The movies need more David Cronenberg. But David Cronenberg isn’t so sure that he needs movies.
Two weeks before the start of the Toronto International Film Festival, the Canadian icon is enjoying a light lunch – egg, cheese and turkey bacon croissant – on the sunny patio of a café in the city’s tony Forest Hill neighbourhood. Clad in a black tee and shorts, the 76-year-old is here to talk not about his latest film, but his performance in someone else’s: Albert Shin’s new thriller Clifton Hill, in which the Dead Ringers director has scored a third-billed role as a Niagara Falls conspiracy theorist. It’s a juicy part, and one equipped with especially Cronenbergian touches – his character is introduced emerging out of a cloudy lake, a primordial force of nature, ready to talk about the mysteries of the world.
The job proved to be a refreshing change of pace for the director, too, so used is he to worrying about everything else on a set but memorizing lines. But his deadpan and curious performance underlines just how sorely missed Cronenberg’s presence has been in the cinematic landscape.
His most recent directorial effort, the Hollywood-set psychodrama Maps to the Stars, came out five years ago. Since then, there have been reports that Cronenberg has been unable to finance his movies. That he’s making a Netflix series. That he’s writing a new novel. That he never wants to make another film ever again. The reality, like any Cronenberg film, is not so clean and tidy.
Ahead of Clifton Hill’s world premiere at TIFF on Sept. 5, The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz sat down with Cronenberg for an in-depth discussion about acting, streaming, and legacy.
Did you know much about Albert’s work before joining Clifton Hill?
Not at all, but I was sent his script and it was an interesting, unusual, complex work. I had confidence that he knew what he was doing and that we’d get along. It was just about trying to create the character and be a good actor. Once I agree to be an actor, I’m not a director anymore.
Is that control hard to give up?
It’s quite nice to let go, because you only have to concentrate on one thing: remembering your lines and your character. You don’t have to worry about the camera, the lighting, the rhythm, all the other stuff as a director that you’re constantly juggling.
Do you get sent scripts often, to act?
I do, actually. I recently acted in Viggo Mortensen’s film, which he wrote and directed [the forthcoming drama Falling]. It gives me a chance to re-meet people who I’ve known working as a director. It keeps me in touch with filmmaking. I haven’t directed a film in over five years, but I still feel like I’m part of the community.
Why haven’t you made a film since? There was the interview that Viggo gave in 2016 that said it was because of trouble securing financing ...
I really thought that I was finished with filmmaking. I was getting bored with it. I thought that I would end up writing another novel, and then I got interested in the whole Netflix thing and the idea of a streaming series. To my surprise, I found myself flying down to L.A. to pitch an idea to Netflix, which they liked enough to green-light two episodes, which I wrote. But then they decided to pass. I’m trying to set it up somewhere else, but that got me back to think that maybe I’m not done with it after all. I’m involved with [producer] Robert Lantos on two things now: a script, which I’d written some time ago, and a series based on my novel, Consumed.
I thought Consumed had been optioned by AMC for a series?
And they eventually passed on it after the writers had gone quite some distance. At that point, I said I just want to be the guy who wrote the novel, and you can pay me residuals and do whatever you want to do with it. But now I’m involved as a director again, which means I’m going to be involved as a writer. So I have three projects that might or might not go.
There’s the Consumed adaptation, but can you talk about the older script and what was once the Netflix series?
Not really, because they’re at a very delicate stage right now. None have been green-lit and they might just disappear.
When you were talking about Netflix at the Venice Film Festival last year, you mentioned that it was the “novelization” aspect of binge-able television that intrigued you.
I was talking with Spike Lee, and he’s done a series with Netflix. They’re still talking about the “cathedral of cinema,” the “communal experience,” blah blah. I said, “Look, I’m watching Lawrence of Arabia on my watch right now, there’s a thousand camels and it looks glorious.” I was joking, but the experiences I’ve had recently in the theatre have not been good. There’s commercials, noise, cellphones. I was watching Colette at the Varsity, and halfway through red flashes came up at the bottom of the frame. A woman came out and said, “We’re going to have to reboot, so take 15 minutes and come back.” Then they rebooted it from the beginning, and she had to ask the audience to tell her how far to go. You tell me, is that a great experience? I generally don’t watch movies in a cinema at all. Netflix is the future. It’s the present.
But the whole paradigm of a series, binge-watching, it’s quite different. My first reaction is that it’s more novelistic, because if you have an eight-hour season, you can get into complex, intricate things. You can let it breathe and the audience expectations are such that they will let you, where before they wouldn’t have the patience. I think only the surface has been touched with experimenting with that.
How was your Netflix experience, from a creator’s perspective?
I was hoping it would be different than a Hollywood studio, but it felt a lot like a Hollywood studio. And I can see that the stuff Netflix is producing itself is very conservative, very mainstream. The more interesting stuff I’m watching there is all foreign-produced, things they’ve acquired. Which is too bad, because unlike movies, Netflix isn’t depending on box office. They have their own algorithms and can afford to have eccentric series.
Well, Spike’s Netflix series, She’s Gotta Have It, was just cancelled after two seasons. I’m not sure what they look for in terms of success measurements.
It’s a bit mysterious. I know they’ve fought against the perception that they’re controlled by algorithms and when I met them, it was very much about talking to the creator and artist. And bless them, because I wouldn’t have written what they call a prototype – not exactly a pilot, because they don’t do pilots – so I was happy to do that because it came into being. Even though it was a pretty extreme, in some ways, pitch, I thought it’d be a good fit. But they said the classic Hollywood thing: “It wasn’t what we fell in love with in the room.” So they want you, but they don’t really. And I’ve run into that my whole career.
And that’s the nature of being a working filmmaker?
I talked with my son [filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg], and when he asked me why I was thinking of not making movies, I said, “I’m not willing to suffer anymore.” And he said, “Well, I’m willing to suffer,” and I said, “That’s good, because you’re going to.” Which he did, but after three years of all the usual indie-film stuff, he got to make his movie [the forthcoming sci-fi thriller Possessor], and I’ve seen it and it’s terrific. You don’t want to be a masochist, but you have to be willing to suffer.
Is there more suffering today? Especially for independent filmmakers in Canada?
A lot of producers tell me it’s harder to raise money, and I have to accept that because that’s not where I operate. I’m in a place, though, right now where if it all fell apart, I’d be okay. I don’t care. I don’t have the hunger or the desperate need to make a film. Once I start with it, though, I want to realize them. The thing I wrote for Netflix is very personal and I would really like to see it happen. But I can always write a novel again. Not that you make money from writing a novel or that you get that many readers.
Not that making movies gets you a lot of money, either.
That’s true. For an independent filmmaker, there’s no guarantee. And even in the old days, it took me three years between movies. Eventually you run out of years. And it takes a lot of energy. It’s a difficult thing, to direct, and I’m five years older now. How would I feel? I don’t know.
So you would be fine if Maps to the Stars ended up being your final film?
Absolutely. If this is it for the so-called Cronenberg canon, then so be it. You can’t worry about legacy. It’s very pleasing to me that many young filmmakers tell me they were inspired by seeing The Fly when they were six years old. How long will that last? I don’t worry about it.
Do you take comfort that “Cronenberg” has become an adjective?
That's the ultimate accolade, to become an adjective. Even if it's misleading. Often, "Cronenberg" means grotesque or bloody. I think that's modulated now. Kafka-esque, Fellini-esque, Cronenberg-esque ...
Cronenbergundian. That was my preference, but I accept Cronenberg-esque.
Working with younger filmmakers like Albert, talking with your son Brandon, do you feel they’re going to have a strong future?
There are many strange and interesting ways of presenting and accessing a film that didn’t exist before, and in that way I think it’s better. You might tweet your movie soon. And there will be different ways to monetize it so that you can at least survive. And I would absolutely watch movies on my phone or watch, rather than not watch them at all. My phone, an iPhone SX Max, has a great screen.
So there are new ways to get a movie out there, but what about the discoverability aspect?
I remember talking with Oliver Stone and he asked me, “Are you happy being a marginal filmmaker?” I said, “Well, how big an audience do you need, Oliver?” They’re both legitimate questions. How many people do you need to see your movie before you feel justified? There’s the money aspect to it, but also the artistic satisfaction aspect. There’s no universal answer.
In your speech to the Ontario College of Art and Design last year, you talked about art’s inherent capability to be dangerous, to be criminal. Is today’s cultural output matching that definition?
Sometimes. I think that it’s more daring to be more criminal in your art now because you have Twitter backlash. There are more ways to be attacked as an artist than there used to be. You’re putting yourself out there in ways that were unimaginable years ago. Art is not a decorative thing, but a subversive thing, because it has appeal to the unconscious. And the unconscious and the ego and society are at odds with each other.
Is there a reticence on the part of artists today, because society can more easily push back?
Well, you can see it. There are artists who’ve become reclusive who are not naturally reclusive because of fear of backlash. But it depends on the person, how tough you are. An artist requires a tough skin. It’s a weird balance because to be an artist, you have to be incredibly sensitive to things – that’s where you draw your material from. But you also have to be incredibly tough, because you’re putting yourself out there in ways that others don’t. It’s like going on a date. You are making yourself vulnerable to rejection and attack. So you can decide to stay home and watch Netflix. Or you can go out and see what happens.
This interview has been condensed and edited
Clifton Hill premieres at TIFF on Sept. 5, 9 p.m., Ryerson, with an additional screening Sept. 9, 10 p.m., Scotiabank (tiff.net)
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