Canadian writer-director David Cronenberg has always marched to the beat of his own idiosyncratic drum. Interested in exploring areas where few other directors venture, over the past four decades, he has examined with a clinician's eye themes of biological horror, physical deformity, emotional terror and sexual unease. Since his first, aptly titled 1975 feature Shivers, largely working outside the studio system and often using genres such as horror and science fiction, he has produced a uniquely personal body of work, including The Fly, Dead Ringers, Scanners, Crash, A History of Violence and Naked Lunch.
In other words, it's perfect Cronenberg territory. Here, in an exclusive interview, Cronenberg, whose credits also include eXistenZ, Videodrome, Eastern Promises and last year's A Dangerous Method, talks about making the film, and why he's such a big fan of digital and will be happy to see the demise of film.
David Cronenberg: It was actually the easiest script I've ever written, though I wasn't even sure that this was the next film I was going to do. I read the book and felt I wanted to be involved, but I told my producers, let me see if this is even a movie. And the way I did that was by literally transcribing the dialogue from the book, putting it in a screenplay form, and that took just three days. Then the next three days, I filled in all the action descriptions and so on. Then I studied it and thought, "This could work." And I never changed the script from that moment on. I almost wasn't aware that I was even writing a script. Of course, you leave out a lot of the innately literary elements, like the internal monologues. They work in a book, but I always feel you really can't do that in a film. The two media are totally different. So you have to accept you're creating equivalences in some ways, and that you're really creating a whole new thing. It's not an exact replica of the book on screen. So I wrote the script in just six days, which has to be the new record for me.
HDVideoPro: What sort of film did you set out to make?
Cronenberg: I never go in feeling I have this clear vision or that you can categorize it. It's one thing if you're doing The Fly and you know it's a horror/sci-fi film, so at least you know what genre it is. But with films like Dead Ringers and Crash, there's no genre that will hold them, and this film is the same. So you have to think of it as a sort of art film. It's obviously not a mainstream kind of film. Beyond that, I don't think about it too much. I just try to realize the potential I see in the script.
Cronenberg: No, we shot it all in Toronto, for several reasons. A lot of it's set on 47th Street, and that has changed so much since he wrote the book a decade ago. A lot of the buildings he mentions are gone now, so even if we had shot in the same location, it wouldn't be like the book. And NYC is so difficult to shoot in, and, as this was a Canadian-French coproduction, it just made financial sense to do it in Toronto, which can easily double for NYC. And I wanted to shoot from Eric's POV, and that meant that when we're in the limo, we don't see outside. We experience the city the way he does, which is specifically disconnected and insulated from all the vibrancy and life of the city. Shooting the city through the limo's tinted windows made a lot of artistic sense. So we shot some background plates of New York and did the rest in Toronto. The whole shoot was just 35 days, as the script was just 77 pages. I like short, tight scripts. We actually came in two days under schedule, thanks in part to the terrific cast. For example, we planned six days for the last 22-minute scene with Paul Giamatti, and did it in just three.
HDVideoPro: Wasn't this the first time you and Peter Suschitzky, BSC, ASC, your DP for over 20 years, shot digitally?
Cronenberg: You're right. We used the ARRI ALEXA and loved it. We didn't shoot any tests or test other cameras, as it came with all these great recommendations from other top filmmakers. At that point, you couldn't shoot RAW files, and we shot 4:4:4, and the software was still in beta. But it was obvious to us that the ALEXA is the final stake through the heart of film because it's so filmic and yet so sensitive to light. It's actually better than film in ways that matter to me and Peter. It's telling that Peter, who's not at all a tech head and is quite a traditionalist, said he never wants to go back to film again. And since then, he's been shooting M. Night Shyamalan's new film After Earth with the new Sony F65 4K camera, which he says is even better than the ALEXA, which is amazing, as I don't think anyone has been too impressed with Sony's digital cameras until now. But he's a big fan, so I think the tipping point has passed as far as film is concerned.