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And Then I Woke Up:
an Interview with David Cronenberg

by Sean Axmaker
Posted 23 April 1999

It’s a cliché to say it, and you’ve seen it in front of every interview with the man, but in person David Cronenberg is a friendly, gracious, and very personable man. He’s also a thoughtful and articulate artist who enjoys both talking about his work and prodding the interviewer with his own questions. I had the pleasure to interview him on his day-long stop in Seattle on the press junket for eXistenZ, less than a month before he had to leave for France to take his place as the 51st Cannes Film Festival Jury President.

Our interview began with his interest in my clunky, fifteen year old portable tape recorder, a bulky legacy of my college years that has done my interview duties since the demise of my handheld recorder. I hid it out of the way but leave it to the Cronenberg, whose films explore the texture of technological change like no one else, to check it out and query me about this unusual piece of equipment.

The following is a transcript of the bulk of our interview (certain arrangements prevent me from printing the entire interview at this time). Some of my questions have been abridged, rewritten, or otherwise altered to make me appear more intelligent than I was when I actually asked them. No such editing was necessary for Mr. Cronenberg.

Sean Axmaker: I see similarities between eXistenZ and Videodrome.

David Cronenberg: You look at the first Fellini movie and you can see the seeds of all of Fellini there and I do think that, well certainly my desire has been to be a filmmaker in the same general mold as someone like Fellini or Bergman. Obviously my movies feel a lot different, maybe not at every moment, mind you, but I think that’s simply why. It’s my own sensibility, everything is filtered through my own sensibility and my experiences of life and so on, and I’m going to continually be drawing from the same pool of imagery and themes I’m sure, with modifications and adjustments to the angles and of course I’m learning different things about myself, but the connections should be there. It’s the kind of filmmaking that there isn’t a lot of these days, partly because maybe the young filmmakers who are coming up don’t really want to do that, that’s not what they want to do, they want to do something quite different.

SA: I’m thinking in terms of narrative and its sense of imagery.

DC: Well it’s interesting. Everybody agrees that the movie reminds them of other of my movies, but no one quite agrees which one. Because I had a guy in here sitting where you were telling me all of the connections he made between this and Naked Lunch. And it’s not wrong. I could make connections between this and M Butterfly, which for most people wouldn’t be the obvious connection, but I can certainly make those connections. Once again, it’s the same thing. If you look at all my movies as kind of chapters in one long book or something like that, then maybe it makes more sense, but if your strength is to be a professional craftsman then you want to brag about how many different styles of movies you can do and different kinds of movies and how different all your movies are from each other, and you’re showing what versatility you have, but if you’re an artist you’re movies are all going to interconnect and ideally people can tell who made this movie without knowing who made the movie. So it’s inevitable that they should connect. I’ve got to say that when I was writing the script I wasn’t thinking of my other movies at all. It’s just not part of the creative process for me. It’s a kind of enforced innocence. I try to be very naïve, I try to divest myself of all worries about what movie is hot and what movies have been successful and who expects things from me, what they might expect and what my last movie did and what other movies of mine might be like this movie, all of those things. Deliberately I try not to think about them at all, and I don’t find it very difficult to do that because I end up a sort of one-to-one trance with the project that I’m embarked on. I know there are going to be connections. Some people have said that this could even be a sequel to Videodrome. Well, perhaps, and one could make a case for it, I’m sure.

SA: Where Videodrome used the stimulus of television, this uses the stimulus of the interactive video game, although it’s not exactly video…

DC: Well, it’s not a video, as you’ll admit. There’s no video in the movie.

SA: No, it’s virtual reality.

DC: Well, yeah, and I mean I can see those connections, but for me those are critical matters. Creatively, they don’t function. There’s no creative function that deals with that at all. I mean we can talk about the differences, and there are many, and in terms of the experience that someone has, well that’s also a very subjective thing. Obviously there will be some people who see this movie who might well not have seen any of my other movies, so for them… It’s like people saying "The Thin Red Line was the greatest war movie ever made." Some critic was quoted as saying that. And I’m saying "Well, you must not have seen the thousand other war movies that I’ve seen because I’ve seen a lot of stuff that was in this movie before," but if it’s the first war movie you’ve ever seen, if you’re a very young film critic… I mean when I grew up in the 1940s and 50s, fresh from the Second World War and then the Korean War, there were tons of war movies, I mean that was a real solid genre along with the western and the pirate movie. There were tons of war movies to see. For the last few years there really haven’t been so people are getting all excited about the Second World War again through movies but I mean I’ve been there. And yet if someone has his eyes opened because of something he’s seen in Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line and special effects, that’s fine. But it’s hard to know what to do with what you’re saying. It’s interesting but as I say creatively, for me, from the inside out, it has no function.

SA: eXistenZ is your first original screenplay since Videodrome. What inspired you to create something original like that again?

DC: Nothing, nothing. There’s no inspiration involved in the sense that you mean. In other words, I didn’t sort of say "God, it’s been 17 years since I wrote something original, I‘d better get to it and see what I come up with," because I wasn’t thinking of it at all. In fact I wrote this actually about four years ago. I actually thought it would be made before Crash. I had Crash written but was having trouble getting it financed and so this was set up at MGM because my former agent had become head of MGM and asked me if I would do something there and when he asked me "Do you have anything ready?," I said "No, but I’ve got some ideas and I’ll come up with something." I wasn’t looking for an adaptation, I don’t normally look for them, I don’t normally say "God, I’ve got to find something to do a movie of," because my first four or five movies were all original scripts, but because things had come along, things like a Crash and Naked Lunch and M Butterfly, they just kept me going. But creatively the difference for me between writing an original script and working on something that’s an adaptation is not so extreme as you might think the difference – if you find the right thing to adapt. Obviously for me it has to be something that I really feel I can mix my blood with, you know, something that I can be feeling really close to and passionate about. And I felt that way about those films, so I didn’t feel like I’d been away from something for a long time, it just happened, it was very natural.

SA: I know you’ve butted up against censorship issues for quite some time and it becomes a pretty big part of at least part of eXistenZ.

DC: Yeah, some people try to see this as being a reaction in some way to Crash, but as I say I actually wrote this before Crash and I don’t think in any way this is a reaction. I’ve had enough run ins with censors and censorious minded people that I didn’t need the Crash experience to make the comments on it that I do in this movie. And as I’m sure you know from reading the (press) notes, it did have something to do with Salmun Rushdie too, and I think I was thinking more along the lines of his situation, which I guess you could consider to be the ultimate censorship, condemned to death for what you have written and not just suppressed, or it’s the ultimate suppression I guess. And it’s not the only subject of the movie but it is certainly a part of the movie, the idea that what you create becomes a living thing. (William) Burroughs was very obsessed with that, the idea that what you create as an artist becomes a living thing, it goes out into the world and has a life of its own but is still connected to you. And it’s like a child and it can come back to haunt you in certain ways, and he himself was pretty interested in Rushdie’s situation, as well as you might have imagined.

SA: You’ve said that every project you’ve done is something you’ve been completely interested in, and it’s obvious watching your films that they are your creations, and not simply because you’ve put your stamp on them. As you put it, you mix your blood with these projects. How have you managed to keep doing what you want to do in this kind of industry, where it takes millions and millions of dollars to put together a film.

DC: It’s very difficult. It is difficult, it is a struggle. I’m aware, though, that while I don’t know how it is for somebody like, say, Joel Schumacher who is really a part of the industry and seems recently to be making film after film after film, more frequent than I do, but even for people in the industry I know that… Let me put it this way: I think it would be as difficult to get a film off the ground within this industry as it is outside of it, but in a different way. Because although it seems like there’s millions of movies around they’re getting harder and harder to make, partly because of their budgets, but partly because of the complexity of the business itself. I was offered Seven and I was offered Alien 4, and the temptation was to say "I’ll just jump at it and tomorrow I’ll be shooting the movie," but then you realize it’s not so simple because those movies don’t happen unless you get the right casting and you get the right budget, and then you have to deal with the studio’s script notes, so there are battles to be fought even within that system. So it’s not just sort of "Oh, if I only did that I’d be making a movie, and making a lot of money too." It’s not easy there either so I feel that in a way it’s just because of what I want to do. In other words it’s the choice I’ve made but I don’t think the other way would be easier. There are a lot of battles to be fought either way. It’s hard to make a movie, so why not make a movie that you’re dying to make, that you’re passionate to make.

SA: That’s not necessarily the same for many directors in the industry, who seem to be making films out of love for other films.

DC: Well, their enthusiasm for movies seems to be all about movies, it’s true, and also their enthusiasm is to be a director, to be involved in the movie industry, and that’s sort of where it ends. And everything that works, given those two concepts, is okay. So it’s a different understanding of what it is to be a moviemaker. To me, it’s not what you’ve got to do if you want to be an artist, but that’s a whole other question, that’s a big question.

SA: How did you put together the collaborators on all your movies? Carol Spier has been on every film since…

DC: Since Fast Company, yeah.

SA: Which I have to admit I’ve never seen.

DC: No, it’s hard to see that one, which is funny because it has a slightly western tinge to it because it was shot in Edmonton in Alberta, and Tacoma (a city in Washington south of Seattle) is even mentioned in that movie, so I just realized looking at a map here. It’s maybe a more European approach to filmmaking in a way that you have long time collaborators, but it does happen in America sometimes, but there is a tendency I think in Hollywood to want to go with whoever is hot, whether it’s a cameraman or an editor, whoever has had a success because you’re so success oriented that you’re trying to capture the magic, you know, and whoever touched that magic, whoever won that Oscar you want to get closer to. For me, in the same way that I hope that my movies are getting deeper rather than broader, and more intense, I like those kinds of relationships. I like to work with the same people, and our relationship and our work gets deeper. You could argue "Well don’t you get into a rut working with the same people," but the things on the movies change enough, there’s enough things that change on each movie that each one is quite a separate challenge. It’s also in the sense of guerrilla filmmaking it’s a lot more efficient to work with people that you know and you understand and you have a real shorthand of working and you’ve rubbed off all the rough edges. I mean you know each other very well, each other’s eccentricities and so on, so there’s no emotional wasted in dealing with all that stuff. And it’s a very perilous thing, movies, it is like going into battle and you kind of want to go into battle with people that you know and trust and know they won’t crack under the strain. That’s my relationship to my crew, we’re very close.

SA: Peter Suchitzsky is I think one of the best cinematographers working today. I re-watched Dead Ringers last night, and was that the first film you worked on together?

DC: Yes, it is.

SA: Which is a really attractive movie, it’s quite handsome.

DC: People forget that he shot The Empire Strikes Back, which is certainly the only really good looking of those three movies. You know we’ve become very close friends as well and we keep in touch in many ways and I was just in LA with him doing the video transfer, the digital transfer of the movie, because you really have to redo every shot for color and black level. It’s a relationship we don’t take for granted. We have to sometimes fight to keep it going in the sense that we’re trying to keep our timing together. It’s the same with Carol Spier, for example. When I was going to do Crash I almost thought I wouldn’t be able to use Peter and I had to start looking around for other cinematographers because he was doing Tim Burton’s film Mars Attacks and it was horrible, horrible trying to match myself with somebody else, first to find if they’re available, and then how much do I like their work, and you know people that I don’t know and I have no idea what they’ll be like and will our personalities mesh. You would have to spend a lot of time and energy just finding the right person and then feeling all the time that it won’t be as good as what Peter would have done, you know, that sort of thing. And fortunately they put a hiatus on Tim’s film and he very kindly released Peter so he actually shot Crash while they were still sort of in pre-production on Mars Attacks, and then Peter went back and did it.

SA: That’s funny because Mars Attacks looks just like a Tim Burton movie just like Crash looks like one of your movies.

DC: Peter very much wants to serve the movie. It’s not a matter of imposing a personal style or whatever, but he does anyway, his lighting is phenomenal.

SA: It’s not like a clear break but he seems to have brought a different style to your films from Mark Irwin, who was very bright, very hard edged, and also seemed to draw you into the main characters’ experiences more, and the films that Peter’s been shooting are cooler colors, and a little softer and seem to be a little more removed.

DC: That’s interesting. I mean I don’t know if that’s really a cinematographic thing, it’s very hard to discern why and what. You can talk about coolness you have to decide what you mean because certainly the shooting in Crash was very hard edged and cool, some scenes in Dead Ringers like Claire Nouveau’s apartment was very warm, that was very deliberate that where she lived was very warm and where the boys are is cool, so once again Peter and I are both serving the movie the way we see it. What you say is interesting. I don’t know if it holds up… I certainly would love to do a DVD transfer of The Fly because the prints of that that I’ve seen, the transfer is way too bright, way too bright. It was much moodier and darker than that in the theaters. It was just at the beginning of people realizing that you could not do a one-to-one kind of one light transfer of a film to a video and have it work. You really had to redo the whole movie shot by shot because the media are so different that colors and everything really alters. So that was really a very crude transfer that was done initially for The Fly and there’s not really ever been a good one done of it. It desperately needs it, maybe it would look a little more like, a little closer to Peter’s shooting. If it were properly timed. Some of the earlier stuff I suppose there’s the same issue there, the timing of it. It’s a matter of the technology of the times, you know, and it needs to be really looked at again.

SA: I’ve never seen The Fly on video, I only saw it in the theater. I almost did see it again too in preparation for this. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen many of your films. I went to college as video came out and I did catch up on a lot of your movies that way and I saw the rest in the theater. I suddenly had access to your films as saw them, and mostly all at once.

DC: It’s interesting, because I don’t have that experience at all of my own films, and I can’t. I haven’t seen Videodrome in 15 years.

SA: I also saw for the very first time Crimes Of The Future, which I loved.

DC: Oh really? Did you see it on the laserdisc?

SA: Yeah, on the Dead Ringers special edition disc. I found it strangely compelling.

DC: I wonder how you would have felt if you’d seen it first of all my films? I don’t know.

SA: Well if I’d seen it even ten years ago, just in that context I don’t know that I would have been willing to embrace a different idea of filmmaking. I loved the architecture in that movie, it was so handsome and eerie. I see something like that in places in Dead Ringers, which also has a real architectural beauty to it.

DC: Well definitely I was dealing in those first two movies I made, Stereo and Crimes Of The Future, with the problem of space and people in space. It was one of those things that you know when you think of yourself as maybe being a filmmaker, and up to that point I’d been really thinking of myself as a writer, you don’t have to deal with space in quite the same way as a writer and suddenly the difficulty of manipulating space, it was kind of cubist, you know, how do you cut this space up, so I was wanting the architecture to kind of help me do that. Then as I became more adept and more confident at that I could sort of ease off on the architectural sort of stringency, although certainly my understanding of what space means in a movie was learned in those films, and even though the architecture isn’t nearly an obvious an element, but in a place like (in eXistenz) the trout farm, you know, even the church was a difficulty space to work in, really difficult, because it had a big empty open center space where everything was possible but there was no shape or form to it. That’s difficult, so you’re constantly dealing with it in film.

SA: I like that even in your low budget films you liked to use big spaces when other directors, because of budgets , would work in increasingly smaller spaces.

DC: Well of course your cameraman and your crew always want you to make your sets bigger, you have to understand, but in Shivers there were no sets. In Shivers we were shooting in real apartments, we didn’t have anything like flying wall or anything like that, so that was a very tight space, and I’ve shot in a few real elevators in my time and that’s really tight and it gets very hot.

Spoiler Alert! We talk of the end of the film in the conclusion of the interview, so it is best not to read this until after seeing the eXistenZ.

SA: I guess I’d better talk about the movie. It’s hard to write about eXistenZ because the final five minutes changes your perspective on everything that’s happened in the film. Which I like.

DC: And it would be interesting to see the film again.

SA: In light of that, yeah. A lot of things that didn’t make sense to me made complete sense in light of the ending. But also I love the irony. In my reading of the film the two characters that were the most prominent were because they were the most dominant in the game and they turned out to be the best game players and it was ironic that they were the anti-gamers.

DC: That’s right, and of course we don’t know if that’s really the last level. But is it because they were in their own way the most passionate about gaming, in a weird way, in a negative way, they were still the most passionate about the subject of games and gaming and that’s why in the game the become the arch game players.

SA: In my reading of it was that they were the ones who had the most fully developed personalities outside of gaming and they weren’t used to subsuming themselves into characters….

DC: Are you basing this on game players you know?

SA: No, I don’t really know any game players. I don’t game, but I love the idea of it and my brother is a gamer.

DC: It’s a good structure.

SA: The last line of the movie, "This is still a game, right?"

DC: No it’s "Are we still in the game?" He said "Tell me the truth, are we still in the game?" Trust me, this is coming right from the writer.

SA: It’s a very funny moment in the film and I don’t think you’ve ever ended a film on a joke before, but was that to nudge the audience?

DC: Well it’s interesting. It’s a controversial line in many ways. Some people say "Oh no, not that," because to them it’s like "And then I woke up," which everybody hates because it’s like "Oh, this was just a dream," but of course I don’t think it works then. And I did consider, and maybe it’s like some people said "It’s obvious, you don’t have to say it and it kind of spoils it when you say it," and other people say "No, it really shocked me and it was a great way to end the movie." Ultimately my test was if you take that line out the movie has no ending, and you have to keep cutting back and back and suddenly you’ve taken off five scenes and you still don’t have an ending to the movie. So I figured despite the pros and cons that I can see about having someone actually say this, "Are we still in the game," that I felt because I couldn’t easily take it off the movie that lets you know that it’s got to stay there, that it somehow needs that, so I’m glad that you felt that way because there’s that other side, people who say "Oh well, that’s kind of a…" you know.

SA: I think it also has a lot to do with explaining the character who say it and the characters in the room.

DC: I completely agree. If you talk to these other people they might not be convinced, but I’ve never regretted it. You toy with things when you make a movie because that’s part of editing, you really have a chance to rewrite the movie in many ways when you do that.

I was hardly ready to end the interview, but Cronenberg had a busy day of interviews and my time was up.

Be sure to read the review.

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