David Cronenberg: Taxing the Mind with Cosmopolis

Occupy Cosmopolis

David Cronenberg never achieved his early aspiration of becoming an “obscure novelist that was too difficult or too dark to be very popular”. As a director and occasional screenwriter, though, he has never been afraid of dividing audiences. “You should be provocative [if you’re an artist],” he once told me. “If you make a movie that everybody loves, you’re in big trouble.”

He was presumably over the moon, therefore, when his glacial adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel Cosmopolis split opinion at this year’s 65th Cannes Film Festival. While some critics simply scratched their heads in puzzlement at the opaque tale of twentysomething billionaire Eric Packer’s death trip across New York in a white stretch limo, others praised the film’s cool style (reminiscent of Crash), intelligence, and nuanced central performance by Twilight’s Robert Pattinson.

A long way from the body horror films such as Shivers – in which a parasite spreads sexual anarchy throughout a high-rise building – or Rabid – in which porn star Marilyn Chambers spreads disease from a phallic growth in her armpit – which defined Cronenberg’s fledgling career, Cosmopolis is the director’s view that “dialogue is the essence of cinema” writ large.

This is not a new idea, he says. “Everybody would talk about the gore or the creatures or the science fiction, but if you look at those early movies the dialogue is pretty interesting, I think, still,” he says, when we meet in London a week after Cosmopolis’s Cannes debut. “It’s not the normal low-budget horror dialogue that’s very banal and ordinary. It’s unusual, and the characters are unusual, and I think very funny as well. So I say I have always been concerned to write good dialogue, and to have interesting dialogue.”

Cosmopolis, like his previous film A Dangerous Method (adapted from Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure), is such a tsunami of words and ideas, however, that it even took DeLillo, who loves the film, two viewings to absorb everything.

Cronenberg is unapologetic about making viewers work, and dismisses much of modern Hollywood’s output as a “very superficial version of what cinema can be”. “It’s like eating candy,” he says. “You consume it, and then it’s gone and you forget it. I like to put a lot into my movies so that it’s not an instant consumer item.

“Now I’m completely aware that offends some people, because they’re used to the consumer version of cinema, and I say, ‘Well, too bad. Then maybe my cinema’s not for you.’”

What Twihards will make of the latest Robert Pattinson vehicle, and in particular a scene in which Packer undergoes a weirdly sexualised prostate examination, is anyone’s guess. The 26-year-old is surprisingly well cast though, despite personally having doubts about whether he was good enough, playing a role which effectively reverses the journey of many Cronenberg protagonists.

Where a character in the Canadian’s films will often mutate into something else, as in The Fly or Videodrome, Packer is already a kind of alien when Cosmopolis begins. Disconnected from society, and even from his own humanity, by his immense wealth, he gradually transforms back into a recognisable human being, filled with dread and doubt, the closer he gets to fulfilling his own elaborately self-engineered suicide. What had begun as a trip to get a haircut – symbolising “a journey into his past, into his childhood, and perhaps an innocent time,” says Cronenberg – turns into an existential odyssey.

Packer is representative of a type well known to Edouard Carmingnac, a French investment banker and hedge fund manager who put money into the film because he loved the novel’s “absolute accuracy”, says Cronenberg: “He knows many people just like him. Money isn’t real to them any more, or it’s almost a game, or they deal in billions of dollars but never actually touch real money; it’s all in their heads and they don’t even have time to connect with real people in a real way. So for him this is not a fantasy; this is a documentary.”

If the film felt like a fantasy to Cronenberg when he took it on, it started to feel increasingly less so as real world events alarmingly mirrored their story.

“We were directing scenes of anti-capitalist riots in Times Square [on a soundstage in his native Toronto], and then we’d go home and read about the Occupy Wall Steet movement.” On another occasion, Paul Giamatti, who appears as Packer’s executioner/saviour, Benno, texted him just after they’d filmed a scene featuring Mathieu Almaric as a cream pie-throwing anarchist, saying Rupert Murdoch had been attacked with a pie. “We said, ‘This is bizarre. Everything we’re shooting is happening.’ Of course, we never really thought of it per se as a documentary, but it was really interesting to see.”

Cosmopolis inevitably taps into widespread anxieties about capitalism and the yawning gap between haves and have nots. However, looking at what Occupy Wall Street actually stands for (anti-fraud, anti-corruption, anti-greed) made Cronenberg realise that nobody in the film is actually anti-capitalist. 

“Occupy Wall Street is pro-capitalist, they just want to be part of it,” he says. “They’re saying capitalism has excluded us and we’ll be happy if we are part of the 1 per cent.” Similarly in the film, Benno hates the younger, more successful Packer because he feels too left out, too old, too left behind. “So in terms of these characters it’s not really an anti-capitalist screed of any kind, it’s an analysis of capitalism.”

And a certain kind of rapacious capitalism at that. In Canada, says Cronenberg, where things are more conservative, the banks have evaded the financial disaster afflicting America because regulation has prevented them from running amok. When banking was deregulated across the border, no-one was amazed by the consequences. “If you just say to Americans, ‘Go crazy’, they will go crazy of course. And they have a history of that. So we’re not surprised.”

Canadian capitalism is less extreme, says Cronenberg. Unlike the Packers of this world, “we just think it’s natural that you want some safety net for certain members of society that can’t hack it, and that’s human. Sure some people try to scam the system, and so what? That’s also human and you try to balance that, too.” He laughs. “In America they think we’re pinko, they think we’re socialist or worse, we’re almost communist. And in the heartland of America, Canada is quite threatening in that way.”

Some Americans also used to find Cronenberg threatening because of his films. Even Martin Scorsese, who’d already directed the violent gangster movie Goodfellas at the time, once admitted to Cronenberg that he was scared of meeting him because he thought he would be “some crazy person”.

It is risky judging an artist by their work, of course. That said, it is hard not to wonder what goes on inside the mind of a man whose films include exploding heads (Scanners), identical twin gynaecologists obsessed with a woman with a “trifurcated cervix” (Dead Ringers), wounds that offer new orifices for sex (Crash), and a sexualised prostate examination (Cosmopolis). The latter make me wonder if Cronenberg believes that anything can be eroticised.

“I think so,” he says unhesitatingly. “Certainly Freud suggests that when he talked about what he called polymorphous perversity: the idea that to the child who is almost pre-sexual in a sense, everything is sexual; eating, shitting, sensuality, touching, drooling, there’s an eroticism to all of that. So I think the answer is yes, under the right circumstances.” He smiles. “And in the right delicate hands, of course.”

It isn’t any wonder that over the years Cronenberg has shocked, sickened and provoked, attracting labels such as the King of Venereal Horror and the Baron of Blood. Subversion and transgression, and a sometimes queasy fascination with human physiology, still colour his work. But its maturity and complexity is now such that no-one could seriously mistake Cronenberg for being “just some kind of schlocky horror film-maker”.

The French love him so much that in 1997 he was made an Officer in the prestigious Order of Arts and Letters, while in Canada (and this could perhaps only happen in Canada) he is regarded as a national treasure.

“I’ve had to endure that,” he says wryly. “But you take strength from it, especially given that I have always been rigorous in being true to my own visions of things, and am not just being loved for the sake of being loved.”

If he ever “lost the edge”, he says it would be time to seriously consider retirement. “I’m not interested in becoming an establishment kind of old fart. That would be the end of your career, and at that point you would hope that you would have the grace to stop.” While he’s still making films as provocative as Cosmopolis, that day, even at 69, looks some way off yet.

First published in The Scotsman June 7, 2012

Prometheus: Loving the Alien

Scott revives Alien DNA

STEPHEN APPLEBAUM, The West Australian June 6, 2012, 11:33 am

After months of anticipation fuelled in part by a clever viral marketing campaign — featuring characters from the movie, including Guy Pearce's shady billionaire businessman Peter Weyland — Ridley Scott's Prometheus is here at last and promises to be one of the year's biggest hits.

The large-scale 3-D movie marks the genre-hopping Scott's return to the world of Alien, the landmark space shocker which made his name in 1979. It's also his first sci-fi film since 1982's groundbreaking Blade Runner.

Holding court in a London hotel, the 74-year-old says he might have come back to the franchise sooner but was simply too busy to think about it.

"It was only when I realised that Alien was done, cooked, finished, that they hadn't answered the big question," he says.

And that is: what is the meaning of the giant alien with a hole in its chest in the original film?

"So I thought about the big question for a bit, and put it down on that much paper," he adds, holding up a scrap not much bigger than a Post-It, "and went to Fox."

Wisely, Scott wasn't following on from the sequels and spin-offs, which descended into an embarrassing mash-up of Alien and Predator. Instead, he went back to before the movie which brought H.R. Giger's killer xenomorph to an unsuspecting public.

"The alien is no longer frightening, that's the problem," he says. "So I told them 'You have to go down a different route'. They bought into the idea, and here we are."
Where Alien featured no stars — Sigourney Weaver would became one on the back of her performance as Ellen Ripley — Prometheus positively glitters, with Charlize Theron, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce and Noomi Rapace (the original Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

Vulnerable and feisty, the latter's Dr Elizabeth Shaw — a woman of science with a strong religious faith — is essentially the new movie's Ripley, and another of the Thelma and Louise director's strong and resourceful females.

Weaver's character was originally written for a man. But when someone suggested turning Ripley into a woman, Scott simply thought, why not? "I never think about the segregation of the sexes," he says. "I've got five companies and they're all run by women. What does that tell you?"

It is perhaps no accident then that the hard-nosed Weyland representative heading the mission this time around is played by the statuesque Theron. The actress seems to specialise in strong women — her character doesn't think twice about incinerating a fellow crew member - but don't tell her that.

"I think in cinema we have been made to believe that women are weak and vulnerable or they're really strong and the thing is that we're all really capable of the same amount of strength," she says.

"So I never tackle these roles and go 'This is a strong woman'. I mean, men don't get that ever. Nobody ever looks at a man and goes 'Wow, you're playing such a strong man'."

Her character is certainly stronger than Pearce's doddery billionaire. Although young in the viral campaign, he is old and decrepit in the movie, his youthfulness hidden under five hours' worth of make-up.

Pearce, 44, admits he was surprised when he was asked to play the role.

"But Ridley very complimentary said to me 'Well, you're a chameleon. You can play anything'." he laughs.
"But I would have done anything in this film, to be honest, just to be part of it and get to work with Ridley."

As good as the rest of the cast are, Prometheus is arguably Michael Fassbender's film.
As David, he follows his all-too human sex addict in Shame with a scene-stealing sinister, funny and mysterious supporting turn as a blond robot fascinated with Lawrence of Arabia.

Hailed as the cast joker, the Irish-German actor admits that he felt pressure coming to the project just three weeks after wrapping up Shame in New York.

"But that keeps a healthy amount of fear in you and then I go home and make sure I do my homework every night," he says. "You then just have to go, f... it. If you're going in with that fear every day, I can't imagine it would be fun. And it should be fun."

Urged by Scott to watch Dirk Bogarde's performance in The Servant, Fassbender keeps us and the other characters off balance. "You look at David and go 'Is he taking the piss?' He (Scott) said to me early on that he wanted that ambiguity."

However, even the actor admits: "I don't really know what's going on with David. I was just sort of messing with you guys."

Asked if he is concerned about what fans will think of Prometheus, Fassbender says he's already had experience of a "very loyal and very vocal" following with X-Men: First Class.

"You respect that," he says. "And then you have to disrespect it because you want to make some bold choices and risky choices.

"If you're worried about it and not fully focused on (what you're doing), you've got one foot here and one foot there and the film will be neither here nor there."

From The West Australian, 6th June, 2012

Nikolaj Arcel - Writer/Director of A Royal Affair

What drove A Royal Affair?

"Blind naivete. I always do this because my debut feature was a political thriller called King's Game and when I did that everybody in Denmark said, 'It can't be done. It's too boring and dull.' My next film was a big fantasy adventure with big special effects and they said, 'It can't be done.' I'm not saying I always succeed; I'm just saying I always want to try at least."

This is an iconic story in Denmark. How close do you stick to the facts?

"I dramatised quite a lot but I also worked with historians who are very familiar with this story and have even written books about it. So I'm not diverging too much from history, but I'm also not keeping too tightly to the facts."

Although set in the 18th century, the story seems to have some contemporary political echoes. Was that what interested you?

"First of all it's for me a love story. But as a sort of political guy who is into politics, I also have a visionary come to Denmark and try to change everything and reactionaries killing him. So I thought that was maybe not a metaphor for something that could just happen in Denmark but has become a metaphor for what's going on around the whole world."

Struensee tries to bring the Enlightenment to Denmark with only the Queen's help. Why doesn't he forge more alliances?

"He was a political amateur. He didn't know about what you needed to stay in power and he did all the wrong things. He went to bed with the King's wife. He cut the military, which is the main thing you should not do. And he took the money away from the nobility and the rich. He felt he could implement all these grand ideas and thought, 'Of course everyone will love me for it because they can see that it's good for them.' He was a little bit like Obama."

Are idealists doomed to failure?

"The optimist in me would love if they had a chance but idealists fail so often that probably that would be my feeling, yes."

How important is this story to Danes?

"It's very important. It's part of a cultural identity. We learn about it in school, we read about it in books, we see the ballets, the plays. It's not only a politically interesting story but also a very soapy, melodramatic, saucy story. There's death and birth and forbidden love, so it's like a fairy tale somehow."

Lars von Trier is one of your executive producers. How involved was he?

"He was not there on the set; that would have been horrible. Everybody would have been like: 'What does Lars think?' No, he was a consultant on the script so he would read various stages of the script and tell me what he thought and bring me some ideas. Then when I was editing the film he came into the editing room several times. So he was invloved before and after actual shooting."

What were the traps you wanted to avoid?

"A lot of directors who do these historical films fall in love with their own ability to show everything. You know, let's slowly move in on the castle for 10 minutes while I show you how big a director I am. I was always a little bored with these kinds of films and I thought I would really try to avoid that and just stay on the characters. But even though I had this dogma, obviously I do sometimes fall into the trap. You can't help yourself."

David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method acknowledged the little-known role of a woman in the development of modern psychiatry, and here you show the Queen's role in the attempted modernisation of Denmark. Do you feel that women have often been erased from history?

"Yes, I definitely think there has been a lot of erasure of female characters. In this story, and in real life, I think [the Danish statesman] Guldberg said to Caroline, 'We will not judge you too much because you only see through the eyes of the man that you love,' which is so typical of those days. When you read her texts, she is not only seeing through the eyes of him, she has her own eyes and her own brain. So yes, I think it's probably healthy to do this slight kind of revisionism and say, 'Okay, she was there and of course she had a huge influence on [Struensee].'"

Finally, were you surprised by the international success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and what is your opinion of David Fincher's remake?

"I wasn't surprised by it at all because of the book, which was a big hit, and because of Noomi [Rapace, who played Lisbeth Salander]. She is fantastic, the book was great, so we already had a good basis. I haven't seen the Fincher version. I am a big Fincher fan and I am scared, basically, of watching it, because I feel I will get a slap in the face saying, 'Look what we can do.'"

A Royal Affair opens June 15