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.”
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?
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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.
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?
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 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.
You said in the press conference that the film is not so Hollywood specific — that you could substitute the industry for Wall Street, Silicon Valley, etc. to the same effect. Can you elaborate on that?
Basically, you’re examining the human condition — What is it to be a human being now. And of course, it’s a drama. Nobody wants to see a movie where everyone is nice and everything is OK. You might want to live that, but no one is interested in seeing that. So you are looking for unexplored aspects of what it is to be human now. And often for me that leads me to dark places and obviously it does the same for Bruce. If you’re talking about an industry and what kind of pressures that puts on people because there’s power, there’s money, there’s success, there’s glamour, there’s celebrity in industries like Wall Street and Silicon Valley. They are the same. But what’s good for a filmmaker, for Hollywood, is that it is something visually exciting. Because, of course, the image is the essence of Hollywood. Both onscreen on the red carpet. What is your image? Whereas in Wall Street, despite “The Wolf of Wall Street,” what they actually do is pretty boring. They are looking at screens and they are looking at their phone. And if it’s Silicon Valley you got nerds in front of their computers. Not very exciting to look at, to make drama out of. Because the image is so important in Hollywood that really gives you something special to play with as a filmmaker that you wouldn’t have with those other industries. But, at the same time, even if you are trying to examine something that is universal, you cannot photograph an abstract concept. You have to be photographing something very specifically and usually it’s the human face, that’s what you’re photographing.
Having said that, that Hollywood in a sense can be a more cinematic version of what can happen anywhere else, there are unique things obviously about what happens in Hollywood. And one of the pressures that’s unique is the pressure on children. You don’t get 13-year-old celebrities in Wall Street. You very soon will get 13-year-old celebrities in Silicon Valley. And the pressures on them—it’s like Mark Zuckerberg. I mean you’re getting 17 or 18 year old billionaires, that is happening. But at the moment there is nothing quite the equivalent of a 13-year-old superstar who is fucking up and taking drugs because he cannot handle the pressures that are put on him. And that’s something in this story that is unique to Hollywood.
How have you managed to operate outside of those pressures you speak of in Hollywood?
By failing in Hollywood. I’ve mean I’ve made many attempts—few attempts—to do a big studio movie. Because it’s very seductive. If you know the game you’re playing it won’t hurt you. In other words, you know that you won’t have the creative freedom that you have as an indie filmmaker. But, you won’t have to struggle to get the movie financed, you’ll have a big budget, you’ll get paid better than you’d get paid as an indie filmmaker. And you’ll have access to stars that are outside the reach of your budget as an indie filmmaker. So you are making a deal with the devil. You need to just be realistic about it I think. And then it should work.
Maybe it could be a great experience—I’ve heard both things. I’ve heard from people who’ve done big Hollywood movies that it was a fantastic experience. Because they gave themselves over to it. They played the game. They accepted the suggestions that the studios have. They didn’t fight it. On the other hand, I also know people who have been destroyed when they had made some success in Sweden or Germany with a film. And then they come to Hollywood and they spend three years of their lives developing something and it doesn’t get made. Because the studio had changed and wanted to get rid of all the earlier projects.
All of those stories. We know those stories. So I had a moment at MGM and I talked to Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise about both of them starring in a movie together. Based on a book, it would have been a spy movie. And I liked what I had written and I thought those two guys would actually have been very interesting. Would it have been a horrible experience? It might have been, but it never happened because MGM went bankrupt. So it wasn’t even my fault or their fault. So I never got to make it.
But obviously I have chosen to and have been able to have a career living in Toronto and never living in LA. I’m not an American. I would feel like an expatriate if I lived in America because I’m a Canadian, and though the differences are invisible to some Americans, they are very palpable to all Canadians. My friend has been writing in California for years and for him it was an aspiration to be Hollywood producer and a Hollywood director. I never had that aspiration. My glance was more the other way, towards Europe. The films that had excited me most as I grew up, as a kid, Hollywood movies for sure. But then later, the art film of the 60s. You know Bergman, Truffaut, the French New Wave and all that stuff.
As an indie filmmaker most of my films are co-productions between Canada and Europe. Which means that anything American or Australian or any other place are limited. You could only have one American actor in your movies. In this movie, it’s John Cusack. Julie Moore has a British passport…Mia [Wasikowska] has a Polish passport. Evan [Bird] is from Vancouver, he’s Canadian. And of course Sarah [Gadon] is from Toronto. Same as “Cosmopolis.” The only American in “Cosmopolis” was Paul Giamatti. So these are hidden structures that you have to put this strange jigsaw puzzles together where the passports of the actors is a big feature. And all where the money is spent is a huge feature. For example, one of the reasons it took so long to get “Maps” made was because we never had a structure where we were allowed to have an American screenwriter. And we were never allowed to spend too much in America. And I knew that I needed at least five days of shooting in LA to convincingly make the movie look it was set in LA. It was shot 24 days in Toronto and 5 days in LA. But I needed them. And it took so long to find the structure. And that is the indie game. Those kind of games you probably don’t have to play if you’re doing a studio movie. But you have the studio games to play.
I’ve seen Guillermo del Toro, for example, who is making his movie in Toronto right now—he’s almost a Toronto resident. I saw what he went through with “Pacific Rim” and I saw him spending three years trying to develop a movie with a studio and it fell through. And those three years were lost. It depends on what game you’re willing to play and what kind of movies you want to make. I have total creative freedom on the set once we are shooting. And that’s not something that Guillermo has. Even though he has something like a $200 million budget. That’s the trade off.