’ve been really – I’ve almost been living the digital era before it actually happened. What it’s done is what I thought it would do, which is basically make everything much more easy, efficient and congenial. Things that would take you a day in the editing room take minutes now. For example if you wanted to compare three versions of a scene it would take hours to assemble, disassemble, assemble, disassemble, and by the time you were finished you forgot what the original scene looked like. Whereas with digital, you can have all three versions back to back and see them immediately to compare. It’s just more efficient.
In terms of the art, that hasn’t changed. That really hasn’t changed. You can judge lighting now with quite a bit of accuracy from what you see on a monitor. That’s actually what you’re going to get, what you’re seeing. In the old days you were really dependent on the eyes of your camera man, completely, for the lighting, because he was the only one looking through the lens when you were shooting, and you wouldn’t see those images until the next day or the next week depending on where your lab was. It’s just brought it much more close to writing a novel in a weird way, in that what you’re writing, what you’re shooting is what you’re getting. For me, that’s just fantastic.
Wow, so you’re definitely not one of the directors who bemoaned the loss of film.
CRONENBERG: I couldn’t wait for it to disappear, frankly. And it’s dead, believe me. It’s gone. There are holdouts, but right now in Toronto and in most major cities you can’t even get your film developed anymore, you have to send it to LA. So that makes it completely not viable.
I’ve always found it interesting to ask someone what their favorite Cronenberg film is, you can get a lot of insight on someone that way. Is there a particular film or two of yours that people get excited to talk to you about more than the others?
CRONENBERG: It’s amazing, sometimes it’s people who are kind of nostalgic for their own childhood – I guess I’ve been around that long, that’s kind of shocking, but there it is – the first time they saw Scanners and it really shocked them, or the first time they saw The Fly or Videodrome when they first came out and it changed their ideas about a lot of things. Then you get people who love gangster stuff, so they love A History of Violence, or they love Eastern Promises. There’s no one movie. It seems I’ve provided quite a palate for people of different tastes. Some people are really not interested in the early horror films, but they really like the later films and Vice Versa. There’s no one film that stands out really.
Is there one that you’re particularly proud of looking back?
CRONENBERG: Well, I’m pretty proud of all of them actually [laughs]. It’s a cliché to say, but it’s like asking someone to choose which of their children they like the best. I can’t really do it. The other thing is that it’s very hard for me to separate the film that you would see objectively from the process that I lived through making the film. The circumstances of the film are still very alive to me. So I might have had a film that was a very tough shoot, and that might affect my attitude towards that film. Whereas someone who’s just watching it knows nothing about those difficulties, nor should they.
You’re in a position where you don’t have to work, you only make something if you want to, and lately you’ve been doing some really interesting and exciting things. You wrote a novel, you directed The Fly opera. At this point are you just trying to keep yourself…?
[Laughs] Excited about creating.
CRONENBERG: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I don’t want to bore myself, because I think if I bore myself, I’ll bore everybody else too. I never have done, and certainly now don’t need to do, a movie just to do a movie. Unless it’s a project that I’m really excited about and really feel like maybe I’m the only one who can do this properly. I don’t need to work just to work. At the moment, I’m writing another novel. I’m not really working on another film project.
With all the new media available for creation – projects on the internet, streaming services, lots of great directors and writers are working on TV now – do you have interest in working in new or different formats?
CRONENBERG: I have interest in it, and if the right thing came along. There are some producers who think my novel ‘Consumed’ would make a great Netflix or Amazon kind of series, and maybe something like that will happen. That would be interesting. I don’t know if I would want to direct it, because I felt that when I wrote the book I had really kind of done it, I don’t need to do it again. We’ll see.
You mentioned earlier you like to keep your movies short, so what do you like about the process of writing more long form with a novel that made you want to go back?
CRONENBERG: Certainly writing a novel is very, very different from writing a screenplay. They’re technically both writing, but they couldn’t be more different and I really did enjoy the experience of writing a novel. It’s very discursive, it’s much more intimate than filmmaking and there’s so many things that you can do in a novel that you actually can’t do in a film.