It’s a toss up as to whether David Cronenberg’s work is influential or merely prescient. In “Scanners,” Michael Ironside’s psychic attack makes Louis Del Grande’s head explode. In “Videodrome,” an amoral network executive sees commercial potential in a channel that broadcasts torture.
“This is a very strange time,” says Cronenberg by phone the week after the premiere of his thriller “Eastern Promises.” “I remember when [“Screw” editor] Al Goldstein offered $50,000 to anyone who could show him a real snuff film — everyone talked about them, but nobody ever produced one [for Goldstein]. Now they’re available on the internet every hour of the day or night. You can see beheadings, throat-cuttings, women being stoned to death, mostly courtesy of Muslim extremists. And that’s never existed before.”
Given the initial, explosive growth of the “torture porn” subgenre, filmed torture isn’t the sole purview of terrorists. However, Cronenberg suggests the two things are related.
“This is theoretical, with the caveat that I haven’t seen these movies: Maybe these movies are a response to [the threat of terrorism],” he says. “People often go to horror films to confront things that they are afraid of and maybe that is the fear, now, and maybe that is a fear that needs to be exorcised by confronting it in a controlled situation.
“I think people go to the movies to live other lives,” he continues. “You want to get out of your own life and kind of become someone else for a while, even if you wouldn’t want to stay in that life. There’s a kind of vicariousness that’s a part of all art, I think. So if you’re going to be [“Eastern Promises” protagonist] Nikolai, who lives a life that is fraught with danger, I want you to experience his life as it really is.”
Viggo Mortensen portrays Nikolai, the charismatic and potentially dangerous driver for a notorious Eastern European organized crime family; the actor also starred in Cronenberg’s prior film, “A History of Violence.” And while it’s been years since Cronenberg worked in the horror genre with films like “Shivers,” “The Brood” or “The Fly,” both “Violence” and “Promises” allow the director to tap into a more realistic part of the human psyche a la “Dead Ringers” and “M. Butterfly.” And for now, Mortensen is his preferred instrument.
“I like to say that with Viggo, you don’t just get a solo violin, you get an entire orchestra,” Cronenberg says. “He brings a lot to a film that is quite extraordinary, with the depth of research that he does. In the original script, tattoos were alluded to but they weren’t a big deal — they weren’t the central metaphor that they became.”
Cronenberg prides himself on the kind of flexibility that allowed him to rework much of the film around the information that Mortensen brought to him. “I’m very collaborative and I’m actually very lazy,” he notes at the end of a detailed history of criminal tattoos in Russian prisons. “If someone else will do a lot of the work, I’m very happy for that. I’ve never understood why you would hire brilliant actors and then tell them exactly what to do.”
So what scares Cronenberg, whose films almost always have overwhelming moments of violence? Right now, the most frightening is his next project: An opera version of his 1986 remake of “The Fly.” “I’ve never done [opera] before,” he says. “It’s so different on film. But my fallback position is that opera is not a director’s medium, it’s a composer’s medium. I’m only the director, so if I screw it up the music will still be good and the libretto will still be good.”
Cronenberg collaborators Howard Shore and David Henry Hwang wrote the music and the libretto, respectively; soon, Cronenberg will head into uncharted territory – but not without a couple of ideas.
“I wouldn’t want to spoil it, but I have a particular approach. In about a week, I’ll be working with singers for the first time in my life, and we’ll have the telepods there that we’ve designed, and we’ll see how it all starts to work.”