Of flesh and mind: an interview with David Cronenberg
For decades director David Cronenberg has created perversely interesting representations of the human body. In Videodrome (1983) James Woods hides a gun by pushing it into his stomach. Jeff Goldblum transforms into a man/insect hybrid in The Fly (1986). The characters in Crash (1996) get off on having intercourse immediately after automobile accidents. In Existenz (1999), Jude Law uses a pistol made of bones that shoots human teeth.
There are many more examples of Cronenberg’s fascination with representing body parts in off the wall ways. But with age, it seems, the veteran director is less inclined to turn his focus to the downright bizarre. Following on from A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) his latest film A Dangerous Method (which opens this week in Australian cinemas) is concerned with matters of the mind — particularly the work of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). The film chronicles their at times tumultuous relationship as well as Jung’s intense romance with patient Sabina (Kiera Knightley).
Has Cronenberg made a conscious decision to progress from physicality to mentality, body to mind?
“I don’t think there is any difference between the mind and the body. One of the reasons I love the characters in A Dangerous Method is, they don’t either,” he tells Cinetology. “They are incredibly passionate about their ideas and their concepts and their culture. This is not dry, abstract air they’re breathing. This is passionate, visceral air. They don’t separate their lives from their ideas.”
Shortly before A Dangerous Method’s theatrical release, Cronenberg sat down for a chat about the film, his approach to directing and his repertoire of cult favorites.
No doubt over the years you’ve read a lot of analysis about representations of physicality and the human body in your films. There are many striking examples but you seem to have edged further and further away from those early wild representations of the body. Has this been a conscious decision on your behalf and if so, what was your motivation?
It’s probably just that I’ve kind of done it, you know. I’ve probably done as much of that as I needed to do or felt I needed to do. As each project comes along I don’t really calculate where it is in my career or what it might represent in terms of a different direction or anything like that. I really do take every one as it comes.
People sometimes think ‘oh, now he’s decided to choose that movie because at this moment in the arc of his career he should do that’ and I think, well, what a lovely thing it would be to be able to do it. Maybe Spielberg can do that but there are very few people who can. You sort of take each project as it presents itself — or as it arises in your mind – - and you try to get it made.
I pointed that out with Dead Ringers (1988). Back then people said ‘why now would you make Dead Ringers?’ I said I tried to make that film ten years earlier and if I’d got the financing I would have made it ten years earlier. It was really the financing that decided when it appeared in my work, not anything else, and I can say the same thing about A Dangerous Method. I first started to talk about it in about 2001 and it took this long to go through many twists and turns before I got it made. That’s another factor you have to consider. Imagine if I had made it 11 years ago and then maybe after that made Existenz. It could have happened.
It’s really just a question of whether it feels like I’m boring myself because I’ve done it before or whether it so exciting that I can’t wait to get at it. If it’s the later, I would go for it. I wouldn’t hesitate and I wouldn’t worry about people saying ‘oh now he’s going back to what he used to do’ or whatever they might say. Creatively, those things are not a question for me. For a critic doing an assessment of your work and so on, it’s an interesting point, but creatively it’s not an issue.
It’s interesting that you mention Dead Ringers because in terms of broad scene by scene structure A Dangerous Method resembles Dead Ringers probably the most of any of your films, in that it’s largely dialogue based and fixed on interpersonal relationships. Which do you find easier: directing actors or creating special effects?
Actors are much easier to direct than special effects! Special effects are boring because you have to have an incredible patience. You’re waiting for things that are not creative but mechanical. With actors of course it’s an immediate response. It’s human and it feels right. I have always had much more fun with humans than effects. I remember when Stephen King directed his one movie, he said he thought that trucks and machinery would be a lot easier to direct than actors. He said afterwards ‘boy, was I wrong!’
Over the years you would have read theories about your own work and no doubt that has prompted pause for thought and moments of self-evaluation. Do you concur agree that you have a fascination with properties of the body and if so where would you say that comes from?
It probably comes from my feeling that we are our bodies. I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in an afterlife, so for me the first fact of human existence is the human body. When you couple that with the fact that as a director the thing you photograph most is the human body — you can’t really photograph an abstract concept or a theme — you are photographing mostly humans. I think it’s natural those two things combine to make me very body conscious as a filmmaker. I do think every filmmaker is really body conscious in that way. We’re always worried about how the face is lit, if the makeup is right, how the glasses sit on the nose. This is all very physical and in that sense we’re very close to actors. Actors are totally body conscious because when they’re standing in front of the camera that’s what they’ve got. That’s their instrument. When you consider that the voice is also part of the body, then you’re acting with your whole body. To me this is very natural. I don’t find it extraordinary or odd or unusual.
On the subject of the declaration of the ‘New Flesh’ and those really body-centric ideas, in films like Videodrome, Shivers (1975) and Existenz you imply that the mind is not necessarily the centre of a person’s identity. Yet in A Dangerous Method there appears to be the suggestion of the opposite, that the mind is the crux of our identity. You have a mind versus body thing happening. Do you believe the body establishes a personality independently of the mind?
I don’t think there is any difference between the mind and the body. One of the reasons I love the characters in A Dangerous Method is, they don’t either. They are incredibly passionate about their ideas and their concepts and their culture. This is not dry, abstract air they’re breathing. This is passionate, visceral air. They don’t separate their lives from their ideas. Sabina wants to give birth to a child out of the sin of incest. There couldn’t be anything more physical than that for a woman. It’s not an abstract concept for her. She wants it to be in her body. She wants to bring Vagner’s opera right into her life and into her body. To me that is a perfect illustration. What’s interesting about these characters is their ideas are totally humanized. The movie shows you what they are as humans, and how all their ideas came out of their very human and very physical and passionate lives.
Freud’s famous work in psychoanalysis has had a huge impact in not just the reading of dreams but in the reading of films, particularly in the appreciation of motifs, symbols and so forth. Are you a believer in applying these kinds of psychoanalytic principles to film and if so, do you apply them to your own films while you are constructing them?
No I totally don’t. I don’t apply any theories about cinema or anything else. It’s all intuitive. That’s not to say that I haven’t absorbed many many influences.
I don’t think it’s invalid to use Freud in analysis to come to grips with some understanding of art, or Jung either. Any weaponry you have to get a handle on what the meaning of a work of art is is legitimate. Then it’s just a question of how accurate or convincing or intelligent you are with your analysis. But as I said, for me creatively, no, that is already too abstract for me. When I’m in a room with my actors we forget we’re doing Freud and Jung — we talk about the characters as men and human beings, and you need to do that to bring them to life.
Over the years been involved in many productions, many critically acclaimed films. On a more personal level what do you regard as one of your proudest achievements in filmmaking — either an achievement inside a film or a film you hold particularly dear?
I’m not trying to cop out here, or be evasive, but it is like having a bunch of children and you cannot admit to yourself that you have a favourite. The other thing, too, is I can’t see my own films objectively. They are so tied up with the moment that I made them: where I was in my life, the people who were in the movie and my experiences with them. So I can’t really separate them.
I’m proud to have made any movie. It is really tough. We see so many movies and you can see a movie for two hours and say ‘well that wasn’t anything’ and somebody has spent ten years making that movie. You as a viewer have every right to dismiss it as nothing because it didn’t do much for you, but whoever made it deserves a medal for getting it made. It’s really tough. In terms of pride I only have pride that I’ve survived another movie – that we made it, we got it released and it didn’t completely disappear off the radar. That goes for all of my films.
You’ve mentioned a couple of times now how hard it is to finance films. Is it getting easier?
No. No it’s not. Not at all. I have this conversation at times with Martin Scorsese because people think hey — he’s Martin Scorsese, he can get any film he wants made. Not true. Not true at all. He has the struggle as well. We’re like the amphibians of the art world in the sense that we have delicate skin and we are subject to every environmental toxic thing that goes on in terms of getting a movie made. When there’s an economic crisis, when independent film production houses are shutting down because people can’t make a living, when we have fewer places to go to get financing. We’re amongst the first to feel that in terms of the so-called industry because in some ways we’re a very dispensable industry and we’re subject to all those vagaries of economic downturn. Especially recently, for independent films in particular. It’s gotten much much harder.
After decades of interviews with journalists on the promotional circuit such as myself, no doubt you’ve spent a lot of time — or some time — reading what they’ve written about you. How do you broadly view film journalism in terms of accuracy and quality? I assume you’re still relatively happy with the PR circuit given you’re still participating in interviews.
Well, even if I hated it (laughing) I’d still feel that as a professional I owe it to the people who invested in the movie and who are distributing the movie and spent money and time on it. I would still feel that I had to go out there and help promote it. But I have to say it’s not too horrible, really. What’s difficult is just repeating yourself and wanting to be fresh and interesting. After you’ve talked to a thousand people about this movie it’s rare to say something that completely surprises yourself. The quality of journalism varies wildly of course from country to country and so on and so on, but it’s not terrible. It’s rare that you read something that is very disheartening. I’m not talking about reviews — because that’s a whole different thing — but when you talk about journalists like yourself, no, I think you get a fair shake.
Your response to that question makes me feel slightly bad about asking this next question, because you’ve no doubt been asked it many many times before. None of your films have been remade yet — which I think is quite remarkable — but I know there is an impending Videodrome remake in the works. How does that make you feel? I am assuming you don’t particularly like the idea of remakes.
I could live without remakes, and I have no particular desire to be involved in them or even look at them. It is strange to find yourself being remade (laughing) as though you were a long dead classic. But I think about many of my early films — like Shivers, Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), Videodrome (and) Scanners (1981). They’ve all been suggested at one time or another that they were gonna be remade. I don’t think any of them have been. In some ways it’s entertaining and it’s odd.
Do you still own the rights to any of those early films, like Shivers?
No, I don’t have the rights at all so I couldn’t stop them from being made and quite frankly I won’t see any money from them either. Both I and Stanley Kubrick had the experience of having our Stephen Kings movies remade as mini series, me with The Dead Zone (1983) and him with The Shining. That’s weird too, but I haven’t seen it and have no desire to see it.
I read the book years ago but never saw The Dead Zone mini series. I watched the mini series of The Shining and I have to say — after being such a massive fan of the Kubrick film I found it pretty lackluster, to say the least.
I heard Dead Zone was as well. And of course it pleases me to hear that (laughing).
A Dangerous Method is now playing in cinemas nationwide.