Revisiting David Cronenberg's 'Crash'
Beth Accomando: Welcome back to another edition of listener supported KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast. I’m Beth Accomando. Part of what I love about doing this podcast is being able to go back into my archives and run a full interview with a filmmaker or actor I admire. Back in the 90s, it was easy to get people like John Woo or Guillermo Del Toro to sit down for a relaxed hour long one-on-one interview. But sadly most of my radio stories would only use a couple of minutes of the audio. Now with this podcast, I can share the full interview and allow for an in-depth conversation with some fascinating artists. For today’s podcast, I turned to a 1997 interview with Canadian Director, David Cronenberg about his film Crash. The film just celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. The film is an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s controversial 1973 novel revolving around people get turned on by car crashes. In the 70s Cronenberg made low budget horror films kike Shivers, Rabid and The Brood that gained notoriety for their gross out of facts and won acclaim for their ability to transcend genres. In the 80s, he found commercial success with an inspired remake of The Fly, but resisted the lure of Hollywood to make more personal films such as Videodrome and Dead Ringers. Then in the 90s; he made bold original films like ExistenZ as well as tackling seemingly unfilmable books such as William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and J.G. Ballard’s Crash. When I interviewed Cronenberg in 1997 about Crash, he gave me one of my all-time favorite quotes. David Cronenberg: Most Hollywood filmmakers in these days exists is the cinema of comfort. The word comfort comes into even legal negotiations where we can give them some comfort on that story. And I find that quite odd. I’m not looking to make comfortable cinema. Beth Accomando: And that’s why I love Cronenberg. Anyone can pander to an audience and make comfortable cinema that makes people feel good, but not Cronenberg. He wants to make films that naw into your brain and unnerve you. And Crash in particular is most definitely not comfortable cinema. That’s obvious from the opening strains of Howard Shore’s eerie score. The film shook up a lot of people when it came out. The title Crash is fitting for this perverse erotic tale, because not only does it refer to what excites the characters, but also because the film itself is like a car wreck that you feel compelled to look at and then feel guilty for being fascinated by. Not surprisingly, the studio was baffled by it and try to sell it like a sexy car commercial. [Video 00:03:07 - 00:03:40] Beth Accomando: But then the tagline was a little more esoteric, it read “Love in the Dying Moments of the 20th Century.” In the film, James Spader and Deborah Unger played James and Catherine Ballard, an upscale urban couple who were in love, but whose sex life has reached a dead end. Then James crashes head on into a car killing the other driver and leaving the man’s wife Helen played by Holly Hunter badly injured. The accident ignites new sexual interest in James and he discovers that Helen shares his obsession. Helen then introduces the Ballard’s to Vaughan played by Elias Koteas, a guru in this car crash subculture. David Cronenberg: The car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event, liberation of sexual energy, mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity that’s impossible in any other form. You’re due to experience that, you’re due to live that. That is – that’s my project. Male Speaker: What about the reshaping of the human body by modern technology? I thought that was your project. David Cronenberg: That’s just a crude sci-fi concept. Beth Accomando: Crash won a special Jury Prize for its audacity, daring and originality at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996. Then it had a near fatal collision with Ted Turner, who took one look at the NC-17 film and refused to allow his New Line Cinema to release it. What may disturb people the most about Cronenberg’s adaptation of Ballard’s book is that he lets the story unfold without passing any moral judgment. He is like a scientist who sets an experiment in motion and then objectively and meticulously records the results. In Crash, he places a couple’s inability to connect under the microscope. Incapable of direct emotional contact, the Ballard’s misuse other people or things as intermediaries and their desperate quest for shared intimacy proves oddly touching. In talking with Cronenberg, it’s hard to believe that this articulate soft-spoken man is the creator of some of the most disturbing films of the past few decades. Speaking from his Toronto office, Cronenberg address the controversy surrounding his film Crash. What attracted you to J.G. Ballard’s book in the first place? David Cronenberg: In a strange way and not to be evasive, I really find that I end up making the movie to find out why I’m making a movie. It’s not necessarily completely clear either emotionally or intellectually why you’re making something. It’s usually a strange combination of things. And in the case of Crash it was quite an odd thing, because it was sent the book by a journalist who had interviewed me and she sent me this book because we had talked about Ballard and I said I hadn’t read anything he had written and she said, I’ll send you something. She wrote me a note saying I think you should make this book into a movie. And when I read the book, I was actually – I thought you know, I don’t think I would ever want to make a movie out of this book. I found that a very intense, difficult, unrelenting kind of read. And so at that point if you would have asked me I would say of course it would have never occurred to me to do that. But a couple of years later, I found myself talking to Jeremy Thomas, the Producer of The Last Emperor and we had just done Naked Lunch together and he said this is something that you want to do that you’re passionate about, because we should work together. And I said, yeah, I want to do Crash and you know that. Then I thought to myself, now why did I say that. I haven’t – it never occurred to me to do this, but I can’t understand why I said that. So while Jeremy was getting very excited saying I know J.G. Ballard, I’ll introduce you to him and so on. I was trying to figure out exactly why I had said that. And so this is a long answer to your question. But it’s not – in other words, it’s not always very clear. Something of the book, it started a process in me unconsciously or subconsciously that I needed actually to make the movie to complete. And I’m still in the process of completing that. There were things addressed in the book that I wanted to readdress in my own terms in a movie. That’s a fairly heavy thing, so I have to admit the love and sex and death, very major subjects, but with a very particular angle of sort of the technology angle and the automobile angle and so on. So it’s – that’s about as close as I can get to bring that question. Beth Accomando: What were your concerns when you began adapting it? David Cronenberg: People say that Crash is a book that’s unfilmable and they said that about the book Naked Lunch and my answer to that is that all books are really unfilmable, because they – the two media are so completely different. I mean that might – you might make a movie that reminds people of the book where that has the tone of the book, but the kind of inner life that a book has that kind of living inside somebody’s head that you can do in a book you simply can’t do on screen, even sort of the trick of reading a voiceover or something doesn’t really work. It doesn’t give – it doesn’t work the same way. So you know that you’re going to have to reinvent the book for the screen and you sort of have to do a little prayer that somehow it will accurately reflect or represent the book, because you are going to have to take it apart and just – you know it’s going to be a new thing. So that’s always the concern. You know, it’s how close can you come and still make something that’s really a movie and not just this kind of a wooden stiff kind of literal adaptation of a book. So that really was the primary concern. Beth Accomando: Now the book was controversial to begin with, but have you been surprised by how much controversy your film has stirred? David Cronenberg: Well, it depends where we are – I mean the controversy – I mean, it hasn’t – the controversy that happened in France for example was just fine. I mean it was sort of a cinematic literary controversy and the film was very successful there was it’s just been chosen the best film of 1996 by the critics of Cahiers du Cinema which is a very prestigious, really critical magazine. And that seems to me sort of a reasonable controversy and most countries it has sort of been like that. But in places like the UK, it has got quite nuts I think and starts to be – have more to do with English politics actually and the panic that the Tory government has there thinking that the Labor Party is finally going to defeat them after 17 years has more to do with that really than the movie. And you start to see your movie being deformed in the press. I mean most people probably think they know what the movie is like now. They’ve read so much about it in England. And in fact, they have no idea what it’s like at all. It’s sort of a kind of – a lot of the people writing about the movie in fact haven’t actually seen it. That did surprise me and I think it took since Jeremy Thomas’s English and he is one of the producers of the film that he was quite shocked and they’re – they keep apologizing to me for – they keep – and I get letters now from people who are fans of mine who are ashamed that England has treated the movie this way of all places in the world. So it’s sort of from one extreme to the other. So as I say, I knew that the movie would have to be a – if it was successfully representing the book, of course, it will be controversial on one level. But on another level, it’s – I have been surprised by some of – some countries reactions, yeah. Beth Accomando: I was also interested in your reaction to the way Ted Turner had handled it. David Cronenberg: Well, yeah. I mean now they’re – of course what’s happening in England is sort of a lot of people, it’s the press, it’s the politicians, it’s the censors, it’s the – so it’s a huge thing. In the U.S. it’s quite different, because it’s one man. Very few other people in the States have seen the film. So they haven’t had even that chance to react to it. And in England it was shown at the London Film Festival, so several 100s of people at least got to see it that were press screening finally. In the States that was it was one man having a very extreme reaction sitting alone or with a couple of people in a screening room and Ted Turner is – I mean I don’t know the man personally, but he said I find it was very interesting and eccentric character. Quite frankly, I think he should have liked the movie if you had – but he reacted in a very typical kind of way which is just to react to the surface of the film, not really to get into it and worrying about kids who will see the movie and crash cars and it was like the kids will have sex in cars he is saying. And I’m thinking, you know Ted, where had you been? There is a whole generation of Americans who’re conceived in the back seats of 1954. It’s – I mean this – Crash, the movie did not invent teenager’s sex in cars and in fact there are no teenagers in the movie. This is another thing. I mean these are all people in their mid-30s and 40s in the movie, so it’s not even about teenagers. What about the Dukes of Hazard that play on Turner’s TBS. I mean it’s – it didn’t make any sense. I thought it was quite an extreme and unbalanced reaction. Unfortunately, he was able to lean on some people at New Line and that is really that – delayed the release of the film. So that was one very powerful man interfering where in fact legally he didn’t even had the right to interfere. That’s what happened in the States. We won’t really know the real reaction in the U.S. until the movie is – it comes out and shown some of the critics. Beth Accomando: Did you have to make any changes to finally get it released? David Cronenberg: No. It will be shown uncut. That will be the same version that we’ve shown in at the Cannes Film Festival where it won the prize. Beth Accomando: Well, one thing that’s always interested me about depicting sex in films and stuff, I remember when Clockwork Orange had come out to change it from an X to an R, they cut out the William Tell Overture scene which was like the only scene where people were actually enjoying sex. David Cronenberg: Yeah. I mean there is no – you cannot second guess the minds of – I mean they’re – it’s very strange and it puts – when you given a normal person the power of censorship, you get very bizarre results, I think psychotic results. And if you have like five groups of five people censoring a film, they will – none of them will come up with the same things to censor. That’s the other weird thing. There is no unanimity about what is bad or dangerous or whatever. But I mean I have to say that if you look at the movie Crash frame-by-frame, you will not find one frame that is particularly unique I mean in terms of sex or I mean it’s not a violent film, it’s really conceptual. I mean what people are really reacting to with Crashes is the conceptual aspects of it which disturb them. And they then – because it’s so unusual in it’s discussing such an unusual approach to its material, they don’t really quite know how to react. So they sort of snap into the next available pigeonhole which is that is violent, but it’s not. I mean or it’s pornographic [indiscernible] [00:15:06] not, it’s that sort of thing. Really, it’s a very – I mean as far as I’m concerned it’s actually – I thought it was rather restrained. Beth Accomando: Yeah. David Cronenberg: And just in terms of violence, there are no guns, no knives, nobody is stabbed, nobody is punched, nobody is clubbed, nobody is beaten in the whole movie. Nobody is even slapped in the movie. So where they get the idea – it’s nothing that you would see in even a normal action picture is there in this film so – in terms of violence. So as I say its conceptual violence, not sort of graphic screen violence that people are experiencing I mean. Beth Accomando: And also I think it’s – there are so many seemingly contradictory things going on at the same time. I mean there is a lot of nudity and a lot of sex, but you can’t qualify it as like exploitative or pornographic and… David Cronenberg: No, because I mean for one thing if it were meant to be a porno film, it will be I think a very poor adequate porno film. It’s really not delivering what anybody who wants porno, so that’s kind of silly right there. It seems that is really a formal problem, I mean a structural problem. The movie comes up with three sex scenes and people had not seen a movie that has three sex scenes opening. And so they accept for maybe a porn film. So it’s that sort of well, I guess it must be a porn film. But they’re not really watching the movie at that point. It’s a – they’re just sort of bouncing off the surface. The sex in the film is all consensual that’s well into adulthood. It’s quite a different thing. It does require you to kind of reinvent your approach to understanding some things which is for the people who love the film and are passionate about it and then there are a lot. That’s what is so exciting about the film. Beth Accomando: Well, one thing it kind of reminded me, I was almost being like in an operating theatre where you’re observing something. David Cronenberg: Yes. Beth Accomando: There is kind of a clinical distance or a clinical… David Cronenberg: Yeah. Well, this is another interesting thing. I mean people – I don’t think the film is cold at all. But because I think it’s only cold compared with what people are expecting from movies these days. And the people I think go to movies in a weird way for some kind of emotional fulfillment that they’re not getting in their own lives. They want the people crying and sobbing on the screens. They want big obvious emotions and I’m saying no. I mean I’m saying that’s not real, that’s fake. I’m saying – I think the last scene in Crash is very passionate, it’s not very passionate. But it takes you the whole movie to get to that scene. And it’s my belief and then this certainly was my intention and I know from the reactions of a lot of people that it does work for a lot of people. That scene suddenly reveals to you that – in large part the movie is about love and is very passionate. But you don’t – it’s not – you don’t get it immediately right away everything thrown at you and sort of in push button style, so you know exactly where you were all the time and who you’re supposed to love and hate, how you’re supposed to feel. The movie doesn’t do that, because it’s trying to get at something that’s more subtle an oblique than that. But having said that I will say that for me in a way, a movie is like an experiment that you do in a lab. I mean it’s you are seeing what happens. If you say well what if there were people who really did this? What if there are people who really felt this and who not only felt it, but actually carried it through? It might not be something that you want in your own life. But it might be something that gives you some kind of’ reflection on your own life that can be illuminating, instructive, can be consoling even. And so in a sense, yeah, every movie is kind of like an experiment where you sort of see what happens. Beth Accomando: Well, I thought it was interesting in one of the scenes in the background there watching like a TV documentary about Fish I think or… David Cronenberg: Yeah. Beth Accomando: And in a sense it almost seem like this was kind of – in a similar way it was kind of like examining this in kind of a non-judgmental way. But depicting this is what it’s like, this is how they function. David Cronenberg: Well, yeah. I mean in the same way that you wouldn’t be judgmental about the fish, but you’re a [laughter] deep. One critic said to me that the thing that disturbed him most about the movie was its lack of a moral stance and I said, well, in a way that is the subject of the film is what if you accept that you do not have a moral stance and that if you’re going to have one, you’re going to have to invent it. It’s a very existentialist approach really to life. It’s saying, well let’s accept that there are no absolutes, even the things that we want to think are absolutes like sex and emotion and love and stuff and whereas I’m saying that these things are not absolutes. They are reinvented constantly from time-to-time and culture-to-culture. And for me to impose a morality on the movie by saying now watch this, this guy is – he is bad, he is doing a bad thing and we all know it. It would completely subvert what the purpose of the film is. If one is to come to some conclusion that you could call moral or ethical or whatever then it’s for the audience to generate or deform it. I’m not imposing it and that is also not normal for films these days, but I think that in most movies the moral stance is an artifice, it’s fake. I mean it’s sort of a – it’s a narrative device. You give your character some outrage about something so that he can get angry and do something. But you know when you watch these movies that no one who made the movie really cares about this. You know it’s just a device. Nobody is really passionate about that. It’s just the subject to hang a hook on. And I’m saying I won’t be that false, so I will not be that false, I won’t inject it into. I’m going to let my characters do what they want to do, because I really want to see where they go on their own without me interfering with it. Beth Accomando: Well, I think audiences sometimes have a problem when there is no sense of like a moral judgment from the director, because they don’t know how to react in their – they feel uncomfortable making the judgment on their own. It’s asking them to do a little more work. David Cronenberg: Well, it’s also. But I mean it’s also treating them materially. It’s sort of treating them like adults and quite honestly I mean there is a huge tradition in art of all kinds of moral instruction. But most of the best art is much more ambiguous than that. It suggests several things at once and a lot of art is questioning rather than instructing. There is a difference between a sermon and a passionate speech. It’s the – and I’ve never been very good at sermonizing. I tend to see many sides to everybody’s argument. That’s why I’m not a very good negotiator, because I’m just like to say he is right about that which is not good when you’re negotiating, especially for a movie, so I bring that to the movie and to me that is the most interesting kind of art. It’s – because you’re examining things that are mysterious and primal and essential and they’re almost beyond what you would call morality and beyond politics at the same time. Beth Accomando: One of the things I really liked in your film was your use of sound. How do you approach using sound in your films? David Cronenberg: Well, sound involves music and effects and dialogue. And I’d – I try to integrate all of those things. I mean the guys who were doing the sound, the dialogue and the effects and Howard Shore, the composer of the music all worked very hard together. So sometimes the dialogue is the effect, is the music and for example, if you look at the car wash scene, there is no music. But Howard was involved in creating and orchestrating the sound effects of the car wash which becomes sort of the musical score. I think that sound actually is what adds the third dimension to movies. It gives you depth. It gives you the world beyond the frame. You hear things that are not seen within the frame, so it’s extremely important. And I’d never go for strictly naturalistic effect. I want sound effects to have emotion. They can have emotion and they can have meaning. So I try to get all three of those elements to integrate with each other. Beth Accomando: The car wash seems to almost become like a living breathing being that’s watching them. David Cronenberg: Yeah. Well, sort of voyeurism is definitely an aspect of the piece. People say you talk to me about what technology is doing to us and I say well, what do you mean doing to us, technology is us. I mean we are it. We have created it. It is an absolute reflection of human will, it the embodiment of human will and the – and a reflection of human creativity. And for the car wash to have it sort of human presence, it makes perfect sense. Beth Accomando: Well, it was just odd because it seem like the car wash itself was more of a voyeur than the technicians that were there like scrubbing down the car. David Cronenberg: Yeah. They don’t notice. I mean they’re completely oblivious just like in the airport when they have this mad, passionate moment of sex. There are people walking around in the background and they just – they don’t notice. Somebody said to me it’s not very good, you didn’t notice those people walking around in the background. They should have been alone up there. I said we hired every one of them. That was one of the few times I let my AD run the extras, because I wanted it obvious that they were so isolated from society now and so into what was happening themselves that they were oblivious to the possibility that people would watch them or discover them or something. So at that moment that was the one reason – one of the few times that I’ve allowed them to a lot of [low audio] [00:25:04]. Beth Accomando: One of the things that interested me too is the way you increasingly isolate them. It almost feels like they’re moving in a parallel universe to the real world, they’re doing things… David Cronenberg: Yeah. Strictly that was the way the book too. I mean what I’ve – what I did was what I think Ballard did as well, but maybe it’s done less often in movies is simply to say, I will not put anything in the film that doesn’t interest me. I won’t do anything just because it would be realistic. I’m not interested in the police really. I’m not interested in the police. Are they aware of what’s going on? Are they after them? Are they seeing them? Are they searching for them? And it was the same in the book. I mean the police exist sort of almost in the far ground, in the periphery. You don’t – it seems they’re not important, because that’s not what the movie is about. It’s not about the commission of a crime in a society. It’s quite something else. So likewise, I had an assistant director who always had 50 or 100 extras to throw on the street to make the streets come alive and I kept saying no, I don’t want to see anybody. I’m interested in those extras and I’m not interested in their reaction to things. I’m not interested in whether they notice that there is this naked woman in this car. I don’t care. That’s going to be a distraction. So in other words, I was simplifying – I was distilling it to a very intense essence and that was my approach to the film and which is why you get the effect that you just mentioned. Beth Accomando: Yeah, it was especially true, I thought in the scene where they stop at the freeway crash and it’s like they’re posing Catherine sitting in the car and taking the pictures and you think it’s like they’re just moving in two different worlds and not even seeing each other. David Cronenberg: Well, that’s right. I mean – and in fact, you could probably get away with it that in an accident like that. But yeah, I mean they’re sort of slipping by each other and of course what these people are doing is trying to create a parallel universe. I mean they’re trying to rewrite the laws of sexuality and of love and everything else. And if you really were to do that completely, you will be in a kind of parallel, you wouldn’t be relating to other people, they were relating to you. And unless you had a group who were with – was with you on that sort of adventure of reinvention, you will be quite alone. Beth Accomando: I hadn’t read the book, but I understand you – the James Dean sequence where they reenact the crash. Now that wasn’t in the book, so that’s… David Cronenberg: That’s correct. Beth Accomando: And what made you add that in? David Cronenberg: Well, in the book there are two things. There is – Vaughan is actually stalkers Elizabeth Taylor in the book, he is obsessed with Elizabeth Taylor as a film star and he wants to have a crash with her, he almost manages it. And the other thing is that there are scenes – there is a scene where they go, they tend to recreation of traffic accidents, but just sort of normal traffic accidents, not sort of stunt driving accidents and not of anybody famous. Although they do talk about recreating Jayne Mansfield’s crash and so on I think and James Dean as mentioned. But I didn’t want to use this sort of stalking Elizabeth Taylor thing for several reasons. One is that Elizabeth Taylor isn’t even Elizabeth Taylor anymore. And if Vaughan is a stalker, I mean I’m calling him a stalker, because you haven’t read the book. You will think that word necessarily the way it’s written. But on screen I think he will be seen just as another psychopathic celebrity stalker and I didn’t – I thought that would diminish Vaughan, make it easy to dismiss him as some kind of psychotic and I really thought it would distort what I wanted to do with him as a character. So for those two reasons, I kind of just dismissed that element and my solution though to replace it was to have the car crash thing involved another Hollywood icon, but a dead one. Beth Accomando: How did you approach shooting the crashes? David Cronenberg: Well, somebody said to me that your car crashes are very realistic. And I said oh no, he said, yeah, there are none of those slow motion things where they flip over in slow motion and you see it from five different angles. I see to you that’s realistic and I asked him if you had ever been in a car crash, he said no. So I think what – it was obvious that I was defining myself against the Hollywood action tradition. It was obvious I would have to, because I was really faced with action movie logistics having sort of 35 stunt drivers and 35 stunt cars on a rainy road at night and so on, but I wasn’t doing an action movie. So I had to use sort of restrict and I did no slow motion, I did no multiple angles, I did no huge explosions and cars flipping over and so on. I tried to keep it very abrupt and brutal the way car crashes are. And really deal more with the aftermath of the car crash which is more to the point than the car crash itself. And so that was conceptually – and that was basically the way I want it. Beth Accomando: Well it also seem to like when Vaughan is following Catherine, it’s also like a flirtation. I mean every little bump is… David Cronenberg: Oh yeah, absolutely. Beth Accomando: I liked your attention to detail in the film just mundane things like how she gets her stockings off in the car when they try to have sex and… David Cronenberg: Yeah. You see, this is the thing. I mean you have to work that stuff out, choreographical. I mean it’s an actor’s thing. But it ends up affecting everything else. It’s like well, what is she wearing, How realistic is it. Well, if she’s is wearing pantyhose then – or if she is not, is she wearing an underwear, if she not, how does she get it off. You know we had to work all that stuff out obviously. But I mean intense attention to detail is really what filmmaking is all about. I mean you can really tell a movie where people did not take the time. That goes for any movie really. Beth Accomando: The scene where Catherine and James talk where she asks him about whether or not he is interested in Vaughan. The language she uses is very clinical and I thought it was very interesting that it actually makes you in some ways feel more uncomfortable that it’s clinical than if it was slang. David Cronenberg: Yeah, absolutely. That is – and that’s done on – in the book too. I mean there section of the book is all described in clinical, clinical terms. There are no street terms for anything, no love – cutie love terms for anything, for parts of the body or whatever. And a lot – most of the dialogue, most of it is transcribed right from the book and it does have – well, maybe it isn’t – yeah, I think it is mostly to dialogue. And I mean there are few scenes that I’ve written, but in the same style. That is I think exactly – I mean that scene will be quite a different scene if it were played differently with language and exactly the same visually. But that is a strange dissonance that there is in the book that I was looking for on screen. And I think you’re right, I mean I think if she had – if you just changed that dialogue, people would sort of relax a lot even if she is saying basically the same thing, but I think what… Beth Accomando: Yeah. I think you hear it different… David Cronenberg: Yeah. Beth Accomando: Completely differently and paid more attention to it in some ways. David Cronenberg: Yeah, that’s right. Beth Accomando: And a lot of the sexual encounters, the people seemed almost more in touch with the objects around them than with the other people. David Cronenberg: Yes, that’s right. Beth Accomando: And – but what was interesting is the one scene that seem to be the most tender or intimate between the two actually was between James and Catherine after she had sex with Vaughan and she is all bruised and there is actually – they don’t have a sexual encounter, but that was like one of the more tender scenes in the film. David Cronenberg: Yeah, because displacement is a lot of what the film is about which is one possible feature of fetishism. But I wasn’t really sort of so much making a comment on fetishism as the inability that seems to be growing for people to make direct contact. They seem to have to do it via the medium of something else or someone else. And so when they had invoked Vaughan into their bed, in that scene that we were talking about and then – and that seems to make sex possible between them, but only with Vaughan there sort of verbally as an inter – and in their imaginations as an intermediary, because to be having sex directly with emotion and direct emotion, it seems impossible for them. And so every – in each scene there is this strange displacement of people’s emotions on to other people, other things and it can only – it’s an attempt at the end of the movie for the two people to try and find some way however bizarre to come back directly into contact with each other. Beth Accomando: Do you see a common thread running through all of your films? David Cronenberg: I don’t see threads. Beth Accomando: Could you describe? David Cronenberg: [Laughter] clock, I can’t see the threads for the clock. Analytically, I mean so – of course when I’m put in the position of being a critic of my own films or an analyst then I’m just another analyst and my analysis can be only as good or as bad as anybody else’s. What I’m – my assumption is that there will be connections amongst all my films because I’m making them and they will all – I don’t get interested in most films. I mean I get sent a lot of scripts and so on and I find them completely uninteresting to make, maybe there is something you might want to watch, but there is a special kind of’ switch that gets flipped when there is something that is exciting on that very deep creative level. And I know therefore that my films will all have real connections amongst themselves. And I don’t have to – when I’m making a film, I don’t analyze it or think about it. I don’t think this is just like that or oh, yeah, this will be good, because it’s just like the theme. A lot of critics I find confused, their critical process with my filmmaking process. They think that you make a film the way you might think it out while you’re analyzing it as a critic, completely different. That comes from a completely different place entirely. But I’ve read some stuff about my films. I don’t like to read too much of this, but, there are obvious connections I think amongst them all. David Cronenberg: Well, it seems like they move almost in kind of a logical progression and you seem to always be refining your style. David Cronenberg: Well, that will be nice. I mean in terms of – you hope that you get better and better and more mature and certain and whatever. It doesn’t mean you can’t make a bad movie and then go on to make another good movie. But whether it’s really a progression or it’s some kind of not really linear at all, but kind of – I think it’s more like a spiral or a helix. You look down on a helix and it looks like a circle, but when you look at it from the side it’s not. That’s really you’re coming around, but you’re also rising up. So it’s not an absolute repetition at all. And it’s sort of what I’m doing sort of feels like that to me. And I try not to put restrictions on it intellectually. I try not to say, well now – I mean after I did The Dead Zone, a lot of people were saying, oh well, he has now left sci-fi behind and horror and he is not using the facts in biting this and stuff. And then I did The Fly, the very next movie, because I don’t even think in those categories. I can’t really – I mean my next movie might well be as sci-fi movie. It looks like it might be. And I don’t think of – I think that’s really – that aspect of it is sort of a marketing problem rather than a creative problem. If it’s just – is it a genre film, is it sci-fi or is it sort of what a naturalistic tragedy or whatever. That really doesn’t affect how you make the film. Beth Accomando: Well, your films always seem to kind of transcend whatever genre they seem to be starting in. David Cronenberg: Well, you’re very sweet. That would have been nice if it was – I certainly – as I say I mean, the – I said this before, you’ll forgive me. But I mean you do feel like you’ve got to plug and you’re sort of looking for the socket. When you find the socket and you plug in and you get the juice and you have the energy. And it doesn’t seem to matter what the genre is. So underneath all the other stuff if the plug is there in the socket, you’ve connected with your source. You really – you are making a real movie for yourself. Beth Accomando: You began in what would probably called low budget horror. Was that a hard stigma to shake? I mean was it hard to kind of get people to see your films as something other than that? David Cronenberg: Well, I never really tried to shake it. And it – I only dislike it when it’s used dismissively. When they say horror or mister or something like that and you know that they’re trying to dismiss you. So they’re using it as an insult. But in real terms I don’t – I love the genre. I mean sci-fi and horror were very exciting to me as a kid reading sci-fi magazines and so on and seeing movies. And people said, oh, it was a brilliant sort of’ career strategy to start off in low budget because that’s where you could make a low budget horror movie that would actually make some money. And I said, you know what, it’s absolutely luck. I mean the first script I wrote, that’s what came out. When I was in public school writing short stories, I wrote horror stories, I mean sci-fi. I mean they – it was the same stuff. It’s natural to me. It was very natural for me. It was actually just – it was just luck that it was the one place where you could sort of start with no money, but – and people will take you sort of seriously. I think Wes Craven, who’s got a hit now, Scream said that I was one of the few people he knows who made more than one horror film at the beginning of his career, but still seems to be able to make not horror films if he wants to. Coppola made his first film a horror film and many people who have done it. Once they had done it, they went on to never do it again. I’ve never distanced myself from the genres at all. I mean it’s – if the movie is good in a really deep way, it will transcend its genre, whether it’s Chinatown transcending the cheap pulp fictions detective movie or something else, I mean it’s – transcendence is in a sense what art is all about. Beth Accomando: What kind of films did you see as a kid growing up? David Cronenberg: Well, as a – I saw everything. I mean as a little kid, I mean there was no television I have to say. I have to admit it. But it was pre-TV. So every Saturday you go to the movies with your friends and you’d see whatever was there, it will be cowboy movies Hopalong Cassidy or sort of eight cowboy movies that was a serious genre at the time, so you might see Shane, you might see Burt Lancaster and Ten Tall Man action pirate movie. Of course, you’d see a lot of cartoons as you would see sci-fi. I mean really just everything that was available at the time. And I have told this story before, well, you’ll forgive me again, but across the street from the theater that I went to which was called the Pylon, there was an Italian – a cinema that only showed Italian movies. It was called The Studio and it was because the – a section of Toronto’s that I lived in had a lot of Italian immigrants enough to sort of support an Italian language only movie house. And I remember coming out of seeing some Hopalong Cassidy movie or something. And noticing across the street, this is in the afternoon on a Saturday grown men and women coming out of this theater crying men and women, I felt this was extraordinary to me as a kid. I couldn’t – I’d never thought that the movie could make adults cry. And when I went across the street to see what the film was and it was La Strada, Fellini’s film and that was really when I – it first occurred to me that a movie could have power like that that could affect grown adults, because up to then it was a kid thing. And then I think I – that moment is very clear in my mind, so it obviously had that some serious meaning for me. Beth Accomando: One collaboration you had that was very interesting was with Clive Barker. Would you ever consider working with him again and maybe working as a writer and director with him or… David Cronenberg: Well Clive is – but Clive has his own writer-director you know. Beth Accomando: Well, I meant that he would write and you would direct something. David Cronenberg: I don’t think so, because it’s the stuff that – Clive’s approach to what he does is so different from mine. It was apparent on Nightbreed when I was making suggestions that I thought, you know Clive, this doesn’t really make any sense. He didn’t care that it didn’t make any sense and I did. I like sort of the magic – the logic of madness is we both are interested in madness, but I’m particularly intrigued by the logic of madness, the rationale of madness that we make. So that I’m interested in Descartes theories for a philosophy, because it’s sort of so logical, it’s insane. And I like that. Clive is totally into this, completely sort of invented spiritual otherworld stuff which I actually don’t like. I mean I don’t mean I don’t like his stuff. I mean I – but it’s not something as a director that I would really be interested in doing. It doesn’t – it just doesn’t resonate for me in that sort of socket and plug way. So the chance is that Clive would write something that I will be interested in directing are slim just because of that. Beth Accomando: Would you act for him again? David Cronenberg: Well, of course. He was lovely as a director. He was great – just a great friend, great set. He was – I think he was a little overwhelmed on that film, because it grew. It was supposed to be quite a small film and then it became quite a big, heavy duty effects film. And I think he was a little overwhelmed. Not that he ever showed it, because he was always incredibly sweet and funny on the set. So, I like Clive. I consider a friend and I think he is extremely talented. Beth Accomando: One of my personal favorites of yours is Dead Ringers. How do you look back on that film now, because it’s been over 10 years I guess? David Cronenberg: Yeah. Well, I don’t have to look back on it. In fact, it was very hard and painful in a weird way for me to have to look at it again for the release of the laser disc and I had to sort of watch it again and sort of talk about things as I was watching it. I don’t really like looking at my old films particularly. It’s not something I do unless I have a reason to do it. As a matter of fact, I was just looking at Videodrome and thinking in terms of maybe a possible laser release of that. I don’t know why. I mean it’s very hard for me to see my movies as movies, because in a weird way they’re a documentary of what happened that day. I mean I remember how I was feeling the day I did that shot and how the actor was feeling and the trouble I had with the effects and the lighting or god knows what, you know. So I can’t really experience the film. And so it’s just – it’s kind of strange in that way, yeah. Beth Accomando: I mean you can’t enjoy it as just a viewer. David Cronenberg: Yeah. I mean it’s impossible. I mean you’d – in a way you’d love to be able to do that so that you could kind of objectively assess your film. Certainly the time that you would most want to do that is when you’re editing it and yet that’s the time you’re absolutely – actually the least objective in a weird way. You sort of try to surprise yourself. That’s why I have my editor do an assembly of the film without my involvement, because I want to forget what I shot, so I’m surprised by it. And so – but you never, I think it’s impossible really to see if you’re filmed the way someone else can just walk in off the street and see it, you’ll never have that experience. You really shout out of your own films in a weird way. Beth Accomando: One thing that I see kind of running through your films is that a lot of your characters seem caught up in the – it’s not religion, but like their own – creating their own kind of religion, their own kind of belief system. David Cronenberg: Yeah. Well, I’m not – I mean I’m – I’ve come to realize that I’m nothing but a card-carrying existentialist. So I mean I think it’s absolutely true. I’m a complete atheist and I don’t - I just believe that we invent the world. I mean we’ve invented our whole belief structure or that I think there is no morality or there are no – there is no morality in the universe except what we invent. And I think the universe is completely a moral. It doesn’t exist and it’s a human concept. And we invent it and we constantly reinvent it. So the whole surgery and thing, you know a man is condemned to be free and all of that stuff, I buy it. I think it’s an action – a very accurate description of human life as it really is. And it’s both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. The responsibility is terrifying. The responsibility to invent a reality for yourself, which I think people do, but they don’t want to know about it, so they sort of subsume themselves in just one church or some religion or whether it’s politics or whatever belief system. It really is a human invention and which is – becomes a reality. Beth Accomando: I had read that Martin Scorsese was afraid to meet you. Do you find that people sometimes confuse your films with what you’re like? David Cronenberg: Well, certainly when I was making horror films almost exclusively. I mean he had seen I think Shivers and Rabid and maybe The Brood. He is the guy who made taxi driver and he is afraid to meet me. I thought that was kind of ironic. And it shows you that even a creative person who should know better doesn’t really. I mean listen, it’s ironic. You read something in the press and it’s your interview and you’re outrage because you’ve been misquoted and everything has been distorted. Then you flip the page, the next page reading about somebody else and you believe everything you read. It’s sort of like that. I mean Marty should know that you are not your films in terms of personal presence and social behavior. In fact, it’s probably more likely to be the opposite. I mean everybody knows that comedians are hideous people and very unhappy and very bitter. So it stands the reason that people who make dark films are in fact rather happy, go lucky people. And of course, as soon as we met each other he – we knew – he knew that there wasn’t certainly nothing to be afraid of and we’ve been friends since. But yep, that’s it. The relationship of an artist who has work is a very complex one and isn’t – there is no consistency from person-to-person either. So you just don’t know what you’re going to get. Beth Accomando: I read a quote of yours and maybe it’s not true, but where you said that you like to show the unshowable and speak the unspeakable? Is that something you still find true? David Cronenberg: Well yeah, I mean I guess I was in my sort of phrase making sense. You’re looking for truths that go deeper than the surface reality that we’re all presented with. I mean I think really I’m – I think it was intended to suggest that I was going to make really hideous movies, it will be very scandalous, but I wasn’t really meaning that of course. I was meaning that like the fool who says – unloads all the family secrets at the birthday party and whom nobody really likes for doing it necessarily, but in a way somebody has to say it. It’s sort of like that. That’s what you feel like. You’re the – you want the truth no matter how painful or distressing it might be and you have a compulsion to show it to people and share it with people even though they might not want you to. And me that’s the most interesting exciting kind of art. It’s – you might find something really quite positive, not necessarily negative, but something that’s not noticed or hidden for some reason. I think that’s the impulse. I mean if everything were right out there, if everything were understood, there will be no need for art, if everybody knew everything. So you – I tend to not be interested in just replications of the same stuff that everybody knows which really seems to be what most Hollywood filmmaking is about. I mean most Hollywood filmmaking these days is the cinema of comfort. They – the word comfort comes into even legal negotiations. Well, we can give them some comfort on that story. I find that quite odd. I’m not looking to make comfortable cinema. There is enough of that around and it’s the easiest and safest stuff to do and I’ve – somebody’s got to do the other stuff. Beth Accomando: Well, I think I had talked to one director who described it; he said all films have the same theme in Hollywood; it’s that everything is going to be okay. David Cronenberg: Well, I think that’s quite true. That’s very true. And even when – and how many movies you might see that start with a very tough premise and you realize its all bluster, because they cop out on it long before the end of the movie. Of course, I mean a movie like Crash doesn’t. I think that’s another thing that bothers people as it adds the audacity to carry through on its presence right to the bitter end. Beth Accomando: Do you consciously feel like you like to push things just beyond the point where you think the audience can take it? David Cronenberg: No, not really. I actually feel – see because I have my ideal audience in mind which is an audience that wants that experience and therefore they in fact will be frustrated if I didn’t do that. I know I’m not really a provocateur. I don’t think of myself in those terms. I’m not very – I don’t think of myself as competitive or confrontational at all. I mean I’ve never met Oliver Stone, but from his movies and the interviews and stuff, you might get this impression that he enjoys that kind of combat. I don’t really. If everybody who saw Crash said I adore this movie, I will be happy, I swear to you. [Laughter] oh darn, I failed, because I didn’t make them crazy. If they said they adored it, I would assume that they got it and that it will be fine with me. Beth Accomando: One thing I wanted to ask about Crash also was do you see that the characters in pursuing these crashes and stuff are hoping that technology is going to save them that they’re trying to cheat death by surviving a car trip – car crash and… David Cronenberg: No, I don’t… Beth Accomando: No? David Cronenberg: No, I don’t think that. I think they do experience technology as an expression of their humanness and are willing to embody it in a more direct way. But not necessarily to save them, because I don’t – there is – I mean nobody is talking about cryogenics and living 1,000 years old or anything like that, no. I think they’re really – it’s trying to penetrate this sort of surface of reality to the real reality beyond. We always have that feeling that it’s real, but something more real beyond it and I think that’s where they’re going, more than that they’re looking for technology as a way to let’s say cheat death or whatever. Beth Accomando: You’ve made a film in the late 70s called Fast Company about race car… David Cronenberg: Yeah. Beth Accomando: Drivers. Did that in any way come up when you were making this film? I mean did you – was there any connection that you felt in terms of the way you shot some of the stuff in that film? David Cronenberg: Well, actually yes, a lot of people that I’ve worked with since, that’s in particular Carol Spier, my Production Designer and that was the first movie that I did that she worked on. So in a way and – but just in – I certainly did think of a few things that we’ve done on that movie which was a very low budget movie. But I put a camera on a funny – what’s called a funny car which is a huge fire breathing monstrously hot racer. And I put a camera and I don’t think anybody had actually put a movie camera on one of those before. We kind of burned a few magazines and stuff. Now you can see video cameras on them any day of the week watching sports on television. They do that all the time. But as – though there were few things in terms of camera mounts and stuff, and I do have this history as I say with my production designer. But beyond that, there is not much connection. I mean that was quite as kind of a gentle be movie above drag racing which I’m quite fond of. It’s – nobody had ever seen it, but it’s quite – I’m quite fond of it. It had strangely enough John Saxon who is the star of that movie visited me on the set of Crash. It was the most bizarre thing, because I hadn’t seen him since that time and he was in town for some reason in Toronto and he appeared on the set. That was really great to see him, because we got along very well. Beth Accomando: Do you have another project lined up right now that you’re working on? David Cronenberg: Yeah, I do. I have two scripts. One is called Red Cars which is about racing I have to say, but from quite a different perspective. That will be – maybe more directly related then Fast Company. But that’s about Formula One racing in 1961 for Ferrari. But it’s as you might expect it’s not a sports movie. Whether I’ll ever get to make that script, I don’t know, so there are some people interested in, there’re some problems involved in getting it happening. The other one that might go a lot sooner is called eXistenZ which is spelled e-X-i-s-t-e-n-Z, eXistenZ and that is a sci-fi movie that I think will get made this year. So we’ll shoot it this year. I think it looks pretty good, probably going to be my next film. Beth Accomando: I have a trivia question – I don’t know if it’s trivia, but someone who watch Crash with me was very curious as to why Catherine with so resistant to revealing her breasts. David Cronenberg: Well, she just kind of reveals parts of it. I mean it’s kind of… Beth Accomando: Part. But she’s always seems to have something to – pillow or her hand or… David Cronenberg: Well, I don’t know. I mean I’m trying to – if that’s in the – she is – because she is – I think the idea was that she is in some ways totally uninhibited and in other ways, very reluctant to give any of herself. So she is sort of portioning it out. I mean I think that was the idea. She doesn’t make eye contact with anybody in the movie ever. And that was very deliberately a performing choice that we talked about. So it’s basically that. I mean it was just what can we do sexually that is – because I think that’s more – that’s kind of disturbing to. It’s a strange combination of being uninhibited and being completely inhibited which Catherine is in a way. Beth Accomando: It was just funny, because after we had watched the film my friend just said, “What was it? Was she like deformed or something? Did she have a scar there? David Cronenberg: No scar. But you – see quite actually you do actually end up seeing quite a bit of her breast really, but you just don’t see her sort of just – it was that total abandon and freedom that you would have if you did that. We wanted to hold something back. That was really the – that was the reason. Beth Accomando: Okay. Well, thank you very much for your time. I appreciate your generosity. David Cronenberg: It’s a pleasure. Beth Accomando: Thanks a lot. Bye. David Cronenberg: Thank you. Okay, bye-bye. Beth Accomando: That was Canadian Filmmaker David Cronenberg from a 1997 interview I did. Thanks for listening to another edition of listener supported KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast. I’m working on delivering the show on a more regular biweekly schedule with a short break at the holidays. You can follow me on Twitter @cynabeth and please like the Cinema Junkie Facebook page to stay up-to-date on all the podcast. Coming up for Christmas, a podcast on horror movies, a spiritual practice. Cinema Junkie is also a proud sponsor of the midnight movies at Landmark Ken Cinema where you can find Tommy Wiseau’s The Room this Saturday at midnight. Then you can experience the disaster artist in all its glory. And please, if you plan to see The Room, only do so at a midnight show or another screening of the film in a theater. Do not – I repeat do not watch it alone at home on DVD. It’s just not the same experience and you can’t appreciate just how bad it is by yourself. Till our next film fix, I’m Beth Accomando, your Resident Cinema Junkie.
For this podcast I turn to my archives for an interview with David Cronenberg about his 1996 film "Crash," adapted from J.G. Ballard's controversial 1973 novel revolving around people with symphorophilia, in this case car-crash sexual fetishism.
In the 1970s, Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg made low budget horror films that gained notoriety for their gross out effects and won acclaim for their ability to transcend genres. In the '80s, he found commercial success with an inspired remake of "The Fly," but resisted the lure of Hollywood to make personal films such as "Dead Ringers" and "Naked Lunch." In the '90s, Cronenberg brought J.G.Ballard’s seemingly unfilmable book "Crash" to the screen and shook up audiences.
When I interviewed Cronenberg in 1997 about the film, he gave me one of my all time favorite quotes.
"Most Hollywood filmmaking these days is the cinema of comfort," Cronenberg said. "The word comfort even comes into legal negotiations well, 'we can give him some comfort on that point.' I find that quite odd. I’m not looking to make comfortable cinema."
Cronenberg’s “Crash” is definitely not cinema of comfort. That’s obvious from the opening strains of Howard Shore’s eerie score. “Crash” is a fitting title for this perverse erotic tale because not only does it refer to what excites the characters but also because the film itself is like a car wreck that you feel compelled to look at and then feel guilty for being fascinated by.
James Spader and Deborah Unger play James and Catherine Ballard, an upscale urban couple who are in love but whose sex life has reached a dead end. Then James crashes head on into a car, killing the other driver and leaving the man’s wife Helen (Holly Hunter) badly injured. The accident ignites new sexual interests in James and he discovers that Helen shares this obsession. Helen then introduces the Ballards to Vaughn (Elias Koteas), a guru in this car crash sub-culture.
“Crash” won a special jury prize for its “audacity, daring and originality” at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996. Then it had a near fatal collision with Ted Turner who took one look at the NC-17 film and refused to allow his NewLine Cinema to release it.
What may disturb people the most about Cronenberg’s adaptation of Ballard’s book is that he lets the story unfold without passing any moral judgment. He’s like a scientist who sets an experiment in motion and then objectively and meticulously records the results. In "Crash," he places a couple’s inability to connect under the microscope. Incapable of direct emotional contact the Ballards must use other people or things as intermediaries. And their desperate quest for shared intimacy proves oddly touching.
In talking with Cronenberg, it’s hard to believe that this articulate, soft-spoken man is the creator of some of the most disturbing films of the past few decades. Speaking from his Toronto office, Cronenberg addressed the controversy surrounding his 1996 film.