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Talking With Film Director David Cronenberg

By Yong-yi Zhu

David Cronenberg, the director of the newly-released movie “A History of Violence,” is the man behind other films such as “Videodrome,” “The Fly,” and “Naked Lunch.” The Tech and other newspapers interviewed Cronenberg about this new film, which is based on a graphic novel and stars Lord of the Rings actor Viggo Mortensen.

The Tech: How would you pitch the movie to a college audience?

David Cronenberg: I don’t really know what a college audience is these days. I make the movie for myself. First of all, I think it’s got a intriguing narrative. It’s got a fantastic cast … You see some performances here that you haven’t seen before. While being sort of an entertaining thriller, at the same time it has a lot of emotional subtlety, and even political implication … It’s not much of a pitch, but I’m not used to doing that.

TT: Had you seen the comic before?

DC: No actually I had. That’s the funny thing. I was sent the screenplay by my agent, and it just said screenplay by Josh Olson, and it didn’t say anything about it being based on a graphic novel. So I was interested in the script and people from New Line and Josh and me started to work on the project. And Josh and I did some rewrites together. And only then did some executive mention this graphic novel. And I was like, “What graphic novel are you talking about?” He said, “Didn’t anybody tell you?” I said, “No, I think I should read it. Don’t you?” And it was out of print. And then when I read it, I realized that we had gone so far in a very specific direction away from where the novel went that I felt it was irrelevant. There was nothing in it that I could use so I can’t really say that I have yet adapted a graphic novel. Couldn’t be more different from “Sin City.”

TT: You’re one of those directors whose name is as well-known as your product. Unfortunately, your name conjures up movies like “Scanners” and “Dead Ringers.” Does that get in the way at all of dealing with Hollywood?

DC: It really depends on how smart they are. At one point I was interested in a particular project which I will not mention the name of. And an executive, who happened to be a woman executive, said, “He’s just too weird. Just too weird.” And that was it, and wrote me off like that. Well, she hasn’t been doing much reading or anything. That is inevitable. But I wouldn’t say it’s endemic. I wouldn’t say I get that from everywhere in Hollywood at all. And of course I don’t only deal with Hollywood, I deal with independent producers, independent entities. And my reputation in France is a lot different. There I’m kind of a cinema-God kind of figure. It could be its own disadvantage, but there would not be that lack of respect…

TT: How much leeway did you give the actors or did you make them stick to the script?

DC: It’s word-for-word from the script. William Hurt’s art as an actor is to make it seem like it’s improvised and spontaneous. But he’s a very highly-trained actor, and most actors are not interested in becoming screenwriters. And a lot of people think that when you say you’re being collaborative with your actors that you mean you want them to make up the dialogue. That’s not true. What it really means is all the other things. The beard, the clothes, we all discussed everything. How to move. How to say things. I don’t just say, “Stand over there and say the line.” I say, “Where do you think you would stand? How would you say the line?” And then I guide them. It really helps when you have brilliant actors. I’m quite lazy. If you have brilliant actors, it takes a lot of the pressure off.

TT: What do you think about William Hurt’s performance? He should definitely receive some award for his performance.

DC: Well, he certainly has critically already, William. Whether it results in awards and stuff, who knows. That’s such a crapshoot. He is fantastic. And he had to be very powerful, but at the same time he’s very funny of course, because he has a very grandiose sense of his own self. The details of his performance are terrific.

TT: Did you have that cast in mind when you started? Or did you have to go through lots of people?

DC: Well you go through hell basically. Casting is a very difficult process, and it’s also kind of a black art. First of all, there are the pragmatic considerations, or at least I think they’re pragmatic. The movie cost $32 million, which for me is a high budget. For Hollywood in general, it’s not, but for New Line it actually is. Aside from “Lord of the Rings,” they don’t make movies with big budgets.

You can’t have an unknown play that role, even if he’s brilliant. For me, until I cast the central character, male or female, I don’t want to cast anybody else, because everybody has to seem like they’re in the same movie. That chemistry is sort of a magical thing, you don’t know why but you keep your fingers crossed. Because one day you see them on the set, and you think “oh my God it’s not working.” And the same really goes for the other major characters.

TT: Viggo was on everybody’s list, which kind of surprises me. How did he get there?

DC: He hasn’t. He actually hasn’t been the lead in many movies. He was in Brian DePalma’s “Carlito’s Way,” he was in “G.I. Jane,” he’s in a lot of movies. And very rarely is he the lead because he’s had a long career as a character actor. But “Lord of the Rings” is what made him a star, but it’s ironic because it demanded the least from him. Just look noble and chop people’s heads off. Kill orcs. However, as he has said, he would not have gotten the lead in this movie had it not been for “Lord of the Rings.” Because that is what made him a star, ironically enough.

“Hidalgo” was a bit of a flop and as a follow up to his stardom, I don’t think it’s hurt him, but it wasn’t a hit. So when I was thinking about Viggo, one of the movies I looked at was called “A Walk on the Moon,” with Diane Lane. He did something that you don’t see in most other movies. He was very sweet, gentle, tender, compassionate, kind and of course sexy. Quite apart from “Lord of the Rings.”

So this movie in a weird way is much more like what he normally does. Which is to do character acting. Yes he’s got the charisma and the looks of a leading man, but his attitude to acting and the way he is willing to disappear into a role, much more like a character actor. That’s the kind of actor that I love, those are the kinds of actors I love the best because there are so many possibilities. Also he turns out to be an absolutely wonderful guy. I feel very close to him.