An adaptation of Don DeLillo’s titular and typically provocative novel, “Cosmopolis,” is the first feature-length effort filmmaker David Cronenberg wrote himself since 1999’s “eXistenZ.” Cronenberg penned the screenplay in six days, and literally transcribed DeLillo’s dialogue word for word in many scenes. Featuring an unlikely star in the lead, “Twilight” hearthrob Robert Pattinson, and set in the not-too-distant-future of New York, “Cosmopolis” centers on a 28-year-old billionaire and uncontested Wall Street king, Eric Packer. A financial golden boy living the dream, yet bored with his effortless existence, Parker’s day takes a turn for the worse when a dark shadow is cast over the firmament of the Wall Street galaxy. As his empire potentially crumbles, an eruption of wild activity unfolds in the city’s streets and Packer’s paranoia intensifies during the course of his 24-hour odyssey and leads him to cross paths with a cast of characters that threaten to destroy his world.
Also featuring Paul Giamatti, Samantha Morton, Juliette Binoche, Sarah Gadon, Jay Baruchel and Kevin Durand, much of “Cosmopolis” takes place within the single setting of the stretch limousine that Pattinson’s Parker rides in, making for a claustrophobic experience where Cronenberg explores society’s anxieties, phobias, and the idea of letting repressed impulses and paranoia run wild. “There’s a lot of dialogue that’s very difficult and it’s kind of extreme in its stucture, so it’s not an easy sell,” Cronenberg said about making the picture. Due in U.S. theaters later this summer, Playlist contributor Aaron Hillis had a quick chat with the director in Cannes this past weekend discussing the film’s eerie financial prophecies, its perfectly-timed coincidence with the Occupy Wall Street themes and the concept of monetary abstractions.
You’ve said that the novel proved prophetic, but economies do wax and wane so there must be some room for coincidence. What is it about this 2003 book that resonates with you as both a cinematic and contemporary text?
“Cosmopolis” was never meant to be analysis of world economics situation, you know? That is almost gravy. The fact that the world suddenly seems to be caught up with Don DeLillo’s book and it’s as though we were making a documentary instead of a fiction film. Things were happening: Occupy Wall Street, the pie in the face of Rupert Murdoch. We had shot scenes with Rob [Pattinson] that were so similar to that it was quite bizarre. But no, it didn’t need that contemporary reality to make it interesting to me because it was the characters, it was the philosophy, it was the structure of the novel itself that was really interesting to me. And I thought it would be…you know, as an artist you’re always looking for universal realities, truths, not absolute truths, but something that has some universal meaning and yet, you have to deal with particular characters, particular moments in time and so on. And so you need the particular to be universal and I thought that was very strong in Don’s novel and as I said, the world could have been peachy keen economically and I still think the book would have been resonant.
The novel has a device referring back to the stream-of-consciousness confessions of Benno Levin, played by Paul Giamatti as one of the many people out to get Eric Parker. As one of the most complicated characters in the story, what does Benno Levin represent to you?
Well, I don’t think in terms of symbols and schematics. I think of Benno as a real person. I have to approach my characters as real people and with my actors we, as I’ve often said, you cannot say to an actor, “You will portray this abstract concept.” I can’t say to Rob Pattinson, “You are the symbol of capitalism.” Because an actor doesn’t know that. How do you act that? What do you do with that information? It doesn’t help you. You have to say, “You’re a character who has this past, who has this barbershop he goes to, who has this desire, who has this job.” That’s how an actor works and that’s actually how I work. So I can’t say, “Benno represents this or that.” I can say Benno is a character who has a bizarre love for the Rob Pattinson character. He’s in love with him. But he’s also repelled by him and is also intimidated by him, to the extent that he actually must connect with him. Just the way some crazed fan has to connect with some celebrity — that bizarre distant emotional connection. And that’s the way I deal with it, so in essence, I can’t answer your question the way you asked it.
You’ve said the film is not a treatise, and you don’t like to talk in abstractions, but the great tragic comedy of the movie is that the rich and the poor are equally clueless and helpless…
Well, you know, we just talked about a Rothko that sold for $71 million dollars. Talk about abstract expressionism. The money becomes an abstraction at that point and the question that the Juliette Binoche character asks, “What is money? I don’t know what money is anymore.” I think a lot of people are saying that. When you hear of these absurd sums for these strange objects. What does it mean? Money has become disconnected from any kind of reality. It’s almost become philosophy. Money has always been technology, but now it’s becoming philosophy as well, it’s quite strange.
Do you hope this film you made provokes a pragmatic conversation that can be had from some of the ideas and themes presented in it?
Oh, I think so. We’re having one right now. That’s what you want a movie to be, you want it to be juicy. You want it to be provocative in the sense of provoking questions, concepts and ideas. So at that point, yes, I think analysis and being schematic is interesting. It’s after the fact. I just have to say that’s not the way we create the movie, but after the fact, yes, art does that. It should stimulate conversation, just the same way a Rothko or a Pollock painting will provoke those kinds of conversations, even though they don’t spring like that intuitively from the artist. The fact that the movie turns out to be bizarrely timing is coincidental, but useful in a pragmatic way.
Here at Cannes, your son Brandon presented “Antiviral,” a very accomplished directorial debut, which journalists regularly put in the context of your early mutant creations. In this sense, is it a blessing or a curse having you as a father?
I’m such a nice and good father, it must be a blessing [laughs]. But believe me, we are very close, Brandon and I, we have a wonderful relationship and always have. So that’s unquestionable, we know that. Obviously, for a while, it kept him away from film. People were so sure that he would want to become a director, he denied that to himself. He was always interested in art, he was always a good writer and quite a good painter as well. That stalled him I suppose. The fact that I was a well-known director did stall him, but then once he realized that he should do what he wants and not worry about other people because what they actually think is irrelevant, then he had the background that other people don’t have that opened up — something that a lot of kids in Hollywood have, but not too many kids in Toronto have — which is to say, a childhood of being on a film set, seeing how films work in a practical way, and in fact, working on a film. He worked on “eXistenZ” in the special effects department. So suddenly having that at his finger tips and he wasn’t a novice in the way that someone fresh out of film school might be.
What have you enjoyed seeing at Cannes this year?
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see much, but it’s wonderful for me to see a film by Bernardo Bertolluci, which I actually thought was a terrific film that should have been in competition, but it wasn’t. Maybe it was his choice, I don’t know. I really loved it and it’s been ten years since he’s made a film, he’s in a wheel chair, he’s had physical problems and so on. It’s wonderful to see that he’s still the great filmmaker that he always was. And also it’s wonderful to see a film by Alain Renais because I was watching his films in 1959 and that he’s still going at the age of 90 is very encouraging to say the least, that he’s still doing it and still being very extreme and controversial in his filmmaking, that’s wonderful too. But I don’t get as much chance at a festival to see films, ironically, because I’m promoting my own and that’s really been the case here.