Cronenberg has a long history of putting the darker side of our species on the big screen, openly exploring the abnormal and grotesque via sci-fi like in eXistenZ, The Fly, Videodrome and Scanners, or a range of various psychological and physical perversions as in Spider, Crash, Naked Lunch and Dead Ringers. Perhaps the scariest thing about History is the notion that, unlike in many of his previous films, the story here could very easily happen to us. And it’s a terrifying possibility to contemplate, the fact that any semblance of normalcy we build our lives on could shatter in an instant.
From his home in Toronto, Cronenberg spoke at length about not just this latest offering, but his body of work and how important it is (to paraphrase his own words) for us to see the darkness in order to appreciate the light.
Um-hmm. Do you feel that way about History of Violence?
I have to admit that it feels a bit more mainstream. This is a word I’ve heard many other people use to describe it, too.
Yeah, I must say that it’s a little hard for me to perceive it from that kind of perspective. It reminds me a little bit of The Dead Zone, actually. I think of all the films that I’ve done this one is closest to that in that it’s the only other film I’ve done that’s actually set in the U.S. and it also takes place in a small town. There’s even a sheriff in both movies. (Laughs). Although there’s not the sort of supernatural or extra-natural element that there was in The Dead Zone, there is a similarity in tone and I think likewise The Dead Zone was pretty mainstream as well because it was based on a best-seller by Stephen King and he’s pretty mainstream.
So, I have trouble really relating those kinds of categorizations to my experience, the creative experience of making a movie. It’s true that History of Violence will perhaps be more accessible to people in a particular sense and that is the characters in the History of Violence are, too – it’s a recognizable middle-American family whom we would have to characterize as normal, I suppose, without quotes. (Laughs) Whereas a lot of my characters before have been quite marginal or extreme or radical or outsiders who are a little more difficult for a mainstream audience to connect with at first. So to that extent, this movie is more immediately accessible. Usually the project that I have is introducing you to difficult or strange characters and trying to take you into the movie to them so by the end of the movie you actually can understand them now or at least empathize with them. Whereas in History of Violence it’s kind of the other way around – you’re starting with characters who I don’t think you’ll have any trouble understanding or connecting with, and then taking them into a very strange place and seeing what happens there.
For you, are History of Violence and The Dead Zone similar in tone because they have this kind of façade of Americana? If that’s the case, then what is it about setting something in so-called middle, normal America – mainstream America – that makes it different compared to the other works that you’ve done, not just with outsiders but also outside of the country?
Well, I was very drawn by the need to come to terms with as you say Americana, because definitely one of the things that interested me was to deal with that more directly than I had been doing lately. And of course America is fascinated with itself but of course the rest of the world can’t help but be fascinated with America right now for other reasons as well. So I think it’s a good time to be engaging with some iconic American things.
And there is a bit of the Western about History of Violence even though it’s set in Indiana. It’s got resonances of John Ford or Howard Hawkes westerns; it has some of that feel, though being a modern take on it and being contemporary versus a period piece. It sort of subverts itself and the fact that it was completely shot in Canada – as was The Dead Zone – is, I think, actually a good thing for the movie, not a bad thing, because as Marshall McLuhan said when he was making his pronouncements on media, “If you’re in the middle of the river it’s very hard to perceive the river, but if you’re standing slightly outside it, you have a better perspective on it.” And that’s the way I think that I feel about my view of America in film. I don’t think an American filmmaker would’ve ended up with anything like the same movie. So we’ll see how that plays out; we’ll see how that is perceived by Americans and of course people around the world. But it’ll be interesting.
You’re talking about how the world has this fascination with America, which I think has been consistent for quite some time now, but given the political situation and our foreign policy raising so many eyebrows around the world, do you think that this had some intrigue for you in terms of taking a story that was set in America at this point in time?
Yeah, definitely! You know, I flew to L.A. to basically seduce Viggo into doing the movie. (Laughs) He was interested but he wanted to be convinced and one of the things that we did talk about were the political resonances of the script. It’s not overtly political; in fact, it’s less so, in fact, than The Dead Zone, which has a politician as one of its main characters – a character who surprisingly is very reminiscent of George Bush, I have to say. (Laughs)
I’ll have to go back and revisit that. (Laughs)
Yeah, there are some spooky, spooky moments. For example, when he says, “The missiles are flying – hallelujah!”
God help us!
Yeah, yeah. So Viggo and I talked about that aspect of the script…especially when you have a president who talks about wanting to get Osama Bin Laden, that he’s wanted dead or alive, you know – I mean, an administration who’s foreign policy seems to be based on American Western cinema is a kind of scary thought. So I thought that in immediately dealing with that kind of thing, what do you do when your family is threatened? And is any kind of retribution, any kind of violence, justified when that happens? That is the situation that the main character is placed in and if that approach becomes an administration’s foreign policy, that’s a scary thing, I think.
So just in examining those plot elements, you are definitely dipping your toe into some of those waters. It’s part of the reason that the film seems to work; I think it works on an emotional level and on a character level, first of all, but then as the title suggests, it has broader ramifications than just that. If you think of “a history of violence”, first of all, it’s like those phrases that you read in the paper when they say, “A suspect was arrested who has a long history of violence.” In Europe they don’t use that expression, so “a history of violence” to them means that you’re talking about a nation.
Of course I had to remind people in France at Cannes [where A History of Violence has its world premiere this May] that there’s no nation on earth that does not have a history of violence. (Laughs) Every nation is founded on the suppression of somebody else, so you can’t really single out the U.S. for that. And then you have to talk about human nature, you know – is it inevitable in the human condition that we commit violence on each other? It seems to be; there’s been no period of history where there hasn’t been that happening. So you’ve got a lot of things going on in the movie that are not directly, in the movie, I think.
One of those things that both enthralls and scares me in your work is the range of violence that you’ve dealt with in your films over time. There seems to be a great deal of violence in your work – it could be the character perpetrating it upon someone else, it could be the character being oppressed by it from the outside, depending on the circumstances, but do you feel that History of Violence is very similar along those lines of violence or is this a different kind?
Well, you’re asking me how afraid people should be of the movie, right? (Laughs)
(Laughs) Possibly! Or tell me, is this a different way of tackling violence for you?
It is different, and I have had the experience of having some viewers who have been afraid to see my other movies actually loving this movie and having no problem with it, as I must say was the case with The Dead Zone. It does have a very particular approach to violence, which is intimate, because the kind of violence that really is of concern to humans is the violence that is done to human bodies. It’s one thing to blow up a car or a building, but it’s not the destruction of the car or the building that bothers people, of course – and rightly so – it’s what is done to the human body as a result. I really focused totally on that, and the violence in this movie is very personal and very intimate. It’s also very quick and very realistic – it’s very, nasty, brutish and short, as Hobbes said about primitive life.
So even though the violence comes out of the characters involved, it’s not a concept of violence that’s imposed on the film – it comes from the characters and who they are and where they come from. But at the same time, it is a commentary on how personal violence really is, how intimate it is, and so my focus on the human body – which I think is one of the things that sort of links all my films – is still there. It’s just not the same as it is in a sci-fi movie let’s say like eXistenZ or even Naked Lunch.
And it seems to me that in this film there’s less of a question of violence as a choice. It’s more like a primal instinct; it’s just a reaction, a reflex more than a conscious choice or even some sort of psychopathic compulsion.
There’s a lot of psychopathic stuff going on in the movie, I must say – the violence is very functional and it is very…I’m not going to say more so I don’t spoil it. But the violence is always within a context that is taken notice of, so people have to see it.
In the production notes and at the Cannes press conference, you’ve tried to express a desire to portray what was real in History. You commented on the violence being more realistic than anything that comes off in cinema normally in that it’s intimate and brutal, so what challenges did you face – either in tweaking the script, with appropriate casting, or during the production itself – that made the kind of deliberate fabrication of reality more difficult? How real can a movie truly be when it comes to violence like this – did you struggle with that?
Um-hmm… Well, it is a drama, and movies are never real. It doesn’t matter whether they’re documentaries or anything else. It is not a replicate of life, so what you’re looking for is the feel of life, the illusion of life, the tone of life. You have an understanding with your audience that these are actors and they’re saying lines and they don’t really get killed and so on, so you’re always faced with that. But you want to give a semblance of life, a tone.
But in terms of the iconic American small town, there is a sense of falseness or fabrication immediately – I mean, you’ve gotta think of Disneyland, you know? The movie deals with a kind of yearned-for past of naïveté and innocence in American life which probably never really existed in that pure state anyway. When you see those mini towns that are created in Disneyworld and Disneyland you can’t help thinking of The Twilight Zone and those sort of spooky, small towns that a lot of those stories took place in that already begin as a kind of fantasy of America. It’s America’s own mythology and fantasy of itself, so the movie really does very definitely deal with that level of non-reality and then plays with it. You’ve got a scene in a mall with a mother with her kid going shopping, so there is a real tension between reality as it’s lived, as the audience will recognize it, and as a kind of mythological reality that perhaps as I say never really did exist and is in some ways constantly yearned for in America.
I mean, as a foreigner coming to America – and a Canadian is definitely a foreigner – you can feel that yearning for some kind of archetypal American past, when times were innocent and Americans didn’t have the complexity that they have to face now. When of course America has always been an incredibly complex society, but as I say there is that mythology of that simplicity, you know? So I kind of am playing with that in the movie, and to a very interesting effect, I think.
Yes, and it also seems like cinema is the right way to deal with a mythology like this because there is that whole necessity to have suspension of disbelief. And in a way, this desire for the ideal or belief that there was an ideal in the first place when really maybe there wasn’t, is it’s own suspension of disbelief that Americans purvey on a daily basis.
Sure! Of course, a lot of American mythology in the last hundred years has come to us through the cinema; images of the Western, you know – High Noon and Howard Hawkes and as I say John Ford’s westerns – these are imbedded in the American consciousness and have spread throughout the world through the medium of television and so on. There was a time, when I was growing up as a kid, every other movie you saw was a Western and every other television show was a Western. I mean, that was a huge, huge genre – and it was A-list, it wasn’t just B-list, it was considered the tops. And a Western is about the founding of America and the heartland of America and so on... So even though the Western is at the moment not a particularly viable genre, its resonances and its imagery still are around and still have great potency.
That’s very true. Tell me how long it took for you to go from the point where you signed on, after you read the script and decided that you wanted to do it, until production began. Was this a normal length of development time for one of your projects or very different?
Well, it’s an interesting question because this movie was as close to a studio movie as I’ve ever done, which means that the financing was not an issue. It was always a question of the normal things like being happy with the script, getting the budget to the point we were happy with, and getting the casting that we wanted. So it did actually go faster than let’s say Spider, which was an independent film where the financing was constantly collapsing and having to be redone. A lot of time was spent on Spider just securing the financing again and again, and that was never an issue with History of Violence. So despite the fact that Spider cost $8 million and History of Violence was $32 million, History was actually quicker, it was pretty quick because once I decided that I wanted to do it and I had my meetings with New Line and they were interested in the approach that I wanted to take, then it went very quickly actually
Now, with these questions of financing and whatnot: It’s interesting that somebody with a track record like yourself would still have that difficulty but I assume it’s due to the subject matter.
Yeah, it is – people wanna work with me, but when it’s Spider they say, “Well, I don’t think this is very commercial…” And you know what? They’re right! They think it’s a difficult art film and they’re correct, although it has recently started to make money; it takes a while but with television and DVDs and so on a film has many more ways to make money than used to be the case.
People in the movie business are not stupid; it was obvious to me long ago when people would say to me, “Well, when you have a hit, then you can do this difficult movie.” I’d been trying to get Dead Ringers made for ten years and then I did The Fly, which was a huge success – it was a success critically and at the box office; it was the number one film in America for three weeks running even though it was a relatively low-budget film. And I still couldn’t get Dead Ringers made after that, and the reason was that people read the script. (Laughs) They knew that it was going to be a really difficult film to sell.
There’s no director who’s an automatic green light; I think even Spielberg had trouble getting Schindler’s List off the ground, so it just goes to show you that we’re all vulnerable to the same problem and ultimately you have to conform the budget to what the movie really is. I mean, if it’s a really, really difficult, obscure film, then maybe you have to spend $1 million on it and figure out how to do it that way. So I don’t consider this to be more than just business as usual; it’s just economics and it’s something that any filmmaker has to deal with. If you can con somebody into thinking that your project is more commercial than it is, then fine! (Laughs) Except that I don’t try to do the con; I think it’s a matter of honor to me that the films that I’ve made, even the most difficult ones, have all made their money back and nobody went broke releasing the film.
At this stage of the game, again given your track record and I assume a modicum of financial success that you’ve achieved plus the technology available today, if you had a story that was just incredibly difficult, you knew the financing would be a nightmare and you just wanted to get it done, would you pull something off that was ultra-low budget, a million or under, totally on your own and doing it digitally? Does that sound appealing to you, the way that a lot of young filmmakers are getting stuff done these days?
Well, I wouldn’t rule it out. It’s a problem when you are a professional filmmaker whose filmmaking is his source of income and that’s your livelihood. With Spider, for example, even though it wasn’t a million dollars, in order to get it made all of us above the line had to defer their salaries. Our budget was $10 million and we couldn’t raise ten, we could only raise eight, so that means that I and Ralph Fiennes and Miranda Richardson and the writer Patrick McGrath and the producers all deferred our salaries. So we made no money on that movie. The thing is that Ralph can go off and make Red Dragon and Maid in Manhattan and I’m still working on Spider for no money. (Laughs)
That’s a director’s problem, but I really couldn’t afford to do that again immediately, because it really meant that in a sense I was financing Spider because I wasn’t getting paid any kind of fee. But it is a kind of a guerilla warfare fallback position you have that the technology is such these days that you can do more with less now than you could in the past. Yes, you can edit on your laptop, yes you can shoot a movie in mini-DV and have it look – well, not like a Hollywood movie, but you can have it look like a movie. It’s something that I think about a lot; I’m very intrigued by the technology. You know, Jean-Luc Goddard said that there would not really be cinema verité until you could fit a camera in the glove compartment of your car. When he said that, such a thing did not exist, but it certainly exists now.
Eventually somebody’s going to make a movie with their cell phone camera.
It’s already being done! (Laughs)
So if A History of Violence is about coming to terms with one’s whole self – bad and good, hidden and apparent – which film of yours shows the most who David Cronenberg really is?
I think that it would take more than a thousand movies to really summarize one filmmaker, I truly do. There’s so many other things that I’m interested in that could be subjects of films. Just to give you a quick example: I’ve got a script that I never managed to get made called Red Cars which is about Formula 1 racing in the 60’s. It’s about the American Phil Hill who won the world championship for Ferrari in 1961 – not something that people would probably associate with me, but it’s a great passion of mine. So that’s just one of many, many things. As I say, until I get to a thousand films, you don’t have me yet.