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Canadian director David Cronenberg is no stranger to Cannes, having received the Carrosse d’Or lifetime achievement award in 2006 and a special jury prize in 1996 in addition to having had five films in competition, including his latest, the Robert Pattinson starrer Maps to the Stars, screening May 19. It is his first feature set in Hollywood, though considering the breadth of Cronenberg’s imagination, it is not apt to be a Hollywood like any seen previously onscreen.
The 71-year-old director, whom Martin Scorsese has described as a cross between cinematic surrealist Luis Bunuel and macabre painter Francis Bacon, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his Canadian roots, his preference for an R rating and why it takes so long to make “difficult” films.
Many think of you as an American director, but you are Canadian and have shot practically all your movies in Toronto. How did that happen?
It’s funny, but some people would think of me as a Hollywood director, for whatever reason. I’m definitely not that. Part of what I do and sort of the rhythm of my filmmaking involves co-productions between Canada and Europe. Once you do that, you’re committed to shooting a lot of the film in Canada or Europe, so there’s a pragmatic reason for shooting [in Toronto]. I also have a base of talented people that I work with consistently; I don’t want to abandon them for the latest “hot” person in that field. Then you have the nature of Toronto. I often think of it as a character actor who can play many different roles. In the 1970s, a lot of people got upset because Toronto would often be shown as somewhere else — as if that was a bad thing. But in the world of moviemaking, that’s a great thing.
Maps to the Stars was shot mostly in Toronto, with only five days on location in Los Angeles. Toronto often doubles for New York or Chicago but rarely L.A. How did you pull it off?
It is tricky. We knew we had to shoot in the summer, and honestly, it was palm trees. There are places in Toronto that look strangely like places in L.A. — there’s some very modern houses and architecture. Most of the Toronto shooting took place in a modern hospital or in private residences — that was doable. [We had to] put a bunch of palm trees in the garden, and it worked very well. I’ve been told many times by friends in L.A. that you could not tell the film wasn’t shot entirely in L.A. But those five days were crucial, and it was really fun. You know, not too many feature films are being shot in L.A., outside of TV. And it was the first time I shot a film in the U.S. in my entire career.
You made Maps for a little more than $13 million. What is your approach to film financing?
Money can be neutral, and as long as the source of the money doesn’t involve giving up creative freedom, I don’t care where it comes from. In fact, I rather like that independent films are put together like Frankenstein: You get pieces from all over the world, and you stitch them together and hope it ends up being a living organism. That’s the financing. But creatively — obviously that’s one of the reasons you make independent films, for creative freedom. You don’t have studio interference. When I was making [2012’s] Cosmopolis, [Robert] Pattinson said to me, “I’ve never seen this before.” I said, “You’ve never seen what?” He said, “You just make all the decisions right here on the spot.” I said, “Yeah.” I mean, you don’t actually have to wait to get memos from the studio. He said he’d never been in a situation where the director did what he wanted, without consultation. I said, “You know, it’s just us making this movie. There’s no one else — there’s no Big?Brother.”
Maps uses novelist Bruce Wagner’s screenplay, which satirizes celebrity culture. Does the film skewer Hollywood?
Some people thought maybe it’s based on a novel, but it isn’t — it’s an original screenplay. It’s also very much Bruce; it’s very much the kind of writing he has done in his novels. And of course his main subject is Hollywood and L.A. You could describe Bruce as a satirist, to a certain extent, but I think that shortchanges what he does. He’s very humanely realistic and emotional as well. I definitely could have played the script as high satire and exaggerated everything, but I really wanted to play against those elements because I thought they would take care of themselves. They are there, strongly, and then I wanted to play with the actors for the reality of it. I wanted to play it absolutely straight. It is a family drama, in the way many Hollywood stories are. It’s very incestuous, the film business. There’s not literal incest but that inbred kind of intense, inwardly looking Hollywood story.
The film has been rated R. Are you happy with that?
I worry about an NC-17. I’m very happy with an R — that’s where it deserves to be. I need to have the freedom of Bruce’s dialogue and his insights into the way people really speak. It’s pretty meaty and not PG-13 material.
When viewers see celebrity culture portrayed in Maps, will they see a side of Hollywood they find disturbing — or, as with The Wolf of Wall Street, will they get caught up in the glitz and glamour?
I don’t think people will want to live like the people they see in Maps to the Stars, yet they will understand the desires of the characters to live out those lives. It’s really, I think, given the emphasis there has been on celebrity culture — I’m thinking of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton and all of that — it would be misleading if one thinks about Maps that way. Although the Hollywood business is the backdrop of the story, it really is a lot more universal than that. Yes, it has to do with ambition and identity and striving. But it’s not just applicable to celebrity; it’s about real people wanting to work and have success and make money and be successful in their field. So you could have rewritten this for people in the automotive industry or even in the world of finance. There are aspects of celebrity culture, but there are no scenes with paparazzi, for example, or movie premieres.
You have a long association with Cannes and are seen as a festival darling. What does debuting a film in Cannes mean to you?
Everybody who has had a film in Cannes and had a long career has also been rejected by Cannes. I submitted [2011’s] A Dangerous Method to Cannes, and they didn’t like it, or at least they didn’t like it for the slate they were preparing. So I went to Venice. In other words, you can’t take it for granted just because, in my case, you’ve been president of the [Cannes] jury and had three or four films in competition, that your new film is automatically going to be in. I think that’s a misunderstanding people have. They’re obsessive about their cinema in France and in Cannes. The selection committee is really rigorous. With A Dangerous Method, they said, “This isn’t what we expected from you.” I’d say: “Why would you want me to be predictable? What kind of artist is that, that you can predict everything he will do? Isn’t that boring?” But for them, for whatever reason, [Method] didn’t feel like me to them. I believe later they had some regrets about that.
Older directors often lose their creative edge as their careers progress. At 71, you don’t seem to have that problem. Why?
It’s a matter of creative force and edge. Cosmopolis, which was not a successful film in terms of box office, for me, was a really successful film in terms of pushing the envelope of filmmaking. So I’m really very proud and happy with that film. That’s the thing: I’ve never lost sight of why I’m making films. You can lose sight of it. When you get older, for me, you can even get choosier. If a film isn’t really exciting, if it’s just ordinary, there’s no way I’ll do it. I don’t need the money. Not that I’m rich, but I have enough to live on, and I don’t need to do a movie for money — and I don’t need to do a movie just to be doing a movie. It has to be something that really pushes my buttons, and Maps to the Stars did that. It took 10 years to get it made. The same was true of A Dangerous Method and Crash as well. The more difficult, interesting films take 10 years to get made. Eventually I’m going to run out of time, but it takes a project like that to get me interested. So I’m not likely to make a boring film.
David Cronenberg making a boring film — that would generate some scandal.
That would be the bad kind of scandal, absolutely.
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