David Cronenberg is a great comedian. “Funny guy” might not be the first descriptor that comes to mind for the Canadian director, who’s more commonly known as a master of body horror and the creator of depraved tales. And yet, his humor is undeniable, in everything from the sex-romp tone of Shivers to the perfect counter-casting of heartthrob Robert Pattinson in the capitalist takedown Cosmopolis. Of course, being a lover of bastardization, Cronenberg has never wedded himself to the traditional constrains of any genre, preferring instead to meld the uncanny and the comic, always making the latter a bit unsettling.
But with his latest, the Palme D’Or-nominated Maps To The Stars, Cronenberg comes the closest to making an outright comedy. Set in Los Angeles, Maps tells the story of two Hollywood families intertwining in the sickest way. Actress Havana (played with a perfect lack of modesty by Julianne Moore) attempts to reboot her fading career while being haunted by her dead starlet mother (Cronenberg favorite Sarah Gadon is the apparition). Her assistant, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), at first plays the doe-eyed new girl in L.A., but is really returning to the City Of Angels to wreak havoc on her family.
In Toronto this fall, we spoke to Cronenberg about his sense of humor, if nepotism is like incest, and the pleasures of working with powerful women.
The A.V. Club: This film makes an interesting diptych with Cosmopolis, as they’re both criticisms of establishments: Hollywood and capitalism, respectively. Was this intentional?
David Cronenberg: After the fact, yes. I think they’re an interesting double bill, especially about the East Coast and the West Coast. And both films are a critique of capitalism, in some ways. But it wasn’t a plan. It’s so hard to get a movie made that when the financing comes together you make the movie. It’s not like you can say, “I think now I’ll make two films, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast.” It would be kind of cute if you could do that, but you can’t. So it’s an accident. I’ve been trying to get Maps To The Stars made for 10 years and then Cosmopolis just sort of appeared out of the blue and got made very quickly. They could have been made 10 years apart.
AVC: How do you think the film would have changed had you made it a decade ago?
DC: It wouldn’t have been different in its basics—the characters, the family drama. But the peripheral things would have changed—there wasn’t Twitter, there wasn’t Facebook. But the structure of Hollywood was the same.
AVC: But don’t you think how we conceptualize stardom has radically shifted with the advent of Twitter and Facebook?
DC: Oh, yes, hugely.
AVC: In that regard, do you think that changed how Maps was made?
DC: Some people think Maps came from [the film’s screenwriter] Bruce [Wagner]’s Dead Stars, as that book does deal more with that reality—Twitter, Facebook. I don’t think [social media] plays very strongly in this film, but I do think in our current times it does. Bruce said at Cannes: “Andy Warhol said ‘In the future people will be famous for 15 minutes.’ Now everybody is famous all the time.” You’re the star of your Twitter feed, your Facebook and Instagram accounts. At the same time, the microscopic observation of celebrities has come to a point that was unthinkable years ago. You can download videos and photos of celebrities and mark them up, and say: “Here’s where she had work done.” When I was doing Cosmopolis, there were a couple of websites devoted to Rob Pattinson. Everyday they would post shots taken from cellphones of him on set, constantly monitoring him. This is different from before. Of course, there were always magazines devoted to stars, but it’s now intensified: This intimate connection between individuals and stars is not mediated by magazines, editors, and professionals. So with Maps, it’s about celebrity, but we don’t have scenes with paparazzi or on the red carpet. It’s more behind the scenes and the minds of the people involved.
AVC: And it’s there where you find the horror in Hollywood.
DC: There’s a strange existential desperation to exist in images, particularly in Hollywood. You get a strange separation of body and image, you float from your body to the screen. There’s a kind of haunting. I’m not a believer in ghosts literally, but certainly Hollywood is still haunted by James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart. There is an uncanny element to life as a celebrity or filmmaker in Hollywood, because you know that in a way you are tracking your aging. Every time you give a performance you can track your aging and so can your audience. Where is it leading? It’s leading to your death. And yet you will always exist in film. That’s what I think you’re feeling. The characters in the film exist, but they exist on a couple of different planes.
AVC: Would Maps work with a male lead, given there’s completely a different expectation of aging for women?
DC: There totally is. And the pressures on Havana are the ones that we know. That is, we all know actresses who were hot until they were 40 and then absolutely disappeared. We don’t know where they are. It’s a death before death. It’s an oblivion that happens to actresses once they reach a certain age. Julianne Moore is one of the few who has managed to continue to have a strong career. As an actress, she knows many of her colleagues who have disappeared, so it wasn’t hard for her to tap into the desperation and the fear, and the ambition that doesn’t die.
AVC: Right, this is where the glory of dying young comes from, as you never have to age.
DC: Not having to age, not having to embarrass yourself, not having to have people say: “Oh, God, look how old he looks.” Like Marilyn Monroe. She died at 39. That’s a perfect age for an actress to die. She doesn’t hit that horrible 40 number.
AVC: As a male director, did you feel you had an outsider perspective on this?
DC: No, not really. I never feel a gender split. In a way, I have to be all my characters, all my actors—male, female, young, old—when I’m shooting and choreographing scenes. Actually, one nice moment when I was working with Juliette Binoche [on the sex scene in the limo in Cosmopolis] was when she said: “Oh, I see you are not at all afraid of the feminine.” And I thought: “That’s a nice compliment.” But it was because she thought I would be too male and not understand why the character was doing certain things. I’ve never had that in my head, but she’s obviously run into directors that were too male to understand what a woman would do, or what the character would do on-screen. I’ve never mentioned this before to anyone. [Laughs.] Good job.
AVC: Thanks. There’s another sex scene in a fancy car in this film, where afterward Havana steps out and wipes her vagina. That got a very strong reaction at the screening where I was. Yet that’s a perfectly normal bodily reaction.
DC: At my age, having children, being married for 37 years, you understand this stuff. And it was in the script—Bruce also understands that. We’re far from being afraid of it—we embrace it. It’s interesting that it’s so shocking, as it is normal. But when do you see that on-screen?
AVC: Right, women’s bodies are still seen as taboo. What draws you to explore cultural taboos—in this case, incest?
DC: I’m not drawn to incest, exactly, but the script is classical Greek tragedy. I don’t think I’ve dealt with it before in a film, and here I did because Bruce wrote it. But it felt so right and so accurate. You could say we’re talking about a business that is incestuous. It’s not genetic, but in the sense of ideas there’s an enclosed circular thing; there’s no fresh blood or fresh ideas. We’re just seeing sequels and people are afraid of seeing mutations. Hollywood’s first impulse is to be very primitive and conservative, and to build on things that have been successful. It’s a fear of failure.
AVC: Then there’s this idea of incest as the logical extension of nepotism, and Hollywood runs on nepotism.
DC: Like it was with Egyptian royalty. You were too special to mate with someone who wasn’t also royalty. So marrying your sisters, or cousin, or uncle was what you did. Our innate aversion to incest was overcome by this feeling of being special. Royalty demands incest.
AVC: With your son now making films, was part of this film a personal reflection?
DC: No, and nepotism isn’t the same thing as incest. I’ve always loved having my family involved [in my films]. My sisters have worked on my films and my daughter as well. The support of a family closeness is great, if you can get it. For other people, it’s easy for them to resent it since they think you’re giving people special favors. But they don’t understand how hard it is to make films and how important it is to work with people you trust deeply. I’ve worked with the same crew for many, many years. I’ve worked with the same editor for 40 years, my production designer for 35 years. They’re your comrades-in-arms. You know each other and each other’s histories.
AVC: And in Maps, you do see the pressures that come from living in a famous family member’s shadow.
DC: Of course, and my son has to deal with that. The good part is you get some recognition immediately. The bad part is people are very hard on you and the comparisons can be very destructive.
AVC: There’s a lot of humor in Maps. Can you talk about how you approach using comedy in your work?
DC: Someone asked me at Cannes, “This film is very funny, have you ever thought of making a comedy?” I said, “I don’t think I’ve made anything but comedies.” All of my films are funny on some level. I don’t think you have to distill it into pure comedy or pure drama. To me that makes no sense. I can’t imagine a life without humor. Especially if you have an existential understanding of life, you must acknowledge the absurdity of it all.