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Welcome to His Nightmare: “Spider” Director David Cronenberg

Everything David Cronenberg touches doesn’t turn to gold – it turns into a cult flick. Despite being the quirkiest director this side of David Lynch, Cronenberg comes across as a remarkably sane gentleman and very open to talking about his work. We sat down with the director of Scanners, Videodrome, Naked Lunch, Crash, and some of cinema’s most notoriously strange movies to talk about his latest work, Spider, a film with no gore, an Oscar-worthy cast, and a blood-spewing potato that never got photographed.

Christopher Null: In the 1980s I took my girlfriend at the time to see Dead Ringers and in the 1990s I took my girlfriend (now my wife) to see Crash. And neither of them ever forgave me. So with the muted Spider, is this the beginning of a kinder, gentler Cronenberg?

David Cronenberg: I don’t think so. I’ve gone through this before – for example, with The Dead Zone. After I’d done Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood, people said maybe it’s going to be a turning point because there’s a love story and there’s really no special effects and it’s not very violent and so on. But then I did The Fly, which is very gory and violent and has lots of special effects, but is also a love story. So I don’t think this is any trend. I think this is just me doing this particular project. If I decide that I love this Spider thing and I want to do it, then I just want to make it the best Spider it can possibly be, and I don’t worry about what people expect from me or what they think I will do or what I did in the past. It’s not an issue for me.

But in Patrick McGraw’s first draft of his screenplay (based on his novel) there were special effects in it – a scene where the boy cuts into a potato, for example, and it starts to bleed (because he thinks his mother is buried under a potato patch). The special effects guys did build me that potato and they were very proud of it, and it did bleed and it glowed as well. And they were very sad when I didn’t shoot it! And the reason was by that time the movie had revealed itself to me for what it was, and I felt the potato was from some other movie.

If it’s working well, a movie will become organic and take on its own life and push you around and say I don’t wanna do that, I wanna do this instead. It’s like certain characters when you’re writing – you want them to surprise you, you don’t want them to be puppets.

I just want to say your wife could watch The Dead Zone. Or M. Butterfly.

CN: She liked eXistenZ too. But those two movies stick out as the two…

DC: ‘Why did you take me to that!?’

CN: Right. Those and Requiem for a Dream.

DC: I liked Requiem for a Dream very much.

CN: My wife was so sick she almost had to leave.

DC: Well it’s a disturbing movie. It’s supposed to be.

CN: Spider came about because Ralph Fiennes wanted to play the title role, and then you came aboard to direct. Is that at all typical of the way your movies get made?

DC: No, it’s not typical at all. Not typical for a script to come with an actor attached. I normally don’t even want that. Because I’d rather read a script – and certainly when I’m writing my own scripts – without thinking of a certain actor because then you subconsciously start tailoring the character to the actor. And it should be the other way around. As I was saying, a character pushes you around and tells you stuff. If you’re thinking of an actor, that could narrow the range of the character. And you could be wrong even thinking that, but I think it’s a tendency… There’s not much of a typical way in which my projects come about.

(laughs) In the early days, I would typically write my own scripts, and that was my entrée into directing – to write a script that producers in Montreal wanted to do. They didn’t want me as a director because I hadn’t directed a commercial feature film, and they actually tried to get other directors to do it but I wouldn’t let go of the script… that’s how I started.

I was very intolerant at that point of directors who didn’t write. I thought they weren’t ‘complete’ filmmakers, but then I did The Dead Zone and I really enjoyed that experience. So I started to think it doesn’t really matter where the film comes from. It’s interesting to mix your blood with someone else’s and create this third thing that you never would have done on your own… but which wouldn’t exist without you. It’s pretty fascinating and very provocative and exciting. So I’m not intolerant any more about where it comes from.

Some of my scripts even came from dreams. I’ve done adaptations of books (Crash), adaptations of someone’s life (Naked Lunch), based on real people (Dead Ringers), and I’ve done a play (M. Butterfly). My default is to sit down and write my own script… but that’s hard. Like any writer, and I’m sure you know this, I’ll do anything to avoid writing. It’s pleasure and pain combined to write.

CN: What was the last script you wrote with a dream at its core?

DC: Well, Shivers was really the only one that had a dream at its core – a dream of a spider coming out of a man’s mouth while a woman is watching.

CN: Ever think about revisiting these universes of Scanners or Videodrome, now that technology has improved?

DC: No, never. In fact, there’s talk that Artisan wants to do a remake of Scanners and The Brood. I don’t want anything to do with them.

CN: Why the disinterest?

DC: Well I did it. Why would you want to do it again? That’s repetition compulsion. I have no desire to remake my own movies… I’m at a different place in my life.

CN: It seems like eXistenZ was an updating of those themes.

DC: Yeah, yeah. Well, I’m always circling those themes, but my perspective is different. But going back has no attraction for me. Whatsoever.

CN: You’re one of the most visible Canadian directors. Are you an informal leader of the Canadian film scene?

DC: Well I’d say very informal. I do find, not just in Canada, that young directors and wannabe directors come to me and say that I’ve inspired them or that I’m sort of their unofficial mentor, guiding light. In Canada it’s a little more hands-on than that. Patricia Rozema was my assistant director on The Fly. Atom Egoyan thinks of me as his mentor. I’m not really prepared to be an elder statesman. Thank God for Norman Jewison – he’s even older than I am! As long as there’s somebody older around…

CN: I asked my staff if they had any questions for you. They all asked about Marilyn Chambers, who starred in < b>Rabid.

DC: (laughs) Well I’ve had no contact with her at all since we made the movie. The whole point for her of doing Rabid was to prove she could make a straight movie and I think she did it. It was Ivan Reitman’s idea to get her, because when you go to Cannes to market your film, you realize there are thousands of movies from all over the world. How do you get distributors to come to your movie and buy it for their territory? How are you gonna get the Finnish distributor to come?

We couldn’t afford a legit star. I wanted Sissy Spacek for the role but she wasn’t a star then. Ironically, while we were shooting, Carrie came out and then she was a star. Ivan’s idea was Marilyn Chambers because she had these girl-next-door looks, but of course she was notorious for doing porn films. So the combination was pretty good.

But I auditioned her, and she was better than any of the other actresses I’d seen. I thought she was good. She was a pro… in the movie sense. (laughs)

She got good reviews, so I have no idea why she couldn’t follow up with another [legit] movie. The movie was a success and the response to her was positive. So I have no idea what happened.

CN: Are you at all disappointed with the timing of Spider‘s release? It’s a 2002 release but no one will see it until March 2003.

DC: Well this is the first time anyone’s done any sort of Oscar campaign for one of my movies. But there was just a torrent of films at the end of the year, many with the same audience as Spider. So I think it was actually very clever of Sony to wait.

CN: Are awards something that concern you?

DC: Well, it only matters in terms of getting people to see the movie. I mean, speaking of the creation of reality – millions of people take the Oscars seriously. And so to that extent I have to take them seriously too, because if you’re nominated or win an Oscar, a lot more people will come see your movie. On the other hand, creatively it means absolutely nothing. Because we all know the criteria for the Oscars is very subjective. I would compare Miranda Richardson’s performance in Spider to any performance in the last decade.

It doesn’t break my heart not to win things. It’s nice to win them when you win them. It’s not worth driving yourself crazy.

CN: Do you think that kind of recognition would give you more freedom? Or do you have creative freedom now?

DC: No. Of course I don’t have it now. Talk to Marty Scorsese. People think Marty can do whatever he wants, and of course he can’t. It’s a very tough business. People in Hollywood are not fools. The fact that you win an Oscar doesn’t mean they’ll give you the world. It’s only if they think they’ll get their money back.

But I’m a director. I’m an artist. I want to earn a living, and that’s it. Look at Orson Welles – you couldn’t be more famous than Orson Welles and he still couldn’t ever get a movie made. Ever.

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