‘DOES THIS LOOK LIKE A SICK MAN TO YOU?’: The Horror of Identity and the Identity of Horror in David Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’

 
By Travis Woods

TELEPOD 1: STATHIS

He watches Her, trembling and nerve-twitched, eyes darting, lips pulled back over protruding teeth left exposed by a rictus of grim, grotesque transformation. His skin is soured and sallow, stretched tight over gaunt cheekbones that look to razor through his stinking flesh like insectoid mandibles long dormant and now violently awake. She does not see him—She is preoccupied with some Other. He can smell on her the scent of sex, and of laughter (…at his expense? Of course it was, of course they laughed at him, the freak, the nothing), and of happiness, and maybe even of some deeper, more permanent thing, an emotion that with the increasingly thin control he has left over his hyperactive consciousness he refuses to give a name. She cannot be allowed to feel that for some Other. She is his.

He is nothing without her. Without her, he is not human, not a person. Without her, he is not himself.

This is a cruel fact he has come to learn in recent days, as the man he once knew as himself—handsome face in the mirror; a rational, scientific mind—quickly devolved into this misshapen, bedraggled monster, the frayed filaments of his self-control warping against the pressure of this growing larval horror within him, this new self…or…perhaps…not a new self at all? Perhaps the true horror is that this is his real self, some awful and repressed identity he’d managed to deny all these years, until the emotional annihilation of love had utterly dissembled him, then brutally reassembled him to find what was once buried deep beneath the flesh is now here, rotting on the outside, while the person he once confidently showed the world has sloughed and shriveled deeply inward, nothing but a construct, a dream of a man now over.

Maybe the real nightmare in all of this, he thinks with as much coherence as his decaying logic centers will allow, is that mine has been a story not of transformation, but of revelation.

But that thought collapses to a subconscious buzz as She multiplies in his red-veined eyes, his sleep-starved mind unable to contain these thoughts just as his eyes cannot contain Her, countless identical Hers approaching, closer now, still unaware of his jittery, presence even as She envelops more and more of his field of progressively compounded vision, compounded because of the welling, angry tears—

 
“What are you doing here?”

The shock with which science journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) greets her former lover/current editor Stathis Borans (John Getz) as she discovers him, disheveled and distraught, stalking her as she shops for her new lover/interview subject, Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), is that of anger inked with revulsion and fear. Stathis has not only violated her privacy, but has confronted her with the revelation that the “Stathis” she thought she knew was only a fleshy paradigm, a mask torn to tattered bits by the real Stathis lurking beneath it—a sexually jealous and insecure stranger with a toxic mélange of simmering male anxieties—who is now thrashing about in the mindless throes of ego-death. Veronica’s choice to leave Stathis, to find happiness and love with a younger, more brilliant man, has robbed him of his ability to define himself with anything other than his own masculine insecurities and presumed sexual failings, and he emotionally disintegrates before her eyes.

“Don’t you get it?” she hisses at him. And then, referring to her coverage of Seth’s revolutionary project, as well as the feelings she is developing for the young scientist, Veronica asserts that “I’m finally onto something big.”

“Yeah, what?” Stathis gasps, wide-eyed and feral. “His cock?”

Stathis nakedly reveals to Veronica a crude psychosexual vivisection of his worst, most childish fears and uncertainties flayed open for her to see, a man unable to securely define himself without the placation of her love and attention, wholly unequipped for the responsibility of being an emotionally secured adult. “You’re too perfect,” he chuckles maniacally while dropping to his knees, “you’re a goddess! Thanks for making my paranoid fantasies come true!”

 
While arguably one of the more mundane moments in a film that also features Jeff Goldblum’s good-natured (if tragically insecure) scientist transmogrifying into a monstrous and murderous mansect, Stathis’ emotional meltdown highlights not only the nauseous thematic nucleus of David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly, but of his disturbing cinematic body of work overall: that the most horrific reality faced by sentient beings is not that we are locked within inescapable meat prisons designed to decay before collapsing into death, but that the one thing we hold to be truly immutable within that prison, the one thing we hold to be truly our own—our identity—is just as susceptible to disruption and infection as our pitiable bodies. If our minds, our selves are generated by the biological motor of the brain, and the brain is as vulnerable as our bodies to everything from hormone imbalance to terminal disease, aren’t we—the essential, intangible us, you, me—just as vulnerable to change as our physical selves? And if so, what does that make us, if anything at all? If our bodies change, if our brains change, does the intangible we change as well? And if it does, if the thing we think of as identity is simply an unprotected cell clump sheathed within a thinboned skull, part of a larger physiology programmed to eventually nonexist soon after its existence begins, what definitions do we have aside from those we desperately scramble together as a bulwark against the animal—or insect—instincts that lurk within the basest level of our biological shells?

It’s a question Cronenberg couches within romantic metaphor in The Fly, the story of a love triangle between a woman and two toxically insecure men who cannot assimilate the emotional complexities of intense, adult love, and whose weaknesses drive them to desperately fuse with this woman and thus be finally, comfortingly defined; both men instead become radically transformed by their inability to control being “made crazy by the flesh” of said woman (like the film’s telepods, these men understand fusion only in the literal sense of physical coupling). Stathis Borans inwardly suffers this transformation—or revelation—of “true” identity, whereas Seth Brundle’s mirrored experience is literalized by his mutagenic morphing into “flyness” as his crippling immaturity is wrought outwardly across his body before wholly degenerating his mind. As such, Stathis and Seth are designed as funhouse reflections of the other—each has duel connections to Veronica both professional and romantic, both defeminize (and thus attempt to neuter and disempower) Veronica with the gender-neutral nickname “Ronnie,” both are men who outwardly project (and cling to) the rationality of science to hide their weaknesses, and both share the initials S.B. (even Seth’s name is a disemvoweled transmutation of “Stathis”).

As writer and film studies professor William Beard notes in his excellent book-length dissection of Cronenberg’s oeuvre, The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg, it’s in The Fly that

“human closeness, romantic attachment, sexual intimacy, are all seen as leading inexorably to visceral horror—a combination of sexual alienation, fear of the sexual other (which is both woman and the feelings woman arouses in the male self), sexual guilt resulting from these feelings, fear of loss of control and loss of self, terror of the spirit’s subjugation to and foundation in the body, and its inevitable dissolution in bodily decay, disease, and death. This is the state of ‘flyness.’”

 

TELEPOD 2: SETH

The Fly is David Cronenberg’s masterpiece; it is also the crucial evolutionary pivot-point of his ongoing cinematic vision. An operatic crescendo to the first, most body-centric movement of Cronenberg’s filmography, it is the summation of the “body horror” films that preceded it (works populated by the parasitic sex-zombies of Shivers, the body-warping id-rage of The Brood, the television-rotted cerebellums of Videodrome, the time-hammered bodies of The Dead Zone, et al.); it also serves as the teleportation point that leads to the more internal, emotionally-complex and probing explorations of identity-obsession to come (everything from the twinned misogyny of Dead Ringers to the self-confusion/confused selves of A History of Violence and Eastern Promises). In 96 devastating yet perfect minutes, Cronenberg disassembled a camp monster movie premise and reassembled it into the dark, sumptuous poetry of the 1980s’ most brutal, and brutally honest, love story.

“One of the things that you inevitably deal with if you’re working with actors is identity,” Cronenberg has mused. “When you say [as an instruction to an actor about their character] ‘something you don’t want to do,’ who’s the you? Where is the you? Of what does that you consist? Of course, anybody who is working in the arts eventually must deal with the question of identity, even if it’s only the identity of the artist. What is the you that wants anything? And what is the you that controls the I? All of those things are perfect subjects for exploration.”

The Fly, to which Cronenberg fuses these existential questions of identity that have double-helixed within his work, begins and ends within the sum totality of Seth and Veronica’s relationship, portrayed by two actors who themselves were a real-life couple. The film’s own identity is intrinsically tied to both romances, real and fictional—its narrative feeds and thrives upon the undeniable emotional and sexual chemistry of Davis and Goldblum; even further, it abruptly begins only when Seth and Veronica meet and he begins to define himself (“What am I working on? Something that will change the world, and human life as we know it,” Seth brags in the film’s opening line, using scientific prowess as his only awkward means of flirtation), and the film then brusquely stops the second Seth dies, the relationship ends, and his self-definition of identity that was shaped by that relationship dissolves into clumps of bullet-imploded goop on a concrete floor…as the same splicing of scientific expertise and sexual self-doubt that engendered Seth and Veronica’s meet-cute beginning also brings about their shattering end.

 
The original 1957 short story “The Fly” by George Langelaan (and its subsequent 1958 cinematic adaptation, as well as Charles Pogue’s original script for Cronenberg’s remake) centered on a married couple; the decision to present Veronica and Seth as new lovers was Cronenberg’s own rewrite, as he felt his vision would be better served by a story about newfound seduction and romance, with all the interlocking changes and terrors that would bring to a sexually immature man’s life. And, as he notes in his director’s commentary for The Fly, the film is in many ways the “most traditional love affair that I’ve depicted in my movies,” and yet, beneath the surface, “strange things are happening.”

“Strange things” infest the plot of The Fly like larval maggots egged just beneath the film’s skin, ready to burst when pressure is applied. On the surface, the 1986 film is superficially similar to the short story and its original film adaptation: a scientist invents a pod-based matter teleportation process; the scientist transmits himself as a guinea pig through the pods, unaware that an errant fly slipped in with him, so that while they are disassembled separately, the two beings are then reassembled together; chaos ensues. It is there, though, that the similarities between earlier iterations and Cronenberg’s film end, with the most significant variances between versions of The Fly found in Brundle’s reasoning for building the telepods, and what drives him to test them on himself. It is within these changes that Cronenberg’s “strange things” hatch and furiously, irrevocably consume the remainder of the film, and Seth, in a mesmeric fable of self-annihilation.

~ ~ ~

In Cronenberg’s The Fly, all decisions made by Seth and Stathis are driven by their mounting insecurities as men, each choice an attempt to assert control over that which threatens their perception of their own masculine identities. The shy, eccentric Brundle attempts to woo Veronica with his telepod system, not for renown in Particle magazine but in order to assuage his own romantic loneliness. Even his invention of matter-teleportation itself is an attempt to assert control over weakness—the frequently motion-sick Brundle (“When I was a kid, I puked on my tricycle”) will never get carsick or airsick again if his creation is successful; and as Helen Robbins notes in her essay “More Human Than Human Alone: Womb Envy in David Cronenberg’s The Fly and Dead Ringers,” the pods themselves are an anxious male appropriation of female reproductive power that he forever lacks as a man, “with their frankly uterine shapes and vulviform glass doors, [the pods] are clear womb simulacra; the lingering shots of his naked fetal crouch in the transmitter pod figure his teleportation project as an attempt to give birth to himself.” Yet before Seth can “give birth” to his idealized version of self, there must be a kind of intercourse to both (re)create him and stave off sexual competitors.

 
Seth invites Veronica to document his project as a means to control her, to keep her from sharing his discovery with Stathis and Particle before the machines are ready. Doing so draws her closer, and inflames Stathis’ sexual jealousy while weakening his sense of self. Seth and Veronica fall in love, with Stathis’ increasingly intrusive, unstable behavior (such as violating Veronica’s apartment to take a shower—“Happened to be in the neighborhood, felt a bit scummy”) pushing her even closer to Seth. After a failed telepod experiment malfunctions and literally turns a baboon inside-out (just as it will figuratively invert Seth’s insecurities, tearing them out and making them flesh), Seth comes to the conclusion that his telepod computer “can’t deal with the flesh. I must not know about the flesh myself, I have to learn.” Veronica responds by initiating sex, and in teaching him “about the flesh,” introduces the lonely, isolated man to a torrent of new emotions he has never experienced, nor is his identity equipped to integrate. And as Veronica gives his skin a post-coital nibble, muttering “it’s the flesh, it makes you crazy,” Seth has a revelation: the computer must be made “crazy for the flesh” in order to understand the nature of processing physiology. But during his reprogramming of the system, he does not consider that the pods, like himself, lack the experience or maturity to process that form of “crazy.”

Nor does Stathis, who—his sense of self now emasculated—moves to publish an invasive article on Seth’s life and telepod system in order force a confrontation with Veronica. Seth, entrenched in newfound insecurities as a sexually active man with an identity now made vulnerable by that same activity, is unable to understand Veronica’s abrupt, seemingly clandestine meeting with Stathis as anything other than some kind of sexual rejection of his self. He drinks himself into a rage, muttering jealously as he paces his lab (“Stathis Borans is her old boyfriend. From the Desk of Stathis Borans. How about under the desk of Stathis Borans? She works for her old boyfriend, and runs out late at night to see him. Is this the Ronnie game? I’m catching on…”). Finally, in a frantic need to reassert control over his life, he opts to test teleportation on a human subject for the first time: himself. And, as in versions past, he does not enter the pod alone—though, unlike his predecessors, it is his boozy, resentful rage that blinds him to the fly that lands just beside him, that disappears into the stuttering teleportation light with him, that joins with—and eventually reveals—him.

 

TELEPOD 3: VERONICA

“It is a horror film… it is also a romance, it’s a love story. It’s very emotional, it’s very passionate. It’s not a gore-fest, it’s not a slasher movie. It’s also very funny, not in a sense of parody or camp, but it’s an ironic and darkly humorous film, I think. Gore is perhaps the most spectacular aspect of it, but it’s certainly not all that there is in the movie…” Cronenberg said during a surreally schmaltzy interview as part of The Fly’s 1986 press tour. Yet despite the limitations of the morning-TV interview format, he succeeded in articulating the unique fusion at the heart of the film, the genetic splicing of cinematic identities and genres that allows The Fly its centerpiece position in his filmography.

 
The Fly is a fascinating merging of the two aesthetic currents flowing through Cronenberg’s work at the time: the cold but deeply personal “Cronenburgundian” vision (his preferred term) that literalized the forces that dominate our lives as ravagers of our flesh (a concept, prior to The Fly, most fully realized in Videodrome), and the somehow impersonally personal adaptations of other writers’ work designed to explore the emotional facets of the human condition (something Cronenberg had only begun to do with his prior film, 1983’s Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone). The Fly is a strange, telepodded hybrid of these two films, as if the humanism of The Dead Zone buzzed its way into Videodrome’s telepod, and the resultant re-assimilation of the two showcases the Cronenburgundian aesthetic at its most Grand Guignol horrific, but at the same time softened with his most human and humane characterizations. The ultimate result is a film of extremes, in which each evolutionary leap in body-horror is matched by a devastatingly concomitant emotional holocaust.

These two concurrent forces are represented by The Fly’s two greatest special effects: the Academy Award-winning makeup designs of Chris Walas, and Geena Davis’ performance as Veronica.

~ ~ ~

At first, the teleported Brundle seems the same, if not better. He’s more confident, more powerful, more masculine—in the earliest stages of his unknowing union with the fly, he is much like a teenager in love, on top of the world and totally secure in his sense of self. But, also like a teenager, Seth’s nascent insecurities manifest, both in action and in flesh, and the high of a new love is more than he can facilitate—it turns to suspicion, mistrust, and jealousy while his body begins to corrode, the fly’s DNA revealing itself and malignantly spreading to the surface. Seth’s slow, agonizing transformation into Brundlefly mirrors the revelation of his true self, once buried deep within and now excavated by his mutating body. His self-imposed identity of a rational man of science crumbles like his flaking skin, revealing the terrified and angry adolescent insect that always lurked beneath. Therein lies the true horror of The Fly: that who we are is just as capable of becoming diseased as our bodies; that our constructed identities can fail us as easily as our porous immune systems. That, in the end, all we are is a collection of highly corruptible cells wedded to merciless biological instinct.

 
And as Seth’s true self is as loosed into the world as the fly’s DNA is within his system, he careens across the spectrum of masculine toxicity. He peacocks through the streets of Toronto, wearing a leather jacket over a newly-formed ripcord musculature that cables his body, his desperate projection of a “man.” He arm-wrestles men in bars for the sexual ownership of their women, ultimately ripping a brawler’s wrist in half. He screams and tantrums in anger at Veronica when she can no longer keep up with his voracious sexual appetites, and furiously resents her implication that his telepods damaged him (“Does this look like a sick man to you?” he asks, aggressively punching holes in a wall during a scene nauseatingly familiar to victims of domestic violence) when she refuses to be teleported herself. Later, after weeks of angry absence, he calls her, small and terrified and teary, muttering that he’s afraid to be without her, a monster of man whose body has betrayed him, whose sense of self has left him, a man left (literally) to climb the walls of his lab as he degenerates into the worst, most putrid aspects of himself.

Amidst all of this horror stands Geena Davis as Veronica, the lone voice of sane humanity in the film’s deliberately schematic universe in which she, Seth, and Stathis are the only inhabitants (indeed, aside from a handful of speaking roles sprinkled throughout a bar and doctor’s office, they are the only real characters in the film, both reducing it and elevating it to a level of fable). In a performance that traverses a prismic array of human emotions and experiences, from joy to comedy to romance to lust to drama to abject horror, Davis’ Veronica is, despite the film’s title, the soul and center of The Fly. She is both the audience surrogate who bears witness to the figurative horrors of small men such as Stathis and Seth as well as the literal terrors of the Brundlefly, but is also the fully conceived and—no pun intended—fleshed-out female character who must share the world with them. And as much as the film is a nightmare of identity, it is also the portrait of a woman forced to navigate a world mediated by the wanton fears and desires of insecure men. The tale of these men, so desperate to be defined by the security of a woman’s love, cannot be told without the absolutely integral portrayal of that woman; the film’s success as an emotional narrative rests solely on Davis’ shoulders.

It is her heartbreak that engenders our own when she intends to confront Brundle about her just-discovered pregnancy, only to find him degenerating far more quickly than before (with Goldblum at a career-best within Walas’ stunning, sickening full-body makeup) and unable to tell him the truth as he famously monologues about an insect’s inability to compromise or feel compassion, sounding as much like a description of an abusive man as it does the encapsulation of a fly, before finally warning her that “I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it, but now the dream is over and the insect is awake…I’ll hurt you if you stay.”

 
The overwhelming horror is compounded when she collapses into Stathis’ waiting arms outside, demanding an abortion—Brundlefly overhears this and is enraged, while Stathis wants to control the situation, demanding Veronica “wait a few days” because she’s not “in the right state of mind.” Thus the wrenching despair of the film’s third act is not just in Brundlefly’s self-inflicted decay, but in the efforts of these men to deny “Ronnie” autonomy over her own female body and identity—both men, struggling to reassemble their masculine selves, again seek to quell (or at least dictate) her female power. And while Stathis eventually relents, Brundlefly refuses to let her abort his child, kidnapping Veronica in order to fuse her and the baby to himself, an act that he hopes help him become human again; in assimilating with his love and their child, he will be himself again, his identity will once again be whole.

It’s a plan that, like all his others, ends in failure. Stathis acts in a rare act of selflessness (though it should be noted that he only acts “like a man” to protect Veronica once Seth is no longer a viable sexual competitor; Stathis’ own masculine identity is again able to coalesce around his self-image) and manages to destroy the pod connection with a shotgun (though at a cost: in their war of attrition, Brundlefly dissolves his competitor’s hands and feet with corrosive fly enzymes, externalizing Stathis’ “only half a man” terrified inner state).

When Veronica takes the gun, the pathetically malformed and miserable Brundlefly gently angles the barrel against his skull. It’s a moment of wordless, sickhearted tragedy that is almost beyond the mind’s ability to comprehend (but not Davis’ staggering ability to portray) as the man she loves soundlessly begs her to end his self-created misery, but it is also a final moment of selfishness, in which Seth now requires his misery to live on within her, cemented with this act of assisted-suicide. And when the shell explodes his skull in jellied, Rorschach’d fragments across the laboratory floor, all that he ever was, his entire identity, revealed to be sludged and slimy matter now ripped asunder, we watch as the light fades and Veronica is left crying in the meaningless dark of the world these men and their fears have created.

 

~ ~ ~

For all its horrors both emotional and bodily, perhaps The Fly’s most chilling and dreadspattered revelation is contained in its unceremonious ending: the film dies when Seth dies, it ends when his consciousness, his identity, ends. No tidy ‘50s b-movie life-lesson about scientific hubris, no last-minute plan to return his mind and body to what they once were; the world just fades to black as those who survive him look on in their misery. In doing so, The Fly ultimately reveals itself to be a film about death—death of love, death of the ego, death of identity, death of life—and about the questions of self posed in the face of death: “Where is the you? Of what does that you consist? What is the you that wants anything? And what is the you that controls the I?”

As our bodies change, evolve, and age, what becomes of the selves contained by those bodies, even dictated by those bodies? Are we the same? Are we different? Are we anything? Is identity real, or just the insect-dream of already-dying biological matter? Are we self-constructed? And if so, what dark foundations are we built upon—or against? If our bodies are prisons that encase our identities, what do our identities imprison? And if something awful is in there, buzzing in the dark—

What does that say about us? About you? About the person next to you, the one you love and trust?

Like life, David Cronenberg’s The Fly begins by generating an onslaught of ontological questions.

And like life, it collapses into its final darkness without an answer, an insect turning in its sleep, the dream now over.

Travis Woods lives in Los Angeles. He has a dog and a tattoo of Elliott Gould smoking. Bob Dylan once clapped him on the back and whispered something incomprehensible. These are the only interesting things about him. Read more »

 
My manager gave me the original story to read… I had never seen the movie. I liked the Jekyll/Hyde aspects of it. I came up with essentially the structure of the story you presently see on the screen. The mutating of the genes rather than this Big Fly Head/Little Fly head stuff you see in the original (just how does that work, science-wise?). Because you really needed a protagonist who could emote and have facial expressions and not play his big scenes by writing everything out on a chalk board. I was on the film/ then off the film/ then back on the film/ then finally when Cronenberg became attached to direct, I was off again. My producer, Stuart Cornfeld sent me a bottle of Glenlivet scotch and a package of razor blades. He wrote: Drink the Scotch before you use the razor blades. Cronenberg re-wrote alone, though again, the script echoes my own in many ways. It’s the same only different. It’s different only the same. He has said elsewhere that he couldn’t have got to his script without mine. One always mourns the movie that is lost, but this is a wonderful movie and I got no complaints and am proud to have siginficantly contributed to it. It’s a transcendent movie. Cronenberg brought a lot of good stuff to it. —Charles Pogue

Screenwriter must-read: Charles Edward Pogue & David Cronenberg’s screenplay for The Fly [PDF]. (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.

 
An exciting visit with the master of Canadian chillers.

 
On the Ontario-based set of The Fly, the mild-mannered 43-year-old director sits quietly in his chair while first assistant director John Board barks orders to the crew. Between shots and the long set-ups of Chris Walas’ complicated special makeup FX, Cronenberg graciously ushered Fangoria around and spoke extensively on his new summer movie.

 
Acting alongside a 185-pound mutated man-insect probably isn’t the easiest way for an emerging actress to earn a living. But for Geena Davis, the romantic lead in David Cronenberg’s update of The Fly, the part was too good to let a little blood and guts spoil things. “I have a pretty strong stomach,” explains Davis in her dressing room on the Ontario-based set of The Fly. Davis, an attractive and shy brunette, last vamped her way through Transylvania 6-5000 and starred in the short-lived TV series Sara. “I never turn away when I watch horror movies, and I didn’t walk away from what went on during The Fly. When you’re behind the scenes, it all looks fake. When Jeff Goldblum throws up though, it’s pretty disgusting. Watching him vomit was certainly worse than blood squirting or eyes popping out.”

 
Chris Walas, maker of The Fly: “Though we started the designs in September, we didn’t have the lead actor or any designs locked in until the beginning of October, when we finally got Jeff. We had to basically do all our makeup pieces, suits and everything in less than a month. We would be sizing up designs and tailoring on Jeff—who was needed for filming—while still trying to incorporate all the design aspects needed for the final stage; not much time to pull a lot of stuff together.”

 
“We open with stories of one man’s brilliant idea to remake the science fiction classic, The Fly (1958), into a whole new entity. The end result was David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) that revolutionized the genre. Nearly every aspect of the filmmaking process is covered in this mammoth documentary, and in great detail.”

 
A distinctly Cronenbergian take on a ‘50s sci-fi tale The Fly traces Jeff Goldblum’s transformation from scientist Seth Brundle to the creature Brundlefly. This effects-heavy film posed significant challenges for the production team. Hear Denise Cronenberg, Stephan Dupuis, Mark Irwin, Howard Shore, and Carol Spier discuss some of the challenges they faced in designing the telepod, makeup, sound, and other memorable elements from the film. —The Fly: Production Design and Effects

 

MASTERCLASS WITH DAVID CRONENBERG

The following is an excerpt from the marvelous book Moviemakers’ Master Class: Private Lessons from the World’s Foremost Directors by Laurent Tirard.

I became a director by accident. I always thought I would be a writer, like my father. I liked movies, as an audience member, but I never imagined that one could actually make a career in filmmaking. I lived in Canada and movies came from Hollywood, which was not only in another country—it was in a different world! When I was around twenty, however, something strange happened. A friend of mine from university had been hired to play a small part in a feature, and to see someone that I knew in everyday life on a movie screen was something of a shock. It might seem ridiculous today, when ten-year-old children are making movies with their video camcorders, but at the time, it was like an epiphany for me. I started thinking, “Hey, you could do that too…” At that point, I decided to write a screenplay. But of course I had no practical knowledge of how to write for films. So I did the most logical thing: I picked up an encyclopedia and tried to learn film technique from it. Needless to say, the information it gave me was a little too basic. So I bought film magazines, figuring I would learn more. But I couldn’t understand a word I read.

The technical slang was just undecipherable for a novice like me. What I liked about the magazines, however, were the pictures taken on film sets, particularly those showing filmmaking equipment. I have always been fascinated by machinery; it’s something I really have a feel for. I can take anything apart, put it back together, and in the process understand how it works. So I figured the best way to learn was to actually use the equipment. I went to a camera rental company and became friends with the owner, who let me toy around with the cameras, the lights, the tape recorders… Sometimes, cameramen would come to pick up their equipment and would give me tips on lighting, lenses, and so on. And finally, one day, I decided to have a go at it. I rented one of the cameras and made a small short film. And another. And another. But I still considered it a hobby; I wasn’t seriously thinking of directing films until I wrote a script that a production company wanted to buy. Suddenly, I realized that the idea of someone else making that film was unbearable, and I refused to sell the script unless they let me direct the movie. We fought for more than three years, but I eventually won, and this film launched my career as a director.

 

A FILMMAKER MUST KNOW HOW TO WRITE

As I said earlier, I always thought that my “serious” career would be as a writer, and for that reason, I think, I still consider literature a “higher” art form than film. Surprisingly, though, when I once talked about it with Salman Rushdie, whom I consider to be one of the most interesting writers of his generation, he looked at me as though I were a madman. He thought exactly the opposite. Having grown up in India, where film is highly regarded, he told me that he would give anything for the opportunity to make a film someday. It turned into a complex debate; I gave him examples of things he had written that could never be properly transcribed in images, and he gave me examples of films that no books could ever compete with. We eventually agreed that today, film and literature not only feed on one another but also complete each other. You cannot compare them anymore. However, I do think there is a big difference between directors who write and directors who don’t. I strongly believe that in order to be a complete filmmaker, you have to write your own scripts. In the past, I even argued that the filmmaker had to be the author of the original idea that the film was based on. But then I made The Dead Zone, which was adapted from a Stephen King novel, and lost a little of that arrogance.

 

THE LANGUAGE OF A FILM DEPENDS ON ITS AUDIENCE

Filmmaking is a language, and no language can exist without grammar. It’s the basis of all communication: everybody agrees that certain signs mean certain things. However, inside that language, there is a real flexibility. And your job, as a filmmaker, is to find, for every shot, the right balance between what’s expected, what’s necessary, and what’s exciting. You can use a close-up shot in a conventional way—to draw attention to something—or you can use it exactly for the opposite, as diversion. If you play around with film language, the result is bound to be a little more dense, a little more complex, and the viewing experience should be a little richer for the audience. However, that implies that your audience already has a certain knowledge of film language. Otherwise, they will feel lost and eventually give up on your film. In other words, in order to communicate intensely with a hundred people, you might lose a thousand on the way.

When Joyce wrote Ulysses, for instance, it was a rather experimental book, but most people were able to follow. But after that, he wrote Finnegans Wake and lost a lot of readers because in order to understand this book, you almost had to learn a new language, and very few people are willing to make that kind of effort. So it really is up to you, as a filmmaker, to decide how far you want to go, depending on how large an audience you wish to reach. Oliver Stone once asked me whether I was content to be a marginal filmmaker. I understood what he meant; there was nothing condescending in his question. He knows that I could be making mainstream films if I wanted to. And I answered that I was happy with the size of my audience. But I think this is something that a director must somehow be able to determine in advance—what kind of an audience he wants to have—because it will necessarily influence the language that he will be able to use.

 

A THREE- DIMENSIONAL MEDIUM

I remember that the first time I found myself on a film set, what frightened me the most was the notion of space, because I was used to writing, which is a two-dimensional medium, and I discovered that film was a three-dimensional one. I’m not talking about the visual aspect of film, of course. I mean the set itself. It’s an environment where you not only have to deal with space but also with people and objects that have a relationship with that space. And not only do you have to organize all these elements as efficiently as possible, but you have to do it in a way that eventually makes sense. It might sound abstract when I say it, but believe me, when you’re dealing with it, it’s extremely concrete. Because the camera has a place of its own within that space. It’s like another actor. And in a lot of first films, I notice the same problem over and over again: the inability to make the camera “dance,” to properly organize the sort of gigantic ballet that a film set inevitably turns into. On the other hand, the wonderful thing is that most decisions come in a totally instinctive manner. Once again, when I made my first film, I wasn’t sure whether or not I would be able to direct images, because I had never studied visual arts. I had no idea whether or not I would be able to do something as basic as decide where to set the camera for a given shot.

I had nightmares in which I realized I had no opinion on the matter. But when I got onto the set, I discovered it was a totally visceral thing. I mean, I would sometimes look into the camera’s viewfinder and get physically sick because I didn’t like the frame. I wasn’t quite able to explain exactly why, but I knew it had to be changed. My instinct was telling me it wasn’t right. Today, I still rely mostly on instinct. The danger of that, of course, is that the more experienced you get, the easier it is to fall into a sort of routine. You know what works; you know what’s efficient, what’s comfortable. You end up directing the whole film on autopilot and leave no room for innovation, for surprises. So you have to remain alert. In any case, I am not one of these directors that are obsessed with the camera. It is not my priority when I arrive on the set. I prefer to work with the actors first, as if I were making a stage play, and then I figure out a way to shoot it with the camera. I approach it as though I were making a documentary of what I rehearsed with the actors. Of course, some scenes are purely visual, and in that case I start with the camera. But most of the time, my main concern remains the dramatic essence of the scene, and I don’t want anything to interfere with that.

 

ONE FILM, ONE LENS

The more films I make, the more minimalist my approach becomes, to the point where I sometimes shoot an entire film with the same lens—in the case of eXistenZ, a 27-millimeter lens. I have a desire to be both direct and simple, like Robert Bresson when he started shooting everything with a 50-millimeter lens. That’s the complete opposite of a Brian De Palma, for instance, who is always looking for a greater visual complexity, always trying to manipulate the image a little more. I’m not criticizing what he does—in fact, I completely understand it on an intellectual level. He just has a different approach, that’s all. One tool I never use is the zoom lens because it doesn’t correspond to my idea of filmmaking. The zoom is just an optical gadget; it’s purely practical. And I will always prefer moving the camera, because I find that it physically projects you inside the film’s space. And zooming doesn’t achieve that. It keeps you outside.

 

ACTORS HAVE THEIR OWN REALITY

Most directors today come from a visual background, and so, when they make their first film, their biggest fear tends to be working with actors, the same way some directors used to come from the stage and were terrified at the idea of working with a camera. As for directors who come from writing, like me, well, that’s even worse: they are used to working alone in a room, and now they have to deal with all that chaos! In any case, when it comes to working with actors, I think the main thing is to understand that the reality of an actor is different from that of a director. At the beginning, I saw actors as enemies because I felt they didn’t understand the pressure I was under. I was worried about trying to make the film in time and within budget, and all they seemed to be worried about was their hair, their make-up, and their costume.

These things seemed totally trivial to me, of course. But in time, I understood I was wrong. These are their tools, and they’re as important to them as the camera and the lights are to me. For a director, it’s all about the film. But for an actor, it’s all about the character. So they’re not quite on the same wavelength, they’re not quite in the same reality, but if the actors and the director communicate, they can move in the same direction together. Most young directors will try to bypass that problem by lying to the actors. I know this can happen—I’ve done it. But in time, I’ve come to realize that if you’re honest, actors will not be happy to help you solve your problems—they will make a point of it. Unless, of course, you run into crazy or out-of-control actors. I can tell you from personal experience, there are some. And in that case, all you can really do is pray.

 

I DON’T WANT TO KNOW WHY I MAKE FILMS

There is a scene in eXistenZ where Jennifer Jason Leigh says, “You have to play the game to know what the game is about.” Clearly, that is how I regard filmmaking. I will never be able to explain what draws me toward a particular project, and it is only by making the film that I can understand why I’m making it, and why I’m making it that way. Most of my films are therefore a complete surprise when I see them finished. And this is not something that bothers me. In fact, it’s something I look forward to. Some directors say that they have a very concrete vision of the film in their head before they make it, that if they projected the film they had in their mind it would be a ninety percent match with the actual finished product. I don’t see how that could be, because there are too many small changes that occur, day after day, when you’re making a film.

Little changes that eventually add up to make a big difference from what you originally had in mind. I know that Alfred Hitchcock claimed he was able to previsualize his films shot by shot. But I don’t believe him. I think it was just his oversized ego talking. I think the most important thing is to be able to know, intuitively, that the decisions you’re taking are the right ones, without trying to explain them rationally—at least not while you’re making the film. You’ll have plenty of time to analyze it once the film is finished. In fact, if what Hitchcock said was true, then I almost pity him. Because can you imagine spending one year of your life working on a film that you’ve already seen in your head? That would be the most boring thing!

 
Documentary about the career of director David Cronenberg, with clips from his films and interviews with friends, colleagues, film critics and Cronenberg himself.

 
Cronenberg on Cronenberg. He’s given an interview in which he looks back on his major features over the course of 90 minutes.

 
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Photographed by Attila Dory © SLM Production Group, Brooksfilms, Twentieth Century Fox. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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