Controversial visionary David Cronenberg sees technology, mankind, sexuality merging in 'eXistenZ'
I don't know what I was expecting exactly when I met David Cronenberg, arguably the most bizarre, eccentric and even grotesque auteur in North America.
A visionary and controversial director with a penchant for ingenious, violent and sexual metaphors, he's been responsible for a half dozen of the most admired (by film aficionados) and abhorred (by many others) movies of the last 20 year, including "Videodrome" (a violent and sexualized allegory on thought control) "The Fly" and "Dead Ringers" (considered the height of the art house-horror hybrid), and hallucinogenic, autobiographical adaptation of William S. Burroughs' "Naked Lunch." In 1997 his adaptation of J.G. Ballard's novel "Crash," about car-crash fetishists, was shelved for several months by New Line Cinema owner Ted Turner, who didn't want anything to do with the twisted tale.
Was I meeting a human deviant? A demented genius with "straight jacket" written all over him? I didn't know, but for the first time in years, I was feeling intimated about an interview.
Then I was lead into the conference room of San Francisco's Prescott Hotel and shook hands with a congenial, bespectacled fellow with salt-and-pepper hair and a benevolent smile. It turns out, David Cronenberg -- the envelope-pushing circus freak of independent cinema -- is a cheerful, deep-thinking, mild-mannered college professor type. Go figure that.
Today he's here to talk about "eXistenZ," the first film since "Videodrome" that he both wrote and directed. A forward-looking, somewhat cautionary vision of the future of virtual reality, the film stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as the inventor of a bio-engineered game, played by plugging a living game pod directly into the central nervous system through a fleshy umbilical cord inserted into an orifice carved in the player's back.
In the near future created for "eXistenZ," anyone who hasn't been jacked with one of these bioports is considered a square in most circles. It takes place in a world where the game and reality are disturbingly intermingled. In Cronenberg's vision, technology and the human organism have begun to merge -- something the director considers inevitable.
"I see technology as being an extension of the human body," he says. "It's inevitable that it should come home to roost."
But before we discussed to his new movie, his fixation with sexuality and the organic form, we talked about Hollywood and why he's fed up with being perceived as a horror director.
"I never thought I was doing the same thing as directors like John Carpenter, George Romero, and sometimes even Hitchcock, even though I've been sometimes compared to those other guys. We're after different game," Cronenberg says. "The filmmaking process is a very personal one to me, I mean it really is a personal kind of communication. It's not as though its a study of fear or any of that stuff."
SPLICEDwire: Your films are more deeply psychological, where many of those directors are often just trying to make you jump out of your seat.
David Cronenberg: True. Even Hitchcock liked to think of himself as a puppeteer who was manipulating the strings of his audience and making them jump. He liked to think he had that kind of control. I don't think that kind of control is possible beyond a very obvious kind of physical twitch when something jumps out of the corner of a frame. I also think the relationship I have with my audience is a lot more complex than what Hitchcock seemed to want his to be -- although I think he had more going on under the surface as well.
But you can't control all of that. Anybody who comes to the cinema is bringing they're whole sexual history, their literary history, their movie literacy, their culture, their language, their religion, whatever they've got. I can't possibly manipulate all of that, nor do I want to. I'm often surprised -- I expect to be surprised -- by my audience's reactions to things.
SPLICED: Do you consider any of your movies horror movies?
Cronenberg: No. I don't. "The Fly" was, technically, a horror sci-fi film, and this is technically a sci-fi film. But to me that's not a creative category. That's a marketing problem or possibly a critical problem, a journalistic preoccupation. But it doesn't function on a creative level.
It doesn't mean anything. Each movie generates its own little biosphere and has its only little ecology and its climate, and you're attune to that more than anything else. So when people say "is there anything you wouldn't show on film?" or "would you draw back?" I say, if I do it's only because of that biosphere. What is appropriate? What works within the ecology of that movie? So in one movie sex and blood would be very up front, like in "Crash" because it's sort of the subject of the movie. But in another movie, like "The Dead Zone," it would not be appropriate. It would be disproportionate.
There's no sex really in "eXistenZ," except metaphorically. There was an opportunity to have sex scenes, and we were all willing to do that. But as the film evolved, we thought it would be wrong. It would take away from the metaphorical sex, which is all this plugging in and that sort of stuff. That's more interesting. It has more resonance than if you suddenly saw a real, naked sex scene in the middle of all that. It would unbalance all that -- almost invalidate it. So if you wait, the movie gradually tells you what it wants to be, and you have to sort of go on with it.
SPLICED: There seem to be connections between "Videodrome," which you also wrote and directed, and "eXistenZ." The way you're plugging in a pre-programmed videotape or a game into your body. Was "Videodrome" on your mind?
Cronenberg: No. You have to remember I haven't seen it in 15 years. You might well have seen it more recently than I have. It is true this is the first script I've written since "Videodrome," so I'm sure that connects somewhere. But when you're writing a script -- for me anyway -- you have to sort of create an enforced innocence. You have to divest yourself of worrying about a lot of stuff like what movies are hot, what movies are not hot, what the budget of this movie might be. You have to stop worrying about what people might expect from you because of the last thing you did...you have to stop worrying about your other movies. I mean, I just know they're all going to be interconnected. People have asked me to do a sequel to "Scanners," or they've asked, very recently, to do a remake of "Shivers." And that would feel like a horrible place to put myself. I wouldn't want to go back there.
SPLICED: Have you ever considered doing a big budget, schlocky studio film? Has anyone has pitched you anything like that?
Cronenberg: Oh, heavens yes! Recently? "The Truman Show" and "Aliens 4," and in the early days things like "Witness" and "Top Gun." Oh, and "Flashdance." Dawn Steele, for some reason, kept bugging me to do "Flashdance"! And I kept saying "No." and "You won't thank me! I would destroy this!" So, yes, I do get offered stuff. And, like, "Alien 4" is tempting for a minute because they're begging me to do it, and I think to work with Sigorney Weaver and Winona Ryder would be great fun, and so on.
SPLICED:...and it has some of the same kinds of themes, body themes, that you often work with...
Cronenberg: Yeah, because the original "Alien" took stuff from "Shivers." It was obvious that happened. I know how it happened, too, but we won't get into that.
The problem with doing a schlocky or big budget studio film is that it wouldn't actually be fun for me. It wouldn't be exciting. My rule of thumb is this: You're six months into it, you've got six months to go. It's February. It's winter. It's dark. Am I suicidal, or am I really excited and happy? And the answer with those projects would be, "I'm suicidal."
SPLICED: You originally wrote "eXistenZ" three years ago. I imagine you had to make changes to update the technology, since such things change so rapidly.
Cronenberg: That didn't change. The technology I sort of side-step in this movie. It's the metaphor. It's the drama and the meaning of it and all of that which is interesting to me.
We don't have any computers in this movie. It's a different technology. I'm certainly aware that the big chip makers have all done heavy, heavy research into using protein molecules as a basis of their chips, and protein molecules are the basis of organic life. I read an article recently about experiments done to try to use DNA strands as electrical wiring.
Since I see technology as being an extension of the human body, it's inevitable that it should come home to roost. It just makes sense. I mean, I literally show that in the movie with the pod plugged into central nervous system.
Technology is us. There is no separation. It's a pure expression of human creative will. It doesn't exist anywhere else in the universe. I'm rather sure of that. But we'll see if the spaceships come. And if it is at times dangerous and threatening, it is because we have within ourselves we have things within us that are dangerous, self-destructive and threatening, and this has expressed itself in various ways through out technology.
(Modern technology is) more than an interface. We ARE it. We've absorbed it into our bodies. Our bodies, I think, are bio-chemically so different from the bodies of people like 1,000 years ago that I don't even think we could mate with them. I think we might even be, in other words, a different species, we're so different.
(This) technology, we absorb it, it weaves in and out of us, so it's not really an interface in the same way people think about a screen or a face. It's a lot more intimate than that.
SPLICED: Is that why in many of your films there's some type of orifice through which a person is connecting?
Cronenberg: Yeah. I mean, technology wants to be in our bodies, because it sort of came out of our bodies. In a crude way, that's what I'm thinking. It wants to come home and that is its home. First of all, in the obvious ways -- the eyes with binoculars, the ears with the telephone -- technology had to be an advancement of powers we knew we had. Then it gets more elaborate and more distant from us. More abstract. But it still all emanates from us. It's us.
SPLICED: And it's a theme in almost all of your movies.
Cronenberg: It's more than a theme. To me it's kind of like a living presence, an understanding, that is behind all of the movies.
SPLICED: How does the idea of the technological meshing of man and machine, how does that connect to the reoccurring theme of sexuality?
Cronenberg: Well, I think, with "Crash" it was getting very focused on the idea that we are re-inventing sex. We are at a major epoch in human history, which is that we don't need sex to recreate the race. You can have babies without sex. This is the first time in human history that has been true, and it means, for example, we could do some extraordinary things.
It's becoming disconnected from what it was initially, just in the same way we've taken control of our evolution. We are no longer subject to the laws of survival of the fittest in the gross physical way that Darwin articulated. Even though we're not quite aware of it, we don't know how to deal with it, we are messing around with our evolution at the genetic level.
So, I think, in the same way, sex is up for grabs, for reinvention. There have always been elements of politics, fashion, pleasure, art, in sexuality. But now those things are, in a weird way, almost the primary part of sexuality. So why not say, OK, how about some new sexual organs? They don't have to reproduce. They don't have to do all that complex chromosome splitting and stuff that goes with real reproduction, so why not have direct access to your nervous system and create new orifices that do god knows what?
In a way, you're seeing new sex, neo-sex, in this movie. Or do you even want to call it sex? It's obviously inducing some kind of pleasure the way sex does, but what is it?
I think that is happening. You see a lot of body modification. In the same way, we've never accepted the environment as it was given to us, we've never accepted the human body, either. We've always been messing with it to the full extent of whatever the technology at the time would allow us to do. But then there's also the other element of body modification that are not medical. It's social, it's political, it's sexual, it's cosmetic, it's fashion. Just what people will do now -- with scarring, tattooing, piercing and all that, and performance art as well -- it would have been unthinkable, at least as mainstream as it is now, not very long ago.
SPLICED: To what do you credit your fascination with organic form and the mutation of the human body?
Cronenberg: I got bored. That was traumatic.
I think it really has more to do with the perception and an understanding than the whole idea that it's something that happened to you in your childhood. I'm just observing the world. I was born into it, like you were, and then I found out there were some really disturbing aspects to being alive, like the fact that you weren't going to be alive forever -- that bothered me.
Do you remember when you found out you wouldn't live forever? People don't talk about this, but everybody had to go through it because you're not born with that knowledge. That's the basis of all existentialist thought, which, of course, is an underpinning of this movie. It's not called "eXistenZ" for nothing.
For me, the first fact of human existence is the human body. But if you embrace the reality of the human body, you embrace mortality, and that is a very difficult thing for anything to do because the self-conscious mind cannot imagine non-existence. It's impossible to do.
So not only can you not imagine dying, you can't really imagine existence before you were born. So, I think, for example, that's one of the reasons people believe so strongly in reincarnation. They kind of assume that somehow they were there. You can't imagine things going on without you. That's just the nature of our self-consciousness.
So I observed these kinds of things as a kid and then I'm gradually expressing this and talking to myself through my movies about all of this stuff. Then I'm really inviting the audience to have that conversation with me. You're seeing me develop, not only as a filmmaker if you've seen my earlier films, but you're seeing me kind of learn how to be a human, how my philosophy has evolved.
So that's why I think, for example, this movie cannot be like "Videodrome." All the other connections aside -- that was what, 17 years ago? -- I'm different now.
SPLICED: So all of your movies together are like a biography.
Cronenberg: Well, they should be. They're almost like chapters in an ongoing book.