A RUMBLE OF THUNDER greets the arrival of David Cronenberg. It would be unfair to say that it’s a little like a scene from one of his films. The director is far too clever to dabble in such crude sound design. Besides which, we no longer think of him as a Gothic figure. Do we? At any rate, the pathetic fallacy certainly provides Mr Cronenberg with a dramatic entrance.
The Cannes Film Festival is drawing to a close and Mr Cronenberg has arrived on the penthouse of the Marriot Hotel to discuss his strange new film, Cosmopolis. Robert Pattinson plays a rich young man travelling through an apocalyptic New York in a huge, self-sufficient limousine. Though based on a Don DeLillo novel written as long ago as 2003, Cosmopolis has plenty to say about the current financial meltdowns.
Cronenberg has always made serious films. Early works, made on minuscule budgets in his native Canada, such as Shivers and Rabid abounded with disgusting imagery, but they addressed complex questions concerning mortality and the nature of human sexuality.
“Even, if you look at Shivers, I think the dialogue is very interesting,” he says. “In a low-budget horror film, people are always interested in the gore and the special effects. I think it was funny and eccentric. I worked hard to make the dialogue interesting.”
That said, he does now seem (not necessarily a good thing) like a more respectable figure. He has headed the jury at this place. His last picture, A Dangerous Method, examined the relationship between Sigmund Freud and CJ Jung. What does he make of this notion that his sensibility has matured?
“No, no, no,” he says in his quiet, academic way. “I certainly am more mature. I mean I am actually older. My film-making is, maybe, more mature in that it is more confident. I had 40 days to shoot this and I finished it in 35. I do one or two takes. Back in 1988, I would shoot this angle and that angle.”
So he now has more confidence? One would think so. David has been at this lark for well over four decades. Whippet thin, his hair still teased into that Eraserhead bouffant, he answers questions with the logical discipline of a boffin asked to explain his latest musings on string theory. Indeed, his first ambition was to become a scientist. Raised in Toronto, he initially studied science at that city’s university before switching to English literature. Inspired by colleagues, he then improvised his way into a film career.
When did this confidence finally assert itself?
“The third day of shooting my first movie,” he says with a dry smile. “But it’s a matter of how much confidence – confidence to know that you don’t need certain things. As I say, in the early days, I would do a lot of coverage, then spend a lot of time in the editing suite putting it together.”
He goes on to explain (almost boast) that about nine days after finishing the shoot for Cosmopolis he had a first director’s cut.
“With my first commercial movie, I kept complaining that I didn’t like the size of the heads. I thought: maybe I really can’t do this. I’d done my own cinematography. But I hadn’t done it with a crew. Then I felt it was starting to look good. That was a major moment.”
American critics have long been suspicious of horror. For a long time, Cronenberg was viewed as a dangerous weirdo with an unattractive penchant for tearing the innards from his lead actors. The Brood starred Oliver Reed in the tale of apparently demented monster children. Scanners became notorious for its scenes of exploding heads. Videodrome made something viscerally revolting of contemporaneous pop culture.
As his career progressed, however, wiser pundits began to notice the rigorous thinking behind his gruesome aesthetic. The Fly was a massive financial and critical hit. Dead Ringers, in which Jeremy Irons plays deranged twins, remains his most celebrated picture.
Times have moved on. Cosmopolis is, quite rightly, regarded as the latest missive from a modern master. There are moments of horror, but the picture remains, for the most part, a fairly sober affair. It abounds with echoes of our current travails. At one point, accidentally referencing an event in the Leveson Inquiry, Mathieu Amalric gets to wield a custard pie in anger.
“All that was completely by accident,” Cronenburg says. “I wrote the script before I did A Dangerous Method. Suddenly we found ourselves shooting riot scenes during Occupy Wall Street. It was bizarre. At a certain point, Paul Giamatti texts me to say that Rupert Murdoch just got a pie in the face. What’s going on? We weren’t making this movie as a documentary. Don DeLillo, like any writer, is not trying to be a prophet.”
Not surprisingly, the marketing men are focusing much attention on their leading man. For some time, our own Colin Farrell was pencilled in to play the protagonist. Sadly, scheduling commitments on the upcoming remake of Total Recall ruled him out.
“What age is the character? Colin Farrell was 33 or 34. Are we going to go with that? We were thinking of him. At which point, we maybe would have had Marion Cotillard as his wife. But once we got Rob, it was clear she’s not the right wife. You don’t just cast one person; you cast the whole movie. Maybe, Colin was too old.”
So, why Robert Pattinson?
“Don’t you think he’s good?” he says.
I do actually.
“I knew he would be good, but I had to convince him he would be good. He is a serious enough cinephile that he doesn’t want to fuck the movie up. All actors have this insecurity that they’re going to be the bad actor in the piece. Even guys like Olivier worried that they were not good enough. It goes with acting. It’s up to me to say: ‘You can do that’.”
Cronenberg finds himself running a family business at Cannes. While Cosmopolis plays in the main competition, Antiviral, directed by one Brandon Cronenberg, screens in Un Certain Regard, the main sidebar event. Cannes-watchers believe this is the first time films by a father and son have screened in the headline competitions.
Brandon has not worked overly hard at putting distance between himself and his dad. Antiviral plays very like one of the older man’s early Canadian films: it concerns a company that infects obsessive fans with diseases contracted by their favourite celebrities.
“Yes. That’s been wonderful. I had the interesting experience of sitting with him in front of 300 journalists and he articulated a lot of things he’d never said before,” he says. “I was not tempted to give advice. He would ask and I would give it.”
An irony strikes him and he cracks an indulgent smile.
“It took me 20 years to get to Cannes and he did it with his first film. No, as a father, I was, of course, delighted.”
This brings us back to the subject of Cronenberg’s slow journey to critical respectability. Did he ever resent the fact that high-brow writers didn’t take him seriously?
“I always had some international legitimacy. I remember Louis Marcorelles, who wrote for Le Monde, loved my first two films. He said they were perfect. He said I need never make another movie. He even liked Shivers and many people hated that. But that’s okay. Even with this movie, I don’t expect that ET kind of love. If everyone loves your movie, there must be something wrong with it. That is still my feeling.”
What’s wrong with ET?
“ET was sentimental crap. But everyone loved it. You could not find one critic who said a bad word. I’m a little harsh. But I felt it was so drenched in American-style sentimentality.”
So, for all the warmth of his reception at Cannes, Cronenberg still sees himself as sitting someway outside the cosy tent within which Steven Spielberg plots his latest assault on the tear ducts. That is as it should be. Even Cronenberg’s least extravagant films are fuelled by unease at the grubby nature of the human condition. Still, he’s not quite the bad boy he used to be.
“Well, Mick Jagger was a bad boy and he did all right,” he laughs. “Yes, in rock ’n’ roll terms, that is always what you want.”
* Cosmopolis opens next week