The Auteurs: David Cronenberg (Part 1)

David Cronenberg

One of the most controversial and revered filmmakers of the horror genre, David Cronenberg is considered to be the godfather of the body horror genre. He would redefine horror by exploring all sorts of topics including ideas of sexuality, violence and body transformation. While he would deviate from the genre in some of his more recent films, Cronenberg continues to redefine himself as a storyteller and filmmaker. His next film, Maps to the Stars, is already in the works, coming in 2014, and will find him exploring the world of film culture. Proving once again that David Cronenberg is a director that will always peak the interests of film buffs no matter what kind of films he makes.

Born in Toronto, Ontario in Canada on March 15, 1943, Cronenberg was the son of writer/editor Milton Cronenberg and musician Esther Sumberg. He was raised in a Jewish, middle-class family and would later gain a sister in Denise. She would eventually become one of his key collaborators in his film career due to her work in costume design. While attending Harbord Collegiate Institute, Cronenberg’s fascination with science that included botany and lepidopterology gave him the chance to attend the University of Toronto in 1963 in the Honours Science program. He would later switch programs to Honours English Language and Literature which further increased his childhood interest in writing. It was there that Cronenberg also became fascinated with the world of film and started making his first student film.

Part 1 (1966-1988)

From the Drain (scroll to the bottom to watch)

During Cronenberg’s time at the University of Toronto in 1966, he made two student short films shot on 16mm film. The first of which was called Transfer about a troubled relationship between a psychiatrist and his patient. Cronenberg’s other student short,From the Drain, was released a year later. A fourteen-minute piece, From the Drain is about two men in a mental hospital stuck in a bathtub while suffering from traumatic experiences. The short was more of a sketch of the things Cronenberg wanted to explore in the realm of horror. The idea that something personal was more effective than relying on the usual tricks often found in the genre.

Stereo

Stereo (review)

After graduating from the University of Toronto in 1967, Cronenberg’s interest in film had him wanting to take more chances in exploring not just horror but also something that can be personal and off-putting. He would gather some actors from the university, as well as the location, to create his first feature film about a group of young volunteers who take part in an experiment involving telepathy and sex. Stereo expanded on Cronenberg’s fascination with the idea of sex and how it can meld into something that would be taboo. Cronenberg also served as editor, cinematographer, narrator, and even played the role of the unseen doctor conducting the experiments in the film. Stereo premiered in art-houses all over Canada in June of 1969 where it got a decent reception.

Crimes of the Future

Crimes of the Future (review)

Cronenberg’s second feature, Crimes of the Future, was made with most of the same cast from Stereo. With the money he was able to use for the second film, Cronenberg took on a similar approach to not shooting sound on location as he would add it later on in post-production. The film would revolve around a young dermatologist clinic director trying to find his mentor as the film would be shot in Toronto as Cronenberg’s home city would be a place where he would shoot a lot of his work. While Cronenberg was able to shoot the film in color, he wanted to explore the idea of body horror from a visual standpoint but the limitations he had prevented the film from being fully-realized. It was later released in the summer of 1970 in art-house theaters in Canada while also being shown in Australia to fans of art-house films.

Shivers

Shivers (review)

The experience of making two one-hour feature-length films gave Cronenberg the opportunity to hone his craft though the medium of commercials, TV spots, and various TV shows all over Canada. It was during that time in the early 70s that Cronenberg met up with Ivan Reitman, one of his former schoolmates from the University of Toronto. Reitman had been working in the world of television as a producer, where he would meet one of his future comedy collaborators in actor Dan Aykroyd, and had thoughts about moving into the world of film. Reitman and Cronenberg decided to collaborate on a project in which Reitman would handle the funding while Cronenberg took care of the writing/directing duties. Their first collaboration resulted in the body horror film Shivers.

The film revolves around a doctor’s discovery of an experiment gone wrong on an island near Montreal. The experiment results in an epidemic where parasites turn the residents at a mental clinic into sexually-crazed zombies. Thanks to the funding he received from the Canadian government, and with Reitman’s help, Cronenberg was able to fully realize his ideas about body horror and the world of sex. In regards to the latter, he was able to examine it in all of its lewd and crazy glory. While Cronenberg would play with the conventions and schematics of what is expected in the horror genre, he would also get the chance to find ways to bring his own language into the film.

Aside from schoolmate Ronald Mlodzik, Cronenberg casted mostly character actors, such including famed horror film actress Barbara Steele, and unknowns in most of the roles. Shot in Nuns’ Island near Montreal, Cronenberg shot the film in an actual building to get a sense of realism. He also hired Joe Blasco to do the makeup and creature special effects, which played up the sense of horror. Blasco’s ultimately heightened the terror in scenes such as when Paul Hampton’s protagonist Dr. Luc tries to save the uninfected only to be overwhelmed in the film’s strange climax.

Shivers premiered in Canada in October of 1975 where it was a major box office hit despite the controversy it evoked over its sexual and violent content. The film gave Cronenberg international attention as won the Best Director prize at the 1975 Sitges Film Festival in Spain. The film was released in the U.S. a year later under the title They Came From Within and was shown in double-features with horror exploitation films. Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert wasn’t fully impressed with the film but acknowledged that it had something that was different from most of the horror films of the time.

Rabid

Rabid (review)

The success of Shivers allowed Cronenberg and Reitman the chance to make a film with not just a bigger budget but also one that focused on one person rather than an ensemble. This time the story centered on a woman, Rose, who wakes up after a motorcycle accident lands her in surgery. Unknowingly creates a zombie epidemic across Canada as a result of the parasitic orifice she is carrying under her armpit. Cronenberg retained most of the people he had worked with in his previous film while getting Frank Moore to play the role of the protagonist’s boyfriend Hart. For the lead role of Rose, Cronenberg and Reitman wanted American actress Sissy Spacek for the role but the studio said no they figured she would be too expensive. Especially since Brian de Palma’s Carrie was to come out just as Rabid film was to go into production. Ivan Reitman eventually came up the very radical idea of convincing Cronenberg to cast porn actress Marilyn Chambers in the lead role as she was eager to get into mainstream films.

Much of the production was shot in Montreal where Cronenberg was able to take advantage of shooting on location. Due to her limitations as an actress, Cronenberg worked closely with Chambers to help her get in touch with the role. Both he and Joe Blasco decided to take more chances with the makeup and horror effects, including the design of the orifice that would come out of Chambers’ left armpit. Cronenberg also amped up the elements of sex and violence in the film as well. The film features a sequence where Santa Claus gets shot and killed by a soldier during a zombie attack at a mall.

Rabid premiered in the spring of 1977 where it got a mixed reception from critics but was very popular with fans of horror. The idea of having Marilyn Chambers in a film was a major selling point and helped the film to do well at the box office. The film would mark the end of Cronenberg’s collaboration with Reitman as the two decided to amicably part ways with Reitman wanting to become a filmmaker himself. He eventually carved out his own successful career by directing many memorable comedies in the 80s, as well as being a producer for many other projects.

Fast Company

Fast Company (review)

Following his split with Reitman, Cronenberg met with Canadian film producer Peter O’Brian about a project that Cronenberg could possibly helm. The film was Fast Company, a B-movie revolving around a veteran drag racer who spars with his crooked manager over business and racing politics. Cronenberg decided to take the job as a work-for-hire director partly due to his love for cars.

The cast would include some notable figures in American films such as William Smith, John Saxon, and Playboy model Claudia Jennings in her final role (she would die of a car crash in late 1979). The film as featured Canadian actor Nicholas Campbell who would become one of Cronenberg’s company of actors. The production was largely set in Edmonton and parts of western Canada in order to replicate a look similar to the American Northwest. Cronenberg knew that the film had to be a cut above the most B-movie pictures made about cars. He strived to create an authentic atmosphere feel to his view of the world of the drag racing.

During the production, Cronenberg worked with various individuals who not only became important collaborators but who would also help him refine his work as a filmmaker. Among these individuals included cinematographer Mark Irwin, editor Ronald Sanders, sound editor/recordist Bryan Day, and art director Carol Spier. Fast Company premiered in March of 1979 where it got some good reviews and was a hit with audiences of exploitation and drive-in films. The film is often considered by many to be the “strange film” amongst all of Cronenberg’s canon.

The Brood

The Brood (review)

While trying to find new projects, before landing Fast Company, Cronenberg’s personal life was in disarray as his marriage to Margaret Hindson was disintegrating. The two were locked in a custody battle over their daughter Cassandra. The tumultuous period in Cronenberg’s life inspired him to write a project that was based on the turmoil of his first marriage. He re-fashioned it into a horror story about a man fighting his mentally-troubled wife for the custody of their daughter while a series of mysterious murders by deformed child-like killers are happening.

The Brood was not just about a man fighting for his daughter’s safety but also an exploration into mental illness. The film documents how a woman’s suppressed rage and emotional traumas start to surface through a renowned doctor’s controversial treatment that unfortunately has gone out of control. During that period when Cronenberg was writing The Brood he was in a relationship with Carolyn Zeifman, who would become his second wife and the mother of their two kids Caitlin and Brandon. Cronenberg met up with Canadian producer Victor Solnicki, who had been a fan of Cronenberg’s previous work, who agreed to fund his ambitious but intriguing horror film.

With the exception of Ronald Sanders who was unable to take part in the production, Cronenberg gathered his new team of collaborators to be part of the project. Music composer Howard Shore, who had been the musical director of Saturday Night Live, became the newest member of Cronenberg’s stable of collaborators. Shore welcomed the chance to score a film and ended up being one of Cronenberg’s most important personnel for much of the director’s career.

Filmed in late 1978 in parts of Toronto as well as Mississauga in Ontario, Cronenberg enlisted the services of British actors Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar to play Dr. Hal Raglin and Nola Carveth respectively. Nicholas Campbell played the small role of Raglin’s assistant, while Cronenberg got Art Hindle to play Nola’s husband Frank, who is fighting Nola over custody of their daughter. He got makeup artists Dennis Pike and Jack H. Young to create the look of the deformed children and the lymphoma bumps that appear in some of the characters. All of which would play into a troubling climax where Frank confronts Nola only to realize what she and the brood that she created have become.

The film premiered in late May of 1979 in the U.S. and arrived in Canada days later. The Brood received mixed reviews from critics who were shocked by the film’s violence and the infamous scenes like Nola licking her fetus. The film did manage to become a major hit with fans of horror and the new wave of emerging horror filmmakers such as John Carpenter and Wes Craven were arriving as they would all help redefine the world of horror films.

Scanners

Scanners (review)

The success of The Brood allowed Cronenberg the chance to get more financing and support for his next horror film. This time around, it delved into the world of people with telekinetic and telepathic powers in a classic good versus evil scenario. Cronenberg immediately started work on the project and gathered his collaborators to take a film that would be a bit more ambitious than The Brood.

The film’s cast included Stephen Lack, Jennifer O’Neill, Patrick McGoohan, Lawrence Dane, and Michael Ironside. Lack and Ironside played dueling scanners who are trying to find each other. With everything in place, Cronenberg wanted more time to work on the script but, due to financing structure under Canadian law, Cronenberg had two weeks to finish the script before shooting began. This would create some problems for Cronenberg and his art director Carol Spier who was unable to create the sets needed; forcing Cronenberg to shoot the film on different locations all over Toronto.

The hectic writing and shooting schedule was just one of many problems that Cronenberg had. He also found himself not getting along with some of his cast members during the shoot. Cronenberg would later call the film the most frustrating experience he would have as a filmmaker. He knew that things would have to change if he was to make another film.

Scanners premiered in January of 1981 in the U.S. where it was once again another major hit with horror film fans and did well in the box office. While the critical opinion was mixed, many would later cite it to be one of Cronenberg’s best films. Especially as it contained such iconic images as a head exploding in the duel between its protagonist and antagonist. The film also got some accolades from the Saturn Film Awards for Best International Film as well as Dick Smith’s makeup work. Cronenberg had a hard time dealing with its success as he later saw the film spawn a franchise less than a decade later without his involvement.

Videodrome

Videodrome (review)

After the release of Scanners, Cronenberg took some time off to be with his family. However, he had an idea for a project that would push the themes of horror and sex in the world of both television and cults. The idea featured elements of Cronenberg’s own childhood where he was able to get TV signals from Buffalo, New York in the U.S. and see things that wasn’t supposed to be shown in Canada. The idea was about a television station manager who loses touch with reality upon discovering that his station is carrying signals from another station. This that features extreme depictions of sex and violence.

Cronenberg cited the notorious City TV station from Toronto, that was infamous for showing softcore pornography, as the inspiration for aspects of the fictional Civic TV station. He even named one of its characters after City TV’s owner Moses Znaimer, though Cronenberg claimed that his protagonist Max Renn was not based on Znaimer. Cronenberg also based various characters on his own experiences being interviewed by talk show host like Dini Petty. One of the characters, Niki Brand, was based on a woman who had interviewed Cronenberg years ago. He admitted his attractions towards her by making her an object of desire for Max Renn.

American actor James Woods was cast in the role of Max Renn and Cronenberg decided to get Blondie vocalist Deborah Harry for the role of Nikki Brand. It was a major coup as Harry wanted to act despite her inexperience and needed a break from the band that was in disarray at the time. Cronenberg rounded out the cast with the likes of Sonja Smits and Leslie Carlson. Cronenberg also hired the famed special effects makeup artist Rick Baker to do some the design work in the makeup.

Shooting began in October of 1981 in Toronto as Cronenberg would spend time re-writing and adding new material to the film while shooting. Cronenberg wanted to push the ideas of sex and violence in the film. He included a fantasy torture scene where Max whips Nikki, as well as scenes where fantasy and reality begin to blur. All of which is based on the mysterious videotapes Max watches that feature graphic depictions of sexual torture. The images seep into Max’s mind in very terrifying ways causing disturbing visions such as the vaginal-like hole in his stomach.

With Rick Baker’s help in creating some of the makeup effects, the film added something new that was unexpected in the realm of horror. Many of which played into Cronenberg’s fascination with body horror like when Renn’s hand would suddenly look more fleshy in the form of a gun. Since the third act has Renn trying to fight against what he had been wanting, Videodrome is essentially a classic man versus machine scenario. Cronenberg blurs the ideas of reality and fiction by creating a film within a film called Samurai Dreams. The result showcased elements of surrealism as Renn tries to fight against the unseen foes that he faces.

While shooting officially ended in December of 1981, additional work was done in March of 1982 which led to a lengthy post-production period. Cronenberg would also deal with censors from Canada and MPAA in the U.S. over what to cut and such. He finally released the film in February of 1983 where it once again got a very polarizing reaction from critics. Screening were very limited as audiences were unsure of what to think. The film was an unfortunate disappointment in the box office yet it would manage to gain ground through the advent of home video. This helped the film to become a cult classic. The film would also get a critical re-evaluation over the years as many would cite it as one of Cronenberg’s best films and one of the definitive films of the horror genre.

Dead Zone

The Dead Zone (review)

The attention that Cronenberg had been receiving for his work in horror got him noticed by various U.S studios and big-time producers like the famed Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis. De Laurentiis wanted Cronenberg to helm an adaptation of Stephen King’s 1979 novel The Dead Zone about a man who wakes up from a five-year coma and learns he has psychic powers. Cronenberg agreed to take the project after John Badham had dropped out. Since Howard Shore was unable to take part in the project as Cronenberg got American composer Michael Kamen to handle the score.

During the casting process for the film, Cronenberg gained another new collaborator in Deirdre Bowen as she would become his casting director for the rest of his career. Bowen’s aid in casting gave Cronenberg more time to focus on the story with screenwriter Jeffrey Boam. Bowen’s contributions gave Cronenberg a cast that was to die for. Christopher Walken was given the lead role of Johnny Smith while Brooke Adams, Herbert Lom, Tom Skerrit, and Martin Sheen filled out the supporting roles.

The Dead Zone the first time Cronenberg made a film based on a novel. He relished making a film that explored his fascination with horror as well as the psychic powers that Smith deals with. A notable example of the latter being the premonitions about the future that Smith has. The visions relate to a political candidate’s campaign which he must stop him. Though the film didn’t contain many of the gruesome elements that Cronenberg had displayed in previous films, it still maintained an air of suspense that was part of Cronenberg’s oeuvre. The film ended being a drama that was not only engaging but also provided Christopher Walken with one of his best performances.

The film premiered in October of 1983 where it was a major critical and commercial hit for Cronenberg. The Dead Zone maintained Cronenberg’s status as one of the best filmmakers in the horror genre and showed that there was more to him outside of the genre. The film even spawned a TV series in the 2000s that starred Anthony Michael Hall as Johnny Smith. Christopher Walken would reprise a variation of the part in his numerous appearances on Saturday Night Live which only added to the film’s legacy.

The Fly

The Fly (review)

The success of The Dead Zone, and a growing reputation of being one of cinema’s great storytellers in horror, gave Cronenberg the chance to tackle anything he wanted. At one point, George Lucas considered to have him helm Return of the Jedi which he turned down as he was attached to an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story called We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, which eventually became Total Recall. He was also approached by producer Stuart Cornfield and filmmaker Mel Brooks about doing a remake of the 1958 film The Fly that was based on George Langelaan’s short story.

Cronenberg initially said no to the project but changed his mind when things stalled during the developing of Total Recall. Cronenberg did some re-writes on Charles Edward Pogue’s script, while focused on a story about a man losing his humanity due to an experiment that went wrong. While Cronenberg did a lot of the work in making the script be more terrifying, he wanted the Writers Guild of America to ensure that Pogue got credit for writing the script since Cronenberg felt that gave him ideas on how to tell the story.

Cronenberg got Chris Walas and Stephen Dupuis to do the special effects makeup work on the film. They worked hard to show the de-evolution of its protagonist Seth Brundle. Walas did a lot of the design work on the Brundlefly hybrid with Dupuis helping out on the evolution of the makeup. Goldblum’s evolution as Brundle required five hours a day of makeup to get the transformation just right.

For the casting, Cronenberg chose Jeff Goldblum for the role of Seth Brundle, Geena Davis as Brundle’s love interest in Veronica Quaife, and John Getz played the role of Quaife’s former lover/editor Stathis Borans. Cronenberg did a good job of playing into Goldblum’s approach to humor, while using Davis to bring a dramatic arc to the story. Since their characters are the heart and soul of the film, it added a layer of horror and tragedy to the film. Cronenberg even decided to do a cameo appearance as an obstetrician after being inspired by a meeting he had with filmmaker Martin Scorsese. Cronenberg’s cameo would prove to be fruitful for one of the film’s most terrifying scenes involving a maggot baby.

After lots of rough cuts and test screenings, Cronenberg and 20th Century Fox finally released The Fly in August of 1986 where it was a major hit both critically and commercial. The film grossed $60 million worldwide and garnered a lot of praise for both David Cronenberg and Jeff Goldblum. Chris Walas and Stephen Dupuis won an Academy Award for Best Makeup; while Goldblum won the Best Actor and the film took the Best Horror prize at the Saturn Awards.

Dead Ringers

Dead Ringers (review)

The success of The Fly gave Cronenberg a lot of clout as he had the freedom as a filmmaker and choose whatever project he wanted to do. Cronenberg discovered the novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland as it explored the lives of twin boys who would become doctors. Cronenberg brought in Norman Snider to adapt book and loosely use the lives of identical twin gynecologists Stewart and Cyril Marcus as the template. The Marcus brothers had died due to their addiction to barbiturates.

Cronenberg wanted to create the story about the decline of twin brothers relationship due to where one’s encounter with a drug-addicted actress. To He fused elements of surrealism into the story to play into the decline of the twin brothers. The story would have Cronenberg moving away from gory horror in favor of something more dramatic. Through Dead Ringers he was able to explore the extremities of sex as it relates to a twin’s relationship with this troubled actress.

Cronenberg wanted Robert de Niro to play the dual roles of twins Beverly and Elliot Mantle, but de Niro said no as he was uncomfortable with the script. Cronenberg also approached William Hurt who also declined. British actor Jeremy Irons accepted the part in the role of the Mantle brothers and Genevieve Bujold was cast as the troubled actress Claire Niveau. Cronenberg gathered his usual crew for the production with the exception of cinematographer Mark Irwin who was unable to take part due to shooting a remake of The Blob.

Cronenberg enlisted the services of British cinematographer Peter Suschitzky to shoot the film in Irwin’s place. Suschitzky brought a new visual palettes for Cronenberg that played perfectly into the relationship of the Mantle twins as they would fall apart emotionally, physically, and mentally. The latter being shown through Beverly Mantle’s descent into madness as he becomes obsessed with creating strange tools over abnormal body parts. Cronenberg brought in the artist H.R. Giger to draw up designs of the surgical tools that Beverly used.

Dead Ringers premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 1988 and was released in the U.S. later that month. While it didn’t match the critical/commercial reception of The Fly, the film was still well-received by critics and fans. The film won Canada’s highest prize, a Genie for Best Picture, and Jeremy Irons received major critics awards from New York and Chicago. The film would also mark an end of sorts for Cronenberg. He was moving away from the genre that had given him lots of attention to embark on new challenges over the next decade.

(Part 2)


© thevoid99 2013.