Starburst, No. 36, Volume 3, Number 12, p.40-43
Inside David Cronenberg
Starburst presents the first half of a two-part interview with top Canadian fantasy director David Cronenberg, best known for his horror films Shivers, Rabid, The Brood and, more recently, Scanners. Phil Edwards talked to Cronenberg, when he visited London recently, about his work, his life and his future projects.
Starburst: Scanners has already proven itself a great succes both here and in America but you havenīt packed your bags and moved to California. You havenīt been seduced by Hollywood as yet ...
David Cronenberg: Well, Iīve had a lot of phone calls and a lot of offers from Hollywood producers. One of the things I envy about a "studio" film is the potential of the distribution that can be done. I saw that with Avco Embassy, and the way they handled Scanners. They are not a "major", but they are very well organised. There is no guarantee that a film will not be thrown away by a "major", but if they do decide to put all their muscle behind a film it just gets so much more exposure. At the moment thatīs really the only thing I want from Hollywood. There is still a reasonable amount of money in Canada for films. I have a very good relationship with my producers, the same people that I did The Brood and Scanners with as well as my new film, Videodrome. Weīve all learned a lot and grown together and I donīt want to throw that away.
Is there a fear of losing control of your films if you become a Hollywood director?
I think so. You just donīt know what you are going to run into. Thereīs a lot of temperament and a lot of weird energy in the film world in general. If you find some people that seem to understand what you are doing and vice-versa, I think itīs not a bad thing to hang onto that relationship. On the other hand, Hollywood is always very tempting, though not to move there. To become a "Hollywood" director is not a fantasy or dream of mine.
What happened to the trilogy you were involved in with Walter Hill and John Carpenter?
Well, John Carpenter pulled out and because he pulled out Paramount pulled out. The producers of the film tried to keep it alive. At the moment they are talking to Joe Dante. Itīs one of those things that shifts practically every month. Meanwhile, I canīt do what I was intending, which was to write the entire script, becaus I donīt have time. This was all six months ago. Iīm now almost at the stage where if they are ready to go with it I wonīt be able to because Iīll be shooting Videodrome. This is another thing about Hollywood. The way things happen in Canada is very different, because of the way films are financed. When my producer, Pierre David, says "Iīve got the money, letīs go", thatīs it, thereīs no question - itīs going to be shot. In Hollywood, itīs not necessarily the money thatīs a problem, itīs just that everything is a "development deal", so it can be cancelled right up until the last minute. So you have a lot of very abstract feelings floating around so that what happens is that you are just about ready to shoot and it disappears, just like it was never there! Thatīs happended to a lot of directors at my stage. Thatīs another thing about moving to Hollywood. It would be foolish of me to go from a situation where I am being given six million dollars to shoot Videodrome, from my own script and shoot it in my own time ...
How much did Scanners cost?
It was actually about three million US dollars. It was inflated by publicity people to four and a half million dollars. When you take into account inflation, since I shot The Brood, interim financing, completion bonding and so on - they are legitimately part of the budget - but it is not money that I can use to put something on the screen. It felt like a bigger budget than The Brood, but not that much bigger, particularly as The Brood was structured to be a smaller and more intimate film, whereas Scanners is flashier and more out there.
So where does the money go?
Mainly in time. Thereīs a nine week shooting schedule instead of a six week schedule. Thatīs a lot of money right there, paying a lot of people for three weekīs extra work. It went into a much longer post-production period - we were editing for eleven months. On the other hand we had almost zero pre-production, only two weeks. That was very scarey for everybody! One of the weeks of shooting was done six months into the editing....
... the duel at the end?
Thatīs right, and also the scenes in the subway between Revok and Keller and a couple of other odds and ends like Keller watching the monitor while Vale and Ruth are talking. These scenes were also written afterwards and not part of the original scipt.
Why did you include those scenes in the subway, I thought it was a false mystery - padding even?
Perhaps it was the style it was shot in, that I donīt show you Revokīs face to begin with, though you probably know that itīs Revok. My feeling was simply this: that without those scenes you never see Revok and Keller together, their conspiracy was total verbalisation and we have never seen it. I felt that there was a certain "feel" missing. I think too, that there is some subsidiary information revealed in those scenes. I think it clarified some things. In one sense I think you are right, and in another I think that you would really miss them if they werenīt there. They also add something just in terms of their tone.
Iīd like to talk about the structure of the film. In an early draft of the script the exploding head sequence takes place right at the beginning of the film. Why did you change it?
I shot that for the beginning with the scanner in tight close-up, and the idea is that he really is talking to the film audience. It was edited and put together the way it was written with that scene first. We did some test with people and we found that because it was so strong it spoiled the rhythm of the following ten or fifteen minutes which were relatively slow. Secondly, it alienated a lot of people who donīt appreciate that kind of power. They didnīt have enough of a context to know what scanning was. It felt very gratuitous to them, in terms of violence and were turned off by the next half of the movie. These are people who mightnīt generally go to horror films or ennjoy science fiction, but might still like Scanners. Another thing, and you may laugh, is that people tend to come late at films, they walk in after the first three minutes. For me, films are really made for an audience, like the way poets read their poetry for reactions and make changes based on that. I used to sneer at test preview but now I realise that it makes perfect sense. You get so close to something that you canīt objectively gauge on how an audience is going to react to something and you need that kind of resonance. I really agonised over that change for quite some time. It was suggested by somebody else, though I wasnīt forced into it at all. It shifted some things too ... it actually made Dr Ruth seem stronger in some way in the scenes at ConSec. He already has another scanner in the wings, whereas originally he had to go out and find somebody. I finally decided that it really gained more than it lost by the change. You can only really do that when the film actually exists... a script really doesnīt quite give it all to you.
To me Scanners was a series of brilliant sequences, though I felt it both lacked the structure and the depth of characterisation of The Brood.
Well, I tend to agree with you. The question then becomes, "Is that necessarily a bad thing, or is it just a different thing?" I agree though that Scanners doesnīt have the characterisation of The Brood and it doesnīt have an emotional momentum that continues all the way through. On the other hand itīs difficult to say if this is bad or good. I depends on what you want from a film I suppose. You can go too far the other way ... I think of the turn-of-the-Century plays which were immaculate.... all the loose ends were tied up. I think Iīm experimenting, and I think I do that even more in Videodrome. I liken narrative, and I like plot and the way plot can illuminate character an can also have imagistic resonances and so on. But on the other hand I hate the total tyranny of narrative in the sense that once you launch in this direction, because of audienceīs expectations, based on what they have come to accept as proper narrative, you have to continue. I want to break down those barriers, or reverse them, or to do something with them.
Is that getting back to things like Stereo and Crimes of the Future?
Thatīs interesting ... many people who have known those early films have been very excited to see Scanners. For the same reasons that you think itīs weaker, they have now seen a mainstream, commercial manifestation of my earlier films. They think that it is an interesting trick to have brought off. Even in terms of lighting and camera angles they find it closer to those early films.
Are you aware that your films have a unique quality to them, quite unlike that of other directors currently working in the genre?
When Iīve just written a script or Iīm making a film I think that everyone is making that film! Itīs a sort of strange paranoia. Iīll read something about a film and think, "This sounds like Videodrome", on the surface, and so Iīll go and see it and of course itīs nothing like it. So in that sense I suppose I donīt assume that what Iīm doing is unique at all. On the other hand I always feel uneasy being lumped in with Carpenter, Romero or DePalma. Not because I might not admire a film they have made, or that Iīm being compared with them, but because I really do, at that point, think that there are differences that are so substantial, that the comparisons have to be based on superficial things.
People are very keen to put people like yourself into slots, like calling you "Canadaīs King of Horror". Iīve used that phrase myself. Do you get bored with that?. Is is conceivable that you are going to make a film that isnīt a horror film - you are a film-maker rather than just a director of horror films.
Itīs very conceivable - Iīm sure that I will. Itīs just a question of time. Once again, people seem to ignore completely Fast Company, it doesnīt fit into the category. It was played at the San Diego Film Festival when they couldnīt get Scanners. It received a terrific reaction from the audience and that has frustrated me even more. Iīm very fond of the film.
Are you still driving fast cars yourself?
Absolutely, and motorcycles. Fast Company expresses a part of me that for various reasons just doesnīt work in my other films. I love motorbikes and cars and rock music. I donīt get to work that into the other films that I do which are another part of me. In many ways though, I brought that on myself. I billed myself as "Canadaīs King of Horror" and lately Iīve been demoted to the "Baron of Blood" and "Prince of Horror"! I realised, that in terms of publicity, if somebody has a neat bitesize little thing that they can tab you with, then you are likely to get more publicity. It has returned to haunt me a bit I suppose, because I think Scanners starts to get heavy into science fiction, as well as horror... it has both elements. But people who come to see it, expecting it to be Friday 13th are going to be disappointed. And yet some people expect that, because of the way itīs sold in the States and that worries me a little bit.
What do you think of the theory that your films are about mad scientists and science gone wild?
I donīt agree with it. My films arenīt really about mad scientist at all and theyīre not really about science being bad either. In a way, Scanners is slightly more self conscious in an art sense. Itīs the first time Iīve ever put an artist in a film. In a real sense my scientists have always been my artists. In a weird way they are the personnae in my films because theyīre the ones who are creative and the ones who are obsessed. Theyīre the ones with the energy that sets things in motion and to that extent I identify with them. Itīs not as though Iīm looking in fear at science which I donīt understand and worrying about where itīs leading us. Thatīs not the way I feel about it at all. I feel an incredible empathy for the process of science and I really think in terms of Robert Kesslerīs book Active Creation, in which he discusses human creativity and shows a basis that creativity in science and creativity in art come from exactly the same place. I firmly believe that. So thatīs not my attitude at all. I could just as well have an insane sculptor as an insane artist in terms of emotional attachment to it anyway.
Is this all part of your interest in technology and machinery?
In a way. Itīs not really so much machinery or technology. Itīs much more my interest in my own body. Itīs physiology and biology that Iīm obsessed with, not really machines.
How does that tie in with the bodily corruption which seems to run through all your films?
I suppose itīs a medieval preoccupation, although Iīm not a Catholic, maybe this is my own version of original sin. Basically, the idea that you are born having to face your own death, and death is very physical, not abstract - you know the spectre of having a mind that feels it ought to be able to live for another 2,000 years having to watch the body that supports it, or is somehow inexplicably linked with it, age and die. Thatīs true horror for me. When Iīm feeling more cosmic about it, itīs quite wonderful and miraculous and marvelous and I donīt mind. Other times itīs totally unbearable. That also has very much to do with why I think of all the English kings who were totally obsessed with succession to the throne in very physical terms, it was a question of their own immortality. They may have believed in the Kingdom of Heaven but at the same time they wanted flesh of their flesh to go on living after them. Even in popular culture itīs considered a tragedy for someone to see his children die. Youīre supposed to die first and theyīre supposed to live on after you. And yet, is that real immortality or just a delusion? Or is it only immortality in a purely scientific sense of the continuation of certain genes and chromosomes or does it really have meaning for the person who dies? I think itīs all of those things together.
But surely every time you get behind the wheel of a racing car the chances of dying are multiplied.
Yes, in a sense racing is really upfront. Itīs kind of testing yourself to the edge. I suppose itīs a little psychopathic in the sense that some people feel that you have to bring yourself to some kind of edge, either emotionally or physically, to really feel who you are. People do walk around like zombies, unaware of their own physicality, their own emotionality. In a way thatīs what Scanners is about. A scanner is someone who is so sensitive itīs almost unbearable and compared with that, the rest of the world is "zomboid". Thereīs nothing like falling off a motorcycle to make you aware of your own body. Iīm not even being facetious about that. Not that I want to do that, but after itīs happened, thereīs a good aspect to it, I feel. So yes, I think thatīs connected. You really want to bring yourself to the edge to be able to feel how much different it is to be alive than dead.
So what happens if youīre dead?
Well, you donīt want to go over the edge. Then thatīs suicidal and a whole other ballgame. At the same time, just in defence of car racing, I must say that the kind of racing I do now is vintage racing, ususally various expensive old cars. Itīs very gentlemanly, although you can certainly still crash. Itīs still fast. Youīre going 120 mph in the company of other cars going at that speed, and if something breaks youīre still going to be in trouble, no question. But at the same time you get 60 year old gentlemen racing 60 year old Bugattis and thrashing them about. It doesnīt feel like death or nastiness to me when I do that. It feels positive and enthusiastic and everybodyīs into old cars. Itīs only at a very lower level that what weīre talking about functions in that kind of racing. I think youīre probably right. Itīs probably much more dangerous crossing the streets of Paris on foot that it is to race vintage cars. I just came from there and I never experienced anything like that on the racetrack. If someone came that close to you on the racetrack youīd really shake your fist at them! Especially in vintage racing. You donīt want to get your car dented!
Thatīs why I say, in a sense, that making a film like Scanners or The Brood is like car racing. I am rehearsing my own death when I make those films. Testing myself against my own death. I think thatīs one of the reasons why actors love death scenes traditionally. They are also testing themselves against their own death, experimenting to see how it feels, trying it on to see how it fits. I do it to the extent that the characters Iīve created are in fact a piece of me. If I knock them off itīs not a thing to be taken lightly and I donīt take it lightly. You donīt create a wonderful character and then knock them off and onto the next one - itīs not like that at all, itīs much more serious.
[Inside Cronenberg will be continued in the next issue of Starburst]