EXCLUSIVE: David Cronenberg has been at the cutting edge of horror for more than 50 years, sailing close to the mainstream with edgy early-2000s thrillers such as A History of Violence and Eastern Promises while appeasing the fans of his visceral ’80s work with the likes of 1999’s eXistenZ. At first glance, his new film Crimes of the Future is very much in the latter mold, a nod to the squishy weirdness of Videodrome with its trippy mantra, “Long live the new flesh.” The tale of an artist working in the field of surgery as art, his upcoming Cannes Competition entry also evokes the specter of Crash, his outrageous automotive-erotic drama that scandalized the Croisette in 1996.
DEADLINE: You made a very different short film in 1970 called Crimes of the Future. Why did you choose to revisit the title?
DAVID CRONENBERG: Well, it came about in a very organic way. It doesn’t have a lot of significance, actually—the original title was Painkillers, and it was over 20 years ago that I wrote the script. So, when I was discussing reviving the project with the producer Robert Lantos, he suggested that we co-opt the old title because it was more interesting. A lot of movies and books and TV series called Painkillers had come out in the 20 years since I wrote that script. So, we thought we needed a new title, and we just thought Crimes of the Future, although it is not a sequel or a remake of my old 1970 underground film. They both are accurately called Crimes of the Future—so why not do it? It was really no more significant than that. Only a few people will know about the existence of that old film. That’s the way we thought about it. We just liked the title, and we thought it would be nice to have it on a movie that will probably gather a larger audience than the original.
DEADLINE: You seem to me to make two types of films—fleshy films and psychological films. I’m delighted to see you returning to the fleshy variety.
CRONENBERG: Yeah. Well, for me, psychology is fleshy, so it doesn’t feel as different for me, although, of course, I know exactly what you mean. But, yeah, I guess that is the description of this movie: it’s going to either attract or repel people. Basically, I’m returning to a kind of filmmaking that I haven’t done for a while. And the feeling is that there’s a new audience for a film like Crimes of the Future that didn’t exist when I was making my last three or four films. So, it’s my return to the flesh.
DEADLINE: It takes place in the art world, which is something you touched on in Videodrome, but you’ve never really gone into that before.
CRONENBERG: Yeah, it was also evident in Scanners, actually—there’s a sculptor who lives inside the head that he’s created, you’ll recall. So, the art world has never been far from my purview. In Toronto, I was an interested part of what was developing with the art scene here with the sculptors and the painters that were developing in Canada. You know, I’ve really avoided having a major character who is an artist, but with Crimes, it’s a very specific kind of art, a very fleshy kind of art. It’s surgical performance art, basically. So, it brings together a few of the themes of things that I’ve been dealing with. I’m always interested, as any, I suppose, writer, director, filmmaker, in the creative process, and turning your own lens on your own process. It’s an honorable thing. Many, many filmmakers have made films about filmmaking, or about writers, about sculptors. So, this is my very particular version of that because I’ve invented the art form. Not that performance art hasn’t existed—of course it has existed, and it is still thriving. But in my film, it’s an invented environment. So, it felt very natural to me when I was writing it those many years ago. And when I revisited it—from, of course, a very different perspective—it still felt quite viable, quite juicy, with meaning and potential, dramatically and thematically.
DEADLINE: So what project is your main character Saul Tenser engaged in?
CRONENBERG: Well, to the extent that any artist is basically examining the human condition, in one way or another, it’s inevitably the subject of art, one way or another. Even if you have no human figures in your art, that is basically the subject of your art. But Saul Tenser is particularly focused on his own human condition, as most of us are. And in particular this focus is on his body—his own body—and the potential for creativity that his body seems to be expressing. And that’s an interesting inversion of the normal process of artistic expression. That’s the trick of the movie, that aspect.
DEADLINE: It’s interesting that you’ve been exploring these ideas for a long time, and you’ve kind of been proven right.
CRONENBERG: Sadly, sadly sometimes, yeah.
DEADLINE: Even with your psychological films, there’s always an idea of infection, of violence and madness being somehow viral. Do you ever pause to think about your own capacity for foreseeing these things?
CRONENBERG: No, not really. You have to be realistic about what influence you have, or do not have, on people. And as an artist, it’s—ironically—very liberating to think that you have no influence on anybody whatsoever. As an artist, you have to accept that. I think it’s a big mistake to think that you’re going to change the world if you’re an artist. Big mistake. First of all, it’s not realistic, as history has proved. And then, secondly, it would really start to inhibit you. I mean, it would really lock you up into a cage of your own making. I mean, there was a time, early on in my career, where this was a big deal. It was like: “People will see your movie and then they will go out and kill other people.” You don’t hear that anymore, but that was a really hot button [topic] of criticism and social criticism at the time—the influence that movies and entertainment in general have on people. Now, you’re seeing a bit of that in a strange way with TikTok, but it’s not quite the same. So, the fact that art can influence people is undeniable, but the way that it does it, and the potency of it, is totally in question and totally varies in the context and so on.
DEADLINE: Do you feel any responsibility as an artist?
CRONENBERG: Basically, I feel that I am a benign creature in the universe, and, therefore, I assume that my creativity will produce benign results. Now, whether that’s true or not… [Laughs] I certainly have met many, many people who said that they grew up with my films, that they sneaked in to see The Fly, or Scanners, when they were kids, and that I was a big influence, and I always ask them, “Was it a good influence?” And they inevitably say yes. Now, I don’t know if they’re just being nice to me, but it seems that therefore my feelings that I am a benign influence are validated to a certain extent by the reactions I have from people, some of them very young.
DEADLINE: You’ve been back to Cannes many times since 1996, but the memory of Crash must stay with you. Are you expecting to run into anything like that this time?
CRONENBERG: Well, I’m not nervous. I’m looking forward to it because you make a film to have people react to it. And, as usual—and I’ve said this many times— I’m not making a movie to shock people or assault them. I’m saying, “These are things I’ve noticed. These are ideas I’ve had. These are dreams that have troubled me. I’m showing them to you. You can interpret them as you wish. I just think you maybe would be interested in experiencing these things as I have experienced them.” That’s my approach, and you get a huge variety of responses. Now, I really don’t think that we’ll have a Crash experience. For one thing, there’s really no sex in the movie. I mean, there’s eroticism and there’s sensuality, but of course, part of what the movie says—and one of the characters says it very straightforwardly—is that surgery is the new sex. If you accept that, then, yeah, there’s sex in the movie, because there’s surgery! So, people might be put off by that.
DEADLINE: How graphic is it?
CRONENBERG: There are some very strong scenes. I mean, I’m sure that we will have walkouts within the first five minutes of the movie. I’m sure of that. Some people who have seen the film have said that they think the last 20 minutes will be very hard on people, and that there’ll be a lot of walkouts. Some guy said that he almost had a panic attack. And I say, “Well, that would be OK.” But I’m not convinced that that will be a general reaction. I do expect walkouts in Cannes, and that’s a very special thing. [Laughs] People always walk out, and the seats notoriously clack as you get up, because the seats fold back and hit the back of the seat. So, you hear clack, clack, clack. Whether they’ll be outraged the way they were with Crash, I somehow don’t think so. They might be revulsed to the point that they want to leave, but that’s not the same as being outraged. However, I have no idea really what’s going to happen.
DEADLINE: People do seem to be more frightened by existential fears. From the trailer, the line that unnerved me the most is when Léa Seydoux says, “Have we just been made obsolete?” Is the inference that we are just making more problems by using technology to clean up after ourselves?
CRONENBERG: No, it’s sort of perversely the opposite of that. It’s kind of saying, “Let’s embrace what we’re doing. Let’s embrace the terrible stuff that we’re doing—to the planet and to each other and to our children. Let’s embrace that and find a way to make that a positive thing, a transformative thing in a good way.” And, of course, that is another possibility of art, which is to turn things on their head and give people a perspective that is not an obvious perspective, that is in fact the opposite of what they would’ve thought naturally. So, I think that is really what the artists in the movie are doing. They’re saying, “Yeah, we’re doing terrible stuff. There’s no way we can stop it, but it doesn’t mean that that’s the end. It means that we must transform.”
DEADLINE: The new flesh?
CRONENBERG: [Laughs] Yes, the new flesh. Once again, once again, once again.
DEADLINE: Do you ever think people miss the humor in some of your work?
CRONENBERG: I don’t think so, but that will be one of the unique things for me about the Cannes screening. It will be the first time I will have seen it with an audience that knows very little about the movie, and therefore I will get laughs where I think they should be or not. Of course, there’s also the question of language and the subtitles and so on, but French viewers who have seen the film certainly they get the humor. A lot of the humor is derived from the dialogue, so you need to know what the dialogue is to get the humor. But, yes, like all my films, it’s funny. It’s a funny film. It’s not only funny, but it’s definitely funny.
DEADLINE: In terms of the violence and the imagery, do you ever wonder if you’ve gone too far?
CRONENBERG: No. I mean, you’re always looking for the right balance, the right tone, for the movie. Some things that you put in one movie would be subversive in a bad way in another. An extreme scene of violence might, in some movies, be perfectly well integrated into the film because it’s part of what the film is about, like A History of Violence. But in another film, going to that extreme would be a mistake, an artistic mistake, a creative mistake. But that’s within the film, that’s within your understanding as an artist of what you’re doing in the film. I do not think about what censorship in any country would do. It’s impossible to think that way. As soon as you start thinking that way, you’re lost. I mean, it’s what they talk about in the Soviet Union, and now we’re talking about Russia in general. Self-censorship. The fact that you have absorbed the censorious structure that’s around you, to the point that they don’t even have to censor you because you’re doing it yourself.
DEADLINE: So you would never self-censor?
CRONENBERG: You can’t do that as an artist. My understanding of what is extreme, what is too violent, what is too sexual, really has to do with what the tone of the movie is, within the world of the movie. That’s my purview. That’s where I’m operating. Now, once you’ve done that, you can have distributors say, “I cannot distribute this movie in my country…” Because it’s too this, or it’s too that. And at that point you say, “Well, OK, too bad. You don’t get to see it. That’s fine.” I mean, there are so many approaches to censorship around the world—subtle and not subtle—that you would drive yourself crazy, I mean, you would basically neuter yourself completely if you worried about all of that. Do I worry about how my films will be perceived in Jordan, or in Hungary, or in France, or in the U.S.? I mean, if you take all of the censorship possible to heart, you will not say a word. You can’t speak.
DEADLINE: Do you see waves of censorship? You’ve been making movies for 50 years. It seems to me that censorship comes in waves—it goes and then it comes back.
CRONENBERG: It does, and it comes back in interesting forms. The way that the #MeToo movement can be used as a tool of censorship, for example, is a new approach, a new little arabesque on censorship, and it is used politically that way, or is resisted as a censorious movement rather than a movement of some kind of liberation. So, you get all of these complexities involved. But, yes, I’ve seen it in and out, including in my own country, in Canada, which is not overly censorious, but there have been moments. Once again, you are best to ignore it, and then you take the hits, I mean, you’re out there. You are very vulnerable. You are exposing yourself as an artist. Part of what you do is to expose yourself, and you are therefore susceptible to all kinds of criticism and anger and outrage and everything else. The only way to avoid that is to not speak.
DEADLINE: One last question: last year you made an NFT called The Death of David Cronenberg. Where do you go from there?
CRONENBERG: Well, I have a new NFT, which is called Inner Beauty. And if you check it out on SuperRare, you’ll see that it is my kidney stones. If you look it up on the net, you’ll immediately see it. I’m proposing my kidney stones as an artistic statement of the inside of my body to the outside of my body. So that’s the next step.