David Cronenberg Talks Hollywood and Being the King of Venereal Horror
The Filmmaker on the Edge honoree swapped stories with fellow indie iconoclast John Waters in a lively Q&A at the 16th Provincetown Film Festival.
PROVINCETOWN — David Cronenberg's ambivalence toward Hollywood is on full display in his latest feature, Maps to the Stars, a satire of celebrity obsession and entertainment-industry incestuousness that premiered this year in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, winning a best actress award for Julianne Moore's fearless turn as a strung-out screen diva.
"There were a couple of Hollywood producers, and one of them said, 'I could not do this movie, because I could not do that to this business that has been so good to me,' " said Cronenberg, while being honored with the Filmmaker on the Edge Award at the 16th annual Provincetown Film Festival.
"But I actually had the head of a studio come over to me in Cannes, hug me and say, 'Your movie scared the shit out of me. I had nightmares about it all night. And then the next day I went to a party at the Hotel du Cap, and all I could see was scenes from your movie.' So I thought that was a positive reaction."
The inaugural Filmmaker on the Edge winner in 1999 and the unofficial godfather ever since of the Cape Cod event, John Waters introduced Cronenberg by recalling that Martin Scorsese once confessed he was scared to meet the maverick Canadian director.
"I was drunk when I first met him," said Waters. "It was at William Burroughs' 70th birthday at The Limelight. That was 30 years ago, but God knows I have been his fan forever."
He then introduced a terrific montage from the director's blazingly original output, with films that have spanned early shockers such as Rabid, The Brood, Scanners and Videodrome through such dark meditations on the human condition as Dead Ringers, Crash, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, to his biggest box-office success, the unsettling 1986 sci-fi remake The Fly.
"I wonder why you showed only the conservative stuff," commented Cronenberg after viewing a clip reel that covered bugs, body parts, rogue viscera, exploding heads, stabbing, spanking, outre sex and car crashes. "That wasn't the edgy stuff."
"I've been put into this bizarre category called body horror," the honoree said. "But I've never used that term myself. Now the one I like best is when someone said that Cronenberg is the king of venereal horror. It's a small kingdom, but it's mine."
As someone who has had his own tussles over the years with censorship and reluctant film financing, Waters asked how Cronenberg had consistently managed to obtain Canadian government funding. He explained that since there was virtually no tradition of genre filmmaking when he started submitting projects, he got some nervous responses. But his entire output since then has had at least some component of state backing, including his most controversial film, Crash.
"That's so amazing," said Waters. "That would never happen here. They would pay to stop you."
Cronenberg recalled the initial reception in the 1996 Cannes competition for Crash, his unsettling adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel about a subculture of sexual thrill-seekers getting their kicks in auto accidents.
"There was a huge reaction to it," he said. "It was the first film I ever had in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, and the head of the festival, Gilles Jacob, said to me, 'I'm going to program your film in the middle of the festival so that it can then explode like a bomb.' And he was right. The press conference was vicious. People were shaking their fists at us. And then for the next year, the Brits, especially, were attacking me and the English producer Jeremy Thomas."
However, he said the Ontario classification board raised no objections to the movie: "I had intimidated them by then, so I had no trouble with them."
He did encounter some resistance when it came time for the U.S. release. Ted Turner, at that time owner of New Line, screened the film privately with his then-wife Jane Fonda, both of whom he says were appalled and tried unsuccessfully to suppress it.
"Later I met Ted Turner at the Oscars on the red carpet, and I said 'Ted, Crash?' " recounted Cronenberg. "He replied, 'I don't know, I just thought it would make young people want to have sex in cars.' I mean there's an entire generation of Americans spawned in the back seats of '55 Fords."
Waters applauded Cronenberg for his unconventional casting of performers like Deborah Harry, who has appeared in both filmmakers' work, and porn star Marilyn Chambers, who made a notable foray into "straight" cinema as a young woman who develops a taste for blood, unleashing a zombie epidemic in Rabid.
"Ivan Reitman was one of the producers, and it was his idea to cast her," said Cronenberg, explaining the importance of having a name cast in order to get acquisitions attention in the Cannes market. "It was a fantastic idea. It was a very low-budget movie, and we couldn't afford a big-name star. This was a porn name, but still a name. It got people to come see the movie, and she got great reviews."
Cronenberg said he's been fine with remaining on the periphery of Hollywood throughout his career. He got close to making a Robert Ludlam adaptation for MGM, right before the studio went under, and famously was the original director attached to the 2012 Total Recall remake before Sony went with Len Wiseman.
"This is a big studio movie that's going to cost $200 million," he explained. "They're going to give it to a guy who's directed a couple of rock videos because he's someone they can control. But it's not in my nervous system to do something like that."
Continuing on his near brushes with studio projects, he said: "I got a phone call once asking if I was interested in directing one of the Star Wars sequels. And instead of saying 'Oh my God, yes!' I said, 'Well, you know, I don't really do other people's material.' Click. I don't know how far it would have gone, but it ended there."
Cronenberg has no use for standard studio practices like test screenings, rehearsals or storyboarding. He recalled that when New Line tested A History of Violence it got low scores. But when the movie's premiere was greeted with a record-length standing ovation in Cannes, they stopped talking about recutting.
Regarding rehearsals, he said, "We did it once, and I realized that it was a neurotic waste of time. My films are always low-budget, so I can't afford to have the actors come two weeks early."
"Holly Hunter on Crash said to me, 'David, I really think we should have some rehearsal,' and I said 'I don't really do that. I've found it to be useless, and I like the pressure and the spontaneity of getting it right on the set. While we're locking in the scene, that's when we rehearse.' And she said, 'David, you don't understand. I'm f—ing everybody else in this movie, and I really should get to know them a little bit first.'"
Considering Cronenberg's extensive and wildly innovative experience with practical effects, he surprised many in the Provincetown audience — which included fellow honoree Debra Winger; her husband, Arliss Howard, whose film Big Bad Love screened as part the tribute; and Jonathan Demme, whose latest feature, A Master Builder, is the festival's closing-night presentation — by declaring himself a strong proponent of digital technology.
"I really love CGI in the sense that it's another tool," he said. "When I made Naked Lunch, there was no such thing as computer generated graphics. Even in Maps to the Stars, which is relatively naturalistic, there's a lot of CG that's wonderful. It was set in Hollywood, but it was mostly shot in Toronto. We just shot five days in Hollywood. And yet I could put the Hollywood Hills in the background easily because of computer graphics. That's a fantastic tool for a director, and that's why I love digital. But because it's exciting, it does get overused, of course."
He had affectionate words for legendary Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis, with whom he worked on The Dead Zone. "I loved Dino," he said. "He was busy with David Lynch on Dune, so he left me alone. But I thought he was one of the great old-time European diva film producers, never to be seen again."
Describing the diminutive producer sitting behind his huge desk with carved lion's heads at the corners, Cronenberg shared a story about being in De Laurentiis' office when Tom Cruise came swaggering in wearing a baseball jacket and cowboy boots. His star was on the rise, and he was eager to be cast in Dune. Cronenberg's account of that perfunctory audition was basically left profile, right profile. "Then Dino says, 'OK, thank you.' That was the audition, and he didn't get the role."
Maps to the Stars, which eOne will release in the U.S. later this year, was relatively expensive by Cronenberg's earlier standards, costing $13 million. Returning to that film, Waters asked, "So is Hollywood going to forgive you for this one?"
"I can't wait to screen it in Hollywood," Cronenberg replied. "Obviously, Hollywood owes me absolutely nothing. But I don't owe Hollywood anything either."
"There is a strange use of an award in Maps to the Stars," said Cronenberg when accepting the Filmmaker on the Edge trophy and feeling its weight. Let's just say the scene involved does not involve it sitting on a mantel. "I urge you to go see the movie, and you'll understand."