Inside Out: Michael Almereyda and David Cronenberg in Conversation on Crimes of the Future
“There is an inner life to a human being that can be as dangerous as any animal in the forest.” So asserts David Cronenberg in his supremely self-aware book-length 1993 interview Cronenberg on Cronenberg, tracking a career that has supplied us with indelible nightmare images: ravenous parasites, murderous mutant children, an exploding head, a slimy gun extracted from a pseudo-vaginal slit in a man’s abdomen—to name a conspicuous few. Recalling the early films, it’s almost easy to forget that the jolting imagery emerges from compelling atmospheres of isolation and estrangement. Cronenberg’s reliable quotient of ghastly mayhem has always roared up from his characters’ tormented interiors. More recently, in increasingly passionate, sly and unclassifiable films, Cronenberg’s definitions of “inner life” and “dangerous” continue to darken and morph, even as a soaring romanticism and his reliably mordant sense of humor counter the despair declared within the films’ dystopian worlds.
Crimes of the Future, Cronenberg’s 22nd feature, presents us with the spectacle of modified “new” organs blooming in the body of Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), a performance artist whose innards are lovingly harvested by his surgically gifted collaborator, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), in theatrical settings attended by a small, rapt public. Who or what is responsible for Saul’s mutating organs, and should they be considered crimes or works of art—monstrous disruptions of the biological status quo or portals leading to a transcendent revision of human nature? Cronenberg is pressing us, once again, to consider the proximity, the fusion, of human bodies and technology, the interconnection of desire and disease, love and pain.
I revisited a half-dozen of his earlier films, belatedly devoured his 2014 novel, Consumed, and drew up enough questions to fill out two or three hours of talk—before it was communicated to me that my Cronenberg encounter would be slotted into a post-Cannes NYC press junket, a kind of journalistic bullet train, enabling me to Zoom with the master for a fleeting 20-minute session, his 18th interview of the day.
When Cronenberg appeared on my laptop screen, he was, I noticed, beautifully lit: seated before a dark red curtain, wearing a black pullover and dark gray suit, his white hair brushed back from his forehead. A white cup, held alternately at chest or chin level, seemed to glow with particular brightness as he talked, smiled, sipped. He was unfailingly gracious, lucid, unpretentious—and I was predictably startled when a disembodied voice interrupted to say we were out of time.
This transcript has been slightly edited, mainly to eliminate my most obsequious gushing. Crimes of the Future is out now in theaters and on digital platforms.
Almereyda: I dipped into Cronenberg on Cronenberg recently and kept finding things that were relevant and resonant related to this new movie, and I was intrigued by one thing you confided: “Each of my films has a little demon in the corner that you do not see, but it’s there.” I wonder if this holds true for Crimes, if there’s some demon lurking in the shadows of the film that you might want to talk about.
Cronenberg: Gee, I usually don’t speak of demons, maybe because it smacks of Christian theology [chuckles]. I don’t know if there is anything like that in this movie for me. I wouldn’t have thought of it in that way because it’s pretty right out there—it’s not really hiding very much. Maybe I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t have to hide any of the demons anymore. They’re right out there.
Almereyda: OK, the demons are running around loose now, out in the open. There are clear threads and connections with your other films, almost too many to name, but one ingredient that was particularly affecting to me, especially in relation to your novel, is the presence of an unconventional couple who share a new reality that the film thrusts them into. There’s a deep sense of romanticism even though they’re going through an ordeal. The couple in the book are described as being “ardent consumers,” and the couple in the…. You’re shaking your head. Am I saying something negative?
Cronenberg: No, I’m not. I’m actually nodding sideways [laughs]. I’m a total romantic, basically. I believe in and crave that kind of love. I lived with it myself, so it’s there in all my movies in one form or another. The couple in this movie, they’re developing a relationship that is unique but also classic and eternal. There’s changing technology, changing sexuality, changing bodies and yet there’s still the need to have that kind of love of two people for each other that is very physical as well as emotional, no matter what the changes are around and within them. That is a central part of this movie. Maybe that is the demon, you know? I’m happy that quite a few of the critics who have written about it have noted that there is tenderness and affection and sweetness to the movie, which is not maybe what you would think on first blush.
Almereyda: I recognize it in so many of your films, and I’m glad other people have, too. I think it comes up most strongly for me in the exalted close-ups of Léa Seydoux and in her chemistry with Viggo Mortensen. But the way you open the movie seemed daring to me, starting with a de-coupled wife, a character on the periphery, who triggers the action, the plot. The woman who plays the mother of the mutant boy gives a powerful performance. I wasn’t familiar with her. I wondered how you found her and steered her into the anguish that starts the story.
Cronenberg: My producer, Robert Lantos, said, “Have you seen this Israeli TV series called Losing Alice? You should really watch it because the lead actress, Lihi Kornowski, is sensational and really interesting, and you might find a place for her in our movie.” I watched it and immediately thought, “She needs to be in this.” I thought perhaps she was really very well known, and I think she is very well known in Israel but not really anywhere else. It was fantastic to have her in Cannes on the red carpet—she really made an impression on anybody who met her. If this helps launch her a little bit bigger, that would be great because she’s a terrific performer.
Almereyda: Let’s talk about the character a little. There’s a history of mothers in your movies: Samantha Eggar’s character in The Brood accepts the monster she’s given birth to, and in this case the woman doesn’t. How would you characterize that change?
Cronenberg: This movie is partly about people who are willing to accept very revolutionary and evolutionary change, and people who are not able to accept it and fight against it. We have characters doing both in this movie—and yes, certainly, the Samantha Eggar character in The Brood was one who fully embraced the strangeness of what she had become and was giving birth to. You know, I have three children and four grandchildren, and really, childbirth is the most amazing, astounding thing. People take pregnancy for granted because it’s happening all over the world all the time, but I’m still astonished by it. I love babies, you know? I love children because you really have to see how a child develops to understand what a human being is, and it’s always fantastic.
Almereyda: I think Howard Shore’s score is extraordinary. He’s done so many great scores for you, but this one is particularly propulsive and haunting. It sets a tone. Then, when Viggo appears, there’s a nice shock of humor drifting in. I just re-watched Dr. Strangelove, and it almost seemed like he was channeling George C. Scott and Peter Sellers at once, the ecstatic grimacing and growling. How did you work that through together? Was there any particular advice you gave him?
Cronenberg: I really let my actors show me what they’ve got. As you know, casting is a huge part of directing, and it’s usually invisible. Most people don’t talk about it as part of directing, but it really is important. It’s not simple, either—the actor’s passport makes a difference if you’re doing a co-production, and their availability and financeability and all of those things. But once you’ve got your actor—and you hope you’ve got the right actor—then I want to see what they have. I don’t want to tell them what to do. I want to see what they do first intuitively.
Viggo started immediately to use what is in the script: this man cannot eat properly, he has throat problems, voice problems, digestive problems. That sounds very banal, but it’s of the essence of what the movie is about in a way, and he immediately started to use his voice in a way I’ve never seen him do before. Our discussions mainly were, “Is this too much at this point? Is it interfering with the intelligibility of what you’re saying or enhancing it? Let’s do a take where it’s a little less or more.” It was almost strange animal, birdlike sounds at certain points, but done so subtly and so naturally that we actually got very used to it on set. Viggo very quickly got the rhythm of how it should work. You don’t want the audience to forget it—it’s part of his vulnerability as a character—but you don’t want it to become annoying or irritating or distract from what’s being said. So, it’s a balance.
Almereyda: I was also impressed with Scott Speedman in his role. He’s kind of a low-key fanatic. As a villain, he’s slightly sinister but also sort of soulful and wounded and lonely. How did that emerge from the script? Was that ambiguity pointedly part of it?
Cronenberg: About the only thing I said to him about the script was, “Your character is actually the emotional core of the movie. His grief drives everything, and his grief drives his fanaticism.” Like most adept fanatics, he has a way of making his fanaticism seem quite rational, quite comprehensible. He speaks very reasonably even when he’s suggesting to Viggo’s character that he allow these tumors to grow because they are actually something positive, and he should think and stop interfering with their growth. It turns out that perhaps he’s right. So, is he really a fanatic after all? Is he really a villain? In a way, he is not.
Almereyda: I was in an East Village bar in the 1980s. It was very dark and very loud, and in the corner up against the ceiling was a TV monitor showing Scanners. The force of the imagery, the visceral power of it, made everything else in the room vanish. I remember being so sucked into those images. I had seen the film before, and somehow it just took over the reality of the room. I wondered if you’ve ever had an experience like that, where a filmmaker’s images have leapt out at you like that and been overwhelming or hypnotic.
Cronenberg: Probably many, but I can point to specifically Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. I remember walking into the theater, and in seconds I was completely paralyzed and mesmerized. That movie had a really strong effect on me. This bizarre anticipation, almost welcoming death—the whole movie was that but done in such an artful, offbeat, abstract way, and yet so viscerally compelling.
Almereyda: That’s a great reference point. Did you ever get to meet him?
Cronenberg: I did get to meet him and also worked with his son, Luc Roeg, who’s a producer. I didn’t get to talk a lot to him, but I did meet him, and it was very exciting for me.
Almereyda: I was hoping to meet you when I was in Athens last year. I was actually on the set, and my silhouette is in your movie. This might be a mild shock to you.
Cronenberg: Oh my God. Really?
Almereyda: I was standing almost as close to you as I am to this monitor, but I was a background extra [in the bar scene in which Scott Speedman watches a man collapse and convulse after eating a toxic purple candy bar]. It was fun to see how decisive you were, how calm you were and how few takes you did. I don’t know if that speed and calm characterized the whole shoot—is this your normal mode or new?
Cronenberg: I started to feel around the time of The Fly that there was a Samuel Beckett inside me. It occurred to me that The Fly was really three people in one room and started to treat it that way. Peter Suschitzky, who I did 11 movies with as a director of photography, talked about how I would do a lot of coverage—close-up, medium, loose medium, wide shot—and as time went on, I would simplify and simplify. I think it’s just experience—spending a lot of time in the editing room, saying, “Why did I do that many takes? Why did I do that much coverage when I didn’t need to?” And gradually, I came to a place where really I feel that I’m a minimalist. Of course, there are an infinite number of ways to cover two people talking—and you have to decide that you don’t want that, that you have to find the perfect way for your movie to capture them. It’s a matter of honor and also efficiency. I don’t have big budgets, I don’t have long shooting schedules, so how can I do this minimally but still incredibly effectively? So, I do one or two takes. I also think the technology has given me the confidence to do that because, in the old film days, we often would say, “OK, let’s do one for the lab”— meaning we know the lab is going to destroy a couple of takes in their chemical baths because somebody’s gonna screw up, so we better do an extra take just in case, so we don’t have to reshoot. But now you have digital back-ups and see exactly what you’re shooting, which you couldn’t in the old days.
Almereyda: You don’t miss film, celluloid?
Cronenberg: Not at all. Basically, I hate film. It’s horrible. I mean, I have nostalgia for movies shot on film because there were so many great movies made on film, but as a medium, it was very deficient and doesn’t compare at all to what you can do with digital, which is fabulous. That’s my attitude.
Almereyda: Another line I plucked from Cronenberg on Cronenberg: You quoted Nabokov saying, “Nothing is so exhilarating as vulgar philistinism”—or was it “philistine vulgarity?” You’ve been gliding into a more elegant phase, even though you’re still able to compel people to walk out of your films. Having been on the set for half a day watching a scene take shape, I was impressed by how serene and clear everything was. Since a lot of your work lately has been either addressing art directly or centered on characters who are artists, it seems like you’re moving away from the vulgarity that Nabokov was talking about and into something more rarefied, museum oriented.
Cronenberg: Well, I think Nabokov was, of course, himself accused of being quite elitist and aestheticist and so high-level that he was abstract and too academic and all of those things, but then of course, he wrote Lolita, so… [chuckles].
Almereyda: Is that your favorite of his books?
Cronenberg: Pale Fire, actually, but Lolita is hard to beat for its incredible emotional impact and strangeness and dissection of America at that time, which is incredibly acute and astute.
Almereyda: And funny, as well.
Cronenberg: I mean, he’s always funny, and I think I’m always funny, too.
Almereyda: I agree.
Cronenberg: Our saving grace as animals is that we have humor. It’s a great survival mechanism. We really need it. And since each movie is a kind of human animal, it should have humor to be fully alive.
Almereyda: I’ll loop back to your novel. It’s beautifully written, remarkably precise about the world it describes. It reminded me of DeLillo, who I know you have a relationship with. It has this coolness and heat, an erotic and emotional heat. Again, it’s a portrait of a couple—a marriage, even if it’s not officially identified as such: two people moving through a new reality together, like entering a shared dream. Do you want to write another book, continue on that path?
Cronenberg: Well, I thought that writing novels would be what I would do. I went through a phase where I thought I just don’t want to do movies anymore because it’s just too complex, too many people, too much financing. I’m sure every director has felt that at one point or another—it’s undoubtedly why Soderbergh has retired 10 times already. So, I was never going to stop being creative, but I might have stopped making movies. But now I’m thinking—you know, Robert Lantos, who produced Crimes of the Future, wants to do a movie based on that novel. That would be very tempting for me to do, and I have a feeling we will eventually do that.
Almereyda: I can picture it. There are so many overlaps, but it’s still a very sly and unsettling book.
Cronenberg: Yeah, and the thing is, I’m not afraid of overlaps, really. I mean, there are a lot of overlaps between Crimes of the Future and my other movies, the so-called body horror films—which I never think of as body horror at all, but the phrase has kind of stuck. The overlaps to me are just natural. It’s like Burroughs saying he didn’t separate his art from his life. Writing the screenplay for Naked Lunch, I said, “You know, William, to make this work, I’m gonna have to include some scenes from your marriage, some scenes about your life,” and he said, “Go ahead. I don’t separate the two.” In a way, I say the same about my life and movies: they all overlap, so if Consumed has strong overlaps with Crimes or other movies I’ve made, so be it. They should enrich each other, like a diamond with many facets. You’re looking at the same interior, which is my interior, but from different planes.