David Cronenberg Says Coronavirus Is "Great Stuff" for Science Geeks

Disappearance at Clifton Hill-Publicity still - H 2020
IFC FIlms

The onetime biology major turned horror maestro says the global outbreak is "just business as usual on planet Earth" as he promotes a star turn in IFC Midnight's 'Disappearance at Clifton Hill.'

Horror maestro David Cronenberg gets that the new coronavirus spreading overseas has everyone in a panic.

But if you're seeing in the media coverage of the Covid-19 outbreak eerie similarities to Cronenberg's epidemic flicks like Shivers, Rabid or Scanners, the onetime biology major recommends we focus on molecular evolution.

"It's a mutation. On a scientific level, this is great stuff. It's not scary. Socially, it's scary. But if you're a science geek, this is just business as usual on planet Earth," Cronenberg tells The Hollywood Reporter about the outbreak.

He's sitting in his favorite Toronto local, the Il Gatto Nero cafe, a few doors down from the family home on Crawford Street where he grew up with an early interest in science, and especially insects. As Cronenberg talks about his latest film — an acting gig in Albert Shin's Disappearance at Clifton Hill, released this weekend by IFC Midnight — the filmmaker known for using bodily fluids, limbs and parasites to drive the narratives on his "body horror" dramas recalls his scientific roots.

"I came this close to becoming a biochemist," he insists, after studying cell biology at the University of Toronto for one year before switching to an English major. Cronenberg reveals he eventually decided to use his scientific knowledge and imagination to make movies about human parasites, insect hybrids and other creepy obsessions, rather than complete years of actual scientific experiments only to discover his theories about human life were wrong. 

"For me, that was the inspiration. It didn't have to do with fear of disease or fear of contamination, although I know it can be seen that way," he insists. For Shin, casting Cronenberg in his mystery thriller was not without trepidation when the legendary director's name first came up just before Disappearance at Clifton Hill went to camera in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

"We were having a hard time casting the part and it was getting down to the wire," Shin says, before Cronenberg interrupts: "Geez, if I'd known that, I'd have asked for a lot more money." Shin adds his concern was that Cronenberg would have said no to the part, wasn't available or was too expensive.

As it happened, Cronenberg read the script for Disappearance at Clifton Hill, a day later was sitting down with the director to discuss the role and two days later slipped into a scuba diving suit and the Niagara River to play a local historian and podcaster trawling local waters for mementos and corpses.

His character in the Canadian indie — Walter Bell, the surviving member of a family of diving daredevils — helps a troubled young woman, played by Tuppence Middleton, return to her hometown of Niagara Falls to solve the mystery of a long-ago kidnapping she witnessed by connecting the dots.

Cronenberg says the Walter Bell role drew him to Shin's film, which as a director has been his experience with the legions of Hollywood actors that have appeared in movies he made as a writer and director. "It's the role more than anything else, because you have actors who say I'd love to work with you, and I believe them. But if the role doesn't interest them, they'll say no," he explains.

And for any other director possibly considering Cronenberg for an acting role, but who may also fear he's tied up elsewhere, the Toronto-based director says with an impish grin: "I'm pathetically available. I'm so available." Cronenberg adds he hasn't directed a movie in five years, since the Julianne Moore-starrer Maps to the Stars in 2014, and acting gets him back in touch with on-set collaboration.

"Even though I thought I was finished with film, I miss the set and the people you work with. And inevitably if you're shooting in Toronto, I'm going to be working with people who I know, or have worked with in the past," he says. Cronenberg also insists when acting on set, he never meddles with the director or other creative talent.

"Not only would it be obnoxious, it isn't even practical. If you haven't gone through weeks of pre-production, if you haven't done the casting or the locations, the camera work or the writing, then you're not really directing," he explains. And could Cronenberg direct another movie? "It's possible. I'm not ruling anything out. I'm 76. I'm in pretty good shape. I feel good. But you never know. I have tricks —Take a lot of naps," he adds.

Cronenberg also reveals he's a fan of Netflix and other streaming services as he continues to pitch his 2014 novel Consumed as a possible TV drama. "I'm a big fan of streaming. I have no nostalgia for cinema per se. A lot of the subtitle reading is happening in streaming. You're seeing Scandinavian films, Israeli films. You're reading subtitles in your own homes," he explains.