An interview with writer and director David Cronenberg

The long-awaited publishing of Consumed gave us a chance to interview its writer, the director and king of venereal horror, David Cronenberg. In this wonderfully in-depth yet satisfyingly broad interview, we speak about the book, Cronenberg’s processes, how similar writing prose is to directing, film, existentialism, the advancement of technology and, nausea.

You’ve said that your father owned a bookstore, and that he wrote true crime stories. How much did he, and did that, influence you? 

Well the bookstore was before I was born, but I knew about it; it was called The Professor’s Bookstore. I have wonderful photos of him standing outside his store, and it’s interesting because it was during the depression, and he was selling James Joyce’s Ulysses, very elite kind of artsy books, at a time when nobody was interested in spending money on that kind of thing. There was another bookstore called Coles, which became a huge, huge chain in Canada, very successful for many, many decades, and that guy who started that bookstore, Jack Cole, was selling books about how to fix your house, and how to do electrical wiring and stuff like that, practical things that people in the depression needed to know because they couldn’t afford to have other people do it, you know? My father ended up, I think, well- the books from his bookstore- ended up being part of his personal collection, some of which I have myself. So he wasn’t very successful as a seller of books, but he was a successful journalist. He wrote about many things, he actually had a stamp column, a column called ‘Stamp Chat’ if you believe it, and every week he would write about stamps, and stamp collecting for a Toronto paper called The Telegram, which no longer exists. So I would see his column every week in the newspaper with a picture of him and so on, so I knew about writing, and writing seemed to me to be something accessible because I used to fall asleep to the sound of his typewriter which in the early days would be an Underwood mechanical typewriter, then later, it was an IBM Selectric because he was a gadget freak. He got, probably the first electric typewriter in Canada, which was a Selectric so then I’d fall asleep to the sound of that (laughs). So, unlike movies, which were completely inaccessible to a kid growing up in Toronto because there was no film business here, it was unlike LA where if you were Spielberg you grew up knowing that everybody’s mother and father were in the film business but here in Toronto, there was nobody who was in the film business, so, film was not even an idea in my head, but writing was, right from as early as I can remember.

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Do you think that Consumed would be in his bookshop?

I absolutely think it would be. I would hope it would be displayed prominently in the window. (Laughs) that’s a nice thought.

You said that you expected to write your novel at the age of 21 and not 71. Did you always have this idea in mind even at 21, and it’s just taken you a long time to get it out there?

I could not have written or even conceived of this novel when I was twenty one. In the old days as a kid I used to get the Paris Review and the Evergreen Review, these small magazines that were very literary, which would often feature long interviews with writers talking about how they write, so I was sort of grooming myself to be a writer even then, even when I started to do film, I switched over to reading interviews with directors. In fact I did make a couple of attempts to start writing novels and it’s interesting because, I read recently, the novel The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner, and she writes a lot about motorcycles, including Italian motorcycles, and when I read that I thought, this is in a way, the novel I was writing when I was twenty one, because I was very obsessed with motorcycles and motorcycling. I was living in the south of France at the time and wrote a lot of pages about a person obsessed with motorcycles and I invented all kinds of brands of motorcycles which Rachel Kushner does in her novel, so it’s funny, I can’t say it would have been more like that, because she also writes about the Red Brigades in Italy who, when I was writing, did not exist. Who knows what it would have been? But it would not have been Consumed.

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 I suppose with the advancement of technology, and all the things that come with that, it would have been impossible. In Consumed, that’s such a huge part of it, the technology and the way that people communicate. Your main characters could not have communicated, and they couldn’t have found what they did without it

 That’s absolutely true, though they would have been communicating more through the medium of motorcycle technology (laughs). There was a technology aspect to what I was writing, and it’s true, I mean I was always a bit of a geek and I was really very excited for typewriters to end and computer writing to begin, you know? I remember there was a computer called The PET, that was just the beginning, that sort of combined the screen with the keyboard. I was hoping that would be the one, but of course it wasn’t, so I was always looking for a kind of writing, physically, that was more like the way you think. There’s a parallel in film-making too, because the old way of editing with a Moviola was so mechanical and so long, you had to edit in a very linear way, and of course the mind does not work in a linear way, it’s more mosaic, you know, you’re trying to move things around –very tangential as well– yeah, so I couldn’t wait until computer editing, and digital editing took over as soon as soon as it was feasible, and likewise word processing took over and I was very happy for that actually. I had some mechanical nostalgia for those old machines, but not a lot. I suppose the typewriter is a thing now that people still strive to own, but as a decoration piece rather than for practicality and for writing on. More of an aesthetic item to own now. I think you’re right.

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Being behind the camera, or the pen in this instance, has it desensitised you to your subject matter, what you write about and the films that you make?

No, I think not. I do think though, that writing prose is completely different from writing a screenplay. You have to start with the writing rather than being behind the camera, I think. I’ve found that writing prose is much more intimate, and I feel much freer because screenwriting is a very strange, odd kind of hybrid writing. A lot of very famous professional screenwriters are barely literate I would say, but they can write good dialogue. They have a good ear for dialogue and they have a good idea of story structure. But their prose is really very … prosaic. It’s really mundane and it’s really simple. And it should be, because when you’re reading a screenplay, you’re not really interested in the prose, you’re interested in the imagery it conjures up in your head. And of course if you’re writing a screenplay, there’s no point, for example, in describing a character in great detail. If you say that the guy is thirty five and handsome you don’t get any further into it than that, because you’re going to cast some actor who doesn’t look like what you’re writing. It’s sort of offensive, actually, if you describe an actor or character in great detail, because it sort of puts all the actors who don’t look like that off. So when they’re reading it, they say “well I don’t look like that”. It’s a very strange kind of writing, and I found, to my surprise, that writing the novel was much closer to directing than to writing a screenplay. Because you are in fact casting it to the point that you’re actually creating your actors in detail; you’re doing the costumes, you’re doing the lighting, you’re doing the editing, and the shooting, the sound effects. That was kind of interesting to me because it suddenly made me feel a lot more comfortable in writing than I thought I would be, actually.

I think you are more able to have a directorial role in it, than a screenwriter, who is there to capture dialogue, and human nature, and maybe capture some choice settings, whereas a director is looking at the whole scape, and that is closer to novel writing than anything. I did wonder if you’d had any actors in mind when you were writing Consumed; if you’d characterised or cast any actors to play the main characters?

Well of course when there is somebody who is a template for my characters I tend to mention it in the novel. For example the French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who were a writer-philosopher couple, they were templates for two of my characters. I think it’s common to say that [when you write] you are, in a way, cannibalising your entire life, including everybody that you ever knew or lived with, or even read about; you take bits and pieces, and you make a kind of Frankenstein amalgam of characteristics, physical and psychological, and you create these characters who are not exactly the people in your life, or that you know, or knew, but you kind of mix and match. You literally might take the eyes from one, or the eyebrows from another one, and when those people use those features to communicate, you put them together with the hair of somebody else and the strange walking gait of somebody else, literally you’re putting them together and it’s pretty intriguing. I suppose it gives you a physical connection with your characters that you wouldn’t have if you really did just make them up, out of the air. You’re very dependent on your sensuous life, the life of your senses, when you are trying to give physical lives to your characters. And the other directorial part of it too which is interesting. It’s always occurred to me, and more now when I read prose, is the way you move your characters around in a room for example. You know, some writers are very good with that, giving you the physical sense of how the actors and characters are moving around the room in relation to each other, when they pick something up and walk to the door, then stop, and turn, and others are a lot more disembodied, they don’t really get into that physicality, and they don’t really manoeuvre their characters through space as much as other writers – it’s not really because I’m experienced in doing that as a director, but more that I really want the characters to occupy space and be physically alive that I do that.

It’s personal to you, the way that you see people yourself, but I think also, it’s interesting you said that you sort of borrow aspects of people or change bits around from real people. I find that we do that ourselves, we do that with people that we know in everyday life, and we can tend to make them, in our minds, the person that we want them to be. 

 I think there’s truth in that, sure, you have an agenda of some kind, when you relate to a person, and of course you often come away from a party and you’re discussing with your mate, or your wife or your husband or whoever, your reactions to people at the party, and you often find that you have completely different reactions to people, and it’s hard to tell how much of that is because of you, and how much of that is because of the specifics of that other person.

Absolutely. I’d been waiting to read Consumed for a really long time, and it was absolutely incredible in that it made me feel really quite nauseous, but in the best way possible – in that it was invoking a reaction, which I don’t get from many texts; books, film, anything. So I wondered, where did that come from, where did this idea to, not that you want to make people feel uneasy, but it does, and I wondered where that’s from inside of you?

Well, it’s my reaction to the reality of the human condition. When you think of it, it’s a bit of an existentialist approach, I’m speaking of the philosophical system which is loosely called existentialism which is pretty varied, but really the idea that we are born into the world, at birth, completely unprepared for what hits us, and the complexity of what the world is. But we then have a very limited amount of time to come to terms with it and then we die. I guess it was summarised in the late sixties: ‘Life’s a bitch and then you die’ which is very flippant. But in fact, when you think of it, you have to say to someone, “well, when was the first time you realised you will not live forever, and you realised that everyone dies, including your wonderful mother and father, or your sister or your brother; how do you deal with that?” Because, it’s like, you’re signed up for that deal before you knew what you were signing. Mortality is a very difficult thing to deal with, and it’s very difficult to imagine yourself completely not existing. It’s not like being asleep. So that’s the beginnings, I think, of anybody’s probing into the darker aspects of human existence; and for me, it all begins with the body. The first fact of human existence is the human body; that is what we are. If you’re not religious, if you don’t believe in an afterlife, which I don’t, then it seems to be normal to begin with the idea of the human body, because that’s what we are, and that’s what our life is, and it really is exploring the wonderfulness and the awfulness of that. So that’s really for me what it is, when I’m making a film, or writing a novel, it’s really a philosophical exploration of the human condition, both in a personal way, or in a more distanced, philosophical way.  One of Sartre’s books, maybe his masterpiece, Nausea, is about that existential nausea – which I hope you’re feeling rather than a kind of rollercoaster ride nausea –  Of course! All of these things make you look into yourself; I watched eXistenZ [1999 Canadian science fiction body horror film written, produced, and directed by Cronenberg starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law] last night to get into the mind-set of interviewing you and I was really interested in the idea of the second life you explore, and I think that’s something that I’ve received in many of your films, and indeed in your book; the idea of two lives; alongside your life is one that either you strive for, or try to make for yourself. I think that you can do that, by taking yourself out of your body. It’s something that we all think about, as is mortality, whether we like it or not. Of course, one of the attractions in the arts, and especially one that is narrative, is that we get to live other lives through it. You can transcend your own life, as you sit there in the cinema watching another life, or other lives, and the same with reading a novel. You sort of forget about your body, and you forget about your life, and you start to live another life. And sometimes it’s interesting if it’s another life that you would never really want to live, but here’s your chance to try it out safely, because you know you’ll come back to yourself. So that, I think, is definitely one of the attractions of narrative, dramatic art, and has always been, I think, since the beginning of human society.

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Escapism from our own minds is the post powerful thing I think we have. I think it’s sometimes very hard to step out of yourself, but I do think that literature, and the arts, they do help to do that. Apart from narcotics and drink, that’s your guaranteed safe way of doing that.

With religion, most religions tend to do that too, that’s the attempt that you will, through ritual, through repetition, through smoke and light, and depending on what religion you’re talking about, there’s always the sort of a ritual, and at least incense if not more powerful drugs and so on, are all an attempt to transcend the life that you’re in, and the body that you’re in, so obviously we have an innate desire to experience that, and I think that art and religion are two of the primary ways that we do that. I have to add, maybe technology is the third new way.

Absolutely. I don’t know if you remember it, there was that computer game, a virtual world called Second Life, where you could create one for yourself? And even if you’re on the bus, and you don’t want to be, you don’t have to be, you can be tweeting, or posting what you id at the weekend on Facebook- you can remove yourself from where you are. I think that technology is one of the most powerful things that we have, now, to step out of everything.

I agree.

Sometimes, you just don’t want to be on that bus.

(Laughs)

crash

I read that if there were to be an adaptation of Consumed, you would not like to be the director. I wondered, when you adapted Crash by J.G. Ballard for instance, crossing over from the literary into the film world, what was your process there?

The first adaptation I did was Stephen King’s book The Dead Zone and before that, all of the scripts that I had made into movies were my own original screenplays. I was reluctant at first because I thought, if you’re going to be a real auteur you should be the author of your work, you should really write your own screenplays, but working on The Dead Zone, I realised that there’s a kind of fusion of your sensibility with someone else’s when you’re making a film it could be very productive and you would come up with a creation that would be neither completely his, or hers, or your own. Very much like making a child with someone else, it’s a fusion. I realised that it could be quite exhilarating and speaking of taking yourself out of yourself, that’s another way creatively that you could do it, is to collaborate with someone, and certainly in film, it is very collaborative. At the screenplay stage often, but certainly in the physical stage, you are dependent on a lot of people and a lot of collaborators and that’s part of the joy of it. But I realised then, with The Dead Zone, that my mantra would become, and has been, that you have to betray the novel in order to be faithful to the novel. Because the two media are completely different; they’re just not the same. There’s no such thing as translating the book for cinema, because there is no dictionary for that translation. You really have to reinvent the novel for the screen; and that often means being extremely brutal. A lot of people, including Stephen King, felt that that was the first really good adaptation of one of his novels, and felt that it was really close to the novel, but it isn’t, it’s really very far away from it, but what was reproduced thusly was the tone of it, the feel of it, the ambience of it, and that was the same as the book, in a way. But the details of the characters and the narrative was really completely different, and so that was my approach with Crash, and I’d say, with Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, which I also wrote the screenplay for. You have to be prepared to be brutal, and change it, because of the need to reinvent it for the screen. And at first I thought, of course I’m going to want to make a movie out of my own novel, because how many directors get a chance to do that? It’s very rare. I thought that would be really interesting. And I met five producers who I’ve worked with before, who wanted to make a movie out of Consumed, they’d read it and they thought it would make a good movie. And then as I started to think about the reality of it, I thought, that’s the last thing I want to do, because I’ve already done it. Unlike adapting someone else’s novel, where it’s a new thing that you’re doing, with adapting your own novel, you’ve sort of done it already and you’re doing a kind of strange mutated version of it for the cinema. I realised I would find that kind of frustrating, and odd, and in a weird way, boring, in that I’ve already done it. If perhaps the novel did not feel fully realised to me, for some reason, and that it needed the film to be a companion piece to make it a complete work, that would be one thing, but I realised I didn’t feel that way. I felt that I had really completed the novel for better or worse, what is it, it didn’t need a film to complete it.

DEAD-ZONE

 

Well I suppose with any work that we do, we’re trying to edit it along the way, and to get the best out of it as much as we can. If you feel as though there’s nowhere else for you to go, even in another medium- sorry to put it like this, but it would be like flogging a dead horse…?

(Laughs) Yes! Though I hate to think of my novel as a dead horse, but you know. Maybe a lively horse, how about that?

I think it would be such a relevant film, that’s what attracted me to it first of all, because I thought, well, it will be like a great movie, essentially, so I’ll be in for this all-consuming read. Because with a book, you actively choose to engage in it, whereas with a film, it’s coming at you and you have no choice to receive it. I felt like, with this book, I had no choice but to engage in it and keep reading it because it was still coming at me, hitting all of my senses. I found that I was consumed by it, I did not stop reading it, I fell over people on the tube, and I tripped up when walking because I couldn’t pull myself away from it.

You are a very delightful person (laughs). Of course, I haven’t had many readers yet, and so as with a movie, the first few people you show it to, their reaction to your work, it’s hugely important. Later, when you’ve had lots of people exposed to your work, their reactions mean a little bit less, so thank you very much for that, that’s a help. I hope your experience reading the novel is universal, let’s put it that way!

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I know I’ve said to you before that, like the scene from the Fly where Jeff Goldblum has his jaw pulled off, Consumed will stay with me for as long as that scene has, just because when something gets into you so much and not just into your head but into your stomach- which is a great thing- because I think that now we’re so desensitised to things because of CG, and because we’ve seen it all before, it’s getting increasingly hard to feel anything, I think this book gives that back to you.

Well it sounds like a total bodily and neurological invasion by my book. That would suit me just fine, as you can imagine.

Will you write another book? Or do you think that this is it?

Oh, I think I will, and it’s sort of a conundrum for me, because if I write another book I’d rather do it solely without intervening it with making movies. Consumed took about eight years to write, but it didn’t really, because I made four or five movies in that time, and I sort of had to leave to leave it for a year and come back to it to pick it up. Not the best way, I don’t think, to write a novel. So, if I do write another novel, it probably means I won’t be making another movie for a couple of years. That’s a decision I would have to make. At the moment, I’m thinking that’s really what I want to do.

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I think you’re in a position where you can take some time out. No-one’s going to forget you.

(Laughs) Right now it would take an incredible film project to seduce me away from writing my next novel.

What’s the book you wish you’d written?

There is no book that I wish I’d written because there are books that- in fact, I think, one of the pleasures of reading a book that overwhelms you and really impresses you is the very fact that you could not have written it. And so, in a way that’s really the way it stands. I mean I loved, let’s say, Naked Lunch [novel by William S. Burroughs originally published in 1959] when I read it back, and I could never have written that book. And Nabokov’s Pale Fire, I absolutely adore, and adored when I first read it so many years ago. There’s no way I could have written that either. So in a way, that’s really the hallmark of a book that you love, it’s that you couldn’t have written it.

 

 

Consumed by David Cronenberg is out now.

Interview by Candice Carty-Williams

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