David Cronenberg at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival
Cannes Film Festival David Cronenberg at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival

David Cronenberg is back at the Cannes Film Festival with "Maps to the Stars," his fifth film to premiere in competition, and, surprisingly, his first set in Hollywood and partly shot in the United States. The film screened earlier this week to generally positive notices. Indiewire's Eric Kohn called it the filmmaker's "angriest, politically motivated achievement."

"At the heart of Cannes there is still the French love of cinema as art."

Penned by novelist Bruce Wagner, "Maps to the Stars" is a Hollywood satire so dark and twisted it makes last year's "The Canyons" seem positively tame in comparison. The ensemble film stars John Cusack and Olivia Williams as an L.A. couple whose son (Evan Bird) is a troubled child star. Mia Wasikowska plays a young woman with a mysterious past who returns to L.A. after a long absence, and gets hired as a personal assistant to an actress named Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), who is vying to play her own mother in a movie.

Indiewire sat down with Cronenberg in Cannes to discuss his latest project, what it's like to be back at Cannes, and why he chooses to operate outside of the Hollywood system.

You're a Cannes vet. How is this experience going compared to past ones at the festival?

It's different this time in that I've never been here where you get so many reviews before your actual screening ["Maps to the Stars" screened for the press the night before its official Cannes premiere.] They've always screened it for the press before the official screening. But there used to be an embargo on releases and you had to wait until the premiere. And I think the difference now is the Internet, Twitter, blogs and all that. And so before you go into a major screening you already know what the flow—the general flow—of the reaction is going to be. Whereas before it was kind of exciting because you had no idea how people would react to the film. Now, of course, you still don't know how that specific audience will react—at the premiere—but it does take a little of the drama out of it. The night before, everyone—we are all sending each other on our cell phones the reviews that were good. Having said that, the reviews have been great. There have only been a few negative ones. And some fantastically positive ones—which is always exciting. And the response of the audience was terrific. The standing ovation was wonderful and heartfelt. You can always tell whether they are being perfunctory and polite or whether they're really excited.

So you are one to read the immediate responses on Twitter.

Absolutely. I mean in this case yes. There comes a wonderful point when you just don't give a fuck anymore what everyone thinks because you've had so many reactions that you can't absorb anymore. You've read so many reviews you can't absorb anymore. But the first ones you really want to know because it's your first articulation of a response to the movie. I mean you sit with a couple of audiences. This was my first audience last night. I'll sit with a couple more. But the first responses that tell you why they felt the way they did are always the first reviews. Now, you don't know if it's really a review or some Twitter—it's all from journalists here, so at least there's that. How legitimate the journalists are, how good the critics are these days, as you know, it's kind of an iffy proposition. You get a sense of it. I'm still at the stage where I'm interested in what people have to say. And you do weed out the ones where the writing is really bad and they can't spell and you usually just sort of dismiss those.

"Maps to the Stars" photo call at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival
Cannes Film Festival "Maps to the Stars" photo call at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival

I'm assuming you never regretted reading something prior to a big premiere?

No. No. The excitement. It's very—it's like the Catholic Church. The ritual—it's like being at the Vatican -- you're going up the steps and there's a ritual of facing the photographers and stopping at the top of the stairs to be greeted by Thierry Fremaux. That's all still pretty exciting and kind of scary.

It never gets old for you?

"I think there is anger in existence."

It doesn't get old. The thing is that at the heart of Cannes is a real appreciation of cinema. And though there's the glitz and the marketplace and all the stuff we know about, what's different from Hollywood in general, is that here it's not box office. The films are sometimes obscure. A lot of the films will never even be distributed in America or Europe. And so you say, no, at the core, at the heart of Cannes there is still the French love of cinema as art. They were amongst the first to suggest that cinema could be art. And it's still there. And that's what's thrilling about the red steps.

Do you ever make time to watch other films here?

I can't. I mean, honestly, you're so tempted because not even just the films in your own competition, but in the other selections, Un Certain Regard…and all of those. And then around there are films that you say, "God, I really would love to see those." Sometimes you end up catching up at the Toronto Film Festival. Being in Toronto, I have a little more time. But even in Toronto, if I have a film, you're always working. It's a working session. It's not really great for you as an enthusiast.

In his review for Indiewire, our critic Eric Kohn called "Maps to the Stars" your "angriest movie." Do you agree?

I think the anger is Bruce's [Wagner]. And I absorb that in order to make the movie because I am really, in some ways, there to serve the script, and to bring out all the potential that there is in the script as a director. But I have great respect for wonderful screenwriting. And sometimes it's my own, and most often, it's not. And when you find—once you committed to doing the script— it's like an actor committing to do a character. You go with it. You don't fight it. So I think the anger is genuine and it's Bruce's.

I think there is anger in existence. Whether you're religious and you feel betrayed by your God because there is suffering in the world and you can't figure out a way to rationalize that. Or whether you are an atheist and you still haven't figured out how there could be such an observed life as a human life, which is doomed to end. Or there is specific anger, specific complaints against your family situation when you were a kid or whatever. All of these find expression in art in one way or another. And in this case though, I think it's very specifically Bruce's anger. And I'm his instrument expressing it.

So it's not a viewpoint that you necessarily share with him?

No, it's not. I could have never written the script. This is from Bruce.

Julianne Moore, David Cronenberg and Mia Wasikowska at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival
Cannes Film Festival Julianne Moore, David Cronenberg and Mia Wasikowska at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival

Julianne Moore is totally unhinged in the film. Did it take some convincing on your part to get her to just go for it?

There was never any question with her. You need that, you need that total commitment of your actors. Actually, I think you need it any movie. But obviously, for one like this and a role like that you need it even more because I did run across actors who had come across the script. Their agents showed it to them and they were afraid. They were afraid to play that role. It was too scary to them. They felt too vulnerable, they didn't want to be depicted that way. Maybe it was exposing something in themselves too much. And with Julie there was never a question about it. Which is great.

She had no reservations about the scene where she's on the toilet, asking her assistant to go buy her a laxative?

We didn't even talk twice about it. It was just, "OK now we are doing that toilet scene. I'm pulling my pants down." That's it.

This interview is continued on page 2.