David Cronenberg on “Spider”: “Reality Is What You Make Of It”
by Anthony Kaufman
“Talk about the invention of reality,” Canadian auteur David Cronenberg told indieWIRE on the eve of this year’s Academy Award nominations. “If three billion people take the Oscars seriously, then it’s serious. It’s like religion. If eight billion people believe in something, then it is the reality.” The self-avowed atheist’s latest masterwork, the minimalist “Spider” (opening today from Sony Pictures Classics), didn’t win any nominations the following day. But Cronenberg, who admits to a competitive streak (he has raced cars and motorcycles), nevertheless probably wasn’t fazed. “The bad thing about winning an Oscar,” he says, “is that when you die, people will say, ‘Oscar-winner David Cronenberg just died’ — as though it’s the highpoint of your life.”
The white-haired Cronenberg is more amusing and amicable than you would expect for a man responsible for parasites invading our orifices (“Shivers”), exploding heads (“Scanners”), creepy gynecologists (“Dead Ringers”), and any manner of sick and twisted sexual manifestations and mind-twisting realities in movies from “Videodrome” and “Naked Lunch” to “Crash” and “eXistenZ.” In his latest mind-body trip, “Spider,” based on the book by Patrick McGrath, Cronenberg plunges the viewer into the paranoid world of Dennis “Spider” Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), a mumbling schizophrenic recently released from a mental asylum. As Cleg skulks along the streets around a London halfway house, memories bubble up from his past and invoke an Oedipal mystery that may never be resolved.
Cronenberg talked to indieWIRE about subjective realities, the mind-body duality, a Samuel Beckett lens, and Artisan’s planned remake of his 1981 film “Scanners.”
indieWIRE: I think the film “Spider” and this character are very relevant to the kinds of lives we’re living now. You mentioned in the press notes something about that old 20th century alienation, but I think it’s…
David Cronenberg: …coming into the 21st untouched and unscathed. Yes, I think so. For me, the appeal of “Spider” was a study of the human condition — not schizophrenia, not a neurological disorder. As not quite a card-carrying existentialist myself, I have to say the Kafka-esque trope still holds — and maybe now more than ever. But it seems to be taking on a different shape. The media really has a huge reality for people. The idea that celebrities and their lives seem to be more real to people than their own lives seems to be a new form of alienation.
iW: Your films have continually questioned reality, so “Spider” continues that tradition?
Cronenberg: Yes. And reality is what you make of it. It’s almost as though you choose one and you cling to it. We see that politically. I see that in Mr. Bush. You see these people living out a different reality and they’re acting on it. And they’re not compatible realities, but they are ferociously devoted to these realities. It’s kind of interesting, when it’s not terrifying. And you realize that they will kill people to maintain the level of realness of those realities. That’s a scary thing, but it’s a very human thing. No other creatures in the universe do that.
iW: You’ve delved into these psychological realities and subjective minds many times before, but in tandem with that, there’s always been a very fleshy element, as well.
Cronenberg: Oh, there’s only a fleshy element. I am healing the Cartesian rift. I am an embodied person. I really understand the connection between body and mind. Even now, I’m reading some interesting scientific books about evolution and the development of consciousness and how it’s embodied in our brains and how disembodied science and psychology is. When you’re studying the human mind, you can’t take the mind out of it; you have to put it back into the brain. For me, it’s all body.
As a filmmaker, too, it’s all body, because you can’t film an abstract concept. You have to film bodies. So the body as the first fact of human existence is one of the underlying realities of my moviemaking, even though I couldn’t have articulated it until a few years ago. It’s only worth saying, because so many people don’t accept it or understand it. Most religions don’t, for various reasons. It all ties in, for me, into the flight from mortality. An inability to accept mortality means an inability to accept the human body as real. That’s why I resist doing movies with ghosts. Hollywood would never understand why I don’t want to do “The Exorcist 4” — though I did read the script — but I just can’t really make a reality of the devil, because it’s too positive: that there’s an afterlife and that we live after our bodies die. And I just can’t do that.
iW: So let’s talk about the body elements in “Spider” because I think it’s less obvious than Mugwumps or bioports.
Cronenberg: But there’s Ralph [Fiennes].
iW: Yes, there is this body, and of course, there’s Miranda Richardson’s bodies, transforming, as well.
Cronenberg: But it’s not like I insist on having them. In terms of making the movie, I don’t read the script of “Spider,” and go down the checklist: body transformation? Special effects? I don’t think in those terms. In fact, I took the special effects sequences out of the script, because I think those effects — the bleeding potato, the rat in the bread, the voices and glowing eyes — are recognizable to an audience as effects, as hallucinations that can’t possibly be real. And the unspoken purpose of the movie was to make the audience be “Spider.” So when he’s hallucinating and thinking something is real, we must also feel that.
iW: Do you think you would have made that choice 10 years ago?
Cronenberg: I have no way of knowing, but I did “Dead Ringers” over 10 years ago, and it has one dream sequence, but that’s about it. I love plastic metaphor, body metaphors, but I’m not sad if they are not there.
iW: But there is a paring down, a refining, in the making of this film.
Cronenberg: I’ve noticed that tendency in myself since “The Fly,” which was basically three people in a room and would probably make for a great opera. But with “Spider,” it really comes from the character of Spider. He is not opulent or luxurious. He is himself pared down and stripped down humanity. So immediately, if you’re going to put us in his mind, then you’re going to be fairly austere. And when we started to think of Beckett as a touchstone, for both the way Spider looks and the tone of it, there was this rigorous austerity and simplicity that opens out to incredible complexity.
iW: I didn’t necessarily think of Beckett while watching the movie. When did Beckett come into play?
Cronenberg: ‘Beckett into play’ is good. Because when you think of “Krapp’s Last Tape,” I think of Spider: Krapp is living in this vagrant hovel, playing tapes of memories. But I’m also thinking of Beckett’s novels that have Spider-like characters. But it wasn’t necessary to see or feel in the movie. It’s just when you’re looking for your bearings, you’re looking for a system to guide you. You often find strange satellites that guide you.
iW: Any others?
Cronenberg: We talked about Kafka, Dostoevsky, and Pinter. And some English films of Carol Reed’s, like “Odd Man Out.” It’s only touchstones, though; it’s not anything you’re emulating. It just keeps you on track, somehow. Even when I’m choosing a lens in a camera set-up, somehow I can translate that. You could say that lens isn’t a Beckett-like lens.
iW: What lens is not a Beckett-like lens?
Cronenberg: 75 mm is not. 50 mm isn’t either. We used very wide lenses, even for the close-ups. It felt right, slightly distorting, not like Terry Gilliam using 14 mm lenses in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” but it wasn’t obviously distorting. It gives the sense of hallucination, but it also merges the foreground and the background because they tend to both be in focus. We also used a low contrast film stock. Why? After the fact, I can say that maybe I wanted it to took like Spider and the background were one, because it is such a subjective film.
iW: And the color schemes were very muted.
Cronenberg: The wallpapers that we imported from England were all vintage, brown, moldy, and decayed — all those English things that you feel in your bones if you ever were in England in the ’60s. So once again, very tactile, and the tactility controlled the visual aspects of the film.
iW: How scientific do you find filmmaking? You have some scientific background and you seem to talk about film almost from a scientific perspective.
Cronenberg: I just find reading science very productive and it provokes me. Science and philosophy books will help me write characters and scenes, whereas I don’t get any of that from seeing other movies. When I’m preparing a script, I don’t look at movies for inspiration. I read. And I mostly read philosophy and science.
iW: So I’ve read “Scanners” is going to be remade.
Cronenberg: I would prefer they didn’t. But as they pointed out to me, I didn’t have a lawyer then when I made those movies. So they have the rights, just as they had the right to make a miniseries of “The Dead Zone,” but this time, it’s a little closer to home, because I wrote the original script and invented the Scanners. But I’d prefer not to have my movies remade, as I would prefer not to have six sequels to “Scanners,” each one worse than the last, because it takes away from the movie itself.
iW: I wonder if this renewed interest in your work may spur more attention in you at the Hollywood level. Are you planning to tackle any bigger projects?
Cronenberg: I don’t think it’s my fate. Whenever I get a studio project, I always approach it with great enthusiasm, like maybe this time… And then halfway through it, I’m so depressed, and thinking I’ll kill myself if I have to do this movie. I think, “I’ll sell out, I’ll just do it for the money, it will be interesting”; but then I can’t.
iW: So what is next, then?
Cronenberg: I’ve written a script called “Painkillers,” which would definitely be classified as sci-fi, about performance artists of the near future. I’m doing a rewrite and Robert Lantos wants to produce. But it doesn’t have financing. It’s always a question.
iW: I would like to think that David Cronenberg doesn’t have to struggle for financing.
Cronenberg: Well, that’s incorrect. It’s not true. It’s always a struggle.