(Above: Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts appear in a scene from Eastern Promises.)
Last month, I had the chance to sit down with David Cronenberg, the master director who needs no introduction. We talked about his recent film Eastern Promises – which is available on DVD as of today – as well as violence in movies, and Alfred Hitchcock.
You once said you were not interested in the mechanics of the mob or criminality in movies, but people who live in the perpetual state of transgression.
Yeah, it’s the mechanics of the mob. I mean, if you look at both A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, there is very little screen time devoted to the actual committing of crime as a business. If you look at something like Martin Scorsese’s Casino, where there is a lot of time showing you how the money is laundered and where it’s kept and who steals it and who has the combination to the safe and things like that : I don’t find that interesting as a filmmaker. It’s interesting to watch, but that’s not the type of thing that interests me about criminality. : I don’t find myself wanting to do that on the screen, so you might say, “Why are you doing a crime drama?”
I’m curious about the fact that in both A History of Violence and Eastern Promises there is this correlation between violence and family.
(Laughs.) Violence and family? What a shock! I’ve never thought of it. If you think about it, one of the reasons you might do a genre picture [is that] : the audience understands some of the game. There will be criminals, there will be crimes committed, there will be some violence, and so on. There also will be dark, rainy streets. And the same with the family drama. Everybody understands the difficulty of a family, the dynamics of a family, and the emotion of a family. The two things put together can give you an explosive, intense structure.
I have to ask you about the bathhouse sequence in Eastern Promises that takes everybody’s breath away.
Viggo [Mortensen] had brought back some books from his trip to Russia, which he did completely on his own, books that you’re not suppose to have, about what they called dark dark fighting, the black arts, secret killing techniques, and things like that. And so we were looking at these-they’re all in Russian, of course-and figuring out where these guys learned to kill. And then I talked to the stunt coordinator about how I was going to shoot it : [I didn’t want the] sort of Bourne Ultimatum impressionistic quick-cutting where you don’t see anything. I want to see everything, so it has to make real physiological sense. : It has to be messy and awkward and I’m going to be quite close to the actors with the lenses rather than staying away with long lenses. : So at one point, we were working it out and Viggo says, “It is obvious that I have to do this naked,” and I say, “Great,” and that really was that discussion. It’s true-it wouldn’t have been as simple if we hadn’t known each other, but there was a huge level of trust we had with each other, going both ways. I have monitors all over the set. There are some directors who are very possessive of the image. They don’t really want people to know what is going on.
Like Alfred Hitchcock?
Well, you know, Hitchcock lied a lot. He’s got a lot to answer for. He really basically said that all he ever said on the set was “action” and “cut” and he called the actual shooting of the movie “grinding it through the machine.” But when you say that, you are saying you did everything yourself and no one has contributed anything else to it, not the director of photography. : I mean, look at Psycho : the music, Hitchcock didn’t write that music, he didn’t shoot it. Anthony Perkins : are you telling me he didn’t contribute something to the movie? I think there was a whole ego thing going on with Hitchcock. He liked to talk about controlling the audience. He is the master puppeteer and he could anticipate everybody’s reaction to everything. But I don’t believe any of that.
A lot of him is in his movies and it comes out in a lot of ways that he would be quite shocked to know was revealed : his sexuality, his insecurities, all kinds of things. And that’s not a game I ever thought I would be playing. A lot of young students of films think they must storyboard everything, anticipate everything, and know exactly what is going to happen before they come on the set. First of all, that would be excruciatingly boring if they did know that, and it would be “grinding it through the machine.” It then would not be a joyous and exhilarating experience. But I don’t think you can really do it that way. I did know of someone, who as acting was going on in front of the camera, he wasn’t watching the actors : he was looking at his storyboard. I’ve seen that. To me that is extremely bizarre.
There have been some complaints from people about your films being too violent.
You have to admit the body count in this movie is quite low. There are really three scenes of violence, or four if you count the finger-cutting scene-but that’s cheating because he’s dead, right? He’s not feeling anything. So three scenes of violence, four bodies, but it’s because of the way it’s done. It’s the emotional impact of the scene : it’s quite extreme. It’s designed that way. I take the violence very seriously and if you’re murdering someone, you are committing an act of absolute destruction : it’s all very physical, very bodily. There are many ways to avoid the reality of what violence is, but ultimately, it is the destruction of a human body. Aesthetics, statistics, religion : [there are] many other ways to evade that reality, but when I’m making the movie, that is what I see, that is what I feel, and that is what I am delivering to the audience. I’m saying you can look away but I’m not going to look away : I’m going to show you really how it’s like.
You started your career doing B movies :
They were always A movies. They were always A’s, secretly.
But now you’re revered :
You know, it’s pretty shocking, really. Thank you.
I just wonder how you feel. I mean, the man who did Rabid with porn actress Marilyn Chambers is considered one of the greatest directors working now :
I’m the same filmmaker. I really am. I mean, I’m older definitely, but the process of making a movie is the same to me. I have certainly learned a lot of things and I have gathered around me a group of people I work with all the time who give me great support, as a family and as a team. I’ve learned a lot about the medium, but I still feel the same every time I walk out onto the set and I feel exactly as I did then. I can still remember it. It’s a real time compression. It doesn’t feel different to me.