Shock Xpress, Winter 1988/89, Vol.2 Issue 5p.12-15

Gynaecology, symbiosis and foetal pigs ...

David Cronenberg interviewed

By Nigel Floyd

David Cronenberg

"Now, children, take the syringe over to Jeremy..."

SX: Do you feel that Dead Ringers is unusual in that it´s your first film to have a basis in a real-life story?

DC: Well, let me give you the official party line here. It´s certainly true that the Marcus twins are a famous case, and obviously there´s more than a passing similarity. I did read those newspaper reports at the time, and was fascinated by those stories when they came out. And we did buy an option on the book, Twins, by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, to use it as the basis for the film. The writers of the book swear that there´s no official connection, so that´s their official line. And in the cases of both the book and the film there was no intention to do a documentary, to try to do the life of the Marcus twins. That wasn´t an interest of mine. It wouldn´t appeal to me to do something like Patty Hearst, because to have the actual person looking over your shoulder, telling you that this was the way it happened or didn´t happen, or what the colour of this was, would be very constricting to me. I would really find that inhibiting rather than liberating. I really wanted very much to be able to fly with this, create my own twins and let them do what they wanted to do, without the book or any real life thing intruding. So that´s the way it feels to me. So, I still haven´t had the experience I think you´re talking about, of trying to recreate the exact time and place and details.

SX: So you just regarded the original story as a springboard which would allow you to explore your own ideas about twins?

DC: About twins and about the power struggle between men and women - that´s why the gynaecology was so important. I´d been offered other scripts about twins before, but nothing really interested me, usually because they were the old evil twin / good twin thing - which is the Hollywood version of twins. If it´s not broad comedy, it´s psychotic killer twin and good twin, and all of that stuff didn´t interest. But when the twins stuff was combined with gynaecology and the tragic inevitability of the twins´ death, those three elements seemed to me very, very potent. Whereas, just to do a movie about twins was not an obsession of mine particulary.

So when I read the book, I didn´t want to do the book, but the premise just seemed so full of potential. And at that point it doesn´t really matter wher it comes from, whether someone tells you a story or a joke, or you dreamed it or whatever. There´s not really much difference between that and if you´re walking down the street and you suddently think: "Identical twin gynaecologists, of course!"

SX: I`m intrigued by the way you say things like "I liked the idea and was interested to see where it would go," as if the original idea were some kind of protoplasmic entity.

DC: It´s exactly like that. I can tell you that in the ten years that this project has been gestating in various ways, I had moments of doubt - doubt that I would get to what made me want to do it in the first place. That may sound strange, but when Norman Snyder did the first two drafts in 1981, I knew I would have to do my own version of it; because although a lot of what he did was very, very good, there was a lot of stuff that still wasn´t there. And I didn´t know if I could find the connections. It´s strange to say but it seemed extremely palpable to me, and after all the struggling and pushing involved in getting the project together, I still didn´t know if I was going to find the connections, the imagery and the dialogue that would make it work.

SX: One of the clichéd notions which you seem at pains to avoid it is the idea that twins are able to communicate telepathically, an idea which you touched upon, in a different guise, in Scanners.

DC: Well, even in Scanners I was very careful to give a physiogical basis to that kind of ESP, and to give it very definite limits. I´m not a believer in psychic phenomena at all, although I do believe in anticipations and premonitions. And certainly it´s obvious that some people are so preternaturally close and in tune with each other that it seems like ESP. But to me, that´s more interesting than ESP, so it almost didn´t occur to me to give my twins that ability.

What does interest me is the question of identity, and the conflict between free will and predestination. That old argument between the two really comes to the fore here. Because I´ve talked to twins who say 'my identical twin has an office below mine', and heard stories about a twin who phones her sister to say she has toothache and finds that her sister has just come back from the dentist having had the very same tooth fixed. Now the implications of that are very frightening, because that´s not ESP, that´s not a psychic phenomenon. What it suggests it is that their genetic pre-programming is so precise that, down to the individual rod in the in the individual tooth, it´s predetermined. Which would also include their predetermination of their eating habits, even though they´re living in different cities, to the extent that that too would be consistent. In Minneapolis (know in the States as "Twin City") where they are doing the most advanced studies of twins, they´ve found twins who were separated at birth, who don´t know each other, and who meet each other at the age of thirty-five or whatever, and find that they´re both fire chiefs, they´re both married to a woman named Shirley, their dog is named toy, they both drive Camarros and they smoke the same brand of cigarettes. It´s unbelievable, is there really a gene for the name of your ex-wife? Are we pre-programmed so specifically, at least in our predilections, if not in the actual choices.

It´s quite stunning because having been raised as part of a post-Freudian generation, we think - despite a degree of predetermination in Freudian theory ('Biology is Destiny' - S. Freud) - that will can change your destiny, and that of your children. And of course this research suggests quite the opposite, that so much is predetermined that free will, in the Freudian sense, might well be an illusion. Now I don´t get into an open discussion of that in the film, but the implications are there. That´s why I didn´t show the parents of the little boys at the beginning at all; because I really wanted to suggest that they were creatures unto themselves.

SX: In the film, Genevieve Bujold´s character, with her unusual trifurcate womb, is cherished by the twins as a marvellous freak, and at the British press conferences for The Fly you said there out to be beauty contests for people´s insides. In Dead Ringers, Eliot quotes this phrase almost word-for-word. Are people´s insides really that unique and individual?

DC: I can tell you that they are as individual as their exteriors. I distinctly remember dissecting frogs in high school, this was part of our zoology lesson. You would get your frog, and everyone would have their dissection tray, and you became totally accustomed to what your frog looked like inside. Then, at a certain point you´d get a chance to wander around and look at everyone else´s frog, and they all looked completely wrong: the organs were too big, they weren´t in the right place, they were the wrong colour, or the proportions were all wrong. Because the inside of every damn frog was different from the inside of the other ones, almost more than the exteriors in that case. Very individual, quite striking, and although I don´t think I consciously thought of it in those terms at the time, it´s obviously true. I´m sure any surgeon could tell you that.

I also remember in science classes having a diagram in a book of the way it´s supposed to look, or even a photograph. By that time we´d advanced to foetal pigs, and you´d open them up, and you couldn´t find anything, because it just didn´t look like any of the photographs or diagrams.

SX: In both its style and its subject matter, Dead Ringers seems close to family melodrama or straight tragedy than to the generic concerns of science fiction or horror.

DC: I completely agree with you. However, people have been telling me that they´ve read interviews in which I said that this is a departure for me, when I haven´t been saying that at all. What I have been trying to do is just to let people know that it´s not a horror film, it´s not a science fiction film, and that its internal dynamics - if we´re talking about the insides of things - are unique to itself. And each film is like one of those frogs you´re dissecting, I mean it makes its own demands, it has its own needs, and you don´t try to impose other things on it.

So that it doesn´t mean that I might not make another film that was flamboyantly horrific, and it´s only in retrospect that we´ll see if this was a turning point.

And yet, of course, there are many connections. In a way The Dead Zone, The Fly and this film are almost a triptych, they almost have the same plot in a bizarre way, and the same ending.

SX: (puzzled) Really?

DC: Well, in each case there´s the death of the lover in the presence of the other love, and in each case there´s the inevitable tragic ending. The endings of The Fly and The Dead Zone are very similar, with the woman crouched over the body of the former lover, and in this case we have one twin crouched over the other. I don´t know whether it will bear serious schematic analysis, but it feels to me that there are close connections between those three films.

SX: I must confess I´m a little confused by this comparison. I had been thinking that the style and tone of Dead Ringers was perhaps closer to the intense psychodynamics of The Brood. In fact, I was just about to ask you about something critic David Chute said about the earlier film: "(the) tension is primarily emotional rather than visceral ... (it) works on the viewer´s mind and sympathies instead of his nerves."

DC: Well, no one jumps out at you from behind a door, or from the corner of a frame or anything like that. I haven´t done much of that in a long time really, perhaps a little bit in The Fly. There is the scene (in Dead Ringers) where Claire bites through the cord joining the twins - I was conscious of that. It really became apparent as Dead Ringers started to unfold that it had its own rhythm. And that´s when you know the film is alive; it becomes organic, or protoplasmic as you were saying. It does grow and take on its own character. It really is the cliché comparison of a film, or any work of art that you´ve created, with your children. It turns out to be a very apt comparison, because it does take its own life, it does go out into the world, it does somehow have its own history separate from you. At first you think that shouldn´t be possible but then feels just the same as it does with children.

SX: The idea of having, or not having, children comes up in the film, too. Despite her extraordinary gynaecological configuration, Bujold´s character can´t have children, one of the ways people are said to be able to escape their normality and cheat death. Also, curiously, the twins are like a sterile couple, with no prospect of reproducing themselves unless one of them breaks away from the other.

DC: That´s true, she does say "When I die I´ll just be dead", and the twins are a sort of sterile couple. So there´s an inborn tragedy right there (if I can use the word 'inborn'), a sterility to the relationship. It´s very limited in how much it can develop, and that their only escape from mortality is denied them. And at the end,, of course, they try to escape by regressing back into childhood, to a time before the outside world imposed its complications on them.

SX: Also, later in the film, there is the image of the Siamese twins, who are joined at birth and onyl die when they are separated. In this sense, the film again echoes The Brood, which was also about the pain of separation and loss.

DC: Yes, we had some teenage girls weeping throughout the screening at Canada House last night, and when they came out, they said, "It´s about separation" - that element of the movie was what really got them. They completely understood and it was totally apparent to them.

SX: You have always insisted that creativity exists only in art, but also in science. This idea is visualised very precisely in Dead Ringers, when the bizarre gynaecological instruments Beverly creates to operate on "mutant women" are appropriately by the sculptor, who displays them as part of his own art exhibition.

DC: That´s the whole basis of techno art, and those of us who love Italian motorcycles, for example, talk of the Italian art of cylinder head casting, and we´re not kidding. It´s an industrial process versus an aesthetic process, that´s the difference. But I see that kind of creativity everywhere, in science, in industry, everywhere. And I don´t think at all that the artist is the sole possessor of all creativity. The best scientist have all been wonderfully crazy and creative, as eccentric as any artist you care to name. I don´t know if you´ve read the book The Double Helix, the book is full of the most eccentric, passionate things: they´re all sleeping with each other´s wives, and amid all the jealousy and cheating, they still come up with some brilliant, solid scientific achievement. But it´s amazing when you read it, it´s like Philip Roth writing about a writers´ convention, there´s no difference between that and these scientists trying for the Nobel Prize.

I identified with that completely, and I see the processes of invention and inspiration as being completely the same. Because I don´t think that science is figuring out how the world works, I mean we´re mixing our blood with it as we examine it, and one of the great dictums of science is that you cannot observe anything unobserved, the very act of observing it changes it. And that´s creative, that means you´re creating something new which didn´t exist without human awareness. So there´s no difference, except perhaps in the degree of self-consciousness: the artist is more aware that he is shaping things, whereas the scientist is less self-conscious, and maybe his research is purer for that reason.

SX: But also more ephemeral, since it can later be disproved - the pre-Copernican vision of the solar system, for example, in which the sun and stars revolved around the earth, is now only of curiosity interest.

DC: But it becomes art - the paintings and the cartography generated by that concept of the earth becomes art now. We look at it as art because it´s no longer science: old science becomes art as fas as I´m concerned. We´re no longer interested in whether it´s correct, and that´s kind of charming really.

SX: Coming back to Beverly´s gynaecological instruments, they seem to be a classic example of what you have called "making the mental physical". Early in the film, Elliot says that "pain creates character distortion", and the tools seem to be an externalisation of the psychic pain which Beverly is suffering at that point. Yet he doesn´t understand the eloquence of his unconscious artistic expression.

DC: Yes, he says to the artist "No, no, it´s not art", he´s very upset at the idea that this would make a good show. "It´s not art," he says, "It´s for my work, I´m a doctor." But in fact it is art at that point, because it has no functional purpose whatsoever. Beverly has made something very physical that represents his state of mind, not all of it but a part of it. But he´s not aware of it, he can´t allow himself to think of that. In fact, he would probably pretend that he didn´t understand the artistic process at all, and yet he´s very creative, it´s obvious.

And that´s what I´m doing with the film, making a physical something - when you see it flowing on the screen it doesn´t feel physical, but for me it´s very physical because I´ve carried those bloody film cans around and they´re heavy - which, like Beverly´s instruments, represents a state of mind.

SX: So through film you externalise your inner fears?

DC: Yes, the film is my set of tools, the film is my lab experiment.

SX: So it´s through the films that you come to terms with your own feelings of separation and loss?

DC: Yes.

SX: I think British audiences will be astounded by Jeremy Irons´ performance of the twins, not just because it´s so good but also because he has a reputation in this country as a rather glacial, remote actor. What was it about him that made you think he was right for such an intensely emotional role?

DC: I think it was seeing the movie Moonlighting that suggested he could do this. There´s no direct connection, but he was so quietly humorous and sweet, and it´s almost a silent movie, which meant that body language was important, and he did that so well. Certainly, he does often seem very arrogant and distant on film, but he´s also very charismatic. And then when we met I found him very funny and very playful, and all of those things together convinced me that he could do it, that it would just a question of normal directing.

I think nobody asked him to do it before, that´s all. Let me put it this way, I didn´t have to teach him how to cry, he knew. I didn´t have to slap him around or stick pins in him or anything to get these responses, he´s really a consummate film actor.

If you saw the circumstance under which Jeremy had to create the role you´d be even more impressed. It was horrific, the number of external distractions, the kind of things he had to do. I tried to give him every break possible, but because of the way the film had to be made, he had to switch back and forth between Beverly and Elliot maybe twenty times a day. There was no other way to do it; it was a very schizophrenia-inducing process, but Jeremy way very disciplined.

Now in North America he has a very different reputation, they like to say he´s the thinking woman´s romantic hero and so on. He´s also thought of as a stage actor who once in a while does the odd film, so I had no way of knowing how adept he was in terms of cinema technique. But I was sure that he had discipline, and I knew he wasn´t a Method actor; the role is not really for a Method actor because you do not have yourself to act with, you have nobody to act with. And Method acting gets you into a lot of trouble in those circumstances, you don´t have a real person to bounce off.

SX: Genevieve Bujold was excellent, too. She has that extraordinary quality of ravaged sensuality, and that underlying neuroticism which she used so well in Alan Rudolph´s Choose Me.

DC: I needed a woman of her age who was tough and not afraid to do this role: the first scene is where her feet are in the stirrups. I mean, most actresses would read up to page three and they´d throw the script away. I needed someone who was not afraid.

SX: The relationship between the twins is almost symbiotic, and once again the eruption of sexual desire into this safe, ordered system is seen as both liberating and destructive. Playing Devil´s advocate for the moment, do you think there´s a danger that feminists will interpret the Genevieve Bujold character negatively - as a sexually active female who comes between the twins and destroys their close, all-male relationship.

DC: I´m happy to say that, with one or two exceptions, I haven´t had those objections very much. It´s simply a question of understanding the movie, and I don´t think it´s very complicated on that level. Both Sheila Benson of the LA Times and Janel Manzell [Janet Maslin?] of the New York Times, who can both be very tough on that level, loved the picture, and it wasn´t a question for them. There was an article in the Toronto Star by Gena Mallard, which was insane, hysterical. not even a discussion of the film ultimately. And there was a less extreme article in the Wall Street Journal, our first bad review.

But it´s not a bad discussion. Basically, my concept of it was that they are using her, and that she is in fact quite honorable in the way she acts. Really, she is the tough one. Also, since this is classical tragedy, in the Greek sense, it´s inevitable right from the beginning, so she´s not really the agent of destruction because it would have happened anyway - you have to feel that by the end. What she does is she forces them to accept how different they are: one falls in love with her and the other doesn´t. And that really is the split, in that eventually they will be forced to live separate lives, which is impossible as well. And for all those reasons, I don´t really think that the argument bears up to scrutiny. I feel that there´s a lot of irony and playfulness going on in my movies which these critics are missing, or choose to ignore - so what they see is just another masochistic, destructive woman.

Naturally, I would like, for the record, to reserve the right to one day create a female character who is nasty and destructive and a complete bitch, because why not? It doesn´t mean that just because you create a character like that all women are like that. If you accept the other part of that argument, that every character represents their race or gender or whatever, then you can´t make movies anymore. If you cannot have them be individuals, you might as well forget fiction altgether.

SX: Could we talk a little about the 'look' of the film, the way it pushes beyond realism into a realm of almost avant garde abstraction. I´m thinking in particular of the scene involving Beverly´s hospital bed, which is designed and lit in a striking way.

DC: I wanted to push it right to the edge, but not beyond, of what we laughingly call realism. I didn´t want to push it so far that you were taken right out of the film and into some kind of theatre, but right up to the edge at times. It´s a distillation, really, a distilling of the imagery. So that, yes, you could possibly find that in a hospital, at the end od a corridor, but it´s pushing it, it´s not a typical hospital bed. And also with the surgery, I knew I was taking a chance with that. The red gowns are very priestly, Catholic cardinals or something like that, very medieval. In fact, there is a lot of medieval imagery.

SX: Why there, in the gowns and the operating theatre?

DC: Well, at that point it´s two things: my location people started to show me photos of normal operating theatres, which of course I´ve shown before. I got very depressed, because I felt it was sucking the life out of the movie, you know. And it´s such debased imagery because any time you turn on a TV set in North America you´re watching an actual hospital, or you´re watching a series like General Hospital or M*A*S*H. So it´s totally debased, and it was going to detract from the magic of the movie, rather than add to it. So I didn´t get happy again until I decided to invent my own operating room. I don´t have the monitors going 'blip blip blip', and I don´t have the respirators going 'pshhht pshhht'.

It felt so good to be rid of that stuff, and just by sheer force of focus and concentration to be convincing, but pushing it right to the edge of believability. And in that sense, I was being almost expressionistic, in the classic sense of the German cinema. This is Beverly´s understanding of what he is, of what he is doing, that he is priestly, that it is ritualistic, that it is in his destiny to do this. I´m really giving Beverly´s vision of what he does, but I´m externalising it. And there on the outside, separated by glass, is his brother Elliot, who´s commenting on the operation as though he´s a pilot telling you what´s outside the window - 'There´s the Grand Canyon or 'There´s the femeral artery'. So there´s a separation between the two brothers there as well. I think it works through the visual force of the production design and the imagery; it´s like doing a haiku - maybe The Fly is a sonnet, but this is even more compressed. And I was interested to see how far I could go.

It wasn´t an aesthetic exercise, but I was aware that we´d be shooting a lot of scenes of two people in a room, or a couple of rooms, and yet I wanted to be visually very forceful. And I wanted very much to use the visual aspects to say those many things that you can say with that. I wasn´t going to put them up against a wall and light it flat and shoot it. It´s a real challenge, you really are stripping away all your props and getting right down to the nitty gritty - it´s purely cinematic at that point.

Dialogue, of course, is very important, and it´s avery dialogue heavy movie; but I´ve never been a worrier about talking heads, because the human face is just an amazing landscape that constantly changes. You know, the way when babies look at your face, and that´s all they look at, and you can see that they´re sensing everything that´s going on there.

So I don´t think of it as a diminishing of cinema but as the essence of cinema. If you´ve got those great faces saying that great stuff, why be timid about it, why not just go right for it? So I get very excited about the concept of the camera working in concert with the choreography of these people working their way through several rooms. And that can be just as exciting as the thousand camels scene in Lawrence of Arabia or something.

SX: It seems strange that a film about identical twin gynaecologists is likely to be your least controversial to date. I don´t envisage bands of rampaging gynaecologists picketing cinemas all over the country...

DC: No, but I would like to. I wanted to have two screenings, one for identical twins only, and another for gynaecologists, and then have them meet afterwards...