Combustible Celluloid

Interview: David Cronenberg

It's Not Called eXistenZ for Nothing

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

April 14, 1999—David Cronenberg is one of the greatest filmmakers in the world. Yet he doesn't receive his due because he is often and wrongly pigeonholed as a genre filmmaker. His latest movie, the brilliant eXistenZ, can be called a sci-fi movie, and it will be by most who see it. But those who understand will see it as a David Cronenberg movie and nothing less.

I recently had the chance to meet and speak to Cronenberg about eXistenZ, philosopy, and the movies. He's a brilliant man who is excited about his ideas, and who seems to be above all the usual Hollywood runaround. Cronenberg has a higher agenda than most of the other "horror" filmmakers he is compared to. "I never thought that I was doing the same thing as directors like John Carpenter or George Romero or people like that, or even at times Hitchcock. Even though I was compared with some of those other guys, I always thought we were doing different things. Hitchcock would like to, say, think of himself as a puppeteer--manipulating the strings of his audience and making them jump. And he liked to think he had that kind of control. I don't think that kind of control is possible beyond the very obvious kind of physical twitch when something jumps out of the corner of the frame. And I also think that the relationship I have with my audience is a lot more complex than what Hitchcock seemed to want his to be. I think that he really had more going on under the surface as well, but the way he liked his public persona to be. It is a collabortaion. I mean, you can't control it. My movies get shown in 50-60 countries. You can't control all of that. Anyone who comes to the cinema is bringing their whole sexual history, their literary history, their movie lieteracy, their culture, their language, their religion, whatever they've got. I can't possibly manipulate all of that--nor do I want to. So it's really meeting them halfway in a way. And we're mixing our blood together in some way. We're kind of collaborating on a reaction on their part. And I'm often surprised--I mean I expect to be surprised--by my audience's reaction." He doesn't like to think of genre filmmaking, horror, sci fi, at all. "To me that's not a creative category. That's a marketing problem. Or more possibly a critical problem--a journalistic preoccupation. But it just doesn't function on a creative level. There's nothing I can do with any of that on a creative level."

In Hollywood today the term "auteur" is misunderstood as someone who writes, directs, and stars in a film, a la Orson Welles. Cronenberg is an "auteur" in the truest sense in that all of his movies tie together with the same basic themes. You know that the same hand is guiding all of the movies. All of his movies begin with the human body. "For me the first fact of human existence is the human body. That is the most real fact that we have. The further from your own body you get, the less real everything is, the less verifiable, the less you can connect with it. But if you embrace the reality of the human body, you are embracing your own mortality, and that is a very difficult thing for anybody to do. Because the self-conscious mind cannot imagine non-existence. It's not possible to do it. Try it. I'm sure you have. Not only can you not really imagine dying, you can't really imagine existence before you were born. So, I think, for example, that's one of the reasons that people believe so strongly in reincarnation. They kind of assume that somehow they were there. You can't imagine things going on without you. That's just the nature of our self-consciousness." What Cronenberg does to connect with his audience is to introduce outside factors into the human body; sometimes technology, sometimes organic invaders, sometimes mutations. He challenges our mortality.

In the case of eXistenZ, Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Allegra Gellar, a virtual game designer. In this world, in order to play her game, you need to have a port installed at the base of your spine. The game itself is an organic form, made from proteins and tissues and chromosomes. A faction of "reality-based" rebels wants to destroy all gamers, and a Allegra finds that her life is in danger. An unwitting PR man, Ted Pikul (Jude Law) takes her under his wing and on the run. And they don't know where to go who to trust. The movie takes place inside several different virtual reality worlds, games inside games. Cronenberg takes the opportunity to raise all kinds of questions about the body, sex and pleasure, and existence, all within the context of a thriller plot.

Cronenberg wants to be clear that his movies are not about man and technology interfacing. "It's much more intimate than that. Technology is us," he says. "There is no separation. Technology is a sheer expression of human creative will. And if it is at times dangerous or threatening, it's because in us we have things that are dangerous and self-destructive and threatening and it's expressed in various ways through our technology. We've absorbed it into our bodies. Our bodies, I think, are biochemically so different from the bodies of people a thousand years ago that I don't even think we could mate with them. I mean, I think we might even be, in other words, a different species. We're so different. We absorb it. It comes out of us. It weaves in and out of us. It's not really an interface in the sense that people think about a screen in the face. I see it as a lot more intimate than that. Technology wants to be in our bodies, because it sort of came out of our bodies. In a crude way I think that sort of what I'm thinking. It wants to come home. That is its home. First of all, in the obvious way: the eyes with binoculars, the ears with telephones, and the mouths with tape recorders and stuff. First of all, technology had to be an enhancement of powers that we knew we had as creatures. And then it gets more elaborate and more distant from us and more abstract, but it still all emanates from us."

Cronenberg is not interested in technology, per se. "I kind of sidestep it in this movie. We don't have any computers in the movie. We don't have computer screens. It's really not about video game playing or computer game playing. It's a completely different technology. Since I see technology first of all as an extension of the human body, it's inevitable that it should come home to roost. It just makes sense."

"Each movie generates its own little biosphere. It has its own little ecology and its climate and everything. And you're in tune to that more than anything else. So there's no sex really in eXistenZ, except metaphorically. And there was an opportunity to have sex--sex scenes--and we were all willing to do that. But as the film evolved, we just... that would be wrong. It would take away from the metaphorical sex, which is all this plugging in and all that stuff. That's more interesting and has more resonance than if you suddenly threw in a real, naked sex scene in the middle of it. It would unbalance all that--almost invalidate it. So you wait and the movie gradually tells you what it wants to be and you have to go sort of along with that."

In his last film, Crash, Cronenberg explored the possibility of heightened sex connected with car crashes. The film was very controversial and caused all sorts of trouble and debate. "With Crash, it was just getting very focused on the idea that sex is... we're reinventing it. We're at a major epoch in human history, which everybody really knows about, but is not necessarily perceived that way, but I'm perceiving that way, which is: you don't need sex to recreate the race. You can have babies without sex. Well this is the first time in human history that's been true. And it means that we could, for example do some extraordinary things. We could say, "you know, sex is very problematic--it's caused a lot of problems--it's difficult. Let's just have a moritorium on sex for 100 years. No sex for 100 years." We could do that now for the first time. We couldn't have done that 20 years ago. So, I don't think we'll do that, but I do think that sex is being reinvented. I mean, it's becoming disconnected from what it was initially, just in the same way that we've really taken control of our own evolution. We're no longer subject to the laws of survival of the fittest in sort of the gross physical way that Darwin articulated. Even though I don't think we're quite aware of it. We don't know how to deal with it. But we're messing around with our evolution at the genetic level; at the gene level. So, in the same way, sex is up for grabs, for reinvention. There always have been elements of politics, fashion, pleasure, art in sexuality, but now those things are, in a weird way, almost a primary part of sexuality. And so, why not say, "what about some new sexual organs?" Why not? They don't have to reproduce. They don't have to do all that complex chromosome splitting and stuff that goes with real reproduction. Why not have direct access to your nervous system and create new orifaces, new... God knows what. So, in a way, you're seeing new sex, neo-sex in this movie. Is it used for a game? Do you even want to call is sex? It's obviously inducing some kind of pleasure in the way that sex does. I think that's happening. You see a lot of body modification. In the same way we've never accepted the environment as given to us, we've never accepted the human body either. We've always been messy with it, to the full extent to whatever technology of the time would allow us to do. But then there's also the other element of body modification, which is not medical, but it's social, it's political, it's sexual, it's cosmetic, it's fashion. And just what people do now, with scarring and tattooing and piercing, and performance art as well. It would have been unthinkable, certainly as mainstream as it is now, just not very long ago."

"I'm just serving the world, got born into it like you did, and then I found out that there were some really disturbing aspects to being alive, like the fact that you weren't going to be alive forever. That bothered me. And you sort of say, well, 'do you all remember when you found out that you wouldn't live forever?' People don't talk about this, but everybody had to go through it. Because you're not born with that knoweldge. And that's the basis of all existentialist thought. The philosophy, I mean. Which, of course, is an underpinning of this movie. It's not called eXistenZ for nothing."

Cronenberg is constantly offered major studio productions like Alien Resurrection. "It's tempting for a minute because they're begging me to do it. And it's Fox, and I'd love to work with Sigourney Weaver and Winona Ryder. It'd be great fun. [But] the problem with doing a schlocky big-budget horror film or studio film is that it wouldn't actually be fun for me. I'm innately honest, I think. If I'm gonna do Aliens 4, then I'm gonna deliver Aliens 4. I'm going to try and make it the best version of Aliens 4 I can. So I'm not going to try and subvert it and make it something else, because why spend $80 or $100 million of the studio's money, and just be deceitful and be fighting them all the time, and have them combat at you, and then end up with something that isn't really good either way. It's not a good commercial Hollywood movie and it's not a good art [movie]. You need all the help you can get. I mean you need the people behind you to really be behind you. You need your crew to be really excited about the movie. There's no point in dragging actors into your movie who are hating what they're doing. That whole idea of sort of seducing them into the movie--I don't do that. I wouldn't say, 'We'll pay you this much money.' 'Cause then you're living with someone who's hating what he's doing. It's very intimate and hard to do. You need buddies. You need allies and collaborators. So that's why I wouldn't do that. I actually said to them, 'You know, I don't even do sequels to my own movies; why would I do sequels to somebody else's movies?' I didn't do The Fly II. Why would I do Aliens 4?

What's next for Cronenberg? "That's the exciting thing. I don't know. I'm going to be writing a couple of original scripts. I have some ideas. I've been making notes for years. It takes a long time to get a movie made, so by the time that I'm starting to write a couple of scripts, it might take me a year to write those, or more. And I don't know when I get to make those movies. So by the time I've done that, I'm sure there'll be more stuff. It hasn't stopped yet anyway."

Cronenberg sees his movies as chapters in an ongoing autobiography. "I observed these things as a kid, and then gradually I'm kind of expressing this, and I'm kind of talking to myself through my movies about all of this stuff. And then I'm really inviting the audience to have that conversation with me, or watch me talking to myself, however you think of it. And you're seeing me not only learn how to be a filmmaker, if you start with my earliest films, but you're seeing me learn how to be a human. To understand, to develop a philosophy of life."

Partial David Cronenberg Filmography:
Stereo (1969)
Crimes of the Future (1970)
Shivers (1975)
Rabid (1977)
Fast Company (1979)
The Brood (1979)
Scanners (1980)
Videodrome (1983)
The Dead Zone (1983)
The Fly (1986)
Dead Ringers (1988)
Naked Lunch (1991)
M. Butterfly (1993)
Crash (1996)
eXistenZ (1999)
Spider (2002)
A History of Violence (2005)
Eastern Promises (2007)
A Dangerous Method (2011)
Cosmopolis (2012)

Movies Unlimtied