Film Threat, Issue 2, February 1992, p.30-35
by Rob Salem
One of the most eagerly anticipated book-to-film adaptions ever, based on William S. Burroughs´ classic novel, directed by David Cronenberg and starring Peter Weller. The result is slimy.
I´ve never actually read Naked Lunch. But not for lack of trying. It´s just that I´d get a few pages into it, then realize I had absolutely no memory at all of what I´d just read, so I´d go back and read it again and again, until my vision blurred, and I decided to read something else instead, like the back of a cereal box.
I could lie about it, of course. Lots of people say they´ve read Naked Lunch; most of them just bare-faced posers, faux-boho weenies trying to justify their liberal arts education.
Except for David Cronenberg. Him, I believe. Cronenberg has not only read Naked Lunch; he´s spent a good part of the last decade trying to turn it into a movie.
And now he has. Sort of. "It´s impossible to make a movie out of Naked Lunch," Cronenberg has said. "A literal translation just wouldn´t work, because it would cost $400 million to make and would be banned in every country in the world."
"I though the only way Naked Lunch could be made into a film was if it was animated," says Peter Weller, who is no doubt glad that it wasn´t, since he is playing the lead. "How could you do it?" he asks. "The book has no structure, no beginning, middle and end. What David has done is taking it a step further. He did the best thing he could have done with it - he put it into context. Essentially, the movie is about the writing of the book, but it´s also pieces in and out of the book."
Cronenberg put it a little more succintly: "The movie is about the act of writing something dangerous and complex, and how it affects the person writing it."
And that person would be William S. Burroughs, who wrote Naked Lunch the book, and lived Naked Lunch the movie. I actually met Burroughs (and lied to him about reading the book) at the Toronto press conference announcing the start of of production of the film. He looked very old, very frail, almost translucent, really. Sitting there between Cronenberg and Weller, two fairly intense, vibrant, much younger men, Burroughs just sort of disappeared into the wallpaper.
Cronenberg and Weller clearly worship the man and, from the very beginning, sought his counsel and approval on every aspect of the project.
"He´s an intellectual," says Weller of the living inspiration for both the film and the character he plays in it, William Lee. "He´s also an outsider - the ultimate disobedient. Not so much a rebel, but definitely on the outside. The film is about a guy who comes to find out who he is. He finds out he´s a junkie. He finds out he´s homosexual. You know, Burroughs killed his wife. By accident. And he was forever trying to purge himself of that act. Burroughs´ life was no day at the beach."
If not a day at the beach, then how about a couple of hours in a darkened movie theater?
If nothing else, the movie will open big. It is already one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the year, particularly among fans of the book (whether or not they actually read it) and the ever-expanding Cronenberg cult.
The curiosity factor, even during production, is unprecedented, heightened by the incredible secrecy under which it was filmed.
The Naked Lunch set was closed to outsiders until the very last week of production, and even then opened only to selected press, who were allowed only limited access.
No Cronenberg interviews. No photos. Very few story details. And not so much a glimpse at any of the film´s elaborate special effects.
I was able to determine that most of these effects involve surreal fantasy creatures - crawling "mugwumps," leaping "sex blobs," typewriters that metamorphose into monsters - some of which required up to 15 puppeteers to animate.
These creatures, along with a number of similarly strange humans (played by the likes of Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands and Roy Schneider), exist only in a fantastic nightmare dimension called Interzone, a "sinister, hallucinogenic world of cruel pleasures and desires ... where nothing is true and everything is permitted."
And Interzone exists only in the tortured mind of William Lee and, as a movie set, inside an old, abandoned factory in east-end Toronto (a three-week location shoot in Tangiers was also planned, but was preempted by the Persian Gulf War, resulting in an extensive, last-minute rewrite that Cronenberg, in retrospect, feels actually improved the film).
There is no easy way to describe the Interzone set. But if you were to take an authentic Moroccan market (complete with 700 tons of authentic imported sand), shove it under an authentic-looking New York pier, then cram the whole thing into one large, musty old building and crank up the smoke machines..., well, actually, that´s exactly what they did.
And then they brought in hundreds of appropriately ethnic extras and a small menagerie of appropriately unhealthy animals - camels, donkeys, sheeps, goats.
You can imagine the smell. The entire crew wears surgical masks. But the combined odor of the animals and the smoke is offset somewhat by the pungent aroma of the various imported fabrics, foodstuffs and less identifiable substances they´ve used to dress the "open-air" Interzone market (if only).
Mostly, you smell seafood. But what you see is lizard. Split lizard, dried lizard, lizard-on-a-stick, every tent in the market stocks a full line of lizard-based products.
Except for the last tent on the right. I´m not sure what they´re selling, but the long, black, mushy things they´ve got hanging from a stick look particularly nasty. Weller wanders over. "That´s the black meat of the giant aquatic centipede," he says, very seriously.
Turns out that black aquatic centipede meat is the central character´s drug of choice. As opposed to, say, heroin.
None of the drugs depicted in the Naked Lunch movie - and there are, understandably, many - are in fact real drugs. "It´s all fantasized," explains Weller, "because it´s not the drugs that are important. It´s the addiction that´s important."
Lunch is called. It seems I have arrived on a rather special day. Today the crew is taking Weller out to lunch. More specifically, to Jilly´s, a nearby strip-club (or, as it´s known in the local vernacular, a "titty-bar"). Weller invited me along.
Up to this point in my life, if you had asked me what the last thing I would ever imagine myself doing would be, I probably would have said something like "Having lunch in a titty-bar with Robocop."
Then Weller came up with the line I´d like to think I would have come up with, eventually. "I guess this really is a naked lunch."
We arrive at the club and slide in, taking over a black table. Weller is still in period costume (early ´50s), and has a baseball cap pulled down low over his eyes, so no one recognizes him right away. Nonetheless, he blanches visibly when, once the interview has begun, I invoke the name of Robocop.
"Shhh!" he snaps. "Don´t say that!"
"The 'R' Word!"
Okay. A large, surly waiter comes over and takes our drink orders. Weller wants a soda water and egg-salad sandwich. I´m too overwhelmed to even think of eating. I do manage to mumble the word "beer;" if only because I know I´m going to need something to do with my hands. And mouth.
I can´t remember the last time I was in a strip-club - at least, not in Toronto - but it was long enough ago to be unaware of the recent change in policy in exotic dancing. Toronto, notoriously tight-assed city though it may be, actually allows its strippers to strip naked. Naked. No pasties. No G-string. Nada.
If you happen to be a customer, I would imagine this a good thing. I mean, you´re there to see naked women; actually having them naked would seem to be a terrific bonus. On the other hand, to an easily distracted journalist trying to conduct an interview, naked women constitute an unexpected and hard-to-ignore obstacle.
Particularly when there are three, count ´em three table-dancers, gyrating suggestively in his immediate vicinity. No to mention the dancers on stage. There was literally no place not to look.
The interview at least begins well. There´s a lot to talk about and, initially, the three table-dancers are at least partially clothed.
Weller first read Naked Lunch in 1968. "It was like the Bible to me," he says. "It was the ultimate novel of disobedience."
Was he disobedient? "Yeah, sure. I was 20. The world was disobedient. But now it´s just a great book about control, about addiction, about power. Its disobedience is not so prurient or gratuitous."
Unlike the woman whose left nipple is currently about an inch-and-a-half away from my nose. I forget my next question. I forget my name.
Weller is thoroughly entranced. "My, you have a fabulous body. Do you work out?"
I am rapidly losing control of the situation (as well as number of body functions). In a brief flash of lucidity, I ask Weller how he managed to land the role.
"I was sitting on the set of Robocop 2 [oh sure, he can say it], in my Robocop chair, with my Robocop legs on, which is not the most comfortable place to sit..."
(While we´re on this Robocop thing, I asked him why he turned down Robo 3. He says that, even though he had some trouble with the script, he would have gladly done another one, but the shooting schedule conflicted with the Naked Lunch shoot.)
"Anyway, I´m on the set, and I just happened to ask Mark Irwin, the director of photography on Robocop 2, who had also worked with Cronenberg, what Cronenberg was up to, because I didn´t know Cronenberg, but I was a fan of his stuff. He told me Cronenberg was doing a film of Naked Lunch. And then he walked off. And I kinda jumped out of my chair and ran after him. I immediately wrote to Cronenberg, and I said, 'I dig it. I love your stuff and this book is a bible to me. So if you haven´t cast it, I want to be the guy."
The conversation kind of tapers off at this point. When I play the tape back the next day, I hear brief spurts of dialogue punctuated by long, wordless stretches, with distorted heavy-metal music in the background. I think I´m going to need another crack at this.
I call the publicist to see if I can set up another interview. She calls back to tell me that Weller is willing, but only if we go back to Jilly´s. I meet him there that afternoon. I don´t get back to the office until late evening. I don´t even bother to play back the tape.