By Sven Mikulec
The master of the specific subgenre called body horror and the man who put out such classics as Dead Ringers and Videodrome, the Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg seemingly stepped out of his (dis)comfort zone and delivered one of the best movies of the first decade of this century when he made the film cleverly and multilayeredly called A History of Violence. This 2005 crime thriller first appeared at the Cannes Film Festival, where it contended for the prestigious Palme d’Or, and when a couple of months later it premiered in the United States, it was almost universally hailed as a brilliant and deeply thought-out work of art. The film was based on John Wagner and Vince Locke’s 1997 graphic novel of the same name, and it presented a story of a reinvented family man struggling and causing a lot of pain and confusion to his loved ones once faced with the past he thought he managed to fully escape. A History of Violence was a moderate commercial hit, doubling its budget at the box office, but the critics loved it even more, with Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers calling it a film with “explosive power and subversive wit” made by a “world-class director at the top of his startlingly creative form,” and Roger Ebert praising its complexity hiding behind a superficial simplicity. Deserved recognition also came from the institutions, as screenwriter Josh Olson received an Academy Award nomination, just like William Hurt did for his supporting role. In our humble opinion, what David Cronenberg’s film succeeded at doing was deliver a hauntingly deep and authentic portrayal of the nature of man disguised in the form of an exciting and enticing thriller painted with the distinct colors of Americana and the Western genre. Despite the fact it’s an American film created on the postulates of the purely American genre, the message it brilliantly conveys is nothing but universal, equally uncomfortable and thought-provoking for all audiences. From a filmmaker of such pedigree and competence, and led by one of the greatest actors of today, Viggo Mortensen, we could say we expected nothing short of what was ultimately delivered.
Tom Stall is a kind and gentle small diner owner in a tiny town in Indiana. A loving husband and father of two, he gets his life turned upside down when he confronts and kills two criminals robbing his diner and threatening his employees. He immediately becomes the talk of the town, hailed by all as a real American hero. The undesired popularity and media exposure, however, brings unwanted attention from the East Coast, as a mob big shot and his henchmen soon arrive claiming Tom is actually Joey, a criminal from Philadelphia who left the mob around two decades ago and tried to secure a completely new life for himself. Tom resolutely states the newcomers are mistaken, but as their relentless hostile presence grows more difficult to ignore, the loving husband and father of two will have to face up to the darkness of his past, much to the shock of his post-criminal career family.
The iconic American mythology was very interesting to me. I haven’t set a movie in America since The Dead Zone. It’s not like I have a message to the world. When it came to the depiction of violence, it was where did the characters learn their violence? And what was violence to those characters, but my idea of what I think violence should be. Violence is innate in humans; we are that strange creature that can form abstract concepts, so we can conceive of non-violence. There are people who think that a world full of peace would be boring and would lead to a loss of creativity. That’s an interesting, perverse argument that might some truth in it. —David Cronenberg
The complexity of Cronenberg’s A History of Violence can be foreshadowed by a quick and simple analysis of the film’s very title. Do these puzzling words refer to Tom Stall’s past that finally comes to bite him in the ass? Or is the title pointed, perhaps, at the history of the United States? And if it is, why stop at this particular country, when violence has been an integral part of any nation’s existence, when violence is an unavoidable, if unpleasant, aspect of the very nature of human beings? A History of Violence is a broad enough term to be applied to everything at once. “You could say that the title is applied to the character having a history of violence, but also to the history of America,” Cronenberg explained at one point. “I don’t think there is any country that doesn’t have a history of violence.” His main star, however, went further. “On the press tour, we’d get into a lot of debates with the press because they would focus on it being the story of America. I’d tell them they were trying to get themselves off the hook. It’s a very human story about alienation. Yes, it’s very Americana, but the details are what make a story universal,” said Mortensen. However, it’s easy to see what made people deduce Tom’s story was connected to the country the narrative was taking place. After all, the image and power of the concept of reinvention are somehow firmly tied to the American identity.
The film might start out as a drama set in a clichéd little place in the heart of the United States, but in a little while it sets down a completely different path regarding its tone, atmosphere and motifs. What still stands out in our memory is the way Cronenberg portrayed all the action scenes: without a trace of idolizing, without a drop of fetishizing, violence is shown as close, personal, physically devastating. “I didn’t want to use slow motion, not have it be cinematic, but as real as possible. There are many approaches to violence in cinema. This one is not that often used,” the filmmaker said. When a journalist commented the action scenes were beautifully choreographed, Cronenberg strongly disagreed. “They weren’t choreographed at all. It’s very brutal and it’s very accurate and very realistic. I found some DVDs teaching you basically how to kill with your hands and now I can do that.” Violence is depicted as an inescapable part of the human nature, as the whole narrative somehow cloaks itself in Darwinian robes: the main character will do whatever it takes to survive, and he’ll succeed in it only if he’s more capable (that is, more fit) than his adversaries.
Are we all, without realising it, taking part in a vast witness protection programme? Did we observe, at some time in the distant past, a deeply disturbing event in which we were closely implicated? Were we then assigned new identities, new personalities, fears and dreams so convincing that we have forgotten who we really are? These questions crowded my head as I watched A History of Violence, a film as brilliant and provocative as anything David Cronenberg has directed. All Cronenberg’s films make us edge back into our seats, gripped by the story unfolding on the screen but aware that something unpleasant is going on in the seats around us. All Cronenberg’s films, up to and including A History of Violence, are concerned with two questions: who are we, and what is the real nature of consciousness? Together, the films seem to parallel the growth of the mind from the womb onwards. Early films such as Scanners and The Dead Zone explore the blurred frontiers between mind and body, very much a new-born baby’s perception of reality. —J. G. Ballard
Directed by David Cronenberg (Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, Naked Lunch, Crash), adapted from John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel by screenwriter Josh Olson, shot by the British cinematographer and Cronenberg’s favorite collaborator Peter Suschitzky, enhanced by the score of another Cronenberg’s career-long partner Howard Shore, A History of Violence is a gorgeous film with a dark heart and a message that’s impossible to shake. On the basic level, it’s an exciting combination of drama, action and the typically Western theme of a man with a dirty past fighting for a second chance in life, with terrific performances from Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris and William Hurt. If you scratch a bit deeper, it’s an intelligent study of the human condition and the basic impulses that drive us all. There are two pieces of trivia we should all be reminded of. According to the first one, Viggo Mortensen considered A History of Violence the pinnacle of his career. “If not the best, it is one of the best movies I’ve ever been in. There’s no such thing as a perfect movie, but in the way that the script was handled, the way it was shot… it’s a perfect film noir movie, or it’s close to perfect, I should say.” The other interesting bit tells us this was also the last major Hollywood picture to be released on VHS. Of course, this certainly won’t mean a lot to a whole lot of people, but it sure is nice to see that this whole special era of enjoying quality films ended in such a powerful, meaningful note.
With History, I took John Wagner’s premise, title, and—god help me for using this phrase—“inciting incident,” and then leapt off and told my own story. The graphic novel was packed with story, it just wasn’t a story I wanted to tell. It’s a solid, smart and fun action thriller, but I was a lot more interested in getting into questions of identity. In the book, there’s never a moment’s doubt that the main character is the man the mob guys think he is. I felt like that was a missed opportunity. I thought it was a great chance to play with a classic “wrong man” scenario in which the wrong man is actually the right man. And that led me to start thinking about identity, and what it is that constitutes your “self.” Is Tom the guy they all say he is? Or is he the guy he’s made himself into? The freedom to stray from the material doesn’t necessarily come from the material, but from your own response to it. It also has something to do with the studio’s needs, as well. If you’re doing Harry Potter, there’s a billion fans that the studio’s trying to serve. If you fuck around with the fundamentals of the stories or the characters, you’re gonna be out of a job. But with something like History, we were talking about a ten-year old graphic novel that had a very small print run. There wasn’t a market-driven imperative to be faithful to the material, and it wasn’t the enormous audience that compelled the studio to purchase the book. I found out when they hired me off my pitch that they’d had the same concerns with the book that I did, and had just been waiting for someone to come in and show them how to take it into a completely different direction. In the end, it’s gotta be a story you want to tell. I’ve written a lot of originals, but in the end, History was one of the most personal scripts I’ve ever written. —Josh Olson
Screenwriter must-read: Josh Olson’s screenplay for A History of Violence [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation. With many thanks to the brilliant Josh Olson.
The following article first appeared in PopEntertainment, November 3, 2005, written by Brad Balfour, ‘David Cronenberg: A Director Looks At Violent America.’
Now transformed from a horror genre master (Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome) to a full-blown, critically acclaimed and analyzed auteur, Toronto-based director David Cronenberg finally has made A History of Violence—the film that may be the Oscar-garnering capper of his career. With Cronenberg having done films with exploding heads, weird parasites entering various body parts, and babies growing in sacs on their mother’s stomach, this story of a simple small town cafe owner confronted with a criminal act that makes him a hero and changes his life, is downright restrained beyond belief. Yet the 62 year-old Cronenberg has crafted a timely meditation on the nature and effect of violence on a man and his family.
What did you really want this film to address?
The iconic American mythology was very interesting to me. I haven’t set a movie in America since The Dead Zone. It’s not like I have a message to the world. When it came to the depiction of violence, it was where did the characters learn their violence? And what was violence to those characters, but my idea of what I think violence should be. Violence is innate in humans; we are that strange creature that can form abstract concepts, so we can conceive of non-violence. There are people who think that a world full of peace would be boring and would lead to a loss of creativity. That’s an interesting, perverse argument that might some truth in it.
It’s in this film.
The fact that the audience finds the violence exhilarating and that the children find it attractive, even though they are repelled by the consequences, shows the conundrum we have with violence. So many people fear it, there’s so much money, energy, and government that are trying to avoid it at the same time that we outfit armies to go and commit it on other people—it’s very paradoxical and endlessly fascinating, yet it’s also very attractive which brings out the animal part of ourselves. Even the human, intellectual part of ourselves is also attracted to it. It’s not easy to lament that we are violent creatures because that is just too simplistic.
Even in the sex between Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello?
That’s right. People experienced in sex and honesty will admit that there’s a component of violence in sexuality—whether it’s subliminal or not. Radical feminists have said that any form of sex is rape. I know that they are extreme, but I know what they’re saying and there’s some truth in it. Even that which can be considered tender and intimate is, in a sense, a spatial violation. That’s what makes human sexuality so complex and reflective of every aspect of the human condition. That’s why I tend to have sex scenes in my movie; I am failing to really deliver the goods to myself and my audience in terms of looking everywhere for what’s really going on unless sexuality is in some way being examined. Especially in this movie, where there’s a couple who have been married for 20 years and has two children and the only sex scenes are between the couple. How could you really say you’ve done your scenes-from-a-marriage routine if you haven’t acknowledged their sexuality in a very specific way.
Yet there’s an optimism to this film.
The feeling is that, perhaps, for Edie (Bello), the Tom/Joey (Mortenson) hybrid is the full guy. Perhaps the marriage could even be a better marriage with the acknowledgment of that. Whether she can live with that or not is a whole other thing. With the sex scene on the stairs, there’s an attraction-repulsion thing happening. That’s another reason why I felt I had to have that scene. Despite the difficulty that people have with that scene, it is necessary to set up the possibility of hope in the ending.
How did you make your casting choices?
I gradually narrowed it down. After all, the movie cost $32 million, which means I had to have an actor of a certain stature for the studio to feel that they can sell the movie. It’s very straightforward. I didn’t need a big star like Tom Cruise, but I did need somebody who is recognizable and has fans already. Very few movies can be successful with unknown actors. Even for a two million dollar movie, the producers will want a recognizable name. That automatically limits you to a certain number of people. Then there’s the age that the characters must be, within a certain range. And he has to be somebody who can carry a movie as the leading man, but, for me, he has to be more of a character actor. He has to disappear into his role as well as be subtle, eccentric, charismatic, and real all at the same time. It’s a difficult thing to find. There’s the subtle other thing that is beyond articulation which is my sensibility in terms of actors. There are some actors who I can admire in terms of their acting ability and stardom, but no compulsion to work with them. I go for certain actors that are my kind of actors.
What about an actress like Maria Bello?
The same goes for actresses. Maria is a beautiful woman, but still not what somebody says is the “ice princess” model of Hollywood these days; she’s real. That means that she bring subtlety, complexity, and possibly the difficulty of her character. I want a real woman, but not an icon.
You’ve never been afraid to show the ugliness of violence.
I don’t know, I must be fearless, it seems. For me the first fact of human existence is the human body. I’m not an atheist, but for me to turn away from any aspect of the human body to me is a philosophical betrayal. And there’s a lot of art and religion whose whole purpose is to turn away from the human body. I feel in my art that my mandate is to not do that. So whether it’s beautiful things—the sexuality part, or the violent part or the gooey part—it’s just body fluids. It’s when Elliott in Dead Ringer says, “Why are there no beauty contests for the insides of bodies?” It’s a thought that disturbs me. How can we be disgusted by our own bodies? That really doesn’t make any human sense. It makes some animal sense but it doesn’t make human sense so I’m always discussing that in my movies and in this movie in particular. I don’t ever feel that I’ve been exploitive in a crude, vulgar way, or just doing it to get attention. It’s always got a purpose which I can be very articulate about. In this movie, we’ve got an audience that’s definitely going to applaud these acts of violence and they do because it’s set up that these acts are justifiable and almost heroic at times. But I’m saying, “Okay, if you can applaud that, can you applaud this?” because this is the result of that gunshot in the head. It’s not nice. And even if the violence is justifiable, the consequences of the violence are exactly the same. The body does not know what was the morality of that act. So I’m asking the audience to see if they can contain the whole experience of this violent act instead of just the heroic/dramatic one. I’m saying “Here’s the really nasty effects on these nasty guys but still, the effects are very nasty.” And that’s the paradox and conundrum.
You’re a Canadian who’s made this essay about violence in America and you choose not to adorn it with special effects and visual dramatics; that makes this story so profound and so “Cronenberg…”
Yeah, it’s a tendency I have and I relate it somewhat weirdly to Samuel Beckett, and modernism. Somehow I feel that to me, one of the ultimate challenges is to not adorn, not to hide behind stuff. There are very easy things that you can do in films, especially now, to disguise yourself and make things easy and protect yourself. I’m as vulnerable as my actors, maybe more so when I direct a movie. Maybe not in the same physical way, but very vulnerable and it’s very tempting to do stuff, to hide behind it. I try not to do it, or get overly technique-y. If you can do it right, there’s a raw simplicity that’s incredibly powerful because there’s a certain truth right there. If you blow it, there’s nothing to hide behind. It’s obvious when you’ve blown it. So that’s why you get guys that do jittery camera stuff when it’s just a guy sitting in a room talking; they do stuff up here and they’ve got cranes and whatever. I just sit there and say “Ok, I’ve cast this guy for his face, for his voice, for his acting. I just want you to see that. Let’s just trust all that you’ve done and look at this guy talking.” I don’t need to do fancy, silly stuff that has no meaning or artistic purpose.
When Tom/Joey leaves small town life, is he really changed?
That’s certainly the way we played it. Imagine, he’s suddenly forced out of the identity he had and you have to decide how much of this you want to reveal to your viewers obviously, or you could spoil the movie for them.
[When he originally left the East Coast], he could have chosen to be anything—to be a Joey in Florida, or a Joey in the west coast. He could have gone to some other country and been a small time gangster. But he chooses to be part of this American mythology of itself, this kind of ideal guy in this ideal small town with a family. Non-violent. Very sweet. Very gentle with his children. And he genuinely is. He’s been that for twenty years. So he’s been very successful at that. And that’s not hiding. At that point he really wanted to become somebody else. If he got hit by a bus before the bad guys came to town, he would have been buried as Tom Stall, everybody would have thought that’s who he was and that’s who he would have been.
So when the violence breaks out, was he reverting?
No. The way we were playing it was that Joey was not actually a violent person. He didn’t have that incredible anger and rage. Because you would feel that if he had that incredibly violent temper and anger and rage for example that it would come out in those twenty years that he tried to be Tom. You know it would have come out sooner. But in this case, Joey learned violence because—being physically kind of athletic—he could be good at it, because he grew up in the streets of Philly. His brother was a mobster, the union was mobsters and to be successful and have some kind of life there, he had to become part of that. He could do violence, so he did violence, but he wasn’t particularly innately a violent person. So it was just as he says, when his brother says, “We’re brothers, what did you think would happen?” He replies, “I thought that business would come first.” For him it was business. And that was the approach to violence in the movie that I took, which is rather an imposing concept of what violence should or shouldn’t be. I wasn’t thinking about that… I’m thinking, “Okay in this movie where does the violence come from?” It comes from these guys who learned it on the streets and from the business. Its not sadistic pleasure, an aesthetic thing, or a martial art with a philosophy in fighting, it’s just business. You do it. You get it over and get on to the next thing and make as little fuss about it as possible. That’s what it is to Joey, and therefore it’s very possible for it to disappear. Now it comes back only because it’s a tool he needs, that he has. It is like the gunslinger that was the fastest gun in the west that put his guns away, you know? It has American iconic reverberations and we were very conscious of that. [Joey’s] the guy who’s reluctant to kill although he has a talent for killing, but it’s not something that gives him pleasure. That’s really the approach we took and it’s realistic in the sense that it would make it possible for him to become Tom and live that life for so long without revealing something else.
When you show the sex scene after the shootings, the intoxicating effect of the violence affects how they have sex with each other—as opposed to before it was revealed.
If you see the movie a second time, it becomes a different movie and only then can you really appreciate Viggo’s performance fully because we were conscious of making two movies at once and it had to work both ways—for both viewings. But once the violence cat is out of the bag it’s up for grabs. For me the most violent moment of the movie is when he slaps his son. That’s a shocking moment and you definitely get the feeling that it’s the first time he ever laid a hand on either of his kids violently. It depresses and shocks him as well as shocking his son because the violence cat is out of the bag and it’s hard to put it back in. Once again it’s a tool, but it’s a tool that has to be ready, the adrenaline has to be there, so and it comes out in the sexuality as well.
Your films have a weird air to them because they’re like American but not.
Many years ago, a producer who just started talking to me about that said, “You know, for Americans, your movies are really weird.” Now this was a long time ago, because the streets are like America, but they’re not. The people are like Americans but they’re not. It’s like the pod people kind of thing. And he said that gave [my films] that spooky edge for an American. I’m thinking, “Well that’s us Canadians, you know, we’re the American pod people. We’re like American people but we’re not, we’re quite different.” I’ve only really set a couple of movies, maybe three in America. One was The Dead Zone; another one, Fast Company had scenes that were set in America.
You’ve shot in America?
I have never shot a foot of film in America.
You didn’t shoot the exteriors of the town in America?
That was Millbrook, Ontario.
You can’t compare Toronto to any American city, but it’s all American cities in a sense.
Sure, it is, and there are certain essences of American cities that are totally not there. It’s because our histories are interlinked but they’re quite different. You know, we didn’t have a Civil War, we didn’t have a revolution, etc. We sent the mounted police into the western territories first with guns. Then the citizens came without guns. So there was never that sense of intense individualism that you have in America. Where a man with a gun, he’s the law, we always have had in Canada, more intense understanding of the social fabric where you have to negotiate and discuss and stuff like that.
Is the virus in History of Violence the past or is it violence itself the virus?
Well, you see, I don’t think that way, you know, in the sense that you’re bringing a concept, a sort of critical and analytical concept to bear on this movie. I absolutely don’t mind that, some very interesting and enlightening things can come out of that process. But that’s not a creative process, that’s an analytical and critical process; I don’t think of that, for instance when I was making the movie that thought would never have been in my mind. There were many thoughts in my mind but I don’t think about my other movies. I don’t think about the place of this movie in the pantheon and blah, blah. I really take each movie on its own and try to give it what it needs individually without imposing something from the outside, including what people have thought about my other movies. So you’re going to have to answer that question I’m sure.
Reflecting on your own life and on your own work, do you find that your movies are like different chapters from the same book?
Yes, I don’t deny obviously that there is a connection. The thing is that I don’t have to force the connection, because you literally make one or two thousand decisions a day as a director. There are decisions about everything from clothes to colors, to walls, to locations to actors and what wins in lighting and you’ll know that nobody else would make those same decisions. And so the movie will be enough of you, you don’t have to force it. I don’t have to say I have to put this thumbprint on it so the people will know it’s my movie. Did I answer the question?
Well, how does this chapter in the book relate to your work?
But see, I don’t have a perspective on it because I’ve just made the movie. It’s my most recent movie so I’m most involved with it and my other movies are the past and I’m just not thinking of them. It’s a legitimate metaphor that you’re using, that each movie is a kind of a chapter. I wouldn’t have made this movie the same way 10 years ago. I wouldn’t have been the same person, so it is revealing of something but I am the last person to be able to say what that something is.
After the heaviness of Spider is it nice to kick some people in the face?
No, not at all. Although I won’t say that didn’t have a reaction on Spider. But the reaction was that I didn’t make any money on Spider and I needed to do a movie that I could make some money on. In the sense that I couldn’t afford to do a low budget independent film whose financing was constantly falling apart and therefore we would all have to defer our salaries and not get paid. I literally did not make any money for two years and I could not afford to do that. So that was the reaction. On the other hand, Spider was still a wonderful experience and frankly I think it’s the other half of this movie. I mean, it also is about identity and the construction of it, and the possibility of it, and the consequences of it. In Spider you have a man who does not have the will, the creative will for whatever reason, to hold his identity together. He keeps disintegrating and falls apart. But each movie has a family in it. Has a past that has a huge impact on the present and its also, both movies are about identity. So I think they would be pretty interesting on a double bill for a certain very special audience.
Do you find it easier to work with an adapted screenplay?
It comes from laziness and momentum, basically. Even Brian De Palma, who wrote his original screenplays, took a while to finish writing them. You have to sit down for maybe two years to write it. Maybe it’s no good or maybe its okay but you can’t get it made. So, the pressure is on you to go with a project that a producer has already been excited about so that you don’t have to take those two years off only to find that you haven’t managed to produce something that’s worth making. When I did The Dead Zone, my first adaptation, I found it exciting to get out of myself. You can bore yourself with you. The idea that you will fuse with some other interesting, different personality and then create some third thing that neither one of you would have produced on your own is really interesting. I did that with interesting people like Stephen King, William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and now Josh Olson.
With A History of Violence, has your filmmaking style changed?
I don’t know if it changed. I’m always experimenting, which comes from the nature of the particular project. Each movie demands its own things, like a child. It starts to become something else. As the doting parents, I feed it what it needs so that it evolves into its own individuality. The movie tells me what it wants, which could be different from what cinema should be or from what my movies used to be; I can’t think about all that stuff—I can only think about feeding this demanding child.
Do you think Spider and A History of Violence share some thematic elements?
I only see that after the fact. It’s not like I thought of that when I started to make this movie. It’s only when I’m doing interviews and people are asking me to be analytical about my films. The creative impulses are different from the critical and analytical ones.
Why do people who make comedies tend to be angry and depressed and people who make very violent movies tend to be nice and funny?
It seems to be true, isn’t it? I mean there’s nothing scarier than a comedian. They’re angry, depressed, terrible people. Let’s face it. It must be. I mean I guess it’s easy to say, but it seems to be inevitably true that there’s a kind of balance that’s struck. If you’re kind of perky and funny in your life then you feel that you have to deal with the other stuff in your art and vice versa, you know.
Are you excited about the buzz about this film—given that you’re a Canadian making such an American film?
I’ve been through this before [laughs]. With Dead Ringers, I was told endlessly that Jeremy Irons was a shoe-in for best actor at the very least, but, of course, that didn’t happen. So, I realized the game-playing that goes on. Although, The Fly did win an Oscar for best special-effects and makeup, so I have done the Oscar thing. But it’s not a goal and it’s not a necessity.
What are you working on for the future?
There are a few projects that are possible. One is an adaptation of London Fields—Martin Amis’ novel; I’m a huge Martin Amis fan. Another is called Maps to the Stars, which is written by Bruce Wagner who is also an LA novelist and a close friend. Robert Lantos will be producing that if that happens. There are all things that are possible, but they are not at all for sure. They would be in the independent film range of budget and financing.
AN EVENING WITH DAVID CRONENBERG
Back in 2005, the Film Society of Lincoln Center paid tribute to David Cronenberg leading up that year’s release of A History of Violence. That film went on to garner widespread critical acclaim with Peter Travers (Rolling Stone) praising its “explosive power and subversive wit,” and Manohla Dargis (New York Times) calling it a “mindblower.” For their 2005 tribute, The Film Society capped off a retrospective of the director’s work with “An Evening with David Cronenberg,” which featured a conversation with journalist David D’Arcy. The hour-plus discussion touched on many aspects of Cronenberg’s extensive career through the lens of the director’s rare moment of studio favor. “I’ve been getting a lot more offers from studios,” he said, “this will last about 10 minutes but I’m—for an older guy—kind of hot right now.” In addition to his dealings with studios, the director also speaks candidly about his relationship with critics, which he describes as very strange.
The Treatment is a weekly journey into the heart of film led by film critic Elvis Mitchell. From an array of film industry guests, Elvis highlights one each week discussing topics from film inspirations to inner personal conflicts. With a straightforward style that understates his vast knowledge, Elvis extracts depth and insight from his many guests including David Cronenberg.
This documentary follows David Cronenberg as he takes his film to the Cannes Film Festival for its premiere.
David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen discuss their working relationship, which has now spanned three films together (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method).
PETER SUSCHITZKY, ASC
“The only long relationship I really had was with David Cronenberg. I shot two films with John Boorman but they were separated by 20 years, so it wasn’t exactly a marriage. Whereas with David Cronenberg it was very much a professional marriage. It was a wonderful opportunity to develop a relationship with him and shoot so many films together. Each one presented a different challenge. Each was quite different from the previous one. I found them all very stimulating to work on. For me, the key is to be stimulated by the project regardless of whether it’s going to be successful or not. I’m a firm believer in the importance of the context of what we cinematographers do. I think it’s pointless to think that you can do beautiful work on a bad film. Perhaps you can do good work on a bad film but it’s not going to have much meaning. Whereas if you do quite good work, maybe not great work, on a really good film, people will think you’re great and at the same time you’ll be stimulated. Actually I’ve found that I’ve done my best work on the most challenging films. Films which have been most stimulating to work on.” —Interview with Peter Suschitzky, ASC
CRONENBERG ON CRONENBERG
Cronenberg on Cronenberg, a career-length interview in book form edited by the filmmaker Chris Rodley and published by Faber & Faber, offers the definitive analysis of Cronenberg’s work through the words of the man himself. The following are but a selection of extracts. —Focus Features
Cronenberg on being an auteur director
“At a certain point I realized that what I liked about the classic filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s, like Bergman and Fellini, was that you entered a world of their own creation when you went to see their films. That world was consistent from film to film. There was a tone, a feeling, and dynamics that were consistently at work. It wasn’t really conscious on my part that I should do the same, but I started to notice that what I was doing was also creating a world that had its own very specific dynamic. That’s scary, because on the one hand I could say, ‘Well, that’s what a serious filmmaker should do,’ but on the other hand it worries you because if it comes to be expected of you it can be a trap. You worry that a film will be rejected, or won’t fit the pattern. It’s not unlike a child. I see it in how obsessive children can become. When a kid’s turned into a cat, if you try to relate to him as your son—disaster. Emotional psychic disaster. You’ve crossed the line. You’ve done wrong. Don’t underestimate the seriousness of play; the necessity to have that fantasy. For me, it’s the reason for returning again and again to certain themes. The thing that would not die, you know: disintegration, ageing, death, separation, the meaning of life…”
Cronenberg on the shocking force of his films
“I’m presenting audiences with imagery and with possibilities that have to be shown. There is no other way to do it. It’s not done for shock value. I haven’t made a single film that hasn’t surprised me in terms of audience response; they have been moved, shocked or touched by things that I thought wouldn’t nudge them one inch. For me, it’s really a question of conceptual imagery. It’s not just ‘Let’s show someone killing a pig on screen and we’ll get a good reaction.’ You would. So what? I don’t know where these extreme images come from. It seems very straightforward and natural and obvious to me as it happens. Often they come from the philosophical imperative of a narrative and therefore lead me to certain things that are demanded by the film. I don’t impose them. The film or the script itself demands a certain image, a certain moment in the film, dramatically. And it emerges. It’s like the philosophy of Emergent Evolution, which says that certain unpredictable peaks emerge from the natural flow of things and carry you forward to another stage. I guess each film has its own version of Emergent Evolution. It’s just like plugging into a wall socket. You look around for the plug point and, when you find it, the electricity is there–assuming that the powerhouse is still working…”
Cronenberg on the reasons for making art
“Catharsis is the basis of all art. This is particularly true of horror films, because horror is so close to what’s primal. We all prepare ourselves for challenges that we can anticipate. It’s only when cultural imperatives require that we avoid the discussion of things like death and ageing that the impulse is suppressed. Humans naturally prepare themselves to meet those kinds of challenges. Certainly ageing and death are two of those things. One of the ways man has always done this is through art. I’m not a big fan of the therapy value of art, in the psychotherapeutic use of art, because it’s devalued. It’s like Freud psychoanalysing Shakespeare by looking at Hamlet. But I think on a very straightforward level it’s true that any artist is trying to take control of life by organizing it and shaping it and recreating it. Because he knows very well that the real version of life is beyond his control.”
Cronenberg on his modus operandi
“People say, ‘What are you trying to do with your movies?’ I say, ‘Imagine you’ve drilled a hole in your forehead and that what you dream is projected directly on to a screen.’ Then they say, ‘Gee, but you’re weird. How can you do that strange stuff?’ I can they say, ‘You would do the same if you had access, if you allowed yourself access.’ Everybody would have weird stuff up there that an audience might think antisocial, perverse, whatever. It might even look that way to the person who created it. That’s not just your imagination up there; it’s a huge synthesis of things. ‘He’s got a weird imagination’ trivialises it and says it’s just a little arabesque. Nothing serious. Not the real person. Not the essence. But I think it is the essence of the person. Maybe the exercise is to deliver an essential part of you that cannot be delivered in any other way.”
Cronenberg on the artist’s duty to society
“Society and art exist uneasily together; that’s always been the case. If art is anti-repression, then art and civilization were not meant for each other. You don’t have to be a Freudian to see that. The pressure in the unconscious, the voltage, is to be heard, to express. It’s irrepressible. It will come out in some way. As an artist, one is not a citizen of society. An artist is bound to explore every aspect of human experience, the darkest corners—not necessarily—but if that is where one is led, that’s where one must go. You cannot worry about what the structure of your own particular segment of society considers bad behaviour, good behaviour; good exploration, bad exploration. So, at the time you’re being an artist, you’re not a citizen. You don’t have the social responsibility of a citizen. You have, in fact, no social responsibility whatsoever. When I write, I must not censor my own imagery or connections. I must not worry about what critics will say, what leftists will say, what environmentalists will say. I must ignore all that. If I listen to all those voices I will be paralysed, because none of this can be resolved. I have to go back to the voice that spoke before all these structures were imposed on it, and let it speak these terrible truths. By being irresponsible I will be responsible.”
Cronenberg on God and Man
“I’ve never been religious in the sense that I felt there was a God, that there was an external structure, universal and cosmic, that was imposed on human beings. I always really did feel—at first not consciously and then quite consciously—that we have created our own universe. Therefore, what is wrong with it also comes from us. Jaws seemed to scare a lot of people. But the idea that you carry the seeds of your own destruction around with you, always, and that they can erupt at any time, is more scary. Because there is no defense against it; there is no escape from it. You need a certain self-awareness to appreciate the threat. A young child can understand a monster jumping out of a closet, but it takes a little more—not really beyond most children, in fact—to understand there is an inner life to a human being that can be as dangerous as any animal in the forest.”
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. Photographed by Takashi Seida © New Line Cinema, BenderSpink, Media I! Filmproduktion München & Company, New Line Productions. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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