“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
The words are from Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, a text that echoes through Don Delillo’s 2003 cerebral novel, Cosmopolis, charting the hellish descent of an arch-capitalist from his high rise sanctuary into the streets of Manhattan, the multicultural cosmopolis of the story. The story follows a sleep-deprived young billionaire investor, Eric Packer, travelling across Manhattan one day for a haircut in his stretch limo, losing a vast fortune on online investing, and crashing into the real conditions of life, marriage, mortality, sex, madness and political rage.
From the soundless chamber of Eric Packer’s sound-proof limo to the chilly air-conditioned hallways of a sleek dark Toronto luxury hotel is not much of a transition. Sleep-deprivation, the erasure of national boundaries, money: These subjects are close to the thoughts of director David Cronenberg and his 26-year-old star, Robert Pattinson, this afternoon, at the end of an almost two-week road trip in support of the film. Pattinson, in a baseball cap, slouches in a chair, the director, in an untucked checked shirt, sits next to a table, strewn with half-empty water bottles. Cronenberg waves a weary greeting. He’s too tired to stretch for a handshake, he says. After Cannes, they went to Lisbon, Paris, Berlin and London, meeting press hordes of Pattinson’s teenaged Twilight fans, improbably holding up their copies of DeLillo’s Cosmopolis to be autographed.
“There wasn’t time to unpack. Just get some socks. Try to figure out if they’re used or not,” Cronenberg says. “It was like that.”
For a relatively small movie (with a budget of just over $20-million), the talent is putting in a lot of road time.
“With big movies, it’s usually six or seven countries,” Pattinson says. “But this is way harder getting people to see. For smaller films, they just say, ‘Oh, just New York and London’ or ‘New York and L.A.’ I don’t really understand it.”
“We have the U.S. to come,” Cronenberg reminds him. “I’ve heard both July and August from the U.S. We will be doing New York and L.A.”
Pattinson, who comes across as instinctively reticent, says it was a “semi-difficult” decision to take part in the film in the first place After four Twilight movies, and $2-billion in worldwide box office, and another one to come this fall, he was inclined to do something more low-profile.
“I thought I was over-saturated. I wanted to do an ensemble thing or a small part in something supporting. I spent a week putting off calling David, to decide whether I wanted to do it or not. It takes a while to realize that the worst thing that can happen is you make a bad movie. And it’s much more fun jumping into slightly more abstract territory than chasing after an audience or believing that, if I do one film for the studio, I can do one for myself. It doesn’t matter any more. You could do 10 for the studio and still can’t get an indie [film] financed.”
Cosmopolis is Cronenberg’s 20th feature film, but the economics of movie-making, which were never easy, have grown more byzantine in the past economically tumultuous decade. A decade ago, when Don DeLillo was finishing Cosmopolis, Cronenberg had to mortgage his home to help finance Spider, his study in madness starring Ralph Fiennes, before his commercial bounce back with 2005’s A History of Violence. In the intervening years, a string of American indie film companies – New Line Cinema, Fine Line Features, Picturehouse, Warner Independent, Fox Atomic, and Paramount Vantage and Miramax – collapsed like dominoes.
The most important shift in his work, he says, has been the loss of American financing for films, which has “has huge effects on creativity, but none of it comes out of the creative aspect, just deal-making.”
“You can’t make a presale to America. You used to get four million [dollars] upfront for U.S. distribution. Now you have to make the movie first and see if Sony Classics or Fox Searchlight will take it. You have to forget about America or Japan for presales, which you could get in the old days, and if you’re a filmmaker like me, you have to depend on Canada and Europe.”
Cosmopolis, for example, has Canadian, French, Portuguese and Italian financing. The money sources directly affect casting and location. Cronenberg’s favourite stars – Viggo Mortensen (Danish), Fiennes and Pattinson (English) – are non-Americans who allow money to flow from foreign sources. There were no American actors in A Dangerous Method, and only one (Paul Giamatti) in Cosmopolis, a New York movie shot in Toronto last year. Pattinson, with his huge international profile, was a key to drawing the foreign money.
“I compare it with Viggo becoming a star because of Lord of the Rings. I couldn’t have had him in History of Violence before Lord of the Rings because he wasn’t a star. It’s like the stock market really. You have to instill confidence in your investors. Rob has a lot of fans and he gets a lot of press and that means we can sell his movie in Germany and Korea.”
The other side of the money flow, of course, is the money that comes from governments. It’s a topic that’s also close to Cronenberg at a time when Telefilm took a cut of roughly 10 per cent of its budget ($10.6-million over three years) in the last federal budget. Though he’s often considered an international filmmaker who happens to be based on Canada, he says: “My whole career has been supported by government money, starting with the Canada Council for writing and then the CFDC [Canadian Film Development Corp.] which became Telefilm.
“ Everywhere in the world except the U.S., government support of cinema is crucial ... We cannot make a Canadian movie for $200-million so there’s no way you can compete with the Hollywood making huge blockbusters but we can really compete when it comes to making interesting independent films, but at that level you must have government support.”