Q&A: David Cronenberg

'Dangerous Method' helmer talks working with Pattinson, Giamatti on 'Cosmopolis'

Although David Cronenberg has built a career on films that explore the dark crevasses of the mind, he says he likes to have “good, productive fun” when he’s working. “I have a very light set, and I don’t screw with people’s heads,” he says. During a break from the set of his upcoming “Cosmopolis,” Cronenberg stopped by Variety’s offices to talk with Christy Grosz about the challenges of financing and why he’ll probably never make a big-budget studio film.

Is there a particular kind of script or story that usually appeals to you?

I know the fans think I must have a checklist: bloody, horror, some kind of gore, some kind of transformation — all of the things that they love and that they’ve written about. Then when I do “Dangerous Method,” they’re baffled because most of those things aren’t on that checklist or they are but only in a vague, metaphorical way. I actually am completely open to anything; I don’t want to close the door on anything, including horror films or sci-fi films. If something came along that was really striking and original and new and potent, I wouldn’t hesitate. In truth, a lot of the stuff around has been influenced by my earlier movies, so I get scripts that are remakes of my movies. And I say, “Why would I do that? I’ve already done that and a long time ago.”

In terms of categories, I don’t really categorize. Creatively, genre doesn’t mean anything. It ultimately is a marketing question or a critical question. But creatively when you’re making a movie you are always dealing with the same things: How do you get the best out of this scene? How do you deliver what this character is? How do you shoot it? How do you light it? That’s always the same, and I love that process.

So there’s nothing specific that I look for. I wouldn’t even say great characters and great stories because I can imagine some weird movie that doesn’t have that and it still attracts me. I wouldn’t even close the door on that.

Grosz: Do you reflect on what you’ve just finished and try to apply what you’ve learned to the next movie?

Never. What I did in the last movie has no bearing on this movie. It’s a completely new book, which is a nice thing. No, because although I often work with the same crew, every project is so different. And the challenges are always unique, in working with different actors, different locations. What you take from the past is your craft. You have confidence in the craft that you’ve taken on, and you’ve developed your style and technique. But in terms of actual moments in the movies that you’ve screwed up or you wish you hadn’t done, that won’t be applicable to the next one directly — it just won’t. The dynamics are completely changed.

You’ve collaborated several times with Viggo Mortenson, who also stars in your current film. What about him as an actor makes him a good fit with your work style?

We really trust each other’s sensibility. I did talk to a director once who said, “You know this guy Viggo you worked with? I sent a script to him, and he sent me notes!” I said, “Yeah? Well, were they good notes?” He looked at me like I was crazy. To him it was obviously an outrage that an actor should send him notes, but to me that’s just Viggo, and it would be a completely ego-less thing. It would be just Viggo considering this project seriously but thinking there might be some flaws or some questions he might want to ask and he does. But to me, that’s a good thing, not a bad thing. It’s not an outrageous thing, and I never considered that, especially since, as I say, he is very ego-less when it comes to that. It’s not like if you don’t accept his suggestions, he’ll have a temper tantrum. It’s a collaboration, especially if he’s playing a lead role. One of the lessons I learned long ago was that actors are best when they are your collaborators, and not your enemies and not creatures that you have to manipulate, which I was thinking I might have to do on my first movies because I didn’t know. (Sometimes) the actor makes a suggestion about a way to act a scene and you can’t do that because you actually can’t afford to light that part of the room. You don’t have time. And I would think, “I can’t tell this to the actor because it’s a vulnerability.” But then I later realized that you totally can. You could say, “Geez, I really don’t have time to do that. Is there some other way we can do it, but over here where the light is?” And you realize that actors love that, that you’ve taken them into your confidence and you’re being honest with them. Then they try to help you work it out as your collaborator. That’s one thing that I did take from an early experience. In other words, it’s a general approach, not very specific.

You’ve worked with a lot of high-profile British actors like Jeremy Irons and Miranda Richardson. Is there a different sensibility that British actors bring that works well for you?

Part of casting that people rarely understand or need to understand but is a huge part of making independent films is what passport the actor has. If you’re doing a co-production you’re not doing a co-production with America because U.S. doesn’t have any co-production treaties. It means that you cannot use American actors or, if you do, you are very limited. “A Dangerous Method,” technically, does not have any American actors. Viggo has a Danish passport. (“Cosmopolis star”) Rob Pattinson is a U.K. citizen. When you have Paul Giamatti in “Cosmopolis,” he’s the only American actor, even though it’s an American story that takes place in New York. So these are things that you have to consider. Inevitably, for me, if you’re doing an English-speaking role, you look at U.K. actors. It’s true, of course, that they have a wonderful tradition of great acting, and they are actors who do stage and television and movies, which in the old days was unique to the U.K. In America, there was a real stigma attached to you if you were a TV actor. Guys like George Clooney struggled, I think, to finally get out of there, and whereas in the U.K. there was no stigma attached to doing a TV show. So very experienced actors who really understood the difference between theater acting and stage acting, movie acting weren’t, quote, theatrical when they did movies. They knew how to do that, whereas when you’re working with actors from other countries, they didn’t know how to do that. Even some Canadian actors were very theater-oriented, and they couldn’t do that sort of naturalistic American style of acting. So U.K. actors were very attractive, and the quality of the work was great, and so on. That’s a lot of the reason. Often it was a Canada-U.K. co-production. Or if it’s a Canada-France co-production, English actors can work because it’s the European Union and that’s the deal, so it doesn’t have to be a French actor per se, it could be a U.K. actor. So that’s one of the reasons that I work with a lot of English actors.

Financing is never easy for independent films. Do you find that getting someone like Mortensen attached early on helps drum up interest?

You have to find a cast that matches the tone of the movie and the budget level that you’re going for. Everybody knows about studio movies where they say, well, we’ll do this $200 million movie if you get Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt. It’s at a different level, but it’s still the same dynamic when you’re doing an independent film. It’s like, “Well, we’ll buy the rights to France if you get someone like Rob Pattinson or Paul Giamatti or whatever.” You can’t really have your leads be unknown even in an independent film. You can sort of introduce unknowns. Sarah Gadon, for example, who plays Emma Jung (in “A Dangerous Method”). She’s Canadian. She’s my discovery. She has a nice big role with Rob in “Cosmopolis.” So by the time we’re doing “Cosmopolis,” she’s a real asset. Her star is rising. She’s getting attention, and that’s lovely to see. And eventually you’ll be able to finance I would think somebody like Rob Pattinson could help, too.

The thing is, by himself, it’s not enough. We have Juliette Binoche.
We have Mathieu Amalric. We needed the French element to sell France. Paul Giamatti (was) very important to make the film attractive everywhere but also in North America. So one actor, even a great actor or famous actor is often not enough on his own still. That’s the way it goes. That’s the name of the game. So for me the balancing act is to juggle all of those things: the passports, the money, the fame and still get the right actors in the roles. It’s an entertainment trick.

Have you ever been tempted to just say, “Maybe I should take on a big-budget movie”?

Yeah sure, and I’ve talked to Guillermo del Toro about his attempts to put these movies together that are totally commercial. They’re monster movies and they’re full of special effects, and it’s still a nightmare, even in the studio. The budget struggles, the financing struggles, the script struggles. It would be wonderful if somebody said, “Here’s a script of ‘The Matarese Circle.’ We love this, we don’t want to change a word. Tom Cruise loves it. Denzel Washington loves it, and they love you. All you have to do is sign here, and we’re in pre-production.” It never happens. If it did happen, I definitely would be tempted. But it never happens because it’s always, “Well, the script needs a lot of work, and Denzel is unhappy with this, and Tom is unhappy, and we’re not sure about you.” I’ve come to realize it’s not easier when you’re doing a studio movie. The one thing that is easier is, I guess, I don’t have to go out and help pre-sell Europe or something, but other than that, it’s still a struggle. It’s not easy to make movies. I say to these kids who (say), “Man, I’d like to be a director.” You say, “Well, it’s actually quite hard.” They love the attitude and they love the idea, but I don’t know if they’re really willing to suffer how they’re going to have to suffer.

It also sounds like it’s exhausting to promote the completed films.

It is a grind. I talked to Denys Arcand. He was nominated for the Oscar for foreign film for “The Barbarian Invasions,” and he said he would never do it again. It was interesting and all that, (but) he said it was six major months of campaigning like a political campaign, and he found it incredibly draining. The thing is, I’ve always promoted my movies. I’ve been all over the world for all of the movies, and it’s an expected part of what you do, but the awards thing, if you should get nominated or something like that, obviously it becomes an even huger commitment. I suppose at that point you really have to ask yourself, “What am I doing this for?” It’s not necessarily a no-brainer that you want all this stuff. It’s good for your film, and that’s the ultimate justification. At my age and where I am, I’m not sure that it would affect my career one way or another to win an Oscar or not. The awards campaign is partly just promoting your movie; it’s hard to separate those two. In fact in some territories including Canada, it won’t be released until next year so if you’ve got a nomination that would definitely be a help.

Have you seen any films this year that you’ve really enjoyed?

Well, I’ve seen nothing. I mean that is the irony, too. I’ve been at six film festivals with my movie, and I have not had a chance to see anything. I haven’t even seen ‘Shame,’ which (“Dangerous Method” star) Michael (Fassbender) is in. I’m actually waiting for the screeners. I do watch the screeners, and when I get home they’ll be there, and then I’ll be going to France and I still won’t be able to watch them. I look forward to (screeners). That’s when I do most of my movie watching.

Not the way the filmmaker intended.

Some of us actually, secretly, did intend it.