David Cronenberg gets a world-beating entrance in Disappearance at Clifton Hill, a melancholy mystery from director Albert Shin set amid the seedy tourist traps of Niagara Falls. He emerges out of the river like some folklore monster, stripping off scuba gear as he lurches toward the shore until we see that beneath the diving hood lurks Canada’s greatest auteur, making one of his occasional ventures in front of the camera. “It’s actually great to give up directing and just be an actor, because your responsibility is very specific,” he said of the film, which arrives in theaters and on VOD Friday. “It’s quite a lovely experience, and sometimes it’s just a day or two of work. It’s not months and months of directorial anguish.”
It’s a delight to see him as a local crank who takes the film’s heroine (played by Tuppence Middleton) to task for not listening to his podcast. It’s a delight to see him in general, given that Cronenberg, now 76, has laid relatively low since the release of his first novel (Consumed) and last film to date (Maps to the Stars) in 2014. He’s not done with cinema yet — though for a man who gave the medium some of its most indelibly disturbing images in works like Scanners (1981), Crash (1996), and A History of Violence (2005), he’s not remotely precious about its maybe-precarious future. Is it any surprise that a filmmaker who’s always been fascinated by technology has fallen in love with streaming? Vulture spoke to Cronenberg about what he wants to work on next, Trump, and inevitably, how he feels about superhero movies.
Your character, Walter, has a touch of the conspiracy theorist to him. What are your thoughts on conspiracy theories these days, and how they’ve been weaponized by the internet?
It continues to be an intriguing human phenomenon — that is, a desire to feel that you have the key that nobody else has, that you have the understanding of something real beyond what most people understand. It’s a pretty good way of self-aggrandizement, to feel that I know what’s really going on, and nobody else knows. It’s continually fascinating, and of course it can be very creative in its own perverse way. I was thinking of Alex Jones and the Breitbart guys when I was thinking about Walter — he’s sort of a small town version of that.
They’re an undercurrent in Consumed, the novel you published a few years ago. Are you working toward something new, film-wise, or does literature have your attention now?
I was thinking, for a while, that I might be finished with film, and I’ve been doing a lot of writing. But I think I’m not finished with film. I’m intrigued by the Netflix paradigm and the whole concept of streaming. And I never really thought about creating a TV series before Netflix, but I am thinking of it now. There’s a possibility I might turn my novel into a TV series or other projects, so we’ll see how that goes.
How different has that experience been for you?
It’s certainly filmmaking, but it’s not exactly cinema. In writing it, your rhythms are quite different. It can be pretty delicious for a writer. Perhaps less so for a director. It’s not the same as directing a movie where you’re completely responsible for the look of the thing, the casting, and so on. [But] many of the series that I’ve seen on Netflix or Amazon Prime have very, very good directing by directors I’ve never heard of.
You’ve said you don’t go out to movies much anymore, and you’ve been very unsentimental about the shift toward streaming. But I’m wondering what your thoughts are on how one-on-one and on-demand viewing has changed the cultural conversation. We don’t end up all talking about the same movie or the same television show much anymore.
That’s true. But at the same time you do end up with people asking you what you’ve discovered: “Yeah, I discovered this Finnish TV series that’s fantastic.” It’s almost literary. You might spend a week reading a book — binge-watching or not binge-watching has some similar rhythm. It’s a different experience for an audience and a different relationship, for example, that an audience has with an actor in an ongoing streaming series. The actor and the character that the actor plays becomes like a friend that’s waiting for you at home to chat with.
Well, now I’m just very curious about what you’ve been watching.
I’m not going to mention that. But I do find things. I find interesting things all the time.
You made a crack about watching Lawrence of Arabia on an Apple Watch —
I was doing a panel with Spike Lee, and everybody was talking about the holy church of cinema. I said, “Look, I’m watching Lawrence of Arabia on my Apple Watch right now. And look, there are a thousand camels. I can see every one of them.” What I was stressing is that, especially these days, I don’t think the cinematic experience is all that sacred. Sitting with a bunch of people who are on their phones, eating and talking to each other — I’m not sure that that’s the best version of cinema. But, of course, people have great nostalgia for the old understanding of what cinema was like. I think you can have a very fine cinematic experience at home watching things on your TV with friends and family.
Videodrome (1983) is, in some ways, the darkest possible ode to home viewing. How do you see the relevance of that film in the streaming era? Especially given how the internet has thrown open the gates in terms of content that can be watched.
My antennae were somehow tuned to the zeitgeist of the time that I made Videodrome, and it does seem in retrospect to have anticipated some of the interactiveness of what the internet is. But I wouldn’t want to go too far with it as a prophecy. We’re in a really interesting place with the internet! There was a time when science fiction presented technology as an abstract, almost non-human thing. And I always thought of it as totally human: a complete reflection of what we are, reflecting the best of us and the worst of us. And you certainly see that with the internet.
On a related note, people have drawn the line between Donald Trump and the Greg Stillson character in The Dead Zone (1983), among them Stephen King himself. What are your thoughts on this resonance that the film has acquired?
Even before Trump, it was George W. Bush — because, after all, the Stillson character in The Dead Zone has a religiosity that Trump certainly doesn’t have. He just has insecurity and ego. He’s quite a different beast, but he is a beast. Right now, Trump’s visiting India with Modi, and Modi is a guy who does have that messianic certainty. I’m not sure if Trump could ever possibly understand India. It’s a pretty complex country. But that one aspect of it is really beyond him, the religious aspect.
It struck me, when going back over your filmography, that you moved away from the general umbrella of genre in the last two decades even as mainstream Hollywood has really embraced it.
I just thought that I had explored what I was interested in exploring within genre, and certainly took a lot of nourishment and support from it. But I wouldn’t say that I would never go back to making a genre film. It really depends on how relevant it feels to me and to the world at large. I could do that again. I absolutely could do that again. The version of genre that is most forceful in Hollywood right now — the superhero thing — has never appealed to me much. So I was never tempted by that. To me, it’s too formulaic, and too adolescent in its emotional understanding.
You and William Gibson are two of the artists whose work I most often see described as prescient. Does coming from a Canadian perspective inform your ability to hone in on these incoming dystopian developments?
There’s a case to be made for that. At one point, Marshall McLuhan made that case as well because he was coming up with an understanding of what was happening with media and television and film that nobody else had actually come up with. Canada being a little outside, but connected to the culture, you could see it clearly. You’re not right in the middle of the blizzard, but you can see the blizzard from a close distance.
That’s one of the reasons I like speculative fiction from other countries — it often seems that an American point of view comes with the presumption that American culture will stay this dominant force.
Yeah, exactly. Well, listen, the Romans thought so during the time of the Roman Empire, too. In Canada, you can see the end of the American Empire. When you’re in the middle of it, you think it’s eternal. You can’t imagine it not being that way.