Terror can be good for you, or so might argue David Cronenberg.
He should know, having made some of the most terrifying films of the last
thirty years or so, such as “Shivers/They Came From Within” (1975), “Rabid” (1977) , “Scanners” (1981), “Videodrome” (1983), "The Fly"(1986),
"eXistenZ" (1999). He’s moonlighted lately
in the gangster genre with his last two films, "A History of Violence "(2005) and
"Eastern Promises," in the gangster genre (though Cronenberg has said the former
is more of a Western). But these too are unsparing as they force the audience
to stare at the cold blade of personal extinction.
I talked with him on the phone last week while he was in Toronto for the world
premiere of Eastern Promises at the Film Festival. Here’s some of our
PK: I guess the most squirm-inducing scene is the infamous
DC: Well, I don’t know.
PK: I’ve seen it with an audience, and oddly that scene seems to
disturb women more than men. I’m not sure why.
DC: That scene?
DC: Well, I guess it is like that shower scene in “Psycho.”
You’re naked, you’re wet, and there are guys with knives who don’t like you.
You can’t be more vulnerable than that, I suppose.
PK: But the other scenes of violence, I mean, there are only
three or four real nasty moments, and they’re all with edged weapons too — there’s
no gunfire or anything. But the first moment, the first scene of that type, I
said, “I’ve seen this somewhere before.” And I realized, we had shown at our
website the killing of Daniel Pearl, and you must have seen that…
DC: Well, I haven’t seen that particular video, but I have seen
some--one, it was a guy named Berg. And it was definitely in my mind when I did
that scene. There is now snuff on the web for anybody to see anytime, and this
is a pretty new development. And it’s obviously very disturbing and I
definitely had that in mine when I was doing those scenes.
PK: It’s harder to shock people now.
DC: Well, see, I don’t think that’s true. And you were saying,
“people were squirming.” I think they’re more sensitized, because I think it’s
come much closer to home; I mean, it’s come into your home on your computer. In
the old days, it was all stuff that happened far away, and you heard about it,
or maybe you saw a gruesome photograph, but usually not. And now, you can look
at it at three in the morning if you want, in your house. And it’s American
citizens often, in countries that seem to be unfathomable in some ways, the
mentality that’s involved. And you have people doing these things thinking that
they’re committing holy, sacred acts, and to you it’s like a heinous, hideous
atrocity. And where do those cultures come together? So I actually think people
are more sensitive to violence onscreen now, not less.
PK: But then you have the phenomenon of films like “Saw” and “Hostel”
that people, at least up to a little while ago, have been going to, to sort of
indulge in that kind of sadistic…
DC: Well I wonder — and I haven’t seen them, so I can’t get too
specific — I wonder if that’s not a reaction to that. That you want to confront
what scares you in a controlled environment, which is a movie theater.
Certainly, that’s always been an aspect of horror films. Why do people want to
be scared? Well, there is a need to confront things that scare you, but you
want to walk away from it. Even just scenes of violence on the street, for
example: people read about it all the time and they worry about it, and they
wonder what it would be like and how they would react, if they were in a
situation where a couple of guys came up to them at night on the street and so
on and so on. And the way of exercising that — exercising and exorcising that —
is to see a movie in which there are scenes like that. And you get a chance to
experience it at a distance in a safe way. I think the main reason, really,
that people go to see a movie is to live another life for a moment — not
necessarily a life that you’d want to be your own, but that you’re curious
about. So you become, say, Nikolai this mobster. I mean, to me that’s why I
showed that bath scene, not in a Bourne-movie kind of impressionistic,
quick-cutting way where you don’t really see what’s going on, but where you saw
everything that was going on. Because if you’re going to be Nikolai for the
time of this movie, following this character, or in fact inhabiting him, or as
we used to say identifying with him, I want you to have his experiences. So I
feel like I would be cheating my audience to do it off camera or out the window
or some other way.
PK: So is Viggo Mortensen [star of both “A History of Violence”
and “Eastern Promises”] turning into your alter ego?
DC: Well, we are very close buddies. I have to say we’ve become
quite close friends since working on “A History of Violence.” We do hit it off
rather well. But when you’re making a movie, in a way, you are all of your
actors. Not just the lead ones but all of them, in a way. And I think the
better directors feel that, and the actors appreciate that; they want you to be
them while they’re acting.
PK: So he’s not quite the John Wayne to your John Ford yet.
DC: Well, we’d have to make a few more movies I think. I would
love to — I mean, I’d love if he could be in all my movies, frankly.
PK: He also is kind of your chief researcher. He did a lot of
research on this movie.
DC: Well, he turns out to do that, yeah. He’s incredible that
way, and he does it in such a kind of off-handed, not, there’s no imposition,
he just goes and does it. And it’s there for you to use it if you want or not;
he has no ego involved in it. It’s really lovely research. And the thing is, he
always brings back such great stuff that everybody wants to use it — not just
me as a director but my production designer and the screenwriter as well.
Viggo’s input was very important to shaping this script as we were doing
PK: Was he the first one into the tattoos, or were you already
going in that direction?
DC: Well, they were alluded to in the first draft, but an actor,
his instrument is his body. And so any actor is obsessed with what he puts on
his body or his hair or his shoes, his feet. And normal people think that this
is vanity, but they don’t understand that that is what an actor acts with, is
his body. So anything that’s on it, clothes that cover it, is of great interest
to him. So naturally, an actor who is going to be tattooed for a movie starts
to think about, well, what tattoos? Why? And where? And where do they come
from, and what do they mean? It didn’t take long for Viggo to find these books,
called “Russian Criminal Tattoos”, that were fantastic. They outlined the
history of the subculture of tattooing in Russian prisons. And he also found a
documentary made by a friend of his, Alix Lambert, called “The Mark of Cain,” which
was a fantastic documentary shot in Russian prisons, with the prisoners talking
about their tattoos and what they mean. Really fantastic, and it puts you in
such a different world, such a strange and different but well-formed world,
because this subculture has been developing since the czarist days in Russia.
It predates the Soviets by a long time, and continued through the Soviet era
and continues now.
PK: It kind of fits into one of your themes, the intersection
between technology, the media and human flesh.
DC: It does, but as I say, ironically enough, I was working on
the movie, had agreed to do it before tattooing had that sort of central place
in the movie. So it’s kind of interesting how those things just come together.
It was really not preordained, because as I say, the fact that Nikolai’s
character was tattooed was certainly in the script, but it didn’t get much more
detail than that.
Next: mob rule, Martin
Scorsese, birth, death and money.