Interview: David Cronenberg
By Amy Taubin on 8.23.2012
David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis does not pander. Notwithstanding the sleek elegance and breathtaking ingenuity of the moviemaking, the moments of wild gallows humor, and the pathos of the final scene—it plays as if a weary Laius had returned, moldering from the grave, to avenge himself on Oedipus, the son who thoughtlessly murdered him—Cronenberg’s depiction of slow death by disassociation is as chilling as daily life is today. Like Videodrome, Cosmopolis is a zeitgeist movie in which a new technology brings forth a “new flesh.” In a world of cyber-capital, we enter what might be termed the cyber-psyche of Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), a 28-year-old billionaire currency trader, who, having made the worst gamble of his life by shorting the Chinese Yuan, paralyzed by ennui, waits inside his custom-built stretch limo as it inches across Manhattan on a day of similarly paralytic traffic jams while his financial empire crashes, possibly taking the world economy down with it. Visits from sex partners and business consultants, the spectacle of Occupy Wall Street-style protests outside, the announcement by his old-moneyed young wife of 22 days that she is divorcing him, and even his daily ritualized prostate exam fail to jolt him from the embrace of Thanatos, the death drive.
A comedy of manners, a near bloodless horror movie, and yes, a masterpiece perfect in its refusal of sentimentality and cyber-calibrated to troubled times, Cosmopolis is adapted from Don DeLillo’s 2003 prophetic novel of the same name. It stars a magnetic, mesmerizingly beautiful Pattinson, who was at Cronenberg’s side during most of the grueling three-month, multi-continent publicity tour that followed the movie’s premiere at Cannes. I caught up with a weary Cronenberg (sans Pattinson) at his hotel just a day before the movie’s New York/LA opening.
You’ve been asked this a hundred times, but again, can you say what made you want to turn Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis into a movie?
Yes, but what specifically about the dialogue attracted you?
It just was sublime. Yes, it’s easy to say “the dialogue,” but of course the dialogue is about something. I love the way it shot off in so many different directions at once and that it was so strangely mechanical and dehumanized and yet so obsessive and passionate underneath. So much of human discourse is like that. The human reality is buried under the grammar and technology of language. I thought Don brought that right up to the forefront. It was the way the language was woven into the subject of the language, a lot of which was not a discussion just of capitalism, but the future of capitalism, and the way that the anticipation of the future modulates the present. So I thought the stuff he was talking about was fantastic. And then the shape of the way he did it, and the humor of it was irresistible. I thought, “This needs to be off the page.” However good or bad you think the novel is, it wasn’t fully realized until actual humans were speaking the dialogue. I thought that humanness—a real face with a particular voice—would complete what Don had started.
Do you often feel that way about things you read?
No, I don’t. It’s always exciting that you will have an actor speaking dialogue, because you can’t have a generalized actor. You have a specific actor with a specific way of speaking. But in novels, often the dialogue is not dramatic writing, it’s not meant to be. It can be pages of inner monologue, and that can work fine on the page.
Yes, and the movie Spider needed dialogue to be invented that wasn’t in the novel. And I had Patrick [McGrath, the author of the novel] doing that for me. Whereas Don’s novel, I thought, didn’t need that. The game was to replicate the dialogue in the novel as closely as possible, just with a little tweaking.
It’s so interesting because in terms of both the novel and the film, what most people object to is the dialogue.
There wouldn’t be a project without the dialogue. The visual style of the movie comes from the dialogue. It wouldn’t exist if the dialogue wasn’t there or there was less of it, or if the dialogue was more, in quotes, realistic, or whatever those critics are thinking. There was one critic who said “The dialogue is making me think kill me, kill me now, I can’t take any more of this,” and I thought, “Yes, I’d be happy to kill you now, no problem.” It’s the way people are accustomed to responding to movies. They’re in a very simple groove, and they’ve lost the knack of letting things wash over them without fighting it and trying to understand every twist and turn. I think the dialogue frustrates them because they can’t do with it what they normally do.
I don’t think it’s so much that people can’t follow it or can’t understand what’s being said as much as they think people don’t talk like that. But people in movies don’t talk the way people talk in life, even in movies that seemed realistic at the moment they were made.
They don’t. And why is that necessary? For me, the failing of a lot of movies is that the talking is exactly what people expect, even if you’re doing a period piece where people absolutely do not talk the way we talk now, or a sci-fi movie, where you’re imagining a future society. Take Avatar, a very successful sci-fi movie, but everyone in it talks just like they do in movies with contemporary settings. Everyone talks about how imaginative it is, but I’m saying that on a basic level, it’s not imaginative enough. Language evolves. I’m just now catching up with, I’m ashamed to say, Boswell’s Life of Johnson. It’s fantastic, and it shows that people did not interact verbally the way they do now. But if you wanted to replicate the way they spoke, people would say, “People don’t talk like that.” No, they don’t now, but they certainly did then. I did a bit of that in A Dangerous Method where the discourse, even though it was wild and sexual and intellectual, had a formality that was of the time. And without that formality, it would be as if you were dressing them in modern clothes or having the music they listened to be rock music. So to me, it’s not a criticism, it’s just an observation to say that people don’t talk like that. And in another sense, they do talk like that. Maybe not when Samantha Morton talks about the future—although there are people who write like that. But when people [in the movie] say, “You don’t know this?” Well, I’ve heard people say that. It’s a bit like Pinter or Mamet, in that, at its core, it is the way people talk, but it’s also stylized. It makes for coherence among the characters. They all talk in the same stylized way. Everyone in a Pinter play talks like a Pinter play. Whereas normally, within a group of people, you’ll find more variation. Again that’s an artistic conceit that everyone will talk in the same style, even in contemporary settings. If you watch a Cassavetes film, where people are improvising, they all come culturally from the same place, and they all sound the same. Whereas if you go to a film festival and you’re sitting at a table with people from all over the world, they are all speaking English but they don’t sound the same. That would be realistic, but it doesn’t give you the cohesiveness that you can achieve in a work of art by having people come from the same place. In this movie, everyone who interacts with Eric [Robert Pattinson’s character], except maybe the Pastry Assassin [Mathieu Amalric], comes from the same cultural place, which is to say, the obsessive world of money and the currency market. Even the Paul Giamatti character [who wants to kill Eric]. He’s not anti-capitalist. He loves Eric. He loves the Baht—it was his specialty. Paul’s approach to the character was that he’s in love with Eric and he’s like a jilted lover. So they are all from that same micro-culture.
But it’s not quite shop talk, as in a hospital TV series like ER.
No, it’s not.
But the stylization of the discourse of a particular subculture connects to something else that’s central to the movie: the focus on abstraction: abstraction in art and the abstraction of money and the connection between them. It’s implied in the movie—and perhaps in the novel—that the abstraction of finance is “bad,” but abstraction in art results in the sublime paintings of Rothko, which Eric covets.
And abstraction in Pollock too. [The opening credit sequence is the digital simulation of a Pollock-like painting coming into being.]
And Rothko committed suicide, as Eric is hell-bent on doing—even though he doesn’t consciously know he is until it’s too late.
And Pollock, you could say, killed himself as well.
So the question of abstraction hangs over the film in many ways.
Whether the degree of abstraction in finance should be characterized as “bad,” I don’t know. Once again, it’s an observation. Edouard Carmignac, a French billionaire known as the French Warren Buffett, invested in this movie, and I spent some time with him.
Why did he invest in it?
He tried to buy the rights to the novel only to discover that Paolo [Branco] had already bought them. And Paolo told him he could be involved by investing. So he did. He felt that it was absolutely accurate, that he works with people who are exactly like Eric Packer in terms of their abstraction. They live in this weird bubble where they are disconnected even from the way that normal people buy things and sell things, let alone from basic social interactions with normal human beings. It was astonishing to him that Don could have captured that in this character. So to get back to your question of “bad” kind of abstraction: it’s an observation, not a judgment. Eric is being destroyed by the fact that he has cut himself off from human contact. It’s a very Nathaniel Hawthorne kind of thing. But it is not specifically because currency trading is dealing in abstractions. The abstraction has seeped down into his life so that he feels himself to be an abstraction. He is going to the bottom in order to become human again. He is dismantling himself gradually in this trip in order to put himself together from scratch, i.e., when he was a kid.
One of the things I wrote about in an Artforum piece, which won’t be out until next month, is that in all your films, even the coldest of them, the sense of touch—and the fear and desire around it—is very strong. So Eric’s desire to get a haircut in the same barbershop where his father took him as a child is far from a whim. It is a profound desire.
I agree. Even when Eric has sex with the Juliette Binoche character he’s avoiding touching her, but in the barbershop he’s incredibly sweet. That’s what I love about Rob’s performance. He intuited that. When the barber says, “You were four,” he answers, “No, I was five.” It’s heartbreaking. At that point, you are seeing the human being who has always been there.
There are a couple of references to another of your films that interest me. The place where Eric ends up—that filthy abandoned tenement where the Paul Giamatti character lives—is a lot like the broken-down boat at the end of Videodrome.
I was very aware that in Videodrome we ended with a gunshot. Max Renn has this strange gun, and as the screen goes black, we hear a shot, so we assume he’s committed suicide. But here, I didn’t want to hear the gunshot. I wanted them to be frozen, connected in this weird ecstatic moment of revelation. I couldn’t bear to pull the trigger. [Laughs] So I thought, okay, you don’t have to. It would have been easy enough to do, but it would have had such an enormous repercussion because everyone would know he shot Eric.
What made you leave out the last sequence in the book where Eric sees himself reflected as a corpse inside his wristwatch?
I thought it would have a different impact than it has in the novel, where it’s still pretty abstract and literary. Movies are pretty literal no matter how you mess with them, and that would be a kind of sci-fi moment. Even earlier, when Eric says, “Why am I seeing things that haven’t happened yet?” we tried to show that on one of the screens, and it just didn’t work. It turned it into sci-fi in a way that the novel isn’t. Once again, I feel that’s one of the differences between a book and a movie.
How did you make the choice of how the digital projections that you see through the car windows would look? They are very Hitchcockian in that they seem surreal, like dreamscapes, rather than like something that you might actually see out a window.
They work better than Marnie, don’t you think?
Do you like Marnie?
I do. As with a lot of Hitchcock, it’s a lot odder than you might think at first blush. It seems like a thriller and then it becomes something really perverse and strange. But here’s something that is very mysterious. I don’t know if he knew how fake that stuff looked. You have to discount what Hitchcock said because he was a real showman. But when he started making movies, the only way you could do that stuff was rear screen, rear projection. And people accepted it because they were naïve about film technique. I can remember seeing blue lines and I knew something funny was going on, but I didn’t know what it was. Did Hitchcock know how fake that looked and was that part of his deal? I know he loved the control he had in the studio, and also the comfort. It’s hard to shoot on location especially as you get older. And yet he did that brilliantly too. So the rear projections were the best you could do at the time, but they weren't as good as the green screen you can do now. I was using a lot of green screen, the best technology that we could use with our budget. I was trying to make it as real as possible. I definitely wasn’t trying to make it not real.
Except that it’s the wrong place. It’s blatantly Toronto that we see through the limo windows.
Well, you say that, but some of the mattes—the Times Square stuff—were actually shot in New York. And the parking meters in New York are exactly like the ones in Toronto. And certainly 47th Street [in New York] today looks more like certain nondescript streets in Toronto than like 47th Street looked 10 years ago, especially from the perspective of the limo where you can’t tell that the skyline lacks the density of the New York skyline. But my rationale was to say, just as I did with Tangier in Naked Lunch, that it never really was New York in the novel anyway. It’s an archetypal vision of New York. Once you decide that the limo is really completely insulated so that you hear nothing of the outside world or even of the car mechanism that in itself is a disjoint from realism—from what people know from traveling in cars themselves, and also from the way it’s done in movies. In Crash, there was no green screen—it was real cars and real bumps and stuff. Here I chose to put Eric inside a complete vacuum. The limo is more “Prousted” than it is in the novel. And then, when the door opens, the sounds of the city pour in. It was a little heightened for good or bad, a choice to emphasize that Eric has put himself in a bell jar.
And that the world of the film is comprised of screens within screens within a screen.
It’s what Samantha Morton’s character says: “There are no places anymore.” That’s the world that Eric and his minions live in. And that is, of course, another level of abstraction.
To change the subject, what on earth made you attack Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies? Those fanboys are the most fanatical people on the Web.
Here’s how I got suckered into it. Someone said to me, “Now that superhero comic book movies have been elevated to the highest form of art and cinema, would you consider doing one?” And I said, “What are you talking about? It’s a guy running around in a cape. It’s not the highest form of cinema.” And while the budget he gets to make them, because they are superhero comic book movies, allows him to do very interesting things technically, I don’t think any of the Batman movies are as interesting as Memento. I never said anything bad about Christopher Nolan, although the headlines claimed that I had. I just said that the Batman movies are adolescent to their core, and that’s their appeal, but I never said they were bad. And I said I thought Memento was his best movie.
The only reason I sit through them is for Gary Oldman.
I also said that Gary Oldman’s performance is the best portrayal of that type of character ever, but do they quote that? No, of course not.
Speaking of Gary Oldman, are you going to do, as rumored, a marvelously titled series—Knifeman—with his old buddy, Tim Roth? I love Tim Roth.
I love Tim Roth too, although we’ve only seen each other a few times. And one of those times was when we pitched this series to BBC America. We have a brilliant, funny, bawdy, Shakespearian-type script that’s set in Samuel Johnson’s [18th-century] London. It’s based on a real surgeon who was ahead of his time. It could be rollicking good fun. But a lot of places we pitched it to are afraid of period pieces, or they already have a period piece and can’t do another. It’s the TV world, which is different from what I’m used to, although I’ve been through it many times, because I tried to do a series based on Scanners and then one based on Dead Ringers. And the experience is always the same. They love it, they are excited, and then they don’t want to do it. In this case, it may be that we won’t find someone to finance it, and then it would be over. But the long form really interests me.
So you are going to finish your novel?
I got an extension from Scribner’s. They were going to cancel my contract because I’m two years late, but they decided to extend it until the end of the year so starting on August 20th, I turn into a novelist.
Did you like writing it when you started, just after Eastern Promises?
I did like it. It was strangely like directing. That was a revelation. It surprised me because screenwriting is completely different. But I realized that I have to cast the characters, find the locations, design the costumes, and I also have to decide, for instance, if I do a close-up of the hand that’s writing, or do I do a wide shot and not describe it in detail. I have no idea if it will be any good. I set a very low bar for myself. Is it interesting enough and good enough to be published? End of story. When I talked to Don, he said that he never makes a deal until he’s finished a novel. I can see why. The pressure of expectation is intense. But I needed the validation. And my agent Andrew Wylie sold it all over the world. So there are all these people saying, “Where the fuck is your novel?”
And what are you going to do after the first of the year, when it’s done?
God knows. Eastern Promises II has died completely. So the good part of that is that I have no impediments to being a novelist until the end of the year.
You started making movies when it seemed as if movies were the most powerful form of representation—that anything and everything could be said in movies. Do you think that’s still true? I’m not referring to the technological change from celluloid to digital. Are movies still the most powerful form in which to inscribe the experience of history and culture?
First, we’d have to ask if that was ever true. I always felt that the novel form still could do things that you couldn’t do in movies. I remember when I interviewed Salman Rushdie when he was in hiding in London. I asked him if he thought that movies are on the same level as an art form as the novel. And he said of course. He’s a total movie fan so he was shocked that I would even suggest that movies aren’t. But I guess I’ve always had that Victorian-era thing, where you think the novel is the important form.
Would you be reading novels if you hadn’t decided to write one?
Oh yes. I think I’m still fed by novels in ways I’m not fed by movies. And I guess vice versa. They don’t replace each other. Although the way you consume—dare I use the word—movies can now be quite close to the way you consume novels. You could watch a movie on your lap on an iPad and on the same iPad, you can read a novel. Watching movies can be as solitary an experience as reading, although I think they are different enough that they satisfy different parts of my brain. I wouldn’t want to give either of them up. But at the moment we are in a very conservative moment in cinema history. In Hollywood, it’s all bottom line stuff. And yet inventive movies keep getting made. So could the worm turn yet again? I don’t know.