exit interview

David Cronenberg Explains Himself

The movie works on multiple levels, the filmmaker explains. “But I really do think we’re kind of destroying the earth.” Photo: Nikos Nikolopoulos/NEON

What is David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future about? When I meet up with the 79-year-old writer-director before the Cannes premiere of his latest film, in theaters June 3, I bring up a few different interpretations. There’s the surface-level plot, about a near-future society where humans have lost the ability to experience pain or infection and have started substituting surgery for sex, gazing sensually at the new organs they’ve evolved to spontaneously grow, and turning these mutations into performance art. Some critics have read the film as an allegory about climate change; others saw it as a laugh-out-loud return to the Cronenbergian body-horror classics of the ’80s; still others felt it was a prescriptive death sentence for the human race. Cronenberg’s cast — Viggo Mortensen (who plays the film’s central artist, Saul Tenser), Lea Seydoux (who plays Caprice, Tenser’s partner), Kristen Stewart (who plays an investigator turned rabid fan of Tenser’s) — see it as his “most autobiographical film,” a metaphor reflecting how the act of making art feels like pulling out and coughing up and exposing your own innards. Cronenberg only shrugs at the idea that he made a movie about himself.

Much of our hour-long conversation falls along these lines, with Cronenberg smiling cheerfully and shaking off the darker thematic implications of a 50-plus-year career making movies that quite literally probe the insides of people’s bodies. The filmmaker, who many believed had retired eight years ago, is surprisingly gentle and sweet for someone who wrote and directed a film about a woman whose latent trauma manifests as hives that swell and turn into mutated human children with the primary function of performing murders at her psychic behest and then said it was about his own divorce.

I want to hear about the inception of Crimes of the Future. Originally, it was, what, 20 years ago when you started writing it?
I think I wrote it in 1998. So it was more than 20 years. But I wasn’t thinking that it would be 20 years before I made the movie. Robert Lantos, who produced it, was interested even then. I think he announced it at Cannes 2005 — then it was called Painkillers — that it’s going to be my next movie. Of course, it turned out not to be. For various reasons it didn’t happen.

And after Maps to the Stars, I wasn’t making any movies. I wrote a novel. I was thinking maybe I’d prefer to just write because the hassle is less. You hassle yourself. But you’re not hassled. You don’t have to finance it. You don’t have agents and actors. And I enjoyed that. But Robert Lantos said, “You really should start making movies again.” And I said, “Well, I don’t have a project.” And he said, “Well, have you read your old script Painkillers?” I said, “Well, it’s a sci-fi script. It’s 20 years old. It obviously will be totally irrelevant because technology has moved on and society has changed.” And his classic line was, “No, no, it’s more relevant than ever.”

So I read it and I thought, He’s actually right.

What happened in 2005? Why didn’t it get made?
I think suddenly I was offered A History of Violence, and it was different from what I’d been doing. I knew that Painkillers was connected more or less with my early horror films, and I was interested in trying a gangster movie. Of course then I met Viggo, and if I hadn’t done that, he probably wouldn’t have been in Crimes of the Future. Because that was the beginning of our relationship. We did three movies, and this is the fourth.

How did you meet?
It was New Line that was producing History of Violence, and Viggo had been a big star in Lord of the Rings, which was also New Line. I don’t know if they suggested him or I just thought he would be good for the role. But we met in L.A. and we got along immediately, although I wasn’t sure he liked the script. When he left, I said to the people at New Line, “Well, I don’t know that he really wants to do this.” And they said, “No, his agent just said he really wants to do it.” I was surprised because we were talking so abstractly and about art and all kinds of stuff that I wasn’t sure that he’d actually agreed to do the movie or not, and found out that he actually had somehow.

When you looked back at the script for Crimes, did you change anything?
Not a word.

Not a single word?
Not one word, no. What did change, but this is always the case, was in production. We were shooting in Athens. I had written it thinking of Toronto, my hometown, so Athens presented all kinds of wonderful things, like the ship in the first shot of the movie. That was not in the script. The kid and the sea were, but not that ship. You have to be open to the things that surprise you. Sometimes it’s from an actor. Sometimes it’s on the set. Sometimes it’s a location. But in terms of dialogue, nothing changed. The characters are basically the same.

How do you account for the fact that you wrote something more than 20 years ago and it still works completely and feels fresh?
I can’t really account for it. Part of it is that it’s set in a kind of alternate universe. Because of that, it has a longer shelf life than if you wrote something very specific that was socially relevant 20 years ago. Because of what it was, it could sort of float in a timeless bubble.

You always are returning this idea of the evolution of the body, the transformation of the body. After exploring the topic for so many years, have you come to any new understanding of it?
All art is really the exploration of the human condition, however you perceive that. But in specifics, what we film most in filmmaking is the human body. The face, the body, the voice, which I consider part of the body. So how can you be a filmmaker and not be sort of obsessed with the body? Actors know that. They know that their instrument is the body. So it’s just natural for me to explore that. And just from my junior scientist background — because I did think at one point I would be an organic biologist — it seems very natural to me. Even in movies like A Dangerous Method, in a Victorian society, which in some ways denies the body, especially the clothes — still, that’s what the subject is.

Viggo called this your “most autobiographical film.” Do you think it’s autobiographical?
I wonder if he’s kidding about that. I don’t know. In the sense that Saul Tenser is dealing with changes in his body — of course, I’m getting older and dealing with changes in my body. And Tenser is an artist. He’s giving everything, including the inside of his body, to his art. It perplexes him and it confuses him, but at the same time, he really feels a compulsion to do that. I think that’s a part of me as a filmmaker that Viggo is referring to. But I’ve never done body art and I don’t even have a tattoo.

It does feel like it’s a film about making art on an allegorical level, about what it sort of takes from you and what it gives to you. Do you see it functioning that way?
I do. As an artist, you are completely absorbing, constantly, your environment, and so it makes sense that I should be sensitive, literally, to the environment — not just the social environment, but the physical environment.

But I really do think we’re kind of destroying the Earth. It’s interesting that 20 years ago, nobody was talking about microplastics and now everybody’s talking about microplastics in your bloodstream, in your flesh. So it kind of becomes satirical on one level, and actually serious on another level. There are two solutions. One is that we bend plastics and we suppress plastics and we try to clean the ocean and we clean the atmosphere and we clean everybody’s body of plastic. How realistic is that? The other possible solution is that we learn to live with plastic and that we learn to use it as fuel. And in fact, there are bacteria that can eat plastic basically, and survive on it and feast on it and use it as protein substitutes. And there are scientists now who are saying that they’re trying to make food out of plastic, and they’re having some success. So is that really the solution? I don’t know. Of course, it’s slightly bizarre to say the least, but on the other hand, maybe we need something bizarre to survive as a species.

So the movie was always functioning on multiple levels for you.
Yeah, I think so. Life is not just one level. Every person at every moment is functioning on many different levels and not just in terms of Twitter feeds. There’s so many things going on in any human being. We’re very complex, as I’m sure you know. So why shouldn’t a movie be like that? Why shouldn’t a movie be like a human body?

Are you on Twitter at all?
I’m not on social media at all. It’s partly because I just don’t want to be that accessible. I find that whenever someone sends me a Twitter feed or something, it’s just very distracting and chaotic and I don’t want to know about it. I don’t do Instagram. I don’t do Facebook. I have enough friends who let me know when things are interesting. Even the normal media talk about Donald Trump’s latest tweet, when all that was happening — I don’t really need it. I don’t need to be there. I like the clarity. As an artist, I’m constantly looking for some kind of clarity, and this is muddying up everything with usually not very useful information.

Do you see technology as an increasingly destructive force?
In the ’40s and ’50s, people saw technology as like spaceships and alien technology that was dangerous and very nonhuman and very metallic, and you see all the sci-fi stories about that. But for me, technology was always 100 percent human. Technology is us. It’s like an extension of our fists, our hand, our eyes, our voice. It reflects the great stuff about humans, the beautiful stuff, and it also reflects the totally destructive stuff.

Crash caused such controversy in 1996 and now it’s a Criterion 4K rerelease. What changed?
Well, I think time moves on. We had that screening in Venice of the 4K version of Crash and it was quite a young audience, and they had no problem. They certainly weren’t walking out or anything. I can’t say that people have gotten more sophisticated in general, but somehow it just has settled, as I thought it would have the first time. It was based on a 1972 novel by J.G. Ballard that was very well accepted.

The reaction really surprised you?
Gilles Jacob, the then-president of the festival, knew that it would happen. He said, “David, I’m programming your film to be in the middle of the festival because I want it to off like a bomb in the middle of the festival.” I said, “You’re exaggerating a bit.” But he was so totally right.

How did you feel when it happened?
I loved the fight that we had. The press conference was classic because Ballard was there. We had the writer there and the producer there and all my actors there, so we were ready for the fight. And it was fun. The worst thing would be if your movie was born and nobody cared. That would be depressing. But if people are fighting about it and some are loving it and some are hating it, that’s just art.

Francis Ford Coppola was the one who had the biggest issue and was sort of scandalized by the film. You said that when you saw him again, you would talk to him about it. Did you ever get a chance to speak to him?
No, because he always says, “Remember, we gave you a prize …” He says it like he thinks I don’t know that he hated the movie. And I didn’t want to be unkind and call him on it and say, “Francis, I know you hated the movie,” because every time I met him, he made a point about them giving me this Jury prize. So I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it.

Do you prefer that people like your work versus hate it, or does it not matter to you?
It’s not like I don’t want to be loved. I certainly do. But on the other hand, I can live without 100 percent love. I think the only movie that was almost 100 percent loved was E.T., maybe.

Are you concerned about Crimes being misunderstood at all? Is there any part of you that wonders about the reception?
I mean, if you make a complex film and you’re not didactic and you’re not telling your audience exactly what to think — which is very boring and very insulting — then you’re always open to possible misunderstanding. But you’re also open to some other interpretations that might be valid. I find that every once in a while, somebody will come up with something that I can say, “Well, I didn’t intend that, but actually, it’s still accurate.”

To that point, when I was watching Crimes and noticing its themes about the evolution and transformation of the human body, I was wondering if you were engaging at all in ongoing conversations about the transgender movement.
Yeah, well, I observe it. I’m not really engaged with it directly. They’re taking that idea seriously. They’re saying, “Body is reality. I want to change my reality. That means I have to change my body.” And they’re being very brave and they’re investing a lot in these changes, especially these ones that are not reversible, which most of them aren’t. I say, go ahead. This is an artist giving their all to their art.

From reading past interviews with you, it seems that you’re not thrilled about the idea of “body horror” or of being its “godfather.”
Well, it’s the word “horror,” not “body,” because I think it’s actually quite beautiful. To me, “inner beauty” is more like what I would talk about. It was some critic or some fan who came up with the term “body horror” and that stuck. And you know, fine. It’s okay. But it’s not a term I would have ever thought of because it’s just not the way I perceive it.

But does Crimes feel like a return to a sort of filmmaking that you haven’t done in a while?
Yes. Undeniably, that’s true. The thing is, I know people find this hard to believe, but I just simply don’t think about that when I’m making a movie. I wrote the script, and now I’m just trying to make it come alive and make it be believable within its own strange sphere. My focus is totally on that and not really thinking of, Oh, wait, there’s this plug-in thing that will remind people of Existenz, or whatever. Obviously, when it’s mentioned, I’m not denying the connection. But it’s been said, “Are you giving a kind of wink to the audience?” And I’m saying, “Totally not.” I don’t have that in me. I’m not interested in being self-referential.

Everyone who I have spoken to about you talks about what a sweet and normal person you are. And how they all were sort of surprised by that. What do you make of that?
Well, my son is sweet too, and he’s made some pretty scary movies. Making scary movies doesn’t mean you’re a scary person. Making dark movies doesn’t mean that you’re a depressive. The easiest thing to say, and I probably have said this at one point, is that you’re playing with things in your art that you don’t want to be in your actual life. It gives you a sense of control of these bad things. You’re acknowledging them in the movie, that these things can happen. By doing that, you’re sort of keeping it out of your life.

Like you’re expunging it.
Yeah. But that’s maybe too simplistic. I really don’t know the answer to that question. But the lesson is that you cannot tell what an artist is going to be like personally from being very familiar with their art.

In the end, was it difficult to come back after eight years?
I wondered. I thought, “What is it going to be like on the set?” I’m eight years older now, and it’s very draining. You really have to give everything to directing. I wondered if I had the stamina. Would I need to sleep more? Would I get to sleep? Would I be anxious?  I didn’t know. So for the first three days of shooting, I thought, “I am performing the role of film director. I’m pretending, basically, to be a film director so I can say, ‘Action,’ ‘Cut.’” Then after that it was like no time had passed. It felt completely normal.

And now you’re going to make another film, right?

Yeah. Maybe another two I have in mind. One is The Shrouds that was announced here and the other one would be to do a movie based on my novel, Consumed.

And you had basically said that you were retired after Maps to the Stars.
I didn’t really say that. And they say, “Oh, yes, you did.” And I’m saying, “No, I didn’t say that.” I said, “If Maps to the Stars is my last movie, it’ll be okay. If it turns out that I just don’t end up making another movie, it’s fine.” Some fans got very upset by that, which is very sweet. But I still deny that I actually said, “I am officially retired.” I know about Soderbergh. He retired like five times already. I didn’t want to do that.

And you know, my wife had died. We had been together 43 years.

I’m so sorry.
I felt I didn’t have the heart for it because she had been with me through all of my career. And that was part of it. It wasn’t the only part. I felt that I could really live without making another movie. It wouldn’t crush me. Whereas when I was younger and desperately trying to make movies, it would be crushing to say, “Oh my God, my career is over.” But now, these are projects I would really like to do. And once again, I can say, “If I don’t make them, it’s not like the world’s going to fall.”

How much of that shift in your attitude about filmmaking is just natural, you’re growing older, and how much is about the industry itself and how it’s changed?
I think it’s really about aging. Because the industry’s always been hard. I did go to Netflix with The Shrouds at one point and wondered if they would be different than a Hollywood studio, and I think they’re not that different. They’re making a different thing, but their attitude is basically very Hollywood.

I’m curious if you think you have a harder time because you’re making more eccentric work.
A long time ago I talked to Marty Scorsese, who is a friend. He was saying that everybody assumes that Marty Scorsese can get anything financed whenever he wants because he’s Marty Scorsese. The answer is absolutely not. He has to fight all the same battles. He’s usually dealing more with studios than I am, but he’s having to fight for it, struggle for it. I’ve even seen Guillermo del Toro go through hell. And his projects are usually pretty monsters and stuff. Technically you would say they’re pretty commercial. And I’ve seen him have things fall apart. So I can’t really be the martyr there.

Have you done therapy?
No. Never.

Have you purposely avoided it?
No. I just honestly — I felt I didn’t need it.

You’re just all good.
Yeah, I’m totally cool. No problems. I had no problems to solve. My parents were really sweet, very sensitive, very understanding and supportive. They were lovely. I had a lovely childhood.

So you’ve never stayed up at night being like, “Why do I make movies where people pull each other’s organs out of their bodies?”
No, because I know that as George Bernard Shaw said, “Conflict is the essence of drama.” You don’t make a movie about nice people who are all nice to each other. That’d be so boring. You might want to live like that. But you don’t make a movie like that.

I yearn for your placidity.
Well, the placid nature is genuine.

In 2005’s A History of Violence, Viggo Mortensen plays the owner of a diner who kills two criminals in self-defense and brings unwanted scrutiny to his own criminal past in the process. 2011’s A Dangerous Mind also stars Viggo Mortensen and is set in the early 1900s. In Crimes of the Future, some humans can not only sprout fresh body parts, but they can physically consume plastic, too. But Cronenberg did recently sell his kidney stones as an NFT. “Well, unfortunately nobody’s bought them yet,” he told me, “but if you want to make an offer …”
David Cronenberg Explains Himself