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Earlier this month, I had the great privilege of spending about a half-hour in New York with the enigmatic Canadian auteur David Cronenberg.
The 68-year-old, who is responsible for some of the most eccentric (and often twisted) films of our time — among them Scanners (1981) The Dead Zone (1983), Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), Naked Lunch (1991), Crash (1996), eXistenZ (1999), Spider (2002), A History of Violence (2005), and Eastern Promises (2007) — was in town to attend the New York Film Festival’s gala screening of his latest work, A Dangerous Method.
Method, which Oscar winner Christopher Hampton adapted into a screenplay from a play that he wrote years ago, recounts the true story of the relationship between two of the fathers of psychoanalysis, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a sexually disturbed patient who came between them. The film premiered in Venice, played at Telluride, Toronto, and New York, and will be released by Sony Pictures Classics on Nov. 23.
I encourage you to check out video of our conversation (above) and/or read text highlights (below).
On his early moviegoing experiences/influences “I do remember one day coming out of my Hopalong Cassidy movie, and across the street was a cinema that only showed Italian movies, because we had a huge Italian population where I was growing up … and I saw out of that theater coming a lot of people, all adults, and they were all weeping, they were all sobbing, out on the street, crying — which, you know, in the 1950s, was pretty extraordinary — and I had to see what movie it was that had the power to do that to adults. I crossed the street, and I looked at the poster, and it said La Strada, by Federico Fellini, and that stuck with me. Of course, I didn’t see the movie for many years, and then I, too, was weeping, and I understood what kind of power movies had … Then came the fifties and the sixties — the era of the Art movie, with a capital A. That was Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, Truffaut, Godard — and those were my formative guys, you know? Those were the filmmakers who let me know that movies could be art as well as entertainment.”
On his early ambitions and shocking introduction to filmmaking (which he has never previously discussed) “I always thought I’d be a novelist. My father was a writer, and I really was sure that I’d be a novelist. But, at the same time, I was, kind of, you know, interested in technology, such as it was. And I do remember an 8mm camera and shooting a sportscar race because I was a racing fanatic — I actually raced myself in the sixties, cars and motorcycles. I remember the first film I shot was at a place called Harewood Acres, in southern Ontario. I was shooting footage of a car race, and, actually, a guy flipped his car and died; there were ambulances on the track. This was my first actual film that I shot. I haven’t talked about this much … not that I thought that was an augury of things to come, but that was my first footage — and you’re the first to hear it!”
On what led him to pursue filmmaking for a career “The underground film movement — the New York underground — really was a huge influence on me. It was the sixties, and it was, sort of, ‘You don’t have to go to Hollywood and you don’t have to go to film school. You just grab a camera and do your own thing.’ You know, that was the sixties. That, coupled with the fact that I saw a movie that a student had made — this was at the University of Toronto, so I wasn’t too young, really. It was a film called Winter Kept Us Warm, the director was named David Secter, and it was incredibly shocking to me — it’s impossible to reproduce that moment of shock, because kids know they can make movies when they’re eight years old, five years old, but it had never occurred to me that I could make a movie. There was no movie industry in Canada, you know? There was television — very good television; there was documentary filmmaking from the National Film Board; but there was no real feature filmmaking. And, suddenly, I was watching a movie that had my colleagues — my friends at school — as actors … I was shocked. The realization was overwhelming that, ‘Wow, you can actually make a movie.'”
On contemplating a career within the Hollywood system “There was time early in my career where I thought I’d have to move to Hollywood, as my friend Ivan Reitman ultimately did; Lorne Michaels was in Hollywood and then moved to New York to do Saturday Night Live — these were my childhood friends, you know, or my university friends. I thought I might have to do that because we were having great difficulty getting this first script that I had written made … it was a low-budget horror film, which, in America, if you were working for Roger Corman, for example, was a no-brainer — I mean, of course, you would get it financed because it was an interesting subject and if you did it cheaply enough Roger would certainly finance it. In Canada it was a big deal because people didn’t make movies… No one was making imaginative fiction films … Definitely not horror films … So my first trip to L.A. was, basically, to sound that out. And I did go to Corman, and I did go to a lot of people, and they all said, ‘Yeah! We would make this movie!’ … If it hadn’t been for [the Canadian government’s reluctant] investment [in his first film], I’m sure I would have been an American filmmaker.”
On the motivations behind the stories he tells “I have no real agenda. I mean, I don’t have anything that I’m using film to promote, even artistically. The basic artistic function is to explore what it means to be human, you know? ‘What is the human condition? What is the nature of life? How do we live? How do we deal with each other? How do we exist?’ That’s really it. I mean, I use film to explore those things, and there’s so many ways you can do that.”
On people’s interpretations of his films “I’m always, kind of, bemused by the people talking about, ‘Well, A Dangerous Method isn’t very Cronenbergian’ — it is or it isn’t. I mean, I think anything I do is Cronenbergian, enough for me anyway … so I don’t restrict myself, in terms of subjects — anything that intrigues me … It means that there’s a cinematic voice of mine that’s, kind of, surprising, and maybe shocking, and unique, so they want to encode it somehow in a phrase. So I don’t take it as an insult, but it can come back to haunt you because people start to pigeonhole you, suddenly, in a way that you don’t pigeonhole yourself.”
On “venereal horror,” a term often applied to his work “I have no idea what that means. It means, sort of, sex horror, somehow, that involves genitalia, perhaps? I have no idea… It really had to do with the specifics of those particular movies, you know? Did Dead Ringers involve that? Did M. Butterfly involve that?… These categories are only of passing interest to me. It’s a game, really, for critics to play, because, creatively, it’s really a non-issue. It means nothing… Do I have a list? Do I say, ‘Well, I was gonna do Cosmopolis, but there’s no venereal horror in it, so either I put it in or I’m not gonna do the movie?’ No. It doesn’t work that way at all … It’s not like I’m obsessed with the body.”
On A Dangerous Method “When I read Christopher Hampton’s play, I could say to myself, ‘Well, I guess, probably unconsciously — to use a Freudian expression — I’ve always wanted to do something about Freud, but I never had the structure and never had, sort of, the concept to deal with such a vast topic. And here was a perfect dramatic structure — very unexpected, because I didn’t know anything Sabine Spielrein and her relationship with Jung. So here was what I considered an intellectual menage-a-trois … as well as dealing with the birth of psychoanalysis and the birth of psychoanalysis and life in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century, all fantastic things and of interest to me always.”
On the possibility of “going Hollywood” in the future “I haven’t really tried to avoid it. I’ve often joked and said, ‘I’ve been trying to sell out for years but nobody’s buying!’ I mean, I did try to do The Matarese Circle with Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington at M-G-M, but M-G-M, kind of, went belly-up for a while … there were other moments … I think the only in-house studio movie I ever really did was A History of Violence with New Line, and, obviously, New Line was not Warner Brothers … I’ve tried, and, in each case, it’s, sort of, not happened for all kinds of different reasons. It’s absolutely not an opposition … you’re still trying to make a good movie, but within a different context. I’d be interested to try it … maybe it’ll still happen.”
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