Mob rule: David Cronenberg, Part II

With two studio films in a row, is Cronenberg selling out? It’s not the kind of question you want to ask even when he’s three hundred miles away on the phone. Note above how I failed to follow up on asking him whether his films have  influenced the trend of the “Saws” and “Hostels” (chances are, however, that his answer would be “no.”). So after tapdancing around the sell-out question (even if so, or because of that, they are two of his best movies, we move on to other topics. Is this a gangster movie? IS Martin Scorsese right and Cronenberg is going to Hell? Is the film more Western than Eastern? And is he worried Putin might be oputting polonium in his tea?

PK: You were writing your own scripts up until “eXistenZ?”

DC: Yeah, it waxes and wanes. It depends. I’ve done adaptations of plays, of novels, I’ve written original scripts, and then I’ve worked with other people’s scripts. I’ve sort of done all these levels. It’s difficult to say, I’m going to take two years off and write an original screenplay, knowing, that at the end of that, you might not like your own screenplay, or you might like it but not be able to get it financed. So you’ll notice a lot of directors who started off writing their own screenplays — even Coppola and Brian de Palma for example are in that category — and then as their careers gained some momentum, they stopped writing scripts. It’s not that they’re not using their screenwriting as they’re working with writers and so on, and certainly I do the same. But to stop the momentum for the length of time it takes to write an original script, it’s kind of hard. It’s difficult.

PK: And also to get it financed. I spoke to you for your last film, “A History of Violence,” and you said after “Spider” you didn’t really want to make another independent movie because of the headaches in financing. Is that still the case?

DC: Well, I wouldn’t say never, but I’m sure I said that I couldn’t do that again, the next time. Because basically, every movie, you seem to seem to start from scratch with financing, as though you’re inventing the movie business from scratch each time you do it, if you’re doing independent film. Because money always comes from different and strange places, and you’re really very much at the winds of global economy: you know, suddenly, the Noia market in Germany goes belly up, and that’s where you financed your last film, but now you can’t because it doesn’t exist anymore. You know, that kind of thing. And “Spider” was unique even beyond that, because we all decided to make the movie knowing that we weren’t going to get paid for it. That’s unusual, even on an independent film. So you work for two years and you make no money. It doesn’t matter who you are; that’s difficult.  

PK: And you still haven’t made any money on that?

DC: I’ve made a little money, because it actually on DVD started to make a profit.

PK: So you started out in horror films, and now you’re — and this is sort of a simplistic way of looking at it — now you’re going into the gangster genre.

DC: That is simplistic. [Laughs] Well I certainly started in the horror genre and then went in and out of it, many times. Also I guess the sci-fi genre; it depends what you’re definitions are. And then I did movies like “M. Butterfly” and “Dead Ringers”  that aren’t really any genre. So I don’t really think in those terms, I must say. For me the question of genre is really a marketing question. It’s not a creative one, because when you start to make a movie, the genre thing disappears. You’re left with the same problems: how do you cast it? What locations do you get? What costumes? What lens are you going to use? How are you going to light it? All of those things don’t have anything to do with genre. You have to solve those problems--or at least, they’re not always problems, they’re creative decisions that can be quite exciting rather than just problem-solving. But at that point you’re just making the movie, and the genre is irrelevant. 

PK: But there’s also a tradition of iconography in other films and other filmmakers…

DC: That’s true, but I think the trick is to try to ignore them. Without being disingenuous, if you really feel the weight of one hundred years of noir on your back, you’re going go paralyze yourself. If you think about not just “The Godfather” but Fritz Lang’s “M” and “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse,” and you know, you name it, you’ll go crazy. You won’t be able to make one decision because you won’t know whether you want to connect with that one or disconnect that one, or follow this convention or try to subvert that convention but not that one. So once again, I think you’re left…you feel it, you know those things are there, and you certainly know a cliché when you hear it, one that’s really clunky. But other than that--and this is my approach, I’m not saying that it’s anybody else’s--I try very hard to pretend that no one’s ever made a movie like this before. Without, of course, I’m not claiming complete originality for one frame, but you have to, in a way, act as though you are.  

PK: Your own movies too…

DC: More my own movies than anyone else’s. I don’t really think in terms of thematic connections or even visual ones. I know that making those two or three thousand decisions a day that I will make while making the movie that are unique to me, there will be enough of me in the movie. I don’t really have to worry about putting my snap on it or anything else. I try very hard not to think about people’s expectations based on other movies that I’m making, because this one is not those, you know?

PK: I read a quote from Martin Scorsese, who said that after reading interviews with you, it was clear that you didn’t understand your own movies.

DC: Yes, he said that after he’d seen about the first three movies I’d made. But you know, Marty’s a good Catholic, and he’s an Italian, and he’s an American. All of those things, I am not. He has his own … I think that my movies, my early ones in particular, really freaked him out and made him fear for his soul, frankly, which pleased me to no end. But I am an atheist you see, and I don’t believe in the soul, not, not in…

PK: Do you think he’s trying to convert you to the church, and you’re trying…?

DC: Well, I think his interpretation tends that way, and of  course for me, everybody’s reaction to your movie involves a collaboration. They have a subjective reaction to the movie that takes their whole life into consideration. And I have no way of controlling that, nor would I want to, and I can’t anticipate it either. And so, it makes for some very interesting responses and interpretations, which are completely legit. I mean, the movie is not an objective thing. You want it to be organic and to involve an audience. Even people’s perception of a movie shifts with time. People catch up with it ten years later, their life has changed, and the way they perceived it ten years ago, suddenly they see it in a completely different light.

PK: Do you watch your old movies and come up with different interpretations?

DC: No, I don’t. In fact, I find it very difficult when I’m asked to do commentary on an old movie for a DVD, because I don’t really want to do it, but I have done it. And I find it very strange.

PK: Do you find it enlightening?

DC: I wouldn’t call it enlightening.

PK: Has Scorsese called you  on treading on his gangster turf?

DC: He really liked “A History of Violence.” We haven’t talked in detail though, but he sent a note about “Spider” as well. We keep in touch. But I would be very interested to know in detail what he thought of last two movies, and I really don’t know. But he’s really not territorial in that way; he’s a very generous guy, really is. 

PK: He seems to be. So it’s called “Eastern Promises.” I would think it would be called “Western Promises,” because it’s about this girl who gets lured to the West.

DC: Yeah, believe me, we went through all of that.

PK: So it’s not just me.

DC: Eastern promises made about the West. The promise was made in the East. You know, there are many ways to look at it. In fact, in England, eastern tends to mean Russia, whereas in North America, eastern tends to mean Asia, like Japan or China. 

PK: We’re more insular. Eastern tends to mean, like, Massachusetts.

DC: Well, I’m glad you said that. Absolutely, the east coast. So there were some questions about how confusing or well understood it might be. But finally, we couldn’t come up with anything we liked better. It’s kind of a soft title. When I first read the script, the first thing I thought was--wow, this sounds like some romance, set in China or Japan.

PK: Well, it’s kind of a romance.

DC: Yeah.

PK: Were you aware that the female protagonist is a midwife and the male protagonist is referred to as an undertaker.

DC: Well, they’ve got everything covered, don’t they?

PK: Yeah, and the first two scenes are bloody scenes of birth and death.

DC: Well, yes, as he says, birth and death go together sometime.

PK: I saw a film recently called Trade, and tat also touches into this really horrible kind of reality, the sex trade.

DC: Yeah, we did a certain amount of research. There was a miniseries in England called “Sex Traffic”  and we looked at that and we read some things. Of course, it’s not really the main subject of the movie whereas it was the focus of those other dramas and semi-documentaries. It is pretty horrifying and it’s still happening.

PK: You’ve said that the biggest fan of this movie might be Vladmir Putin.

DC: [laughs] Well, you don’t want to give away the ending, but I thought that he would be very pleased that…  [omitted to avoid spoiler]

PK: Did you get a call from someone saying unless you want polonium in your tea  you'd better… [omitted, ditto]?

DC: Well, that was happening down the street from us, I don’t know if you’ve heard about that..

PK: So, you had radioactivity?

DC: When we started, the Russian mob in London was a fairly obscure subject and by the time we finished it basically front page news all the time. It was literally half a block away from where Viggo, Vincent Cassel and I were staying. It was a building owned by Berezovsky, the oligarch, and we walked by that every day and one day there were cops in hazmat suits and a forensic van and sure enough they were finding traces of polonium  in there because Litvenenko had been there. It suddenly came close to home, but it was half-way through the shoot when it started to happen.  

PK: Did it make you feel a little nervous?

DC: Not really, but it was a little creepy that the sushi place we used to go to eat at was suddenly closed and had cops standing outside.

PK: Did you go there after they reopened?

DC: Surprisingly, they haven’t reopened. They keep saying they’re renovating. When we left, months later, it still hadn’t opened.


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