David Cronenberg is a lucky man. As Canada’s top filmmaker, he can land funding for most of the reasonably budgeted movies that he wants to do (a sequel to “Eastern Promises” aside), and has earned a reputation as an actors’ writer-director (“Dead Ringers,” “The Fly,” “A Dangerous Method,” “A History of Violence”) which enables him, Woody Allen-style, to cast bankable stars with global fans.
And no matter what the genre–Cronenberg is no longer wedded to horror–you can count on his films to offer an undercurrent of anxiety and fear, to stir up your darker impulses. He is remarkably free of the commercial conventions that constrain most filmmakers. His main characters don’t have to be likable. They often speak in dense, intelligent, literate sentences, even paragraphs. And ultra-stylized $20-million “Cosmopolis,” adapted from the 2003 Don DeLillo novel about a young Wall Street player crossing traffic-congested New York in a limo to get a hair cut, which played well at Cannes in May, is no exception. (The NYorker review is here.)
Anne Thompson: Why did you cast “Twilight” star Robert Pattinson as your ice-cold 28-year-old Master of the Universe?
David Cronenberg: Of course you begin with the basics. Is he the right age for the character? Does he feel convincing as a screen presence? Obviously you need someone with charisma to hold the audience for the entire movie. He’s in every scene without exception, that’s unusual. You want someone proven, who people want to watch, who will never be boring. I knew I would be crawling all over his face for the entire movie, so I wanted someone whose face is constantly changing, through all the angles. And he had to have chops for tricky dialogue. The art of casting is to intuit, to see from what he’s done before that he could do this.
Was there a particular performance that gave you confidence?
I saw him in “Little Ashes” as the young Salvador Dali. He does a Spanish accent, he was not afraid to play a character of ambiguous sexuality and eccentricity. That probably of all the things I saw made me think he was the right guy.
Did you cast Pattinson with likability in mind, so that audiences would like him in spite of the character he is playing? Feel some vulnerablity?
I really don’t care. I want the lead character in a movie to be interesting, fascinating and complex, but to be likable to me is way down the list. It’s not on the list, because it is a simplistic thing for the lead character to must be likable. He has to be watchable, that’s the key, and fascinating, and likable if it works for the project, fine, let him be likable. If not I don’t worry about it.
There are actors who do not want to play unlikable characters, afraid it will damage their credibility as stars or effect them personally. Actors who are more interested in being actors than stars, like Viggo Mortensen, don’t worry about being likable or not on screen.
How did Pattinson surprise you?
He literally surprised me every day, as he read dialogue and interacted with the other actors. We were throwing different factors at him almost very day because of the stucture of the screenplay. He really has extended scenes. With one actor at the end, Paul Giamatti, he really let it fly, in that he didn’t cling to a preconceived idea of what he should be doing. He reacted spontaneously to other actors as they surprised him and he surprised them. He was terrific and not predictable and dead-on accurate.
How many takes do you do?
One or two. The whole last shot was a long take with Giamatti, three minutes in that last 22-minute scene.
What did you shoot the film with?
Aeroflex [Arri] Alexa digital camera. It was the first time I shot a feature film with a digital camera. I don’t want to go back to film at all. It’s turn-of-the-century technology: clunky, sprockets move around when projected. Splicing is a pain. We’ve been editing digitally, sound has been digital for even more years. It was only a matter of time time before we shot digitally as well, it’s inevitable. I’ll miss the smell of film. I’ll use Kodak as air freshener in the car.
Your actors are confined in the limousine for long shots with stylized, almost theatrical dialogue.
I don’t think of dialogue as theatrical at all. People do look at “A Dangerous Method” as talking and therefore theater. I don’t think of it that way: it’s complex dialogue, difficult knitting needles going back and forth, it requires a stylized presentation. In this movie it would be foolish to force documentary naturalistic John Cassavetes acting. It really came from the dialogue, it’s stylized so therefore the performances are, as the movie is viisually.
Is the dialogue in tune with its literary origin?
That comes from all of us paying attention to the source material, Don’s dialogue, responding to it directly. I was not imposing an idea on it from outside, I wanted to find the movie organically from what the dialogue is and who those characters are.
Did you read the book when it came out in 2003?
Not until my producer handed it to me. I knew and was excited by having read his other books, but I missed “Cosmopolis.” I read it three years ago. I wrote the script before we went into production on “A Dangerous Method.”
The book was oddly prescient about the global recession and the Occupy Wall Street movement.
I felt the world catching up to the book in a strange way, although to be accurate the financial meltdown in the movie is a personal meltdown not a world meltdown. Obviously there are resonances there. Paul Giamatti texted me when Rupert Murdoch got a pie in the face– after we shot the scene with Rob’s character getting a pie in face. Spooky, I must say!
Were you trying to make the film futuristic?
No, it’s set in the present. We didn’t want to spend any money making it a sci-fi event though the car is futuristic. It feels like space ship from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” All that technology is available if anybody wanted to replicate it. We did design it, the technology in it exists now. If somebody wanted to build a car like the one we built, they could do it.
We talk yuan instead of yen, since when the book was written Japan was the world economic power, now it’s obviously China, that was my change, to anticipate what is going to happen. The yuan won’t be convertible currency until 2014. That’s about as futuristic as the movie gets.
The car is on a soundstage with rear projection, right? Did you take it on the street?
It’s on a set. It comes apart in 24 pieces, it’s on little rollers pushed around by grips. There’s no way to put the thing on the street. We no longer do rear projection, Anne, it’s green screen now! We did build a street on a set with sidewalks and street furniture– lamps, newsstands and stuff. Beyond that it’s green screen, putting in computer graphics to put you in the city of New York. When we’re inside the car I wanted it to be entirely from Eric’s point-of-view in the movie, as the novel is.
Will you return to acting?
Sure. I just did a character in a series shot last year in Toronto called “Rewind.”
And what will you do now that “Eastern Promises 2” has been canceled?
A novel I have committed to finish by the end of year. For the next five months I will be a novelist. It’s my first one even though I always thought I would be a novelist, never considered being a filmmaker at all. I thought, “if I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it.” An editor at Penguin Canada got in touch with me, said I’d be a terrific novelist, had I ever thought of it? Only for 50 years. “Why don’t you propose something and we’ll publish it?” It’s not a horror novel, not Stephen King. I’m not sure how one might categorize it beyond that it’s not science fiction. It’s absolutely for adults. I don’t understand children.
Have you read “Fifty Shades of Grey”?
I haven’t read it. It’s not new. I remember “The Story of O,” that popular French S & M novel was made into movie. It’s old stuff to me in terms of subject matter. The fact that it’s current and a big hit is new. Even Tony Richardson’s “Madame” had elements.
You’d be a good candidate to adapt the book for the screen. You dealt with S & M sensitively in “A Dangerous Method.”
Focus has got the rights. I wouldn’t have any qualms about it for myself. If Focus offered it to me I’d read it.