The term "Cronenbergian" is immediately evocative for those familiar with director David Cronenberg. Usually, the term summons specific unpleasant images, because the director's films tend to establish his preferred themes in visceral terms–sometimes literally visceral. In Rabid, accident victim Marilyn Chambers receives a skin graft that turns phallic and vampiric, infecting victims as it feeds. Obsessed with a telecast of unknown origin, James Woods internalizes his desire in Videodrome, developing a videotape-shaped orifice for private screenings. Working feverishly in Naked Lunch, Peter Weller (as William S. Burroughs) composes on a typewriter that writhes at his touch, turns pliable, and demands a taste of the substances that fuel the author's delirium. Technology shapes the body, the body shapes the world, and the mind often gets dragged along and battered in the wake. But as shocking as they can be, Cronenberg's films never seem intended solely to shock. Even in the high-rise madhouse of Shivers, his first feature, the naked pandemonium and subcutaneous invaders never obscure the philosophical inquiry and social satire. As Cronenberg's career has progressed, he's come to underscore his themes with masterful directorial control and new degrees of emotional richness. His new Spider continues a pattern of seemingly unfilmable book-to-movie adaptations, begun with Naked Lunch and carried on through M. Butterfly and Crash. Taken from Patrick McGrath's script of his own novel, Spider follows Ralph Fiennes as he leaves an asylum for a London halfway house, in which he's forced to reflect on the childhood moment that first sent him away. Recently, Cronenberg spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about why Spider isn't really about mental illness, why he never wanted to be a prophet, and why he doesn't make more movies. (Editor's note: Cronenberg reveals a key plot point about Spider in this interview. A spoiler warning is provided beforehand.)
The Onion: How would you say that Spider fits or doesn't fit the tradition of portraying mental illness in film?
David Cronenberg: My take on this whole movie is that it's not a movie about mental illness. It has a character who is what we would call schizophrenic, although the word is never mentioned. For me, it's a study of the human condition, focusing on a particular character who has a lot of trouble with his life and his past. I never really did a study of movies about mental illness. I don't know that I've seen that many, but I suppose if I listed them in my head, I could probably come up with a lot. I've never even thought about that.
O: The novel, and Patrick McGrath's work in general, tends to take place in a more classically Freudian universe than your own work. Did you find you had to bend at all to fit into this film?
DC: Well, no. I did at one moment say to him, "Okay, Patrick, let's have the Freudian discussion." The Freudian discussion involved my asking him how obsessive he was about maintaining this strict Freudian sub-structure within the movie. And he was not obsessive about it. Because the movie does not hold up as the Oedipus complex. Let me put it this way. I recently read a wonderful book called Why Freud Was Wrong, by Richard Webster. Maybe it's not the greatest title, but it's a fantastic book. He pretty effectively dismantles Freud as a theorist, and a psychologist, and a scientist. Nonetheless, Freud is an important figure in psychology. Even before that, I was not an adherent of the Freudian theory, just from my own experience. All makers of monolithic theories want their theories to explain everything, and they want them to be strong and relatively simple. That's just the way it is, whether you're Marx or Freud or Christ. Freud simplified things, I think, much too much for it to really cover the incredible variety of human nature, human personality, context, and upbringing. I said to Patrick, "As much as I don't want this movie to be a clinical study of schizophrenia, I also don't want it to be a classic Freudian tale." So I messed around with it. But I don't think Patrick's stories were ever perfectly either of those things.
O: Some passages in the novel describe delusions that sound like they could have been inspired by your films, although they didn't make it into the movie itself. Has McGrath watched your work?
DC: I don't know that he did. By the time I met him, he was certainly well aware of it. I hadn't known about him until I saw his script, and then I read a lot of his books. I think not, though. I'm pretty certain, really, that his book came out of his experiences with mental illness in a clinical context. His father was the medical superintendent at the Broadmoor Clinic For The Criminally Insane [a British hospital/prison dating back to the 19th century]. He was raised there, on the grounds. And then he came to Canada and worked at another institute for the criminally insane in Ontario. At that time, he was becoming a follower of R.D. Laing, who was then considered a revolutionary psychiatrist in terms of his understanding of schizophrenia in particular. He wrote The Self And Others. These are things that I read in the '60s. It was all very controversial. I think that Patrick had a great clinical knowledge of schizophrenia, and the symptoms of it, and the dynamics of it. And I think that's where he got all of those things. I don't think it had anything to do with my work at all. All of those things in Patrick's novel are very accurate in terms of the kinds of things that schizophrenics sometimes get into in terms of hallucinations and delusions. I was on a panel with Patrick, and I said what I just said: "I don't want to do a clinical study of schizophrenia." And Patrick would say, "Well, that's exactly what I did want to do when I wrote the novel. In fact, I gave the book to my father to check it for accuracy. To make sure that he, as a psychiatrist who had a great deal of experience with schizophrenia, would read this book and say, 'This is accurate. There's nothing in here that's all theatrical or overdramatic.'" Which his father did. [Warning: spoiler ahead. –ed.] In fact, his father told him that people like Spider do not survive. And that's why the end of the novel got changed by Patrick to have it understood that Spider would kill himself after he finished writing his journal, which is the novel. When I got the screenplay, it had the ending that you've seen–that Spider was not going to commit suicide. Obviously, in thinking of it for the screen, that was [producer] Catherine Bailey's responsibility… I think she might have told him, "Patrick, if you have him kill himself, no one will come see this movie." But that wasn't my doing, and I felt that that was the good ending.
O: He wouldn't be alone among Cronenberg protagonists had he killed himself at the end of the film.
DC: Not at all. [End of spoiler. –ed.] But on the other hand, I don't impose myself on myself. I really don't. I've been saying this to the writers I've been speaking with: "You must not confuse your process with mine." I don't do a survey of my movies and pull out all the themes, and then use this as a checklist to see if the next project covers enough of them to make it be one of my movies.
O: Do you revisit your old movies at all?
DC: No. I don't really watch my films. In fact, if I'm flipping channels and suddenly see one of my movies, I panic and flip past it. There are many reasons for that. There are a lot of actors who don't like to see themselves onscreen, and that's because you're worried you'll see the flaws, and you won't like it, and would rather let it be in the past and memory. Beyond that, I can't really see my movies as movies. I'm too close to them. In fact, they're more like documentaries of what I was doing that day. Every shot, I can remember who was having a temper tantrum that day. Or what problems I was having surrounding it, or where I was, or what the weather was. I can't really see them as movies. I suppose that when I'm in the old-folks' home and I want to remember some things, I could use those as my home movies. But I can't see them as movies and discuss them analytically.
O: Do you think developments in technology have justified the visions of your earlier films?
DC: Well, see, I was never looking for that kind of justification, so I haven't noticed. When people say, "Videodrome is obviously very prophetic," I say, "Being a prophet is not my job. Being an artist is." In sci-fi, there are people like Arthur C. Clarke who love to be able to say, "I predicted satellite systems 40 years before they were invented." And, if you're a hardcore sci-fi techno writer, that would be a triumph. But for me, it's nothing. It's just a little sidebar. In Rabid, I invented something that's coming true now. The whole stem-cell stuff is exactly what I talked about in Rabid, this sort of neutral human tissue that would read the context of where it was placed and become that kind of tissue. That was 26 years ago. But I don't feel like I need recognition from that to… I don't feel that I have to justify myself at all.
O: What do you consider the greatest misconception about your films?
DC: I don't need to be self-aware in that way. In fact, it's kind of counterproductive to be. I know that I open myself to those questions, because I can be very analytical about what I've done, and have been very verbal about it. You know that there are artists, directors, and actors who absolutely want to talk about that kind of stuff. They get too self-conscious, and they'll paralyze themselves. We work so much on instinct. There's a real interplay between intellect and reason in the arts, but so much depends on that instinct. It's all intuition, and if that's not working, you're going to make a dead movie. You can't just work from the analytical part of your mind. That's why I don't really think about those things much. If you ask me that question, the real answer would be that the main misconception is that they're bad, when I think they're great. It's as simple as that. [Laughs.]
O: You are more open to talking about how your films should be viewed than a lot of directors. Martin Scorsese once said that reading interviews with you, he feels that you don't understand your own films. Are you comfortable leaving your films open to multiple readings?
DC: Well, Marty is a Catholic. He believes in the devil. He believes in evil and the apocalypse. I think he thinks that's what my movies are about. And I, as a sort of existentialist atheist, do not believe in those things. So we have a disagreement. But what's nice is that I think that in each case, we're talking about the human condition. Sometimes it's being done through metaphor and dramatic structure, and all of that. We're really–he and I, and all artists, really–are trying to grapple with the strangeness of existing as a human being. That's why I wouldn't say he's wrong. I kind of like that he says stuff like that. But I think I know what he means, and I would say he's wrong. I think I know exactly what… If someone wanted to interpret my movies as Marxist, for example, I would say, "Well, you might want to use them as examples supporting Marxism, but you certainly can't say that I, Cronenberg, am a Marxist, and was trying to promote Marxism through my movies." Because I can say that that's not true. But I can't say, for example–and I'm using this example because I don't think anyone's bothered to say this–that a Marxist critic might not think that my films demonstrate something useful in the cause of Marxism. All of those things are open to discussion, and I would be very interested to read that article.
O: Is there something that attracts you to difficult-to-adapt literary works?
DC: I didn't adapt Spider. Spider came to me as a script where all the hard work had been done by Patrick. I just felt that all I did was subtract, taking things away from his first draft–stuff that I thought didn't work. Maybe it was vestiges left over from the novel. It was only a first draft. In a way, this wasn't an adaptation for me at all. For him it was, but for me it wasn't. I read the novel once and didn't really refer to it again. I guess if I'm going to adapt something, it has to be pretty complex, and it has to be striking to me in some way. It's not as though I seek out difficult things; it's just that I seek out interesting things. And as a writer, I'm always trying to avoid writing and working, so if somebody can rescue me from that by presenting me with a project that I don't have to write, that really is great. This is the thing: You're going to live with it for many years. You're going to be working on a given project, for me, for two years minimum. Maybe three. Sometimes, in the case of Dead Ringers, 10. And then you're going to live with it afterwards, because people will want to talk to you about it. So you'd better love it. You'd better feel enough interest in it, enough complexity and texture and depth that during the course of those years, you're not going to get bored with yourself. That you won't lose heart, and you'll still be excited by it and surprised by it.
O: Are you still interested in adapting something by Philip K. Dick?
DC: I think that there's material in Philip Dick's work to make 100 movies. I'm really quite surprised at how few there have been. If I were really obsessed with it in some way, I would have done it, so I guess I'm not. A couple of his novels would make great movies. But as usual with Dick, as you can see from the movies that have been made from his work, he wasn't a great finisher. He was great at starting and setting up great stuff, but he wrote very quickly. He was a very commercial writer, and he used speed and wrote day and night, and you can read a furor in his writing. You often find people, as with Total Recall… When you have that project, you've got a great beginning, a so-so middle, and no ending. So you have to then find the Philip Dick ending. I think that's one reason more things haven't been made from his writing–even the short stories are kind of limp toward the end. They do require a lot of work to make a solid movie of them.
O: I don't know how much you want to talk about a film that didn't happen, but what would your Basic Instinct sequel have been like?
DC: Fabulous! Oh, sure. Otherwise, I wouldn't have done it. It was a script written by Henry Bean, who directed The Believer, and his wife Leora Barish [writer of Desperately Seeking Susan], and they're very smart. They wrote a really good script, which is the thing nobody can factor in, because they haven't read the script. But the script was very good, and the film would have been a really dark, perverse erotic thriller. I would never have done Basic Instict 1, because I didn't find that very interesting. When I was proposed this, they said, "Don't hang up, I'm going to say Basic Instinct 2. And the next thing is, forget that it's called Basic Instinct 2. Just read it as a dark thriller." It really could have been terrific. I would have surprised people by making a good movie.
O: Do genres interest you at all? Is there a genre you'd like to work in?
DC: I absolutely don't think in terms of genre. I could imagine thinking, "That's a great film I'd like to do," and recognize that it's a horror film. But I don't think in those terms at all. It's another way of putting your mind in a box. For example, when I'm doing Naked Lunch, do I worry about whether it's a horror film, just because it has special effects? Or Dead Ringers–which category is that? To me, genre is a marketing problem. Or it might be a critical question, but it's not a creative issue at all.
O: Any more plans for original scripts?
DC: Well, I've written one called Painkillers, which is about performance artists in the near future. You'd call that a sci-fi script, I suppose. As soon as I finish this press tour, I swear, I'm going to do the rewrite. It's going to be produced by Robert Lantos, who produced eXistenZ. Whether it will be the next one or not, who knows?
O: Which is more difficult, working with studios or working with government grants?
DC: Well, I've never worked with a studio. All the movies that I've done that you think were… For example, The Dead Zone was Dino De Laurentiis, and it was his relationship [with the studio]. David Geffen was the guy I worked with on M. Butterfly, and he worked with Warner Bros., so I didn't. The Fly was Brooksfilms, Mel Brooks' company, and he dealt with Fox. So I've never done an in-house studio movie. The government-grant thing… Every country except the U.S. has that. And every country needs that in order to have a national cinema in the face of Hollywood, whether Jack Valenti likes it or not. Jack would like to see every movie in the world be a Hollywood movie, period. To that extent, he's my enemy. So government grants take different forms in different countries at different times. Telefilm Canada has invested in most of my films, and it was very necessary. They maybe put a million dollars in out of the eight for Spider. But not having that million could have easily meant that we didn't do the movie. People used to thinking in terms of Hollywood budgets would probably think, "How could a million dollars matter?" Well, if it's a $100 million movie, it probably wouldn't matter. But when it's $8 million, it really matters. The budget that I wanted for Spider was $10 million, but we had to make it for eight, which meant that a lot of us deferred our salaries. I think if you're doing a studio movie, you don't have to worry about raising the money, but you do have to worry about everything else. You have to worry about studio politics and studio attitudes toward actors. You want this actor, and they think the actor isn't hot enough, so you end up with an actor you don't really want. I know that happens often. It's sort of a heaven-and-hell situation: With Spider, heaven was the creative part and hell was the financing part. I'd rather have it that way than the reverse. Naturally, you'd want heaven/heaven. But if it's going to be heaven/hell, then this is the right way.
O: Would you make more films if you could?
DC: Yes. Part of it is my fault, in terms of the way that I develop things. I don't have 20 things in development all the time. I don't do the Spielberg thing and start a massive machine. I have one employee who sits in our office, and that's it, reading scripts and finding material and interrupting things for me.