The Collider Interview: David Cronenberg

     September 27, 2005

Posted by Mr. Beaks

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The critics are wrong when they say David Cronenberg has made the most accessible film of his career with A History of Violence.; This is for two reasons:; 1) The Dead Zone and The Fly were much easier sells by virtue of their overt pulp origins (note that “overt” qualifier!), and 2) this latest film’s downward spiral into repugnant violence hinges on a completely defensible act of self-defense.; And since “righteous vengeance” is the new “free love” in America, I can imagine a majority of viewers in this country balking at Cronenberg’s latest exploration of man’s darkest impulses.; Imagine if, in To Kill a Mockingbird, you found out Atticus Finch honed his marksmanship by sniping defenseless Cuban children during the Spanish American War, and you’ve got an idea of this film’s subversive intentions.

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Thematically, A History of Violence is Cronenberg’s most accomplished work since Dead Ringers, which remains his finest effort to date (and one of the ten best films of the 1980’s).; Still, this picture is right up there with The Fly, The Brood and the vastly undervalued Spider as a plain old masterpiece, of which there have been very, very few this year.; Though the body horror element is notably absent here, there’s still graphic violence galore, but it’s the kind that unsettles rather than gratifies (as the Charles Bronson revenge epics to which David Edelstein misguidedly likens this film unapologetically do).; How you read the final scene in this film will dictate your either rhapsodic or indignant reaction to it.; In fact, I strongly urge you to see the movie before reading this interview (there is a pretty huge spoiler revealed midway through).

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My only misgiving with this interview is that I didn’t have several hours to pick over every single movie Cronenberg ever made.; He’s been one of the finest filmmakers working since the late 1970’s, though he’s never been acknowledged as such outside of the most film literate circles.; I’d like to think A History of Violence will change this, but, if anything, it’s only bound to widen the gap between Cronenberg and American audiences.;

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The following one-on-one discussion was recorded last July during the San Diego Comic Con.;


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I think most critics view you as a world class filmmaker, but do you ever feel ghettoized by having established your credentials within the horror genre?

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It happens on occasion, and, ironically enough, it’s mostly here in the U.S, and it’s mostly with the big studios.; But in Europe, there isn’t that ghettoization of genre.; The French were among the first to recognize genre pictures as having art value.; That is what the “auteur theory” really is about; it’s not that the director must write and direct the movie.; It’s not that at all.; It’s seeing that the director, even in a studio picture, leaves his own personal mark.; That was what the “auteur theory” was; it was there to redeem guys like John Ford and Howard Hawks who were studio directors, but the French could see that these movies that they made were very individual and very unique to those directors, and they wanted to talk about that.; They weren’t just products from an assembly line.; So, I think there is a bit of that in the studio system here.; I think that I have experienced it every once in a while when I’ve inquired about a project that I knew was up there, and people might think either that, “He only does gory, violent stuff”, or, at the very least, that he’s “too dark”.; They’re afraid of the darkness.; There is still a residue of that, I have to say, but it’s mostly in the U.S. and just about nowhere else.

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And it has hindered you from getting certain projects?

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It has.; I think it definitely has.

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Any that you would care to discuss?

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Um… (long, tantalizing pause) no.; (Laughs)

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When you do get involved with a studio as you have here with New Line, is there still any reticence that they’re going to be looking over your shoulder and possibly censoring you?

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No.; We had to discuss all of these things first because I’ve known Bob Shaye for a long time; we go back quite a few years.; I had heard from other directors that New Line is actually a really good place to work for a director; that once you agree on the budget and the cast and the script they leave you alone.; Those were the exact words of a couple of directors who’ve worked with them.; That’s pretty ideal.; The budget, the script, the cast – those are all, of course, things you discuss with your producers whether they’re studio executives or they’re just independent producers.; And then I talked to the guys at New Line.; We had a meeting with four or five executives just to talk about my doing this project and what would be involved, what would we all expect from each other, what were we all worried about – it was very open, very honest and straightforward.; And once we had done that, there was never a problem.; I didn’t expect there to be.

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The first act of violence in this film by the protagonist is an act of self-defense.; Then, it begins to manifest itself in ways that are a bit more savage.

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Yes.; And from his son as well.

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Absolutely.; But do you think people will have trouble with the idea that it does start in self-defense?; An act that is absolutely defensible?

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Absolutely.; I think that the way the world works, and the way human beings work, and the way human society works, acts of extreme violence can be defensible.; They can be justified.; That is a very difficult thing to accept for people who want to be civilized.

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Especially now.

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Especially now.; The question is:; Is any response to a violent act justified?; Any response.; And is the question, “Once you have been attacked, any response is now justified?”, or do you have to still be somehow civilized?; Where is the balance point?; That’s a more difficult discussion to have, but I think it’s a crucial, critical one because we can accept that, unfortunately, certain acts of violence are necessary; wars, unfortunately, are still going to always happen.; We can imagine a world in which everybody could just talk about stuff and figure it out, because it seems totally possible to us.; We are strange animals.; We have an imagination, we have the ability to form abstract concepts – and we can imagine a world in which there is no war and no hunger, where we collaborate on eradicating disease wherever we can.; We can imagine that, but can we ever achieve it?; And the answer is probably, “No”.; It seems so bizarre that we can’t even control the value of our money when, in fact, that’s a human invention.; It has a life of its own.; And the movie does discuss a lot of those things.; It’s a little more subtle with Jack [Tom Stall’s son, played by Ashton Holmes] because he, we see, is a pretty good politician.; He can talk his way out of violence.; He can talk his way out of a jam.; But when he sees the celebrity his father accrues through acts of violence, how much does that influence him the next time that he decides to be violent?; He tries to get away, but he ultimately makes a decision to do something violent.; In that case, it’s not inevitable; it’s not really defensible.; He didn’t have to do that; he chose to do that.; That’s really the crossover point in the movie, I think.

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Not only does he do it, he excels at it.

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He’s very good at it.; And is that a genetic thing or is it just an emulation thing?; It’s hard to say.; I think, genetically, people are pretty good killers.

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But it’s that first act, that first life that you take, and you have to square that with yourself.

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Yes, you do.

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[Spoilers A-Comin’!!!]

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It’s interesting because we’re very much kept on the exterior of Tom Stall’s character.; We initially presume he is a good man, but, as the film wears on, that presumption is challenged.; I found that an interesting choice.

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It was a necessary choice because he’s spent twenty years creating this guy.; That means that he has to have an emotional life or he couldn’t exist.; But how controlled does he have to be to not be Joey.; It’s an interesting thing.; [Edie, played by Maria Bello] says, “You did kill people back in Philly.; Did you do it for money or because you enjoyed it?”; And [Tom] says, “Joey did both.”; So, that suggests that Joey didn’t just do it on a functional level.; But how much of it was enjoyment?; Was it just aesthetic satisfaction or was it just professional satisfaction?; He doesn’t seem to take much joy in it.; It’s sort of an athletic joy – he achieves what he needs to achieve – but it’s not really an emotional joy.; He’s had to keep his emotions in check; he’s had to keep them controlled.; Almost up until the last shot, where you’re starting to see maybe the possibility that he’s going to be able to not control them, to let them really show now that everything’s there – but he doesn’t know right up until the last moment.; And we don’t know either.

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We talked a bit about the rather frank acts of sex in the film, particularly at the beginning where he performs oral sex on her before gradually working their way into a sixty-nine, which I have never seen in a commercial film.

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Other critics have said the same thing.

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Does it ever bother you that you often find yourself also pushing sexual boundaries with your films?

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It’s so natural for me, I didn’t think twice about it.; (Laughs); If you look at French films, or films in other countries, you have to be broadminded about it.; America is still pretty puritanical.; I’m a Canadian, and I think we’re less puritanical, frankly.; I really do.; So, it’s not as much an issue for me.; It’s not an issue at all.; And I was happy that New Line was happy with it, and I was happy that the MPAA didn’t have a problem with it.; I think that speaks well of America and sex right now in terms of cinema.; That’s good, because I would’ve been very unhappy to have had to cut that for America.; I certainly wouldn’t have had to cut it for Canada or Europe, but I wouldn’t want to have to cut it for here.; But for me personally… it’s an interesting question.; A person’s own sexual experience and how comfortable he feels with stuff that’s on screen – there’s not a direct relationship, you know?; But one of the nicest compliments I have ever gotten was from a critic who said, “You can tell Cronenberg is good at sex from watching his movies.”; I thought, “Well, that’s a nice compliment.; I’ll take that one.”;

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Was that Kael?

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No, no, no.

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I guess it’s debatable the extent to which A History of Violence could be considered a horror film, but do you have any projects developing right now that might explicitly return you to the genre?

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At the moment, no.; The several things I am juggling to see if I can get them to work or if I want to do them, none of them, really, is a genre piece.; But that’s not by design.; I would never turn my back on the genre.; I don’t even think in terms of genre when I’m considering what I might do; it’s really, as I say, the project itself.; If it’s exciting, that’s great; then, I go for it.; I’m not saying that I can ignore what the implications are.; I can’t.; But, creatively, I don’t have a problem with [horror].; It’s like eXistenZ.; I’ve gone through this before.; When I did The Dead Zone, a lot of people said, “Oh, he’s becoming more mainstream now”.; And then I did The Fly, which was an out-and-out horror film.; I feel the same now.; I would do it in a heartbeat if it were the right project.

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And they’re maybe remaking The Fly again?

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Well, I’ve heard rumblings about that.; Whether that’s really going to happen or now, I don’t know.

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Does that bother you at all?

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Yeah.; I don’t like it.; I don’t even like the fact that there’s another movie out called Crash.; That really bothers me.; I’m sure Kubrick didn’t like that there was a miniseries based on The Shining made while he was still alive.; And I wasn’t crazy about having The Dead Zone reappear [as a television series].; It’s sort of like the pod people.; It’s like a pod movie supplanting your movie.; There’s a practical element, too; that people can get confused.; Now that things live for so long on DVD, there’s the chance that people will be confused about which one is yours and which one isn’t.; If it has the same title, even, it can be an issue.; I think any director you ask, if he had the power to say, “No, this won’t happen”, would say it.

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I heard your name mentioned in connection to the Masters of Horror series that’s currently being put together.

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I can’t understand why.; I did go to a Masters of Horror dinner just because the guys are so great.; They have asked me if I want to do one, and, at the moment, I don’t.; My energy is just going in a completely different direction, so I have said, “No.”; But if they have another series of them happening, and the timing is right, maybe I would.

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One of the most enduring elements of your films has been your collaboration with Howard Shore.; He’s now achieved a new level of fame, and, I think, proved himself a more versatile composer with his work on The Lord of the Rings.; Has his approach to scoring changed at all?

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No.; Howard is just great.; He’s just the most down-to-Earth guy.; He told me long ago that he wants to do everything, and I said, “I want you to, too”.; That hasn’t changed.; Not one bit.;

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And that, sadly, is all we had time for.; A History of Violence is currently in limited release, and will go wide this Friday, September 30th.; Do not miss it.

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