It's Dangerous to Be An Artist: An Interview with David Cronenberg

By Jonathan PennerJanuary 28, 2012

It's Dangerous to Be An Artist: An Interview with David Cronenberg

DAVID CRONENBERG ARRIVED on the world's cinema screens with a viscous splash. His unmistakable Cartesian horror films ShiversRabidThe BroodScannersVideodrome, and Existenz were extraordinary meditations on making the mental physical, and made Cronenberg one of the most admired auteurs of the late seventies and early eighties. 

But since 1983's The Dead Zone, most of Cronenberg's films — like The FlyDead RingersM. ButterflyNaked LunchCrashSpiderA History of ViolenceA Dangerous Method, and the upcoming Cosmopolis — have not been made from his original scripts, but have been adaptations from the works of others. 

Curious about my hero's transition from originator to adapter, I sat down with David Cronenberg to discuss the artist's life and work.

            —  Jonathan Penner


It's Dangerous to Be an Artist

As a young upstart filmmaker I felt that you were not a real filmmaker if you didn't write your own stuff and it should be original. And that was beyond the French version of the auteur theory which was really meant to rehabilitate the artistic credibility of guys like Howard Hawks and John Ford. The French were saying a director could work within the studio system and still be an artist and that those guys were, even though they didn't normally write their own stuff. And for years I said, no, no you have to write your own stuff. But then I got involved with Stephen King's The Dead Zone, and it was more of a studio project, and there were five scripts that had been written, one of them by Stephen King himself, and frankly I didn't think his script was the best of the five. In fact, I thought that if I did his script people would kill me for betraying his novel. I think what happened is that he just wanted to try something else. He wasn't interested in just doing the novels, so he changed it quite a lot to the point where it was less like the novel than Jeffrey Boam's script, which was actually more faithful. So I started to work with Jeffrey Boam, and I started to really enjoy the process of working with other people and on the script, and I thought, well this is interesting 'cause what it means is, if you mix your blood with other people's, then you will create something that you wouldn't have done on your own, but is enough of you that it's exciting and feels like you. It's kind of like making children. 

Beyond that, frankly, what opened the door for me doing adaptations was realizing that it doesn't matter where the idea for the movie comes from. For me it's really just a matter of developing every aspect that you can as an artist. Film art is so complex that it's very rare to have someone who's good at every aspect of it. You could be good with actors but not have a really strong visual sense, or you have a strong visual sense, but you have a tin ear when it comes to music. Or your eye for costumes isn't so great; so you learn to work with other people who are good at the stuff you're not good at. And you have to be very honest with yourself because otherwise you're short changing yourself. I mean, if you can't admit to yourself that you're no good visually, you're not really going to let a director of photography help you. And then you're going to make flawed movies that could have been better if you'd allowed yourself to collaborate more. 

It's dangerous to be an artist. That's what we talk about in Naked Lunch. It's dangerous on many different levels. Politically it can be dangerous, but psychologically it can be quite dangerous too. You make yourself very vulnerable. You put yourself out there and of course you open yourself up to criticism and attack. And so you have to be strong if you're going to make movies. But once you accept that movies can come from anywhere, that a movie can come from a dream or a conversation or a newspaper article, or it could be based on real people, you can expand that and say it could come from a work of art that someone has already done. It could be a play, it could be a novel, it could be a remake of another movie, and of course I've done all those things, and in each case the satisfaction comes from making a good movie; not from where the movie comes from. I don't have to question it if I find the story interesting. 

Like, I find psychoanalysis interesting, even though I've never undergone analysis myself, but I think it's a really interesting, new, relationship that Freud invented; a relationship between an analyst and a patient. And I'm thinking that's kinda intriguing, because we kinda accept that as a basic relationship that humans can have, between an analyst and a patient, but before Freud it didn't exist! The closest you might have got was a priest in a confessional, but there, you know the priest is very judgmental, having a huge religious structure informing everything he reacts to, so here you have a totally different kind of thing... 

The Body Still Has to Have its Say

I had heard that Ralph Fiennes, who I had worked with in Spider, was playing Jung in Christopher Hampton's play which was called The Talking Cure on the West End of London and I knew Christopher's work and I thought, well that's gotta be interesting, so I read the play. I didn't see it. (I've never seen it.) And I thought, I must always have wanted to do something about Freud and the birth of psychoanalysis and the heart of Europe just before the First World War. It's a great era that's so potent and so rich but I never had the structure. And basically he wrote a screenplay [for A Dangerous Mind] based on his play and another screenplay that he had written seventeen years ago for Julia Roberts's company for Julia Roberts to play Sabina. 

Freud was really revolutionary for his time. We take all of psychoanalytic thinking for granted now because certainly anyone who grew up in the twentieth century has been automatically inculcated with the Freudian paradigms of the conscious, of the ego, the super ego. And the offshoots from people who had been in Freud's circle like Adler who would go off and create the idea of the inferiority complex and so on. But at the time, it was incredibly revolutionary and I can see it very much as a mind/body thing. Freud insisted on the primacy of the human body. At the time, that we think of as Victorian, it was very repressed. Europe thought of itself as a super civilization: that rationality and reason ruled everything and everyone knew their place in the Austro-Hungarian Empire that had ruled for seven hundred years. They thought mankind was becoming more and more rational and reasonable and evolving properly from animal to a super-angel kind of thing. But, here was Freud saying, no, underneath that we have this huge potential for violence and destruction that is always there; I call it the id, and we can descend and this thin veneer of civilization can crack break and unleash incredible tribal barbarity, and so on. And of course he was proved absolutely right by the First World War, which shocked people in a way the Second World War didn't. Because at the time no one could believe that Europeans could be like that. That they could suddenly descend into tribal barbarity and cruelty and hideously commit atrocities like that. And for Freud it was the body. At the time people were wearing high white stiff collars and corsets and were all covered up and we were all rationality. He was saying the body still has to have its say. He was talking about penises and vaginas and anuses and excrement and child abuse. He was talking about incest because he was running into that in his practice and these were things you weren't supposed to speak about. You can see the Freudian revolution: though it had such a high intellectual content, its center was the human body. 

Personally, I never thought of therapy or psychoanalysis as a pleasurable experience, particularly. I always thought of it as something you do when things have gone wrong and you want to correct it and you can't figure out how to do it yourself. It's a serious investment of time and energy and focus and mind, and I've never felt the need for it. It's like, and I don't mean to be crude about it, but it's like taking an antibiotic when you don't actually have an infection. I think I can analyze myself and quite well! 

They Came From Toronto

When I was a kid, every Saturday there would be a lemming-like stream going to the cinema. In those days, no one worried about kidnapping or child abuse or anything like that. So you had little kids walking by themselves to the theater and we would see everything. You'd see cartoons, you'd see westerns, what we called "sword fighting" movies, pirate movies — whatever was around you'd see. These were kid, rather than adult movies, and I just absorbed that. And certainly I was aware of the art films that appeared in the late fifties/early sixties; Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, Truffaut, Godard. These were all of interest to a young budding intellectual. But see, movies, for a Canadian living in Toronto, were things that came from somewhere else; they didn't come from Canada or Toronto. There was never a sense you had say, growing up in L.A. where your father or your uncle were working in the film business or your mother or whoever. Nobody you knew in Toronto was working in the film business. Maybe television. 

My father was a writer and I thought I'd be a novelist. Basically I wanted to be, in particular, an obscure novelist because I loved discovering novels that were not very well known but were very strong and potent. Like Julian Barnes for instance, or even William Burroughs because at the time he was not at all well known. And even Nabokov before Lolita was someone I was interested in. But when I saw a certain film that changed — and literally I can tell you the moment — it was when I saw a film called Winter Kept Us Warm, made by a student at the University of Toronto named David Secter and this moment couldn't be replicated now, at least not in North America. I was shocked because this movie, and it was about students coming to the U of T, had, as its actors in it, my classmates. And I had no idea they were involved with film at all and I was shocked to see my friends in a real movie that walked and talked like a movie and how did that happen? So I thought, wow, you actually can make a movie. And at that point I started to look at the New York Underground. And that was a huge influence. At Ed Emshwiller. And before the Coen Brothers there were the Kuchar Brothers and Kenneth Anger of course, and Stan Brakhage, and all these guys, Jonas Mekas, and that helped because in Canada there was no industry that you could plug yourself into as there would be let's say in L.A. 

Now, this was the sixties. It was, hey, do your own thing. You don't have to go to Hollywood, just grab a camera and make a movie! It was no big deal. And that was great and that attitude was exemplified by the New York Underground. And of course there was an L.A. Underground as well. So Ivan Reitman and I and some other people started the Canadian Film Co-op, which was based on Jonas Mekas's New York Film Co-op. The idea being that if you made underground films, to get people to see them you had to have a central depot to give people access to your movies. Even if these were students or you wanted to have a screening on the streets, which people used to do in the sixties all the time. So starting out I made several underground movies, Transfer was the first one, about a psychiatrist and patient, and then I didStereo and Crimes of the Future, both of which I made in 35 millimeter; I shot them myself, edited them, lit them, and that was my beginning film school. But after, I thought if I want to do this for my life, I have to be able to make some money from it - because, I mean, how else would you do it? And so, I started thinking about making a commercial movie that I would get paid to do and that would get commercial distribution. And that's when I connected with a company called Cinepix in Montreal that was making French Canadian kinda soft core sex films. Well they were actually very sweet. They were very political and they were very cute and they were sexy. But they couldn't sell those to the U.S. They could sell them to Europe but they couldn't sell them to the U.S. So when I wrote my first script which was Shivers, a horror film, they thought, well a low budget horror film, Roger Corman's doing those; I'm sure we can get American distribution, I'm sure we can show that in America! And that's what they wanted. It was called They Came From Within here.

The money wasn't the first thing, not that I have a problem with money, but I said "I have to make a feature film that has a story and has characters that more people will see than will see an underground film." Because I was making underground films that are extreme art films. For example, my two long films, Stereo and Crimes of the Future had no dialogue in them; they had only voiceovers and were very dream-like, so you're really saying you want to make a more narrative film that a larger audience, not necessarily a mass audience, but a larger audience would want to see. And so that was my goal; to write a feature-length film that had more recognizable characters, and it turned out to be a horror film. And it's funny because later that became the standard for young filmmakers who wanted to make their first film, was do a low budget horror film. It still is, but at the time it was just an accident. I mean, really, I could just as easily have done an, I don't know what, a comedy or something like that. Ivan Reitman did comedies. Cannibal Girls was his first feature... and like with Coppola, with Brian DePalma, at the beginning of their careers they had to write their own scripts too. Because they're told: we want the script but we don't want you as a director because you haven't directed. And you say: well if you want the script you have to take me as the director. And the truth is good scripts are harder to find than good directors sometimes. So that's how I got started and I think they had to do the same thing. 

Where did Shivers come from? I resist analysis at this point! It's not that I'm saying I resist the process of analysis that a critic might do, that's not what I'm saying, I just want the critics to know that that's different than what I do when I'm making a movie. And it's often a mistake that they make. I think critics often confuse their process with mine. You know? I mean there was a journalist in Canada who really wanted it to be about the death of my parents. She was really trying to make a Freudian case for it and I said, "no, my parents were really extremely giving and artistically minded and really very happy with I was doing." It certainly wasn't rebelling against them. Plus the work I was doing as a writer was very dark before my parents died. I mean everyone's parent's die, if you live long enough. That's the way it's supposed to go anyway, so it's not like it was a big deal that way, I mean sure it does make you confront your own mortality, but I was already confronting my own mortality when I was 10! So therefore it's impossible for me to say. I don't know where it came from any more than I can say where the script that I wrote for Dead Ringers came from. I mean I know what it was based on but why I would be attracted to that, I... you know, to me it's just a question of your own sensibility trying to figure out the human condition. What it is to be human and what it means. Or does it have no meaning? Even that is an interesting thing. 

I find myself saying that psychoanalysts and artists do, in a way, the same thing. We are all presented with the official version of reality, the sort of… what we see sitting in this room version, and some say, okay, that's that, and accept that for what it is, but we say, okay, but what's really going on? What's going on under the surface? What's driving it? What's making things happen? So just as an analyst says to his patient, okay, sure, so that's your life, but let's go underneath, let's see what are the darker, or hidden or unacknowledged, aspects of your life, the artist is doing that with society in general. The same thing. And for me that's just the normal thing to do, as an artist. That's the essence of being an artist. You're not just recording the official version of reality; everybody understands that. I mean there is something to be said for recording it, but we're of trying to get beneath the surface. 

"You Called Yourself an Artist!"

I was doing an interview. Mick Garris was doing the interview and it was me, and John Carpenter and John Landis. And I was just blathering on about art and being an artist and their jaws just kind of dropped. And then after the interview, they came up to me and said, "you called yourself an artist!" And I said, "yeah?" And they said "we would never do that!" Now, is that an industry thing? A Hollywood thing? I don't know. In Canada, in Toronto, I think we're exactly halfway between Hollywood and Europe. In Europe, a director is an artist. There is no question. In France? Of course; perhaps the artist right now is a director. As opposed to a novelist say or a painter, he's the ultimate. Whereas in North America, the feeling is you are a soldier in an industry and that it's pretentious to talk about yourself as an artist. But for me, it's not pretentious, it was just reality. I mean to me that's what you do, you know?

A lot of filmmaking in America is nostalgia filmmaking, trying to recapture what you loved as a kid. And so if you're just trying to do that, you downplay the art that's required to do it. John Landis, who I know very well, is a genre freak. He's a maven. He loves the genre of horror and sci-fi. Whereas for me that was never my goal. I'm not a nostalgia freak. I have great moments of affection for things and movies I saw as a kid, but I never had a need to recapture that by you know, doing it again. So I think that's part of the difference. Many American films are really films about films.

Cronenberg's Total Recall

I was going to do Total Recall. Like with a lot of Philip Dick stuff the concept of Total Recall was incredible. The beginning was great. It didn't quite have an ending that was satisfying and that was always the thing; what's the third act? How's it going to end? But I felt a great connection with Philip Dick. He's such an interesting guy. A brilliant guy. A lot of his writing is very shoddy and not good because he wrote so fast and so constantly and he would be taking speed and would write for 48 hours straight which of course is ultimately what killed him. So I was working on it. At the time it was for Dino De Laurentiis and Ron Shusett, the producer, who'd had a lot of success with Alien, which, I have to say, took a lot of stuff from Shivers. There's a parasite that lives inside you? Burns its way out? Jumps on your face and goes down your throat? I did all that before Alien and Dan O'Bannon (who wrote Alien) certainly knew my work. But that's another thing. So anyway, I wanted to cast William Hurt for the lead, and it ended up being Arnold Schwarzenegger so there's the difference. Once again I thought it could be sci-fi and entertaining, but heavy duty, you know? This was heavy duty. And ultimately what happened was, after doing a year's worth of work, writing ten to twelve drafts myself, I finally handed the last draft to Ron Shusett and I said, "here, I think we have it, this is it." And he said, "well, you know what you've done?" And I said, "what?" And he said, "you've done the Philip K. Dick version." And I said, "well isn't that what we wanted?" And he said, "no, we wanted Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars." And I said, "well it's too bad we didn't talk about that earlier because we could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble!" 

The difference between approaching themes in art and in genre is a matter of comfort. And I think that it's a matter of intellect. For example, what happens in The Fly would be very hard to take in a normal drama. Basically an attractive guy meets an attractive girl and then contracts a terrible wasting disease and the girl watches as he deteriorates and ultimately she helps to kill him. That's really the plot of The Fly on an emotional level and that would be very hard to take if it were just a realistic drama. But when it's a sci-fi horror mix, it sort of allows the audience to have some distance and they still feel the emotional impact of those things, but it gives them a little bit of safety, you know? But in terms of a movie like Naked Lunch or Crash, it's just a question of what people are used to and what they expect from a movie. And when they're not getting the structure that they're familiar with, or an aesthetic approach that they understand, then there is a distance there but it's not a good distance. It's off-putting to them. So at that point the appeal is to a much narrower audience that can understand you and engage with the movie that you've made.

Making it More Palatable Subverts the Reason

It's just that certain projects are, in their nature, extreme. Like Dead Ringers. The first I heard of the Marcus twins, these real twins, was a little article and I still remember the headline: "Twin Docs Found Dead in Posh Pad." I read that and thought: that's got to be a movie! I followed it back to the source and eventually there was an article by Ron Rosenbaum inEsquire called "Dead Ringers" and it was fantastic and I thought: I would like to do this story, but I don't to really base it on the real guys 100%. I don't want it to be a biography, but it's too good a structure. I mean, it's like a fiction thing. Who could ever imagine such a thing? It was too perfect. So I went through, it was Joe Roth at the beginning before he was any studio thing, he was an independent producer. And Carol Baum. And we started talking with my friend Norman Snider who then wrote the first draft and it took ten years from that point to get it made. Ten years. Very difficult. I mean we had the classic thing; we got, "do they have to be gynecologists? Can't they be lawyers?" We literally got that! And I said "do you think that's better?!" And we got "do they both have to die?" and that was the end of that conversation. We got all the sorts of conservative things that would turn that project into trash basically and it went through many incarnations before finally we got it made. But to make it more accessible or more palatable would subvert the reason for actually making the movie. 

But movies like Crash or Naked Lunch can't cost a hundred million dollars and you must make sure they don't. You accept the limitations of the budget when you make an extreme or difficult movie — it's whatever it is you can raise. And then of course, there's a certain point where you say: can I actually make it well, for that money? Do I have to sacrifice any quality? And there are moments where I've said, about projects: I can't raise enough money to actually make the movie well, so therefore I'm not going to make it. I have to consider the outcome. Or for instance Spider. I really wanted ten million dollars to make Spider and we could only raise eight. And at that point it was, okay, do we make this movie or not? You know, if we make it for eight then it means we all literally have to not get paid. And I include there, Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, and the Producer and the Writer and the Director — me — but we all loved the project so much and we were already so far engaged in it, that we all agreed to do that. So we literally all of us, and Patrick McGrath the writer of the novel, we all literally didn't get paid and we made the movie for eight million, but we really needed ten. So that's an unusual moment, and just in terms of financial survival you can't do that very often, because you're spending two years of your life making a movie and you're making zero money during those two years. But that was sort of a happy case because we managed to survive it. Ralph went off and did Red Dragon and got a big payday. I didn't! But one thing that's interesting is, since we're showing A Dangerous Method to Jungians and Freudians, I've discovered that they and psychiatrists often show Spider to students and other doctors as an illustration of what schizophrenia might feel like from the inside. From the point of view of a schizophrenic. They feel that it's an incredibly accurate depiction of the experience of schizophrenia and that it's very useful for doctors and psychiatrists so I kinda like that. 

Here's the thing, you see: I'm not bound up in my own head, I mean I don't have the kind of expectations some people seem to think you have to have as a filmmaker. In other words, I don't think about my other films. I don't care about them. I mean they're there. But I would never go back, I don't try to make them better by doing CG on old movies; I have no desire to do something like that. They are bound in their own time. And likewise, it's not like I'm looking for anything that's like what I used to do. I'm happy to be surprised.

LARB Contributor

Jonathan Penner has written for movies, television, magazines, and blogs, and has worked extensively as an actor, screenwriter, and producer. His film credits include the cult classic The Last Supper, the Hamlet-inspired Let the Devil Wear Black and the short film for which he was Oscar-nominated, Down on the Waterfront. He is co-author with Steven J. Schneider of Horror Cinema (Taschen, 2008).



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