Canadian auteur director David Cronenberg came out with his 20th film this year, Cosmopolis, an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel of the same name. The film, about a tumultous day in the life of a 28-year-old billionaire set against the background of a financial meltdown, evoked extreme mixed reactions from critics. Cronenberg, in an exclusive interview, told us what led him to make the film, why he chose Robert “Twilight” Pattinson as the lead, and how Satyajit Ray is important to him.
Your movie is the first cinematic adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel. Why do you think you have succeeded in turning a DeLillo book into a movie where no one else has?
(Laughs) Well, it’s funny you ask that because, I think that while Don’s work is very literary, his dialogue is very cinematic. So I am, myself, somewhat surprised that no one has made a movie from his work, and I’m not sure what the reason is. For me, every new novel is a possibility to translate into cinema. It won’t be the book, it can’t be the book, because the two media, literature and cinema, are extremely different. They seem to be very connected, and they are very connected, because even in the early days of sound and cinema, many of the movies made were adaptations of books and plays in particular, but they really are very different. So you have to accept that when you are going to adapt a novel, you are creating a new thing.
When you think of it, for example, even a very bad novel can do things that cinema can’t do at all, you know, like give you the idea that you are living inside someone’s head, and hearing their thoughts and feeling their thoughts as they flow. In cinema, you sort of, internalise the inner monologue. And often you find filmmakers try to get that effect by having somebody read the book while you are watching the movie. But to me, that’s an admission of failure. It means you haven’t really understood that you are creating a new thing that is related to the book, but is not exactly the book.
So, to come back to it, perhaps DeLillo is intimidating because those inner monologues, that he does, are sort of inside the head, and the abstraction, the metaphysics and the philosophy are very intense and very complex. Maybe that intimidates people. But for me, I really first went for the dialogue for Cosmopolis, apart from the characters of course. To me that was the spine of the movie and I didn’t worry about the things that were completely literary about the book and I could not even have done that. I knew the dialogues could be cinematic, so I just didn’t worry about them. In fact, DeLillo loved the movie, so he’s quite happy with it, you know.
It’s interesting you say that because you once even said in an interview, “To me dialogue is cinema”, and generally, not many filmmakers hold dialogue in high regard.
Well, yeah, I think, you know, cinema is about the human condition, really, and so much of the human condition exists as words, as conversation and as dialogue. I mean, you don’t have culture and you don’t have human society without words of some kind, and without human communication. And human condition by words gives you an abstraction. So I know that it’s easy to think of cinema as being essentially action or visual and it’s a common misconception that it is action of a very crude, physical kind, but, in my experience of cinema, (chuckles) over 65 years of it, I feel that without dialogue, without words, without conversation, without this talking, and without the human face – because I think the thing we photograph most as filmmakers is the human face – in particular, cinema wouldn’t be cinema.
You also said the characters of Cosmopolis attracted you. What was it about Eric Packer’s character that resonated with you?
For me, the whole idea that you must have a character who is perfectly sympathetic, is a very crude, and a very uninteresting kind of approach to cinema. I think the character has to be very interesting and fascinating and charismatic. I mean, he has to be somebody you want to watch and see what he says and see what he does.
So what’s interesting about DeLillo’s book is that all the way through, the characters are not particularly sympathetic in an obvious way. But by the end of the movie, you see that this character is, somewhere inside there, a very naïve, vulnerable child, who’s only going to get a haircut, but what he’s really going back to his childhood. He’s going back to the barber who gave him his first haircut. And when he’s there, you begin to see the innocence that’s there underneath the hard surface, and I think it’s a really interesting transformation and transition that you see in this character. At the beginning you think that this guy is very unemotional and hard and cold, and cynical perhaps. And by the end of it, you see that there’s a lot of emotion and a lot of vulnerability underneath there and the character turns out to be far more complex than you might have thought.
A lot has been said about your unconventional choice of Robert Pattinson for the lead role.
The thing I liked about Rob Pattinson as an actor is that he’s a serious actor. And you could lose sight of that, because he’s had this big popular success with the Twilight movies, but he is not afraid to play a character who is difficult to like, you know, because some actors are afraid to do that, because they feel it is too personal, that they themselves will not be liked by their audience, and so on. But a real actor is not afraid to play an unsympathetic character, and Rob is a real actor.
Also, I think to be an actor, you need intelligence, first of all. For example, Rob immediately realised that the script was quite funny, and most people don’t get that. Then you want sensitivity to the subtleties of the movie, in terms of what is going on in the movie, the dialogue and so on. And Rob, personally, is very knowledgeable about cinema.
(chuckles) I don’t think his Twilight fans realise this about him, but he’s really an aficionado about art cinema. I mean, on the set I’d find him talking to Juliette Binoche about obscure French cinema, (chuckles) so you know, he brings a real depth of understanding of the history and art of cinema and all of those things mean that you have a lot of power and a lot of responsiveness from your actor as a director. It’s like driving the Ferrari instead of driving, you know, a Volkwagen Beetle. And you get that with Rob. I must also add, he’s very down to earth and very easy to work with. He’s not diva at all, you know. He’s really a sweetheart.
Cosmopolis is again a departure from anything you’ve done before. Do you ever plan to return to the body horror genre you are so loved for?
I am not really deliberately avoiding the genre but you know, it’s I just don’t want to keep doing something that I’ve done before. I feel that as an artist you are primarily interested in observing the human condition, in all its complexity and so, I, I really want the field to be wide open, I don’t really restrict myself. It’s all very intuitive for me, you know, the things that interest me.
But in a way, I’ve been exploring the theme of human technology and of human invention in all my movies and capitalism is another example of technology. When you think of money as technology it starts to make sense in terms of what I’m interested in the movies, which is human creation… things that we create, that we cannot control.
And then when you think of it, capitalism is like a Frankenstein monster, we invented it, we created it, we humans, but we seem not able to control it. You wonder why everybody in power couldn’t get together and say, “Look, this financial problem is not good for anybody, so why don’t we just fix it, because after all, we invented money, it’s not as though it’s the tsunami or the hurricane. It’s not a natural force, it’s a human force.
Why can’t we all just get together and fix it?” But of course, it takes on a life of its own and we really can’t control it. But the movie is still not anti-capitalist, it’s more complex than that. There are characters in the movie who are anti capitalist and so on, but all the main characters are very pro capitalist, (chuckles), so it was funny and ironic when Rob Pattinson and I rang the opening bell of the NYSE, you know, (chuckles) and the people there were very friendly.
They were certainly all capitalists and they were very proud of NYSE and they were very happy to promote the movie Cosmopolis because of course, that’s capitalism too, isn’t it!
What are your thoughts on Indian cinema?
To be honest, I’m not familiar enough with it to be able to speak on it. But you know, we have a huge Indian population in Toronto, and whenever there are Bollywood festivals here, there’s a lot of excitement surrounding them. I understand that there are a lot of interesting changes and that there’s a great evolution in current Indian cinema. I also know Deepa Mehta well because she’s a fellow Toronto filmmaker so I do a strong connection between Toronto and Mumbai.
But of course, I remember…. I mean I’ve seen the classics of the ’60s and so on, and they had a huge influence on me. You know, It’s just so intriguing to see a film from another culture in another language, because you can actually live in some other life that’s not your own, for a while, and that’s really quite fantastic. I mean that’s what the essence of cinema is. So, those films made a big impression on me.
Are you referring to the movies of Satyajit Ray?
Yes, you know, Satyajit Ray and the world of Apu. Because those were part of the, what we think of now, art cinema “with a capital A”, of the late ’50s of the early ’60s. So those movies were part of movement that had movies by Italian cinema’s (Federico) Fellini, Japanese cinema’s (Akira) Kurosawa and French cinema’s (Jean-Luc) Goddard and so on, and they primarily represented India in those days.
And it was exciting because you really felt that there was a world movement that, in a sense, where elevating cinema from just being entertainment for the masses to, an art form. Because when movies began, people thought it was just for the lower classes, and it took a while before people realised that cinema was an art form, you know. And Ray’s movies were an important part of that.
So how’s your novel going? How different is it from writing a screenplay?
It’s really an interesting process. My father was a writer and Brandon always wanted to be one, and frankly, I never thought I’d be a filmmaker, even I thought I’d be a writer. So, you know, it’s taken me a really long time to come to terms with writing fiction, but the thing about it is that I’m surprised how much like directing it is. Because you are casting it, you are choosing the costumes, you are choosing the locations, in a way you are choosing when you do a close up, when you will do a long shot, you know, or do you describe this person in detail or not. So, it’s closer to directing that screenwriting, weirdly enough.
Nikhil Taneja is doing a year-end series of interviews with the people behind some of the most interesting indie films of 2012. Coming up next a conversation with Canadian director, Brandon Cronenberg, on his film, Antiviral. You can tweet good, bad and ugly (if you really want) comments to the piece to Nikhil on Twitter: @tanejamainhoon.