Cronenberg's Naked Lunch
by Angela BaldassarreThere's a strong smell of incense in the room as a polite young man serves me mint tea. A table with Moroccan treats is close at hand, and the blue sky across the way is hypnotic. Is this Tangier? Nope. It's the Toronto warehouse where William Burroughs' controversial 1959 novel, Naked Lunch, is being made into a movie by Toronto director David Cronenberg.
Written in fragments with practically no plotline, the book portrays Interzone, a fictional city where men turn into giant centipedes during sex, and where drug-producing creatures, mugwumps, inspire the locals. This is the fantasy world Burroughs escaped to after accidentally killing his wife in real life while playing a game of William Tell.
Cronenberg (The Fly, Dead Ringers) talked about his new film after a recent press screening.
Naked Lunch is different from your horror movies. Do you think fans will mind?
I've gone through this before because the Dead Zone didn't have special effects nor was it very gory. The people who loved Videodrome, with its hallucinations and effects, would probably find this movie closer to that than, say, Dead Ringers. My real fans know that there'll be a strangeness to the film.
William Burroughs' book Naked Lunch has always been deemed unfilmmable. Why tackle it then?
The very fact that it's unfilmmable means that I'm free to invent something new. If you have a Stephen King book, which is eminently filmmable, you're immediately working within the bounds of what people's expectations are. And in Naked Lunch no one can really expect to see the book. So they don't know what they're going to see. And that is exactly what I like. That in a way gives me the freedom. At the same time Burroughs has been a big influence on my work. And Burroughs' life is a very fascinating subject for me, especially since, in a way, the theme of the film, one of the main subjects, is the writing process, the creative process and how it relates to life. This is really a meditation on Burroughs, the rosean imagery of the Burroughs' sort of universe rather than a direct translation of the book.
Did you ever consider filming the actual novel?
You can't do the book. It's just so fragmented, it can't be done. I don't think that any book is filmmable unless you shoot the pages of the book itself. I really think that the medium is so different.
Did you embrace Burroughs immediately as a youth?
First of all you have to remember that growing up in the '50s, in Toronto, it was a very repressive era. The '50s were horrible, and my worst fear is that they should come back and there's some suggestion that in some ways they are coming back. There was a very strong "official reality" that was presented: what you do, what you do with mother and father and kid, with any profession. Things like homosexuality were simply a disease, an aberration to be cured or to be snuffed out. Sexuality in general was very repressed and formulated. So Burroughs was just amazing, ripping through all of that, exploding through all that, and talking about what was really going on and what people were really doing and what was going on beneath the surface of people's consciousness, even if they weren't actually doing drugs and bizarre sex. They were starving in the aquarium of the "official reality" and dying to break out of it.
There's a resurgence of Burroughsmania today. What do you think is the fascination?
Burroughs has always been avant-garde. He was then, and he still is. Which is kind of amazing because one of the things that happens with the avant-garde is that it becomes redundant or it becomes so absorbed that it becomes the establishment. And Burroughs has never managed to have that done to him, even though he's become a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His work is still very extreme, very very avant-garde and very relevant, and it never stopped being that. So it appeals to each successive wave of avant-garde, be it rock music or performance art, writing, whatever. But other aspects, the more extreme aspects, have still not been absorbed because it's so cutting and biting, and so difficult.
What does 78-year-old Burroughs think of your film?
Burroughs loves the film. He was very co-operative, but it's not a collaboration. I kept him aware of what my approach was because the last thing I wanted to do was make a movie that he hated. So I had to talk to him about a lot of stuff, like the sexuality of the film. I'm not gay so I don't know what the sexual sensibility of the film would be relative to Yves Cloquet, who was gay. And I wanted to include the shooting of Burroughs' wife in a fictionalized way, because that was a crucial point in his life, and because he wasn't a writer before that happened. And because the film is about writing I wanted to be able to use that (shooting), but I didn't want to do it if was going to glorify it.
Your creatures, like the talking anuses, are very disturbing.
I wanted it (mugwump) to look like a junkie's body, more humanoid than in the book. They (the creatures) also talk, so I had to create mouths. I was provoked to create things. Like the insect typewriters, which are not in the book, but which Burroughs loves. He said that he felt any writer could relate to it. But I was trying to turn the writing experience inside out so it could be accessible. You see movies where writers are sitting there and smoking and drinking with some voiceover, and that's not really getting at the process of writing. I really wanted the typewriter to become, without getting too Freudian, your unconscious, what you are you're with, and you push it around and it pushes you around, and you have discussions and arguments, and so on. That isn't typical.
Burroughs wrote the book in order to deal with demons haunting him since killing his wife. Do you think he's resolved them?
No. I'm sure he hasn't. He's still writing. Writing is a way out of, what I believe, is mortality. You're trying to write your way out of your own mortality, knowing all the while that you can't do it. But that I think is one of the processes of the creative mind.
And when you do your films?
The same, exactly the same function. And it starts with me, normally, with writing also.
Did you have any doubts about casting Peter Weller in the role of Burroughs?
Not after I met him. I always thought he was an underrated actor, who was only known for Robocop. But he's a very serious actor. He wanted to do it because he understood it. I realized he was very studious, very professional.
Rumor has it you had to chase after Judy Davis?
I had to chase after her because it's a very strong movie, and strange, unusual and bizarre. And she said later that it was the most erotic script she ever read and it was also one of the most bizarre and disturbing. She got very mad at it, but then the fact that it scared her, intrigued her. And like most serious actors, she got very interested.
You had to cancel shooting in Tangier because of the Gulf War. Were you disappointed?
For one day. Only for one day. When I looked at the script again, it became immediately apparent that we really were seduced by the reality of Tangier, that we were there with Burroughs and that Burroughs had been there to write, but the script has nothing to do with that. Even in the very first draft of the script, it was obvious that Interzone was meant to be a state of mind, and that's where its significance was. He really never left New York, he probably never left his apartment, this was an interior voyage. And to have actually gone to the real other city, but also have it be partly a state of mind, would have just confused things. It was really, in a bizarre way, a stroke of luck.
Does one have to be familiar with Burroughs do understand the film?
They don't have to be. In fact, in a way, it's almost better if you don't know anything about Burroughs the first time you see the film, because people come with such expectations. I know that there were critics who just read Naked Lunch the night before they came to see the movie, and they spent the first screening saying why did they do that, etc. So they're really not just seeing the movie until they see the second screening. So someone who walks in cold off the street, and maybe doesn't even know my work or Burroughs', would get the purest screening of the film itself.
With your retrospective in New York this month, and Jeremy Irons crediting you at the Oscars, do you think your time beyond the horror genre has come?
I think it's been happening for a long time. When people don't know what to do with you, they categorize you. The Baron of Blood title was fun, but it's not relevant any more. I always had some support beyond the horror film genre. But I'll still be the scariest guy in town.