Fantastic Films, Vol. 3, No. 9, June 1981 , p. 42-46
Brains on Fire, and
Thoughts that Kill!
Telepaths on the Warpath in this Spine-Tingling Tale of Extra-Sensory Terrorists
An Interview with
The Man Who Created
Writer-Director David Cronenberg has chalked up yet another cinematic success with his latest film, SCANNERS. A film dealing with the complications of artificially-induced telepathy, SCANNERS is the fourth science-fiction / fantasy film for the 36-year-old filmmaker. Born and raised in Toronto, Cronenberg entered the University of Torontoīs School of Sciences but left as an English Language and Literature Major. At the same time, he also began seriously writing and studying filmmaking.
After producing two short horror and science fiction films, in college, Cronenberg wrote SHIVERS (THEY CAME FROM WITHIN) which quickly became the fastest recouping film in the history of Canadian movies.
Cronenberg then went on to make RABID with Marilyn Chambers, FAST COMPANY, and THE BROOD, his first big-budget film. The success of those films has ultimately led Cronenberg to the creation of SCANNERS.
Interview by JIM SULSKI
FF: Although critically acclaimed, your previous movies have been controversial, to say the least, due to their bizarre and sometimes violent subject matter. What kind of response do you get when you are introduced as David Cronenberg, the man who directed SHIVERS, RABID, THE BROOD, and SCANNERS?
CRONENBERG: It depends on who Iīm talking to. The general public are usually surprised to find that Iīm a normal human being, who is calm and straight forward instead of some kind of a monster. Most science fiction fans however arenīt surprised at all to find me the way I am, because they understand. They enjoy movies like SCANNERS and they know that theyīre not crazy either.
FF: You have said that the concept for SCANNERS was a totally original idea. Where did your inspiration come from?
CRONENBERG: In 1969 I did a film called STEREO, an underground feature concerning a group of individuals who had been given artificially created telepathy. They were then isolated in a special clinic where they could interreact with each other in order to study the implications, and complications, of telepathy. Especially to understand how telepaths might respond during various emotional relationships between themselves. For example, if two telepaths were sexually involved or physically attracted to each other, would that help or hinder the telepathic flow between them? The possible outcomes of such relationships have been on my mind ever since and eventually evolved into Scanners.
FF: Scanners is a science fiction / suspense movie which builds to climatic scenes that rely on heavy realistic "shock effects." Who were some of the personel involved in creating these extraordinary sequences [?]
CRONENBERG: Our Special Effects Coordinator was Gary Zellner, Special Effects Consultant was Henry Piercig, and Special Make-Up Consultant was Dick Smith. And there are two other names which should be mentioned when it comes to special effects: one is Chris Walas from Los Angeles, and the other is a French-Canadian, Stephan Dupuis. Those five were the main group. Also there were numerous other artisans and technicians who were among the many people associated with the Special Effects sequences in Scanners.
FF: How were you able to gather together such a professional group of SPFX experts for one project?
CRONENBERG: Almost all of the special effects professionals I had worked with on other pictures werenīt available at the time we were doing Scanners. And because I was working in Montreal, I left it up to my producer and art director to come up with the personel who might be able to handle it.
FF: So you basically have never worked with any of the members of this Special Effects team before?
CRONENBERG: Right, I had never worked with any of them before. Gary Zeller and Dick Smith had just come off of doing Altered States. Just when the Effects people were being approached for the Scanners project. We all met at Dick Smithīs place down in New York state. Thatīs why his credit is as Special Effects Make-Up Consultant. At that point he was just going to be a consultant.
FF: Did he eventually become more involved?
CRONENBERG: Eventually yes. What happened was, he was really exhausted after almost an entire year of working on Altered States. But he had been contacted by Gary Zeller and some other people in the field and he couldnīt help but to be curious about any project they were interested in. When he saw the script I think he felt intrigued and challenged. Dick Smith is the kind of man who doesnīt accept just any project proposal. After we had all met in his home I was describing what I wanted and everyone was sitting around talking about the best way to do these things. Thatīs when Dick was doing his consulting. He was suggesting to Stephan Dupuis and Chris Walas that they make the head out of a certain kind of material because it would probably work better. ... and to use this sort of gelatin skin ... and he was suggesting techniques to them in greater detail that were new to them. He was a charming host as well as being invaluable as consultant.
But as it turned out, we eventually ended up shooting the final sequence with the telepathic duel about six months after the rest of the picture. I had been six months into editing and wasnīt really happy with what we had at that point. We had run out of our budgeted shooting time and I felt that we hadnīt had enough time to do it right. So I talked to the producers and convinced them to go over budget and shoot a new ending; it was basically what had been written into the script before but we had done so little pre-production planning that it had caught up with us in that scene.
The producers agreed to extend the budget. And at that point Dick Smith also felt that he was well enough rested from his work on Altered States and was ready to get back into action. So he came onto the set for the three days it took to shoot the new footage for the ending. Iīm not talking about the dialogue at the end, just the telepathic duel itself and the making of the burned body. We originally had ashes on the floor but we werenīt happy because it looked like too much of a makeshift thing. I wanted a real charred body.
We akso shot the special close-up scene of Michael Ironside at the end with the special contact lenses and a few other effects we had planned to do but had to scrub because of time considerations.
FF: Were there any other shooting complications?
CRONENBERG: We did about a weekīs worth of additional shooting and editing. And I wrote a couple of additional scenes like when Michael Ironside goes into the subway. Those were shot in Toronto after everything else. Also some other bits and pieces which I decided, while editing, that I really wanted to include in the film. Scanners was really the first film I had done where I had a chance to do that.... to be in the middle of editing and say, gee, wouldnīt it be nice to insert a scene here, and then go out and actually do it. It makes a lot of sense to do it that way if you can. It was because we knew we didnīt have enough pre-production and my producers were prepared for additional shooting. So it wasnīt a shock to anybody.
FF: Were you pleased with the results of the special effects?
CRONENBERG: Ultimately I was. We knew that most of the effects were working very, very well. The big disappointment had been the ending of the film. We had a strong film up until the ending, building up to that climax. But then it seemed as though there was nothing really there. I needed a strong ending. I had it in my mind, but I hadnīt been able to get it on film. Ultimately we got it just the way I wanted.
FF: How do you feel about the completed film?
CRONENBERG: To do it again I would have wanted to spend more time in pre-production and on the script. I was constantly writing and rewriting on the set. And thatīs a very insane way to do it, especially when youīre shooting out of sequence. Sometimes youīre writing scenes that happen at the end of the film without having prepared for the things that lead up to them. Consequently you sometimes lock yourself into situations that might cause complications later.
So I have to say Iīm extremely satisfied with the way the film turned out... there was a time I thought it would become total chaos. Thatīs what I mean when I say itīs ironic that this film might be the one that breaks through the big box office barrier. There were times, you know, when it was five oīclock in the morning and I was writing scenes I had to shoot at seven a.m., and I thought, my God, this movie is not going to come together or make any sense. Itīs times like those that are a test of the human will (laughs).
FF: First Shivers, then Rabid, then The Brood and now Scanners. Is Scanners a step in a different direction?
CRONENBERG: I think it is. A sort of breakthrough film in many ways.
FF: So where are you headed now?
CRONENBERG: To Outer Space. I donīt mean that literally, but I feel that anythingīs possible. Not only because of the success of Scanners which has certainly gotten me a lot of interesting offers that I hadnīt had before. But I also feel that Iīve somehow come to an end of some kind of cycle. I really donīt know what it is. Iīll have a better idea in retrospect. I feel like Iīm going off in a slightly different direction.
FF: What of your plans to do a remake of Frankenstein?
CRONENBERG: Those have been laid to rest.
FF: Then whatīs next for you?
CRONENBERG: Iīm scheduled to write a screenplay for FilmPlan, the people who did Scanners and The Brood. But I havenīt really written it up yet. Iīve got some basic plots.
FF: Will it be in the same genre as Scanners?
CRONENBERG: Well, thatīs the thing. Itīs a little bit off. I donīt know if by the time Iīm through, whether it will really be science-fiction or not. I donīt think it would be horror either. I think it would be more of a suspense-thriller. But is still has a few bizarre premises that relate to my other stuff.
FF: You mentioned working on a script at 5 a.m. that you would have to shoot at 7 a.m. What are the complications of being a writer director?
CRONENBERG: There are advantages in a situation that especially when you suddenly donīt want to depend on someone else. At that point being able to write saves you. But, for example, now that I have finished Scanners if I werenīt interested in writing my own script Iīd already have been in pre-production on my next film and ready to go.
Now what Iīve got to do is face about four or five months, at least, of sitting at a typewriter writing. Itīs hard to get back into it because itīs been a year since Iīve been doing that. Iīm not a writer who writes everyday.
FF: It sounds like itīs easier to be behind the camera than behind the typewriter.
CRONENBERG: In a way it is. Because you have other people there with you when youīre shooting. Thereīs a society of energy that helps the adrenalin get going. Instead, here I am, going to an office downtown that I rented where I sit alone with just a typewriter and a desk and dig back into my imagination again. In a way itīs exciting and challenging, but itīs also very difficult. I can see why many directors who are able to write often choose not to do so, but rather choose to direct someone elseīs work.
FF: Were you inspired by any films as a kid?
CRONENBERG: Only in the sense that films have inspired me to become a filmmaker. I canīt really say thereīs anyone film that did that more than any of the others.
FF: Did you read science-fiction when you were a kid?
CRONENBERG: Yes, I did. But I read a lot of everything. I was a big fan of Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine. That was my favorite.
FF: Were you inspired by what you read?
CRONENBERG: I would say inspired by science fiction alone. I read everything from Flash Gordon to Little Lulu. So I wasnīt influenced by science fiction in the sense I patterened myself after that kind of imaginative feelings or wanted to recapture the nostalgia of those old memories. In that sense Iīm not like George Lucas who seems very influenced by the the science fiction he read as a kid, and is trying to recapture those feelings in a modern way for the next generation of kids.
FF: Was there an influx of SF / Fantasy material into Canada when you were a child?
CRONENBERG: Oh yeah. All that stuff was available. I read EC horror comics, Little Lulu and Uncle Scrooge. I was exposed to a variety of the media. But when I started to write, I wrote EC horror comics. I guess it had something to do with my temperament and my own creative imagination. Why that happened is as mysterious to me as it might be to you.
FF: How about science fiction films?
CRONENBERG: Oh sure. I also a lot of other stuff including Durango Kid movies, pirate movies, all that. But in terms of fantasy and science fiction I was really knocked out by Forbidden Planet and This Island Earth. Those were films you donīt hear mentioned too often but they really affected me. Iīve seen them since and they hold up really well. I also remember War of the Worlds which was a terrific film and When Worlds Collide, another great film.
FF: Where do the ideas for Scanners and The Brood and Shivers and Rabid really come from?
CRONENBERG: From somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind. I donīt know where. I donīt mean to be melodramatic, but I go into a little trance. Anyone who has ever been a writer knows about those moments when your eyes go blank and people who are around you wonder what youīre doing. They think youīre daydreaming of something. Itīs no different from a medicine man going into a trance trying to find inspirations from somewhere. Itīs the same kind of thing.
FF: Do you think that the popularity of science fiction and fantasy films is going to be around a long time?
CRONENBERG: I separate science fiction and fantasy from horror films, mainly because I think that horror films have been more consistently popular. Horror is forever. Its appeal is even more basic than science fiction. Science fiction ... the purist kind of science fiction ... is based very strongly on technology, which has always been changing. Whereas horror goes beyond scientific into the timeless realm of dreams and unconscious thought. Primitive tribes of people who donīt have any sciences, per se, still have tales of horror and the supernatural. And thatīs because horror really is timeless and forever.