David Cronenberg Talks To The Sunday Times About Calming Down A Nervous Robert Pattinson
Cosmopolis is Cronenberg’s most prescient film yet. The mercurial director tells Kevin Maher about capitalism, phone-hacking and calming a manic Robert Pattinson
It’s the early erotic climax of David Cronenberg’s new movie Cosmopolis, and it features teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson playing Eric Packer, a billionaire asset manager. Packer is staring deeply into the eyes of his financial director, Jane Melman (Emily Hampshire). The pair banter. They talk about foreign finance ministers. They joke about Melman’s water bottle. They even discuss the ubiquity of sexual impulses.
There’s just one thing awry, however. And it’s the fact that Packer is also on all fours, with his trousers down, in the middle of a protracted and hugely squelchy six-minute prostate examination.
This, of course, is very Cronenberg. For the man who gave us exploding heads in Scanners and sexualised body scars in, well, everything from Rabid to eXistenZ, is famed for both his perverse desire to subvert expectations and for his thundering belief in the tyranny of biology — “We can never escape from the reality of the human body!” is a favourite mantra.
And certainly today, in person, the 69-year-old director is every bit the big-brained iconoclast. Dressed in black shirt and denims, and topped and tailed with a bright splash of white (hair on top, box-fresh trainers on feet), he claims to be exhausted from the recent Cannes film festival, but is nonetheless buzzy, polite and articulate on every possible subject.
On the financial crisis that forms the backdrop to Cosmopolis, for instance: “I think money is technology, and technology is innately human, and so it’s apparent that you cannot have money without human flaws and barbarity. Therefore pure, unbridled and unregulated capitalism cannot happen.”
Or, on showing Cosmopolis at Cannes at the same time that his 32-year-old filmmaker son Brandon was unveiling his debut Antiviral, he muses: “It was exquisite, and not a passing of the baton at all, because we both had films. Instead it felt like we were both on the same tag team.”
On the many critics who have since taken chunks out of Cosmopolis for being alienating and cold, he scoffs, “Rob [Robert Pattinson] told me that he’d read a description of the film as ‘aggressively unloveable’! And I thought, ‘Well I rather like that!’ Because if you’re not making movies that are desperate to be loved — and I’m not — then you expose yourself to all kinds of attacks and criticism and misunderstandings.”
The misunderstandings surrounding Cosmopolis are many. Adapted from Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel of the same name, it follows Packer’s journey in a white stretch limousine across a riot-wrecked Manhattan, but was not made in response to the Occupy movements. It features Packer getting splattered by a pie from an anti-corporate activist, but was not shot as an ironic nod to the phone-hacking enquiry.
And it boasts a narrative through-line about the decline of a major global currency that has nothing at all to do with the Eurozone crisis. “In each case, these are accidents,” Cronenberg says. “I began talking to Don about this film three and a half years ago, and it was just strange that as we started filming we seemed to be shooting a documentary rather than a fiction film.
“Because right after we shot the scene where Eric Packer gets a pie in the face, I got a text from [actor] Paul Giamatti saying, ‘I can’t believe it. Rupert Murdoch’s just got a pie in the face!’ The world seemed to be catching up with us.”
Cosmopolis, ultimately, is a protean thing that is built on dialogues (lifted directly from the novel) between Packer and a series of colleagues and acquaintances that take place almost exclusively inside the limousine (Cronenberg made his crew watch claustrophobia classics Das Boot and Lebanon before shooting).
The supporting cast, including Juliette Binoche, Giamatti, Sarah Gadon and Samantha Morton, acquit themselves amiably in a series of exchanges that aim to illustrate the emptiness of Packer’s life, and yet offer the possibility that he might be capable of redemption. While elsewhere the centrepiece prostate exam plays a deceptively large part in the narrative movement, and in the very Cronenbergian notion that biology leads the way.
Mostly, the film lives or dies on Pattinson’s performance. He is in every scene, if not every shot. And Cronenberg has somehow coaxed out of the 26-year-old Twilight pin-up the kind of taut, high-wire performance that is simply unimaginable to anyone familiar with Pattinson’s vampire oeuvre.
“Rob was afraid of it at first,” he explains. “He said, ‘Wow, it’s wall-to-wall dialogue. It’s very complex. It could be great. But am I going to f*** it up? Am I going to be the one who ruins it?’ And so it took a couple of weeks to convince him that he had to trust me, and trust that I knew he could do it.”
Pattinson too has conceded that Cronenberg was instrumental in calming his neuroses, especially when he called around to the director’s home in Toronto in the middle of a pre-shoot meltdown. “He told me to stop worrying,” Pattinson said. “I think he heard me in the very obvious throes of a manic attack. He said, ‘When we start shooting, what will be will be.’ ”
The preoccupation with mortality in Cosmopolis reflects the director’s own obsessions. “I’m 69, and I’m going to be 70 next year,” he says. “I know more dead people than living people. I can see that my body is changing. There’s all kinds of things happening. There is decay. At the same time there’s a sort of excitement about it too. It’s nice to have lived this long. I’ve already lived maybe six more years than my father [who died of cancer, aged 63]. So, yes, I think of mortality, because the endless struggle is coming to terms with your own mortality. That has created great religions, great civilizations and great art.”
Cronenberg says that he first recognised the mortal “struggle” when he was 10 years old. Back then, in suburban Toronto, as the son of a writer, Milton Cronenberg, and a musician, Esther, he says that he was a “thoughtful child” but one with none of the darker obsessions that would emerge in his later work. “It was basically the childhood of anti-trauma,” he says. “I was encouraged in everything I was interested in. My parents were very liberal, and understood the creative impulse. And beyond that I was just a kid who was observing life.”
So, not scribbling body scars all over your schoolwork then? “No, I scribbled Bugs Bunny, instead. And Elmer Fudd. I don’t think you’d find anything precociously morbid in there.”
He says that his observations of the world led him into academia, and towards a future career in cell biology. Yet after a year of studying science at the University of Toronto he swapped to a literature degree. “All the life and the excitement was in the arts end of the campus,” he says. “Whereas the science end was dry. I said, ‘Why torture myself any longer?’ ”
He became a self-taught filmmaker, founding the Toronto Film Co-op with fellow student and future Hollywood director Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters), making short movies in college and finally shooting his 1975 horror debut, Shivers, about a Montreal apartment block infested with phallic sex slugs.
Through films such as Rabid and Videodrome Cronenberg quickly became known as the ‘Baron of Blood’, a self-invented moniker he concocted for better publicity and easier access to funding. His early movies delighted in a queasy mix of sexual tension, gore, and displaced reproductive organs. They were rarely autobiographical, although it is said that he created The Brood — about a crazed mutant wife with homicidal children — as a way of exorcising his painful divorce from first wife Margaret Hindson. True? “It’s the closest that I’ve ever come to autobiography,” he admits. “Because I was taking incidents from my own life and fictionalising them.” And did Hindson ever see the film? “Oh yeah, sure.” And? He smiles, and wryly chuckles, “I’ll give you her phone number, and you can ask her for her reaction.”
Cronenberg became a name in the 1980s (The Fly was a hit), yet he never made movies for Hollywood. There were close calls, though. Return of the Jedi, for instance, could have been his. “I got a phone call,” he says. “And it was somebody legitimate from [George] Lucas. They said, ‘We’re thinking of you for Return of the Jedi.’ I said, honestly, ‘Well, I don’t usually do other people’s material.’ And then it was [mimes hanging up phone], click! Game over. Because what they wanted was unbridled enthusiasm, and I didn’t have that.”
Undaunted, Cronenberg continued to forge a reputation, gradually divesting himself of the Baron of Blood tag, and instead becoming known as a heavyweight Cannes contender and a Palme d’Or favourite — director of serious grown-up films such as Crash, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.
These days, with wife Carolyn Zeifman (a production assistant he met on the set of Rabid) and three grown-up children (Cassandra, Caitlin and Brandon), he says that he’s professionally content, but that cash for movies remains scarce. “Money is still an issue,” he says. “Are the guys behind the next movie real? Can they really raise the money? All these things are an issue.” He says that he hopes to make Map of the Stars next, a film about the dark side of child stardom in Hollywood. And there’s a “brilliant” Eastern Promises 2 script ready to go. But it all depends on money.
Making money, Cronenberg says, has become a “metaphysical” pursuit: “Look at guys like the London Whale! What do they do? They make money. How do they make money? Well, they never touch money. They never produce anything.
“And relatively recently, with micro-trading between computers, whoever has the shortest fibre-optic cable to the New York Stock Exchange gets the trading information that millionth of a second earlier, and is therefore the one who makes or loses billions of dollars. But it’s all nothingness. It’s abstract. It’s metaphysics. Because nothing physical is being done.”
In Cosmopolis, Eric Packer’s fortune is exemplified by his hi-tech white stretch limo. What about Cronenberg — what’s the most decadent thing he owns? “Probably the Audi R8,” he answers, without missing a beat. “I don’t need it. But I have it. I love it. It’s beautiful, and it’s wonderful to drive. But that’s it. I have two relatively modest properties that are paid for, and I don’t have debt. I don’t buy things unless I can pay for them.”
Is he happy with his place in the universe now? “Oh yes, very happy,” he says, with a deadpan groan. But, inevitably, the big brain buzzes him back to life and adds, as only David Cronenberg can, “I’m actually happy to have had the experience of being in the universe. Because, frankly, it’s not a given.”