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David Cronenberg on Writing His First Novel and How All of His Films Are Comedies

It should surprise no one that David Cronenberg has written a novel. He’s been adapting literature — both “difficult” classics and high pulp — for decades now. What should be surprising, however, is how long it’s taken to write that novel. As Cronenberg explained to us, he’s been hoping to do so for even longer than he’s been making films. And Consumed, which is published today, is a Cronenbergian beast indeed, fusing his many thematic obsessions with a dense, twisty, tongue-in-cheek genre narrative. It’s the story of two photojournalists who become entangled in an intricate mystery involving a French philosopher couple whose marriage may or may not have ended in cannibalism and murder. The elaborate web Cronenberg weaves pulls in the internet, sexual role-playing, amputation, the perils of academia, gruesome scientific research, North Korea, and the Cannes Film Festival, among other things. The director and debut novelist spoke to us recently about the experience of writing fiction after all these years, his inspirations for the book, and, of course, his relationship with technology.

How was the discipline of writing a novel different from that of making a film or, more specifically, writing a script?
Well, let’s talk about the writing part of it. Screenplay writing is such a different form that there’s almost no connection with the experience of writing a novel for me. [A screenplay] is a kind of strange, bastardized, hybrid kind of writing because basically you’re creating a template for a whole lot of people to come and realize it, whereas in a novel, you have to realize it all right there on the spot. So, for me, writing a novel was much more like directing than it was like writing a screenplay because you’re casting it, you’re doing the lighting, you’re doing the costumes, you’re doing the locations. All of these things are done by other people when you’re making a movie as a director.

With a screenplay, you’re distracted constantly, because you’re talking to producers always, and you’re thinking about actors, whereas with a novel, it’s so personal and intimate and solitary. Quite a different experience, and you really are responsible for your own discipline. I found myself talking to friends of mine, like Bruce Wagner, who are writers, for a sense of whether I was doing it right. I would say, “Is this normal? Is this how you do it?” Because it was a strange kind of creative act.

Had you always wanted to write a novel?
Only for about 50 years. I had always thought I would be a novelist. That was my original creative ambition. My father was a writer, and I used to fall asleep to the sound of his IBM Selectric pounding away, and when I was 16, I submitted a short story to Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine, which was one of my favorite magazines at the time, and I got a very nice rejection slip that said, “This came quite close. We would love to see more.” Somehow, I never did send them more.

And over the years, had you done fiction at all? Had you done your own short stories or anything?
I would be writing original screenplays — that was where my writing went. I think the last time I attempted to write some prose, fiction, was probably around 1971, when I was living in the South of France for a year and gave it a last shot, but then my movie-making career sort of took off.

Was the experience of writing different this time than it had been so many years ago?
It’s almost impossible for me to remember, because I’ve been a professional writer since then in the sense of screenwriting. When I was a kid, I was very much influenced by Nabokov and by William Burroughs and some other writers, and so I would often end up writing a pastiche of them. Whereas now, at this age, I felt kind of free of those influences. I didn’t feel oppressed by the presence of some other writer, and I was really prepared to find out what my own writing voice was clear of any other voice.

Maybe this is something that you wouldn’t be able to judge, but I feel like I should ask: What do you feel your writing voice is?
I can’t really describe it. I can only demonstrate it by saying, Here it is. One book writer who writes about books a lot talks about “my dense, aristocratic prose.” I thought, That’s gonna be my mantra now, I like that. Dense, aristocratic prose. But whether you would agree with that, who knows? It’s subjective for anybody who reads it, and I’ve had it described as everything from flat and clinical to a jackhammer. I don’t know how it could be both those things and also be dense and aristocratic, so I’m willing to have my voice described by others because, in a way, it would be like asking an opera singer to describe his own voice. How would he do that?

As I was reading it, I was struck by the very direct way that the characters have of speaking. They’re willing to discuss high-minded, philosophical ideas, or even remark on things like symbols. I kept thinking to myself, He must have felt very liberated when writing this book, because in film, you always hear about people trying to hide meanings and always trying to create subtext, and I felt like finally you were working in a medium where people could just say what they were thinking.
You’re absolutely right, you’re absolutely right. It’s very liberating to write in this medium because it’s not only more intimate, but it’s more freedom to just move around a lot. It’s really like being out of a straitjacket. A screenplay is a very limited and rigorous kind of form, although there are many kinds of films, and there are experimental films, but if you’re making a movie that’s costing millions of dollars, you have a lot of restrictions that, even if you’re not conscious of them, you are mindful of them. And it’s a form [that] does not lend itself to interior discussion.

Consumed actually feels like it could easily be one of your films. I mean, would you ever consider filming it?
At first I thought, of course I’m going to want to make a movie of my own novel, because how many directors get a chance to do that, or how many novelists get a chance to do that? And I have like five producers who I’ve worked with before who all tell me, “We’d like to make a movie of this with you.” But then I realized it was the last thing in the world I wanted to do, actually, because it feels complete. I feel like I’ve done it [already], and I think it would be actually kind of boring for me to do it again. And that surprised me. I didn’t expect that reaction on my own part. And it didn’t feel to me that the novel needed a movie to be validated or to be fulfilled or completed or whatever. And so I’m in the position where — though, I honestly doubt this will happen — but if some other director wanted to do it, I would sell them the the rights.

I was really struck by the very vivid description of what goes on backstage at the Cannes Films Festival jury deliberations. You were president of the jury back in 1999, was it?
Yes, that’s right.

Did you draw on real-life experience for that? I seem to remember your jury year being somewhat contentious.
It was very contentious, very controversial, and when you’re there, you hear many stories of all the other years that were contentious and crazy.

A tangent here. That year, you guys got a lot of grief for giving the Palme to the Dardenne brothers, if I remember correctly, and for giving awards to Bruno Dumont, whom nobody had heard of at the time. History has proven you guys pretty right.
I think about Castro’s words. He said, “History will absolve me.” I don’t know if that’ll work for Castro, but I think it works for me and for my jury. Of course, the Dardennes ended up winning the Palme again. The actors we gave awards to have won other awards, and so it was — it’s the politics. Part of it is the journalists. They like to present themselves of having an inside track on what’s happening with the jury, and they even have everyday “who’s gone up or down in the stakes,” “who’s gonna win the Palme,” and so on, but they’re totally guessing because they actually have no contact with the jury whatsoever, and everybody’s very strict about that. So they’re just making it up. That year, they had decided that Pedro Almodóvar’s film, All About My Mother, was for sure going to win the Palme, and then suddenly, this little film that no one had ever heard of, Rosetta, was the last film that played in the festival, so a lot of the journalists actually didn’t go see it, suddenly won. It really wrong-footed them. It made them crazy.

But we were not playing politics. We were just responding very directly to the movies in a very honest way and discussing them in a very open, honest way. We were told by our jury — God, my mind has really gone — that the vote for Rosetta was the fastest vote in the history of the Palme because everybody said, “Yes, Rosetta’s the one.” Every single member of our jury. No one had another one that they were proposing instead. So, once again, there was no politics. They wanted to pretend that I forced the jury into this decision in order to tweak the nose of other contemporaries of mine, like Pedro and Jim Jarmusch and John Sayles and others who had films there, but it wasn’t me. I only had one vote, you know? So there was a real disconnect between what was actually going on and what was happening in the press, but that’s Cannes. It always is very, very political, and not only are the French very political, but French cinema politics is even more convoluted and arcane.

Yeah, well, it’s funny because I also remember thinking at the time, Well, he’s Cronenberg, I’m sure he’s a real sadist, so I’m sure he forced people to do things.
You know, people who know me know that that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m very Canadian that way, very consensual. Some jurors, some presidents, are very tyrannical and try to dominate and try to push people around. I know that’s true for a fact, and I could name some names. But in fact, I didn’t ever give my opinion about a film until everybody had given theirs, so they wouldn’t even be remotely influenced by me. People thought, Oh, Holly Hunter and Jeff Goldblum had to work with David, so he must have gotten them on the jury in order to push everybody around. Well, of course, I had nothing to do with their being chosen. It was completely up to the festival committee. I didn’t know it was going to happen until it was announced, and people who knew Jeff and Holly, they would know that there’s no way I could force them to do anything. I mean, they’re very strong-minded people, and they have their own opinions about things. They voted for Rosetta completely of their own volition. I couldn’t have influenced them if I wanted to.

You’ve obviously been tackling the theme of technology and its relation to the self throughout your work. I was struck reading the book by how well-versed you were in the technology of today, and I kept thinking, What is David Cronenberg the person’s relationship with technology like?
Well, you have it right there. I mean, what is in the book. I didn’t have to do any research for any of that. I’ve always been a techno geek, as my father, whom I mentioned, had the first IBM Selectric in Canada, and that was a revolutionary device because you could change the font of a typewriter for the first time in history with a little ball that you changed. I couldn’t wait for word processing to replace typewriters, and I couldn’t wait for digital film and digital sound. It was so obvious that they were so much better in every way, as far as I’m concerned. I have no nostalgia for that old technology. I mean, some minor nostalgia, but not to the point that I would ever want to use it ever again. And so I’m right there. I got my order in for the iPhone 6 Plus. I’m tracking it as it comes from China. I enjoy the technology, and I’m amused by it, and I’m intrigued by it, and I appreciate the creativity that goes into it, and I have always considered technology as an extension of the nervous system and our brains, for the good and bad part of it. So we make the most hideous war machines, and we also make the most beautiful kind of objects. It’s a real reflection of who we are. Now, in the ‘50s, sci-fi often posited technology as being inhuman and dehumanizing, and I never bought that. I thought, No, wait a minute. We made this stuff, it came from us, you know?

I want to ask about Maps to the Stars. I was really struck by how funny the film was. People always kind of think of you as being a very serious person who makes very serious movies about very serious subjects. But both Consumed and Maps to the Stars, and before that, Cosmopolis, I remember thinking, These feel like comedies to me.
They are, totally. At Cannes, someone said, “Have you ever considered making a comedy?” And I said, “I’ve done nothing but.” Not maybe the traditional definition of a comedy, where it ends with a feel-good kind of thing, but for me, there is an observed and humorous aspect to the human condition and, of course, exploring the human condition is really what art is about. And I can’t imagine not having humor be part of it. I just can’t imagine it.

Cronenberg on How All of His Films Are Comedies