Interview: Director David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg‘s film eXistenZ (1999) was the first screenplay that the director had authored since the twisted cult classic Videodrome in 1983. It is thus not surprising that work in many ways feels thematically similar, and at times, even reads like a sequel.
Cronenberg is disarmingly straightforward, thoughtful, and articulate, and does not match the mental picture some might hold of a man who brings notoriously dark imaginings and extremes of psychological dysfunction to life.
At the Prescott Hotel in San Francisco, I discussed the director’s relationship to his films, and man’s intimate relationship to technology.
Allen White: What scares you? What are your nightmares?
I think ultimately is one of the reasons that I never thought that I was doing the same thing as directors like John Carpenter or George Romero, or even, at times, Hitchcock, even though I was compared with those other guys. I always thought we were doing different things, we were after different game.
David Cronenberg: The same things scare me that scare most people. I mean, I’m not superhuman or parahuman, or whatever. You worry about your kids getting sick and dying, and you worry about your plane crashing that you’re flying in. I mean, all the usual stuff. I mean, I’m not immune to it. It’s odd–I don’t really think about fear all that much. I mean, when I’m making a movie it’s not like I’m thinking, What is the essence of fear? How will I make people afraid? Which I think ultimately is one of the reasons that I never thought that I was doing the same thing as directors like John Carpenter or George Romero, or even, at times, Hitchcock, even though I was compared with those other guys. I always thought we were doing different things, we were after different game. And I figure the filmmaking process is a very personal one to me, I mean, it really is a personal kind of communication. Obviously, then, I’m communicating on a lot of levels on a lot of different things. But it’s not as though it’s a study of fear, or any of that stuff.
Even Hitchcock liked to think of himself as a puppeteer. He was manipulating the strings of his audience and making them jump, and he liked to think he had that kind of control. I don’t think that kind of control is possible beyond the very obvious kind of physical twitch when something jumps out of the corner of the frame. And I also think that the relationship I have with my audience is a lot more complex than what Hitchcock seemed to want his to be–I think that he really had more going on under the surface as well–but the way he liked his public persona to be.
We’re mixing our blood together in some way, we’re collaborating on a reaction, on their part. You know, I’m often surprised; I mean, I expect to be surprised by my audience’s reactions to things.
It’s a collaboration, I mean, you can’t control any of my movies that get shown in fifty, sixty countries. You don’t know. You can’t control all of that; anybody who comes to the cinema is bringing their whole sexual history, their literary history, their movie literacy, their culture, their language, their religion–whatever they’ve got–and I can’t possibly manipulate all of that, nor do I want to. So it’s really meeting them halfway, in a way. We’re mixing our blood together in some way, we’re collaborating on a reaction, on their part. You know, I’m often surprised; I mean, I expect to be surprised by my audience’s reactions to things.
AW: Do you even think of your work as horror, in that respect?
DC: No, I don’t. The Fly (1986) was, technically, a horror/sci-fi film. And this film (eXistenZ) is technically a sci-fi film. But to me it’s not a creative category. That’s a marketing problem, or it’s possibly a critical problem, you know, a journalistic preoccupation. But it just doesn’t function on a creative level. There’s nothing I can do with any of that on a creative level. It doesn’t mean anything.
Because each movie generates its own little biosphere, and has its own little ecology, and its climate, and you’re attuned to that more than anything else. So when people say, “Is there anything you wouldn’t show on film?” or, “Do you ever draw back?” I’m saying if I do, it’s only because of that biosphere: What is appropriate? What works within the ecology of that movie? So in one movie sex and blood would be very up-front, like Crash (1996), because it’s sort of the subject of the movie, and in another movie, like The Dead Zone (1983), it would not be appropriate. It just doesn’t work somehow; it would be disproportionate.
So there’s no sex, really, in eXistenZ, except metaphorically. And there was an opportunity to have sex, to have sex scenes, and we were all willing to do that. But as the film evolved, you know, we just thought that would be wrong. It would take away from the metaphorical sex, which is more interesting, it has more resonance, and if you suddenly threw a real naked sex scene in the middle of it, it would not balance all that, almost invalidate it. So you wait, and the movie gradually tells you what it wants to be, and you have to sort of go along with that.
AW: There are so many connections between Videodrome and eXistenZ, I felt like I was watching a sequel–but thematically, not literally. You have in both ideas such as the interface between man and technology, new realities created by entertainment media, slogan-shouting assassins.
DC: You have to remember I haven’t seen it for fifteen years. So you might well have seen it more recently than I have. It’s true that this is the first original script that I’ve written since Videodrome, so I’m sure that it connects somewhere.
You have to stop worrying about what people are going to expect from you because of the last thing you did…
But when you’re writing a script, or for me anyway, you have to create a forced innocence. You have to divest yourself of worrying about a lot of stuff, like what movies are hot, what movies are not hot, what the budget of this might be or not be. You have to stop worrying about what people are going to expect from you because of the last thing you did–which in this case by the way was not Crash, because I actually wrote this before I made Crash. This actually could have come out in ‘96. I thought it was going to get made before Crash, because I was at MGM at the time, but it didn’t turn out that way. But it would have been futile to worry about what was happening then because it was emerging somewhere else. And the other thing you have to stop worrying about, for me, is your other movies. I just know they’re going to be all interconnected. If this thing still feels alive and vital to me, then I’m going to go with it. Because, for example, people have asked me to do a sequel to Scanners (1981) or very recently somebody asked me to do a remake of Shivers (1975), which was (also called) They Came From Within. And that would feel to me like a horrible place to put myself. I wouldn’t want to go back there.
Recently (I was offered) The Truman Show (1998), and Alien 4 (1997), and in the early days, things like Witness (1985) and Top Gun (1986) and Flashdance (1983). A very well-known lady executive, Dawn Steele, who’s actually dead now, for some reason was desperate–she kept bugging me to do Flashdance. And I kept saying, “You won’t thank me because I’ll end up destroying this.” [laughs] Anyway, I do get offered stuff. You know, with Alien 4, it was tempting for a minute, because they’re begging me to do it, and it’s Fox, and I’d love to work with Sigourney Weaver and Winona Ryder, it would be great fun, and so on.
The problem with doing a schlocky big-budget horror film, or whatever studio film, is that it wouldn’t actually be fun for me.
The original Alien (1979) took stuff from Shivers. It was obvious that that happened, and I know how it happened, too, but we won’t go into that. [laughs] But listen, from what I understand, The Matrix (1999) borrows a few things from some of my early films, too. And you hope that people know that maybe if you did something original, you were the first to do it, even though people forget when they’re watching older movies what the sequence is. But at the same time, your movie’s got to have more than that, because if you just came up with some neat effect, or some neat concept, that’s not going to be a life for you, you know, that’s not a career. So the movies have to withstand the inevitable, which is that if they’re successful in any way, if they strike a chord, people are gong to imitate and rip it off, and you just have to take that as a compliment, really, ultimately. And you go on.
The problem with doing a schlocky big-budget horror film, or whatever studio film, is that it wouldn’t actually be fun for me. It wouldn’t be exciting. My rule of thumb is; you’re six months into it, you’ve got six months to go. It’s February. It’s winter. It’s dark. Am I suicidal? Or am I really excited and happy? [laughs] And the answer with those projects is, usually I’m suicidal. Also, I have to say, its because I’m innately honest, I think. If I’m going to do Alien 4, I’m going to deliver Alien 4; I’m going to try and make it the best version of Alien 4 I can. So I’m not going to try and subvert it and make it something else. Because why spend 80 or 100 million dollars of the studio’s money, and just be deceitful, and be fighting them all the time, and have them be mad at you, and then end up with something that isn’t really good either way?
I was surprised–and I don’t know if this is true–but some journalist told me that he was interviewing Robert Altman, who is a guy I admire. But Altman said, “Those assholes, they wanted me–,” you know, when he did the Gingerbread Man (1998), he said, “–they wanted a John Grisham movie and I wasn’t gonna Goddamn give ‘em that.” What? Well, I don’t get it then, because–and I haven’t seen that movie, so I can’t comment on what it turned out to be–but I don’t know if he would lie to them and say that he was gonna do that, and then not do it. So I don’t know if sort of maybe it was mutual self-deception because they both for some reason wanted that to happen, maybe because Coppola did another Grisham movie. I don’t know.
I don’t even do sequels to my own movies, why would I do sequels to somebody else’s movies?
But that would seem very odd to me to do, and I wouldn’t like to live like that for many months, because you need all the help you can get. I mean, you need the people behind you to really be behind you. You need your crew to be really excited about the movie. There’s no point dragging actors into your movie who are hating what they’re doing; that whole idea of sort of seducing them into the movie–I don’t do that. I’ve done it once or twice when I suddenly thought, “This actor really wants to be in the movie, and just wants to know that I want her to be in it.” So I’ve done that. That’s a different thing–that’s a whole actor game thing. But an actor who really doesn’t want to be in it, I wouldn’t say, “We’ll pay you this much money,” ‘cause then you’re living with someone who’s hating what he’s doing. It’s very intimate and hard to do. You need buddies, you know, you need allies and collaborators. So that’s why I wouldn’t do that. I actually said to them, “I don’t even do sequels to my own movies, why would I do sequels to somebody else’s movies?” I didn’t do The Fly II (1989); why would I do Alien 4?
I despair a bit about Hollywood in particular, whatever’s going. There was a time when it was suddenly actors directing, so it was like a huge thing; Clint Eastwood wins best director, and then Mel Gibson, and Kevin Costner, so suddenly that’s big. And then lately that hasn’t been happening. The truth is that in a good movie all of those things have to be good. Screenwriting is very important, and yes, it’s very well known that writers get shat on the most. Although, they don’t really–it depends on how successful you were, and how much they want, because there are some writers who are treated very royally, they get huge amounts of money to get rewrites, and all that kind of stuff. I don’t have much to do with that, you know, obviously, because I’ve only written scripts for myself.
I have to write, unless it’s a script that comes to me that I’m going to direct, in which case I’m not a writer. But you’re constantly writing when you’re making a movie, I mean, I’m constantly changing things. If you read the script to eXistenZ, you would see the movie up to a point, but you would also see the things really changed substantially. When you’re writing the script, you’re not writing the technology. You’re writing what you’re seeing on the screen. You’re not writing about how it’s done. It’s certainly true every time I come back–it’s sort of three years between movies–every time I come back, everything’s changed, techno-wise. But the script doesn’t change. It’s just, “Oh, hey, we’ve got these three new tools to use that make it much better when in the sound mix to edit dialogue.”
You’ve got to understand that I’m not actually that interested in predicting anything. It’s not like Arthur C. Clarke saying, “I predicted satellites twenty years before there were satellites.” I don’t get much joy out of that, even though there are instances that I could point to where things that I invented in my movies actually have come to pass. But that’s not a big deal to me. It’s all the metaphor and the drama and the meaning of it, and all of that that’s interesting to me. The technology is just a…I mean I kind of sidestep it in this movie. Because we don’t have any computers in the movie, and you don’t have computer screens, and it’s really not about videogame playing, or computer game playing–it’s a completely different technology. But, at the same time, I’m certainly aware that the big chip makers, like Intel and everybody, they’ve all done heavy, heavy research into using protein molecules in their chips as the basis of their chips. Protein molecules are the basis of organic life. There was an article recently about experiments done to try to use DNA strands as electrical wiring in a chip. So it’s inevitable to me, since I see technology first of all as being an extension of the human body, it’s inevitable that it should come home to roost. I mean, it just makes sense. I literally show that in the movie with the pods plugged into the bioports.
Our bodies, I think, are biochemically so different from the bodies of people like a thousand years ago, that I don’t even think we could mate with them.
AW: The man-machine interface is a big theme in a lot of your films.
DC: See, I don’t think of it as a man-machine interface, though. See, that’s the thing–I’m trying desperately to get…it’s much more intimate than that.
AW: “Cyborgization” is the word I think of.
DC: But, see, I don’t.
AW: What is it then, for you?
DC: Well, because technology is us. I mean, there is no separation. Technology is a pure expression of human creative will; that’s what technology is. And it doesn’t exist anywhere else in the universe, I’m rather sure of that–but we’ll see if the spaceships come. And if it is at times dangerous or threatening, it’s because in us we have things that are dangerous, self-destructive and threatening, and is expressed in various ways through our technology.
But it’s more than an interface. We are it. We’ve absorbed it into our bodies. Our bodies, I think, are biochemically so different from the bodies of people like a thousand years ago, that I don’t even think we could mate with them. I think we might even be, in other words, like different species. We’re so different. Because we absorb it, it weaves in and out of us; so it’s not really an interface, in the sense, you know, that people think about a screen and a face. I see it as a lot more intimate than that.
Technology wants to be in our bodies because it sort of came out of our bodies. I mean, in a crude way that’s sort of what I’m thinking. It wants to come home, and that is its home. First of all, in the obvious way; the eyes with binoculars, the ears with telephones, and mouths with tape recorders. First of all technology had to be an enhancement of powers that we knew we had as creatures. And then it gets more elaborate and more distant from us and more abstract. But it still all emanates from us. It is us. That’s the main thing that we do.
It’s more than a theme; to me it’s kind of like a living presence, you know, a living understanding that is behind all of the movies.
So why not say, ‘Okay, well, what about some new sexual organs?’ Well, why not? They don’t have to reproduce, they don’t have to do all that complex chromosome splitting and stuff that goes with real reproduction. So why not have direct access to your nervous system and create new orifices to do God-knows-what?
AW: How does the idea of the technological meshing of man and machine connect to another big theme I see, which is this fascinating idea of intersexuality?
DC: I think with Crash, it was just getting very focused on the idea that sex is–we’re reinventing it. We are at a major epoch in human history–which everybody really knows about, but it’s not necessarily perceived that way, but I’m perceiving it that way–which is that you don’t need sex to recreate the race. You can have babies without sex. Well this is the first time in human history that’s been true. And it means that we could, for example, do some extraordinary things. We could say, “You know sex is very problematic, it’s caused a lot of problems, it’s difficult; let’s have a moratorium on sex for a hundred years. No sex for a hundred years.” We could do that now for the first time. We couldn’t have done that twenty years ago.
So I don’t think we’ll do that, but I do think that sex is being reinvented. It’s becoming disconnected from what it was initially just in the same way that we’ve taken control of our own evolution. We no longer are subject to the laws of survival of the fittest in sort of the gross physical way that Darwin articulated, even though I don’t think we’re quite aware of it, and don’t know how to deal with it. But we’re messing around with our evolution at the genetic level, you know, at the gene level. In the same way, sex is up for grabs, you know, for reinvention. There always have been elements of politics, fashion, pleasure, art, in sexuality, but now those things are in a weird way almost the primary part of sexuality. So why not say, “Okay, well, what about some new sexual organs?” Well, why not? They don’t have to reproduce, they don’t have to do all that complex chromosome splitting and stuff that goes with real reproduction. So why not have direct access to your nervous system and create new orifices to do God-knows-what? So in a way you’re seeing new sex, neo-sex, in this movie. Do you even want to call it sex? It’s obviously inducing some kind of pleasure in the way that sex does. So I think that’s happening.
I’m just observing the world, got born into it like you did, and then found out that there were some really disturbing aspects to being alive, like that fact that you weren’t going to be alive forever–that bothered me. Do you remember when you found out that you wouldn’t live forever?
You’re seeing a lot of body modification; while in the same way we’ve never accepted the environment as given to us, we’ve never accepted the human body either. We’ve always been messing with it to the full extent of whatever technology at the time would allow us to do. But there’s also the other element of body modification, which is not medical, but it’s social, it’s political, it’s sexual, it’s cosmetic, it’s fashion. Just what people do now, with scarring, and tattooing, and piercing, and all that, and performance art as well, it would have been unthinkable–certainly as mainstream as it is now–not very long ago.
I’ve studied biochemistry, but just briefly, then I realized I wasn’t born to be a scientist. I still have those twitches. It has more to do with a perception and an understanding than that whole idea that it’s something that happened to you in your childhood. I’m just observing the world, got born into it like you did, and then found out that there were some really disturbing aspects to being alive, like that fact that you weren’t going to be alive forever–that bothered me. Do you remember when you found out that you wouldn’t live forever? People don’t talk about this, but everybody had to go through it, because you’re not born with that knowledge, and that’s the basis of all existentialist thought, the philosophy, I mean, which of course is an underpinning of this movie–it’s not called eXistenZ for nothing. It’s sort of, “Oh my God, how do I deal with this?”
For me, the first fact of human existence is the human body. That is the most real fact we have. The further from your own body you get, the less real everything is, the less verifiable, the less you connect with it. But if you embrace the reality of the human body, you are embracing your own mortality. And that is a very difficult thing for anybody to do, because the self-conscious mind cannot imagine non-existence, it’s not possible to do it. Try it! So not only can you not really imagine dying, you can’t really, not really, imagine existence before you were born. So I think, for example, that that’s one of the reasons that people believe so strongly in reincarnation. They kind of assume that somehow they were there. You can’t imagine things going on without you. That’s just the nature of our self-consciousness.
So I observed these things as a kid, and then gradually I’m kind of expressing this, and I’m kind of talking to myself through my movies about all of this stuff. And then I’m really inviting the audience to kind of have that conversation with me, or watch me talking to myself, however you think of it. And you’re seeing me not only learn to be a filmmaker, to start with my earliest films, but you’re seeing me kind of learn how to be human, you know, to understand, to develop a philosophy of life.
…this was my homage to Philip Dick because definitely some of the themes in this movie are Philip Dickian.
So that’s why I think, for example, this movie cannot be like Videodrome, all the other connections aside. That was what, seventeen years ago, something like that? I’m different now, I’ve had a lot of different experiences. And so, it must…even if I could accept the theory that it could play like a sequel to Videodrome. Well, a sequel would be fine; I mean, that would make sense. And a remake–I wouldn’t accept it.
Naked Lunch, and Crash; two books technically that are being adapted, but the process that I went through for each of them was very, very different. Because I was incorporating a lot of (William) Burroughs and my personal knowledge of him in Naked Lunch (1991) and his life and his biography as well as the book. So that was a lot of synthesis of a lot of things. So in a weird way, doing those two adaptations were more different (from each other) than doing this script and Crash. You know what I mean? It’s not the “adaptation-or-not” that’s sort of the key-most thing, in a weird way. And also, you have to understand, coming back to the script after three years, I’d say, of doing Crash, and I look at it, it’s like somebody else wrote it. It almost is like doing an adaptation.
I’m going to be writing a couple of original scripts–I have some ideas, I’ve been making notes for years–but what happens is after a couple of years of being a moviemaker, I’m suddenly back to being a writer again. And I have to learn, relearn that, I have to remember, “Oh, yeah, you have to do this.” It’s different, it’s quite different, ’cause it’s unstructured in a way. You don’t have a crew, you don’t have an A.D., you don’t have all that stuff doing this. And people don’t care. You could just do nothing.
AW: I assume you’ve read a lot of Philip K. Dick? I liked the Perky Pat reference in eXistenZ.
DC: Yes. He’s a really a recent sort of passion of mine. I stopped reading sci-fi in the ’50s, when I was a kid, and I sort of found better writers, and I didn’t want to read bad writing. So I really kind of acquired Philip Dick quite a bit later. And he can write really badly, but he also can write really well. So this was my homage to Philip Dick because definitely some of the themes in this movie are Philip Dickian.[This interview was first published in 1999 in Film Threat (which, as of this posting, is no longer online); this is the full version that was edited down for publication.]