David Cronenberg Interview

Cronenberg found the 'metabolism' of his latest uncanny mind-bender in its great performances

Cronenberg found the 'metabolism' of his latest uncanny mind-bender in its great performances

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The title character of David Cronenberg's "Spider" -- a psychological labyrinth that takes place largely inside fantasies and memories of an unstable, recently discharged psychiatric inmate -- has been described as man who's mind is falling apart. But the director disagrees.

"He's sort of falling together instead of falling apart," says Cronenberg, a 60-year-old man with such a genial, cheerful demeanor you'd never suspect him capable of creating the kind of controversial and macabre movies (the creepily sexualized car-accident fetish flick "Crash," the hallucinogenic William S. Burroughs adaptation "Naked Lunch") that have won him his reputation as an ingeniously uncanny auteur.

Played by Ralph Fiennes in a powerfully strange performance of warped posture, anguished features and inaudible compulsive muttering, the character has recently gained a tenuous grip on reality that begins to fracture when fantasies and memories of his mother's murder return to haunt him.

Miranda Richardson plays his mother in the film's unusual flashbacks that incorporate the Fiennes' adult Spider right along with his younger self (Bradley Hall). And in a twist that gives substance to the fragmentation of Spider's mind, Richardson is almost unrecognizable in a second role as Yvonne, a pub tart the boy's widowed father (Gabriel Byrne) begins sleeping with -- a fact that becomes part of Spider (and the audience) deciphering his distorted psyche.

In the course of the film, says Cronenberg, Spider "has a revelation (that) the past that he's clung to for most of his life is not true." He begins to emerge from his psychoses, but nobody realizes it, not even Spider himself.

So began a conversation I had with Cronenberg (and my interviewing partner, Jeff Anderson from the San Francisco Examiner) while the director was in Northern California to talk about the film, which was adapted by author Patrick McGrath from his 1990 novel of the same name.

Q: I love the opening sequence with the people getting off the (commuter) train. You have this rhythm of normal life going on for several minutes, then (the train platform clears), you get to Spider and the rhythm just stops.

A: That's right. It's really just saying, "That's your metabolism, you who came into the theater, and now this is Spider's metabolism, and that's going to be the rhythm of the movie." That was the idea. Spider's a very stripped-down man. He doesn't have all these things that all these other people do -- the family and the business and all this energy and aspirations.

Q: The whole movie has that feeling. The sets are very bare and the streets are very empty...

A: And that all comes from Spider. It's not necessarily accurate. Although the interiors really are sparse, you'd never see the streets of London that empty. I jokingly but truthfully say, I used all my extras in the first shot! I had them ready to go in the scenes where Spider is walking on the streets. I was ready to have the extras drift through and cars drive through and stuff like that. But whenever I put them there, it seemed really wrong. I'd keep saying, "Get rid of the guy on the bicycle" or "Get rid of the baby carriage." Soon I was left with just Spider -- and the extras were standing around disgruntled. [Grins.]

I knew the movie was going to be subjective, but that's when I really started to think it was beyond that -- it was expressionistic, you know? It's all expressing Spider's alienation and his disconnectedness, and his loneliness. The other thing that those people have in the first shot of the movie, that Spider doesn't have, is a complete ease. They know where they're going. They feel at ease in their surroundings. They feel like they belong there. They're very connected. And he isn't any of those things. That's why I ended up with him like that, (alone) on the streets of London.

Q: I understand that "Spider" came to you with Ralph Fiennes already attached. Was that unusual for you, to do a project with an actor already in place?

A: Yeah. I don't think I've ever had that happen before. Certainly I've gotten scripts with actors attached or with the suggestion that the actors are interested. But I've never ended up doing those movies, so I don't know how that would have worked out. Certainly Sharon Stone was attached to "Basic Instinct 2," but I didn't get to make that movie.

Q: I remember that. I was shocked to see your name attached to that sequel.

A: Yeah, well, I would have hoped you'd be shocked, but then you'd have seen the movie and been really shocked because it would be so good. But, we'll never know.

Q: "Spider" felt like a Cronenberg movie, but it also felt like a departure. It didn't have what might be called your trademark sense of the macabre that most of your other films have. Did it feel like a departure to you?

A: No. It felt like business as usual. I understand. I know what you're saying. But my experience is, I've done "M. Butterfly." I've done "The Dead Zone," which was the first movie I did that had people saying "this must be a departure" because it wasn't like "Shivers," "Rabid" or "The Brood." But then I did "The Fly" right afterwards, which was much more like what people thought I was doing, you know, because it was gory and violent and whatever. It's not really something that I think about. The problems you have to solve and the things you're trying to achieve are the same. I don't really think in terms of what my trademark might be when I'm making movies. It's not even an issue.

Q: So how did you come to the film? Or how did the film come to you?

A: Um, a guy sent it to me.

Q: "A guy"?

A: A guy. A guy in Toronto sent it to me -- a guy I didn't know. He was quite a character. His name is on the movie -- Sanjay Burman. He is sort of a would-be agent-hustler guy. It's a long story -- a long, long story -- how he got his hands on the script. But he just phoned me out of the blue. I think he'd sent it to Atom Egoyan ("Ararat," "The Sweet Hereafter") and Don McKellar ("Last Night") first -- although he takes credit now for realizing Cronenberg was the right one.

Q: [Laughing.] You know, I loved your movie, but I would be curious to see an Atom Egoyan or Don McKellar version of "Spider."

A: You know, they didn't like it! And what's more, they love the movie. I've talked to both of them. Atom said to me, "I simply didn't see the movie when I read the script. I didn't see what the potential was" -- which is a compliment, to me. I took it as such. But, yeah, they read it and didn't rise to the bait. See, that's the mysterious thing about this business. You just don't know. It depends on where you are at that particular moment. As I say, it doesn't really have anything to do with your view of yourself, what you've done or what you want to do. Literally by page two, I thought, "Wow. If he doesn't blow this, I'm gonna want to do it." It was instant love.

Q: That must have felt great.

A: It did feel great. And especially since as a writer -- and you probably know this -- I'll do anything to avoid writing...

Q: Tell me about it!

A: So if somebody can get me a script that they've written, hey! If I can love it, I want to do it!

Q: I understand that you prefer really short, really tight shooting scripts. The "Crash" script was only 77 pages long. Was this script also...

A: Yeah, this script was in the 80-something range -- I can't even remember what it was by the time we were actually shooting -- and I still threw some scenes away.

Q: What kinds of scenes?

A: [Dubiously] You want me to tell you? In Patrick's script...there was a scene where (Spider) goes into an attic room, takes the rope that he wraps around his waist, and he loops it over the rafters and he is about to hang himself. Then Terrence, played by John Neville, comes in and sort of puts his hand on him, saying, "There's nothing here for you, Spider." He doesn't (hang himself). That was a scene that was in the script, which seemed quite reasonable. But then once we put the movie together, it seemed like another ending to the movie. We'd already had a scene earlier on when he's thinking about killing himself and he doesn't, so it seemed redundant. And that is so hard to tell on paper. You make scenes redundant in the way you play other scenes, and you can't anticipate that. The dynamics change. A movie is not a script. So that often happens.

Q: So you like short scripts because they allow you to microscope things, to examine the details?

A: Well, it's a matter of economy. When you're working on a relatively low budget, you don't have a lot of room for waste, and you don't have a lot of people looking over your shoulder, worried about stuff. You can just get very spare and economical, and I'd rather spend the time shooting stuff that has a really good chance of making it into the movie instead of stuff that might be interesting but who knows? And also, I mean, we had to cut down the days of shooting. The initial budget was for $10 million, but we couldn't raise that. We could only raise 8, so we all deferred salaries -- me and Ralph, Miranda and the producers, and Patrick, the writer -- plus it meant being really, really tough on a schedule in terms of making sure there was no waste. It's something you have to do when making that kind of movie.

Q: Does working from someone else's script -- as opposed to your own -- affect how you shoot? Did you work on this one at all?

A: Well, sure. But I worked on it as a director, not as a writer, and that's a different thing. Basically, I really just subtracted things from the script that I thought didn't work. Then there were some scenes, like that (suicide contemplation) scene, that I did catch and said "We're not gonna need this scene." Even with your own script, you suddenly say, "Oh, let's not shoot that scene, because I can tell right now (from) the way the movie's been going, that we're not gonna need it." So I don't waste the time shooting it. But you have to be pretty sure of what you're doing.

It's no different when it's my script. I mean, you curse the screenwriter when you suddenly find that everything's not working and it's his fault. It doesn't matter whether you're cursing yourself or somebody else! It's more fun when it's somebody else. [Smiles.] But really, once you're in directing/production mode, it doesn't matter where the script came from. It feels the same at that point.

Q: The book is a first-person narrative. But in the movie Spider barely mutters gibberish to himself. How did that translate? Was there gibberish in the script lines for Ralph Fiennes to speak?

A: No, no. He didn't write that. Ralph and I worked that out. In fact, Spider had very little to say in the script other than the real dialogue you can understand. That was all Patrick. That was his reinvention. In the book, Spider writes the book. The book is his journal, and I'm not sure how much Spider speaks to people. Certainly in the book he speaks to himself in his head, and that makes you think he's very articulate. But maybe that same Spider could actually have been a guy who doesn't speak -- it's all in his head but he never speaks to real people. But you don't get that feeling (in the book).

That's why one of the things I took away from Patrick's script was a voice-over that he had attempted. He had Spider writing in English in his journal, and you would hear the voice-over basically reading from the novel. I thought that was a holdover. Novelists do that, you know. They can't quite give up the novel. I said to Patrick, "You've gone so far along the necessary road of completely reinventing the story for the screen, that you've got two separate Spiders here. The one you invented for the screen could not possibly say these things." He couldn't even think those things. He's not that self-aware. He's not that literary.

In the book, Spider writes rather beautifully, and that's because Patrick writes beautifully. It's a literary conceit. I mean, this guy's personality is kind of disintegrating and he's hallucinating, but he still somehow manages to write beautifully. Well, you accept that in a book. But on screen I could immediately tell it wouldn't work, having this voice. It wouldn't feel like the same person.

Q: It would have been incongruous. It would have been a completely different movie.

A: Yeah. I did want him, though, to keep writing, because I wanted to have something I could shoot (that would) show Spider being obsessive about collecting his memories, because he thinks he gathering evidence of a crime. That's why he's paranoid about that notebook. He doesn't want it to fall into the wrong hands, and when Yvonne shows up (Spider starts seeing the woman, who he thinks was responsible for his mother's death, crossing over from his memories into the real world), he destroys it. He's terrified she'll figure out how to read it, and she'll know that he's trying to incriminate her and she'll do bad things to him. So I said, I want him to keep writing, but I don't want to be able to read what he's writing. So I asked Ralph to develop his own kind of hieroglyphics, which he did.

Q: I love the tension in his hands when he's writing gobbledygook in that notebook.

A: This is something else -- if I had asked a graphic artist to design (the hieroglyphics) or had somebody else's hands in there (a common practice in close-ups)...Ralph has very specific hands. Plus any good actor does not want someone else -- even his hands or feet -- standing in for them, because you know they'll do it differently than some stand-in or some double. You're still acting, no matter what part of your body you use.

Q: I understand that Nicole Kidman flew back to England on her own dime to shoot some hand close-ups for "The Hours." They were going to use someone else's hands and she refused to let them do it.

A: Yes, and I think she's right to be that worried about it. It's amazing how bad hand acting can be!

Q: [Laughs.]

A: We used to do it all the time, (using) whoever was around, you know, on low-budget films. In "Naked Lunch," I smashed the bug typewriter with the shoe. That's me (not star Peter Weller). But Peter didn't mind me doing it. He said, "If anybody else is gonna to it, it should be you."

Q: And where was he at the time?

A: You know, I don't remember why that happened. It was a long time ago.

Q: In the casting of Yvonne, was it your original intention to cast the same actress in several roles?

A: It was actually in the script. Patrick, before I was ever involved, designated the scenes where Yvonne would be played by the same actress as Mrs. Cleg (Spider's mother), and also the moment when Mrs. Wilkinson (the matron of the halfway house where Spider lives) would be supplanted by the actress who played Yvonne and Mrs. Cleg. That was part of Patrick's conception. It's interesting because most times when you cast an actor in multiple roles, it's to show how versatile they are or something like that. But there's a real plot point to this, and it's important that the audience eventually -- but not immediately -- realize that it's the same actress.

Q: How much work went into making Miranda Richardson unrecognizable from role to role? I mean, you simply do not realize it's her. There's even a shot in the pub, a shot of one Miranda, then the other Miranda, one right after the other and if you're not looking for it, you can't tell.

A: That's right. You can't tell. I mean, talk about cheap special effects! No CGI. No motion-control.

Q: Just really great performances and good makeup.

A: Yeah, yeah. And clothes, actually. Miranda will give a lot of credit to the costume designer -- who happens to be my sister, but...[trails off with a smile] A lot of actors will say that just getting into the clothes of a character, especially if it's a period piece, will immediately -- that's half the battle in getting into character.

Q: I imagine for playing a character as tarty as Yvonne, that's just as good as a fancy period costume.

A: Yeah, yeah. And she holds her face differently. She holds her jaw [Cronenberg stiffens and juts his jaw to demonstrate]...It's no false teeth or anything, although we did add a little black line between teeth to sort of suggest that her teeth are kind of rotten a bit. Just subtle stuff like that.

Q: Was playing multiple roles something you, Miranda and Ralph discussed? After all, he played three or four roles in "Sunshine."

A: No, no, we didn't talk about that. Certainly I knew about him doing "Sunshine," but (as with writing vs. directing) that would be you confusing your process with mine, you know? You don't direct from that. It's interesting to note, but it doesn't have any relevance to how Miranda worked.

Q: Last time I talked to you, I asked if you'd ever had any desire to do Hollywood schlock, and you rattled off a surprising list of movies you'd been offered -- "Witness," "Flashdance," "Top Gun" -- so I have to ask before our time is up, what have you been offered lately that might surprise me?

A: Well, they sent the script to me for "Exorcist 4," and I said, "Errr..." [expressing hesitation]. Then they said, "We're gonna look at 'Spider.'" I didn't hear (back), so I phoned my agent and said, "You know I don't want to do the 'The Exorcist,' but I'm very curious. How come I haven't heard any response?" And he said, "They saw 'Spider.' They're afraid of you." I thought that was really funny.

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