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.
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.
does a day of shooting a film involve for you?
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.
as the director, how long is your day?
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
you like having actors come to dailies?
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.
long does it take to make a film from beginning
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.
the three-month shoot, how much longer do you
have to work?
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 , 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.
directors do you feel most grateful to?
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.
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.
there any American directors that influenced you?
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.
did you stop wanting to become an obscure novelist?
still want to be an obscure novelist! I never
know, I know, but when did your interest in films
draw up beside your interest in obscure novels?
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
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."
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
man is not in control of his destiny? Or only
as he perceives himself in control of it?
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.
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?
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
are your feelings about the almost complete lack
of an intellectual culture in our environment
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.
the contrary, your films are intellectual films.
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.
critics posit that you are disgusted by sex.
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.
working with Burroughs different from what you
expected after reading his works?
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.
you have to make a legal agreement with him to
change the film's basis from Naked Lunch
to his life?
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.
about working with Jennifer Jason Leigh?
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.
the publicity tour for eXistenZ, do you
have another project percolating?
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.