Interview: David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg’s approach to directing Maps to the Stars, screenwriter Bruce Wagner’s latest baleful vision of contemporary Hollywood’s moral vacuum, was to treat it as an anthropologist might treat a tribe of natives who’ve become slavishly devoted to false gods. The gods (or Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) in question are the usual suspects: fame, wealth, power, and sex. Yet to suggest that the film’s take on Hollywood decadence is tired, as some critics have done, is to avoid reckoning with its underlying solemnity and sorrow.
As a Canadian outsider, Cronenberg brings a cool distance to Wagner’s vision of how Tinseltown’s celebs and exploiters are too crazed to see how their hungers are consuming them; fire is the movie’s purging force. Yet the doomed kids at the center of the film, the sweet, sick pyromaniac Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), newly released from a Florida psychiatric hospital, and her Bieber-esque movie-brat bro Benjie (Evan Bird), just out of rehab at 13, are portrayed with tenderness and compassion. Their problem was and is their guru-to-the-stars dad Stafford (John Cusack), a snake-oil salesman if ever there were one, and their avaricious mom Christina (Olivia Williams).
Agatha and Stafford meanwhile both have dealings with the rapidly fading—and therefore neurotic and vicious—movie star Havana Segrand, a walking bag of poison played with immense gusto by Julianne Moore. There’s something salutary about the new Best Actress Oscar winner (for Still Alice) metamorphosing into a grotesque from the same Hollywood imaginarium as Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond and Bette Davis’s Baby Jane Hudson.
There are two pairs of siblings in Maps to the Stars—and they’re damned from the start. That obviously links them to the twins in Dead Ringers (88).
Who committed gentle suicide at the end. Yeah, that’s definitely a connection.
Was it something you were conscious of?
No. Bruce [Wagner] wrote the script about 20 years ago. The family dynamic often plays a strong role in his screenplays and his nine novels, so I think you have to say it’s a coincidence up to a certain point. But then perhaps one of the reasons that the [Maps to the Stars] script so appealed to me might be that resonance. That’s very possible.
When did you first see the script, and did it change substantially over the years?
I first read it about 10 years ago, and I made many attempts to get it made as a Canadian co-production or as an American production. It was obviously going to be an indie film in one way or another, never a studio film. The script didn’t change much, though among the things that I did was to cut it—which is what I often do as a director. Bruce could have written a thousand pages. I thought it rambled on at a certain point and just cut some characters and scenes and trimmed it down. After that, though, it retained its shape and we only did upgradings, such as introducing smartphones, which didn’t exist when he wrote it.
Also, there was the question of topical pop references. Bruce has always been very unafraid to include them in his work—the latest meme or the latest YouTube sensation or TV show or whatever. They live and die very quickly, like mayflies, of course, so for that reason we decided to omit a particular reference to the football player [Tim] Tebow, for example, because it was no longer topical. So we made changes like that, but the family dynamic and the dialogue hadn’t changed in 10 years, and really not in 20.
Over the years, obviously, your films have found corruption and moral squalor in all kinds of places, which suggests you have no particular axe to grind against Hollywood.
I don’t. When the movie premiered at Cannes, Le Monde published an article quoting me as saying: “Je ne déteste pas Hollywood”—“I don’t hate Hollywood.” It came because the French thought I must have bottled up hatred for Hollywood for years and now I’d finally released it. But I said: “Not at all.” The specifics of Hollywood come from Bruce. As you say, you can find the kind of greed and hypocrisy and power-mongering that’s in Maps to the Stars in many shapes and forms all over the world, in government and all kinds of businesses. Hollywood is a spectacular example, of course, because it’s so visible and because of the aspirations of the players to be seen on the screen and the red carpet. Those drives are equally apparent in Wall Street, Silicon Valley, or even the Detroit car industry, but those places are just not as visible.
You had a week’s shooting in L.A. on Maps to the Stars. Did you feel the ghosts, when filming under the Hollywood sign, for example?
It was only five days. And, yes, the resonances of shooting in the heart of darkness were huge. It was incredibly satisfying and very cathartic for me to shoot there because I’ve never shot in the U.S. before—not in New York or anywhere, even though several of my films have been set in America. It was always a money problem thing. The Canadian dollar was always very cheap and the Americans who were involved from time to time—like New Line on A History of Violence —wanted me to shoot in Canada. So it wasn’t that I didn’t want to shoot in America, it was that it was always cheaper to shoot in Canada. Maps to the Stars was a sort of Canadian-German coproduction, and we had a mixed crew of Americans and Canadians who got along very well. In a sort of pathetic way, they were really happy to be working on a feature film in L.A., because so few are shot there now—it’s all TV. Weird, but true.
Some reviewers said the film is dated—that it has more of a Nineties vibe than a contemporary one.
The critics who said that were positioning themselves as real insiders who really know what Hollywood’s like, but I think they were thinking: “Oh, this script was written 20 years ago, so it must be dated.” But those people do not know what they’re talking about. It’s not dated at all. In fact, what came out in [Sony’s] hacked e-mails shows you that the film is in the exact same spot in Hollywood [laughs]. Bruce and I have had so many meetings with so many executives that go right up to last year, that if there had been anything dated we would have updated it. Believe me, it’s absolutely current. Some meetings I’d had with studios were more surreal than anything that’s in the movie—more absurd, more bizarre. It’s amusing to me that I couldn’t even be offended by the ridiculous and, in fact, quite offensive things that were happening. I don’t want to get into the details, but there are some good stories there.
Was there a danger of perpetuating a myth about corrupt behavior in Hollywood, or is it a case of there’s no smoke without fire?
It’s not exactly corruption per se—not in the sense of, say, Vladimir Putin’s Russia—but it’s very destructive and corrosive to be famous, to be seen, to be current, to be a player. There’s the money as well, of course, but then beyond the money is that existential dread of no longer existing on the scene: I call it a pre-death. Your career dies before you die. For some people that’s worse than real death—it’s unbearable. What the movie doesn’t really deal with is the occasional creative brilliance of Hollywood and the people that are there. We’re dealing with the darker side of it, so we don’t, for example, see Havana Segrand on set acting in her movie—and maybe she was good. Maybe the movie was going to be good. We don’t know, but we do know the director of that film [played by Gord Rand] is a raving coward and a liar. It doesn’t mean he didn’t make a good movie ultimately. We don’t know, so we didn’t deal with that aspect of it.
I see the film as part of a continuum with the Twenties Hollywood scandals, while Havana conjures up Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (50). But your use of star maps in the credits—not Hollywood star maps, but maps of the heavens—suggest you were aiming for a greater cosmic resonance. It’s bigger than Hollywood, isn’t it?
You can see that with [Agatha and Benjie] at the end. It’s a map of the future and it’s a matter of creativity, humanity, and having a cosmic perspective rather than the perspective that our characters have, which is so narrow, so self-referencing, and so self-obsessed. We’re suggesting that this lifestyle is one of the more desiccating and shriveling there is. You can’t escape the gravitational pull of Planet Hollywood when it’s so dense and so and powerful that you can’t see the real world and you can’t even see your life outside of that planet.
I responded to the film as a psychological drama. Agatha’s return to Hollywood from the psychiatric hospital represents the return of the repressed for the rest of the Weiss family. Havana is still fighting an Electra Complex battle with her dead mother, which is why she covets a role in a movie that her more famous actress mother once played.
For Bruce and I, Maps to the Stars is completely psychologically realistic. That’s why we don’t think it’s a satire at all. When I think of satire, I think of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”; there’s exaggeration and deliberate fantasy and so on. For a lot of people now, satire means something that’s nasty and funny, but it means a lot more than that. Maps is more like a docudrama than a satire. Bruce said he has heard every line of dialogue in the movie actually spoken by someone at some point. It doesn’t surprise me that you should respond to it on a psychological level because that’s really where it lives. I said to my actors: “Don’t worry about any humor or exaggeration. Forget about all of that—it will take care of itself. Just play it for the human reality of the relationships.”
I think of the movie as a Greek tragedy, and certainly Bruce was aware of that. I don’t think he actually modeled it on Greek tragedy, but he fell into it. In other words, those things that motivated the Greeks to write what they did also motivated Bruce to write what he did in a modern context.
Although you’re certainly aware of it when you’re making a movie, thinking about psychology doesn’t really help when you’re on the set, say, because, as is well understood, to be universal you must be extremely specific, and we had very specific characters. You can’t really act in abstract concepts if you’re an actor—you have to act real emotions. It’s valuable to analyze why something might have worked or not worked dramatically, but that’s after the fact.
We talked about Maps to the Stars having a connection with Dead Ringers. It has ideas in common with Spider (02), too. In that film, Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) pieces together his childhood, when he killed his mother, thinking, perhaps, that she was his father’s mistress, Yvonne (Miranda Richardson plays both women). In Maps, Benjie thinks he’s strangling the ghost of the little girl whom he’d visited in hospital as a publicity stunt—only to find he’s throttled the little boy he’s been forced to act with. Dennis is schizophrenic and Agatha may be the same. Then, Havana verbalizes her inner foulness while sitting on the toilet, as does Yvonne when she talks about her blocked toilet. Again, were you conscious of those similarities, assuming you agree with them?
I do agree, but, no, I wasn’t conscious of them. Bruce has seen Spider, but I obviously hadn’t made it yet when he wrote the [Maps to the Stars] script, so to me it’s a coincidence. Bruce and I both understand—and certainly Patrick McGrath understood it when he wrote Spider—that you are not born with an identity and a personality. Spider is about the difficulty and desperation involved in creating an identity, and obviously everybody in Maps to the Stars is trying to do the same. You see Havana’s identity shift from moment to moment. When she’s with her sort-of actor-boyfriend, she’s like a little girl. When she’s with Agatha, she’s the mistress of the household, very strong and adult. Because creating an identity requires force of will and takes a lot of energy, when that energy flags, as it does with schizophrenia, the disintegration can be quite spectacular. So that’s the connection for me between Spider and Maps to the Stars—this potent element of the human condition that’s worth exploring in film.
Like Dennis in Spider, Agatha is highly sympathetic, although she’s unstable and dangerous. I was yearning for her to escape. Obviously, a movie as anguished as this needs someone for the audience to care about.
Some people told me they hated Benjie at first but ultimately came to love him because they see how vulnerable he is, how damaged he was by his context and not out of his own inadequacies. And so you always hope. I never feel that movies need people who are sympathetic, but they need characters who are fascinating and charismatic, or you’ll have people feeling shut out of a movie and that is not something I would intend. At the same time, I don’t wanna throw in a guy who loves his nice, sweet dog so that you’ll like him.
Unlike your early films, Maps to the Stars is cold, clear, uncluttered, and mostly still—the camera moves rarely. It focuses attention on the characters, the dynamic between them, and their environment. How did that become your prevailing style?
I feel that was happening as far back as The Fly , which was really two people, or occasionally three people, in a room. I thought, “Oh this is interesting.” It’s almost like a Samuel Beckett situation. Without pushing that idea too much, in my mind at least I really understood that Beckettian desire for incredible stillness and more and more simplicity, which could allow for more and more complexity.
My director of photography, Peter Suschitzky, who first shot for me on Dead Ringers, said to me: “Your style has really changed a lot.” It wasn’t so much to do with camera movement, but a matter of how much coverage I used to get. That, frankly, was to do with my being a relatively young and inexperienced filmmaker and feeling that I must have a lot of stuff in the editing room to protect me in case I’d made some mistake on the set. As you get older—this is how it works for me anyway—I have more and more confidence that I’ve made the right decision on the set and I don’t need to cover setups from so many different angles or do so many takes.
Also, I have more confidence in my casting. If you cast the film correctly and you’ve got the right actors, and they know what they’re doing, you don’t need to shoot a lot. Ralph Fiennes said to me on Spider that he got the least direction from any director he has ever had, and he wasn’t saying it as a negative. I said: “Well, you know, we did a lot of directing when we were deciding what your clothes were gonna be, how your hair was gonna be, and how you would walk. And once you got on the set, you were Spider [as Dennis is known]. I didn’t need to tell you how to be him anymore. I just told you what the frame is, how big you are in it, and how to play the frame—but that was it.”
It was the same with Maps to the Stars. I did just one or two takes of each setup and I didn’t do masters, medium shots, close-ups, ultra close-ups—I didn’t do any of that. I only shot as much as I needed. So my editor, Ronald Sanders, who’s worked with me for nearly 40 years, said: “I don’t have anything to cut with.” I said: “Well, just cut what you can.” And I had the director’s cut ready in two days after he showed me the rough cut.
One can imagine Havana Segrand being incredibly needy on the set and wanting all kinds of pampering and reassurance from her directors.
Absolutely she would. That’s why she’s such an opposite of Julie [Julianne Moore], who doesn’t require any of those things.
What were your thoughts about the ghosts in the films? Havana is haunted by her dead mother (played by Sarah Gadon), Benjie is haunted by the hospital girl, who’s died of cancer.
Well, one of the things I cut from the script was a scene in which Agatha was riding in a car and she looked out the window to see the street full of children—dead children. I said to Bruce: “I don’t believe in an afterlife, therefore I don’t believe in ghosts. I do understand being haunted by dead people in your life, but not in the literal sense of actual, physical ghosts.” I had to take that scene out because it suggested Agatha was seeing ghosts of children she hadn’t known, so they would take on a different level of physical reality. Bruce completely understood and he didn’t mind. My approach is that ghosts are like memories—you might be haunted by your dead parents, whose voices you can hear in your head, whose presence is almost physical. I know for a fact that is real. But they are not ghosts in a living-after-death kind of way.
Benjie’s being haunted indicates that, deep down, he has a conscience—he feels guilty for having exploited the dying girl.
That’s the secret he has. He shares it with his psychiatrist ultimately, but her approach is very benign and clinical. She doesn’t get deeply into the real meaning of it, which is that Benjie is quite a sensitive kid and not the crude, tough guy that he likes to pretend to be, which is the role he has created for himself and has to sell to survive. So his fear and this empathy come out in a different way.
Agatha’s leather gloves, which she’s never without, fetishize her burned forearms and create a sexual mystery about her. It’s the same with Rosanna Arquette’s thigh wounds in Crash (96).
Well, it’s lovely when Havana says to Jerome [Robert Pattinson]: “Did you make her take off her gloves when you were fucking her?” Because Havana, who zeroes in on things like that immediately, understands the fetishistic possibility of those gloves, which Agatha might genuinely be naïve about. She probably thinks she’s just covering up her scars and that nobody will somehow notice she’s wearing these gloves in the heat of the summer. That was certainly in Bruce’s script.
There are several haunting quotations in Maps to the Stars from “Liberty,” the poem written by the French Surrealist Paul Eluard. The implication is that the only liberty to be found by these characters is death.
Yes. It’s a different interpretation of the poem, which was written during World War II and had had to do with the Nazi occupation of France, particularly Paris, though Eluard initially wrote it as a love poem for a woman. Liberty of creative freedom, liberty of financial freedom, liberty of emotional freedom—all these things are possible for most of the people in the film. But for these doomed children, none of these things are available because they’ve been screwed up and deformed, and, as Agatha is aware and sort of teaches Benjie, the only freedom is death.
Bruce and I got an interesting reaction to our use of the poem from the Eluard family, but as the film shows, a poem is an organic, living thing, as all art is. It can be reinterpreted endlessly. In fact, one of the things I did was put the poem into more scenes than Bruce originally had it in. For example, when Agatha is on her knees in front of the stars on Hollywood Boulevard, she doesn’t say anything in the script. But I thought: “No, this needs something—a prayer or a kind of incantation.” So I added the poem there and a few other places as well.
Agatha at least has agency at the end. She decides her own destiny, which is optimistic in a way.
It’s weirdly optimistic because she’s so sweet and gentle at the end, and so is Benjie. I feel personally that this strange sensual and consensual wedding ceremony is very touching. She’s trying to deal with all the madness of her life and her parents’ lives, and all the sins of the parents that were visited on her and Benjie. That ending was always there in Bruce’s script and it never failed to affect me. When the movie begins, you might think: “This is gonna be a kind of rude and jaunty critique of Hollywood.” But then it suddenly changes into something else, and I think you see the real emotional, human underpinnings of that.