Venice: David Cronenberg on Being Canadian in the Age of Trump

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David Cronenberg

The maestro, who will get a lifetime Golden Lion, reflects on his career and a possible 'Eastern Promises' sequel, and teases a potential second novel.

Frequently considered one of the world’s most influential and daring directors, David Cronenberg will on Wednesday be honored at the 75th Venice Film Festival with the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement.

While each film from the Toronto-born director is unique and defies genre boundaries, his work over the years has often delved deep into the human psyche, exploring fear, transformation and transgression.

In Venice on Wednesday, Cronenberg will offer a master class and present his 1993 drama M. Butterfly, which he describes as one of his most personal films.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with the director about why it's a good time to be Canadian, working with the Weinsteins and why now would be as good a time as any for Eastern Promises 2.

What does the Golden Lion honor mean to you?

I like the little physical awards. I have a whole menagerie of them. I have a Silver Bear from Berlin, a Silver Puffin from Reykjavik. To add a Golden Lion from Venice to the menagerie is very playful and delightful to me. Given that Venice is the oldest fest in the world, 75 years old, and I’m 75 years old, there’s a great conversion there for me. It seems to suggest I’ve lived several lifetimes, which would be good if it were true.

How does it feel to look back on your body of work?

They are all kinds of documentaries for me of what I was doing while I was making the films. So I really have no objective evaluation. I mean, they were all difficult to make; making films hasn’t gotten any easier over the years that I’ve been making them — sometimes it gets harder. And each one has particular meaning because it embodies what my life was and where I was in my life at that time. So they are all very personal to me, and they have a very heavy emotional content that is sort of separate from what the film is itself. I remember every shot. I remember what was happening on the set that day.

How do you feel about being Canadian in today’s world?

It feels pretty great I have to say. (Laughs) I think Canada has emerged as definitely, perhaps, the best place in the world to live, and we join our hands in sorrow with some of our American friends who are not very happy with what’s going on in America right now.

Could Canada ever be susceptible to Russian President Vladimir Putin, following U.S. President Donald Trump's friendly recent summit with him?

No, I think absolutely not. I think everybody, it’s not just Canada that’s shocked about that relationship, but probably everybody around the world. I think Putin is probably shocked at his good fortune.

Do the Russian crime elements of Eastern Promises feel particularly relevant to you today?

Well, we knew that in essence what we were depicting in Eastern Promises was true. And one of the interesting things about that is it’s Russians in exile in London; this is about Russian criminals who maybe can’t go back to Russia, and so they are trying to re-create Russia basically inside London. And that proved to be rather prescient, The script by Steve Knight was pretty accurate in what was happening then, and even more what’s happening now. So I think it has an extra layer of chilling when you watch Eastern Promises now given everything that’s happened — it’s pretty current.

If you were to shoot that story now, what would it look like?

I think it would look exactly the same. It was very well received, even by the Russian criminals that it depicts. Apparently some of the things that we do in the movie that we invented are now standard things that Russian criminals like to do, hand gestures that Viggo [Mortensen] kind of invented for the movie — apparently now that has been absorbed into their mythology.

Doesn’t now seem like a good time for a sequel, then?

At one point, we did talk a lot about doing a sequel, but for various, many various reasons, it never materialized. I mean, there was a script written by Steve Knight and discussions about it, but it never happened. It was something that I thought could have been quite good. It would have been very different, because we would have had the main character go back to Russia. But obviously it didn’t happen. Somebody probably will do it. It’s not likely to be me anymore, but you never know.

You once gave the advice to never work with assholes, referring to the Weinsteins. Do you feel vindicated today?

Well, I was saying that to a bunch of film students in private. What I was really trying to illustrate to them was that you have to really be careful who you work with. You have to do some research, and you have to have a good fit with a producer. So it was in a context of discussing what you need to be aware of if you are going to be a professional filmmaker.

I did work with the Weinsteins. They did distribute my film eXistenZ, but basically I had a contract with Bob Weinstein and his company to release my film in at least 700 theaters, and I think he ended up only releasing it in 30 and was very upset because we had a test screening that didn’t go well. And for guys who say they are marketing geniuses, they were acting very much like a standard studio, which is to say they have one bad test screening and they lose faith in the whole project. That’s not what you would expect from guys who promoted themselves the way the Weinsteins did. But to me, that’s just normal movie anguish.

Are you working on anything at the moment?

I’m making notes. I’m making notes.

Are you still writing novels?

Yeah, well, the notes that I’m writing could be a novel. I don’t think that it would be a movie, but I think that it could be a novel, so we will see.

What’s your fondest Venice memory?

I love being there, I love being there with my actors, you know. It was really lovely to be there for A Dangerous Method. Just the boats and the islands, it’s just like a lovely kind of video-game fantasy. And then we see the addition of this sort of excitement of showing your film, introducing your film to a lot of lovely people in a beautiful auditorium. It’s just very exciting, very sweet.