March 13-19, 2003
Interview: David Cronenberg
Think "David Cronenberg movie" and images spring instantly to mind: Jeff Goldblum's liquefying flesh in The Fly, the grotesque gynecological instruments of Dead Ringers, Videodrome's moistly pulsating VCR, perhaps an exploding Scanners head or two. Like it or not -- and he doesn't much -- Cronenberg has become identified with special effects, although he may be the most complicated and difficult filmmaker to earn that distinction. Cronenberg's fascination with the body and its discontents has mixed with a healthy appreciation for psychotronic splatter to create a cinema that's as (literally) visceral as it is philosophical.
In person, Cronenberg betrays more of the latter than the former; he sits calmly, speaks in measured, even tones, fixing his unsettlingly blue eyes on you. Traces of his macabre side, though, inevitably creep through. Asked if it requires extra effort to leave his own imprint on an adaptation rather than an original script, Cronenberg says, "I know that it's going to be my film, because I'm going to be making 2,000 decisions a day while we're making it, and no one else would make those same 2,000 decisions. I will mix my blood with it, and it'll be enough to satisfy me."
There's less blood in Spider than you might expect, and less than originally planned; Cronenberg's special effects department constructed a "bleeding potato" for use in one of the flashbacks that increasingly take over the movie, but decided he preferred to leave the audience guessing as to which flashbacks are reliable, and which are "infected memory." "As soon as the potato starts bleeding, you know it's not real," he says.
Cronenberg bristles, calmly, at the notion that the effects-free Spider represents any kind of a departure. "Special effects are nothing to me," he insists. "They're just a tool like any other tool." In fact, the film employs a number of low-tech tricks, including one shot where the actor playing a character changes mid-scene. (No giving away who or when.) The decision to use effects or not, he says, always comes from the story -- in this case, an unobtrusive visual style was key to establishing viewers' uncertainty as to whether, at any given moment, they're watching history, fantasy or something in between. That, in turn, is intended to mimic the way we relate to our own memories. "There's never sort of static absolute memory that never changes," Cronenberg says. "You find as you get older that you're constantly revising and upgrading your memories, adding things, subtracting things. Memory is identity -- when you lose your memory you lose your identity -- and yet you realize that memory is a moving target. It's constantly changing and shifting, which suggests that identity is also." In other words, pin him down at your own risk.