Combustible Celluloid

Interview: David Cronenberg

Tangled Web

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

February 18, 2003—In his movies, David Cronenberg crosses a clinically precise intelligence and control with our basest and cruelest fears unleashed.

In other words, he watches coolly as a man changes into a fly, or as another man inserts a videocassette into his stomach or as a third man allows a video game port to be installed in the base of his spine.

But these images -- as seen in The Fly, Videodrome and eXistenZ, respectively -- rarely exist for their shock value alone. They're part of a bigger picture, a gray area that exists between rational thought and irrational fears.

This extraordinarily courageous vision and the consistency with which Cronenberg has been able to put it to use make him one of the world's top living film directors. In fact, his 1988 "Dead Ringers," starring Jeremy Irons as twin gynecologists, easily ranks among the ten greatest films ever made.

Now, Cronenberg has done the impossible: he's improved. His new film Spider, which opens Friday in Bay Area theaters, is a brilliant piece of work, a disturbingly austere portrait of a mentally sick man, Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) -- nicknamed "Spider" -- who revisits a horrible event from his past.

On a recent visit to San Francisco, Cronenberg downplays any mention of greatness and denies that Spider is any kind of a departure.

"It's not really something that I think about," he says. "The problems that you have to solve and the things that you're trying to achieve are the same. The Dead Zone was the first movie I did that people were saying, 'hey this must be a departure,' because it wasn't like Shivers, Rabid or The Brood."

Still, Cronenberg makes his own connections. "In its own way, Spider is very body-conscious. Spider is very conscious of his body. He has all the passion of a normal human being, but he only has a few things to put that passion into, so it gets overloaded. Just observing him and his hair and his fingers, that satisfies that whole body orientation that I have."

The director also explains that he has interests other than a fascination with the flesh. Indeed, the new film satisfied another craving. As a confessed Anglophile, Spider marks the first time he has been able to make a film in England with an English cast.

But that did not include much time for vacationing. With a budget of only $8 million, Cronenberg and the cast -- Fiennes, Miranda Richardson and Gabriel Byrne, as well as writer Patrick McGrath -- deferred their salaries and worked for union minimum.

However, after 14 features, most of them made independently, Cronenberg is used to scrimping and saving. One of his tricks is to pare the script down to way below the usual 120 pages. Whereas the screenplay for his 1996 Crash finished at a slim 77 pages, Spider ran somewhere along the 80 to 85-page range.

"It's a matter of economy," he says. "When you're working on a low budget, you don't have a lot of room for waste. I'd rather shoot stuff that has a really good chance of making it into the movie, rather than stuff that might be interesting."

In addition, Cronenberg did not write the Spider screenplay, which made things slightly easier. "Like most writers, I do what I can to avoid writing. I worked on this script, but as a director -- not as a writer. Basically, I really just subtracted things from the script that I thought wouldn't work."

"It's no different from when it's my script -- I mean, you curse the screenwriter when you suddenly find that it's not working, and it's his fault. It doesn't matter whether you're cursing yourself or somebody else. It's more fun when it's somebody else."

The first thing Cronenberg took away from McGrath's script was Spider's voiceover. He says, "novelists do that; they can't quite give up the novel."

Instead, Cronenberg and Fiennes worked out a kind of mumbled nonsense that Spider speaks -- his words are rarely comprehensible. He also writes in a journal with a kind of weird hieroglyphics that only he can read.

"I wanted to show Spider being obsessive about collecting his memories," Cronenberg says. "He thinks he's gathering evidence of a crime."

Essentially, Spider takes place inside the head of its damaged protagonist, and his memories do not necessarily translate into fact. Cronenberg attempted to make the film look physically stark to match the interior of the character.

"You would never see the streets of London that empty," he says. "I had the extras ready to go in the scenes where Spider is walking on the streets. But it seemed really wrong. And I'd say, 'get rid of the guy on the bicycle' or 'get rid of the baby carriage.' Soon I was left with just Spider. And the extras were just standing around, disgruntled."

"I knew the movie was subjective," he continues, "but then I started to think that it's beyond that -- it's expressionistic. It's expressing Spider's alienation and his disconnected-ness and his loneliness. The other thing that those people have that Spider doesn't have is ease. They know where they're going. They feel at ease in their surroundings. They feel like they belong there. They're very connected. And he isn't any of those things."

And so Spider falls perfectly into that strange category known as a David Cronenberg movie. Much more neatly, in fact, than another project Cronenberg was briefly attached to last year before it fell through: Basic Instinct 2.

He grins with his wry, professorial grin. "I would have hoped that you'd be shocked, but then you'd be really shocked because it would be so good. Now we'll never know."

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