This article was originally published in 2009
Lifetime achievement awards and hall of fame inductions often go to individuals who are slowing down and can sit back and reflect on their illustrious careers.
David Cronenberg is not one of those individuals.
Already a legend of Canadian cinema, the Toronto director, in his fifth decade of filmmaking, remains focused on upcoming challenges. Those include adapting Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis, about a captain of industry who takes a violent, surreal limousine ride through New York in search of a haircut. The film is a potential coproduction between France’s Alfama Films and the director’s Toronto Antenna.
And then there is The Matarese Circle, an adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s conspiracy-thriller novel that has Tom Cruise very keen to star and Denzel Washington also interested. If MGM ultimately gives the green light, it would mark Cronenberg’s first picture for a major studio.
‘I’m happy to do it the studio way and see what that’s like,’ explains the 66-year-old filmmaker, on a rare day off from scriptwriting, which often keeps him working through the night. ‘Part of the experiment for me is to have the studio experience, which I’ve never really had.’
Of course, he has made Hollywood films before, but they were for indie producers, such as The Dead Zone (1983) for Dino De Laurentiis, The Fly (1986) for funnyman Mel Brooks, and M. Butterfly (1993) for Geffen Pictures.
And then there was 2005′s A History of Violence, made for New Line Productions before it became a division of Warner Bros. The modern western, in which Viggo Mortensen plays a café owner whose gangster past is unexpectedly brought to the fore, connected with the movie-going public without sacrificing the director’s penchant for gory action, sex and existentialism.
The film garnered Academy Award nominations for supporting actor William Hurt for his turn as a mob boss, and for screenwriter Josh Olson, who adapted from a graphic novel.
Cronenberg followed up two years later with the equally impressive Eastern Promises, an 80/20 U.K./Canada copro involving producer Robert Lantos, an old collaborator, and again starring Mortensen – this time as a Russian mobster in the London underworld who, in fact, is a secret agent. The leading man’s remarkable performance was nominated for an Oscar.
Despite a dwindling international appetite for indie cinema, the two films each took in around US$60 million on worldwide screens, according to Box Office Mojo. It is these returns that make a project like The Matarese Circle possible.
But getting respect for his edgy work did not come immediately for Cronenberg, not even in his home country.
After making art-house films Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970), the University of Toronto grad moved in a consciously more commercial direction.
‘[Experimental filmmaking] was a dead end for me,’ he told Playback in a 2005 interview. ‘I would have to either do something else – I still had ambitions to be a novelist – or become a professional filmmaker, which meant I had to make movies in such a way that I would be paid and that would be my life’s work.’
And so, he teamed with Montreal’s Cinepix and a young producer named Ivan Reitman to make his first of 16 features, the horror film Shivers (1975), which set the tone for much of his early work. A gruesome tale of a sexually transmitted parasite, the B-flick with a $180,000 budget immediately established its maker as a lightning rod for controversy.
Robert Fulford, then-editor of Saturday Night magazine, pseudonymously wrote a cover story about Shivers entitled ‘You Should Know How Bad This Movie Is – You Paid for It’, in which he protested the public funds this ‘repulsive’ movie drew from the Canadian Film Development Corporation (now Telefilm Canada).
‘I remember telling [then CFDC head] Michael Spencer, ‘Only 100 people read Saturday Night magazine,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, but it’s the wrong 100 people,” recalled Cronenberg.
And so, a public debate raged – the kind that continues to dog Telefilm-backed productions to this day.
But Cronenberg proved those public dollars were, in fact, well spent. Shivers made a reported US$5 million in worldwide box office, and the filmmaker got better at his craft, earning the self-bestowed title of the ‘Baron of Blood’ with subsequent films such as Rabid (1977), which earned US$7 million, and Videodrome, which wasn’t a big hit at the box office despite a U.S. release from Universal Pictures, but was championed by Andy Warhol as ‘the Clockwork Orange of the ’80s,’ and remains a cult favorite internationally.
Two others, The Brood (1979) and the literally mind-blowing Scanners (1981), which took in US$14 million in North America, currently have remakes in development without their creator’s participation.
Hollywood then came calling, first with the Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone (1983), starring Christopher Walken as a man who wakes from a coma with psychic powers. It made US$21 million in North America and won over previously cynical mainstream critics.
Then there was The Fly, featuring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis in a remake of the 1958 sci-fi classic about a scientist whose atoms get mixed up with those of a common house fly. The film was a US$60 million worldwide smash, and its gruesome makeup garnered an Oscar for Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis.
Despite these successes, Cronenberg never packed up for Tinsel Town. He has shot at least part of all his films in Canada (except Eastern Promises), employing numerous local crew and support staff, and remains the Genie Awards’ most feted filmmaker, with 10 trophies to his name. He was appointed an Officer to the Order of Canada in 2003.
‘It pleases me when young – and sometimes not so young – Canadian filmmakers say that I was an example to them that you could have an international moviemaking career while staying in Canada,’ he says.
Outside of his homeland, ground zero for Cronenberg love is France, where he lived back in 1971/72, and which this past April awarded him the Medal of Knight to the French National Order of the Legion of Honour. His work is perfectly suited to French cinéastes: after all, that country produced the auteur theory, which champions the work of directors expressing themselves within the conventions of genre filmmaking.
‘I always thought I was doing art,’ Cronenberg has told Playback, and he recalls saying as much in an interview he once did alongside fellow helmers John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) and John Carpenter (The Thing). ‘After the interview was over, Carpenter and Landis came and said, ‘Do you know what you did? You kept calling yourself ‘an artist.’ We would never admit that in public. It’s bad publicity!”
However, the director would never claim to be the sole author of his films.
‘A movie is a huge collaboration amongst many people,’ he says. ‘You can’t say ‘This whole movie is mine.’ It cannot be like writing a novel. It cannot be a one-man routine.’
In this spirit, Cronenberg has kept his favorite collaborators close by. Over the years he has consistently worked with craftspeople including director of photography Peter Suschitzky, three-time Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore, editor Ronald Sanders, casting director Deirdre Bowen, production designer Carol Spier, and his sister, costume designer Denise Cronenberg.
This writer had the opportunity to visit the set of the filmmaker’s 2002 Canada/U.K. psychological thriller Spider, starring Ralph Fiennes, and what was most remarkable was how calm and light the mood was, which was especially impressive given the intense nature of the scenes being shot. Cronenberg insists he still enjoys being in the thick of it.
‘I notice that at my age, a lot of people have retired – some of them even 10 years ago – but I can’t imagine it, frankly,’ he says. ‘It’s because it’s too much fun. If it’s really work and you’re really desperate to finish it, that’s one thing. I’ve never thought of filmmaking that way. When I fall down, I’ll stop.’
March 15, 1943: David Paul Cronenberg is born in Toronto to a journalist father and pianist mother
1967: Graduates from the University of Toronto, where he switched from the science faculty to English language and literature
1969: Embarks on his first feature-length 35mm films, the experimental Stereo and Crimes of the Future
1975: First mainstream movie, the horror flick Shivers, is released, becoming one of the fastest recouping movies in Canadian film history, raking in US$5 million worldwide
1979: Marries second and current wife Carolyn Zeifman
1981: Scanners opens as the number one film in North America
1983: Releases The Dead Zone, his first Hollywood picture, which takes in US$21 million in North America
1984: Videodrome yields the first of five best-direction Genie Awards
1986: The Fly, starring Jeff Goldblum, makes US$40 million in North America and wins the best makeup Oscar
1988: The gynecological horror Dead Ringers is released, featuring Jeremy Irons in a dual gynecologist role as good twin/bad twin. Many think he should have been nominated for an Oscar. When Irons does win for Barbet Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune a couple of years later, he curiously thanks Cronenberg, amongst others, from the stage
1991: Releases his adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, which will net eight Genies
1996: Adaptation of J.G. Ballards’ Crash, about automotive-themed sex, causes an uproar at the Cannes Film Festival, where the word ‘depravity’ is bandied about in the press, some moviegoers boo, and Ted Turner urges distrib Fine Line Features not to release it. Yet the Cannes fest jury – which fellow Toronto auteur Atom Egoyan was on – creates a special award for Crash for its ‘daring, originality and audacity’
1999: President of the jury at the Cannes film festival
2002: Directs Patrick McGrath’s adaptation of his novel Spider, starring Ralph Fiennes, and wins his fifth best-direction Genie
2005: A History of Violence, starring Viggo Mortensen, becomes the director’s most successful movie since The Fly, taking in US$60 million around the world and garnering two Oscar noms
2007: Eastern Promises grosses US$56 million internationally and earns Mortensen a best-actor nom