A silver tray is set before me by a man wearing a uniform of all white – gloves included. I am the only one in the room of awaiting journalists who accepts the offer of coffee – had I known it didn’t come from a clear-bowled urn and wasn’t served in a mug, I might have declined. Instead I am presented with an air of ceremony that is way beyond my comfort zone. The cup with saucer, presumably expensive china with the French embassy emblem etched into its side, is of a size suitable for sipping. I’m a gulper – even when it’s hot.
This is the kind of neighbourhood I usually just drive through, pausing only to wonder about the lives of those who live in these large, seemingly impenetrable fortresses of fortune and prosperity. Now that I’ve gained entry I’m pleased to discover that the dwelling is not a single-family residence but the home of all arriving French dignitaries – a hospitable oasis for the French Ambassador and his guests.
Today the ambassador’s guest is director David Cronenberg, who, in just a few short days following this interview, received The Medal of Knight, the French National Order of Legion of Honour, France´s highest honour.
David and I are set up in the front room of the home, which boasts an impressive array of fine art and furniture. I use to think of David as a tall man – the six-foot-plus stature of a Donald Sutherland, Jeremy Irons or Tim Robbins. Instead, I’m greeted by a man who, at about five eleven, seems no taller than myself. Oddly, his signature grey crop of hair makes him appear younger than he is likely to be.
The interview is to appear on an upcoming episode of TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movies. It’s been a long chase to finally get Cronenberg to sit down long enough to talk to us on camera. Like many people with a passion for doing, he prefers making films to talking about them. But an honour is an honour and it should be acknowledged with grace and humility. Cronenberg responds accordingly and TVO becomes one of four networks granted an interview.
The following conversation comes from that interview.
Q: The Medal of Knight, the French National Order of the Legion of Honour. As someone whose career has been controversial, right from the beginning, are you a little surprised that you’re getting this international attention?
A: Because it’s French, not that it’s international – that I’m not surprised [about] … I was a knight in the Order of Arts and Letters of France and was promoted to officer. I’m now an officer, so and I’m an honorary citizen of three French cities. So the French have been very friendly to me, you know, and I’ve directed an opera in Paris, and I was the head of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999, so there’s a long history that I have in France in particular, with their recognition of my work. So in that sense I’m not surprised, but at the same time I am, because there’s nothing that says because you have or because you do those other things that you’ll get this honour. This is really the top French honour that you can get and I’m really quite touched that they wanted to give this to me.
Q: It’s an exclusive group of filmmakers that have come before you. I can only think of Clint Eastwood and David Lynch and Steven Spielberg.
A: I would be surprised if there weren’t some French filmmakers as well, but it is different when you’re not a French citizen and it’s even a little harder to get the award. It’s an order that was established by Napoleon. And it was meant to be an order of merit, so that really it’s kind of strange that they call it being a knight. The first level that you get into is chevalier and you’re a knight. But originally Napoleon wanted to call it legionnaire because he didn’t want there to be any hint of aristocracy. Of course this is after the French revolution so to be a knight, to be called sir, that would be bad, and it’s not part of being in the Legion of Honour.
Q: And so, I don’t call you Sir Cronenberg from this point on.
A: You do not. You can call me mister.
Q: Many filmmakers who’ve managed, as you have, to push people’s expectations and present audiences with new and daring ideas can frequently find, as they become more accepted, their talents ebbing away. And yet you seem to be able to continue to challenge your audience. What continues to inspire you?
A: Fear. One of the reasons I directed an opera and one of the reasons I wanted to curate an exhibit of Andy Warhol at the Art Gallery of Ontario was to scare myself. I didn’t want to become too comfortable. I wanted to do some things that I have not done before. I think that at a certain point in your career you either decide to be comfortable or that you’re not ready for that yet. You don’t want the artistic version of slippers and pipe. So I think that’s really what it is.
It still excites me, the artistic endeavour, it’s still a huge challenge, and part of it is that fear – doing something that you know you can fail at hugely and perhaps be a laughing stock. For example, the art world is a very cohesive, well-defined world with its own culture and its own cultural heroes and its own antagonisms and hostilities and a very well-developed critical base, and for me to enter that and say, "OK, I have something to offer with this exhibit of Andy Warhol’s" is daunting really. And it was only because the people at the AGO thought that I could do that, that I found the courage. And the same with the opera, the opera world is also like that. I’ve never directed theatre, never mind opera, so that’s a double-triple whammy. You’ve got spectacle, you’ve got music, you’ve got singing and you’ve got dialogue. It’s very difficult. I guess it’s perfect that The Fly, the opera that I directed based on my own movie, with music by Howard Shore, premiered in Paris and then afterwards went to Los Angeles; it’s a perfect dichotomy for me.
Q: Fear is an element you use frequently in your films. Is there something about fear that can drive us towards empowerment?
A: Yeah, well, you say that I use fear in my films, but I don’t really use it; it uses me. I never really felt that I was part of that sort of Hitchcock mythology, which is to say he felt that he was a puppet master as a director and he would make his audience – he would pull their strings, and he would make them jump and twitch and laugh and cry and scream when he wanted to. And for me it was not like that. I was doing those things to myself as I sort of had this little voyage through metaphysics and philosophy and psychology and everything else while making the film, and would scare myself, and then would invite the audience to come along with me and see what their reactions might be. So it’s quite a different approach from being a sort of controlmeister. That’s never really been my approach to filmmaking.
Q: Hitchcock did a bit of a disservice to himself when he made that comment, didn’t he?
A: He did, because he was a more interesting filmmaker than you would imagine from how he presented himself. But I think he was a control freak and he wanted people to think that there was not a lot of other contribution or collaboration in his filmmaking. But of course, now, so much of who he was personally is evident in his films, and that´s made his films much more interesting than they would have been if he only was the puppet master that he liked to present himself as.
Q: Is there an underlying rationale to exposing audiences to violence or disturbing moments?
A: Art has always involved sex and violence. I’d like to be able to say I was the first to put them both together in a movie, but we have 4000 years of art that involves sex and violence. It’s because when we are pushed to the extremes of what we are and what we do that we begin to reveal ourselves. The defences go down, the insides come out, literally and figuratively, and we start to see what we really are. It’s really an exploration of the human condition. Obviously that’s not the only way that you can do that, but as we know there are plays and movies that are just verbal, not physical, and yet there’s an incredible psychic violence that’s revealed, as in the plays of Harold Pinter – just to take a recent example of a wonderful artist that we’ve lost. There is violence of many kinds, not just physical.
But when you think of movies, physical violence is a very cozy fit with movies, and maybe too cozy sometimes. But it’s because of the nature of film and of editing and montage and sophisticated camerawork and the use of the human body. When you’re a filmmaker, most of what you’re photographing is the human body and so it lends itself to exploration of violence, in a way that painting or the novel do.
The downside of the cozy fit between sex and violence and cinema is that it can be cliché – it can be reduced to the ordinary, it can numb you with its frequency and so on, so it doesn’t confer instant power. You have to be good at it, you have to be intelligent. You have to be a good filmmaker to really use it in a truly artistic and creative way. And the use of CG, you know, computer-generated graphics and imaging, has made violence of almost monumental kinds also very accessible, and as [CG] becomes cheaper, more and more accessible. But once again you see certain movies, I won’t mention them but they’re big Hollywood blockbuster-type movies, which are just endless scenes of carnage of various kinds. You can now not just destroy human beings but buildings and cities and planets with great abandon. It can become, if there’s nothing behind it but motion, if it’s only kinetic energy, it becomes boring. And I wouldn’t say it becomes a social danger, I don’t believe that, but it becomes a cinematic danger – that is to say that you can numb your audience to a point of complete indifference, which for an artist is the worst possible thing you can do.
Q: Is the battle between the censors and the filmmaker a fight that’s never going to end?
A: Yeah, it’s inevitable, because the relationship of art to society is a very uneasy one; it’s meant to be. If you’re a Freudian it’s a very neat kind of paradigm, which is this: that art appeals to the unconscious, its appeal is to the unconscious, to the things that are suppressed and repressed. But civilization is repression in the Freudian paradigm so the two are automatically at odds, but there’s a need for art in society as well, whether it´s for catharsis or however you want to ... a safety valve, or just the human need to understand things that are not allowed in society but need expression nonetheless. And of course it depends which society because they’re all different and they all have different kinds of repression. So there’s a very uneasy alliance between art and society and therefore between an artist and sources that would censor an artist.
Q: Describe what you believe the Cronenberg audience to be.
A: I can’t really.
Q: So you have no idea who’s sitting out in the dark watching your movies?
A: No. I mean, I meet fans who talk to me, and you would think that they’d be a lot of maniacs and psychotics because of my movies perhaps, but they’re actually the sweetest, sweetest group of fans you could ever meet. No, I love my fans, but of course fans are not your only audience. You don’t want just that, you want a broader audience than the people who sort of specialize in you, who kind of zero in on you.
I’m always surprised by the kind of people who like my films. And I’m also surprised by which films they say are their favourites. That’s very illuminating. Once you’ve got a bit of a body of work then you have people come up and say, “I like this movie,” and it turns out it’s maybe your first one, and you’re not sure you liked that because you wonder ... well, didn’t you like any of the other ones? There’s no rhyme or reason for it, which makes sense because it’s so subjective, someone’s response to your work. When someone comes up to me and is about to say, "I really like what you do," and then they say, "But Dead Ringers was my favourite," or Crash or Scanners or [they] like your early horror films – and you can never tell when they come up to you which one they’re going to say. It’s an interesting exercise for me to try and guess.
Q: I’ve been told that directors hate to be aligned with any other director, but just when you said that people say they like your earlier horror films, it must be somewhat like when people approach Woody Allen and say, "Why can’t you go back to making comedies?"
A: Once again, it’s a question of evolution. I mean, if you keep just doing the same old thing you bore yourself, and then you become boring to the audience. And so there’s always a desire to ... it’s more than a desire, it’s a natural thing, as your life changes your interest in things changes, your perspective on things changes. Bob Dylan said he cannot imagine writing the songs that he wrote, the ones that made him famous. He doesn’t know where they came from and he could not do them now. He’s telling the absolute truth, and we all have in our own way that experience. You’re forced to think about it and to contemplate it when somebody says, "We want you to do a remake of Shivers," or Rabid or Scanners. I couldn’t possibly do it.
Q: But you did remake The Fly.
A: That’s different. That was not remaking my own film. The original Fly was delightful and interesting, but it wasn’t a masterpiece. And so I felt also that because of our understanding of DNA and everything else that the reconceptualization of that movie would lead me to make a movie that was different enough that it wouldn’t really bother those people who had great affection for the first film. And at the time people asked, "Are you going to ask Vincent Price to do a cameo?" and I did in fact do a little radio interview with Vincent Price about that. But I said, "No, no, absolutely not. Because then it becomes a movie about movies and it becomes a movie about nostalgia and then it becomes a retro thing, and I would think that would destroy the movie. That would be a very subversive element of the wrong kind within my remake of the movie." And, I imagine Vincent Price would hate my film. I don’t know what his actual reaction was to it, but he was very sweet to me on this phone-in interview that we did, very kind and just a lovely gentleman.
Q: I understand him to be just that, a very sweet and lovely gentleman.
A: I think he would have been disturbed by the extreme violence in my film, and maybe the sexuality as well. I think, of course it’s horrible to categorize, but I think his generation, and knowing the kind of person who he was (I got to know a bit), I think he would not have liked those aspects of my movie.
Q: Is there a recurring theme that you feel compelled to continue to explore?
A: I don’t really think of films as themes. I really think that’s an analytical tool, it´s a critic’s tool, but I don’t think it´s part of the creative process. You don’t say, "I will now tackle the theme of identity." I can certainly see when someone says, you know, "The theme of identity runs through all of your movies.” I can see it. I went and studied literature and I could have been a critic, you know, literary or cinematic, maybe, and I can do that exercise but it doesn’t start from there. The film does not come from anything as abstract as a theme. So in short the answer is it’s not a theme – it’s usually something much more physical or visual or human than something as abstract as a theme.
Q: What film of yours would you consider your "breakthrough" film?
A: There are a couple I suppose, and I mean if it’s a breakthrough for me – I’m not necessarily thinking artistically. But for example The Dead Zone was an important film for me because it was the first film that I did that was based on someone else’s work. Up until that point I had only done original scripts that I had done myself. The Dead Zone was the first adaptation that I did of somebody else’s work, and in fact was also the first connection that I had with the "mainstream" really, because Stephen King – very mainstream writer, even though he is a genre writer. I’d never done that before. And it was a movie that, because it was a movie that wasn’t a Canadian production, I was using many American actors; this was a new experience for me. I had not been able to do that before because of the financing and so on, and so that was a breakthrough for me in that way. Whether it was artistically or not, I leave it for others to say, but I was very happy with the film and still am.
Anthony Zerbe, a veteran American actor who played the father in The Dead Zone, said to me, he said, “You ought to try real movies some time, you’d be good at it.” And what he meant was that The Dead Zone was still a genre picture, and he was still putting it in a ghetto. But for me it was a real movie, there’s no question about that.
Q: And if he saw the last two films that you made, he’d be very happy.
A: He would have felt that I had finally after all this time realized the potential that he saw in me, yes, he probably would.
Thom Ernst is a Toronto-based film writer and critic and the producer/interviewer of TVO´s long-running movie program, Saturday Night at the Movies.