Its a cliché to say it, and youve seen it in front of every interview with the man, but in person David Cronenberg is a friendly, gracious, and very personable man. Hes also a thoughtful and articulate artist who enjoys both talking about his work and prodding the interviewer with his own questions. I had the pleasure to interview him on his day-long stop in Seattle on the press junket for eXistenZ, less than a month before he had to leave for France to take his place as the 51st Cannes Film Festival Jury President.
Our interview began with his interest in my clunky, fifteen year old portable tape recorder, a bulky legacy of my college years that has done my interview duties since the demise of my handheld recorder. I hid it out of the way but leave it to the Cronenberg, whose films explore the texture of technological change like no one else, to check it out and query me about this unusual piece of equipment.
The following is a transcript of the bulk of our interview (certain arrangements prevent me from printing the entire interview at this time). Some of my questions have been abridged, rewritten, or otherwise altered to make me appear more intelligent than I was when I actually asked them. No such editing was necessary for Mr. Cronenberg.
Sean Axmaker: I see similarities between eXistenZ and Videodrome.
David Cronenberg: You look at the first Fellini movie and you can see the seeds of all of Fellini there and I do think that, well certainly my desire has been to be a filmmaker in the same general mold as someone like Fellini or Bergman. Obviously my movies feel a lot different, maybe not at every moment, mind you, but I think thats simply why. Its my own sensibility, everything is filtered through my own sensibility and my experiences of life and so on, and Im going to continually be drawing from the same pool of imagery and themes Im sure, with modifications and adjustments to the angles and of course Im learning different things about myself, but the connections should be there. Its the kind of filmmaking that there isnt a lot of these days, partly because maybe the young filmmakers who are coming up dont really want to do that, thats not what they want to do, they want to do something quite different.
SA: Im thinking in terms of narrative and its sense of imagery.
DC: Well its interesting. Everybody agrees that the movie reminds them of other of my movies, but no one quite agrees which one. Because I had a guy in here sitting where you were telling me all of the connections he made between this and Naked Lunch. And its not wrong. I could make connections between this and M Butterfly, which for most people wouldnt be the obvious connection, but I can certainly make those connections. Once again, its the same thing. If you look at all my movies as kind of chapters in one long book or something like that, then maybe it makes more sense, but if your strength is to be a professional craftsman then you want to brag about how many different styles of movies you can do and different kinds of movies and how different all your movies are from each other, and youre showing what versatility you have, but if youre an artist youre movies are all going to interconnect and ideally people can tell who made this movie without knowing who made the movie. So its inevitable that they should connect. Ive got to say that when I was writing the script I wasnt thinking of my other movies at all. Its just not part of the creative process for me. Its a kind of enforced innocence. I try to be very naïve, I try to divest myself of all worries about what movie is hot and what movies have been successful and who expects things from me, what they might expect and what my last movie did and what other movies of mine might be like this movie, all of those things. Deliberately I try not to think about them at all, and I dont find it very difficult to do that because I end up a sort of one-to-one trance with the project that Im embarked on. I know there are going to be connections. Some people have said that this could even be a sequel to Videodrome. Well, perhaps, and one could make a case for it, Im sure.
SA: Where Videodrome used the stimulus of television, this uses the stimulus of the interactive video game, although its not exactly video
DC: Well, its not a video, as youll admit. Theres no video in the movie.
SA: No, its virtual reality.
DC: Well, yeah, and I mean I can see those connections, but for me those are critical matters. Creatively, they dont function. Theres no creative function that deals with that at all. I mean we can talk about the differences, and there are many, and in terms of the experience that someone has, well thats also a very subjective thing. Obviously there will be some people who see this movie who might well not have seen any of my other movies, so for them Its like people saying "The Thin Red Line was the greatest war movie ever made." Some critic was quoted as saying that. And Im saying "Well, you must not have seen the thousand other war movies that Ive seen because Ive seen a lot of stuff that was in this movie before," but if its the first war movie youve ever seen, if youre a very young film critic I mean when I grew up in the 1940s and 50s, fresh from the Second World War and then the Korean War, there were tons of war movies, I mean that was a real solid genre along with the western and the pirate movie. There were tons of war movies to see. For the last few years there really havent been so people are getting all excited about the Second World War again through movies but I mean Ive been there. And yet if someone has his eyes opened because of something hes seen in Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line and special effects, thats fine. But its hard to know what to do with what youre saying. Its interesting but as I say creatively, for me, from the inside out, it has no function.
SA: eXistenZ is your first original screenplay since Videodrome. What inspired you to create something original like that again?
DC: Nothing, nothing. Theres no inspiration involved in the sense that you mean. In other words, I didnt sort of say "God, its been 17 years since I wrote something original, Id better get to it and see what I come up with," because I wasnt thinking of it at all. In fact I wrote this actually about four years ago. I actually thought it would be made before Crash. I had Crash written but was having trouble getting it financed and so this was set up at MGM because my former agent had become head of MGM and asked me if I would do something there and when he asked me "Do you have anything ready?," I said "No, but Ive got some ideas and Ill come up with something." I wasnt looking for an adaptation, I dont normally look for them, I dont normally say "God, Ive got to find something to do a movie of," because my first four or five movies were all original scripts, but because things had come along, things like a Crash and Naked Lunch and M Butterfly, they just kept me going. But creatively the difference for me between writing an original script and working on something thats an adaptation is not so extreme as you might think the difference if you find the right thing to adapt. Obviously for me it has to be something that I really feel I can mix my blood with, you know, something that I can be feeling really close to and passionate about. And I felt that way about those films, so I didnt feel like Id been away from something for a long time, it just happened, it was very natural.
SA: I know youve butted up against censorship issues for quite some time and it becomes a pretty big part of at least part of eXistenZ.
DC: Yeah, some people try to see this as being a reaction in some way to Crash, but as I say I actually wrote this before Crash and I dont think in any way this is a reaction. Ive had enough run ins with censors and censorious minded people that I didnt need the Crash experience to make the comments on it that I do in this movie. And as Im sure you know from reading the (press) notes, it did have something to do with Salmun Rushdie too, and I think I was thinking more along the lines of his situation, which I guess you could consider to be the ultimate censorship, condemned to death for what you have written and not just suppressed, or its the ultimate suppression I guess. And its not the only subject of the movie but it is certainly a part of the movie, the idea that what you create becomes a living thing. (William) Burroughs was very obsessed with that, the idea that what you create as an artist becomes a living thing, it goes out into the world and has a life of its own but is still connected to you. And its like a child and it can come back to haunt you in certain ways, and he himself was pretty interested in Rushdies situation, as well as you might have imagined.
SA: Youve said that every project youve done is something youve been completely interested in, and its obvious watching your films that they are your creations, and not simply because youve put your stamp on them. As you put it, you mix your blood with these projects. How have you managed to keep doing what you want to do in this kind of industry, where it takes millions and millions of dollars to put together a film.
DC: Its very difficult. It is difficult, it is a struggle. Im aware, though, that while I dont know how it is for somebody like, say, Joel Schumacher who is really a part of the industry and seems recently to be making film after film after film, more frequent than I do, but even for people in the industry I know that Let me put it this way: I think it would be as difficult to get a film off the ground within this industry as it is outside of it, but in a different way. Because although it seems like theres millions of movies around theyre getting harder and harder to make, partly because of their budgets, but partly because of the complexity of the business itself. I was offered Seven and I was offered Alien 4, and the temptation was to say "Ill just jump at it and tomorrow Ill be shooting the movie," but then you realize its not so simple because those movies dont happen unless you get the right casting and you get the right budget, and then you have to deal with the studios script notes, so there are battles to be fought even within that system. So its not just sort of "Oh, if I only did that Id be making a movie, and making a lot of money too." Its not easy there either so I feel that in a way its just because of what I want to do. In other words its the choice Ive made but I dont think the other way would be easier. There are a lot of battles to be fought either way. Its hard to make a movie, so why not make a movie that youre dying to make, that youre passionate to make.
SA: Thats not necessarily the same for many directors in the industry, who seem to be making films out of love for other films.
DC: Well, their enthusiasm for movies seems to be all about movies, its true, and also their enthusiasm is to be a director, to be involved in the movie industry, and thats sort of where it ends. And everything that works, given those two concepts, is okay. So its a different understanding of what it is to be a moviemaker. To me, its not what youve got to do if you want to be an artist, but thats a whole other question, thats a big question.
SA: How did you put together the collaborators on all your movies? Carol Spier has been on every film since
DC: Since Fast Company, yeah.
SA: Which I have to admit Ive never seen.
DC: No, its hard to see that one, which is funny because it has a slightly western tinge to it because it was shot in Edmonton in Alberta, and Tacoma (a city in Washington south of Seattle) is even mentioned in that movie, so I just realized looking at a map here. Its maybe a more European approach to filmmaking in a way that you have long time collaborators, but it does happen in America sometimes, but there is a tendency I think in Hollywood to want to go with whoever is hot, whether its a cameraman or an editor, whoever has had a success because youre so success oriented that youre trying to capture the magic, you know, and whoever touched that magic, whoever won that Oscar you want to get closer to. For me, in the same way that I hope that my movies are getting deeper rather than broader, and more intense, I like those kinds of relationships. I like to work with the same people, and our relationship and our work gets deeper. You could argue "Well dont you get into a rut working with the same people," but the things on the movies change enough, theres enough things that change on each movie that each one is quite a separate challenge. Its also in the sense of guerrilla filmmaking its a lot more efficient to work with people that you know and you understand and you have a real shorthand of working and youve rubbed off all the rough edges. I mean you know each other very well, each others eccentricities and so on, so theres no emotional wasted in dealing with all that stuff. And its a very perilous thing, movies, it is like going into battle and you kind of want to go into battle with people that you know and trust and know they wont crack under the strain. Thats my relationship to my crew, were very close.
SA: Peter Suchitzsky is I think one of the best cinematographers working today. I re-watched Dead Ringers last night, and was that the first film you worked on together?
DC: Yes, it is.
SA: Which is a really attractive movie, its quite handsome.
DC: People forget that he shot The Empire Strikes Back, which is certainly the only really good looking of those three movies. You know weve become very close friends as well and we keep in touch in many ways and I was just in LA with him doing the video transfer, the digital transfer of the movie, because you really have to redo every shot for color and black level. Its a relationship we dont take for granted. We have to sometimes fight to keep it going in the sense that were trying to keep our timing together. Its the same with Carol Spier, for example. When I was going to do Crash I almost thought I wouldnt be able to use Peter and I had to start looking around for other cinematographers because he was doing Tim Burtons film Mars Attacks and it was horrible, horrible trying to match myself with somebody else, first to find if theyre available, and then how much do I like their work, and you know people that I dont know and I have no idea what theyll be like and will our personalities mesh. You would have to spend a lot of time and energy just finding the right person and then feeling all the time that it wont be as good as what Peter would have done, you know, that sort of thing. And fortunately they put a hiatus on Tims film and he very kindly released Peter so he actually shot Crash while they were still sort of in pre-production on Mars Attacks, and then Peter went back and did it.
SA: Thats funny because Mars Attacks looks just like a Tim Burton movie just like Crash looks like one of your movies.
DC: Peter very much wants to serve the movie. Its not a matter of imposing a personal style or whatever, but he does anyway, his lighting is phenomenal.
SA: Its not like a clear break but he seems to have brought a different style to your films from Mark Irwin, who was very bright, very hard edged, and also seemed to draw you into the main characters experiences more, and the films that Peters been shooting are cooler colors, and a little softer and seem to be a little more removed.
DC: Thats interesting. I mean I dont know if thats really a cinematographic thing, its very hard to discern why and what. You can talk about coolness you have to decide what you mean because certainly the shooting in Crash was very hard edged and cool, some scenes in Dead Ringers like Claire Nouveaus apartment was very warm, that was very deliberate that where she lived was very warm and where the boys are is cool, so once again Peter and I are both serving the movie the way we see it. What you say is interesting. I dont know if it holds up I certainly would love to do a DVD transfer of The Fly because the prints of that that Ive seen, the transfer is way too bright, way too bright. It was much moodier and darker than that in the theaters. It was just at the beginning of people realizing that you could not do a one-to-one kind of one light transfer of a film to a video and have it work. You really had to redo the whole movie shot by shot because the media are so different that colors and everything really alters. So that was really a very crude transfer that was done initially for The Fly and theres not really ever been a good one done of it. It desperately needs it, maybe it would look a little more like, a little closer to Peters shooting. If it were properly timed. Some of the earlier stuff I suppose theres the same issue there, the timing of it. Its a matter of the technology of the times, you know, and it needs to be really looked at again.
SA: Ive never seen The Fly on video, I only saw it in the theater. I almost did see it again too in preparation for this. Its been a long time since Ive seen many of your films. I went to college as video came out and I did catch up on a lot of your movies that way and I saw the rest in the theater. I suddenly had access to your films as saw them, and mostly all at once.
DC: Its interesting, because I dont have that experience at all of my own films, and I cant. I havent seen Videodrome in 15 years.
SA: I also saw for the very first time Crimes Of The Future, which I loved.
DC: Oh really? Did you see it on the laserdisc?
SA: Yeah, on the Dead Ringers special edition disc. I found it strangely compelling.
DC: I wonder how you would have felt if youd seen it first of all my films? I dont know.
SA: Well if Id seen it even ten years ago, just in that context I dont know that I would have been willing to embrace a different idea of filmmaking. I loved the architecture in that movie, it was so handsome and eerie. I see something like that in places in Dead Ringers, which also has a real architectural beauty to it.
DC: Well definitely I was dealing in those first two movies I made, Stereo and Crimes Of The Future, with the problem of space and people in space. It was one of those things that you know when you think of yourself as maybe being a filmmaker, and up to that point Id been really thinking of myself as a writer, you dont have to deal with space in quite the same way as a writer and suddenly the difficulty of manipulating space, it was kind of cubist, you know, how do you cut this space up, so I was wanting the architecture to kind of help me do that. Then as I became more adept and more confident at that I could sort of ease off on the architectural sort of stringency, although certainly my understanding of what space means in a movie was learned in those films, and even though the architecture isnt nearly an obvious an element, but in a place like (in eXistenz) the trout farm, you know, even the church was a difficulty space to work in, really difficult, because it had a big empty open center space where everything was possible but there was no shape or form to it. Thats difficult, so youre constantly dealing with it in film.
SA: I like that even in your low budget films you liked to use big spaces when other directors, because of budgets , would work in increasingly smaller spaces.
DC: Well of course your cameraman and your crew always want you to make your sets bigger, you have to understand, but in Shivers there were no sets. In Shivers we were shooting in real apartments, we didnt have anything like flying wall or anything like that, so that was a very tight space, and Ive shot in a few real elevators in my time and thats really tight and it gets very hot.
Spoiler Alert! We talk of the end of the film in the conclusion of the interview, so it is best not to read this until after seeing the eXistenZ.
SA: I guess Id better talk about the movie. Its hard to write about eXistenZ because the final five minutes changes your perspective on everything thats happened in the film. Which I like.
DC: And it would be interesting to see the film again.
SA: In light of that, yeah. A lot of things that didnt make sense to me made complete sense in light of the ending. But also I love the irony. In my reading of the film the two characters that were the most prominent were because they were the most dominant in the game and they turned out to be the best game players and it was ironic that they were the anti-gamers.
DC: Thats right, and of course we dont know if thats really the last level. But is it because they were in their own way the most passionate about gaming, in a weird way, in a negative way, they were still the most passionate about the subject of games and gaming and thats why in the game the become the arch game players.
SA: In my reading of it was that they were the ones who had the most fully developed personalities outside of gaming and they werent used to subsuming themselves into characters .
DC: Are you basing this on game players you know?
SA: No, I dont really know any game players. I dont game, but I love the idea of it and my brother is a gamer.
DC: Its a good structure.
SA: The last line of the movie, "This is still a game, right?"
DC: No its "Are we still in the game?" He said "Tell me the truth, are we still in the game?" Trust me, this is coming right from the writer.
SA: Its a very funny moment in the film and I dont think youve ever ended a film on a joke before, but was that to nudge the audience?
DC: Well its interesting. Its a controversial line in many ways. Some people say "Oh no, not that," because to them its like "And then I woke up," which everybody hates because its like "Oh, this was just a dream," but of course I dont think it works then. And I did consider, and maybe its like some people said "Its obvious, you dont have to say it and it kind of spoils it when you say it," and other people say "No, it really shocked me and it was a great way to end the movie." Ultimately my test was if you take that line out the movie has no ending, and you have to keep cutting back and back and suddenly youve taken off five scenes and you still dont have an ending to the movie. So I figured despite the pros and cons that I can see about having someone actually say this, "Are we still in the game," that I felt because I couldnt easily take it off the movie that lets you know that its got to stay there, that it somehow needs that, so Im glad that you felt that way because theres that other side, people who say "Oh well, thats kind of a " you know.
SA: I think it also has a lot to do with explaining the character who say it and the characters in the room.
DC: I completely agree. If you talk to these other people they might not be convinced, but Ive never regretted it. You toy with things when you make a movie because thats part of editing, you really have a chance to rewrite the movie in many ways when you do that.
I was hardly ready to end the interview, but Cronenberg had a busy day of interviews and my time was up.
Be sure to read the review.