David Cronenberg’s new film, A History of Violence, was a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival. After many years on the edges of the avant, Cronenberg has seemingly returned to more popular territory with this film, in which the owner of a diner kills a man in self defense, attracting the unwanted attention of two Mob hit men. The film is ostensibly based on a DC Comics graphic novel, but it’s been significantly changed from the source material.
A History of Violence has an amazing cast – Viggo Mortensen is the diner owner and Maria Bello is his wife, while William Hurt and Ed Harris play the hitmen. I haven’t seen the movie yet but a trusted friend who has tells me that he can’t decide if the movie is merely great or a true masterpiece. It opens in September, and you’ll be able to make up your own mind then.
Cronenberg made an appearance at this year’s San Diego Comic Con to promote the film, and I had a chance to join in on a small roundtable with one of the great modern directors.
Q: Is it the film you wanted to make?
Cronenberg: I wouldn’t be here talking to you if it weren’t.
Q: What made you decide to return to a more graphic, pulpy film after your latest independent films?
Cronenberg: Gee, well, I think Crash which was about as independent as they come was pretty graphic and a little bit pulpy. And Naked Lunch was too, so I don’t really see that.
Q: Well there was Spider.
Cronenberg: Yeah, that’s one movie. eXistenZ was also an independent movie and it had plenty of creatures and stuff in it. Each movie is a unique thing to me. It’s like having a kid. You feed the kid what it needs. I give the project what it needs. I don’t impose stuff on it, it takes on a life of its own. So I don’t put things in to say that it’s me because people expect it of me, nor do I take out something because it’s expected of me.
For example the gore shots in A History of Violence, of which there are not many, are there for a very specific reason which has to do with the movie. It doesn’t have to do with my other movies, it doesn’t have to do with my career, it doesn’t have to do with what people expect of me or not, it has to do with what the movie needs – the purpose of the movie. In those particular cases I want the audience to be exhilarated and complicit in the violence and then be kind of repelled by the aftermath of what the consequences of that violence are. That only has to do with the dynamics of the movie and not with what anyone thinks of my other movies. And that’s my approach basically. Obviously there are connections amongst the movies and you can make those connections and that’s fine, that perfectly legit. But that’s more of a critic’s function, it’s not my function to do that.
Q: I read that you didn’t adhere closely to the book. Was that a conscious decision?
Cronenberg: It was a very odd circumstance – I never knew there was a graphic novel involved. It’s not like when I made Naked Lunch which was an homage to William Burroughs and his work. In this case I didn’t know that there was a graphic novel so I had no attachment to it, no investment in it. Really my investment was in Josh’s script. We had developed it to a certain point that it was going in a very interesting direction and I was very happy with it. That was when I heard there was a graphic novel. I looked at it and saw that although the basic premise was the same, it took that premise and went in a very different direction than what we were doing. With Josh I guess it was conscious to go in a different direction, but for me it wasn’t. I was just following him and developing it with him. So it had no effect on me, reading it. I was looking at it thinking that maybe there was something interesting in it that wasn’t in the script but should be, but then I saw it was almost basically irrelevant to the script at the time.
Q: [Screenwriter] Josh [Olson] mentioned he wrote this script with Viggo in mind.
Cronenberg: He’s lying! He’ll do anything to seem like he was – No, he might well have. I don’t know.
Q: So you came to the conclusion that Viggo was good for the part separately.
Cronenberg: Totally separately.
Q: What was it that you saw in Viggo that made you cast him?
Cronenberg: People propose lists. Because the project had been in development for some time without me, everybody had an opinion about who should play what roles. In particular there were some characters in Josh’s original script that I got rid of, so there were even some characters cast I didn’t even want in the movie. Viggo was certainly on my short list. He wasn’t the only one. Don’t forget that we were developing the script, so the characters change. As the characters change the dynamics change and it starts to become clearer who would be good, and the tone of it.
Viggo’s just the perfect guy. Not only as an actor but where he is in his career and his age and everything. I started to do research, which I always do when actors are named, and you start to look at DVDs of movies you didn’t know they had done. Obviously what he had done in Lord of the Rings, which is why he’s famous, has very little to do with this movie. But other things that he’s done, like one called A Walk on the Moon with Dianne Lane, has a lot to do with it because in that movie he’s very gentle and sweet and tender, and usually he plays bad guys, scary guys. But I could see from that movie that he could be lovely as a gentle and sweet guy, and very sexy as well. It didn’t take long for him to go to the top of the list. But there are always things going on that are more political than just actor stuff. Was Viggo happy with New Line after Lord of the Rings? You have to consider that, is that an issue? You have to find these things out and you have to talk to agents and so on.
Casting is a real black art, a weird, strange process and it takes a while to figure out how it works. Inevitably what you want is that the actor seems like the only choice. When you see the movie you should feel like nobody else could have played that role. The actor wants that and you want that. But in fact, before that actor is cast, anybody can play that role.
Q: Did New Line’s reputation make a difference for your return to a studio film?
Cronenberg: I was interested in New Line because of their reputation amongst directors, which is very good, and is one of the few studios you can say that about. I didn’t have final cut on this movie. On an independent movie I do have final cut, that’s one of the things they can offer you instead of money. But I must say I still haven’t made a movie that’s anybody else’s cut but mine. That has a lot to do with choosing the right people to work with. Bob Shaye and I go back a long way, I knew him many years ago, so it was coming full circle to work there.
Once you agree on a cast and a budget and a script they leave you alone, they let you make the film you want to make. Knowing who not to work with is part of being a good director.
Q: The script is what attracted you to the project in the first place but you made some fine tuning to it.
Cronenberg: Quite a bit, yeah.
Q: What were the changes you made?
Cronenberg: Some of it was fine and some of it was crude. For example in Josh’s original script there were no sex scenes. I added the two sex scenes. I thought they were necessary and very important as a pair. In Josh’s original script they weren’t brothers and I thought it was very important that they be brothers, and there was a reason for that, besides the fact that the emotional stakes are immediately raised if they’re brothers. Also it brings a kind of archetypal power to the story, you get Cain and Abel.
Also you get a little bit of Billy’s past life. I didn’t want to do flashbacks and neither did Josh. We didn’t want that kind of structure because it lessens the tension, we felt. We wanted to stay in the present. So how do you deliver the past? How do you give it a little taste of it? Well, if Richie is just Joey’s friend from the past, which was in Josh’s script, you just get a friendship vibe, but if he’s his brother, you get a family vibe. You can add some lines about “When mom brought you back from the hospital I tried to strangle you in the crib.” You get a bit of the sibling rivalry. You get a taste of it more than if they had just been friends or Mob acquaintances.
Those were the two major changes that I wanted to make, and Josh was happy to do it. He had never written sex scenes before, he said, so he was a little shy. But he did a good job.
Q: You’ve made some of the more challenging, interesting and visceral films of the last twenty years, but a lot of them have not been very commercial at all. It’s been a while since you’ve done something commercial. Do you see this as a commercial film, as a return to that?
Cronenberg: Well on aintitcool.com somebody said, “Oh my God, Cronenberg might become relevant again!” So I asked my friends, “Do you think I’m more relevant now?”
It was obvious that this had more commercial potential than Spider or Crash. When you make movies like that you can’t fool yourself, you know they have a very limited audience. This movie cost 32 million dollars, which is the most expensive movie I have ever made. It was with a studio, and they have expectations and their expectations were that at least it’s going to make some money as a profit. Therefore it has to be more commercial than Spider. But that’s all upfront. It’s understood, it’s not an issue. There was a short discussion we had, I basically said that no, I wasn’t going to try to turn it into Spider. When I talked to them about where I thought the script should go they could see that I wasn’t trying to make it less accessible, just stronger in what it was. As I say, I am trying to make the movie as it is the best version of it, I am not trying to force something that’s not going to go.
Q: Was that more of a conscious choice for you, though?
Cronenberg: It was, because I didn’t make any money on Spider and I spent two years doing it. For me, as for probably most people except for Bill Gates, you go for two years without making any money you’re in trouble. And I was. So I had to make a movie that was solid, in terms of its financing. Independent movie financing agony, and I have to get very involved in the financing. For example, Spider, every lunch I am on the phone to the French distributor trying to sell the movie to him so he’ll invest in the movie so the movie won’t fall apart. That’s very hard when you’re just trying to make the movie, which is hard enough.
I really had to be involved as a producer, basically, in those independent movies. This one is financed, it’s a studio, I don’t have to worry about the money or where it comes from. I mean, you have to worry about the budget, you have to agree on that, but it’s a quite different thing. And yeah, I had to be paid. I had to know that I wasn’t going to have to defer my salary to get the movie made, which is what happened to all of us on Spider – the actors, everybody. We all deferred. It was either that or don’t make the movie.
Q: The cinematography in the film is great. You’ve worked with the same cinematographer for a while now?
Cronenberg: Since 1988. Since Dead Ringers. You know, he shot the Empire Strikes Back. Not many people are aware of that. It’s the only good looking Star Wars movie, and you can tell George I said that.
But Peter Suschitzky shot that, and Rocky Horror Picture Show. Yes, he shot everything of mine since Dead Ringers.
Q: Did the studio ever show any concern about the sex and the violence in the film?
Cronenberg: No. I mean, it was always a discussion but not a concern. Just discussions about normal kinds of things that are quite legitimate. It was a nice collaboration with the studio people I was working with. Never hostile, never suspicious, it was none of the things we all have read about. It was good.
Questions are the kind of questions and actor would ask – would the scene on the stairs be perceived as a rape? Because it’s not supposed to be a rape, it’s supposed to be a very complex act on both their parts. How can we make sure people won’t think it’s that and make sure it’s violent on both their parts?
I am picking that out of a hat because it’s a specific thing, but that is just a discussion. I didn’t feel that I was any more constrained on this movie than I was on Spider, a movie I had total control over.
Q: What about the title? I mentioned it to some people and they think it’s a documentary.
Cronenberg: Yeah, I’ve heard that too. That would be a really long documentary. Really, really long.
I’m a little surprised though, here. In France they don’t use the same expression that we do in North America, where you say, “Suspect had a long history of violence,” for example. They don’t use that expression. For them a history of violence is, are we talking about the US, are we talking about human beings in general, are we talking about the human condition? I think all of those levels are there: the personal one, the national one and the universal one are all sort of themes discussed in the movie without it being too overt. It’s all there – you can take the movie very politically if you want or you can take it philosophically, and it works on all those levels.