Cinefantastique, Volume 22, Number 5, April 1992, p. 8-9, 11, 13-14, 17, 19
Sex, Drugs and Special Effects
Horror meister David Cronenberg explores William S. Burroughs with surreal imagery
By Gary Kimber
"Nothing is true, everything is permitted."
"Hustlers of the world, there is one Mark you cannot beat: the
These quotations open an early draft of David Cronenberg´s script of William S. Burroughs´ Naked Lunch, a novel that outraged bluenoses, but stirred intellectuals when published in 1959. Sabbah was an 11th century Persian who founded a sect later headed by the Aga Khan. Living in a mountain-top fortress, he recruited political assassins by feeding them hashish for motivation. It was a credo Burroughs followed throughout his life. Any act of rebellion or taboos broken were justified according to Burroughs, because society itself was morally bankrupt.
Cronenberg wrote NAKED LUNCH while performing in Clive Barker´s NIGHTBREED, melding the novel with events taken from Burroughs´ life. The director chose Peter Weller, ROBOCOP and BUCKAROO BANZAI himself, to play Burroughs´ alter ego William Lee, an exterminator, a trade Burroughs practiced for eight months during World War II.
Cronenberg, obviously pleased with his accomplishment, talked about his project in his comfortable business office in downtown Toronto, not far from his home. "I was very happy with the script," said Cronenberg. "I feel it has some of my best writing in it. It´s very hard to judge your own stuff. But NAKED LUNCH, I think, is probably my best movie. I put everything I had into it. I make no excuses. If people hate it, then it is entirely my fault."
20th Century-Fox opened NAKED LUNCH in December in New York and Los Angeles to make Cronenberg´s film eligible for Oscar consideration. Such recognition is a surprising honor for the former exploitation filmmaker whose thoughtful work in the horror field has made him something of a critical darling. For Cronenberg, NAKED LUNCH, had been something akin to a long-cherished pet project.
"When people would ask me in interviews what dream project I would one day like to do NAKED LUNCH was one," said Cronenberg. "It wasn´t really a joke, but was said none too seriously either. Burroughs had become a part of my heritage as a screenwriter. I didn´t think of it in terms of 'I must do this movie' any more than I had thought of trying to make a movie of [Vladimir] Nabokov´s Pale Fire, which is one of my favorite books."
The catalyst for Cronenberg was British film producer Jeremy Thomas, the maker of films like Bernardo Bertolucci´s THE LAST EMPEROR. Thomas, also a fan of the Burroughs book, on being introduced to Cronenberg at Toronto´s Festival of Festivals said, "People tell me you´re interested in making NAKED LUNCH. I really want to produce that film." Noted Cronenberg, "I still don´t know how he heard of my interest. That was when I was forced to think about it in practical terms."
Thomas, a large, jowly Englishman who met Cronenberg in the early ´80s while screening his production of THE HIT, offered that he liked the director´s films a lot. "I read the book but I never thought it could be made into a film," said Thomas. "I thought if anyone could translate it into a movie it was Cronenberg. When you mention the names Cronenberg and Burroughs together you begin to imagine what it could be. That was when I realized it had filmic possibilities. The fantastic in Cronenberg´s films could translate to the hallucinatory nature of the book." Noted Cronenberg, "I started to think about Naked Lunch and its imagery over the years. It all coalesced when I came to write it a couple of years ago. It was all there, ready to come out."
Cronenberg estimated he was in his mid-teens when he first read Burroughs´ book, which became a cornerstone of his development as an artist. "I can´t really remember how I first felt after reading it," mused Cronenberg. "It wasn´t a flash-of-light feeling. I had read Burroughs in small magazines like Evergreen Review, Big Table and Paris Review. My father was a very literary man who used to bring these things home. He wrote a stamp column, among other things, for 25 years for the Toronto Telegram. He was a bibliophile, interested in everything literary and the avant garde as well. I still have his Evergreen Reviews from the ´50s and ´60s, hidden away somewhere."
Despite finding Burroughs a kindred spirit, Cronenberg preferred to point out the contrasts with his literary mentor. "Given we were both middle-class North Americans, we couldn´t have been more different," said Cronenberg. "I think I´m less paranoid, less cynical. I had a gentler upbringing. That does affect your view of the world. Then there is the genetic factor. Some people are born predisposed to a paranoid approach to life. If I had that to begin with, his work would not have been so striking to me. It made me aware of another way of living life. All the best writers do that. They make you more aware.
"You have to remember in the late ´50s and early ´60s, being a Canadian, I didn´t see guns or drugs. In a way, what Burroughs was talking about was a fantasy to me. It took me a while before I could start to apply what he was talking about to the real world. I began to realize his satires were not so exaggerated. They seem totally outrageous, often surreal. I gradually became aware of the truth behind what he wrote. It wasn´t so much parody and satire as insight into some of the nastier aspects of the human condition. To that extent it enlarged my scope; the way I perceived things, people, government, power.
"I was never particulary rebellious in a social sense," said Cronenberg. "It was mostly internal. Reading the book was an education. I did not identify with it. I was not a junkie or a homosexual. There are people who have read it who have been totally liberated because of what they were or were forced to be. Many young men who were gay and not aware of it thought they had to suppress it. I was more at home with my own upbringing. I have never been very good with authority, mind you. Certainly that aspect appealed to me as a young man. Just being a writer appealed to me because of that. You answer to no one. You are in total control of your art and fate."
With just such hubris, Cronenberg said he tackled the daunting task of adapting the Burroughs book for the screen. "The book is impossible to interpret literally," said Cronenberg. "It´s so complex, so dense, so fragmented. If you tried to do it literally it would cost $400 million, with all the effects, all the scenes, including the space stuff. Then it would be banned in every country, so what is the point? I think that is why I was attracted to it, because it´s impossible.
"I had to re-invent Burroughs for the screen. It was a massive act of will and creativity. It´s a fusion of me and Burroughs. Something he would not have done on his own and I would not have done on my own. If you do it right it takes on a life of its own. I´d say the movie will be recognizably Burroughsian in terms of theme and imagery and Cronenbergian to my fans, and something else to those who know neither one of us. I want it to be something you can walk into without ever hearing of Burroughs or me and say, 'Wow, what a great movie!'"
Cronenberg did seek Burroughs´ input frome time to time over the project´s five-year course of development. "To get the blessing from the Pope," Cronenberg grinned. "He didn´t want to write the script and I didn´t want him to. We were both immediately relieved. He knows screenwriting is another art form and one he is not very practised at. Writing one script [THE FINAL WORDS OF DUTCH SCHULTZ] made him realize he is not very good at it. It´s agonizing and not what he wants to do.
"I just had to find my own way. What he was for me was a touchstone. I could talk to him on the phone. I didn´t do a lot of that. I met with him a couple of times to ask him questions. He didn´t really know why I was asking those questions vis-a-vis the script, for example, his attitude towards insects. It wasn´t necessary for him to know. We weren´t talking about the script, we were talking about him. That´s been the extent of his involvement."
Burroughs, now 77, frail and recovering form major heart surgery, is no longer the wild man of his drug-taking days, which ended about 10 years ago. Cronenberg said he met with Burroughs twice at his home in Lawrence, Kansas. "It was about four hours each session," said Cronenberg, "to get a feel for his attitudes. We talked about sexuality. I particularly did not want him shocked by what I was doing.
"I did not know what to expect when I first met him. Burroughs´ public persona is very cynical and hard, funny but distanced. If you take that image with you when you meet him you might well be intimidated. He is a man who has had some very strange experiences. You have no idea what you might encounter. You know he has a wicked tongue.
"I met a man who I felt was sweet and vulnerable and funny and perceptive and quite a lot of fun to be with. To my surprise, he was very easy to be with. He is not a control freak. He´s been very accepting.
"I´m sure he was a different man in his youth, in many ways," said Cronenberg. "We are all that way. In some, the split is more extreme. He went through some very strange phases that he can´t even understand now. To give you an example: he has four or five cats that he loves, dotes on. I think he has gotten to the stage where he really preferrs animals to humans, and I can understand that. He has spent a lot of time chronicling the foibles of the human race and probably, after you have done that for so long, something like a cat is refreshing.
"In his middle period he used to tie them up and submerge them in bathtubs. It was obvious he didn´t have any empathy for the cats then. It is a horrifying image. I said to him, 'Your attitude to cats is so reversed from what it was.' He said, 'I have no idea what I could have been thinking of.' Today he´d kill somebody who tried to hurt one of his cats."
In Lawrence, Cronenberg sounded out Burroughs on the idea Cronenberg had of making a key incident in Burroughs´ life the linchpin in his filming of NAKED LUNCH. In 1951, at a party at a friend´s apartment in Mexicon City, Burroughs´ Benzadrine-addicted wife, Joan, put a glass on her head. Burroughs, an expert marksman, took out a gun he had brouht to sell and joked about doing their "William Tell routine." Burroughs pulled the trigger and missed, shooting his wife in the head and killing her instantly. A Mexican shyster lawyer and Burroughs´ friends concoted a cover story of the gun misfiring. After 13 days in jail, Burroughs was released on bail, with his parents footing the $2000 in legal fees and bribes. Burroughs credited the tragedy with giving him the impetus to become a writer. The rest of his life would be an atonement for his inexplicable act.
"I wanted to use my version of that as an important moment in the script," said Cronenberg. "If he was against it, I wanted to know. Fortunately, he wasn´t."
Cronenberg also sought Burroughs´ views on insects, having plans to add insect-like creatures to Burroughs´ book scenario to flesh out his concept of the film. Cronenberg´s handling of THE FLY in 1986 suggested some influence by Burroughs, who has had a lifelong hatred of insects. "I do think there are some connections, definitely," said Cronenberg of his work on THE FLY.
"One of the things I asked him was if there were any insects he liked, and he said, 'Butterflies are nice.' In his imagery, insects are bad. They represent an alien life form which does not have human emotions such as love or sympathy or affection. I respond to that because we have creatures right here on Earth that we still don´t understand. I´m being analytical after the fact. I wasn´t particularly thinking of Burroughs when I did THE FLY. In the original script, though, I did have Geena Davis mention William Burroughs, but cut it out because people did not know the reference. So, I guess he was on my mind, somewhat. The point was the insect in THE FLY is used in terms of imagery in the same way, as something not wholly human."
In fact, Burroughs referred to himself as "another species" while a teenager. As a youth he was unpopular and had an unwholesome look, referred to by an adult as a "walking corpse." This profound feeling of separateness gave strength to Burroughs´ writing. "That is where all the anger comes from," said Cronenberg. "Later, he realized he was very human but was made to feel like an insect by those around him. Hence the whole alienation generation. His anger springs from him asking: "Why was I so persecuted?" It is the classic cry of, 'Why was I so different and misunderstood by people?' That is why his writing appealed to others who grew up in an environment where they felt they didn´t belong. Does this mean I am alone in the world with these feelings? Reading Burroughs they would say, 'No, this guy has obviously experienced the same horrible nightmare I have and that means I am not alone.' That in itself is enough to save your soul. When you are a kid you are particularly vulnerable."
Prior to Cronenberg´s script consultations with Burroughs in Lawrence, during the early stages of planning for the film in 1985, Burroughs, Thomas and Cronenberg took a stroll through some of Burroughs´ old haunts in Tangier, Morocco, where he wrote the book, to soak up the atmosphere and scout for the planned location shooting. "It was my first time in Tangier," said Cronenberg. "It was a reprieve of the past for him. He would say, 'This is the street where so-and-so lived. This is the one I walked along.' A man in the streets recognized him immediately and said he was a 12-year-old boy when he last saw him on the streets. He said they used to call him 'the Invisible Man'. He was tall and emaciated, sliding through the crowds almost as if he wasn´t there. He pointed out the place where he wrote Naked Lunch. He introduced me to the guys who run the hotel called the Villa Muniria. When we went back five years later to do our location survey we took photos of the room he wrote in."
The location shooting got scrapped when war broke out early last year between Iraq and United States-led UN forces. "It became more interior as a result of not shooting in Tangier," said Cronenberg. "Basically my intent has always been that, in a sense, he never leaves New York. Interzone is a place he has to invent, in order to keep his sanity. Being so seduced by the reality of Tangier led us to assume we must shoot those Interzone scenes there. Then when we couldn´t it was wonderful. I suddenly realized we never should have in the first place. Interzone is a state of mind. He hallucinates this exotic place that unleashes the things in him he is unfraid to unleash. On one level I wanted to make a movie about someone´s evolution into a writer. It is a very internal film. Having to shoot it all here [Toronto] made it even more so."
In an abandoned factory along Toronto´s lakeshore Cronenberg recreated a street market circa ´50s Tangier by way of Burroughs´ fictional Interzone for scenes that were rewritten when location shooting provided impossible. Goats and sheeps were bleating excitedly in a small, rickety holding pen. On either side of the dirt floor a dozen stalls were filled with all kinds of authentic edibles, a proverbial horn of plenty. Rabbits, chickens and smelly fish hung in front of sellers´ stalls. On the set, producer Gabriella Martinelli pointed out that whatever was left over from the $30.000 bounty would be donated to the Daily Food Bank, a local charity feeding the poor of Toronto.
Cronenberg arrived on the set, looking relaxed, in a well-worn sweatsuit. The director and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky donned air filter masks due to the dirt kicked up by the commotion on the set, though 90% of the crew went without them. Dry ice fog was used to pump an aura of mystery into the proceedings. Being filmed were shots of Monique Mercure as a witch in the markedt, slicing of black centipede mear for her favored customers. Mercure, a petite actress renowned for stage work in her native Quebec, plays Fadela, a housekeeper who is not all she appears to be. Mercure is delighted to be working with Cronenberg.
"I think he´s Canada´s best filmmaker," said Mercure. "He has pursued his line of thought from the very beginning, not in a rigid, but an intelligent way. He´s an honest artist with great ideas and philosophy. A man ahead of his time who does horror because life is horrible. NAKED LUNCH is about the act of creation, writing and politics. The script is brilliant, very sophisticated. I see it as the artist being manipulated by politics."
Mercure´s Fadela runs a drug factory in the film, with the giant centipedes being a chief ingredient. "Cronenberg thinks we are all mutants," said Mercure. "We all will have to become mutants eventually, with what we eat, smell and smoke in the world we live in. Our bodies will have to change due to environmental damage."
Peter Weller looked intense on the set as writer William Lee, the stand-in for Burroughs. Weller, in a brown ´50s suit and fedora, had an easy day just standing around for some pick-up shots, with no dialogue. Hand-picked by Cronenberg for the part, Weller seemed miscast, not in the same league with Jeff Goldblum or Jeremy Irons, both of whom garnered Oscar attention (Goldblum for not being nominated) as the leads in Cronenberg´s last two productions.
Producer Jeremy Thomas said he insisted on looking at other actors when Cronenberg picked action/adventure star Weller for such a critical role. "A lot of people expressed an interest in playing Bill Lee," said Thomas, who declined to name them. "We looked at a few other actors and came back to Weller. You find in film that you always get the right person, somehow. When you start to shoot they become the only person you can imagine in that role. Thank goodness it works like that." Thomas smiled confidently, but admitted that the role was a real stretch for Weller.
Peter Weller looked taller in person than on screen, but conveyed the feeling of self-importance essential to any movie star. Inside his trailer rested a trumpet he practices between set-ups. Weller was unwilling to discuss how he was playing his character, a subject he dismissed as "a big yawn." Observed Weller, "Bill is the consciousness of the book. It´s about loss and addiction and control and how we trap ourselves. He accidentally kills his wife, then goes on a journey to purge himself of this horrible mistake, looking for a catharsis in New York. It´s about drug addiction and larger addictions than that. Things that confine us that we cannot give up. Things that drive us to be who we are."
Weller noted that he saw the Mugwumps, the mutant drug dealers of Burroughs´ book, as the symbol of the forces of outside control that crush the individual, a theme in all of Burroughs´ work. "They symbolize all control dealers to me," said Weller. "They are control freaks. Drugs dealers are just some other people who control us, they just happen to be illegal. It is no more bizarre than money dealers controlling money or land or food dealers. Burroughs´ point is when you contol too much you begin to criminalize. You make criminal that which is inherently not. He has a very stalwart position on criminalizing drug addiction. It´s a sickness, not a crime."
Weller declined to talk about how he prepared for his role in the film, terming the topic "a drag and a private thing." He did reveal that he spoke to Burroughs at length and "read the book a lot." "Noted Weller, "I first read it in 1968 and was floored by it. Visually it´s the most remarkable thing I have ever read. I consider it a great novel of disobedience and irreverence. As I have gotten older, I now see the book as prophetic. He talks about obsessions with vanity, plastic surgery, addictive drugs and incurable venereal diseases. Sad but true."
Weller said he was impressed with Cronenberg´s script, though it differed markedly from the book. "It is more the spirit of the book than a literal translation," said Weller. "I had many conversations with him about it over the phone. The novel has no form. It bounces back and forth between dream and reality. Images in it are beyond belief."
Burroughs, during a phone interview, when asked why people take drugs, and why he took them, responded simply, "Because they like ´em. Because they find the effect pleasant."
Weller was considerably more expansive on the subject. "People take drugs because they feel they have no alternatives," he said, "or from peer pressure, or to experiment." Well hinted at his own past usage when asked if drugs can free-up an artist´s self-expression. "Complete horseshit," he said, "and I know from whence I speak."
Weller indicated he had a good rapport with Cronenberg. "The guy gives a lot," said Weller of Cronenberg. "He is very accessible to actors, easy on the set, very well prepared and inventive." Weller noted that, "Burroughs said he really liked my performance. I´m thrilled he does." When asked if Burroughs had anything else to say, Weller responded testily, "That´s all he said, and I don´t want his two cents on it anyway. His opinion, I should point out, was unsolicited."
On the set, Cronenberg filmed an effects setpiece, a barn housing 100 Mugwumps, being milked for drugs by 200 male and female extras. A fleshy appendage on the creatures´ head dispenses a hallucinogen. During a lull in the filming, a spirited debate raged among the extras: was the appendage they were all sucking a teat or a penis? Proper motivation on that score was not forthcoming from Cronenberg or anyone else, much to the dismay of the performers. Cronenberg was pleased with the effects work for the film, provided by Chris Walas Inc., which won an Oscar for their contribution to Cronenberg´s THE FLY. Cronenberg stressed the importance of perfecting the effects in preproduction, working long distance with CWI`s supervisor Jim Isaac in San Rafael, California. Overnight couriers and fax machines kept them in close contact. "We had an unusually long lead-time on this picture, partly because of financing problems," said Cronenberg. "The result was that it was probably the best prepared effects I have ever had, very well-tested before shooting. They would shoot stuff on video in their studios and send it to me the following day. I´d be looking at the tape in Toronto, saying on the phone, 'That move is no good,' and 'That leg doesn´t look real.' We would talk it through on the phone. At certain points, I would visit San Rafael to see the work in the flesh, or in the rubber," Cronenberg grinned.
The CWI effects creatures were key to Cronenberg in visualizing the internal landscape of Interzone as Burroughs´ drug-induced vision. Some have speculated as to what kind of writer Burroughs would have been without his drug habit. For Cronenberg, it´s a moot point. "I don´t know if that question can be answered," said Cronenberg. "Faulkner noted that he never wrote anything drunk he couldn´t have written better sober. Burroughs is a different man, using a different drug. Some very brilliant things have been written under the influence of various drugs. The history of literatur is filled with drug-inspired masterpieces. The liberation, the craziness, the insights you can make under the influence may not have come without it, at least to start with.
"Even Fellini talks about the influence of LSD on his filmmaking. It doesn´t mean you make your films while on acid. Things become apparent to you that would not otherwise. It´s used for religious purposes in the same way by various native peoples to induce visions."
Cronenberg claimed to have experimented with drugs himself. "I took LSD once in the ´60s when it was still legal," said Cronenberg. "It was a very illuminating experience, one I thought I would do more times. For me, it was a good trip. Obviously I was wary, subconsciously, because I never did take it again. It showed me how fragile reality really is. We are so locked into a specific version of reality we come to think of it as an absolute. Drugs let you know, in no uncertain terms, that there are many approaches to reality. It was a valuable experience for me.
"I was never very good with marijuana because I don´t smoke. I was the guy who took a drag, coughed and embarrassed everybody. That has been it for drugs. I don´t drink except for wine with meals. I don´t like being inebriated. I don´t find the effect pleasant. It feels like I have the flu. Sober is the most exciting state for me."
Cronenberg emphasized that his statement wasn´t an appeal to "say no to drugs. It´s just a fact about me," he said. In fact, the director agrees with Burroughs on the subject of drugs - they should be legalized. "Decriminalization would allow it to be monitored and controlled," said Cronenberg. "People will not die because quality is bad. Gangster will not have incredible political power because they won´t control the drug supply. The result, in terms of the average citizen, would be negligible. I do not think it would suddenly mean half the population would become coke addicts. The people who want it, do it anyway, illegally."
The final scene in Cronenberg´s NAKED LUNCH has Weller as Lee/Burroughs shoot another woman in the head, also played by Judy Davis, who has the dual role of Lee´s wife and the mistress who meets her same fate. The crime is depicted repeatedly by Cronenberg, as Lee enacts it over and over again in order to gain admittance to Annexia, like Interzone, another fictional land. To some, the scene might suggest that women exist only to serve as creative stepping stones. Cronenberg maintained he intended no such symbolism. "It is not a symbol of anything," said Cronenberg. "I never mean all manhood, all womanhood. This leads you into feminist imagery. This is potentially a contentious issue in the script, certainly it was in Burroughs´ life. I´m meaning it to be very specific. This event in his life does not apply to everyone´s life at all. Not everybody is a writer, not everybody is involved in artistic endeavor. After all, one of the two women Judy plays is a writer herself. So to say she is a symbol of someone who only served is inaccurate.
"You have to understand the structure of the film. A lot of that is hallucination. Burroughs has said he would not have been a writer had it not been for the incident with his wife Joan and his need to exorcise whatever evil spirit that possessed him at that moment, to purge his inner demons and rationalize what happened over and over again. What I am suggesting is that he is constantly reliving that moment, driving him to write. I´m showing that on screen in a very real way. He meets a couple who are writers - that is real - but that he fantasized a strange affair with the female. Suddenly she becomes the first Joan. I´m trying to show the way we click into patterns with people. Whether it is compulsive or neurotic is another question. To my mind he does not literally kill the second Joan. In fact, he probably doesn´t even have an affair with her. In his head he sees this writing couple that could have been him and the first Joan. He wants to supplant the man in that relationship. When he does that, to his horror, he ends up killing her again. If there is one incident in your life which traumatizes you to go off on a different course you relive that moment frequently. I am trying to show that in a dramatic, cinematic, metaphorical way.
"I think you could almost make a case for it to be murder/suicide. The real Joan wanted to die when she put that glass on her head. I know some militant feminists somewhere will interpret it as, 'Oh, here we go again. You have to shoot the woman in order to be creative.' You are not really seeing the movie if you say that, though. The women characters in the movie are complex, powerful and intellectual. The very act of putting the glass on her own head is not a submissive gesture, but a collaborative one."
After finishing work on NAKED LUNCH, Cronenberg said he looked forward to preparing his next project, CRASH, based on a weird science fiction novel by British author J.G. Ballard, who wrote EMPIRE OF THE SUN for Steven Spielberg. "It is an extreme, strange, brilliant novel," said Cronenberg. "A journalist sent me a copy. I didn´t read it for a while. When I got to it, I thought, 'I can´t read this.' It is so extreme. I had to put it away for a while. When I picked it up again I realized it would make a great movie if I could figure out how to do it. It is totally different from Naked Lunch in many ways. Ballard is very much a Burroughs fan. They know each other´s work very well. Unlike Naked Lunch, Crash has a real plot, narrative and characters. In other ways, it is just as impossble to shoot literally. It requires an entire recreation for the screen. When I mentioned it to [NAKED LUNCH producer] Jeremy [Thomas] he went crazy. He had already bought the option on the book in 1975. He introduced me to Ballard."
But, in the shifting tides of show business nothing is for certain until it is actually happening. "There is no such thing as a definite go until you are on the set shooting," said Cronenberg. "That might be the next thing to do. There will be many effects and it will be shot in Toronto." Actually, Cronenberg signed on as a director of the film version of the Broadway hit M. Butterfly for producer David Geffen and Warner Bros. And intriguing choice if material when you consider that Geffen also has in development Annes Rice´s Interview With a Vampire.