When you enter the world of David Cronenberg, there are no bad men with knives in the closet. No one pops up out of the bathtub after a certain drowning. The wind doesn’t rattle the windows or make the curtains billow like death shrouds. No. The horror in the world of David Cronenberg is not the easy, external horror of the slasher, but the far creepier, insidious horror of the self, of self-consciousness. I think, therefore I might not be.It’s out of such a disturbing state of mind (and body) that Cronenberg has fashioned his work. First came two provocative but pretentious “underground” science fiction films in the late sixties, Stereo and Crimes of the Future, in which Cronenberg already displayed an interest in sexuality, control, and the social order. His long wait for a commercial feature — funding is difficult in Canada and often involves the government — ended with They Came from Within, where the repressed residents of a sterile high-rise become infected with parasites that sex them up in most unusual ways. A full-scale debate in Canada’s Parliament about the suitability of government support for such a film followed (no doubt to Cronenberg’s dismay and delight) and indicated what he was up against in the great white north. Enter former Ivory Snow girl and porn star Marilyn Chambers, sporting an underarm phallic spike in Rabid, an entertaining essay in which, as in so many of Cronenberg’s works, cutting-edge science and somatic desire perform a romantically tragic pas de deux. Next, Cronenberg made a skidding detour onto the drag strip for the formulaic, forgettable Fast Company.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that he really hit stride. The Brood was a mini-masterpiece about the horror of the fraying family; Scanners brought Cronenberg his drive-in audience, with its famous exploding head and sci-fi subtext; Videodrome was a complicated, polyoptic exploration of the connection between image, power, and flesh, starring James Woods in an emotionally intricate role; The Dead Zone found Cronenberg boiling down the Stephen King bestseller and extracting the best performance of Christopher Walken’s career. And then The Fly put him squarely over the top. Featuring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, Cronenberg’s reworking of the laughable little 1950s original was masterful: tight, vicious, disgusting, metaphorically rich and intellectually rigorous, it was slamming yet subtle, like the best of all his work. After The Fly, he turned down the temperature with Dead Ringers, a stainless-steel-on-skin story of self-destructive identical twin gynecologists (both played brilliantly by Jeremy Irons) which scraped to the core of the problem of identity — how we separate self from other. Indeed, considering these six films, an argument can be made for Cronenberg as the most consistently interesting filmmaker of the 1980s.
He’d been scheming, dreaming, and fretting over his next work for many years — the unfilmable film, Naked Lunch. William Burroughs was always one of Cronenberg’s greatest influences (indeed, much of his thematic imagery strongly parallels that of Burroughs) and Naked Lunch provided him with his long-wished-for fusion of their visions. It’s quite a strange film, hardly the free-for-all that is the Burroughs novel. Rather, it’s dry as dust, slow as sun, bristly in its intelligence and unsettling in its aura: it’s like a visit to the mental dentist. It is also one of the few pictures that generously rewards — and almost, like Videodrome, necessitates — a second screening.
Born in Toronto in 1943, Cronenberg was gearing up for a career in science when English stole his brain at the University of Toronto. He wrote a few stories that won him some attention, and shot his first experimental shorts. He made do without film school. Early in his career, Cronenberg was lumped together with a number of other young horror filmmakers, most notably George Romero and John Carpenter, but they’ve been inappropriate company for at least the last ten years. In addition to his feature films, he has done work for Canadian television and a couple of terrific commercials for Nike and Cadbury’s Caramilk chocolate bars.
I met with Cronenberg in November of 1991 in Toronto, where he still makes his pictures and lives, quietly (when he’s not racing cars), with his second wife and his three children. We talked in his small, spartan office as the snow swirled outside. The man himself is calm, thoughtful, and focused; he’s deadly serious but not at all deadly.
Let’s go back to the beginning. There’s very little written about your childhood, and your family. I’d like you to describe it.
I was brought up in a kind of immigrant section of Toronto: Jews that had not yet moved out to the suburbs, Turks, Italians, Greeks. My father was a bibliophile and a writer, and my house was always full of books. Literally, walls made out of books. I never really saw the real walls of the house, because we had so many books; there were actually corridors made out of books. To me this was all perfectly normal, of course, since it was there from first consciousness. And he was also very much the music buff, and a bit of a gadget freak. I remember we had an Altec speaker that was much taller than I ever was. It must have been a studio-size speaker. He had a Quad amplifier. Down a street, around the corner was the record store, and my father was always down there, previewing records. And my mother was a pianist — for the ballet, for choirs, for violinists and their teachers, and opera singers and their teachers, who would come to the house.
I was exposed to culture, but I was never into studying it, so I know tons of music in my head note for note, but I don’t know who composed it and have no idea who played it. They weren’t just into that kind of culture though, they were both very eclectic. I remember an album of recordings from all over the world. The original African re cording of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” which is better than anything that ever came after. Fantastic, incredible. And old blues records. And folk. So it was a very eclectic culture, not just classical.
What were your folks like as parents?
Great. They were very sweet. Very supportive. I think that has always been there for me, underneath. Very approving, very easy, very sweet people.
Did they want you to be a scientist?
Well, the truth is, they wanted me to be whatever I wanted to be. I’m sure they had discussions at night, very worried about my latest girlfriend, or my latest philosophy of life, whatever — but I wasn’t really exposed to much negativity, I have to say. Basically, if I decided I wanted to go into science, my father would immediately present me with twenty books on biochemistry, and be enthusiastic. And if a year later I decided to drop out of science — which I did — and went into English, then we would talk about literary criticism, and I’d get twenty books on literary criticism. And he’d be equally excited by that. I never felt I had to please them. It seemed like whatever I did pleased them.
It was, it was. I mean, obviously, life being life and humans being humans, there was angst and anguish that they had to deal with that I didn’t know much about. They basically did not lay that on me at all. I mean, my father’s mother-in-law was in the house, my grandmother, and she had a leg amputated, so I grew up with this wonderful wheelchair in the house that I could do wheelies in, and go up and down the halls in. I know that must have caused huge stress and strain — because she was a mother-in-law and an invalid, and in this very tiny house and there’s not much money and all of that — but I didn’t know all that. Nobody screamed and yelled.
It’s been said that children live out the unexpressed emotions of their parents.
I don’t think that’s true. I think children have a desire for things to be wonderful, and given half a chance, they will experience them that way. I don’t think they’re looking for bad times. That’s my experience of it. I can be back there in a flash. I can be back living at home, instantly.
Well, I flash on you living there with this grandmother figure and her amputated leg, and think of your body consciousness —
Well, it’s not impossible. I mean, this leg is something I would see. We’d talk about it. She’d tell me about the phantom leg, how she’d feel pain where her leg used to be. It was all pretty mysterious at the time. Although I’m not sure she was the most sweet, forgiving woman at the time, she was a real grandmother to me. She wasn’t a huge part of my life, but I definitely do remember that stuff. There was not a sense of sickness about her, despite the amputated leg. The wheelchair was great. I couldn’t see why anybody wouldn’t want to wheel around in that. On a conscious level, I was pretty oblivious to the anguish that must have been hers.
Maybe the wheelchair was your first car.
For sure, it was. I had a red tricycle, which I preferred, because I could take that outside.
What about your sibs? You have a sister named Denise?
That’s right. She’s been the costume designer on the last few movies. She’s four years older than I am. So we had that kind of relationship. When she became a teenager and I wasn’t, I didn’t see her that much, because she’d be out doing teenage-type things. We use to put on plays at the house, she’d organize those. I still remember we did “Little Red Riding Hood.” I was the hunter that popped up at the end and shot the wolf at the last minute. I had to stay behind the piano hiding for the whole thing. We had seats set up in the living room, for people to come in and watch the play.
What were your childhood obsessions? I know you had the car bug fairly early, and then also the bug bug —
Well, the bug bug I think preceded the cars. In fact, I do remember a period when I was really down on cars, because I was into animals. I hated to see squirrels run over by ’53 Buicks, because there’s not much left of the squirrel after that. So there was definitely a period when I was not crazy about cars, and my father didn’t have a car, we didn’t have a car in the family. I’d walk everywhere. Everything I needed was accessible by walking or bicycle. I remember my father had a car for about ten minutes once. I remember he bought it, and we were driving around the corner, and we had to get out — the car was dead. I never saw it again. My mother never drove and my father almost never drove.
The first 8-millimeter film you ever shot as a teenager — your train arriving in the train station, as it were — was of auto racing, right?
That’s correct. Not only that, but a guy, a CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Company] producer, was killed in the first race that I shot, and I have that on film. He rolled his Triumph TR3 in the chicane at Harewood Acres.
So in your very first film you unified your obsession with death, your love of technology, and your ambivalence about TV!
Probably. [Laughs.] Maybe just producers in general.
Every kid has fears. It’s almost a cliché that your horror is the horror of the adult and not of the child, but I’m wondering, what was the dark stuff of your childhood?
I think it was pretty garden-variety stuff. The scariest movie I ever saw as a kid was Blue Lagoon, with Gene Simmons and Joan Hall. That was the movie that kept me up with the lights on for at least a week, maybe more. Normally, I liked the dark. I wasn’t a kid that was afraid of the dark. But this was separation from your parents — that was the scary thing. And Bambi was terrifying. And Babar the Elephant was terrifying. The Blue Lagoon was terrifying because it was about two kids on a boat, and the boat catches fire, and the boat sinks, and the two kids are on this island with this drunken sailor, who eventually falls out of a skull-shaped cave and dies, and so the two kids are totally alone and have to invent their own culture. That was the part that was terrifying — separation from parents. And when people get hysterical now about children and terror and film, they really are looking at it from an adult point of view. I think kids can take a lot of things that adults find terrifying, but what is almost universally terrifying for a kid is the idea of being separated from his parents.
You’ve had to live out that fear in two different ways: first, in going through the death of both your parents, and second, in being separated from your child when your first marriage ended. Let’s talk first about your parents, because I know that was a real shaper. When did your father die?
Well . . . I don’t know. This is the most bizarre thing. I actually don’t, I can’t, I can’t remember the dates of my parents’ deaths. But my mother died . . . my father died first. My father had been sick, had this mysterious illness, but my mother had always been absolutely healthy. I never remember her even having a cold. Not ever. I was in London, when I got a phone call from my sister, totally hysterical and destroyed, saying that both of my parents were in the hospital. Now, my father wasn’t a surprise, but my mother — that was a total shock. She’d had a stroke, and I think it was the stress of my father’s illness.
He had a illness where he couldn’t process calcium, his bones were so brittle he could break a rib turning over in bed.
Yeah, that was just one of the more horrifying aspects of it. It was a kind of general disintegration. At a certain point his body just started to let go. And suddenly I had two parents in the hospital, and I had to come back, and it was just sort of downhill from there. My father died. My mother was relatively okay for roughly another ten years, but she was never totally right. She had heart trouble.
Did you have to take care of her?
Yeah, basically. She could live on her own till the end, but she was constantly having to have blood transfusions because she had an anemic condition. I can tell you when Giles Villeneuve [a race car driver] died but I can’t tell you about my father.
There’s a television journalist here who for about twenty years has tried to make huge connections between my work and the death of my parents. Unfortunately, she happened to be sitting behind me and my parents when I had my first screening of Stereo. And then she later interviewed me, and said, “Weren’t you really in this film trying to say, ‘Look at me, mom and dad, I can make a film that you can’t understand’?” And I said, “My parents understood that film perfectly well. You’re the one that didn’t understand.” Then, after my father died, she said the death of my father was the theme of all my films, and then when my mother died, her death. It isn’t that simple.
It’s reductive for one thing.
It’s reductive, and also, it ignores the stuff I did when my parents were perfectly healthy, which was also fairly death-obsessed. I mean, you don’t have to have your parents die: you can anticipate your parents dying, you can anticipate your kids dying, and you can anticipate yourself dying — if you have half an imagination and decide to let it go in that direction. You don’t have to have an actual death in your family to traumatize you. In truth, the deaths of both parents had a fairly long lead time. They didn’t come out of the blue to shatter some kind of security I had. I never had that kind of security, in my understanding of the human condition. This was always a given that I couldn’t accept. Let’s put it this way: the death of my parents has sort of confirmed all the bad things that I thought about the world. It just confirmed it. It wasn’t induced by that. They could still be alive and I’d be making exactly the same movies.
Let’s touch on your Jewishness, briefly.
What it is, is simply this: my parents were basically non- to anti-religious. Now, they weren’t non- to anti-Jewish. In fact, my mother, in a mysterious way, taught me a fair amount of Yiddish. And she was absolutely not anybody’s stereotype of a Jewish mother. Yes, she made chicken soup — I have to give her that. She was a second-generation Canadian Jewish girl. One brother was a violinist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and had gone to Germany to be educated, and her other brother had a Ph.D. and taught German. So it was not the normal idea of a thirties and forties Jewish family stereotype.
But as far as religion went, she was in fact more virulently anti-religious than my father. All very quiet, I have to say. They were very sweet and non-vindictive people. But over the years I came to realize she had great disdain and contempt for the religious structures. At a certain point I remember her asking me if I wanted a bar mitzvah. And I asked her what was involved in that. And she said, “Well, you’d have to go to Jewish school.” And I said, “You mean that school that you go to after you come back from regular school.” And she said yeah. So I said forget it. So I didn’t. And from my friends at school I learned what Jewish school was, and what went on there. They’d tell me all these escapades and crazy things. It was completely alien to me. I had no knowledge and no desire to know anything about it.
Were your parents both atheists?
Yeah, they were. The word “atheist” almost suggests you buy the religious system. Beyond atheism, they were simply non-believers. To me, to say you’re an atheist almost suggests theism. You can’t have atheism without theism, and I’d go beyond that. Non-belief. Period. And therefore all the structures that go with it. And this did not mean that my parents had a disdain for Jewish North American culture. They didn’t. Quite the contrary. But it was really totally secular.
So what was celebrated was humanism and science, the rational mind?
That’s right. Maybe with an emphasis on the humanism, because neither parent was anything like a technocrat.
Your father’s newspaper column of thirty years was about stamps. So there was a certain obsessiveness there —
Oh yes. Oh yes. He was a collector, he was a rabid collector. He was a squirrel. He collected anything that was collectable. They didn’t drink, my parents. I think I saw my father slightly drunk, twice, in my entire life, and my mother never. But he collected whiskey bottles! It was the bottles he was collecting, not the whiskey. He had a whole cabinet of bottles and he would show it to people.
It’s a bit like you collecting images of disturbing things, but not the reality.
Well, there’s probably some truth to that: I have my cabinet that I can open and show you, yeah, but I don’t drink.
You may be no more paranoid than the next intellectual, but you’ve said you never thought you’d be put in jail for your Jewishness; you thought you’d be put in jail for your art. Why did you feel you’d be put in jail for your art?
I think I said it’s more likely.
Well, you suggested the possibility.
Yes, yes. Well, because I can see what’s happening in the world. I have been censored, and you just have to have that experience once and you understand what the implications are. If an artist has got anything to sell at all, it’s his antennae, which pick up the most subtle vibes, and from that you make inferences, and you understand the implications of things perhaps better than other people — possibly just because that’s become your field. You deliberately sensitize yourself to things that some people choose not to be sensitive to. Let’s take this century. Salman Rushdie’s situation is the ultimate paranoid situation. Absolute ultimate most perfect artist’s paranoid situation, and it exists. The truth is, it could happen to anybody that performs any art. The idea that some fanatic would hire a sort of universal hit squad to come get you, wherever you are, because of your art, is absolutely perfect. To live in fear and terror, it’s very Kafkaesque, but it’s even beyond Kafka.
I suppose what I was saying in that particular parallel was in response to friends of mine who were ardent Zionists, and who would talk to me for hours about the party line, which was that a Jew cannot possibly feel secure anywhere but Israel. And that’s when I said that the boots at the door, the knocking of the fists on the door, probably would come more because of my art than because I’m Jewish.
I don’t walk around wracked by fear. And I know there are people who are, and more lately than before. Just about our world: you name it, pollution, the ozone layer. I know people who are actually getting ulcers because of this. And whatever paranoia I might have — and I must tell you I don’t think of myself as being particularly paranoid — but whatever paranoia I might have is not giving me ulcers or keeping me up at night.
But it’s my understanding of art as being subversive of civilization. I think it is. And yet, it’s a paradox, because in the Freudian equation civilization is repression. Now I’m simplifying it, but basically, you don’t get civilization without repression of the unconscious, of the id. And the basic appeal of art is to the unconscious. Therefore art is somewhat subversive of civilization. And yet at the same time it seems to be necessary for civilization. You don’t get civilization without art.
It’s a sign you have civilization to begin with. If you go back into a culture, archaeologically, and you see the writing on the wall, so to speak, it’s a sign you’ve got a civilization, as opposed to a bunch of hominids just trying to survive.
That’s right. That’s right. The first moment there is time to do more than just survive, art is created. So it’s a necessity we have, to do it. But it’s a very strange, uneasy alliance between the two, which you constantly see being played out in the corridors of power. On the one hand, politicians want to align themselves with artists of various types; but the instant the art gets a little out of control, or unfocused, or cannot be used for political reasons, then suddenly it becomes an enemy. It becomes a source of hostility or political embarrassment. And whenever you see artists of any kind flirting with politics you get a very strange dissonance happening, and I think that’s just natural, given the nature of the two things.
How do you feel your films are subversive?
Really by suggesting other realities than the ones that are normally accepted as realities. And by insisting on the equal reality of these other states of mind.
There’s a dissenting tradition of criticism of your work which suggests that your films are hardly subversive, but are in fact bulwarks of the conservative order.
There’s only one person who’s ever said that, Robin Wood.
I’ve read a couple of critics who think you are essentially conservative: morally conservative, emotionally conservative.
I think that’s a misreading of what I’m saying. I don’t insist on an image of a brigand, of some sort of outsider, because I don’t live a life like that. But some of the most subversive writers lived very bourgeois lives. One French writer said that to be subversive you must live a bourgeois life, because that’s the perfect disguise. And I’m not in the sixties tradition, looking for chaos and a complete disassembly of society or anything like that —
Though some of these critics obviously wish you were.
Yeah. From that point of view, I guess I’m conservative and that’s all right. I accept that. But to the extent that they’re misreading me, that’s just annoying.
I’ll give you the most classic, straightforward example by Robin Wood, who accuses me of being reactionary, not just conservative: the ending of Shivers, my first feature. All the crazed people, who are infested by venereal parasites that cause them to become quite mad and erotically irresponsible, to say the least — at the end of the film these people go out into the city. And they look very cool and calm and they’re well-disguised, and they’re going out to infect the entire city and perhaps the world.
Wood takes this straight and seriously, as if I am presenting this as a hideous, scary thing, without any redeeming qualities whatsoever. And since he identifies with the crazies as gay, as Marxist, as whatever, he therefore thinks that I’m a reactionary. What he’s totally missing is the humor and the irony, and it’s obvious that everybody who watches the movie on one level identifies with the crazies, and wants to be a crazy. In fact, we were living in that high-rise apartment, and it drove us mad. By the end of the shoot we all were running down the halls naked, and banging on people’s doors and being stoned. So our identification was also with the crazies. I believe that’s in the film. And the thrill of it comes with that, the sort of illicit identification and pleasure you get watching the crazies tearing this stuffy little middle-class place apart. He seems to give no weight to that, or chooses to ignore it for schematic reasons. For me, the ending is a happy ending. It’s scary, and chaotic, but it’s happy: it’s liberating, it’s cathartic. And for him, it’s only reactionary and fearful.
The reading of your work as conservative is hardly limited to that movie.
No, I just wanted to give you the most obvious example. But, on the other hand, in The Brood, where I’m talking about the transmission of destructive neurosis from generation to generation, and I’m making it physical — as a metaphorical reading of it — to pick up that I find it negative, that’s correct. That’s a correct reading of The Brood. But I wonder if Robin really does identify with the little creatures? You’d have to, if those are the radicals and the rebels. They’re an expression of rage. Now, if you’re a Black Panther in the sixties you can say, “We creatures exist as an expression of rage, of our substratum of society, because of the frustrations of being black in our society.” Yes. But I give them their due, as well, in the film. Nola [the woman who gives birth to the “children of her rage”] is a heroic figure. She’s grotesque, but she’s heroic — and her rage is real. I don’t say that her rage is not real. I don’t say it’s reprehensible.
A feminist critique might suggest you’re showing the woman’s anger as dangerous, and ridiculous, and that the film is misogynistic.
If they’re plugged into the movie do they not see what I’m showing: a kind of tragic trap that this girl at the end of the film is in, having to bear the sins of her mother, and not just her mother, but her parents? Is that not realistic? And is it not tragic? I don’t think that this serves to bolster the status quo. I see this stuff transmitting from parent to child, from parent to child, it’s a cycle that seems unbreakable, and should we not break it? That, to me, is not being conservative. I don’t really have much respect for schematic criticism.
The Brood is the closest you’ve come to autobiography. You were in the midst of a divorce and a custody fight for your daughter.
Really, relative to what friends of mine have gone through and what I’ve read about, what I went through was very unspectacular and very straightforward, and relatively civilized. But that was the part that disturbed me: the fact that it was relatively civilized and straightforward. There was not shouting and screaming and yelling and stabbing and shooting, and it still was hideous. Even given that it was relatively Canadian and civilized, it was hideous, and really horrifying to me. Part of it had to do with an ideal of the family which was being ripped apart, and in that, one can detect a kind of heartbreak in something that was hoped for, and anticipated. Definitely, that was there, and I’m sure it had to do with my own family. I was not able to replicate what my family situation was. And I liked what my family situation had been. I thought it was good. I thought it was healthy. I thought it was productive. Whatever strength I have comes very much out of that. So I would have wanted to be able to give that to my own kids, and to the extent that in that case I was failing, it was quite a hideous failure. I’m actually not really very good with guilt. My first response to things is not ever guilt.
Boy, you’re not Jewish.
[Laughs.] Well, that is one of the constructions of North American Jewishness. I’m not so sure they did the same thing in the old country. But you’re right, you’re absolutely right: I had to learn about guilt, people had to teach me. It’s not native to me. I think it undoubtedly had to do with my parents, who did not lay guilt trips, period. They really didn’t. And I don’t think guilt is a natural thing, I think it’s a neurotic thing. It has to be learned; how good you are at guilt depends on how good your teachers are and how early they start on you. Still, I was feeling guilt in this situation.
I mean, where I grew up, the destination signs on the Greyhound buses down at the station all said “GUILT.”
[Laughs.] Did you take the express? This was something I learned from my friends. They had to tell me about it. I didn’t realize until later that guilt was a crippling disease for some people, that some people can never get out from under it. So here I am in a situation feeling that I failed to give my kid the kind of security that I had as a kid. And I did feel guilty about that. And I didn’t like that feeling. So here we come to theory-meets-practice. Now, I don’t know what Robin Wood’s experience of childhood was —
Let’s not let him dominate this interview, please.
No, I’m using him as a metaphor also.
As a whipping boy.
[Deadpan.] I wouldn’t want to give him that pleasure. Actually, he’s a very nice man. Very sweet. The point is, my approach to things tends not to be political. I’m not trying to make a political statement. I’m thinking that politics is like art in that it’s an attempt to make order out of chaos. And in order to do that, like art, it has to simplify and create symbols and metaphors. And I suppose when I’m creating my own art, the imposition of political symbols and structures is always going to be awkward. It’s not going to be a nice, cozy fit. I think art is too complex for politics, but you still have to try politics. And perhaps life is too complex for art, but you have to try art.
Did you want to kill your ex-wife, when you were going through this divorce?
You didn’t have the urge to kill her, or strangle her?
No. But I’m just not violent. That’s not my first impulse.
Let me quote you something you said ten years ago, at the time of The Brood, about the scene where the husband finally strangles his wife to death: “I can’t tell you how satisfying that scene is, I wanted to strangle my ex-wife.”
Yes, of course. Yes. Once again, it’s metaphorical. When people are in favor of censorship, let’s say for feminist reasons as opposed to strictly totalitarian reasons, there’s a confusion of art with life that normally they don’t make but for convenience they choose to make. That is to say, what’s on the screen suddenly is real, and people who see what’s on-screen will imitate that behavior; that images exist out of context, and there should be image police. You get this argument all the time. I never wanted to strangle my ex-wife literally, but at the moments that I chose to blame her for everything that was going on, I would have liked her to disappear. Everybody has that feeling. It’s like saying, “I could’ve killed that guy.”
Well, if you’re in touch with that rage that everyone else is suppressing, why apologize for it?
No, but these days there are people who go to McDonald’s and shoot forty human beings; you have to now be a little careful in insisting upon the metaphorical aspect of this.
Were you uncomfortable making something that was so closely autobiographical?
No, I wasn’t the slightest bit uncomfortable.
Why then did you, after you had the experience, say that you didn’t ever want to get that close again to autobiography?
Because it involved a kind of balancing act that I didn’t think was all that productive. Art as therapy is not something that I think is terrifically worthwhile. The closer you come to its being therapeutic, the less valuable it’s going to be.
Why is that?
Because you have to make choices in your art that eventually have only to do with the art itself. Let me give you an example, which simplifies. You’re doing a scene which is not exactly a scene from a marriage but it’s got some resonances, and suddenly you find you’ve got the impulse to put the exact words someone said, let’s say your ex-wife, into the mouth of your character, despite the fact that those words are pushing your entire scene out of shape. And those words only have cathartic value. They only allow you to continue the argument, on screen. When in fact, another line of dialogue might be more potent for the audience, might be much more cathartic for the audience, given the structure you’ve created. And I found myself that it took a lot longer to make a decent movie out of this. There had to be a cooling off time for the film not to be like a guy wandering down the street muttering to himself and shouting and going over and over these arguments that he’s gone over for years. I don’t think that that’s art. I think there’s an artful mixture, an alchemy, of personal things and schematic things that ends up being something you could call art. If it’s only a replication of life, it’s not much.
If you don’t believe in art as therapy, do you believe in therapy as therapy?
I think it’ s conceivable, yeah. But I don’t think the deepest, most profound Freudian paradigms really work. It would be nice if they did. It’s a wonderful fantasy. I think Freud was a wonderful philosophical writer, but I don’t think he was a great medical writer. I just don’t think the structures work. I don’t think it’s enough to bring certain things to consciousness. What is enough I don’t know. But Freud invented the unconscious — that’s a brilliant invention, which just about everybody in Western culture has bought. And the unfolding of the biblical paradigm, “The child is the father of the man”; it’s true that before Freud, people didn’t take childhood seriously. That was an incredible breakthrough in human consciousness. But in terms of the therapeutic structure, I think people are just too slippery, too perverse. The therapeutic situation immediately becomes perverse. It becomes an arena of personality, or power struggle, and so on. Because the analyst cannot be nothing, cannot be a cipher. And as soon as you get that, you must wonder, why bring another person into this, when you desperately need some objectivity? So that’s why I don’t think it works.
Have you gone through this experience?
Because you’re too balanced and too well adjusted!
That’s right. I mean, I would end up trying to psychoanalyze the therapist.
Parenthetically, did you win your custody fight for your daughter?
Well, it wasn’t even “win.” At a certain point, my ex-wife just signed her over to me and left town. That was really the issue: whether to take her out of Toronto and go live somewhere else; and when she realized it was going to be a court battle and take a long time, she basically signed her over to me and left.
Did your wife change dramatically from the time you fell in love with her and married her to the time you were divorced?
She didn’t mutate or transform?
Her ears didn’t fall off?
No. They might be burning right now, but they didn’t fall off.
Nola, in The Brood, says, “I seem like a very special person in the middle of a strange adventure.”
You can hear that echoed in The Fly.
It occurs to me that that’s, one, what a person in therapy feels, and two, what a director must feel making a movie.
Yes, absolutely. And I’m glad you’ve mentioned that, because that’s one point where Nola is saying something real and more interesting than anybody else in the film is saying. Critics who think I’m making Nola the bad person should really listen to what I give her to say. She’s very similar, in saying that, to Seth Brundle [Jeff Goldblum] in The Fly, who says, “I know what the disease wants.” In other words, you find yourself in a situation that normally you would consider pathological, but now you’re in it, it’s your new reality; are you just going to succumb, to lie down and die, or are you going to try, as humans tend to, to encompass it with your mind and try to make sense of it, something positive out of it? It’s like the people that survived the concentration camps — they somehow had the will to do that. And the ones who didn’t, succumbed. I’m not talking about the physical impossibilities of surviving, but the psychological ones, which were even greater. Yet somehow people managed to do it, by force of will, in absolute defiance of the reality they found themselves in. And I’m really giving Nola the same will I give Seth Brundle. It’s scary, but very human.
I made a joke about you being so well balanced before and —
And I took it completely seriously!
But you indeed have indicated that you are “afflicted” by the curse of balance.
Well, maybe this is what people mean when they say my films are conservative. Theatrically, it’s wonderful to see someone who’s unbalanced. Actors would always prefer to play a villain, because it allows them to express that obsessive craziness which, despite the danger of it, is still rather admired in our culture.
Evil is usually more interesting, cinematically, than good.
But I’m not even thinking in terms of evil. Evil is a whole other thing. The minute you say evil, I think: Christianity. I don’t throw that word around, and it may not be something I even believe in. But let’s say cinematic evil. Okay, I’m willing to go that far. Yeah, it’s more interesting. Because it illuminates things, partly, and partly because it’s cathartic. A villain in a bizarre, twisted way is always a Christlike figure: you know he’s going to die, and he’s dying for your sins, for your rage, for your craziness; he’s doing it for you, so you don’t have to do it.
But your movies never give us an easy evil. They always present both sides of every situation. And it almost leads to a kind of analysis paralysis.
And yet, I don’t think of myself as being particularly indecisive. I mean, even on the set, there are directors who are very indecisive, even though making decisions is the essence of directing — a lot of them, and really fast, thousands every day. But I do think it’s a Canadian thing, this balance. Up to a point it’s a virtue, and beyond that, it’s neurotic.
And beyond that point a “hard-won equilibrium can become a kind of morbid stasis,” as Adrian Tripod of Crimes of the Future says.
Well put. I did wrestle with that in the early days of my career. It came out of an inability to act. I didn’t have access yet to the machinery of my art. There was a huge limbo time where I really wanted to act and could not act. And like the Jewish philosophers in the shtetls — and there is a theory that Jews of Europe became so philosophically adept and so clever and complex because they did not have access to real political machinery — I was in that situation in the beginning of my career. I had a script [Shivers]. I had a company that wanted to make it. And I had to wait three years before I could do it. And there’s a kind of forced paralysis which you fill with philosophy. But I don’t find it in my life now.
I do know people who are so self-obsessed and so self-analytical and so self-critical that they could sit in a room talking to themselves for years, and never allow themselves to act, because they would anticipate the exfoliation, the elaboration of the situation. Anticipating an affair, for example. A simple thing. At university. They would think, I could call her. But then this could happen. I could arrange an accidental meeting, I could bump into her at the cafeteria, but then this could happen. And on and on and on. To the point where no action would ever be taken.
And thus they personify — Canada!
And thus they would, to me. To a certain extent. At its worst, not at its best.
While the United States of America is already contemplating date rape!
[Laughs.] Yes, exactly. That’s right. No, not contemplating — doing it.
Thus the attraction of Canadians to things American, but also the repulsion?
That’s exactly right. It’s definitely a love-hate relationship.
And where do you find yourself in that nexus, as a Canadian filmmaker whose largest audience is American?
Right in the middle. Right in the middle. It’s a very interesting place to be. It’s a Canadian place to be.
Are you a contradictory fellow?
No, I don’t think so.
At one point you said the reason you’re so secure is because you’re so nuts. You’ve described yourself as sweet and warm and personable, but yet you make these diseased, grotesque, disgusting movies. There’s a contradiction. And your character Tripod says of Antoine Rouge that he was “once a fierce sensualist, but is now a pure metaphysician.” I wonder if you have these same sorts of oppositions?
Well, I think they’re all reasonably well integrated in me. This is the reason I don’t think I’m contradictory. From the inside out, my films feel completely like me. And yet I will resist the attempts of people to identify me with characters in the films or attitudes in the films, because I think that’s misunderstanding the nature of art, of narrative art. I don’t feel they’re contradictory, I feel quite well integrated.
I’m aware there are apparent contradictions, like the well-known Marty Scorsese thing: after I met him, he said in an interview that he had been terrified to meet me, though he had wanted to meet me. This is the guy who made Taxi Driver and he’s afraid to meet me! This is a guy who knows from the inside out that there’s a complex relationship between someone who makes films and his films. But he still was taking the films at face value and equating me with them, and the craziness he saw in the films, and the disturbing things he saw in the films, he felt would be the essence of me as a person. And so he was amazed to meet a guy who, as he later said, “looked like a Beverly Hills gynecologist.” And I was not anything like he thought I was going to be.
So I guess we can forgive critics who have never made a film for making the same mistake. And this is not a real contradiction, but just a humorous social contradiction. I feel very integrated with my films and my life.
Let’s turn to the horror genre, which is where you and your films come from, if it’s not in fact where you’re going. At one point you described your project as a director as “making mental things physical.” I would hazard that if we add a comma — “making mental, things physical” — then we would get a better idea of both sides of your equation. Is this as front and center in your consciousness as it was ten years ago?
Well, I’ve been thinking about the problem of the literary cinema, which is: how do you make a metaphor on screen? But it’s the same discussion, really. You have to do it physically somehow. Eisenstein tried to do the literal thing. You know, the crowd roared like a lion. Here’s a shot of the crowd, then cut to the lion roaring. And it was laughable and it didn’t work and no one ever used it again. The attempt to literally do metaphor on screen did not work, and has not become part of the language of cinema, whereas it still works beautifully in literature. You’re not talking about symbolism, you’re talking about making a metaphor. The answer is that you have to make it physical, on screen, without being literal, and that’s a trick. It’s the same problem your quote addresses, a problem of communication.
You’ve said that all horror springs from the Latin phrase “Timor mortis conturbat mea,” The fear of death disturbs me. Was there any way for you to resolve your fear of death other than making movies about it, or have you not resolved it, even with the movies?
I don’t know if it’s really resolvable for me, but we’ll see. I think it would have to be through art, and I think in one sense that is what all art is. I don’t mean to be reductive, but I don’t think that’s so reductive, because the question of death is not a simple question. It’s not just fear of death, it’s meaning of life — it’s the same question. Is there a meaning to life? If you’re religious, you talk about what God might be like, what the nature of God is. The question of human mortality is not a simple question.
Are you positing “art against death”?
I’m positing art as a means of coming to terms with death. Yes. I guess I’m putting art in opposition to religion, or as a replacement for religion, in the sense that if religion is used to allow you to come to terms with death, and also to guide you in how to live your life, then I think that art can do the same thing. But in a much less schematic way, in a much less rigid and absolute way, which is why it appeals to me and religion doesn’t.
You once said, “I don’t think it’s the purpose of art to tell us how we should live.” Maybe you were talking about how we should vote?
That’s what I was talking about.
Because on a deeper level it seems that is exactly what art does address: how should we live?
Yes, it does. There I was reacting to an attack on me and other makers of horror films, really. It was my attempt to say, “My films are beyond politics,” when other people were saying, “Nothing is beyond politics.” I’m saying, “No, no, there are a lot of things that are beyond politics.” Yes, teaching us how to live — it’s not the way to live, but it’s teaching us how we can go on living. That’s what I’m talking about. You’re right; there I was talking about how we should vote and how we should organize society — no, that’s not the purpose of art.
You don’t feel that art’s just a reflexive mirror? I’ve not gotten that sense from your work.
No, no I don’t. No, it’s not nearly that passive.
Speaking of your horror, more specifically, it’s never been a situational horror (the-man-in-the-basement-with-the-knife) as much as an existential, philosophical horror. Where does that come from?
I really think it comes from what I need art for. I don’t need the story around the campfire; there’s a couple of great campfire-type horror stories. But they are basically the-man-in-the-basement-with-the-knife. To the extent that that can be cathartic and entertaining, fine. But it’s not enough for me. I want, I need more from what I do: I need more complexity, I need more philosophy, and I need more of a struggle in my art than that. More of a struggle with myself.
I think there are levels of filmmaking, just as there are levels of novel-writing. We know the difference between Elmore Leonard and Saul Bellow. There’s a big difference.
Yeah, Elmore Leonard writes more convincing dialogue.
I’m not all that sure, actually. It depends. You put an Elmore Leonard character in a Saul Bellow novel, I’m not sure he’d be that convincing. But that’s why my films are immediately more complex, even from the very beginning, when I didn’t have the technical know-how to make them work wonderfully and I didn’t have the money or the structure. I was still trying a lot of difficult things, often in dialogue, because even if you can’t move the things around physically and cinematically the way you hope you one day will, you can still have the dialogue. The characters can still be complex.
Didn’t you think at one point that dialogue was your weakness? That your scenarios and structures were strong, but that your dialogue wasn’t convincing?
No. I tell you exactly what it was. I think I’m really good with dialogue. I think it’s obvious in my last few films that I’m really quite okay directing actors; more than that, I’d say. But it was quite straightforward: when we started to make Shivers we had this discussion. We said, look, this movie has got a lot of effects, and they take a lot of time and we don’t have a lot of time — we have fifteen days to make the entire movie — so the scenes where people just talk you have ten minutes to shoot. So that is exactly what happened.
Then, of course, there are the B-movie obsessives who love the dialogue to be bad. They love Plan X from Outer Space. And they would project that onto my films even when it was quite obvious that the films had gone to a different place. They want the acting to be bad. They have great affection for that. They don’t want Gregory Peck to be in The Omen. So I suffered, not greatly, from that, because people were not looking at the movies. They were not seeing that Oliver Reed [Dr. Raglan] was quite interesting and that Samantha Eggar [Nola Carveth] was actually quite terrific in The Brood. They’d rather not know that. And they’d rather concentrate on the small character role that maybe wasn’t so great because you didn’t have the time.
Dialogue was always important to me. It was extremely important. Have I gotten better at writing and directing it? Yeah, I hope so. The words are important. And this comes from my writing. I have an ear for it. You either have it or you don’t, it’s like music: you’re tone-deaf or you’re not tone-deaf. And there are some directors who are tone-deaf; they have to depend on the actors or somebody else to tell them whether it’s in tune or not. I think I’ve always had that ear. It’s just that I haven’t always been able to do anything about it because of the circumstances of making a movie.
Let’s go back to “timor mortis.” Are you terribly afraid of your own dying?
I don’t think more so than most people. But I’m willing to discuss it with myself more than most people. And earlier than most people. I think it’s something that everybody thinks about and anticipates. You can’t help but do that. But I think most people basically repress the whole concept of it. Certainly in Western culture. There are other cultures where death is more integrated, but not in the West.
I think my consideration of death shows my philosophical bent, rather than something neurotic. I’m saying, “Well, okay, here we go again: death? Now, what about death? Well, we’ve all got to die.” Now, physically that makes sense. You look at the cycles of nature and evolution, and you say, of course, individuals of a species have to die, and it happens in the insect world viciously and without the slightest bit of remorse on nature’s part. But here we are with this consciousness, with this awareness of death, that no other creature has — probably in the universe.
We’re not sure. Some scientists think elephants may have consciousness of death.
I don’t think they do. We’re projecting, quite frankly. I’m not saying animals don’t have affection and fear and neurosis and all that, they do. But I really think it’s something else. I’m not saying that an elephant seeing a dead body of another elephant is not perplexed and disturbed because they expect movement and motion and some kind of response and they’re not getting it. That’s still not understanding that you too, elephant, Babar, are going to die. I don’t think they come to that inevitability, I don’t think they have that in their heads.
We don’t know what most animals really have in their heads. We’re looking from the outside in.
Absolutely. Experientially, that’s true. But one of the things we can do is project ourselves into other creatures, and I feel pretty confident that elephants don’t know they’re going to die. I really do. Part of the thing is language. You need to be able to manipulate abstract thoughts and communicate them.
You need language for thought?
You need language for thought. And you need language to anticipate death.
No thought without language?
No abstract thought without language. And no anticipation. I do think the anticipation of death without language would be impossible. Maybe that’s another reason why language in my films is important. Even silent films had language. I don’t think of film as being a specifically visual medium at all. I just think that’s one of many elements that you’ve got. Language has always been important to me. So I think, “Well, death? What about death?” And it’s not necessarily always out of fear of my own mortality at all. But it’s very difficult to imagine one’s own nonexistence. And it’s been so recent that I didn’t exist! Only forty-nine years.
Have you been close to nonexisting again?
No, not anywhere near it.
Even in your car racing?
Never. You really exist a lot when you race cars.
Never a time when you thought “I might die right here”?
Oh, yeah. But I didn’t. When you say, “I might die right here,” the instant you say I you are very far from nonexistence. Normally, I say, “This is going to hurt,” or, “This is going to cost a lot of money,” and not usually, “This is going to kill me.” Really the closest to nonexistence is before you’re born, and it’s very hard to put yourself in that state. And it’s kind of an unacceptable thing, even though you know it’s perfectly acceptable to the universe and to the structure of the world. It’s more than acceptable, it’s inevitable. That’s the conundrum. I think nonexistence is a difficult one.
If there’s a horror in confronting the inevitability of death — and we all carry our little mini horror film around with us in the shape of our own deaths — wouldn’t eternal life be an even greater horror?
Oh, yeah. There’s no way out, that’s one of the problems. No one really wants to live forever, not really. But on a theoretical level, by apposition, you don’t want to die, so you really are saying you want to live forever — even though you know that’s not going to work.
Now, the other thing is that I’ve had moments where the inevitability of death is an absolute strength, it’s an escape, it’s a freedom. And certainly for people who find themselves in a hideous situation, like the concentration camps, there’s a point where death is truly a release. So the idea that death is merciful, that’s not only a schematic concept to me, I can feel it as an emotional reality as well.
At the beginning of Naked Lunch is the quote: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” Although I don’t think it was originally conceived by Hassan I. Sabbah as an existentialist statement, in a way it is. It’s saying, because death is inevitable, we are free to invent our own reality. We are part of a culture, we are part of an ethical and moral system, but all we have to do is take one step outside it, and we see that nope of that is absolute. Nothing is true. It’s not an absolute. It’s only a human construct, very definitely able to change and susceptible to rethinking. And you can then be free. Free to be unethical, immoral, out of society, an agent of some other power, never belonging.
Ultimately, if you are an existentialist and you don’t believe in God and the judgment after death, then you can do anything you want: you can kill if you want to kill, you can do whatever society considers the most taboo thing.
The Dead Zone ends essentially with a suicide; Max Renn kills himself at the end of Videodrome; Brundlefly at the end of The Fly asks for a mercy killing, and the Mantle twins end Dead Ringers with what is basically a double suicide. Your last four pictures all end with suicide, so it’s obviously something you’ve given a lot of thought to.
Yeah. It’s probably the only way we can give our death a meaning. Because otherwise it’s completely arbitrary. It comes because of some small bodily malfunction or some accident — a safe falls on your head. You’re Krazy Kat and a safe falls on your head. And it doesn’t mean anything! It means fuck-all! And so you say, I don’t like this. I don’t like the fact that death, which is a pretty important moment in my life, I don’t like this to have no meaning. The only way you can do anything about that is to control the moment and the means of your death. And that means suicide, basically.
In opposition to this you have a built-in, genetically programmed desire to survive and stay alive at all costs no matter how hideous the circumstances. To survive and to live no matter what. In the West, suicide is basically considered a cowardly thing that comes out of despair or hopelessness, and is something you should have therapy or take pills for, so you won’t do it. I think I’ve had to find my own way through that. I knew some people who committed suicide in my youth, and I didn’t think those were right suicides. Now I’m beginning to wonder. I thought, like everybody else, that these were some kind of tragedy that came out of neurosis, or imbalance, or craziness, or drugs; and now I think it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
I was shocked when Hemingway committed suicide, because he obviously could have lived a lot longer. But his very Hemingwayesque statement that all that mattered to him was fucking and writing and hunting and fishing, and that he couldn’t do any of them worth a damn anymore, so why be alive? — as you get older you say, he has a point, he really does. If your life has meaning, then it can also cease to have meaning. And if you’re still alive after that point, what are you? And I also believe that the only meaning that there is in the universe comes from the human brain. I don’t think that there is a God, or that there is an external system of meaning out there that exists apart from human beings. So, from that point of view, it’s even more cogent, the possibility that suicide is an elegant and properly structured way out of life — that it could be, anyway. And whether I could ever do that, under certain circumstances, or could overcome the will to be alive, which is strong, I don’t know.
But doing the kind of thing that I can’t help doing, when I heard that Hemingway had died, I became Hemingway. I imagined him taking the shotgun, I imagined him the way he did it, and the feel. Did the barrel clink on his teeth? How did it feel? I tried to imagine the moment of death. Whenever I read about a suicide I do that. And, in a sense, whenever I’m having a character in my films die, I’m rehearsing my own death. I truly believe it. It’s trying things out, saying, “Well, how would it feel under these circumstances, to do this? In what way?” If somebody dies, if somebody commits suicide, the first think I always think is: how? People say, well what does it matter? And I say, no, it really does matter, especially in a suicide. It says a lot of things about what was going on in the person at the time.
It’s also socially coded: men choose more violent means, women choose more passive means.
But that’s statistics. It’s also a body thing. Die young and leave a beautiful corpse.
That kind of vanity is encoded for women, too.
Yes, they don’t want to mess their hair, which putting a shotgun in your mouth and pulling the trigger definitely will do. It’ll mess your hair. Now, if you’ve already gone bald, maybe you want to mess up your head a bit. I think it says a lot of things. See, my first impulse is not to do what you did, which is to think of it statistically. I don’t think of it as why women do this, why men do that — I think of a specific moment. Everybody knows Sylvia Plath — she made breakfast for her kids first, that’s stunning. She’s more known for her death than her poetry. That’s the first thing: I’m seeing that apartment, I’m seeing that room, I’m seeing the breakfast. I want to know what she made, was it her kids’ favorite thing? I’m looking for the meaning there, not because it’s morbid.
You and your work are pretty obsessed with the nature of control. It’s interesting that you used the word “control” to talk about suicide. I think your work suggests that almost none of us is in control, even when he think we’re in control; and what’s present is the illusion, or perhaps more discouragingly, the delusion, of control.
I think it’s true. In all of my films there is some type of discussion, whether it’s subliminal or up front, of free will versus predestination. Whether it’s religious predestination or genetic predestination doesn’t really matter. It’s that the feeling of free will is so palpable and so tangible, and yet the evidence against the real existence of free will is quite compelling. How do you juggle these two things?
As a director, I know that control is a delusion. I mean, it’s an illusion and a delusion. Orson Welles said that a director is “someone who presides over a series of accidents.” I live that. And yet, you can see, there’s a director who’s really got no control, and here’s a director who really has a lot of control.
Isn’t it disingenuous for you to suggest that you’re presiding over these “accidents,” when in fact what the director is doing is taking the chaos that exists in the world and creating, on the table that is his movie, an orderly miniature?
Yeah, but you see, you become very aware, when you focus on the table, that you can’t control it. That the phenomenological world is not controllable. It’s a focusing down, and an abstracting, out of the chaos, some things; but you’re not really abstracting order out of it. And it’s true on the set. It always pleases me when there are people who have been on the set, and read the script, and they still don’t know what the movie is. They still have no idea what’s on the screen — even when they look at the monitors. Because they are not really able to abstract that rectangle of film out of the chaos. And you as a director, that’s all you’re there for. That’s your only function on the set.
Don’t you need that rectangle of control in contradistinction to how messy this non-rectangle is, out this window of your office? Isn’t that part of your desire?
But you see, I am the same as a writer, who is trying to control chaos with words, and knows that still it’s only words. And to me that rectangle begins with real things. Here’s a real actor, a human being, and he’s drinking this real cup of coffee, which someone had to go and get, and decide that it would be this shape and color, and would the coffee be steaming or not, and is it going to be hot, and is the actor going to play out of it being hot, or is he going to ignore that? It’s real.
But by the time it’s on-screen it’s no longer real, it’s as abstract as words are. And I’m aware that the reality of it is mitigated totally by the cultural structures that are necessary for it to have meaning; just as words have no meaning unless you have language, and you have a culture behind that language, and a history behind the culture behind the language. And that can shift, and disappear, and the language that you are using can disappear. Well, I feel the same way about the film. The film can disappear, the frame can disappear, the meaning of the frame can disappear. It’s very volatile, it’s very fragile and ephemeral. Anybody who’s writing has to know that, and ignore it nonetheless, because you’d drive yourself mad, and it would lead to paralysis if you obsessed about it. It’s an illusion to think it’s any different for the filmmaker just because he gets physical things to play with and the writer doesn’t.
But the process is different. The process of a writer sitting at a typewriter or computer writing a sestina involves control only of his own mind and the words; the process of you making a $20 million film involves an inordinate amount of control, over even your artificially constructed reality.
However, however, if you think about it . . . it’s true you’re forced to interface with your society a lot more. You can’t be as reclusive, being a filmmaker. You’re forced to be a social animal. Because you have to deal with the economy of the times and the finance of the times and the banks, and you have to deal with the logistics, and the unions, and the politics of the unions, and so on and so on. And all of that is no more than a writer learning how to use his computer or his typewriter, and to learn the language, and having to hone his sensitivity to language, and having to learn the form of the novel or the sonnet, and understand its history, and understand where we are now in its history, for your novel to actually make sense and be relevant. It’s easier to ignore the enormous amount of work and patterning and growth and awareness that goes into writing, because you see the guy and he’s sitting alone in a room, and it’s not much. Compared to a guy on the set with all this stuff. But I tell you, at bottom, it’s the same act. The same act. An abstract act that only has meaning and force because of the circumstances of the times, and those circumstances can shift so quickly as to make everything you’ve written completely irrelevant, or inaccessible.
And yet, you’ve indicated that when you write you want to put aside the whole idea of the time in which you live, that you want the vacuum.
In a certain sense. You can’t create art in a vacuum. There’s no such thing. But once again, I think I was speaking in response to people who were trying to suggest that relevant filmmaking, filmmaking that meant something, that had power, had to be bound up in the politics of the time. And I’m saying that that is a peripheral thing, that there are things you can deal with that are more universal than that, more basic than that. But the peripheries of the art are very much bound up in the culture.
Where does your need come from? We’re talking about the need to do this — the need for that rectangle. What’s the genesis of your need? You once said that film is not something you’re “doing to” the audience, but something that has been “done to” you, which you feel the need to share.
Well, it’s a classic need. It’s the need to communicate and to involve other people in your experiences and to share them. I think everybody does it. Children do it. Children insist; it’s an innate thing for children to insist that you be involved in their experience. Children refuse to exist in a vacuum, and if they’re forced to, then it becomes a totally pathological situation. And why should that be in human beings, and not be in the case of, let’s not say elephants, but maybe mole crickets or beetles? Why do beetles not seem to need to involve other beetles in their experiences?
To find the common ground but also to convey the uniqueness of our experiences, as well. We do that all the time. And when you want to do that to an extent that goes beyond your immediate social circle, then it becomes art. And certainly everybody on TV on a talk show is doing it.
Why do you think we need that? Does it come out of the insecurity of consciousness?
[Pause.] That’s a big question. That’s central to the impulse to make art, and yet it’s universal. I think it’s partly to confirm your own existence as an individual, and at the same time, to confirm your existence as part of a whole. The two, at once. It’s a bit of a paradox. And I don’t think all species do that. I think we’re quite unique, in that we insist on our individuality and at the same time insist on our community. It would be very easy if you only needed to confirm your individuality. But part of it is to transcend yourself as an individual. And I wouldn’t necessarily say that that is immediately an attempt to become immortal, but I think there is a lot of that in art.
There is an awareness in your work of what I would call “the horror of sharing.” Brundle in The Fly is very wrapped up in trying to get Veronica [Geena Davis] to share his experience. If she doesn’t “go through” it’s less of an experience for him. He needs her to confirm what he’s done, and of course, we’ve all been through that in relationships. For the Mantle twins in Dead Ringers, it’s writ large, more obviously, that one doesn’t even have an experience unless the other shares it. It’s almost a fascism of sharing, where the absorptive ego goes out and needs to bring the other into its world. And we could even say for John Smith [Christopher Walken] in The Dead Zone that his sharing of others’ experiences, in a way, in the future, present, or past, is a kind of terrifying thing, a very unpleasant thing. So while we tend to put “sharing” on a very high order of human experience — it’s good, like a white Christmas or the family gathered together around the dinner table for Thanksgiving, sharing is good — there’s a dark side to it, too.
Yeah, there’s a real paradox. It’s a very ambivalent situation. Because the situations we’re talking about are forced sharing. And as an artist, who does not want to be forced to share, myself, to me it’s like totalitarianism, which is a forced sharing of ideals — whether you want to or not!
Like emotional proselytizing.
Yes. Yes. So, what do you do when everybody has the impulse to share?
You have writers’ colonies.
That’s right, you have writers’ colonies where they don’t want to read anybody else’s work [laughing] but they have to read their own, to everybody. And everybody has to listen to everybody.
But I suppose that’s the gropings of the beginning of an understanding of the individual in society — that’s a theme in a lot of the stuff that I’m doing. It’s an uneasy relationship that one has, which mirrors the relationship of an artist to his civilization. Somehow, they’re both necessary, but it’s not necessarily an easy or obvious symbiotic relationship. Because, I think, people have the need to transcend themselves, and that’s why they attach themselves to the Blue Jays ball team on one level. They feel they are a part of something greater. And it can be quite aggressive and scary when it’s in some militant religion, where the desire to immerse your individuality, to annihilate it in favor of the huger part, becomes quite aggressive and destructive. And yet the desire to transcend oneself seems to be as innate as the desire to insist on your individuality. It’s a conundrum. It’s strange. Beetles don’t have to deal with it.
Do you buy artists’ — painters, filmmakers, whoever — saying that what they are doing they are basically doing for themselves, because they want to see it. Obviously, a filmmaker needs an audience more than a painter does in a garret, but do you buy this at all?
No, not at all. I think it’s just a rationalization, because of whatever failure or your fear that you’ll be rejected. But in fact, you desperately, you desperately want an audience. My films don’t exist without an audience. They absolutely do not exist without an audience. They might as well never have been made. If I no longer had an audience, in film, for whatever reason, and I decided that I would write novels, for example, I would still be writing for an audience. And the fact that the audience never appeared, never materialized, never connected, would be a failure of that process. It would be an interruption, it would be a perversion of that process. You’ve got to have the audience.
You might have it in a hundred years —
You might, and like Kafka, you might not know your audience. But I mean, Kafka also desperately wanted an audience. He was also terrified of it. He was terrified that he was no good, that he was a failure, and that the audience would materialize and laugh at him, or not understand him. It didn’t mean that what he desperately wanted wasn’t an audience that loved him and understood him. That’s what he wanted. And that’s what he got, without knowing it. I often wonder what he would think —
Kafka, soon a major motion picture!
Soon a major philosophical excursion! I mean, the word “Kafkaesque” is a word that has a very specific meaning.
Well, some of the more academic critics have already coined “Cronenbergian.”
I think it was a toss-up between Cronenbergesque and Cronenbergian. Cronenbourgeois.
That’s very good.
Before we stop for the day, I want to go back to something you’ve touched on a number of times: the issue of catharsis. You routinely insist on catharsis in your films as a benefit and as a raison d’être for horror as a genre, and yet I’ve rarely consumed an artist’s work that leaves me feeling less catharsis than yours.
Yeah. Yeah. Well, it’s the catharsis of the ambivalent. Maybe that’s what I’m selling to you here. If you’re simplistic, or your work is simplistic, or you choose to make it simple, then there can be a simple catharsis; and you get that in soap operas, you get it in the traditional comedy, where things are tied up in the end, and everything feels all right after you’ve gone through some perilous moments. And maybe the catharsis in my films is more complex, in that it is my reconfirming that things are not simple, not easily — perhaps not ever — resolvable. When I need a book, when I need a particular kind of book, I don’t want a book in which everything is sweet and neat and nice. What book do you take to the island with you? What really consoles you? Is it something that tells you everything is all right? Is that really consolation? I feel that it’s not.
But it seems like one could provide the intellectual ramifications of doubt, which your work does, and still provide the audience more release and recovery than your work does.
This sounds like trout fishing. [Laughs.] Catch and release! It’s that whole trout fishing thing, where you don’t keep the fish anymore. You catch them, say “Hi!” and throw them back.
You’ve caught them in the theatre — your audience as trout!
And maybe I don’t want to let them go. Maybe catharsis is, literally, letting them off the hook too easily!
I’m not insisting that catharsis is the be-all and end-all, I’m just pointing out that it’s a mechanism that seems to be there. And obviously, it can vary hugely from work to work. But certainly, when you begin to mix your blood with the characters’ in the film, or if it’s a scary film and you’re mixing your own anxieties with the anxieties that are being played out in the film, the catharsis does not purge, it makes clear. I suppose my version of it is not totally classical. It’s like the frame isolating things out of the chaos on the set. It’s sort of saying, “For the moment we’re going to concentrate on this. I’m not saying this is the whole world, but for the next two hours it’s going to be your world, it’s going to be our world together, we’re really going to dive in deep, and we’re going to explore all the aspects of it.” To me, that is cathartic, right there. It doesn’t have anything to do with whether there is a happy ending, or a solution, or anything else.
Your work is certainly less classically cathartic than, let’s say, a filmmaker like Oliver Stone’s, to make maybe the boldest, capital letter example: Platoon, where at the end of the film, if it works, there’s a wash of emotion — you’ve really bathed in that bath of feelings.
[Laughs.] Are you trying to say that his films are bathetic?
Or you may be very upset in Born on the Fourth of July that Tom Cruise has a terrible experience in the VA hospital, but by the end, you’ve recovered, because in the grand —
Well, that’s because Oliver Stone is afraid to say the truth. That’s really my feeling. For all the shouting and screaming, he’s still not quite able to deliver the final blow, which is that he had these horrible experiences in the VA hospital and it didn’t mean anything. And it didn’t have to happen. And it really has fucked the guy’s life, and nothing can be done about it. That’s the truth. That’s the truth that maybe is not speakable for Oliver Stone, I don’t know. It’s a hard truth. And the truth does not really lend itself to the dramatic structures that are immediately available to the Hollywood filmmaker. I’m not saying absolute truth, because I don’t think there is absolute truth, but in the particular construct you are dealing with for these two hours, there can be relative truths that mean something.
To the extent that you are a Hollywood filmmaker, you have to buy the several suits that are on the rack. And you have to expand or contract to fit them. And it’s very rare that it allows you to tell the truth. Because the Hollywood structures, the forms, were never created for the truth — that’s never what they were there for. And so you have to work in a different form. I mean, Oliver Stone — why pick him?
Well, let’s take even David Lynch, who falls back into an ironic stance when confronted with this structure. The other brilliant movie of 1986, in addition to The Fly, of course, was Blue Velvet. At the end, you have the insect in the robin’s beak and you have the happy ending. Now, Lynch pay be putting quotes around it in a postmodern way, and he may be teasing you with the resolution, and yet, you get resolution. Whereas in a Cronenberg movie, the bird and the insect are still far apart at the end and we are hovering between them, and you want us hovering, it seems.
Well, when Brundle is shot, is killed, in The Fly, to me that’s a cathartic moment emotionally. It’s a release, it’s a release from his pain and his agony. It’s not a classic cathartic moment because there is no regeneration. I suppose in classic Shakespearean tragedy, you can kill any number of people hideously, but there’s always some sense that society goes on, life goes on, something good will come of Hamlet’s death, ultimately. And I’m not giving you that. Although I must say, in Blue Velvet, the quotes are so huge, and the bird is such an obvious stuffed bird, that you do feel that the classic structure is definitely being mocked.
Mocked and loved in sort of a strange way.
That’s right. There’s a qualification on it.
Whereas Lynch leaves us with the happy couple, you leave us with Veronica weeping and her ex-lover with his foot and hand eaten away by acid, which may be the best catharsis you can manage. I think it’s catharsis for you as a filmmaker —
— But I think there’s a key distinction between what’s cathartic for you, unveiling these fantasies, and what’s cathartic for your audience.
Yeah, well, as I suppose I’m insisting on my version of optimism, I’m also insisting on my version of catharsis. It’s saying, this is as bad as it is, and if we are to have optimism, we have to be very tough, we have to be very tough in our understanding of what reality is, and what life’s possibilities are, and we have to create our optimism out of that. Because if we create it out of pie-in-the-sky, if we create it out of some willed delusion, then it also is a delusion.
I suppose I’m really trying to get through the fog to the reality. It’s like tearing aside a veil to see what Moby Dick really is. And I’m kind of being ruthless with myself and with the audience, to get to that. See, I don’t think my films are pessimistic, but they’re insisting on redefining what optimism is, I suppose. I think too often optimism is an invention, it’s a fantasy.
And the function of that fantasy is?
I think avoidance of pain more than anything else. But it’s a complex pain. It’s not physical, it’s many kinds of pain. It’s almost a cultural pain. It’s a question of expectations that we think are innate, but I don’t think are innate. Expectations of what life is and can be and should be are very delusory in the West. I don’t know if they are any better in the East.
Has someone sold us this?
I think we developed it ourselves. See, one of the reasons I’m not a true paranoid is because I think there is an optimism built into paranoia. See, if you’re a wonderful paranoid, you believe that someone is in control, and to me that’s optimistic. You think that someone somewhere has figured it out, has managed to control it, and has a vision of how things should be. To me, that’s optimistic. So I’m not even allowing myself the optimism of paranoia. When the crazy fascists talk about the Zionist conspiracy, and talk about how the Jews control the world and all the money and that they’re all rich, I say, “Where is this conspiracy? I’m Jewish, why haven’t they contacted me?”
Ah, but David, you own the means of production of images. There are ways to see these things, you know.
Well, I want control and I want the abdication of control at the same time. It’s a difficult trick. And one of the ways I do it is by not working within the accepted forms. The instant you want to invent your own forms, you are immediately abdicating some control and at the same time gaining control, because within these new forms you can do other things that no one has done before. But at the same time they’re not as easily absorbed and accepted. It’s funny. If you say, “I want to be a mainstream, Hollywood director,” you’ll get a lot more people seeing your movies, and responding to what you do, but you’re much more limited in what you can do. It’s a dilemma.
And I’m already balancing on a strange tightrope. I went to Rotterdam, where they did a retrospective of my films. It was very interesting. To them, I’m a total sell-out Hollywood mainstream moviemaker, because they show Chilean underground films, beyond art films, films seen by five people at most.
Things that would make Stereo look like It’s a Wonderful Life. Yeah, exactly. Although that is a very strange movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. You know, two hours of torture for one minute of catharsis. I’m not sure it’s a trade-off. People who think it’s a wonderful, warm comedy, I don’t know what they’re seeing.
It’s a vicious movie.
It’s fucking vicious! And it betrays a mind that really is, I think, misanthropic. That truly is misanthropic. That’s been more critical of human beings and America than almost all of William Burroughs, in a way. It’s just so nasty. And what a weird approach most people have: what a wonderful Christmas picture!
See, it’s the payoff. We go back to catharsis, because if you didn’t have that —
If you didn’t have that, you’d see the movie as it really was. That’s a fake! That’s a fake! The movie’s not a fake, but the ending is a fake.
Anyway, in Rotterdam it’s very interesting. Here, I’m considered marginal, by Hollywood in particular. Marginal, but somehow I’m allowed to plug into it a little bit. There, I’m completely Hollywood! It was a big scandal — there was derision and laughter and disbelief when it was announced that the subject of that year’s retrospective was Cronenberg’s films. To them, my films are traditional narrative films; they are big-budget; they are distributed by major studios; they are reviewed by normal newspapers. Most of the films that they dealt with were only shown at obscure festivals.
And it makes me realize in no uncertain terms that I am walking a very strange tightrope, a very fine line, in my filmmaking. Because I want it all, really. I want a huge audience. I want to be able to use the machinery of Hollywood to distribute my films and even make the films, but I don’t want to accept the Hollywood forms. I don’t want to work within those forms, because they’re just too restrictive.
You’re still willing to accept beginning, middle, and end: traditional narrative structure.
Yeah, but I don’t find that to be an acceptance of something from outside. I like that. I actually think that narrative . . . I remember when color first came out.
[Looking out the window, at the swirling snow.] I would imagine that color would have been a good thing to you, growing up in Toronto!
Well, you weren’t here in the summer, it was great. But Bergman didn’t want to use color at first. He didn’t trust that he could control the color, and he wasn’t sure of how he would use it. And Kubrick, he still has not made a stereo film, you realize that? He distrusts stereo, still. And in the early days, people mourned the death of the silent film because that was the “pure” film form. And part of the reason was that when you had to keep cameras quiet for sound, it made films rather static — they had to build big booths for them — but it wasn’t innate in sound. And as the French critic André Bazin said, and it was considered very heretical at the time, film was always waiting for sound, it was never a complete form until sound. And you could say the same thing about color. It was never a complete form until color.
For me, narrative is the same. I love narrative. I think narrative is an additional arrow in your quiver. You can use it to turn back on itself, to illuminate things, to engage questions. So not doing narrative, to me, is not necessarily good. I don’t feel trapped by narrative. The narrative of Naked Lunch is pretty strange by Hollywood standards, although it’s narrative compared to the book.
And you tend to end your narratives with ellipses . . . instead of with periods.
Because it’s turning back. I see it as cyclical and turning back on itself and re-reflecting. So I would give up narrative reluctantly. Now, you can approach film strictly as an artist in the sense of painting and sculpture, the way Michael Snow does, that it’s rhythms and it’s time and it’s musical, and it’s completely non-narrative. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for me, that’s not a necessity of freedom, whereas with the Hollywood forms, it is necessary to abandon those if you’re really going to have freedom. But narrative is not one of those things I would abandon. There are many versions of narrative.
And some have argued that simply because one page follows another, and one frame of film follows another, you have the insistence of narrative —
Yes, in time, you definitely have a sequence in time. You can say the film has to be linear — all films — because it has a beginning, middle, and end, even if it starts at second one, and ends at second thirty, and second fifteen is in the middle. There is some truth to that, in that it plays through time.
Now, video is interesting because it allows film to be more like literature. Because the audience — I would say consumer but it has bad connotations — can control it. The audience for video has more control over the image and therefore can be more involved.
And less involved, as well, than in a theatre.
Well, I wonder.
The phone rings, the sun sets outside, the kids come in —
But I see that as more involved, not less.
Because in a cinema you are abstracting yourself from your daily life to have this special moment, this sacrament. And people can get very excited about that and mourn its passing, as it does seem to be passing. But the very fact that you have abstracted yourself from your everyday life means you have disinvolved yourself, the process, from your life. The fact that you listen to music while you’re doing a bunch of other things means the music can work itself into the nooks and crannies and crevices of your life.
It may mean that you’re not really listening to it either, though it may appeal to your unconscious in some ways.
But maybe that’s the best way for it to appeal.
It could — if you want someone to watch your film and miss whole chunks of dialogue. Over the last month and a half, I’ve seen everything you’ve done, twice, on videocassette at home, and while it’s nice to be able to start and stop, and go back, and watch the head explode in Scanners in stop-frame, which is really quite beautiful —
Yeah, it is.
— It’s like Kubrick’s atomic bombs exploding at the end of Strangelove, but I would still rather go to a cinema and sit in the dark and have the image projected large and fill my vision, and not be interrupted by the phone or the Federal Express guy, because I want to be more involved, not less. I don’t think it’s removing yourself from your daily life to go to the theatre; I think it’s like ritual. When you stop crushing millet because you’re going to form a circle with your other tribesmen to engage in a dance, it’s not that the dance is not a part of your daily life and your daily life is only crushing the millet — it’s because this is the time for ritual.
Yes. But nobody ever reads a book like that. Nobody ever reads a book like the way we go to cinema.
Right! And part of the power of cinema is that the audience does not have the control over time that it does in literature. In literature, we can stop, skip, back up a page, whereas cinema is something that is “done to us.” Which leads to some people’s suspicions about the passive consumer of images . . .
But video, once again, you can speed through the parts that don’t interest you and hook up with the parts that do. Which is like rereading your favorite passages and scenes in a book, or skipping a chapter if you find it boring. It’s really a toss-up, I think, as to whether that’s more or less involving. It certainly is, as you say, taking control away from me, the filmmaker. I’ve got less control, there’s no question. But maybe I’m more willing to give up that control than you are. Maybe I’m not seeing it as such a bad thing. I’m not sure. It’s happening though, it’s a fact of life. I’ve never shot in wide-screen, and I don’t think I ever will, and the reason is because I want the film to translate to television easily. And I’ve done that right from the very beginning.
It’s almost unthinkable now, that you did not have access to films except when they came out in the cinema and maybe disappeared forever. There was a time when there were not rep cinemas, so when Hollywood movies came out, you saw them that weekend, or you didn’t see them. That was it. And your references to them and your remembrances of them were all based on that one Saturday when you went to the theatre and saw it.
Now you can “own” the film.
Now you can own it. And I think, ultimately, maybe not experience for experience, but maybe over ten years, twenty years, when you can have access to a film for twenty years because it’s in your drawer, and you can take it out and look at it, ultimately, maybe there will be more involvement. And the abdication of some responsibility and some control by the director of the film will be balanced by the involvement over a long period of time by the person seeing the film.
I’m wondering, as we were talking about order and chaos: you once talked about something “overwhelming and incredibly potent, and you don’t ever really recover once it hits you” in connection with Sartre’s nausea, and I was wondering if there was anything that hit you in your wonder years —
I’m in them now!
— that you never recovered from, in any kind of way?
Sure. C. S. Lewis’s book. Allegory of Love. Technically, it’s an analysis of medieval literature, particularly Chaucer, but he cleverly and slyly discusses romantic love as a literary invention and basically, in a very quiet, scholarly, and genteel manner, makes it very clear that much of what we take to be a given of human nature — as it relates to love — is in fact a literary invention of about the eleventh century. And that in fact, prior to that, it’s easily demonstrable that romantic love did not exist. Period. Now that was shocking!
When you did you read that?
I read that in university. And he shows how in the whole idea of putting a woman on a pedestal — now this is kind of amusing, but certainly in the fifties, and sixties as well, it was very much in force, and still is really, maybe not on the leading edge of cultural invention but certainly underneath that — romantic love lives. And he points out how that was based on the feudal system: the idea of the feudal lord, and how the woman becomes like the feudal lord, and the swain, the lover, the man, becomes the courtier, the man who courts the woman and puts her on a pedestal and sort of worships her from afar. The Victorian era was heavily into that; the woman you married was a goddess, the one on the pedestal. Of course, it meant you couldn’t fuck her, because how could she be a goddess and be this slut that you really wanted? So there was difficulty there and a lot of men had mistresses — you couldn’t solve the duality with one woman.
That’s still a huge part of our cultural heritage. And the idea is still that you will find the one that you will live with and worship and grow old with. And C. S. Lewis is kind of saying, this is just a literary invention, and human beings didn’t expect that or even understand that before then. And it goes back to the poems of Catullus — I studied Latin for about eleven years and this was very accessible to me — which show that the real friendship and real love, in many societies, was between the same sex. Men for men, women for women. And that heterosexuality was really for making babies and doing that social thing, but not really where you go for real love. And that’s kind of interesting, a whole other amazing take on human nature.
Did you buy into the ideal of romantic love in your first marriage?
I’m sure I wasn’t any more immune to that than anyone else, though in the late sixties and early seventies things were hipper. I figured it was a marriage and you do that and you expect to stay together a really long time — to that extent, I suppose I did. But that’s not why this was shocking. I was reading this before my first marriage. It was really a one-two to the head and then the gut, it was kind of an intellectual and visceral blow. And that had a huge impact on me, a huge impact. Certainly the fifties were structured around romantic love as an ideal. No question, absolutely no question.
The transformational aspects of love, relationship, and the body itself — the mutating possibilities — are something that you have verbally endorsed as exciting, inventive, interesting, attractive; and yet your films always show those sorts of mutations and transformations in a quite horrific light.
Hmm, once again it’s a question of aesthetics and a few other things. Dramatically, of course, something that goes wrong is always more interesting than something that goes right. I have to confess to being part of that structure. It’s Shavian: conflict is the essence of drama. I mean, if a guy transforms into a fly and it’s really nice and everybody likes it, you know, what have you got? You’ve got a comedy on TV. But you don’t have heavy-duty dramatic stuff. So that’s part of it.
And the other part is that I’m perhaps admitting in the films that what might be potentially positive in theory is maybe quite difficult to manipulate to the point where it’s positive in practice. Like communism, for example. And many other things political and emotional. The theory can be manipulated, but the reality can’t always be. So when I’m verbalizing, I very well may be giving you the theory, and in the films I’m giving you the possible outcome of the practice. Now, do I contradict myself? Well, very well then, I do.
I’m trying to explore it; I’m trying to say, well, what happens when we put this theory into practice? That’s the extent to which my films are my little lab experiments. Let’s try it out, let’s see what happens. Here’s a guy who’s transforming into this, and uh oh, I see a problem, it’s not turning out so nice, what’s he going to do? In a way, it’s play. It’s the way children play to try things out.
Children have consciousness of their play, but there’s not a cautionary tone to it, while in your work —
No, no, there’s not a cautionary tone, but there is an experimental tone. It’s a glee in trying it out, knowing at the same time that you’re not living it. Kids can get quite thrilled playing scary stuff, in safety, knowing that they can back out. And that’s what’s similar to some of the things that happen on the set. I mean, there you are with your actors and you’ve got this playpen and you’ve got a drawer full of costumes and you start putting on the costumes and you play around. We all feel that. However seriously we take it because it’s our profession, there is a sense of play there, too.
Do you have the same attraction to the inventive and the extreme in your own life that you do in your films?
No! Definitely not.
What if you couldn’t sublimate it into your work — or project it?
I think it’s more like a projection. Sublimation is a whole other thing. What if I couldn’t? I don’t know if the pressure would get to the point where I’d have to “act out” — those terrible words. Or whether it would just remain repressed and I’d end up being a somewhat hazily dissatisfied, not very fulfilled person, but not necessarily doing anything particularly antisocial or spectacular. I really don’t know.
Does your art keep you sane the way Ben Pierce’s art keeps him sane in Scanners?
Yeah, but we know that he’s wrong when he says that. Because he’s completely mad, isn’t he?
I know. And your cover story is that you’re completely sane, and not only completely sane, but have no touch of neurosis.
Yeah, well, I won’t say no touch. But, relatively speaking, I think that’s all true. Because from the very beginning, the first little glimmer of artistic stirrings, I assumed that I would find my art form and that I would be relatively successful in practicing it. And I have had some shaky moments when I started to doubt, but not too many of those moments, I have to say. So I have never had to deal with what the consequences might be of not being able to practice my art. And I’m very curious about filmmakers in particular, but writers and any other artists as well, I’m fascinated by any artist that suddenly stops. For any reason. Because he is physically incapable of continuing; or because the circumstances of practicing his art have shifted and he can no longer do it anymore — when his art form disappears. If you’re a great radio writer and there’s no radio to write anymore, what do you do? I am fascinated by that, and am very interested to read about that, and obviously
the reason I’m fascinated is because I’m wondering what I would do under those circumstances.
What have you fantasized?
I think it’s very possible, for one, to not be physically able to take the demands of filmmaking. It is rough. I like to think that I will be something like John Huston. I look forward to the wheelchair and the oxygen mask, [breathes heavily] saying “Cut!” That would be good. I would like to drop dead on the set. I think that would be great. Now, if it doesn’t happen, then I think for me it would be very natural to write. I know that Jean Renoir wrote some novels when he could no longer get films made. I’ve never read the novels. That disturbs me, that they’re not that well known. But on the other hand, it is something that would come naturally to me. So I wouldn’t feel like “no movies” means “no access to art.”
I know you started as a fiction writer. Do you have a couple of novels in the drawer?
No, never got that far. Never got that far. A lot of attempted novels that no longer exist. I didn’t keep them in the drawer.
Do you ever write in a way that’s not connected with the filmic process?
No. I don’t. I’m constantly tempted to, though. I just like literary things. It pleases me. I go through waves when I read a lot of novels and try to plug into what’s going on in the art of the novel, and then there are periods when I just don’t read at all, anything but magazines, let’s say. At the moment, I’m going through a fairly intensely literary phase. But I love the act of writing and the idea of writing. I like it a lot. If I keep making movies I might have to be forced into trying my hand at a novel or I may never do it.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I’m never not working.
You’re working all day, every day, seven days a week?
Well, in a really irresponsible, non-specific way, yeah, I think I am.
The myth of the writer on holiday is that he’s never on holiday because he’s always working.
I guess that’s what I’m saying, and I think it to be true. So much of what a filmmaker does is not making a film. Right now, I’m being a post-production supervisor, producer, worrying about where the prints are going, worrying about the theatres and how they’re set up, worrying about the processing of the first twenty prints. I’m going to be spending time in the screening room looking at a couple of reels of each of several prints at random, trying to make sure that the corpse is in the right condition, and ready to be presented, so that it will give the simulation of life, let’s say. And yet it’s part of the filmmaking process; it’s not really a creative part, but it’s a necessary part. I get dirt under my fingernails. I’m a mechanic. And it’s okay. It’s necessary. And talking to you is work. And not only work because I have to do it to promote the film, but also because you ask me questions that force me to be analytical about what I’m doing, which I’m not normally. I’m not analytical when I’m doing it. And it makes me start to think about my next film, and so that’s work, too.
Now, I don’t know if anyone can really shut off from work. In a way it’s my sophistry to say I’m never not working. On the more pragmatic front, I almost never take a holiday. I don’t go away for two weeks.
Is the car racing your holiday?
The car racing is a very intense, compressed little holiday.
How long have you been doing it?
Since about ’81. I used to do it in the sixties, but I came back to it in ’81.
How many cars do you own?
I have four race cars that are all from the late fifties, early sixties.
Are you good at it?
I’m pretty good at it, yeah. In the world of club racing, I’m a competent club racer. I’m okay.
Is there anything else you’re passionately interested in?
Not to the same extent. Not on the hobby front, no.
I know the body is more than a hobby for you. At one point you went so far as to say that you’d really like the project of redesigning the human body. Of course, I guess you do that in your films.
I do try, yeah. The screen is littered with failed experiments.
How would you redesign the body?
You should have given me the weekend to think about that one.
It’s an extra credit question.
[Pause.] It’s a good question. I really can’t answer it spontaneously. Anything I say in the context of an interview has huge implications.
Do you ever feel trapped by your own reputation of going further than other people will go? Trapped by the idea that the audience carries with them a certain expectation when they go to see a Cronenberg film?
No, I love disappointing people’s expectations. I really do. It’s a perverse power trip for me. So, in fact, no, I don’t feel the slightest bit trapped. I’m very stubborn. And I really just do what I fucking well want, is the truth. Which is why I say I take full responsibility for what I put up on the screen. And in truth, I feel that’s what any filmmaker ultimately wants to be able to say. I don’t want to say I was forced to do it by the producer any more than I was forced to do it by the critics or by my public. I want to say I was forced to do it by myself. That’s why I’ve done it.
So you don’t still feel the kind of compulsion to show the unshowable and speak the unspeakable that you did earlier?
Not if I don’t feel like it. Not if I don’t feel like it that day. And I might feel like it tomorrow. But today I don’t. The artist’s duty to himself is a culmination of immense responsibility and immense irresponsibility. I think those two interlock.
Does the artist have any moral or social responsibility?
No. No. Still doesn’t, after all these years. Still irresponsible, after all these years. As a citizen, of course; as a parent, of course. But as an artist, that’s where the paradox is, your responsibility is to be irresponsible. As soon as you talk about social or political responsibility, you’ve amputated the best limbs you’ve got as an artist. You are plugging into a very restrictive system that is going to push and pull and mold you, and is going to make your art totally useless and ineffective.
You spoke the other day about Hollywood “limiting.” How is it limiting you if you are making exactly the films you want to make?
But I haven’t made my films within Hollywood. I flirt with it, I want to use the machine, I want the machinery of Fox to distribute Naked Lunch in the United States. The closest I came was with The Fly, which was the only studio film I’ve done; it was a Mel Brooks, Brooksfilm production, although it was already understood it was going to be a Fox picture. And in a way Videodrome was; oddly, it was a Universal picture, one of the most conservative studios that ever existed. But, if you can slip through the cracks, and you feel you can manipulate the machine without being manipulated back, it’s a dangerous game, but you can try it. It’s difficult to make a film these days, even as an independent, without some connection with the Hollywood machine, even if it’s just in terms of US distribution. But how close can you come to the flame without being burned? That’s really the question.
If there’s pleasure in the image (and I think we’re all agreed here in Western civilization that there’s pleasure in the image) I would think there would be, for someone as wrapped up in it as you, pain as well, if the image is not exactly as you want it to be. You once spoke of becoming physically ill when you looked through the viewfinder and found an improperly composed image.
That’s true. That’s still true. And that’s why I’m so obsessive about the interpos, the interneg, the check print. Making sure they’re all right, and that the release prints are going to properly represent the film. The prints that are made from the negative are called answer prints. And they are the closest generation to the original negative. But then you can only make so many prints from that, so you get into duplicate negatives, and second and third generation prints. And the further you go from the image you captured, the more pain there is. That’s why I get obsessive about it. You try not to over-obsess, because you could drive yourself mad, and could spend the rest of your life tracking the one movie you made and making sure that every screening was perfect, and only screening it in one theatre at a time and being there every time. You could do that. And most directors who are serious have the impulse to do that. You have to suppress that.
Didn’t you spend $7,000 of your own money in Toronto once, making sure that The Dead Zone had the right sound in the theatre?
Yeah, because it wasn’t going to be played in stereo and it was my first stereo picture. And Cineplex was distributing here and they did not put it in a stereo cinema. And that meant that there was nowhere in Toronto, my home town, where you could see the film and hear it the way it was supposed to be. Now that drove me mad. It was not something I wanted to do, but it was a very informative experience to run my own theatre. And as soon as I did that, Cineplex switched it into a stereo cinema, because it was in the press and was embarrassing to them. That’s the power politics of movies. I couldn’t force them to put it in a stereo theatre until I competed with them.
On set, what percentage of your time filming do you actually spend at the TV monitor?
During shooting, it’s an incredibly valuable tool. I can’t imagine shooting a film without it. It just gives me more power. I love the video tap, the monitor system. It’s a very interesting subject. I did do some videotape shooting for TV, back in the old days, and you’d use three or four cameras, and you’d run your TV show like a play, from beginning to end, and switch, while you were playing it, from camera to camera. That’s how you did your cutting. You did it right there, on the spot.
And so it wasn’t such a shock to me when I first used the video tap on a feature. I think it was on The Fly. It seems incredible to me now, because I can’t imagine working without it. It just means that you are riding the camera at all times. Imagine a moving shot: I’m on the dolly, and I’m operating the camera, but I don’t know when the cameraman does it that he’s doing the same moves at the same time as I was, if I can’t see what he’s doing. And so the composition during the course of a moving shot, for example, is something that I have no idea is right until the rushes the next day, when it might be too late to re-shoot it.
With video, you’re watching as it’s being shot. You can see the composition. And if you don’t like it, you can say, “Let’s do it again, but this way.” It’s not minor stuff, it’s the essence of your art: the composition, the framing, the movement. To not have that precise control over it is a real liability. And it’s fantastic to have that power.
Now, a lot of cameramen are very paranoid about it, because suddenly, what used to be an intimate thing — between themselves and the camera — is up for grabs. Everybody can see it; there are monitors all over the set. I mean, once you’ve got one monitor, you can have any number.
They replicate. They’re viral. And I, for example, having had the experience of shooting a couple of TV shows on Betacam, would walk around with a pocket TV set that I could flip up at any time and see what was being done on the set. I love that. I love the commonality of it. I’m not afraid of it, and I don’t feel I need the secrecy of the old way — where only the people who got to peep through the lens really knew what was going on. And it is so efficient, it saves so much time, too. Now the props guy doesn’t have to say, “Should I worry about what’s under the table? Can you see that in the shot?” He looks at the monitor and he knows. He doesn’t have to ask. It really increases the sense of community among the people making the film. And of course it also gives visiting journalists the illusion that they’re getting an idea of what the film is going to be. And of course they have no idea.
See, in a way, you still have that secrecy. Because no one is really putting it together the way you, the director, are putting all the shots together, and noticing all the nuances or subtleties. Everybody is looking at the monitor for something else, and only the director is looking at it for everything. “Which is as it should be.
Is there any way you would define the way you frame images as being uniquely yours?
No. I can’t. It’s nothing that I can come close to articulating. But it’s interesting. I love it; when someone came up to me over Dead Ringers and said, “Your bizarre visual sense is so strong,” and so on, he was talking about composition. And I said, “You know, I never put the camera on the floor and shoot up somebody’s nose, I don’t do those sort of Orson Wellesian things, I never have the camera tilted off axis, it’s always actually pretty level.” And most of the shots in Dead Ringers are close-ups shot with a very conventional 50-millimeter lens, I don’t do like 9.8-millimeter close-ups. He said, “You know, you’re right. Well then, how did you achieve that?” I said, “I don’t know.” [Laughs.] It’s everything. It’s the dialogue as much as the composition.
You’re more willing to stick with a tight, controlled frame — more willing to show “talking heads” than a lot of other auteurs are. Yeah. Yeah. To me, the “talking head” is the essence of cinema. If you look at a baby, the most fascinating thing to a baby, a newborn, is the human face. The baby will look at your face and watch your face move and want to touch it; it gives you a whole other insight into what a face is. We get very used to them, but in fact, if it’s a fantastic head, and what it’s talking about is fantastic, then you can’t have anything better. It’s the best! So I’m not afraid of it. I’m not afraid to sit on a close-up and let it happen. If you’ve got the right face saying the right things at the right moment, you’ve got everything cinema can offer.
Is there an insecurity among certain filmmakers, who may not have written their piece themselves, who are jealous of the power of the word?
Absolutely. It’s such a cliché, but I think it absolutely is true. And it’s demonstrably true in some movies, where the camera is wandering all over the place, and craning, and doing this or that, and what you really fucking want to see is that face saying that stuff to this other face. That’s what you want to see. But the director is not letting you see it.
Let’s take your friend Martin Scorsese, in The Color of Money, for instance, where the amount of camera movement seemed almost gratuitous for what is a very conventional story, which he didn’t author.
Yeah, well, it’s conceivable that his solution to getting all of the juice possible out of that story was to put a lot of energy into stuff that was sort of peripheral to the story itself. It might not even be a bad ploy, in that case. And whether it works or not depends on a zillion different things. But we’ve all seen films where the camera is just not where you want it to be, and often it’s the director’s own stubborn refusal to be there, because for some reason he’s insecure.
Your screenplays are quite detailed, full of description, but are completely bereft of camera instructions.
That’s true. Often, the detail is to convey something to people who are reading: a tone, or something subtle that can only be revealed by detail, which maybe I’ll decide to change on the day of shooting, but which at least gives you an idea of what the tone is. And I want it to read well, I want it to read more like fiction than something else. But I’ve read other scripts, let’s say those of Robert Towne, that go much further than what I would bother to do.
But the lack of camera instruction, and your unwillingness to storyboard anything but technical sequences, I assume provides you with a kind of freedom on set to make it up as you go.
Well, the reason I don’t put the camera instructions in there is because I know I’m going to make it up on the set, so why waste my time pretending? There are one or two moments per script where I give a bit of a camera indication, just because it needs to be clarified because of context. But I want to make it up on the set. It’s very palpable and tangible to me. It’s not an abstract thing at all. I wouldn’t know how to make a storyboard of a scene of two people in a room, which is a dialogue scene, unless I have the room and have the people. I want to involve my actors in the choreography of the scene. Why manipulate them like puppets when I’ve hired them because they’re wonderful actors? One of the things an actor does is use his body. They’re like dancers. A moment of dialogue at the window with the head turned away from us, and then suddenly on a certain phrase turn back to us, has a totally different effect than the same dialogue delivered sitting in front of the window. I want to work with the actors. I want them to surprise me. I want them to show me some possibilities that I haven’t thought of. I’m not so arrogant that I think I can anticipate every possibility, and choose the best one, and storyboard it, before I’ve ever been in the room with the real actors. A lot of storyboards are done before actors are cast.
Nonetheless, do you have a lot in your mind’s eye on each day’s shoot, or a blank slate?
Blank. Very blank. Often, though, something that I’ve done in earlier parts of the shoot starts to suggest something else. Parallels and interconnections. Really, the Orson Welles statement about “presiding over a series of accidents” is only coy and arch from a distance. When you’re on the set, it’s really a pretty accurate description of what goes on. The accidents are often very small, little things. Somebody will be standing at the window, and you say, “I like that! What happens if you do the dialogue there?” And everything snaps into place. Well, that’s an accident. If the actor hadn’t stood there, you might not have thought of it. Why resist that? Why cut those possibilities out?
Storyboarding, to me, is a control-freak thing or a security blanket. I don’t condemn it, because for some people it obviously works, and it’s fine. I don’t promote my system as the system. Also, I know that a lot of people storyboard who know they are going to change the storyboards, but they like to have it as kind of a security, so if they suddenly come up blank one day, they at least have got this stuff to work with. I just like to go out without a net.
A great deal of scientific discovery comes through happy accident.
For sure; it’s the same creative process.
In fact, there’s a parallel between the scientist and the artist, because neither has complete control over what is created.
See, that’s something that’s very misunderstood about my scientists. People think I’m standing apart from them, and showing them as sort of evil and misguided. No. They’re my artists. They’re my heroes. Because I think the process is the same. A brilliant scientist is as creative as a brilliant artist. Books are full of the inventions and the inspirations that came out of dreams, out of drug use, out of everything — that then later became hard-core scientific dogma.
And neither scientist nor artist is fully responsible for what happens with their creation?
I’ve never said that.
Well, are they? Are you as an artist responsible fully for your creation?
Yes, you are.
But once it gets out there, it may be interpreted in all sorts of ways, including ways which you might be violently opposed to.
Let’s attach this question to your work. Videodrome, for example. Are you responsible if some people read the film, for two reasons, as a very conservative, reactionary approach to mass media? One, it posits a direct link between image and action, and two, it shows a breakdown in the distinction between image and reality. Now, those are two of the greatest concerns of the people who are in favor of censorship. So, one could say that Videodrome is a good argument for censorship. Are you responsible for that?
Well, I’m not sure I agree with that reading.
No, I know you don’t, but —
We should really cut to the chase. Your example is subtle. Let’s take the most obvious example: what if you made a movie that actually induced people to kill other people? That’s really what we’re talking about, the fact that an art object, an artifact, can be misinterpreted or interpreted and can be plugged into a political system in many ways that you perhaps could never imagine but that are absolutely contrary to what you would want or believe: that can’t stop you. Because it’s uncontrollable, and unanticipatable. And also, you just know that people — out of sheer orneriness — are going to do that, and maybe even gleefully. But that just stimulates debate. And to me, that’s always healthy. The real question could be, getting simplistic about it, what if you could make a movie that would actually cause people to kill other people? A direct, causal link; these people would not have killed anybody if they had not seen the movie. The movie triggers off a psychosis, or something —
There are lawsuits, right now, having to do with that same principle, regarding heavy metal music and teen suicide.
That’s right. And the question to the artist has to be, let’s say you spent three years writing this book, and somehow it can be shown to you that reading this book will cause one person out of a hundred to commit suicide — it’s a direct causal link — what do you do? Do you publish the book anyway? Do you destroy the book? Do you suppress the book? Do you hold it back until circumstances have changed and this won’t happen anymore? Do you deny the reality of this thing that’s been proved? It’s an interesting question. Because only there is there a direct link between the artist’s responsibility and the citizen’s social responsibility. The problem is, of course, when are you ever going to have direct proof of anything, especially something as complex as that? That’s the problem.
I don’t know what I would do. I might end up saying, “You know what, even if a thousand people died because of my movie, it’s worth it. Not just to me, but to society.” So maybe that’s a rationalization. Who knows? But it’s not likely I’m ever going to find out. The world being what it is, there’s almost never one use or one effect from one thing, whether it’s the A-bomb or atomic energy or drugs or a gun or anything else. Multiple effects.
Let’s get into one of your very favorite subjects: sexual politics.
Let’s go down to the bar and have a few drinks and discuss sexual politics. [Laughs.]
You’ve been asked before about the “sexual humiliation” of women in your films, and I’ll just read you one of your responses, which is maybe the best way into this discussion: “I think it certainly has to do with the fact that I am male, and my fantasies and my unconscious are male. I think I give a reasonable amount of expression to the female part of me, but I still think that I’m basically heterosexual male. . . . I have no reason to think that I have to give equal time to all sexual fantasies whether they’re my own or not. Let those people make their own movies — leave me alone to make mine. . . . If I’m going to get into scenes of bondage and torture, I’ll show a female instead of a male. . . . Fantasies are sexual, not sexist.”
I say “basically heterosexual.” I was recently talking to a journalist who was making a very cogent point of the gayness that goes through all my work. And I said, well, you know, I’m interested in sexuality, and in my normal fashion, I don’t want to limit myself to what I might live out of. One of the reasons you do art is to live other people’s lives and to plug into other modalities. One of the reasons actors act is to be other people. So I’m not afraid of homosexuality, and I’m not afraid of exploring those things. And I have explored those things in the films. There are a few men I sort of whip and torture in the movies, too.
Interestingly enough, one of the reasons you said, years ago, that you were “not one hundred percent with Burroughs,” was that his fantasies of hanging boys being sodomized were not your fantasies.
I understand that buggering a hanging boy is not exactly a sexual fantasy of William Burroughs’. Because I know where that comes from. It’s being flippant to say, “That’s his fantasy, not mine.” In fact, it’s as much my fantasy as his, in the sense that when I read it, he managed to make it erotic for me. He managed to make it a fantasy of mine when I read it. What is normally repulsive to you is suddenly seductive and erotic: that’s my reading of Burroughs. A lot of people respond to the surface, and turn away, saying, “Oh this is disgusting, I don’t want anything to do with it!” But if you get into it and don’t fight it, you allow the book access to your unconscious, you find it appeals to a lot of places that are disturbing.
When I’m making a film, I’m no longer a reader of the book, I’m now the creator of this world that I’m going to put up on the screen. I’m operating from a different place. I talked to William [Burroughs] about not being sure what I wanted the sexuality of Naked Lunch to be, because my sexuality is different from his. I could not guarantee him that the film would portray, or duplicate, his sensibility of sexuality. And he said it was okay because he’s not very censorious.
Do you find the scene in the parrot cage in the film, with a similar image, erotic?
That’s the most explicitly gay image of sexuality in the film and it’s horrifying and bloody and very disturbing.
Yes, and before I’m attacked for this, “Cronenberg is portraying gay sex as the image of the old queen sucking the life out of the fresh young boy” —
And there is vampiric imagery earlier in that same sequence. Get ready for The Advocate.
Yes. I’m ready. But, but, there will be, necessarily, a willful misunderstanding of the movie in order for them to carry out the political attack with full gusto. Because I think it’s very clear that at this point in the movie I’m still having the lead character not fully come to terms is with himself in terms of his sexuality. Basically, the guy is gay. He creates a world in which everybody recognizes him as gay, and in fact, people prosition him and set him up with other men. But he’s not ready to accept it. He keeps saying, “I don’t want to fuck him.”
We’re to think that that’s his cover story. I’m not sure the audience gets the received meaning that the guy is gay.
But who is telling him it’s his cover story? It’s his own fucking typewriter. When he talks to his typewriter he’s talking to himself, just as any writer who’s writing is talking to himself. And so imagine allowing the typewriter to become your unconscious, and it’s saying, “You’re going to have to engage in homosexual acts. We know you’re willing to go through with this, you’re going to have to do it because it’s your cover story.” [My and Cronenberg’s feet brush accidentally under the table.] I noticed you just touched me there. It’s a very delicate moment for this to happen.
I’m sorry, David.
[Returning to the subject.] And you say, “Oh gee, do I really have to get fucked by a guy?” Who’s saying it? He’s saying it to himself. He’s forcing himself to come to terms with what he is; that’s the structure of the movie. Now, if you don’t get the structure of the movie you don’t understand it. You see everything as literal, even though it’s obvious that much of the movie is not realistic, impossible. There is no giant centipede. And what is he seeing in that cage, in that bedroom?
I give you the clue. When he walks by, we hear Kiki and Cloquet in sexual ecstasy. We hear orgasmic moanings and groanings. We hear Kiki’s voice going, “Oh, oh.” And we hear Cloquet actually say, “Kiki, oh Kiki.” But Lee [Peter Weller] has gone off and taken this drug and is totally stoned, and he thinks he’s coming back like twenty seconds later, but it’s probably an hour later, and he’s walking by the master bedroom, and he hears Kiki and Cloquet fucking each other. And so he’s feeling guilty and jealous, because Kiki is his lover, and now he opens the door and what is he really seeing? I think, it should be obvious, maybe not the first time through, I’ll admit that, but when you understand the film, he’s seeing Kiki and Cloquet fucking. They are naked in bed and they’re fucking. But he has to construct a horrific, unbearable, repulsive image around it for him to respond to — because his response is revulsion, guilt, fear. So he hallucinates this thing that he can run away from, and sort of disconnect from. Kiki is already decaying, the giant centipede has eaten him.
That to me is the mechanism that’s going on. It’s not at all saying that gay sex involves a kind of centipede-like sexuality. What it is, is I’m insisting that you stay in there with my characters, and not immediately jump to political imagery from the outside. Within the movie, it’s perfectly conceivable that Kiki and Cloquet are having perfectly wonderful sex. The more wonderful the sex, the more horrific and disgusting it is for Lee.
Let’s retreat from Naked Lunch, briefly —
That’s a good title, Retreat from Naked Lunch. I can see the sequel.
You have a kind of — I don’t know if we want to say — “repressed” homosexuality in a lot of your work. In the first two films you did, Stereo and Crimes of the Future, your lead actor certainly had a gay presence; and then you gave Marilyn Chambers an underarm phallus in Rabid —
But I gave her a vagina; I gave her a cunt, too! First there’s the cunt, and then the phallus — it’s both, you got everything! I gave her everything!
And you give Max Renn [James Woods] a vagina in his stomach in Videodrome, and vagina dentata as well. So obviously there’s a sort of bisexual play through the work. Has this always been a part of your consciousness? You were just talking about Catullus and same-sex love.
Yeah. I think it has been. I think we start off with what Freud called a polymorphous perverseness, which is not a negative thing. It’s a child’s sexuality before it becomes specific and genitalized and acculturated. We have what I called an “omnisexuality,” which does not recognize the sorts of normal barriers and liaisons and taboos. And to the extent that I’m interested in exploring stuff that’s beyond taboo, I would explore not just bisexuality, but any kind of sexuality. Dog sexuality. Animal sexuality. Insect sexuality. Whatever. The sexuality of food or touch or words. So I don’t think I’m limiting myself to bisexuality. It’s just that that’s the most obvious to people. They might not see some of the other things I do as sexual, and I do.
The sex blob in Naked Lunch, that the typewriter becomes, is a kind of all-purpose sexual thing. It has every genital part that you could imagine plus a few that you couldn’t imagine. It’s got vaginal sex, it’s got anal sex, it’s got about twenty different things going on. I hope the censors don’t quite perceive it. I hope they don’t stop-frame it. It’s always moving, so it’s a little hard to see.
It’s humping the floor —
It’s humping anything! It will hump anything! It’s worse than your dog in heat. So I really think I’m looking beyond the normal structures that we accept and that are easily recognizable. And I would say it’s not just bisexuality. It’s not gayness. It’s more than that, that I’m looking for.
Have you experienced any of these things in your life, or only the world of the image?
Unfortunately not. Unfortunately, I haven’t. Well, I won’t say I haven’t, but not in the sensationalist way that any journalist would of course want to discover. I remember being at university with a woman, and talking to some professor, and he suggesting that we join him in this orgy that he was going to. And I said I had never done that before, but I had a feeling it wouldn’t work. I had a feeling that the same old jealousies would come out — oh, she’s fucking him, getting more attention, and all I got is this old guy over here and really I want that cute girl over there — and don’t you find that that’s a problem? And he said, “You’re right,” the orgies had not been working out very well. Despite the fact that everybody in the room had read Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death and was really ready to go the distance in trying to form a Dionysian consciousness and would take drugs together — it still wasn’t fucking working out. People were being paranoid. People would feel neglected. People would feel jealous.
And you think that says something about human nature or just about our particular culture?
I think it says something about human nature. I think both, maybe. So I never really got into that stuff, because I could sort of anticipate, before I did, all the reasons why it wouldn’t work out. I guess I was never a hippie in the true sense, because there was never a moment when the skepticism dropped away, or the cynicism dropped away, or just the honest doubt. I never bought into any of that stuff, but it was exhilarating to think that society was changing and it was possible.
Now, however, within the act of “normal,” quote, heterosexual sex, you do have these Dionysian moments. And that I have experienced, definitely. Without the aid of drugs, I will add, because I really don’t do that. Moments when you are not male or female, you are just sexual. And you don’t know whether you are being fucked or you are fucking and it doesn’t make any difference. I really feel that I have felt that. And at the best moments, that’s the way it always is. You lose, to a huge extent, your individuality. And yet, it’s the individuality that heightens the sexuality — you know who you’re having sex with.
Now, I’m fascinated by scenes in Prick Up Your Ears where twenty guys would be fucking each other in a public toilet, with the lights out, not knowing who anybody was, or what anybody looked like. Part of me says, I’d love to try that. And if you’re doing that, it doesn’t matter if it’s men or women or a combination of them or animals or fucking anything. But I also know what human beings are like. And I know what venereal diseases are like, too — they like to take advantage of those moments. And so I think the closest I’ve come to experiencing any of that stuff is just in what to an onlooker would be the straightest kind of normal, socially approved, possibly even missionary-position sex. But internally, there’s a moment when you feel you are pure sexuality — neither male nor female. I think maybe that’s the way. Maybe gays can experience heterosexuality through gay sex; maybe if you get to the purest form of whatever your specific sexuality is, that’s where all the sexuality merges. And that’s what it feels like I’m exploring in my movies. It doesn’t then have anything to do with, “He should come out of the closet, it’s obvious he should fuck guys.” To me, I just shrug, and say, “Not really.”
Can you identify with any same-sex feelings, let’s say when you were prepubescent or pubescent?
I think so. I can remember a moment or two being sexually attracted to a guy who was very female. It was almost like he was a woman. So what does that mean? I remember acting in an underground film, in Toronto, where there was supposed to be an orgy, and I ended up hugging some guy and kind of kissing his cheek and stuff. And I was really quite turned off, by the hair on his legs, by his beard. It didn’t do it for me. And yet, you have a man you love — your father, your brother — you hug them, and it’s not exactly sexual, but it’s physical and there’s love involved, and at that moment, the beard and the hairy legs are fine. So it’s not simple, that stuff.
Well, you’re not nibbling on the beard or stroking the hairy legs in that kind of clinch.
No, no you’re not. But you’re feeling maleness, and you’re taking comfort from that. I think it’s like taking comfort from when you were a boy, hugging your father. It’s not sexual in the obvious way. And then it becomes, where do you draw the line between sexuality and something else?
If everything is sexual, then nothing is sexual.
Then nothing is sexual. I agree. That’s right.
What about the expression of what you called the “female part” of you? How would you define that?
Well, I can really define it against the most gross archetypes or clichés, that whole jock relationship of men. I must say, I have felt the pleasure in that: guys being guys together, playing a game together, racing cars together —
Life as Budweiser commercial.
Yeah. That really puts it in perspective, doesn’t it? But basically, I find that repulsive and reductive and diminishing. Because my most interesting, satisfying relationships with men, even in sports, even in racing, have always been much more complex and sensitive and confessional and open than that. That jock thing is really a very defensive kind of relationship — a group of men agreeing not to go any further than this deep. I don’t enjoy that, and even as a kid, it seemed to me very superficial and unreal and unsatisfying, that kind of maleness.
So the female for you is the open and the sensitive —
This a traditional kind of Jungian version of yin and yang, male and female. I must say I’m talking about it in those terms. I don’t see that as being quintessentially female, but it’s a traditional way of talking about it, so I’ll talk about it that way. If you set up that dichotomy, most people think of the female part as the artistic, intuitive part. When I was a kid, I was playing the piano when other kids were out playing football. I played football, too. But I had a girlfriend when I was five. A very close, wonderful relationship with a girl, at a time when all the other boys would go, “Yuck! Girls!” They had not yet come to terms with the fact that girls could be kind of good companions, or even human. I guess all I’m really saying is that I felt fairly integrated.
Why do you think you’re so attracted to images of sexual violence?
I don’t think I am. Am I?
I think you are.
How many minutes of my films are devoted to that as opposed to, say, discussion?
I’m not saying just in your films, but maybe in what you want to watch, too.
I’m not. I’m definitely not.
In 1983 you said, “That isn’t to say that I haven’t noticed that I can be attracted to images of sexual violence and wonder what that means about myself.” I’m just asking you the same question you ask yourself: what do you think it means about yourself?
Sure, I guess that was at the point of Videodrome, where I was actually creating some images of sexual violence, so I could be attracted to my own movie maybe. Well, sexuality is, as we’ve been discussing, a complex thing. As it becomes connected with various cultural dynamics it can start to express itself in various ways that we might call perverse, unnatural, or unacceptable, or politically incorrect maybe is what we’d say today. And yet they seem very forceful, these images or concepts. There are a lot of people who do play bondage in sex — play bondage. Of course, you’re not supposed to talk about this. Not only is it unacceptable, but it’s almost considered impossible. And yet I remember my cat — cat sex. In cat sex, the male cat seizes the female cat by the neck, he bites her neck to hold her down, and she’s sort of struggling like she doesn’t want to have any part of it. And then when she finally manages to get away, she sort of rolls around on the ground in a very flirtatious fashion and waits for him to come to her again.
That’s the way lions are doing it in Africa, right now.
They are doing it this very moment, thank God, whatever few lions there are left. And you say, that comes from survival of the fittest: the most aggressive male is the one who is going to survive, so the female’s got to make it difficult for him to get to her, and so on. And maybe there is still a holdover of that in human sexuality. And maybe there is something in female sexuality still that comes from that very primitive beginning, which wants a man to dominate, which wants a man to defeat other men in order to have this woman, and then she herself makes it a little difficult just to make sure that he’s really serious, and really the most aggressive, dominant one — and has to pin her down or to tie a sash cord around her arm or wrist or just hold her down with force when they’re having sex, and that’s more satisfying. And you will probably not find any feminists who will admit that this is a possibility.
However, we have now taken our evolution into our own hands, we have done it long ago, we have mucked about with our environment, so that all of those factors that might have made survival of the fittest work don’t necessarily work in our society, because we have “de-physicalized” our society. It’s now no longer necessarily the guy who’s physically strongest — it might be the guy who’s the best at manipulating stocks on Wall Street who is the dominant one. But how does he express this dominance that is no longer physical?
By having the biggest house or having the fastest car —
That’s exactly right. Or having the most mistresses. And we haven’t sorted it out yet, because half the time we’re denying that it’s all true. But underneath it all, there might still be the desire in men to physically dominate women and the desire in women to be physically submissive to men through a bit of a struggle. A bit of a shadow struggle even then. With my cat — she was going to get fucked, and she knew it and he knew it, but they still had to go through the whole thing. Why is it so horrible if that is still a vestige that we have to deal with? It’s only horrible because of political implications and cultural problems, and it becomes a political, cultural football. And it makes these people, who still must do these things, these poor men and women, all of us maybe, sublimate it or change it or shift it or jigger it around somehow in our mind so we don’t have to feel ashamed of our sexual politics in bed and all that kind of stuff. It’s interesting. And I am interested in exploring it. I think that well may be the reason why — hmm, a naked woman tied up? Do men respond to that sexually? Well, I think they do. I really do. Now it might vary from culture to culture. Certainly in Japan it’s more accepted as a sort of ritual of sexuality embedded in the culture than it is here. But, I say yeah, I do respond to that. And I think I’ve begun to figure out why, and it’s not deadly — it’s not as deadly as one might think, and it doesn’t mean that I hate women and want to kill them. I think it comes from someplace else.
There’s a possibility that we’re hardwired for a lot of stuff.
There’s no doubt that we’re hardwired. That’s not just a pun, it’s a pretty good metaphor. (When pun becomes metaphor, it’s an exciting moment.) It’s only sane to look at it as it is, and not futz the issue, and not cover it up with so much politicking. It is not the same thing that a man and a woman should want to do a little play bondage as that someone shoots seventeen women in Montreal. This is not the same thing.
But the image police would have us believe that —
The image police must make it the same thing, and the image police must make policy based on this. I think it’s very destructive. And if my films shake things up and make people shake their fists at each other over that, then I say fine, because I think things need shaking up. I find that stuff very distressing. I myself have been accused by a writer in Toronto, in a Toronto Star article, of being a direct contributor to that massacre in Montreal, where a man shot seventeen young women and said, “The feminists made me do it.” She said, in her article, that we have a misogynistic culture and it is constantly being fueled and created by video games, and a whole list of things with no names attached, and then she said, “and the films of David Cronenberg.” And the only other name mentioned in the article, other than the name of this killer, was Adolf Hitler. She was comparing women to Jews and men to Nazis. I find that irresponsible.
You think of yourself as a feminist, don’t you?
I am a feminist. I am a feminist in the sense that I agree that because of the structure that we are talking about — whether it’s Christian medieval morality, and that’s where it came from, or more basic things, like the man-woman split of responsibility for childbearing and all that — however it came about, I do believe that Western culture is relatively misogynistic and certainly gives women a very second-rate role in society. And that given the way things are now, there’s no need for that, if there ever was; and I think there probably was at the time, just survival. And that we should say, “We don’t like this anymore, it’s not necessary anymore, so let’s change it.” To that extent, I’m a feminist. And I think that’s the greatest extent you can be a feminist. But to then start to talk about men as evil and maleness as evil, and femaleness as all the good in the world — if you take a lot of what is being said in the extreme right wing of the feminist movement, that seems to be what the suggestion is. And I laugh at that. It means they don’t understand human nature at all. Because any evil that is possible in human beings is very equally possible in men and women. If we are a different species, we do at least share that characteristic.
There’s another element of your work I’d like to examine: the Cronenberg hero.
Dr. St. Luc in Shivers, Hart in Rabid, Frank in The Brood, John in The Dead Zone, Max in Videodrome, Brundle in The Fly, and the Mantles in Dead Ringers, and now Bill Lee in Naked Lunch. There’s a certain —
[Surprised.] They’re all fucking repressed! Just as you give me this litany, I think, these are all really repressed guys. Which is maybe where some of the misunderstanding of the movies comes in. Because if you say this is the Cronenberg hero in the sense that Cronenberg posits this as the correct kind of human being to be, then you’ve immediately warped all of the films.
That would be a terrible misreading of the function of narrative art — to think that you are positing your hero as an example of humanity refined and perfected.
But it happens all the time. I have an ironic distance on these characters. I’m saying, there’s always a part of me that’s repressed, or undiscovered, and that’s why I keep forcing myself to look and discover. Maybe these characters are a projection of that part of me, but they are not necessarily my model of ideal behavior. But a lot of people assume that. So many people identify you with your main character, it’s scary.
Not only are your heroes repressed, but there’s a kind of passivity in them: one could say, the passive, reactive Cronenberg hero, as opposed to active. They are often very ineffective and always on the defensive, all the way through Bill Lee. I’d say you’re absolutely right. Those are my guys, my boys . . . my team! My team. They’re my team. My soccer team.
Your team — they all got picked last on the playground!
[Laughs.] They came in first in the last division. “We won, we won, we got a trophy!” Yeah, but it’s the last division and there’s only one team in that division.
And a fragile bunch, too. You know, everybody talks about the way you present women — if they’re too aggressive, that’s bad; if they’re too vulnerable, that’s bad; so you can’t win on that — but they may not actually spend much time thinking about how you present men. You present masculinity as an extraordinarily fragile proposition.
I think that’s true. I’m not actually presenting these guys as the embodiment of masculinity — they’re male people, it’s not quite the same thing. But if you want to reduce everything to sexual politics for the moment, I’d say yes, my vision of masculinity as revealed in the movies is not at all the sort of macho-insensitive rapist that all those feminist critiques present.
Or the in-control manipulator, or the powerful technocrat, or any of those models. None of them works in your pictures.
That’s true. I like this, I like this line of reasoning. It’s so obvious, I’ve never quite talked about it this way before. But I think it’s good weaponry. I mean, I think it’s true. But beyond that, I think I find that kind of character a very good basis for a film in which one explores human nature, rather than a guy who’s very opinionated, very secure, very strong, very aggressive, very focused, very active. Certainly, there are any number of writers who start from that vantage point, with a character like that — Shakespeare did okay. But obviously, it works best for me to have a character much more like the ones we’ve been talking about. It’s not conscious.
They’re almost recessive. Just as Brundle recedes —
Like a hairline —
— Or a budget. Just as Brundle recedes from life is a man into an insect, and the Mantles recede, quite literally, into the chromework of their practice, and Bill Lee — who’s recessive to begin with — recedes into a kind of complicated wallpaper, there’s a sense of the watching man, the man who sits and watches and is too late. I wonder, do you identify with that?
[Pause.] I think there’s some truth in that. For example, I’ve never felt, until just recently, that I had any access to the political machinery of Canada. And yet I did run into some people — now this may seem like a strange place to start — some people who were born thinking that political involvement was sort of their birthright. Is this a particularly Jewish thing? Are we coming back to the shtetl? The Talmudic scholar who ties his brain in a knot because he is not allowed to act.
It’s true that I have a real horror of passivity, in one sense. I don’t like fantasy, in my life. Let’s take the most Hollywood example: when I start to become obsessed with Ferraris, my friends know I’m going to get one. And maybe even race one. I’m not going to just think about it. A lot of people would drool over it and love it, but not find a way to get their hands on one. They know I’m going to do it. It was the same with writing and filmmaking. In some of those limbo moments of my life, for instance, when I had written the script to Shivers but was not able to get it made, I thought, will I just have this fantasy, a fantasy that I was a filmmaker, and never be able to realize it? I have an incredible abhorrence of that, and a real drive into reality. And I suppose I’m putting my characters in that difficult, passive position deliberately. To see what it takes to provoke them to action. I’m interested in that mechanism. So it is an issue with me, obviously.
And also your interest in the outsider in everyday life, the guy something is wrong with, or not quite right with —
Well, often his passivity is enforced. It’s his circumstances which force a certain passivity on him, and let’s see what he does, then. Which would also be the sort of shtetl situation. It’s a given. It’s an accident of circumstance. Even the John Smith character in The Dead Zone fits the pattern well: he starts off feeling like he’s a full-fledged, legitimate member of society; he knows what his place is, he knows what his purpose is, he’s going to marry this girl, he knows who his in-laws will be; and then suddenly — bango! — he’s an outsider. He’s forced to play the role of outsider, and what does he do then?
And of course, by the time we get to Bill Lee in Naked Lunch, we feel he has been an outsider, and he’s making some small effort to not be that anymore. He’s trying to go straight, as he says to the cops: “I was a troubled person then, now I’m straight, got a job, got a wife.” But it doesn’t work. He’s going to force himself to be an outsider, if no one else will — he will do it himself. And needs that role for some reason. He feels that perhaps if he’s not an outsider, he’ll sink without a trace.
Which is a romantic kind of disposition.
Yeah, yeah. I’ve never denied that there’s a romanticism in any of my films. I haven’t talked about it much, in fact.
A certain astringent romanticism, perhaps.
Yes. The best kind. [Laughs.] We don’t want to get too messy.
Acerbic, yes. “Astringent” I like because it’s more medical.
Your works from Stereo in 1969 to Videodrome in 1983, with the small exception of Fast Company, were all from your original screenplays. But since Videodrome, all four films have been collaborations and adaptations, no original screenplays, and your next will based on the play “M. Butterfly.” Do you make any sense of this?
Not really. I can’t find anything in me that has any recognition response to this. In the Middle Ages, you know, you got no points for originality. In fact, it was just about proscribed. You always built from the past, and you elaborated that into your own unique version. When you’re young, I suppose there’s a great ego necessity to say, “Hey, it’s all original, I did it all myself!” It might simply be that. Even then, I knew that where the material comes from is almost irrelevant. Does it matter that it’s a newspaper article?
There’s a kind of friction that comes with adaptation and collaboration, which you don’t get from your original work.
I don’t have that in my collaboration. I’ve not really sat in a room with somebody and argued about lines of dialogue.
I don’t mean friction in a negative sense, I mean friction in terms of heat — your consciousness up against the consciousness of someone else.
Yeah. There’s a Hollywood version of collaboration, which can also be positive. I was very interested to see “Naked Hollywood” [the BBC series] about scriptwriting, seeing Sydney Pollack, and how he deals with a screenwriter, and vice versa. They live together for six months, they see each other for twelve hours a day, they go out and have meals and talk about everything and know everything about each other’s lives. This is a very perverse thing to me. I watch this and I say, this is a guy who really wishes he could write the script himself, but he can’t write it, so he’s trying to fuse with the other guy, so it’s almost like the other guy is him writing. And the other guy knows that it’s perverse, because he knows that this is all for Sydney, it’s not for him. That’s how I read it. That kind of collaboration, that kind of perverseness, I haven’t had to deal with.
But you run up against other things anyway, which is why I don’t think it’s that different from an original script. As soon as you start to introduce characters that fight back — you want to get rid of them and they won’t go! — you’re always collaborating with yourself, with projections of yourself. That’s why I feel the metaphor of Bill Lee’s typewriter — giving him orders, pushing him around, telling him what to write — is like normal writing to me. Whether there is another human being in the room or not, it feels the same.
I don’t think I’m trying to rationalize anything here. As time goes on, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a dream I start with, or a newspaper article, or a story someone told me, or a story someone said actually happened, or a biographical incident, or somebody else’s fictional work. It all seems like intake; it’s narrative and conceptual intake and then you do something with it. Now, when you’re starting out and you really have a lot to prove, and you have not yet necessarily found your cinema voice, and you are desperate not to dilute that, because it’s so fragile, there might be a real pressure not to collaborate. “I’m the only guy who wrote this, I made it up, I didn’t get it anywhere else.” But what I’m doing now might be more pure and honest and straightforward than what I did then.
You read The Dead Zone only once before making the movie. I assume you read Naked Lunch many times.
Oh, many times, over many years. Quite a different situation.
You talk about a “fusion” of your work and Burroughs’s work. I’m assuming it’s at the molecular, genetic level?
Getting into the telepod together. Burroughs and I get into the telepod together and we come out of the other telepod, fused. That’s how it feels. Half the time I don’t know whether I invented this, or it’s part Burroughs and part me, or it’s all Burroughs. There are some moments in each case where it’s clear to me, but I’m actually not sure about some of the stuff. And it felt like that while I was writing. It was pouring out of my fingertips, I’m sitting here reading it, laughing. I’m passive, I’m not doing this, I’m willing this to happen, but that’s about it.
Do you normally write quickly?
Yeah, I normally write quickly, but this had a different feel.
You had thought about this for many years.
Yes, and so it makes sense therefore that it should come out easily.
The reservoir was about a thousand feet deep.
It was very deep. The pressure, at the bottom, where the tap was, was pretty intense. No question. But it also felt like Burroughs could have written this. Maybe Burroughs did write this. Maybe I just memorized it, and I couldn’t even tell anymore. It was a very exciting feeling, and I think the film ended up exactly that way: it’s nothing I would have done on my own. And it’s nothing that Burroughs could have done on his own. It took the two of us.
The book Naked Lunch is very much about control and the body, the algebra of need, need and addictions of all kinds. The film is really not about that.
There’s a bit of it. The proportions are very different. I think that’s a consequence of stepping back from the page and including the act of writing as the center of the discussion.
But why a movie about writing? Writing about writing is one of the most boring things —
Incredibly boring. And to extrapolate from that, film about writing —
Is worse, much worse.
So much so —
But that’s the challenge.
— So much so that when we see the tale of the writer trying to write in Barton Fink, the Coens are satirizing the writer as an “interesting” character —
Because he’s not.
And the process of creation is dreadfully interior, and from the exterior, boring.
You don’t even need Barton Fink. You’ve got Hammett.
So don’t you risk making a movie that is almost exclusively about itself in the way that Barton Fink is about itself, or Baron von Munchausen is about itself? That’s something I never think Cronenberg is about.
But do you think that’s what happened?
To some extent. I think it’s very self-referential, and about the creative process. In that sense, it’s about itself. I’m not saying that’s exclusive of other meanings.
[Deadpan.] You’re saying my movie is as boring as Barton Fink? Is that what you’re saying? Even more boring? Thank God you’re not writing a review.
See, I’m not wanting to do that. You do need internal reflections in a film. You are making a universe that has to hold true to itself. Even when you’re pretending that’s it’s just like outside the theatre, everybody knows it isn’t really.
Here are the rules we’re going to play by, whatever they are.
That’s exactly right. What I’m saying is that a film will be self-referential, if it works, no matter what. Has to be, to a certain extent. And the illusion is that it’s not only self-referential, but that you are alluding to a wider meaning, and a wider universe, because you are only presenting this little universe. If it is only self-referential, it is an intricate game, within itself, as some novels are.
And the Coen brothers are good at that.
And the Coen brothers certainly did that in Barton Fink. But I myself would think the film was a failure if that’s all it did.
But why a film about writing? Why focus on that? When all the other concerns of the book, which are fundamentally Cronenbergian concerns —
No, wrong. Wrong. Wrong. This is a very Cronenbergian concern, and here’s what it is. In a way, coming to grips with writing, with being creative, I think I’m coming closer to the basics. And coming closer to the flame, by dealing directly with it. Because, what is writing but trying to order reality? Trying to make order out of chaos. To come to understand phenomena that are not really susceptible to understanding. To create your own reality. To come to terms with your own reality. I deal with this in all my films. All of my characters do this sort of thing. And here I’m coming to a distilled version of it, i.e., a writer. And the fact that it’s a dangerous thing to do cinematically — because it’s difficult to do well — is part of the thrill. Just like the difficulty in doing Burroughs because it’s an impossible book to film is part of the thrill. I think you have to be slightly psychopathic to make movies anyway.
So, I’m trying to turn the writing process inside out, and show it from the inside out. So quite contrary to the notion that I’m distancing myself from anything dangerous by making a very self-referential, introspective film, I think I’m actually coming closer to the essence of some things. Despite the cliché possibilities of having chosen that subject matter, it’s the destiny of the film at that point. I guess I feel there’s a criticism you’re aiming at me, and I’m trying to be defensive — in an entertaining way — but I guess I haven’t really understood the attack. What’s the criticism then?
Let me lampoon it: it’s art about art, and not art about life, or only art about that part of life that has to do with art.
But to me, a perfectly legitimate concern. To me, if you are an artist, you are deliberately amputating a huge part of the stuff you can discuss firsthand if you never talk about your art. It is incestuous, it is sort of intra-cyclical, it can be a cliché. But nonetheless, it comes with the territory. If you’re a filmmaker, a huge part of your energy and life is filmmaking. If you choose never to refer to it, what have you done to yourself?
But you can make film after film after film about the intersection of science and society — which in a way you have — whereas I can’t see you making film after film after film about writing.
[Deadpan.] I intend to. That’s what I plan to do. This is the beginning of a huge series. [Laughs.] How ‘bout, instead of Cronenberg coming out of the closet as a bisexual, he comes out . . . as a writer! Or a filmmaker. Or an artist. Maybe unconsciously that was one of the things that drew me to Naked Lunch. I can’t say which came first. I was very excited by the fact that this movie was going to be, in some part, about the artistic process.
I’m not saying it’s not worthwhile. I’m saying it’s difficult and perilous and —
And I fucked up! But other than that.
Because it’s a very hermetic world.
No, see, that’s the part of the attack I disagree with. Or the proposal, the proposition. I don’t think it has to be a hermetically conceived system at all, it just depends on what your approach is.
It’s hermetic because it’s encapsulated within the brain of the character. So to begin with, you’re going to need metaphor in a way you don’t elsewhere. Let’s look at the problem of metaphor, because this film slams you over the head — I’m not saying you’re not subtle — with the difficulties of filmic metaphor.
I bet if you ask a hundred people coming out of the cinema if that’s what they thought, I bet they wouldn’t know what the fuck you were talking about. Never mind. It slams me over the head with that problem, and I have to figure out how to solve it.
And the first time through the film, I choked on some of the things that were metaphorical.
To some extent, the talking typewriters. It seems to me that metaphor, to function successfully, requires an act of imagination. At its best, you need both to care about the object itself, in an intimate way, as well as to be able to entertain the idea of a larger or different significance for that object. For instance, in The Fly, we care about the fly, as Brundle, and that’s a baseline, and so then the fly works as a metaphor for other things — for AIDS, or disease, or contagion, or just the love for someone who’s changing on you. Those things are rich and work metaphorically because the fundamental connection between ourselves and the object is there.
What you’re really saying is, because there’s someone human under the rubber — why don’t you get direct about it? — whereas these little guys are puppets. See, you weren’t raised on “Sesame Street,” that’s your problem.
That’s probably true.
I’m telling you it’s true. And if you had been raised on “Sesame Street,” loving Cookie Monster as I have, only because I had a kid that watched it all the time, it wouldn’t be a problem. I mean, what you’re saying, now that we’ve gotten to the bottom of it, is straightforward and not wrong. It really is a very specific response. Some people are definitely going to be turned off by the typewriters. A lot of actors are going to be turned off. Some actors who were involved in the film said, you know, I’m really happy with the acting, but I have difficulty with the scenes when there is an actor acting with a puppet.
Don’t you feel there’s a risk in making metaphors too literal?
Huge risk. What’s literal here?
Let’s say where Joan Frost [Judy Davis] is at the typewriter writing this uncivilized prose that leads to their fully clothed sex grope, and the typewriter literally sprouts an erection. Don’t you feel we “get it” without a penis coming out of the typewriter? Don’t you feel that you defuse, or vitiate, the metaphorical richness of it by making it too literal?
No, I think I’m making it funny. And playful. Maybe you’re taking it more seriously than I intended. It’s like the embodiment of their lust, it’s this polymorphously perverse thing. It’s beyond them fucking, it’s just total sexuality.
It’s not them fucking, they’re fully clothed. Which is an interesting choice you make throughout the picture.
You’re right, it is a choice.
People would expect a lot of flesh in this movie and there’s basically none.
Like I told you, I love to disappoint people.
Why make the typewriters embody the characters’ strange sexuality instead of the characters embodying their strange sexuality themselves?
Because I’m probably giving you the same sort of avoidance, the same sort of avoidance-denial level cinematically that I’m saying Lee is doing psycho-emotionally. That’s what’s happening. I’m saying Lee is denying and avoiding certain realities about himself. And to the extent that he is controlling his fantasies, they are also avoiding, denying fantasies. So that if he is squeezing mugwump jism into a glass, he is not allowing himself to see that he is really sucking Kiki’s cock. I think it works. I think it’s a structure that has never been used before. I’ve never seen it. I think I made some inroads in that direction in Videodrome, where I’m saying it’s the character’s point-of-view fantasy that is now controlling the reality.
It’s a relentlessly first-person movie in the same way.
That’s it. But in this case it’s not as removed. Because you do get hints. I mean, when the sex blob jumps out of the window, it lands as the typewriter. And when Lee has the death scene with the typewriter/bug, we see that it is a typewriter, and that he’s been sitting in the corner, typing. And when Kiki and Cloquet are centipeding, I give you some soundtrack that is letting you know what is really happening. It’s not quite as relentless.
Now why did I choose that structure? Partly, I wanted to deny people their most ordinary expectations. Because I want to surprise them and confound them and intrigue them and jar them out of their expectations. That’s one reason. I guess it’s the anti-entertainment part of me. An entertainer wants to give you exactly what you want. A good entertainer gives you those good old songs that you want to hear. And an artist wants to give you what you don’t know you want. Something you might know you want the next time, but you never knew you wanted before.
Do you watch your films with an audience?
Do you take pleasure in it?
Yeah, because it’s like rehearsing for three years and then doing the performance. I only want to do it a few times, and it’s kind of confusing sometimes, because I end up watching it in Italian with an Italian audience, in French with a French audience. Basically, I need to do it. That’s my catharsis. I don’t get catharsis from a film until I’ve watched it with an audience.
What did the process of making this film teach you about the process of writing?
The real subject of the film is what I’ve dealt with before, that is, the necessity of human beings to create their own reality. That’s beyond writing. Writing is just one way of doing it. And it’s a well-known, socially accepted way, but it’s not the only way. Drugs are another way.
You are fascinated with drugs.
Definitely, because to the same extent that our understanding of reality comes from our senses, and to the extent that the senses can be deranged by drugs, or that the function of the senses can be completely altered or skewed by drugs, then we alter our reality. I mean, I did do one acid trip. One. In the sixties, and it was a great trip. It had some sad moments, but it was great. And I would have assumed that I would take it a lot more times, but obviously, I must have felt that it was going to be too dangerous. Maybe it’s like when you go to the race track and bet for the first time and win, then you should stop right there. But it really confirmed something I had known intellectually, it confirmed it viscerally: that the world was different. It was not the same world. I was someplace else. The colors were different, the shapes were different, time was different. It was fantastic. It didn’t make me want to keep going there, what it made me do is realize how fragile and how invented our understanding of reality is. Even physically, the most basic kind of reality that we know. This shows you that that’s not even nearly an absolute.
I started to think, yeah, what about a creature like any other human being, but born with LSD as part of his nervous system. Like an organ that produces acid. You could survive. But your understanding of the world would be totally, totally different from any other human being’s. I’m sure the animals that we share our houses with — our dogs, our cats, our salamanders and turtles — they’re all on acid! On their own particular kind of acid. They don’t see the colors the way we do, if at all. We think it’s a shared reality. It’s not a shared reality. I think that’s the real subject of the film.
And that’s where the writing connects very directly with the drug-taking, with the fantasizing, with the will to control. All of those things are part of the same human urge. So I do make a case that Naked Lunch is not a film about writing. And I do feel that when I’m making a film, I’m doing the same thing: I’m creating a new reality.