The Auteurs: David Cronenberg (Part 2)
Part 2 (1991-Present)
Naked Lunch (review)
David Cronenberg arrived into the 1990s looking for a fresh start after a decade of films largely devoted to the horror genre. He felt it was time to venture into different territories and expand his range as a filmmaker. Having been a fan of the works of writers like William S. Burroughs, Cronenberg had ambitions about wanting to do an adaptation of Burroughs’ famed 1959 novel Naked Lunch which explores a man’s drug addiction.
Cronenberg knew that making a straightforward adaptation of the novel wouldn’t be enough as fans of the book had high expectations. Knowing a lot about Burroughs’ own life, Cronenberg decided to put in elements of Burroughs’ real life, including the shooting of his own wife, into the story. This allowed him to explore the mind of a troubled drug addict who goes to Tangiers and becomes a spy. Having met producer Jeremy Thomas in 1981, where Cronenberg had originally expressed interest in doing an adaptation of Naked Lunch, the two met where Cronenberg presented his adapted script. Thomas and Gabriella Martinelli decided to produce the film as it appealed to Thomas’ love of daring projects.
Gathering his team of collaborators that included cinematographer Peter Suchitzky, editor Ronald Sanders, production designer Carol Spier, costume designer Denise Cronenberg, sound mixer/editor Bryan Day, music composer Howard Shore, and casting director Deirdre Bowen. Cronenberg had hoped to make the film in Tunisia in order to have some cinematic authenticity. For the casting, Cronenberg and Bowen selected Peter Weller in the lead role of William Lee. The supporting cast would also include Ian Holm, Roy Scheider, Julian Sands, and Judy Davis in dual roles as Lee’s wife and the wife of another character.
Plans to shoot in Tunisia in late 1990/early 1991 was scrapped due to the emergence of the Gulf War in Iraq; forcing Cronenberg to shoot the production on soundstages in Toronto. To evoke a sense of Tangiers’ ever-changing 1950s, Carol Spier and her team created lavish sets. Cronenberg also created some strange things, such as a bug typewriter and creatures, to play into the surreal elements that William Lee encounters as his addiction become more uncontrollable.
The film was released in limited art-house theatres late December of 1991 as it was too strange to be released to the mainstream. While it got some good reviews, there were those who were baffled by Cronenberg’s deconstructed approach to the story. Even fans of Burrough’s work were upset over the film. Naked Lunch was a commercial disappointment grossing over $2 million against its $17-$18 million budget. Still, the film managed to win over some who praised the film for being daring and different. The film received accolades from the New York Film Critics, winning prizes for its screenplay and Judy Davis’ supporting performance.
M. Butterfly (review)
When a chance to helm Basic Instinct didn’t work out, Cronenberg, wanted to do something that was completely left-field from everything else he had done. He was approached by Jeremy Thomas and Gabriella Martinelli in doing a project that definitely seemed unlikely for Cronenberg to helm. The project was an adaptation of David Henry Hwang’s acclaimed 1988 play M. Butterfly, loosely based on the homosexual relationship between French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and Peking opera singer Shi Pei Pu.
With Jeremy Irons playing the role of Rene Gallimard and John Lone as Song Liling, the film was set in the 1960s during a crucial period in China’s history. Cronenberg gathered his crew and headed to China to shoot the film. It marked the first time he shot a film outside of Canada. Since David Henry Hwang adapted his play for the screen, he explore the relationship between two men from the perspective where Gallimard is unaware that Liling is a man adding an element of suspense to the story.
Cronenberg wanted to keep things simple since he was creating a cinematic version of Hwang’s play. While there were element of suspense, the film unfortunately raised a lot of questions as Hwang’s script didn’t do enough to answer some big questions in regards to relationship between Gallimard and Liling. One aspect of the story that Cronenberg and Hwang exclude from Hwang’s play was some of the political overtones. Fans of the play felt this took away some of the story’s complexity.
The film was released in October of 1993 where it received a very mixed reaction from audiences and critics. While Jeremy Irons and John Lone received excellent notices, the film was a major commercial disappointment for Cronenberg and producer Jeremy Thomas. Still, the film gave Cronenberg a chance to do something different even if it wasn’t a success.
During a three-year break between films, Cronenberg decided to make a few acting appearances in film, the most famous of which his cameo appearance as a mob hitman in Gus Van Sant’s 1995 film To Die For. Along with appearances for films like The Stupids for John Landis, and Extreme Measures for Michael Apted, Cronenberg was looking for a new project to get him back in the world of directing. He eventually came across J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash about a group of people who are turned on sexually by violent car crashes. The novel was definitely one of the most controversial pieces of literature and had a cult following with people from the fetishistic and sadomasochism scene. The book even fad fans in as well in the post-punk electronic scene with 70s British acts like the Normals and Gary Numan singing its praises.
Cronenberg knew the subject itself was controversial yet relished in the idea of making the film. Cronenberg decided to make some changes in the script to update aspects of the story so it focused more on a couple’s fascination with being sexually aroused. At the heart of the story is this marriage between James and Catherine Ballard who have an open marriage yet have a hard time trying to find sexual fulfillment; that is until they encounter a trio of people who are turned on by car crashes. At one point James even attends a re-enactment of a famous car crash that killed James Dean with stunt drivers. Still, the Ballards’ desire of sexual fulfillment goes too far as it becomes clear that the most extreme gratification in a situation like this is death.
Cronenberg and Deirdre Bowen assembled a small yet brilliant cast for the film. James Spader played film producer James Ballard while Deborah Kara Unger portrayed his wife Catherine. Elias Koteas was cast as the mysterious Vaughan, Holly Hunter got the part of Dr. Helen Remington and Rosanna Arquette played the role of Gabrielle. All of the actors were aware that taking part in film required them to do nudity and possibly a few dangerous stunts. They knew it would be a demanding shoot yet they trusted Cronenberg he would do the subject matter justice.
With the film’s sexual content, Cronenberg knew that he needed to push the boundaries as many of his actors were going to do some intense sex scenes. In one scene Rosanna Arquette’s Gabrielle character gets a vaginal-like gash on one of her thighs which only adds to the disturbing nature of sex scene on a car. Cronenberg also wanted to go into absolute extremes in the way car crashes were presented. The crashes were very visceral and violent and emphasized people’s inherent attraction to extreme violence.
Crash made its premiere at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival where it got a wild reaction over its sexual and violent content. The film won the Special Jury Prize yet Cronenberg knew that it was going to provoke a reaction whether positive or negative. The critical reaction was extremely polarizing as some, l like Roger Ebert, loved it while there were those, like British film critic Christopher Tookey, who hated it. While it would get a theatrical release in Canada in late 1996 and in Britain in early 1997, as well as slightly re-edited version in the U.S. to avoid the NC-17 rating. Though it didn’t do well commercially, the controversy and attention it received did prove that Cronenberg could still provoke a reaction.
After fifteen years of doing films based on the works of other people, Cronenberg felt it was time to return to working on his own material. In the mid-1990s, Cronenberg met author Salman Rushdie for a magazine interview and got an idea for a film from observing the dilemma Rushdie was dealing with over his book The Satanic Verses. Cronenberg decided to create something that was multi-layered by setting it in the world of virtual-reality video games.
The project would be a return of sorts to Cronenberg’s early body horror works but also a commentary on humanity’s emphasis on technology. It would revolved around a virtual game designer and a security guard trying to protect a new game the designer made in a world where game pods can be attached to people’s bodies. The game designer finds himself in the middle of a war between pro-realists and anti-reality game groups who all want her new game. Cronenberg decided to create an alternate reality within an alternate reality. The characters had to recite very wooden and cheesy dialogue as if they were in a video game, giving the story a complexity that was unique.
For the lead roles of game designer Allegra Gellar and security guard Ted Pikul, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law respectively got the parts. The rest of the ensemble would include Willem Dafoe, Ian Holm, Christopher Eccleston, Don McKellar, Sarah Polley, Callum Keith Rennie, Kris Lemche, and Robert A. Silverman. Many of the actors got to play different versions of their characters in the surreal and alternate realities of the film.
Cronenberg brought in visual effects designer James Isaac to design the worlds of the alternate reality where things feel like a game. Carol Spier and Cronenberg did extensive work on the game pods that looked like body parts. It all adds to a world that technology cause people to lose track of reality in favor of something that is artificial. Still, Cronenberg knew that things weren’t going to be easy as the film ends on an ambiguous note. Are the characters still in a game or are they back in reality.
eXistenZ premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in early 1999 where it was well-received as Cronenberg won the Silver Bear prize for artistic contribution. The film was later released in April of that year in the U.S., Canada, and in Britain but didn’t do well in the box office. Yet, the film gained a following of fans of who often think it’s one of his most overlooked films. It also gained praise from gamers who felt that Cronenberg had made something that was unique.
Camera (scroll to the bottom to watch)
For the 25th Anniversary of the Toronto International Film Festival, Cronenberg was one of many Canadian filmmakers who is asked to make a short film for the festival’s Preludes short films series. Cronenberg brought in Leslie Carlson, who had acted in some of Cronenberg’s films to appear in the six-minute short called Camera. The short had a simple premise in which an actor laments over the state of cinema with great disdain while a bunch of kids, who find a camera and film equipment, prepare to make a film with the actor. While it’s a short that doesn’t really feature a lot of attributes of Cronenberg’s work, the film did give Cronenberg the chance to make beautiful art without the of relying gore or violence.
Wanting to make another detour from his usual work in sex and violence, Cronenberg became interested in making a film adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s 1990 novel Spider. The premise was about a mentally-ill man trying to recollect his memories about the disappearance of his mother as he is taken to a halfway house. The book had a lot of complexities that wasn’t just an exploration of a man’s mental illness but also what might have triggered his descent into madness. Cronenberg contacted McGrath about adapting the novel, and McGrath agreed to write the script for the film.
In order to be faithful to McGrath’s story, Cronenberg decided to have the film be shot on location in London. Filling in for Carol Spier was production design Andrew Sanders who would help create old 1950s homes and pubs. The sets were a key aspect to film as it play to Spider’s confusion between the past and present.
For the role of the titular character, Ralph Fiennes was chosen while Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson played his parents. The cast also include John Neville and Lynn Redgrave, who played Spider’s caretaker Mrs. Wilkinson. In order to keep the film’s $10 million budget low, Cronenberg, Fiennes, Richardson, and the producers all decided to waive their salaries since they knew they weren’t going to get any additional funding.
Spider premiered at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, but took several months for the film to get distribution. It was finally released in Canada in late December of that year, and released in Britain and the U.S. in early 2003. Though it was only given a limited release, the film still managed to attract a lot of critical attention for Fiennes and Richardson’s performances. Cronenberg also received praise from many critics and fans who cite it as one of his finest works.
A History of Violence (review)
After a period of moving back and forth from straight dramas to more extreme films, Cronenberg searched for a project that balanced both aspects of drama and themes of violence. Cronenberg found it in the form of a graphic novel called A History of Violence by Vince Locke and John Wagner. The story explored a family man’s past coming back to haunt him after he becomes a hero for saving his restaurant from robbers. The film wouldn’t just explore a man trying to hide his past but also the strain that violence on his family.
Josh Olson’s script allowed Cronenberg to create a story that was much looser than the graphic novel intended. It focused on not just a family dealing with the dark past of their patriarch but also the forces of men who are after him. While Olson stayed true to much of the novel’s first half in terms of its narrative, he and Cronenberg agreed that its use of flashbacks wouldn’t work. Olson and Cronenberg also made some other changes including making the mob Irish instead of Italian.
The film’s cast would include Viggo Mortensen in the lead role of Tom Stall along with Maria Bello as his wife Edie, Ashton Holmes as their son Jack, Heidi Hayes as their young daughter Sarah, and Ed Harris as the mysterious hitman Carl Fogarty who believes that Tom is really a man named Joey Cusack. Cronenberg also got William Hurt to play a key role in late in the third act.
The film saw Cronenberg exploring different spectrums on the idea of sex. The first sex scene between Tom and Edie is very innocent and playful as Edie wears a cheerleader uniform to seduce Tom. In the film’s third act where Tom finally confesses to Edie who he really is, they have a very intense sex on the stairway to showcase the state of conflict in Tom. The film’s ending had this uncertainty to it where Cronenberg once again wanted to return to the Stall family where it becomes clear that things will never be the same again.
The film made its premiere at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival where it was given a great reception from critics and audiences. While Cronenberg did trim down the violence for its U.S. release, the film gave Cronenberg not just some of the best reviews of his career but also his biggest commercial hit since The Fly. Cronenberg won some critics prizes from Toronto, the National Society of Film Critics, and the Online Critics circle for Best Director. A lot of praise also went to William Hurt’s supporting performance as he and screenwriter Josh Olson both received Oscar nominations.
At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World (review)
For the 60th Anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival in 2007, Cronenberg was asked by festival organizer Gilles Jacob to take part in an anthology film project along with many other filmmakers to create a three-minute segment to express their love for cinema. Cronenberg’s found him playing a version of himself as if he was in the last cinema in the world while openly stating his Jewish background and preparing to commit suicide. The short was one of the most engaging pieces of the anthology film. It was very shocking and proved that Cronenberg could still provoke regardless of length.
The short can be seen here.
Eastern Promises (review)
The success of A History of Violence gave Cronenberg the chance to do another project with Viggo Mortensen. This time it was a Russian mob drama set in London from screenwriter Steven Knight. The film explored a mob chauffer who meets, and teams up with, a nurse to save a child from the mob. There was also a subplot involving the chaos within the mob as the chauffer tries to climb the ranks.
With Mortensen playing the role of Nikolai Luzhin, the cast would include British-Australian actress Naomi Watts as the nurse Anna, Vincent Cassell as Kirill, and Armin Mueller-Stahl as the mob boss/Kirill’s father Semyon. The rest of the cast would feature a mixture of British and Eastern European actors as Cronenberg and his crew went around London to explore some of the sections where people of Russian descent live. Cronenberg, his sister/costume designer Denise, and production designer Carol Spier all wanted to ensure that they kept things authentic so that it would give audiences an idea of how Russians lived and maintained their culture in London.
While the film did feature elements of violence, Cronenberg chooses to restrain much of that in order to focus on the drama. He would display a sense of brutality in one of the film’s most talked about sequences. The scene involved Nikolai at a bathhouse where he is attacked by a rival Chechen-mob group. It involved Mortensen having to viciously fight some guys while naked. Cronenberg does not censor or underplay the scene in order to showcase the brutality of Nikolai’s fight for survival.
Eastern Promises premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2007 where it won the Audience prize. It was released in the U.S., Canada, and Britain later that month and became another critical and commercial hit. The film even made many critic’s polls as one of the ten best films of the year. Eastern Promises received also got some Golden Globe nominations for Best Dramatic film, Best Actor in a Drama for Viggo Mortensen, and for Howard Shore’s score. Mortensen also got an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, proving that the Cronenberg-Mortensen collaboration was a working formula.
A Dangerous Method (review)
Cronenberg reunited with producer Jeremy Thomas for a project that was based on John Kerr’s non-fiction novel A Most Dangerous Method: The story of Jung, Freud, & Sabrina Spielrein that was later adapted by Christopher Hampton for a play in 2002 called The Talking Cure. Its story explored Carl Jung’s relationship with his patient Sabrina Spielrein who later became a renowned psychoanalyst. Their bond created a schism in Jung’s relationship with Sigmund Freud.
Viggo Mortensen was picked to play the role of Sigmund Freud when Cronenberg’s choice for Austrian actor Christoph Waltz to play the role was hampered due to scheduling conflicts. Christian Bale was in talks to play Carl Jung but he too ended up not being on board due to scheduling conflicts, so German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender was chosen to play the role. British actress Keira Knightley was cast as Sabrina Spielrein while Vincent Cassel got the part of Otto Gross, who challenges Jung’s view on sexuality and other things. For the role of Jung’s wife Emma, Cronenberg and casting director Deidre Bowen discovered Canadian actress Sarah Gadon, who would become one of Cronenberg’s regular actors.
Cronenberg worked closely with his actors since both Mortensen and Knightley had to use accents for their performances. Mortensen brought s level of a restraint to his role as Freud, while Knightley had to master the physical challenges needed to play the troubled Spielrein. Fortunately Knightley was not afraid of the physicality which in scenes where she is spanked by Jung. Spielrein’s desire to explore the world of sexual psychology played a key role in the falling out that Jung and Freud had.
A Dangerous Method premiered in September 2011 at the Venice Film Festival and later played at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film got an excellent reception with critics for its drama as well as the performances of Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender. Yet, it also attracted criticism as some were not fond of Keira Knightley’s performance. While the film was given a limited release, it still managed to do well in the box office worldwide giving Cronenberg another hit film.
During the pre-production for A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg was asked to take part in the adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel Cosmopolis. DeLillo’s book explored one day in the life of a 28-year old billionaire whose life goes into a downward spiral as he loses his fortune while stuck in a traffic jam in New York City. Over the course of a day must deal with his desire to get a haircut, a Sufi rapper’s funeral, a president’s visit, and an anti-capitalist riot. Cronenberg was intrigued by the idea and decided to write the script himself which he hadn’t done since 1999’s eXistenZ.
The lead role of Eric Parker originally went to Irish actor Colin Farrell. Unfortunately, Farrell couldn’t take part due to other commitments, so Cronenberg decided to take a major risk for the casting the role. He offered it to British actor Robert Pattinson who was largely known to audiences as Edward Cullen in the critically-maligned yet very popular Twilight film franchise. Sarah Gadon, re-teaming with Cronenberg, took the role Parker’s wife after French actress Marion Cotillard dropped out due to the same reasons as Farrell. The rest of the ensemble featured Samantha Morton, Juliette Binoche, Jay Baruchel, Emily Hampshire, Paul Giamatti, and Matheiu Almaric.
With much of the film set inside a limo, Cronenberg showcased a sense of intimacy and detachment in Parker as he is unaware of how bad his world is falling apart. The people who target him either resent his status or what he stands for. His overall coldness even extends to his marriage which lacks any kind of connection. Parker’s isolation is perfectly captured in his odyssey to his favorite barber which takes up most of the film. It is only in the final minutes which Parker tries to deal with who is after him leading to a very abrupt anticlimax. that unfortunately showcases Cronenberg at his worst and at his most pretentious.
Amidst high anticipation, the film premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival where it got a very polarizing reaction from audiences and critics. Those who enjoyed the film saw it as a satire about the decline of the wealthy. However, there were also those who vehemently hated the film feeling that it was soulless and drab. It wasn’t just Robert Pattinson that received a lot of the criticism but also Cronenberg himself. Some of his biggest fans cited it as his worst film to date. As a result it only made $6 million in limited release against its $20 million budget.
Maps to the Stars
Cronenberg’s next feature film is a project that he had been attached to for several years. Written by Bruce Wagner, film is said to explore a Hollywood acting dynasty and their dysfunctions. The cast would have Cronenberg not just teaming up once again with Robert Pattinson and Sarah Gadon in respective roles as an aspiring actor and a revered actress from the 1960s. The film also stars Julianne Moore, John Cusack, Olivia Williams, and Mia Wasikowska. Maps to the Stars is scheduled for a 2014 release.
Having been making films for nearly 50 years, there is no question about David Cronenberg’s legacy in the world of cinema. He has influenced and inspired many filmmakers such as Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. It is clear that Cronenberg is a filmmaker who is always trying to find new ways to provoke thought and shock no matter what genre he is work in. David Cronenberg is a director like no other, he has a keen eye when it comes exploring the horrific and sensual sides of mankind.
© thevoid99 2013