"I Still Want To Be an Obscure Novelist"
An interview with David Cronenberg
By Victor Bockris

From Gadfly June 1999


David Cronenberg may have fooled us for years with the image of a blank Canadian who had no positions. In fact, he is the intellectual poet of the American cinema at the end of the twentieth century. His films spark controversy and remind you of a time when people enjoyed discussing ideas. I was the thousandth interviewer he had faced on his publicity tour for eXistenZ, his new film starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law, but he seemed completely there when we met, calm and focused.

What's most striking about Cronenberg, who is fifty-four, is the youthfulness of his face and the graduate-student vigor he exhibits when he becomes animated. Halfway through the interview, I realized I was talking to someone who has always enjoyed what he is doing and enjoys it even more these days.

What does a day of shooting a film involve for you?

DC: If we're beginning a scene, I start the day with the actors. I pull them out of make-up. When we get to the set, we start to block out the scene. We're basically deciding how to play each movement. Are you standing at the window when you deliver that line? I will usually have the continuity person and script person with me. Once we've blocked the scene out, I get my director of photography to come onto the set, and we show it to him and discuss possible angles and ways of shooting. I might modify the choreography in order to accommodate some shooting strategy. Then I call in the rest of the crew, the sound people, costume people, props, and we run the scene for them. It's like a little theater... they all have to know what's going on since they each have a job to do.

And as the director, how long is your day?

In North America and Canada, a standard day is thirteen hours. It's one hour out for lunch, twelve hours shooting. But my day doesn't end when I finish shooting, because then I have to travel across town to see the dailies, which is the film I shot the day before. I'm looking to make sure the lighting worked, so I take my cameraman and make-up people along.

Do you like having actors come to dailies?

If they want to. For some producers it's a big taboo—no actors allowed at dailies—because they might get weird seeing themselves or start screaming at somebody else in the scene for upstaging them, but I fight with the producers about this. If there's something I'm not happy with, I tend to hide it from actors, and over the years I've found that I don't like to hide anything from actors.

How long does it take to make a film from beginning to end?

It depends on how many special effects it has. eXistenZ was six months in pre-production. Normally it's not that much, but here we needed to deal with the effects for the first couple of days. These days a shoot tends to take twelve weeks. I only like to shoot about two pages of script per day. There are directors who like to shoot a lot faster. I prefer to shoot with a very tight schedule and a very short script. eXistenZ was over ninety pages. For me, that was long, and I ended up throwing away at least twenty pages, so it ended up being seventy to seventy-five pages. My preference is to go with a script that's seventy pages long and know what I'm going to shoot. One day I'm gonna have a script that's so tight I keep everything, but I haven't achieved that yet.

After the three-month shoot, how much longer do you have to work?

Oh, God! A good year and a half if you include what I'm doing right now. There's three months of editing and another two months doing the sound mix. Then, releasing the film internationally can take up to six months. If you're the writer-director, the Europeans will want to interview you. For example, with eXistenZ we started in Berlin in February [1999], where I did two hundred and fifty interviews in three days. I'm not kidding. You sit in a chair with a video camera trained on you. Journalists march by in droves with their tapes. This guy's from Spain, this guy's from Belgium, this guy's from Poland. They stick their tape in, interview you, take it out and in comes the next person. It's a real gang bang. It's called that and that's what it feels like. Then you're doing round robins, sitting at a table with eight reporters all asking questions. The actors were in Berlin as well. I would be coming from a round robin with the guys Willem Dafoe just did and vice versa. So you end up literally covering two hundred and fifty journalists from television, print, film stills, all kinds of stuff, and it's still going on right now. From Berlin I went to Paris for three days, then I was in London for three days. Now I'm in New York.

Which directors do you feel most grateful to?

I used to read a lot of Jean-Luc Godard film reviews and essays in Cahiers du Cinema. His films were very exciting to me, even when they were terrible. His theory was wonderful — the truth at twenty-four frames per second! I also read a lot of American underground filmmakers like Kenneth Anger. Those guys used to come to Toronto, so my inspiration was the New York underground.

Not Andy Warhol?

Yes, yes, definitely, but he didn't show up at those cinemathons. I remember seeing Vinyl. About one-third into the film, a voice says, "Andy Warhol's Vinyl." I loved that.

Are there any American directors that influenced you?

Well, interestingly enough, it was the Europeans who fascinated me. It was Godard and Fellini and Bergman. See, I thought I would be an obscure novelist, so I viewed films the way you read obscure novels. When I saw American films in the 1960s, they were like candy, you know; they weren't marvelous, ground-breaking, obscure works. I mean the '60s was a particularly bad decade, perhaps the worst decade ever, for American movies. But at the same time it may have been the best decade ever for foreign movies as a whole. I have a friend who dragged me back to the Toronto film society in the dead of winter, and we'd go to all these screenings, and suddenly, just by seeing early Fellini, the whole world opened up to me.

When did you stop wanting to become an obscure novelist?

I still want to be an obscure novelist! I never stopped!

I know, I know, but when did your interest in films draw up beside your interest in obscure novels?

I saw this film by David Secter, who was a student at the University of Toronto and a real hustler. He made a film called Winter Kept Us Warm (a line by T. S. Eliot). That film got great reviews in the French bible of the New Wave, Cahiers du Cinema, and it was an incredible revelation to me. I saw my friend acting in a motion picture, and that was an unbelievable explosion for me, because in Canada movies were always made someplace else, you had no access to them. Suddenly you could make a movie and that was what really got me excited about filmmaking before everything else.

The eXistenZ press release quotes you as saying, "The game you choose is your reality"; but I think that your films hover on the border of "The game that chooses you is your reality."

Hmmm. I guess it's Schopenhauer; it's the world as will and representation, it's perfect for movie makers. I have to insist on the will being part of the creation of reality. The way you said it makes it sound like it's imposed from the outside. This is the whole question of the interpretation of the film now, which is a big question and an interesting one, because I'm not saying anything in a programmatic way.

I hate it when someone will say, well, it means whatever you want it to mean. I don't believe that. That destroys art. And actually the process of doing publicity for films can be interesting, because often you end up having to be analytical about what you're normally intuitive about. It feels to me, though, that there are a lot of very willful people in my movies and they do make things happen and impose themselves on reality.

To me, technology is not separate from us. Technology is us. It's an extension of us. We created it. It didn't exist before us, and therefore there is no question of technology controlling us, it's a collaborative effort. Just as [William] Burroughs wrote about what you create coming back to haunt you, technology does the same. Some people have said, it's obvious that you are terrified of technology. I think that's absolutely not true, and the whole organic technology that I seem to do a lot of, and I certainly do in eXistenZ, is really me trying to be literary and use a metaphor on screen. Which is a hard thing to do, actually, but when you have the game pod attached by an umbilical cord to your spine, this is me saying technology is an extension of the human body. Literally. And that means that we absorb technology into our bodies and our brains and our concept of things, so it's a real fusion and no separate thing, there's no way technology can be outside us and control us.

But surely the whole subject of eXistenZ is the extent to which these people are in control of the game or able to exit the game when they want to.

People say my movies are like children, but think about what that means. Once you create a film, if you're good at it, it takes on a life of its own and you have to deal with it. It is so much like children at this point; at a certain point, you have to let them go, but they're still connected to you, they still reflect on you well or poorly, and they're always a responsibility. They come home to roost fairly often.

My favorite example of technology choosing you before you realize it is the manner in which the art of letter writing has been lost as a result of the telephone, the fax machine and e-mail.

Yes, but what I'm suggesting in this movie is that in return you'll get something that at first you don't like as much. And of course there's an overwhelming nostalgia for old technology, which might even include writing, it might include fiction, it might include cinema too. Cinema is one hundred years old, and maybe it's obsolete already. Those of us who have invested so much of our identity in these old technologies and what they can create find it very difficult to modulate or segue into the next thing. But it seems to me that technology generates art forms, and so I think a new art form will be generated by computer technology, and yes, it might well destroy what came before, and yes, that might include cinema.

Your inspiration for eXistenZ was an interview that you did with Salman Rushdie in 1995; from that came the concept of someone being persecuted for their ideas. Are you revolted by that?

Well, let's put it this way. It's a very human thing to do, and certainly, in a way, it's the discussion that goes on in the movie, which is that people create their own realities. They live in those realities and they believe that those are the only realities. But when you step back, you can see that there are many different realities that people live in. Certainly with the Rushdie thing, you see Rushdie writing out of the Western liberal literary tradition, which involves irony and illusion and humor and metaphor and so on, and then running into fundamentalist religious tradition, which doesn't recognize any of those things as even existing. It takes things very literally. I wouldn't say I'm revolted by it. At times, it results in things that are revolting, but it's no different than what every religion has done at one point or another—which is to cause great murder and slaughter and mutilation of people who didn't adhere to their beliefs. So it's a very human, strange thing to do. It just reinforces my understanding that reality is a created thing. It's all an expression of human creative will. All reality is virtual; there is no basic absolute universal reality that we all can agree on or retreat to. It doesn't exist.

So, man is not in control of his destiny? Or only as he perceives himself in control of it?

That's right. Control is an illusion as well. It's interesting, because I'm saying in a way that man is more in control in the sense that he's actually creating realities that he thinks are absolute and given to him. He thinks he's born into this reality, and I'm saying, "No, he's creating it himself." You'd think that would give him more control. But the fact is he's not aware of it or can't accept it; he's afraid to accept his control. It's like Jean-Paul Sartre saying that man is condemned to be free. The condemned part is that it's a horrible responsibility and terrifying to believe that all morals, all ethics, all reality is up for grabs—it's to be created. The freedom part is the other side of the coin. So it depends whether you're exhilarated by the freedom or oppressed by the fact that there's no reality in God or politics or communism or whatever. So in that sense, we're just barely in control. Barely.

What most people consider threatening, like disease or technology, you actually seem to find intriguing; do you think this is what they find so disturbing about your films?

I think that what is really disturbing about my movies to some people is the conceptual stuff, because they're not aware that they're reacting to it. Instead, they pick on silly, superficial stuff. They say, for example, that they don't like Crash because it has too much blood, but, in fact, if you looked at Crash frame by frame, you won't see anything that you don't see in a lot of magazines and newspapers. There's nothing particularly violent. It's a lot less nasty than anything you would see on CNN about Kosovo. So what is it that is disturbing about that movie, if it's not the specific pictures? It's the concepts. I'm shaking people's faith in things... because I'm trying to get them to break through those surface beliefs and assumptions and question them. I think that'swhat's making them nervous.

What are your feelings about the almost complete lack of an intellectual culture in our environment these days?

It reminds me of a young Italian kid I knew in high school in the '50s. He was always talking about being an intellectual, and I used to think, nobody even uses that word here in Toronto in the '50s. It seems like we've gone full circle, it doesn't exist again. And this is one of the things about film too. I mean, I would hate to think there was no intellect in my films.

On the contrary, your films are intellectual films.

I get these [critics] who say, even though I hated Crash, it's such a delight to write about, because it's actually about something we can discuss.

Many critics posit that you are disgusted by sex.

Not in the slightest! In fact, what's so interesting is that someone who was really disgusted by sex would not make my movies—I mean, he just wouldn't deal with that stuff at all.

Was working with Burroughs different from what you expected after reading his works?

Part of what really surprised me was his sweetness. That's not all that's there by a long shot, but I was surprised that a real genuine gentleness was in there with all that other stuff, but much more apparent than I would have ever imagined.

Did you have to make a legal agreement with him to change the film's basis from Naked Lunch to his life?

I did, because I asked him. At a certain point I realized that I wanted the movie to be about him as well as about Naked Lunch, which was not as autobiographical as a lot of his other writing, like Queer. From the moment I asked him, I said, "I've been wanting to have a scene in there that shows you shooting Joan," because he had written in the preface to Queer that he did not think he would have become a writer except for that. I thought it was integral, and sure enough he said, "Go ahead." He said, "It's true and you can use it." I showed him the script before the film was shot, not in terms of asking him to do any rewrites, but I wanted to make sure that we were on the same page. The last thing in the world I would have wanted was for him to be upset with me.

What about working with Jennifer Jason Leigh?

Jennifer keeps all of her methods to herself. She comes onto the set and she's right there. She doesn't involve the crew in her process. A lot of actors try to control the set, everybody be quiet or this or that. Jennifer is right up there until the moment of action, and then she is so accurately right into the moment. We did some preparation work. I gave her and her co-star Jude [Law] a lot of books on existentialism because we talked about the philosophical underpinnings of the film; and we got them into playing video games in order to prepare for the final scene in the movie. For that one, I think they both listened to the Sex Pistols for about twenty hours straight. She loves do to that in-depth stuff, but she doesn't bug you with it. It's not an intentional thing, she really uses it, she's amazing.

After the publicity tour for eXistenZ, do you have another project percolating?

Oh, I am desperate to write now. If I weren't talking to you I'd be writing. It's a bizarre thing, I've been making notes for two scripts for a couple of years, but it's been two years since I've written anything. So now I have to remember how to be a writer. I have to learn to get back into the rhythm and I find it very difficult. I can't get the scene right, and I can't get to sleep at night because I can't find the work I'm best suited to. I like to write at night. I just indulge myself in sleeping as long as I want and write when I get up, and of course I have a family, so, heaven knows, it's difficult.