Taking the tinsel off Hollywood

Cronenberg takes a satirical bite of celebrity culture.

by Richard Mowe

David Cronenberg: "I remember the day as a child being told about death."
David Cronenberg: "I remember the day as a child being told about death." Photo: Richard Mowe

He has made a speciality and a career of exploring the darker recesses of the mind. David Cronenberg, however, believes he is sanest person he knows.

In person, Cronenberg, the perpetrator of Videodrome, Scanners, Naked Lunch, The Fly, Crash, and eXistenZ, Cosmopolis, and A History Of Violence, could hardly be further removed from the dark and violent imagery he throws at audiences from the screen.

His home remains Toronto where he embraces what he describes as a very middle-class life with his wife and three offspring. His father was a crime fiction novelist; his mother a concert pianist. "I've worked with the same people for more than 20 years and that gives me great stability and strength," he explains.

"I'm subject to the same bouts of artistic despair as anyone else, but when you have people around who have always been enthusiastic about working with you, then that helps."

Over his prolific 45 year career, Cronenberg has flirted with Hollywood but has yet to leap into bed with a major studio. “ One of the reasons I keep flirting with Hollywood is because there is a lot of power there - and a lot of money.”

David Cronenberg: " “I think I have made nothing else but comedies – divine comedies!"
David Cronenberg: " “I think I have made nothing else but comedies – divine comedies!" Photo: Richard Mowe

For his latest, Maps To The Stars (premiered yesterday in Cannes), he went south of the border and spent a week in Tinsel Town to cover exteriors and to inform his caustic view of the city and the industry contained in Bruce Wagner’s original script.

Critics have suggested it marks a change of tone to comedy, but he disagrees. “I think I have made nothing else but comedies – divine comedies!" he says with tongue firmly in cheek. "This one is not just about Hollywood and the movie business. It could be set anywhere where people fear greed and desperation, and the cult of celebrity is just part of it. It is a kind of exploration of what it is like to be a human being.”

The young Cronenberg’s aspirations to be a novelist revolved around his two biggest influences, William S Burroughs and Vladimir Nabokov. But they loomed so large over him he felt inhibited.

"Their influence was smothering," he says. "I had no idea how to get out of that. When I started making movies it disappeared because there were no film-makers who I regarded in the same way, possibly because I had never thought of myself as a director. In the beginning, it was kind of a lark, but it freed me to find my own voice," he says.

That voice, he admits, tends to dally on the dark side. He claims not to be obsessed with death, but has certainly given it a lot of thought. "I remember the day as a child being told about death," he says. "You are not born knowing you are going to die, so it actually comes as a surprise, and not a very pleasant one. Most people you know, if you live long enough, will die.

"If you have children, they too will die - hopefully after you. This is a very heavy existential moment, and sooner or later it will happen. Who knows why I react to all this by dealing with it in my movies. It seems to me to be an obvious concern if you are a creative person of any kind. I suppose that makes me a prime candidate for the existentialist club because you have to be willing to look into the abyss."

It's only recently that Cronenberg has come to regard himself as an existentialist. The realisation surprised him because he never believed there could be a preformed body of philosophical thought that he could adhere to. "My attitude to religions and most other philosophies was that they were inventive but basically ridiculous," he explains.

Cronenberg's films operate on diverse levels, appealing to sci-fi enthusiasts as well as the questing intellectuals of such publications as Cahiers du Cinema. "I think that's because my films will support that kind of analysis. There is a lot of stuff going on and the depth is there. You don't need to delve deeply in order to enjoy the films, but it's there for those who want to respond on other levels. For me film-making is a philosophical journey. The way I do philosophy is through my movies, and I try to understand what the human condition is, and I try to understand what I am. I hope the audience will be involved and interested and want to make that journey with me. There is not a lot of serious thinking about in film-making these days, which is sad. Even those who hated Crash, for instance, were happy to write about it because it was about something.

"The difference between art and entertainment is that art has a major reflective element. Entertainment just makes you feel good and gets you out of yourself. There's nothing wrong with that, it's just different."

Cronenberg considers his directorial methods as much more akin to sculpture than painting. “It’s a very tactile experience and it is very physical. You know, I never do storyboards because they are abstract. They are usually done before you have actors and before you have locations. I do not know how you decide at that point what lens you will use and what angle is best when you do not even know who the person is or what he is wearing or what the light is like.

“So for me I have to be in the real place with the real people. One of the interesting things that I have learned is how disembodied in a way you can be as a director and how physical you have to be as an actor. Actors are obsessed with their hair, their clothes, and their face because that is all they have to work with. Those are the tools of their trade and I find that fascinating. “

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