The University Philosophical Society of Trinity College Dublin hosted an interview with David Cronenberg, the self-proclaimed “baron of blood” last night. I was honoured to be invited to attend (one of the perks of being an old hack, I suppose – I even got to dine with him beforehand) and it was a great informative evening for my inner film buff, as well as anybody with an interest in cinema. I’m sure they’ll have photos or recordings of the night up soon, but I thought I’d give my own impressions.
I didn’t take notes. I was sitting in the front row and I figured it would have been rude to be jotting down notes while Cronenberg was talking. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing various other directors under similar circumstances – David Lynch and Neil Jordan among them – so I was quite surprised at how at ease Cronenberg was with the crowd, being interviewed. In a sharp suit, he was often smiling pleasantly and often speaking candidly about various aspects of his productions and plans – he was very much in his element.
I have to admit to being somewhat surprised on seeing him. From looking at his blood-drenched filmography – “the baron of blood” is an accurate nickname, he conceded, but argued that nobody on the planet (except “just that one guy” on the Internet Movie Database) ever called him “Depraved Dave” or “Dave Deprave” – one would be forgiven for expecting a morbid autuer, somebody who speaks in muttered sentences and gives cryptic answers while refusing to offer any insight that might remove their work of some of its abstract charm.
Instead, Cronenberg launched straight into the evening by talking about his most recent missed opportunity – an adaptation of a Robert Ludlum novel that was to star Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise to be financed by MGM. Of course, MGM fell apart and it’s not happening, but he spoke very frankly about the film. He observed that Ludlum was “a terrible writer” from the point of view of adapting his work, but admitted it was oddly liberating – there’s something nice about the freedom it gives to those translating his books to screen.
Translation was a key word there. Describing the filming the unfilmable Naked Lunch (“It is unfilmable,” David Fanning stressed), Cronenberg felt that ‘adapting’ was an unsuitable word. It was more like a translation from one medium to another – as if translating a language. He did add an important caveat, warning “there’s no dictionary for that translation”. He spoke about The Dead Zone as being the perfect example, claiming that the fans of Stephen King’s original book were extremely pleased, even though he admitted drastically altering the material. Later on, he suggested that A History of Violence was based “on a terrible graphic novel”.
His role in and outside the mainstream came up. He didn’t scoff and feign disinterest – though he did stress he doesn’t make films for Oscars – in fact suggesting he would take great pleasure in making a bug budget film. In fact, with smaller independent studios shutting down, it’s easier to get bigger films made – ironically enough. He discussed how the genre shift recently in his work – between Spider and A History of Violence – was one driven by economic necessity. He confirmed the urban myth that we’d heard that none of the cast or crew got paid – “we had $8m for a $10m film,” he summed up – and admitted that his next project was one he wanted to get paid for.
Remarking on the possibility of working with the big studios, he conceded that “there’s a penalty to pay”, with network notes and the interference from suits, but expressed a sincere interest in making a big budget film. When Fanning suggested that he’d appreciate the high-tech toys and advanced technology that such money would afford, the director surprisingly singled out Tom Cruise as perhaps the most interesting component to work with on a big budget film. Cruise is a “creature of Hollywood”, completely different to anyone he has ever worked with, though he did single out Cruise’s professionalism and work ethic, something that I’ve heard quite a few directors agree with him on.
Cronenberg discussed his organic use of actors, and eschewed the use of storyboards as a film-making device. Indeed, he offered a wonderful story of how he literally got a twenty minute school in the usage of the camera before he was out making films. He praised his actors, including Jeremy Irons (apparently they both agree he should have won the Oscar for Dead Ringers) and Viggo Mortensen (they both share a great amount of trust) – though he cited Patrick McGoohan as “a very talented actor, but a very difficult person” while working on Scanners. He discussed how he believed that storyboarding too rigidly harmed the capacity of actors to contribute to a film, citing their “physicality”. “Their body is their instrument,” he explained. Storyboards create an inorganic barrier which prevents the sort of physical improvisation that directors and actors should thrive on.
He shared a few war stories, including a recent attempt to create a television show based off Dead Ringers to pick up on the success of Nip/Tuck, but the network executives kept chipping away “bit by bit” until there was nothing left. There is a similar story concerning Scanners. He joked about the more recent Oscar-winning Crash and shared an humourous story about a local councilor in England with the unlikely name of John Bull trying to ban his own Crash, as it encouraged “road rage”. Indeed, that film must have caused a fair bit of headache, as he recalled trimming ten minutes of film for the “Blockbuster version” in order to convince Blockbuster Video to rent the video. And that says nothing of Ted Turner’s attempts to edit the film “with a tomahawk” in the belief the film would encourage teens to have sex in cars.
Beyond that, he talked for a bit about his own concept of evolution and how that theme plays through in his work – he denied Fanning’s assertion that his back catalog can be broken into groups demonstrating a clear developing theme. He suggested that humanity is changing dramatically to the point where we are incredibly distinct from even the humans who lived a thousand years ago. To visit Ancient Greece, he suggested, would be to be “among aliens”, with completely different “body language and that sort of thing”.
Regarding plans for the future, Cronenberg was fairly open. He explained that he had found himself in the odd position of being asked to remake The Fly. “To remake my own remake,” was how he phrased it. He was working on the script – but he informed the audience that his script was not a tired remake (or “more of the same”, which is what Mel Brooks had demanded before Cronenberg left the sequel to the eighties classic). Instead, Cronenberg is drafting a script based upon his own original idea – back in the eighties – for a sequel to the cult movie. It was vetoed then, but it looks like the studios might be interested now.
He is also working on The Talking Cure, they are flying over to make it shortly (although he joked that things might not entirely work out and he would just be “visiting” the film location). He outlined the plot – a romantic triangle between Freud, Jung and a former patient – and confirmed that Waltz had been in talks to play Freud before Hollywood came calling. Viggo Mortensen had stepped in at the last minute. “Waltz waltzed off,” Cronenberg punned, adding that “Christain Bale baled.” There wasn’t a hint of begrudgery in his voice. In fact, Cronenberg seems like a man who won’t let any of the incredible hurdles he’s faced as a filmmaker wear him down – there isn’t the faintest suggestion of any lingering bitterness. “I don’t look backwards,” he responded, smiling, when asked what he makes of the gradual change in the tone of his work.
One final hint was given. Cosmopolis is still planned, albeit on the back-burner. Though Cronenberg did suggest that Colin Farrell may be interested in playing the lead part. Colour me interested. Then again, it’s a David Cronenberg film, so colour me interested regardless.
It was a great evening. I’ve only really scratched the surface and touched on the main points. I’m sorry I don’t have more quotes – but hopefully the recordings will be up on the Phil site, or broadcast on Dave Fanning’s show soon. I’d like to thank the Phil for having me for an excellent and insightful evening.
Now for a Cronenberg marathon.