David Cronenberg is set for a terrifying future, as a director and actor too
Over the years, David Cronenberg’s work and his character have merged into something, well, Cronenbergian.
In the films he writes and / or directs – his previous, more spongy production (Scanners, Fly); his spirits of the 1990s (Naked Lunch, eXistenZ); his most recent work, on human nature, is quite frightening (Eastern promises, A dangerous method); and his most recent, the evolving thriller Crimes of the future, which he shot last summer – he’s a neo-existentialist.
“I think the human body is who we are,” Cronenberg, 78, said in a telephone interview last week. “When he dies, we are dead. There is no hereafter, no God. We have to accept this. The subject of all art is the human condition, and for me it is a physical thing. It is therefore inevitable that my cinema involves the body in a very intimate and impactful way.
In his real life, Cronenberg is gentle, courteous, intelligent. He projects an air of unruffled civility. His gaze is calm and impassive. Her voice is as sweet and pleasant as itching butter on white toast.
“We shot Crimes of the future in Athens during an intense heat wave, 45 degrees, forest fires burning on the horizon, ”Don McKellar, who plays a bureaucrat in the film, told me in a separate phone interview. “David’s ability to remain calm and maintain his sense of humor was remarkable. His films are so personal and idiosyncratic that you would expect some sort of autocratic outlook, but it doesn’t look like that on his set. He is incredibly engaging, personable, non-hierarchical. It inspires confidence and loyalty. Douglas Koch, the director of photography, pointed out to me that David should start a school on how to make films. Not just technically, but how to make them fun to work with.
When Cronenberg acts, however, the characters he plays transform into who he is to create a delicious unease. Whatever the role, we are watching him too – and we know how his mind works. We see the skull under the skin. Think of her silky assassin in Die for, his unholy reverend in Alias Grace, or his scientist in Disappearance at Clifton Hill, where his simple entrance, beating out of the water in a frogman costume, elicits giggles from an audience.
No wonder the creators of the anthology series Slasher wanted Cronenberg to cover his fourth season, Flesh & Blood. “The minute we announced his casting, fans started sending me a direct message telling me how scared they were,” Slasher Writer Ian Carpenter said in a joint Zoom interview with showrunner Aaron Martin. (Season four premieres October 4 on Hollywood Suite.)
Cronenberg plays Spencer Galloway, a villain who couldn’t be more trending: a mega-rich and cruel patriarch of a dysfunctional family, a la Brian Cox in Succession and Donald Sutherland in Confidence. In the Galloway family, however, dysfunction includes dismemberment. Spencer, who is dying, sets up an elaborate competition between his potential heirs; only the winner inherits everything. Meanwhile, a killer hunts down the isolated family complex – as players are eliminated from the contest, they are also eliminated from Earth, in a grand and grotesque way.
“I got to do things that I never had the chance to do, either as an actor or in life,” Cronenberg said happily. “I have to yell at people and say rude things to my kids. I said to my own children, “See how I could have been? It was very fun. It was cathartic. I liked it.”
“David brought intellectual ferocity to his character, but that beautiful energy to the whole,” Carpenter said. “We shot these long table scenes; the actors sat there most of the day. Between takes, David told story after story. We had some rich writing conversations, about how he first came to his work as a writer. It celebrates the things everyone wants to turn away from, whether it’s behavior or things in the body. He has no shyness, no reluctance to explore anything.
Crimes of the future sounds like vintage Cronenberg. He wrote the screenplay in 2000, but it remained intact until producer Robert Lantos convinced him it was more timely than ever. It takes place in the near future where nature and evolution have gotten out of hand. Some humans, including a performance artist played by Viggo Mortensen, adapt by growing new organs or merging with technology – becoming transhumans. Some move beyond pain, able to operate on their own. Others resist, including McKellar’s bureaucrat and his colleague, played by Kristen Stewart.
“David explores the limits of what it means to be human,” McKellar said. “Does our identity transcend the body? It is an incredibly rich question, related to our cyber lives, how we transfer our inner lives to technology, incorporating our online life into our personalities. Where’s the line? Does the authentic self still mean something?
Unsurprisingly, Cronenberg is a techie. “In the 1940s and 1950s, technology was often conceived of as something that came from outer space, threatening and inhuman,” he said. “But for me, technology is 100% human – it reflects back to us who we are, it is an extension of ourselves. I listen to you through my hearing aids, which stream directly to my phone. These are my ears now.
Like all of Cronenberg’s projects, Crimes of the future took years to fund. “It’s conservatism,” he says. “If you do something outside of the general public that appears to be risky – not risky transgressively, but risky in terms of public reaction – it’s hard to get. “
He hoped streaming services would be “much more radical,” but an experiment with Netflix proved otherwise. He visited their Los Angeles office and introduced three of their senior executives to a series called shrouds (which he still hopes to sell, that’s all he’ll say). They paid him to write two episodes, but didn’t give the show the go-ahead.
“My experience with them was exactly my experience with the studios,” Cronenberg said. “They are brilliant, literate, they know things. But below, they are afraid. They say, “We love your job. Then you give them something and they say, “We want to work with you, but not on this. “
“What’s remarkable is what David can get,” McKellar replied. “I’m sure he explored the limits. He never flattered a commercial audience, even with his more commercial stuff, like Fly. I’m sure it’s always been a struggle. But somehow he kept his career uncompromising and it’s amazing.
“I learned so much from him about how a career as a filmmaker in Canada is possible,” McKellar continued. “How to Maintain Integrity, Buy In and Expand Your Vision. I can’t think of anyone who has done this better.
As our time passed, I asked Cronenberg one last question: if we are our bodies and nothing more, how does he feel about being 78? “There are things going on with my body,” he replied. “I’m not that flexible, I have aches, weird neurological pains that happen for no reason. But it hasn’t changed my understanding of life and death. I think I had anticipated it with relative precision, even from my youth.
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