David Cronenberg has long been heralded as one of cinema's great filmmakers. His better-known works include Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method.
Cronenberg's latest is Cosmopolis, starring Robert Pattinson and Paul Giamatti: a cautionary tale of 21st-century capitalism, excess, violence, and spiritual lethargy. We recently caught up to talk about critical expectations, how his projects are chosen, and the risks involved in adapting other people's work.
Steven Shehori: A lot of folks had assumed Cosmopolis would be a tough book to shoot. Although the same thing was said about Naked Lunch. Does that sort of challenge draw you to these types of projects?
David Cronenberg: Not really -- it's not like I'm looking for unfilmable novels. Because my theory is that all books are unfilmable. (laughs) I have great respect for the difference between the two mediums, literature and cinema -- they're really different. So my mantra is, in order to be faithful to the book you have to betray the book. You have to be very brutal in terms of leaving out things you know cannot be done cinematically. And not try to desperately convey every aspect of the book. Because then you end up with some voiceover reading the novel to the audience like they're a kid at bedtime. And so I'd approach any adaptation knowing that I'm going to create a new thing that isn't an original movie, but it's not the novel either. It's a fusion of my sensibility and the author's; we're making a brand new thing.
SS: I think back to when Stanley Kubrick did The Shining, which people loved but Stephen King hated. Are you ever concerned about pissing off an author when you adapt their work for the screen?
DC: Well first of all, I think Stephen King was right to hate The Shining -- I didn't think it was very successful myself. And I must point out that he loved my adaptation of The Dead Zone. (laughs) I've been fortunate to have only good collaborations with my writers, and they've been happy with the movies that resulted. But if it turned out they weren't, there would be nothing I could do about it. Once somebody gives you the rights to their book, that's it: They know and you know it's going to go someplace where they're no longer in control. So yes, you want to be on good terms with the writer, but it's not the be-all and end-all.
SS: In terms of sensibilities, Cosmopolis seems to bridge the maturity of your more recent films with some of the mindfuck elements of your earlier work.
DC: I can certainly see that. The connections are obviously there, but I don't have to worry about them because they happen automatically. At no point would I think, "This'll be a nice combination of Videodrome and Crash." And even if I did, it wouldn't really help me make the movie. I'm not thinking of that stuff any more than I'm thinking, "Yeah, this is the critique of American capitalism I've always wanted to do." That's too conceptual, too abstract, too thematic. But what I was thinking with Cosmopolis was, "Wow, (Cosmopolis author Don) DeLillo's dialogue is great. It's realistic, but very stylized. I'd love to hear actors speak it." So for me, that was the entry into the project.
SS: One of the fun things about your previous film, A Dangerous Method, was that anybody seeing it wouldn't leave the theater saying, "Oh yeah, that's pure Cronenberg right there." It's different from what people expect from you. Do you feel you've been making a deliberate choice to sidestep some of the stylistic and thematic elements that helped define your career?
DC: That wouldn't be enough motivation to get me through what will always be the gruelling experience of making a film. For me, it's about the close and intimate relationship I've developed with the material. The previous movies I've made are irrelevant when a new project starts; in some ways each movie is like the first one I've made. I try not to approach these things from an analytical or comparative path.
SS: It keeps people guessing; the next thing you do could be a musical set in Ancient Greece for all I know. I have no idea where you're going.
DC: You and me both -- I have no idea either. (laughs) I'd be happy if you could tell me.
Cosmopolis enters wide release on Friday, August 24.