David Cronenberg might single-handedly be responsible for more sleepless nights than any other director. The Toronto-based auteur cut his teeth with terrifying low-budget horror films in the 1970s and early '80s that included parasites (Shivers), mad psychiatrists (The Brood), and exploding heads (Scanners). He was then able to secure more money and bigger names for unsettling sci-fi thrillers Videodrome and The Dead Zone and scored a critical- and commercial hit with an even more classic remake of horror classic The Fly. He was also responsible for the taut psychological drama Dead Ringers, which focused on the horrors within the human mind, as embodied by a pair of twin gynecologists (superbly played by Jeremy Irons). While that film may not have had the blood and guts of his earlier movies, the mental unraveling of his lead characters is perhaps the most terrifying visual in his entire oeuvre.
Never one to be pigeonholed, Cronenberg has taken on a variety of challenges: the film version of the Broadway hit M. Butterfly, a stellar telling of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, the twisted mystery of Spider, studies of obsession in 1996's Crash, and, well, whatever the heck eXistenZ was. "To me, it's all one thing," the director says with a shrug. "I don't think in terms of genre at all when I'm making a movie. That's a marketing question, not a creative question."
On this bright September morning, Cronenberg is ensconced in a bare hotel room discussing what is perhaps his most marketable film yet: an adaptation of John Wagner and Vince Locke's graphic novel A History of Violence. Starring Viggo Mortensen as a small-town husband and father who may or may not have been a brutal mobster, Violence is playing at the Toronto Film Festival, a venue that has a special place in the director's heart. "The response in Toronto still remains the best," he says of his hometown. But he's quick to point out that he hasn't always received glowing reviews. "M. Butterfly opened the festival years ago and wasn't well-received," he admits. "So they're predisposed to like my films, but if they don't…they let you know. So I don't take it for granted."
Judging by the rapturous response Violence received from the sold-out crowd in the 2,800-seat Roy Thomson Hall, Cronenberg can breathe easy. The film, written by Josh Olson, features breathtaking performances from Ed Harris, William Hurt, Maria Bello, and leading man Mortensen, who proves beyond a doubt he doesn't need wizards or elves to carry a film. The film begins as a portrait of a close-knit community where café owner Tom Stall (Mortensen) lives a happily unexamined life. Things begin to unravel when Harris' thug comes to town, convinced Tom is a former associate, which raises doubt in the minds of those who think they know him. The film explores the typical Cronenbergian question of man's duality: Whether it's Seth Brundle morphing into The Fly or the good/evil sides of deranged gynecologists in Dead Ringers, there is always more than meets the eye.
Still, on the surface, the fairly straightforward drama might seem an odd choice for the filmmaker—to everyone but him, that is. "I don't really put limitations on myself," he says. "Some people think I have a checklist of things that I have to have in a project before I'll do it: body portals, insane doctor, and so forth. But in fact I'm always willing to let something take me by surprise and tell me that it wants me to do it." Cronenberg says he frequently receives projects, such as horror films, that people assume he'll want to do; they couldn't be further off. "With History of Violence, there was something about its iconic simplicity that also revealed a kind of complexity," he continues. "When I go into a movie, I don't really have an agenda or a statement I'm trying to make. It's really more like an exploration for myself to see what comes out, and I invite the audience to have the same meditative experience."
Though the film feels classically American, it was shot in the countryside outside Toronto, in a farmhouse owned by the same family for 80 years. At $32 million, it was Cronenberg's highest budget to date, though he confesses that amount is probably nothing compared to most studio pictures. But because of the cost, he knew he had to attach actors who were seen as bankable. "You can't go with unknowns at that budget, you need an actor of a certain level," he says. "Viggo was always on my list, and he rapidly rose to the top. Everyone has their own idea about who's right for a role, and it frequently has nothing to do with acting. It has to do with people's idea of who opens a movie and who people will go to see. And that's sort of voodoo, because nobody really knows. Every actor has had a flop, even big stars."
Cronenberg says Mortensen didn't have to audition for the part; instead the director felt as if he was the one trying out. "I flew to L.A. to meet him and talk to him and to basically try to seduce him into doing the movie," he explains. Once Mortensen signed on, Cronenberg went about filling out the other roles. He had gone to dinner with Bello when she was in Toronto shooting Assault on Precinct 13; he knew she was a candidate to play the strong-willed wife but had to lock down his lead first. "You're like a dating service, you're putting these couples together even though they've never met," he says. "You don't really have a chance to see them in a room together before you have them on the set, so you have to be pretty intuitive about their chemistry."
Landing heralded actors such as Hurt and Harris proved easier than one might expect. "William and Ed had both worked with my sister, who's a costume designer, and they had both told her they would really like to work with me and to please let [me] know," Cronenberg says, chuckling. "This is one of the good things about having family working in the business." Cronenberg had come close to working with Hurt once before, when the director was attached to the sci-fi film Total Recall. "I wanted William for the lead in that movie, and that's when I first met him," he reveals. "As the character in History of Violence developed in the script, I was thinking, 'I don't want this guy to be just another tough guy. He really has to deliver a whole little universe in this scene. I really need someone unexpected and brilliant.'"
It's no surprise actors would line up to work with Cronenberg: Even in his early films he developed a reputation as an actor's director. "I think it started, for a lot of critics, with The Dead Zone; I think that's when they started to realize I actually could direct actors very well," Cronenberg says of the 1983 adaptation of Stephen King's book that starred Christopher Walken. "I always thought I worked well with actors, but it takes awhile for people to catch on, because in those low-budget horror films I did, they're heavily weighted toward spending time with the effects and crashes and gunshots and whatever else, and you don't get a lot of time to work with the actors on the dialogue."
He points out that male fans of low-budget horror films prefer campy performances. "They want the acting to be bad; it sort of tickles and pleases them, and they want everything to be like Plan 9 From Outer Space," he says. "So when the acting is rather good, as it was with Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar in The Brood, they repress that. Suddenly, with The Dead Zone, it was, 'Wait a minute, this is good acting with a good cast.' But I always thought I was doing that. It's just that as your budgets go up, you literally have more time to spend with the actors."
Cronenberg has dabbled in acting with roles in some of his own films and small parts in movies such as To Die For and Jason X. He also had a sizable role in Clive Barker's Nightbreed, though he probably won't be doing something like that again anytime soon. "I went away for three months to London to do that," he says. "That's living the actor's life, and it's difficult to do." Asked if his on-camera experience has given him more sympathy for what his actors go through, he says, "It's not exactly sympathy: It's an understanding of what the experience of acting is. You're only 10 feet away from where you are as a director, but what you're doing is completely different. As a director, nobody cares what you look like: You can have a cold sore, you can have a cough. When you're an actor, you are your body. That's your instrument. Your posture, your voice, your clothes, your makeup—that's not vanity, that's what you're working with. It gives you a visceral understanding of how vulnerable you are in front of the camera."
As an actor, Cronenberg values two things: collaboration and feedback. "You like to know that the director is watching what you're doing and responding to it," he says. "That doesn't just mean approval; you want to know that you're being observed. It seems like a simple thing, but sometimes directors leave their actors floundering in limbo, and they don't give them any feedback at all. [Actors] don't know whether they're doing a good thing, a bad thing, or nothing. It also makes them worry that the director doesn't even notice what they're doing."
The director has taken his actors to dark places, but he claims he's never had any difficulty guiding them. "The actors who are afraid of it just say no," he reasons. "I famously went to 30 of America's best actors for Dead Ringers, and none of them wanted to do it. The list is endless. Jeremy was the first who said yes, and he happened to be the first non-American I went to. It's like James Spader: There was no fear in his performance in Crash; he was attracted to it. The guys who are afraid will say no right away, and there's never a question after that." BSW