November 15, 2002|Of the many opportunities afforded to me by my association with FILM FREAK CENTRAL, the ones I treasure most are interviews with favourite filmmakers. Guillermo Del Toro, Cory McAbee, John Sayles, and now David Cronenberg--easily the most important Canadian auteur of the last thirty years, and one of the most vivid and innovative voices in a horror genre otherwise moribund since the early 1980s. Cronenberg's films are obsessed with the twisting of the flesh by machineries and ambition, sexual perversion and insectile disassociation, and the blurring of lines between reality and the phantasms constructed by the Icarean aspirations of its doomed protagonists.
What's lost in most examinations of Cronenberg's work, however, is the thread of mad romance that flavours the darkest of his dramas, from his adaptation of Stephen King's most overtly lovelorn novel The Dead Zone to the reimagining of The Fly as a gothic love story to Spider, the story at its essence of a boy's obsessive love for his mother. Having once said after Dead Ringers that he had no interest in exploring Freud, I asked Mr. Cronenberg, among other things, why he decided now to adapt Patrick McGrath's Oedipal opus Spider (McGrath also wrote the screen adaptation) and how this film is the culmination of his career's throughlines.
DAVID CRONENBERG: You have to understand that I don't work that way in terms of the creative process. It's just as valid, of course, but the creative process is a different one from the analytic process--that is to say that I could do a dissertation on my themes, probably, but it wouldn't be more accurate than yours because I'm just guessing when I place myself outside of my films.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: What changed between Dead Ringers--where you said that you weren't interested in exploring Oedipal issues--and Spider, which, at its heart, is a giant Oedipal complication.
A lot of that has to do, of course, with that I didn't write the script--but we did talk about that and I can relate that also to the clinical study aspects of schizophrenia in that Patrick [McGrath] was raised in the Broadmoor Prison for the Criminally Insane, which is a huge Victorian estate in the North of England, because his father was a medical superintendent there, and he's said that axe murderers and schizophrenics were his pram pushers. Because of his father and that whole relationship he was concerned to get the schizophrenia right, y'know, to make sure it was medically accurate, that the symptoms of schizophrenia were there. And the same with the Freud--I said to Patrick that we have to have the Freud right because obviously there's a sense that this is a textbook Freudian study, but I don't have an interest in doing textbook studies of either schizophrenia or Freud--I'm looking for something else.
So the Freud, like the schizophrenia, was an offshoot of something other in the material?
Right--I didn't want to shy away from those things because obviously there's a whole section of Spider concerned with child sexuality and a child's awareness of his parent's sexuality and how he reacts to that, and his own sexuality and how it becomes tangled in with that--but on the other hand, I really wanted to work on an artistic situation above that. Ralph, if he wanted to go work with real schizophrenics--which he did--and talk to psychiatrists--which he did--to help formulate his performance, that's fine, but I'm not interested in doing any kind of case study. Freud is part of modern mythology now and whether he's accurate or not, it's beautiful poetry and it's a beautiful attempt to encompass an awful lot.
Whatever else he was, he was an amazing storyteller.
Yes--he's a brilliant writer of fantastic stories and I don't think he's given enough credit for the beauty of his writing and his incredible intelligence. Whether his map of how the mind works is accurate is almost irrelevant to his process so, in a way, you see, I'm not worried about the Freud part of it. These elements work, they work for this character, they are an entirely relevant avenue of investigation for your job as a critic, they are certainly things that people deal with in their lives--even though Freud these days isn't so hip and cool and young people might think they're a lot more relaxed about sexuality. But even the coolest kids with lots of piercings and stuff, you talk about their parents' sexuality and they get squeamish. So it's still there, it's still current, and it is still a part of each person's evolution--how they discover what sex is and what they incorporate or not into their own lives.
Sexuality has been an important part of your work.
I've been approaching the question from many angles, whether it's the instruments or the plug-ins in eXistenZ, while here I'm dealing with less veiled imagery, let's say. Nonetheless, you know what I'm looking for is a universal. A more than human--an above the human condition view.
Beckett was one of our touchstones. I really thought that Spider was more of a Beckett character--the Beckett as you say, of the prose or the novels more than the plays--I saw a vagrant or a tramp. Someone who has divested himself of almost everything except for the clothes that he wears and maybe one or two things like tobacco for his cigarettes. Then he focuses all his incredible energy and inventiveness on that--he's as obsessed and possessive of his little suitcase as we would be of our house and our car. He becomes so distilled that he becomes a microcosm of any human and at that point he becomes an existential study rather than let's say a psychological study. At that point I think--and it's totally arrogant of me to say this--but I think that we go beyond Freud to an even more basic examination of the human condition. We even did Ralph's hair so that it was a little bit like Samuel Beckett's.
There's a bit in an Edward Albee play about a question of pornographic playing cards and whether they inform the fantasy or are a product of fantasy.
It's very difficult to discern because it's very mysterious. We're obviously born with a sexual impulse that's obviously to do with the continuation of the species and so on so we can safely say that we've got that. But what form it takes in society in terms of nudity or not nudity--of taboo and its transgressions--what elements comprise a secret thing so that suddenly with humans, sex gets very complicated.
There's the whole question of breast size and how that generally would indicate pregnancy and decreased reproductive potential, but we've totemized breast size...
Exactly right--we've separated it somehow from creating children. Those are continuously fascinating examinations and there's no point where you can just say, "That's it, I've put my finger on it." It's constantly changing and as cultures change and shift, those sexual bogeys change and shift.
You deface breasts in particular in Videodrome; can you talk about that element of self-mortification in your films?
My approach to that is not obviously within the structure of religion. In religions in which the flesh is mortified it's often to say to yourself that the flesh is unimportant and the flesh is not where the essence of the human is and I'm saying just the opposite.
Spider is a very tactile role. It's not very cerebral in a weird way--of course he's not speaking very much and speech is an abstracting thing--so Spider is a very visceral, immediate role. It's physical things that trigger all the mental things. I suppose part of what I want to do is to play within our film with my belief that the mind and the body are the same--that they are inextricably intertwined, but more than that, that they are actually one and the same in that one cannot exist without the other.
At the same time, though, it seems so obvious to us that they are different and that we can be, we think, kind of disembodied even just walking down the street lost in thought and not knowing where we're walking and not feeling our body. But is that really what's happening? I'm not sure. So I'm constantly trying to play with that. See, the theory--and obviously I don't believe in an afterlife, I couldn't if I believe this--is that there is no mind without body and no body without mind. You have to decide how limiting a term "mind"--you have to question what it is I mean. If I only mean the nervous system functioning and the brain firing, or you mean some sort of higher thought process and function, or if you mean that they are the same process--it's a marvellously complicated series of events and signifiers, a philosophical issue current since Descartes and really before, that I try to play with and the evolution of the "new flesh" that you describe is a literal manifestation of that process.There are no obvious special effects that manifest this process in Spider, in contrast to most of your other films.
For me, Ralph's performance was a special effect. His character believed that he was emitting noxious gases that poisoned everyone around him so that he wears layers and layers of clothing, in essence, to shield others from himself--he believed that he was undergoing some kind of metamorphosis and Ralph's performance, almost like a silent film performance, is meant to be a reflection of his illusion become reality.
How does your longtime collaboration with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and composer Howard Shore reflect that philosophy, particularly in regards to the interiors of Dead Ringers and the projected exteriors of Spider?
Well, I never storyboard, there's not that kind of intentionality. It's not a religious thing with me, but I really have disdain for storyboards. I know that because of Hitchcock and his own mythology, which was a lie and a product of his egomania--and I haven't seen Road to Perdition but I understand Sam Mendes, it's only his second movie and he storyboarded each of his scenes...
But that cuts out the acting, you know, it cuts out a lot of collaborators. I don't want to set it up so this scene has to be set up against the window and the rain, because what if the actor has a great idea for a movement away from the window to the piano? You lock that possibility out when you storyboard and I never want to shackle myself that way. I want to feel it--to move the actors around the room and look at it. Having said that, I do send Peter and Howard and my editor Ron Sanders and [production designer] Andrew Sanders, those are the first people I send a script to and I do it really early on when I'm seriously thinking that it's a movie I want to do, because I want them to start thinking about it even when they're all over the world doing other things. I want them to think about the casting, even. Peter and I, we both work very intuitively. We often talk about coming up with a look, but basically we just start.
Are the roles on your set transparent?
To an extent, for sure. Peter is involved in the production design because he talks about where windows might go and sources of light. In Spider I encourage Peter to do what I've often encouraged Peter to do and that is to ignore sources of light. For example, sometimes in Spider's room, there's a light coming from a wall that's a solid wall and if you're thinking of where the light comes from, the light couldn't be coming from there. Most cinematographers are trained not to do that, they're trained only to light from sources, but I believe that in some cases, that's too limiting and I want my work to be more than reality, because expansion is sometimes the only way to get at the heart of the thing.
Spider opens abroad throughout November and in North America on February 28, 2003.