Premiere, April 1997, p. 67-68, 70
The Filmmaker Series
With Crash, the master of audience discomfort has created his most disturbing and sexually explicit movie to date. His only excuse: the pursuit of cinematic art
By Glenn Kenny
An utterly unflinching meditation on sex, machinery, and mortality, David Cronenberg´s Crash was without a doubt the most controversial movie of 1996, even though it never got released in the U.S. that year. The director´s adaptation of the novel by J.G. Ballard (a British writer best known here for the Steven Spielberg-adapated Empire of the Sun) won a prize for "audacity" at the Cannes Film Festival last spring, and its American distributor, Fine Line, had scheduled it for a fall release. But those plans fell afoul of Fine Line´s then owner, Ted Turner, who, after screening the movie, pronounced himself appalled (Turner had since backed down), and its American opening was delayed until this March.
Crash is a milestone in a moviemaking career that has never been anything less than provocative. From his early, experimental films (Stereo, Crimes of the Future) to a series of remarkable "body horror" movies made in the ´70s and early ´80s (Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome) to his more recent, Hollywood-financed work (The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lumch), the Toronto-based Cronenberg has maintained a singular cinematic vision - subversively sexual, icily controlled and tragic, and filled with images of violence and gore. And though he has had passionate support from cinephiles around the globe, his films often have endured hostile reactions, and, in Crash´s case, the threat of censorship. The resulting brouhaha, says Cronenberg, is unfortunate: "That then becomes the movie for most people. And they react to that movie, which doesn´t even exist."
The movie that does exist is the story of one James Ballard (James Spader), a TV producer who, after getting injured in a car accident, is drawn, along with his wife (Deborah Unger), into a bizarre car-crash cult led by Vaughan (Elias Koteas) and his disciples - among them Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette) and Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), whose car was smashed, and husband killed, by Ballard - reenact notorious auto wrecks and embrace the carnage, both human and mechanical, that results. The lure throughout is sex, which the members of the group engage in frequently, and in every which way, but almost always in battered cars.
PREMIERE: Audiences are used to sex scenes that go strictly for the titillation factor, and when sex scenes like the ones in Crash come along, which don´t really function that way, they don´t seem to know how to deal with it.
Cronenberg: Especially when there´s a long, exhaustive, detailed sex scene, and it´s immediately followed by another one. So they laugh, or they get uncomfortable. But, you see, it´s a problem of form. Crash is sort of an agent from another planet. It looks like a Hollywood movie, it´s got some recognizable Hollywood names in it, it´s professionally shot and made in the way that a Hollywood movie is, but nothing about it works like a Hollywood movie. The dialogue doesn´t do what it´s supposed to do in Hollywood movies; the characters are not set up, or maybe they´re not even characters, in the way Hollywood thinks of characters. At first , some Italian critics just said, "This is a porn film." And I´m looking at porn on my TV set in Cannes, where you can readily get pornography on this one channel, and I´m thinking, That does not look anything like my movie. Then I figured, It´s a structural problem. They´ve never seen a movie where there a three sex scenes in a row. They don´t know how to deal with it - it must be porn. And, of course, they´re missing the movie while they´re reacting that way, because they´re not paying attention to the positions that the characters are taking while they´re having sex, which is significant. They´re not paying attention to whether the characters have orgasms or not, all of those things that in a real porn movie are either irrelevant or a given.
How difficult was it to shoot the movie, considering all the sex scenes that it has?
Oh, the sex scenes weren´t hard. Other than the fact that hair on a pillow is impossible to get perfect continuity on. I spent a lot of time messing around with Deborah Unger´s hair. From a technical point of view, sex scenes can be very tricky. But in terms of acting and sensitivity, it wasn´t a problem at all. The hard things to shoot were the car crashes - at night, freezing, at the mercy of the weather. We had limited time on the roads because we had closed down major, major roadways that had never been shot down in Toronto before. That was the hard part - action-movie logistics in a movie that wasn´t an action movie. And also trying to find a balance between action as fun versus action as drama. It´s tricky. The sex was - the actors were into it; we were totally committed. It was one of the least discussed things, except for issues such as which position works best, how do we say this line while we´re doing this. But in terms of how much do we show, it was almost not discussed. I mean, the script was the script, so anyone who looked at it, they had to know what they were getting into. It was actually one of the best shoots I´ve ever been on - the most familial, the most communal. And shooting at night, having the city to yourself, the deserted city, these vast highways - there´s a shot that was never taken that would have been a great shot, in which I´m sitting in a director´s chair watching the monitor in the middle of this huge, sixteen-lane highway and there´s nothing else around. It was for real! That was us! It created a sense of great specialness for all of us, which we already felt about the project.
How did the casting go?
Holly was the first one in. I got a call from Holly´s agent before I was even in preproduction saying that she had read the script and really wanted to play Helen Remington. And I said, "Really?" She could have asked to play Catherine Ballard or whatever, and I thought that her casting herself was really, really astute, as Holly is. That was a real windfall. The first actor in is really the crystal that everything clings to, grows from. After that, any other actors who have fears know that they´re not the first one in, though I don´t think that that was an issue with this movie, because I had heard that Rosanna was dying to work with me and to do this role. And when I found Spader, that was fantastic. So it was much easier than I thought. It wasn´t one of those ordeals where actors are repulsed and turn you down.
A colleague with whom I saw the film suggested, perhaps half kiddingly, tht you cut away relatively quickly from the gay sex scene between Vaughan and Ballard.
I hope he was kidding. That´s where I lose whatever audience I´m going to lose. As it´s been pointed out, it´s mostly young males, dragging their girlfriends behind them, who want to stay. That scene has the first mouth-to-mouth kiss in the movie. Now I insist, as I am insisting on many breaking-down-of-forms here, that we look at what we´re really seeing. A long close-up of explorations of the mouth and then a long kiss. There is no kissing up until this point. That´s really significant. What you´re talking about, partially, are movie sexual politics. And I don´t feel I backed away at all.
A lot of your movies contain unsual perspectives on the idea of comunity - such as among the infected residents of the apartment complex at the end of Shivers or those with a sixth sense in Scanners. In Crash, though there are wide class differences among Vaughan´s followers, it´s never thought about or discussed.
What defines a community is one of the very things that´s up for redefinition in the movie. In Argentina there was a group that wanted Crash banned - families of victims of car crashes. That´s their community. They have this in common - it´s a cause, it´s a focus, something that gives their lives purpose. They are a group of people who have an event in their lives that they feel they cannot share with anyone else, except someone else who´s had the same experience. They seek each other out, because they know that no matter how much they talk about it they can never really communicate it to "straight" people. Suddenly they are the freaks. Or people in normal society are the freaks, and they have established this new form. The constant shifting of normality, of what is the norm, is being a lot in Crash.
But not out loud. The movie seems to have even less dialogue than any of your other films - it´s extremely compressed.
Well, I´ve gotten to a particular understanding of scripts myself, which is, as you say, very compressed. Not too many pages. The script to Crash was 77 pages, very widely spaced, and after I cut a few scenes, strictly because of the normal reasons that you cut scenes - because they don´t work - I´d say it was 62 pages. What you see on the screen is a 62-page script.
I know how I direct. I direct slow. [Laughs] I direct with great attention to detail. And I don´t rush things. So for me to do a 120-page script, which is the Hollywood norm - 110, 120 pages - it would mean a two-and-a-half-hour movie. I save myself a lot of time and anguish by knowing that I´m not going to do that and by going in with the appropriate sort of density. The book distilled beautifully. I was surprised - I thought I was going to have to do a construct the way I did with Naked Lunch. [The novel] Crash is a first-person narrative and a monologue, and that always suggests that you´re going to have real trouble - it´s a form that is so easy to do in a novel and impossible, I think, to do on film. [Laughs] Danielle Steel can do what Fellini cannot do.
Vaughan describes his "project" at one point as "the reshaping of the human body by modern technology." Later, when Ballard mentions that phrase to Vaughan, Vaughan dismisses it as "just a crude, sci-fi concept that floats on the surface." Is that a comment on - or refutation of - your own work?
Well, I´m being slightly self-deprecating there, but I´m also suggesting that if my films are working in the complex way that I want them to work, even the earlier ones, it´s not so easy to pin them down, it´s not so easy to say what the project is. Crash, in many ways, tries to dissolve the values between categories of various kinds, both in terms of filmmaking and other ways. That little trope is not, in fact, in the book. But what is in the book is that you never get what Vaughan´s project is.
Speaking of the book, the affinities you share with its author, J.G. Ballard, are substantial. You both deal in extreme content. His prose style is concise and direct, and your storytelling style avoids overt stylistic flourishes. In your public lives you both present yourselves as responsibly family men, which tends to confound right-wing critics. How come you didn´t find each other sooner?
Well, it´s a big world. I hadn´t ever read Ballard before I read Crash, prior to which I had only heard of him referred to as a sci-fi writer, which is perhaps why I didn´t read him. As a kid, sci-fi was a major inspiration for me; I used to read sci-fi and fantasy magazines all the time. The first hopeful rejection slip I got as a writer was from a sci-fi magazine when I was sixteen. But when I discovered Burroughs and Nabokov and others, I realized that most authors of sci-fi were inferior writers. And although sci-fi was playful and exciting and some of the ideas were great, you could find those same ideas in other writers whose writing was actually superb. So I just lost touch with the genre. But when I started to read Crash, I had no idea of what I was getting into.
A movie called Red Cars, based on the American racer Phil Hill winning the Formular One championship for Ferrari in 1961. It sounds perhaps like unlikely material, but it´s a passion of mine, and I wrote my own script. Whether anybody else will be interested in seeing it, I don´t know. Red Cars is quite different - it´s not by any means a traditional sports movie. And as a result it´s been very hard to finance. But I don´t think I´ve ever done a movie that hasn´t been.