Over the years, David Cronenberg’s oeuvre and his persona have fused into something, well, Cronenbergian.
In the films he writes and/or directs – his earlier, squishier output (Scanners, The Fly); his 1990s mindbenders (Naked Lunch, eXistenZ); his more recent, human-nature-is-scary-enough work (Eastern Promises, A Dangerous Method); and his most recent, the evolution thriller Crimes of the Future, which he shot this past summer – he’s a neo-existentialist.
“I think the human body is what we are,” Cronenberg, 78, said in a phone interview last week. “When it dies, we’re dead. There’s no afterlife, no God. We have to come to terms with that. The subject matter of all art is the human condition, and for me that’s a physical thing. So it’s inevitable that my filmmaking is going to involve the body in a very intimate and impactful way.”
In his real life, Cronenberg is gentle, courtly, intelligent. He projects an air of unflappable civility. His gaze is calm and unblinking. His voice is as mild and pleasant as butter scratching across white toast.
“We shot Crimes of the Future in Athens during an intense heat wave, 45 degrees, wildfires burning on the horizon,” Don McKellar, who plays a bureaucrat in the film, told me in a separate phone interview. “David’s ability to maintain calm and keep his sense of humour was remarkable. His movies are so personal and idiosyncratic, you expect a kind of autocratic vision, but it doesn’t feel like that on his set. He’s incredibly engaging, personable, non-hierarchical. He inspires trust and loyalty. Douglas Koch, the director of photography, remarked to me that David should set up a school on how to make movies. Not just technically, but how to make them enjoyable to work on.”
When Cronenberg acts, however, the characters he plays morph with the person he is to create a delicious uneasiness. No matter the role, we’re also watching him – and we know how his mind works. We see the skull beneath the skin. Think of his silken assassin in To Die For, his ungodly reverend in Alias Grace, or his scientist in Disappearance at Clifton Hill, where his mere entrance, flapping out of the water in a frogman suit, elicits nervous titters from an audience.
No wonder the creators of the anthology series Slasher wanted Cronenberg to headline their fourth season, Flesh & Blood. “The minute we announced his casting, fans began direct-messaging me to say how much he freaks them out,” Slasher writer Ian Carpenter said in a joint Zoom interview with showrunner Aaron Martin. (Season 4 premieres Oct. 4 on Hollywood Suite.)
Cronenberg plays Spencer Galloway, a villain who could not be more on trend: a megawealthy, cruel patriarch of a dysfunctional family, à la Brian Cox in Succession and Donald Sutherland in Trust. In the Galloway family, however, dysfunction includes dismemberment. Spencer, who is dying, sets up an elaborate competition among his potential heirs; only the winner inherits all. Meanwhile, a killer stalks the isolated family compound – as players are eliminated from the contest, they’re also eliminated from Earth, in grandiosely grotesque ways.
“I got to do things I’ve never had a chance to do, in acting or in life,” Cronenberg said gleefully. “I got to yell at people and say foul things to my children. I said to my own children, ‘You see how I could have been?’ It was a lot of fun. It was cathartic. I loved it.”
“David brought intellectual ferocity to his character, but this lovely energy to the set,” Carpenter said. “We shot these long dinner table scenes; the actors sat there for much of the day. In between takes, David told story after story. We had rich writing conversations, about how he comes to his work as a writer first. He celebrates the stuff that everyone else wants to turn away from, be it behaviour or things in the body. He has no shyness, no reservations about exploring anything.”
Crimes of the Future sounds like vintage Cronenberg. He wrote the script in 2000, but it sat untouched until producer Robert Lantos convinced him it was timelier now than ever. It’s set in a near future where nature and evolution have spun out of control. Some humans, including a performance artist played by Viggo Mortensen, are adapting by growing new organs or merging with technology – becoming transhuman. Some are evolving past pain, able to operate on themselves. Others resist, including McKellar’s bureaucrat and his colleague, played by Kristen Stewart.
“David is exploring the limits of what it means to be human,” McKellar said. “Does our identity transcend the body? It’s an incredibly rich question, tied into our cyber lives, how we’re transferring our inner lives to technology, incorporating our online life into our personalities. Where’s the line? Does the authentic self mean anything any more?”
Not surprisingly, Cronenberg is a tech-embracer. “In the 1940s and 50s, technology was often conceived of as something that came from outer space, menacing and inhuman,” he said. “But for me, technology is 100-per-cent human – it reflects back to us what we are; it’s an extension of ourselves. I’m listening to you through my hearing aids, which are streaming directly to my phone. Those are my ears now.”
Like all Cronenberg projects, Crimes of the Future took years to finance. “It’s conservativism,” he said. “If you’re doing anything outside the mainstream that seems to be risky – not transgressively risky, but risky in terms of audience reaction – it’s hard to get made.”
He hoped streaming services would be “much more radical,” but an experience with Netflix proved otherwise. He went to their Los Angeles office and pitched three of their top executives on a series called The Shrouds (which he still hopes to sell, so that’s all he’ll say). They paid him to write two episodes but didn’t green-light the series.
“My experience with them was exactly my experience with studios,” Cronenberg said. “They’re bright, literate, they know stuff. But underneath they’re afraid. They say, ‘We love your work.’ Then you give them something, and they say, ‘We want to work with you, but not on this.’”
“What’s remarkable is what David can get made,” McKellar countered. “I’m sure he’s explored the limits. He’s never pandered to commercial audiences, even with his most commercial stuff, like The Fly. I’m sure it’s always been a struggle. But somehow he’s maintained his career without compromise and that’s amazing.
“I’ve learned so much from him about how a career in Canada as a filmmaker is possible,” McKellar continued. “How to maintain integrity, to adhere to and expand your vision. I can think of no one who’s done that better.”
As our time ran out, I asked Cronenberg one last question: If we’re our bodies and nothing more, how does he feel about being 78? “Things are going on with my body,” he replied. “I’m not as flexible, I’ve got aches, strange neurological pains that happen for no reason. But it hasn’t altered my understanding of life and death. I think I anticipated it relatively accurately, even from my youth.”
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