Canadian director David Cronenberg visited the Reykjavik International Film Festival to receive the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award, alongside German director Margarethe Von Trotta. In a packed auditorium at the University of Iceland, the director answered questions about his career, methods and the intricacies of independent filmmaking, both in his early days and in the modern era.
Dressed in a hoodie and wearing an Apple Watch, the director was relaxed and fully committed to answering questions about the different facets of his career. He began by imploring the audience to immediately download his novel, "Consumed," through Amazon, proving himself to be as gadget-focused as the novel’s thirty-something protagonists. The fact that he ended up as a filmmaker was itself quite baffling. "I always thought that I’d be a novelist," he said. "I aspired to writing as a career. I was interested in the technology of filmmaking, which derailed my writing aspirations. That’s why it took me 50 years to finally write my first novel."
Unlike many of the directors from his generation, Cronenberg was never a film nerd and was much more attracted to the literary world he saw through his writer-father. "I just went and saw cowboy movies like 'Hop Along Cassidy' and swordfighting movies as a kid. Then one day I noticed the theater across the street that played only Italian movies. I saw adults exit the theater weeping, and I wondered what kind of movie could have that sort of impact on grown adults. So I looked into it and discovered that it was Fellini’s 'La Strada.' When I finally saw it, it also made me weep."
When he saw films made in Canada starring people he knew, Cronenberg realized that filmmaking could be an avenue for his creativity. Speaking about his early career, he noted that in those days film festivals would accept a film as a feature if it was over 60 minutes. "So I made films that were slightly over 60 minutes with my friends, which allowed me to have a strangely international career from the start, at least in terms of festivals, which served as a strange sub-distributor for challenging films," he said.
When he was making his first major Canadian films, producers were in dire need of screenplays that could be made into films. "They didn’t want me as a director, but they did want my screenplay for 'Shivers,'" he said. "There was no tradition of genre or horror in Canada, mostly just documentaries and docudramas about fishermen in Newfoundland." Using his screenplay as leverage, Cronenberg was able to get the producers to accept him as the film’s director. His early films became incredibly controversial in Canada, spurring parliament discussions on whether or not the film fund should fund such disgusting features. But since his were among the only films that made the government a profit, Cronenberg continued to get state financing.
He continued to make his own smaller films, but his work on "The Dead Zone" for producer Dino De Laurentiis ended up giving him an important lesson in filmmaking. "I had always interpreted the auteur theory to mean I had to be a writer-director. But of course they meant directors like Howard Hawks, these workmanlike craftsmen who nonetheless became authors in their own right," he shared. "And I found out that it was very interesting to mix my blood with that of another writer, in this case Stephen King. You shouldn’t worry about where the film comes from. I’ve gone on to make films based on work from writers like J.G. Ballard and William S. Burroughs. This changed my understanding of what filmmaking is." He was also thankful that De Laurentiis was obsessed with David Lynch’s version of "Dune," leaving Cronenberg free to make his film exactly like he wanted.
Any way you look at it, Cronenberg has managed to make films that are uniquely his own and hasn't had to make compromises for studios or producers. Even on projects where he didn't have final cut privileges, he was still able to get a final word through "Machiavellian Canadian subversiveness." His habit of working with the same collaborators from film to film has also helped him maintain the same tone through his productions. "My first rule of filmmaking is: Do not work with assholes. I will not mention any names – the Weinsteins, where they’ll cut their own version while you’re working on your cut."
Answering a question about the acting in his films, Cronenberg stated that to him casting was an important black art of filmmaking. "Since my films are mostly co-productions, I have to be really interested in my actors’ passports," he said. "The lead actors have to be from one of the co-producing countries. That’s how I end with a film like 'Maps to the Stars,' which only has one American actor even though it’s set in Hollywood." To maintain his "No Assholes" policy, Cronenberg even looks up interviews with his actors on YouTube to get a sense of what they are like as people.
One of the most challenging roles to cast was that of the twin gynecologists in "Dead Ringers," a project that took 10 years to make. "I approached thirty of the most famous actors in the world. No one wanted to play twins that were so similar, or gynecologists for that matter," he revealed. "The Anglo-American actors didn’t want to play the twins, the Italian-American actors didn’t want to play gynecologists. Jeremy Irons was the first financeable actor who was willing to play the part, but then when we got financing in place he got second doubts. I had to seduce him all over again." After the film’s release, Cronenberg was interviewed by a radio journalist who stated, "If Jeremy Irons doesn’t win an Oscar for 'Dead Ringers' there is no God." Cronenberg said he has been an atheist ever since.
Two of the most pressing questions of the day for young filmmakers were addressed by Cronenberg: whether television is a more viable option for serious filmmaking, and whether or not film has completely been supplanted by digital filmmaking. "The heat is in TV," Cronenberg said. "Last year I was approached to direct the first episode of the second season of 'True Detective,' I considered it but I thought that the script was bad, so I didn’t do it. In TV, the director is just a traffic cop, but on the other hand it is work and there’s a lot of it.”
On the topic of film versus digital, Cronenberg said he was happy to see celluloid filmmaking die. "I think digital is far superior. Even the filmmakers like Spielberg, who works on film, end up with a digital version to edit and color correct. I don’t care that Kodak advertises that it’s better. Forget about it. The prints that went to cinemas all looked horrible compared to the original answer print we made from the start." But there was something elemental that Croneberg said digital filmmaking lacked: "The only thing about film I really miss is the smell in the editing room. But you can get it as an air freshener. They should just start making cologne, Eau de Kodak."
Earlier in the festival, at the panel discussion about financing and filmmaking in Iceland, the American distribution and financial analyst Rob Aft pointed out Cronenberg’s movies as an important example of the kind of financially sustainable independent films that managed to receive both accolades and healthy financial returns. But it is clear that the tide is turning even for established filmmakers like Cronenberg. His last films, "Cosmopolis" and "Maps to the Stars," ended up getting mostly digital releases, only screening in a handful of theaters. As inspiring as much of Cronenberg’s words were at the Reykjavík International Film Festival, it’s clear that the landscape has changed drastically. When one of the most important voices in English-language filmmaking is having trouble getting his films seen in the theater, what are the chances for the up-and-comers?