Sight and Sound, 6 / 1996, p. 6-11
David Cronenberg talks about his new film 'Crash' based on J.G.
Ballardīs disturbing techno-sex novel.
By Chris Rodley
They said it wouldnīt be done. They said it couldnīt be done. They said it shouldnīt be done. But the inevitable has happened. In a slow-motion car-smash in the telepod of The Fly, director David Cronenberg and novelist J. G. Ballard have finally fused. The result emerged recently at Cannes: Crash, a movie destined to do for seatbells what James Dean did for enim.
If Cronenbergīs 1992 adaptation of William Burroughsī The Naked Lunch seemed overdue, his filming of Ballardīs 1973 novel Crash looks and feels as if it was made long, long ago in a parallel universe. For one is forcibly struck by the overwhelming impression that this is early Cronenberg. Unblinking, undiluted, unrepentant and downright provocative.
For those unfamiliar with J. G. Ballardīs white-hot, totally originally book, it tells the story of James Ballard (James Spader) and his wife Catherine (Deborah Unger). Locked in a practice of compulsive sex with strangers, they compare notes, seeking any physical experience that makes sense in a bleak, passionless world of multi-lane freeways. Ballard becomes involved with Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), after he accidentally ploughs into her car, killing her husband. Their mutual crash-victim status brings them together, ultimately delivering them into the sump-oil-soaked world of the pathological Vaughan (Elias Koteas).
Renegade scientist and leader of a strange subterranean group, Vaughan is only able to achieve sexual release by crashing into people on the motorways surrounding Heathrow airport. His tattered leathers smell of stale semen. His cock only responds to twisted metal, beautifully formed chrome, shards of windscreen glass and blood on instrument panels. He photographs crash-sites and victims, and dreams of the ultimate orgasm: ramming into a Rolls Royce carrying Elizabeth Taylor.
In the film, his band of scarred and semimutitlated crash victims (including Rosanna Arquette) spend their time looking at videos of simulated accidents, fucking in cars, or attending Vaughanīs own 'illegal' performances - such as his restaging if James Deanīs 'Death by Porsche' (a brilliant Cronenberg addition). Ballard, his wife and Helen Remington are all drawn into Vaughanīs crazed orbit, and his dream of a new conceptualised relationship of flesh and metal; man and machine.
The book was (and is) shocking, by any standards, Ballard proudly announced, in his introduction to the French edition, that is was "the first pornographic novel based on technology", in the days before the word 'pornography' began its own complicated shape-shifting process. Naming the novelīs first-person hero after himself seemed calculated to shock the reader into confronting the bookīs hardcore fantasy/reality. The author was being totally honest about his own imaginative life.
Given the novelīs scenario, in which humans realign their minds, bodies and sexuality to dominant technology, it was always perfect Cronenberg material. And it has echoes that might satisfy the directorīs personal interest in cars (heīs an amateur racing driver).
Although the book is set in London, the cars are often American (Vaughan drives a `63 Lincoln, the car in which Kennedy was assassinated). It feels like the future, but is steeped in the present. Ballardīs version of science fiction is all too now. The novelīs dystopic vision seems as contemporary in the 90s as it did in the 80s.
The movie relocates the story to Cronenbergīs home town of Toronto, that most archetypal of North American cities. The perfect quasi-sci-fi-backdrop. Nowhere. No time. A brilliant solution to the novelīs sense of America, and that countryīs very particular relationship to the car and its development.
Fiercely loyal to its spare, no-holds-barred script, itīs structured around a number of sometimes perverse, sometimes joyless, sometimes verbally excoriating sex scenes. Characters pair off in various permutations. Not since actor Udo Kier fucked his own monster in Andy Warholīs Flesh for Frankenstein have audiences witnessed the erotic opportunities offered by an open wound: to Cronenberg, a neo-sex organ.
Crash obviously presented very particular problems for any financier. The $9 million budget eventually came from Alliance, one of Canadaīs biggest producers of film and television. The French company UGC, who had a deal with producer Jeremy Thomas, got out of the kitchen. With the exception of The Fly, it has never been easy to find finance for a David Cronenberg film. Itīs rumoured that certain executives from Fine Line - the filmīs American distributor - regard the result as "morally reprehensible". They wonīt be alone. Crash will be an NC17 in the States, with the added problem that Blockbuster Video - who control 25 percent pf the video market in North America - refuse to stock NC17 tapes. So there will have to be a special video version, which the director estimates will last 40 minutes.
Of course, Cronenberg is no stranger to censorship, economic or otherwise, and with Crash looks to be preparing to come out fighting all over again. Heīs back, and the signal (perhaps a little faint lately) is again loud and clear: "I want to show the unshowable. Speak the unspeakable." Crash is Cronenberg, Florida orange-juice style. No waste. No mercy. No way out.
Chris Rodley: Great books often make very bad films. Ballardīs "Crash" is so original and so complete a vision in itself that it must have seemed a daunting challenge.
David Cronenber: Itīs also hermetically sealed. But there was something about it that I thought really did lend itself to being distilled and transformed into a film. You can only go on your instinct. When I finally started to write it, I was surprised just how directly it distilled. I thought I would be doing a lot of more funny stuff, like inventing other characters, changing things structurally. But it distilled in a very pure way. And what was left was not only the essence of the book, but a living thing in its own right.
With 'The Naked Lunch' you said it was a matter of choosing exactly when to do a film adaptation. That you had to let it alone until you felt you could assert yourself over the material. Was that the case with 'Crash'?
I might have put the book away before I finished it, because I was afraid I was going to want to make it into a movie. That was probably the gestation period: between when I didnīt finish and when I did it. But then I didnīt think about it for a couple of years. I think it needed that time to settle.
Have you managed to make 'Crash' the novel into a Cronenberg film?
Every day youīre making a thousand decisions about what a film should be. Itīs hard to feel that itīs not you. I think this is a lovely fusion of me and Ballard. Weīre so amazingly in synch.We completely understand what weīre both doing. Right down to why he called the main character 'James Ballard'. There was never a question in my mind that I wouldnīt call that character James Ballard. I knew why he did it. For some people it might seem strange. It is quite unusual. It might be unprecedented for an author to write a book like Crash and name the main character after himself. All of these things just seem so right to me.
You and Burroughs are very different as people, in that Burroughs lived his books. Are you closer to Ballard? He has always distinguished between his imaginative life and his 'ordinary' daily existence.
I think thatīs true. Although I donīt know if I could live in Shepperton! But even when you talk to Burroughs heīll say, "Look, I spend 70 per cent of my life sitting at a desk, so how adventurous is that?" And now he lives in Lawrence, Kansas. That makes Toronto seem adventure-some! But I do know what you mean. The Ballard character in Crash could just as easily have been called David Cronenberg, and it would have the same relationship to me as Ballard the character does to Ballard the writer.
The shooting script of 'Crash' is only 77 pages. Very short. Was that intentional?
Yes. Iīve been doing that for some time. Itīs part of what I think is my strength as a producer/director. Itīs a question of control. I shoot slow, with a lot of attention to detail. Iīd rather focus microscopically on 77 pages. I like to have the script really pared down.
Itīs also an issue of budget. If Iīd have a 120-page version of Crash, I couldnīt have afforded the movie. My shooting schedule wouldnīt have been any longer in terms of days, but it would have been almost half the time that I needed to show it right. I remember George Bernard Shaw saying that the length of a play is dictated by the capacity of the human bladder. Youīve got to get up and pee!
I like things to be taught and intense. To make a two-hour movie of Crash would be so draining people would hate me for it! If youīre going to do different material on low budgets, thatīs a critical thing. Also, with a 77-page script Iīm building a protection for myself and my actors. I can guarantee them that I have control, that I have final cut. Thatīs part of directing actors.
Itīs a very hardcore script. When it was completed, were there any 'worried' reactions initially?
My then agent at CAA, who I still like very much, said, "Do not do this movie. It will end your career." When I said, "I really want to do this," he said, "OK, then forget I said this. As a friend and business associate I felt I had to tell you." I changed agents ultimately, and certainly that moment had something to do with it, because he really wanted me to do films like The Juror with Demi Moore. So I figured that we werenīt talking about the same stuff. Weīll see if Crash ends my career. I donīt think so. Iīve never been in competition at Cannes before. Thatīs definitely a good career thing!
To get this script made, did it have to be low budget?
It was always going to be a low budget. There was no question. It was obvious from the word go that under $10 million was really what we were talking about. The question the became how far under ten millions.
After the big-budget location extravaganza of 'M. Butterfly', was 'Crash' intended as a back-to-basics Cronenberg movie?
Absolutely. That was very conscious. But it wasnīt just the budget. It was also subject matter. My last three pictures have basically been studio pictures. Even M. Butterfly, despite the location shooting. Here we were shooting in Toronto locations with available light. There was no way we could afford to light three miles of road. It was very much like shooting Scanners. This means you have to absorb and incorporate whatīs there. Itīs much more like found art, and thatīs very exhilarating.
Whatīs interesting is that this extended to the music as well. Since Dead Ringers my composer Howard Shore had gotten into the habit of going to London and recording with an 84-piece orchestra! We didnīt have the budget, so he came to Toronto. He hasnīt recorded in Toronto since Videodrome. So it would be: first day, do the whole movie with three harps; second day, do the whole movie with six electric guitars; third day, do the whole movie with three percussionists. Very much like we did on Scanners and Videodrome. We had many discussions about returning to the old style, except we felt we were a lot better at it! But the techniques and the parameters were like the old days.
Seeing 'Crash', I was immediately reminded of very early Cronenberg. 'Shivers' and 'Rabid' mainly. Like those two, it is uncompromising, very stark and very bleak.
I donīt disagree. I was also thinking of the Darryl Revok character in Scanners. Vaughan in Crash does seem very much like my own creatures, who were emerging at the same time Ballard was writing his creatures.
There also seems to be a sci-fi link. Ballardīs version of science fiction isnīt dissimilar to the worlds of 'Videdrome', 'Scanners' or 'Shivers'. Is is or isnīt it the future?
Yeah. The conceit that underlies some of what is maybe difficult or baffling about Crash, the sci-finess, comes from Ballard anticipating a future pathological psychology. Itīs developing now, but he anticipates it being even more developed in the future. He then brings it back to the past - now - and applies it as though it exists completely formed. So I have these characters who are exhibiting a psychology of the future.
I think thatīll be tricky for some people. If they try to apply the normal movie psychology to these characters, theyīre doomed to be confused, baffled and perhaps frustrated by Crash. Where are the sympathetic characters? Where is this recognisable domesticity that is then destroyed by Vaughan?
Some potential distributors said, "You should make them more normal at the beginning so that we can see where they go wrong." In other words, it would be like a Fatal Attraction thing. Blissful couple, maybe a dog a and a rabbit., maybe a kid. And then a car accident introduces them to these horrible people and they go wrong. I said "That isnīt right, because thereīs something wrong with them right now. Thatīs why theyīre vulnerable to go even further". The novel is uncompromising in that way. Why shouldnīt the movie be?
Ballard loves the film and says it is even more extreme than the book. Do you agree?
In the book youīre in the head of the character James Ballard. Thereīs that interior monologue thing that fiction does so beautifully, and which movies cannot do at all. Maybe that would give people more of a feeling of empathy for the character. But not much. When Ballard says that I go even further than the book, that delights me. I donīt know how accurate it is though. I think it might be just a difference in the media. The immediacy of movie reality might do that on its own.
Hearing that Holly Hunter was to play Helen Remington, it sounded like radical casting. How did you decide on her?
Iīve had some people saying angrily, "I donīt know what Holly Hunter was doing in this movie!" Outraged. But thatīs Holly. She wants to outrage those people. She was the first in! I hadnīt even sent the script out. Her agent phoned me and said, "Holly wants to play Helen Remington." Holly is tough in ways her fans donīt realise. Sheīs not afraid. She had let me know as far back as Dead Ringers that she liked my movies and wanted to work with me. So you see an actor saying, "OK, so Iīve got some power now. Iīve got some fame and clout and what I want to do is work with these people who always seem to do things that I wish I was in." We did have some discussions, but always with the understanding that she was already in. This was a character she wanted to explore. You can imagine the kind of things that Holly must get offered. None of them would be like Helen Remington! So we talked about the function of the character in the script.
What about James Spader?
Well, I was really surprised that right away he wanted to do it, because heīs done so many different kinds of movies itīs hard to know. It was obvious he wasnīt afraid to play unromantic or strange characters. But I didnīt realise the depths to which he was willing to go in terms of exploring the dark. He really was an incredible collaborator and buddy once we started. He said that he was afraid of the script, as well as being intrigued, terrified and mystified by it. But he absolutely wanted to do it. So I thought, "Heīs my kind of guy." He did want to know who else was going to be in Crash, because he said, "After all I do fuck everybody in the movie." So I thought, "Heīs going to be fine." And by God he was more than fine.
How did he cope with doing certain scenes? He has to fuck a wound in Rosanna Arquetteīs crash-damaged leg!
In the character that Rosanna Arquette played, thereīs a definite humour involved. But people are pretty grossed out by that scene, I must say. But for me and for James it was just, "Well, itīs in the book, and itīs in the script." It made perfect sense and was integral to whatīs happening with those characters at that time. Being involved in a strange sexuality that is a mutation - not genetically but physically - through scars, and self-mutilation. It was just a question of how to do the scene effectively. The way you would do a dialogue scene.
I did a little rehearsing with this movie because the actors requested it. As Holly put it, itīs really a matter of comfort. Getting to know each other, given what everbody had to do. So we sat and talked and told stories, read scenes, discussed what were the nuances of the dialogue and how could we best make them work.
Thereīs another very confrontational scene of anal sex between Deborah Unger and Spader. Theyīre in bed, and Unger talks throughout their fucking about Vaughan and his car. How it must smell of stale semen etcetera.
Sheīs very verbal there because whatīs happening is that theyīre incorporating Vaughan into their sex life. So the way she talks - getting her husband aroused by talking about him having homosexual sex with Vaughan - means there are really three people in that scene. That is very close to how the scene is in the book.
That was a difficult scene to do, but in bizarre ways. You canīt get hair to look the same when itīs messy! You canīt get pillows to scrunch up the same way! I had those agonies, as well as getting the scene to work. For the movement to be sexy, elegant but awkward. And finding the right tone. Itīs difficult for actors physically, when youīre doing a lot of takes.
You did a lot of takes on that!?
Oh yeah. Several masters, and several of each close-up. We had to take breaks and stuff. One of the ways that I worked in this movie was to let the actors look at tapes of what theyīd done. Iīve known directors who wonīt tape what theyīre shooting, or who deliberately use horrible black-and-white monitors so the actors wonīt look good. I had the best colour monitor I could possibly find, and I showed my actors whatever they wanted to see. It was a measure of trust. They could see exactly how they looked naked, how they looked talking, or where their ass was when their skirt was pulled up. If they were going to freak out and be upset then fuck it, they were going to freak out and be upset and weīd discuss it. I found it was well worth the time on the set in terms of just finessing what they were doing.
The sex is the movie is rarely face to face. Itīs usually rear-entry or anal. Why is that?
Itīs the choice I made. I liked the way it looked. It felt right, getting both the actors looking towards the camera and not at each other. It helped that sort of 'disconnected' thing. Itīs been suggested that Iīm obsessed with asses, but I like everything, you know. I donīt think Iīm too overly obsessed with asses. Itīs more, "How do you have sex when youīre not quite having sex with each other?" That kind of thing.
The movie also begins with three sex scenes in a row. Again, this seems very confrontational.
Yeah, it is. There are moments when audiences burst out laughing, either in disbelief or exasperation. They canīt believe theyīre going to have a look at another sex scene. To me that was replicating the tone of the book, which was absolutely unrelenting and confrontational. I thought that was one way I could replicate that.
In fact, rarely does a sex scene appear in isolation. They usually come in pairs!
And they all mean different things too. Each one leads to the other one. The first scene is of Deborah Unger with this anonymous guy in a airplane hangar. Then James Spader with an anonymous camera girl. Theyīre parallel of course. and then James and Deborah come together, fuck, and compare notes. Thatīs how they develop their sexuality. In one of my little test screenings someone said, "A series of sex scenes is not a plot." And I said, "Why not? Who says? It worked for Arthur Schnitzler."And the answer is that it can be, but not when the sex scenes are the normal kind of sex scenes: lyrical little interludes and then on with the real movie. Those can usually be cut out and not change the plot or characters one iota. In Crash, very often the sex scenes are absolutely the plot and the character development. You canīt take them out. These are not twentieth-century sexual relationships or love relationships. These are something else. Weīre saying that a normal, upper-middleclass couple might have this as their norm in the not-so-distant future.
I was struck by the desire in the film to merge with metal and technology. It reminded me of ideas like the handgun in 'Videodrome'.
Yeah, yeah. A car is not the highest of high tech. But it has affected us and changed us more than anything else in the last hundred years. We have incorporated it. The weird privacy in public that it gives us. The sexual freedom - which in the 50s wasnīt even subtle! I mean, the first guy who had a convertible in High School was the guy who had the sex. He could take girls out to the country and do things to them. Youīd have to take the fucking bus, and thatīs not the same. He had a mobile bedroom. Thatīs exactly what it was, and that element hasnīt changed. Maybe thatīs why people still refuse to take public transport! If they had little isolated sleepers in the subways, maybe it would work better.
So we have already incorporated the car into our understanding of time, space, distance and sexuality. To want to merge with it literally in a more physical way seems a good metaphor. There is a desire to fuse with techno-ness.
And yet in 'Crash' doing this seems to lead inevitably to death. The body is destroyed in this process of merging.
Thatīs just an acknowledgement of the way it works with humans, which is more disguised than - letīs say - a salmon. After salmon spawn, theyīre so exhausted they die. Their sexuality and desire leads them to death. But thereīs a sense in which Crash - the book and the movie - are totally above death. They are about how much human control, and human will is going to be involved in that.
When Ballard claims the dead Vaughanīs car at the end, itīs as if heīs claiming his body. The movie does seem to imply that after a fatal car crash, a merging has taken place.
Yes, I still remember when Marilyn Monroeīs body wasnīt immediately claimed. As a kid I though, "Well fuck, Iīll claim her body. OK, sheīs dead but sheīs still Marilyn Monroe." I thought, "Boy, thatīs very strange. This body that was the most desired body in the history of humankind, and no one will claim it." Taking the car in that scene is exactly like claiming Marilyn Monroeīs body.
Is the movie tapping into current obsessions with body piercing and scarification?
Oh yeah. Iīve seen some very middleclass people with eyebrow rings and stuff like that. I think they would be mortified if you said it was selfmutilation, or very primitive, or related to scarification but without the ritual tribal structures that justify it. Itīs a huge not-so-far underground culture. And tatooing. Thatīs why I had a Lincoln steering-wheel shape tatooed on Vaughanīs chest towards the end. That was my invention. But Iīm sure someone somewhere has that - anticipating having a steering wheel buried in their chest in a crash.
Can you discuss your view on the charactersī desire to explore the sexual excitement of the car-crash?
Itīs making very conscious what is already out there. Itīs not so farfetched. Apparently at one of the early LA screenings of Crashg they were doing some focus-group thing and a guy came down wavin his arm - which was in a cast - saying, "Iīve just been through the hell of a motorcycle accident and I broke my arm and there was nothing sexy about it. It was just hell and I think Cronenbergīs gone psycho." I donīt think too many people will take the movie on that level and maybe go out and do it. But one of the reasons why this movie puts pressure on the unconscious is because this is something that has flitted through everyoneīs mind on one level or another at some time.
Ballard really touched on those aspects of writing about cars that can really arouse you. Surprise you. You find things arousing that you never thought could be; his descriptions of semen on steering wheels and instrument panels, and how it got there.It was techno-sex.
Vaughan and his motley group reminded me very much of the low-life souls at the Cathode Ray Mission in 'Videodrome'. Or the scanners, who were derelicts.
In most sci-fi movies itīs usually the elite who are on the cutting edge of whateverīs going on, but I think itīs quite the contrary. Itīs going to be a grassroots-type movement. Those are the ones who are not fighting it, not analysing it, not organising it. Theyīre just experiencing it.
The characters want to embrace the car-crash, a potentially life-threatening event, rather as characters approach disease in your earlier films. In the script, Vaughan actually says that we must see the crash as a "fertilising" event. Not a destructive one.
Yeah. That is a line right out of Ballard. And yet this is so much my line about parasites being a good thing rather than a bad thing. Or viruses being a creative force rather than a destructive force, if seen from their perspective. Absolutely. But itīs also about the tension between reality and that whole idea of an idealised life. Itīs strange to me that we can conceive of a life that possibly no one has ever lived and say that that life is ideal: what we should aspire to and strive to attain. Thatīs always seemed quite odd to me, even though fantasy often precedes reality. You need the fantasy to give shape to the reality youīre trying to move towards.
In Crash Iīm saying that if some harsh reality envelops you, rather than be crushed, destroyed or diminished by it, embrace it fully. Develop it and take it even further than it wanted to go itself. See if thatīs not a creative endeavour. It that is not positive.
And the more strange and grotesque the circumstances, the more interesting it becomes. Itīs also me picking up on some of the philosphical tone of Ballard: trying to figure out once again my own little philosophy of life.
About the look of the movie. Itīs very stark. Simple. Very European in a sense.
It feels that way to me, too. I like things to be deceptive in their simplicity. But sometimes the simplest things are the most difficult to do. The way I put the camera on the cars, for instance. The framing is not quite normal. I was thinking, "Iīm not going to do the usual tricky stuff. Iīm not going to use wide-angle lenses from above and underneath, because itīs so distracting." And yet I do want to suggest people wrapped up in their cars; the relationship to their cars. So the framing is unusual but in a very simple way.
Itīs really a matter of exactly where you put the camera. Not that simple. Each day after choreographing the first scene to be shot, that would be the first thing that I would do. I put it more outboard of the car body so that the windshield pillar was halfway through the frame, and the other half is looking right down the car body.
That meant building rigs. You donīt see that much because it takes a lot of time and itīs hard to do. Shooting on a platform means you can dolly while the cars are moving. We had six Lincolns; one of them cut in half, one of them made into a pick-up truck so that I could dolly and put lights from behind.
We got the roads department in Toronto excited about the movie. They closed a lot of things for us that they swore they would never close. Much to the dismay of some politician. We were going to get the Gardener Freeway because they were working on it, but they finished it early. Politicians came out and said, "Due to the wonderful efficiency of our politicians, we can now open the road this weekend." So we said, "Sorry. You promised that we would have it this weekend." So they had to keep it closed. Embarrassing.
The car-crashes are unusual for 90s cinema in that theyīre very unspectacular. Why was that?
I wanted them to be fast, brutal and over before you knew it. Thereīs not one foot of slow motion. No repeated shots. I wanted to make them realistic in a cinematic way, because itīs the aftermath that is delicious: that can be savoured and apprehended by the senses. What happens during a crash itself is too fast to feel without slow-motion replay. Most of us donīt get replays on our car-crashes.
Ballard says that 'Crash' is a cautionary tale from the eye of the hurricane. Do you think itīs timely in that weīre approaching the millenium, and this century has definitely been the century of the car?
Well, the place of the car in the world economy canīt be overestimated. Altough people donīt think of cars as being very high-tech, every high-tech development is represented somewhere in a car. Whether itīs fibre-optic electronics, or in the metallurgy. All of these incredible industries serve the car.
So if suddenly we said, "There canīt be any more cars, weīre stopping today," it would be the end of the world: economies diving, people not knowing what to do with themselves. Our attachment to it, as discussed in the movie, is very primitive indeed. It has become the quintessential human appendage. I think it wonīt go away easily. Itīs got a lot of shape-shifting to do before it disappears.
What surprised you most about making 'Crash'?
It has become a very emotional movie. In the beginning it wasnīt, and certainly I would never have said that about the book. I find that people come away after having been really shaken, feeling very emotional but not knowing why or how. It doesnīt push any of the usual buttons. And thatīs really good. Thereīs going to be a lot of different reactions. I do think we might get a lot of people throwing things. Iīm prepared for that. But I donīt really like being rejected. You know that. I really do want to make movies that everyone loves!
For your last movie you went to the Great Wall of China. Was there a sense with 'Crash' that you were - in more senses than one - coming home?
Definitely. And I took considerable strength from that. We literally shot the whole movie within half a mile of my house. I like that very much. Iīd drive by all the locations every day on my way to the editing room. Thereīs a wonderful sense of this movie being physically and tangibly a part of my life, a part of my daily, mundane life as well as my artistic life. Thatīs very satisfying. Something that I havenīt experienced quite that way for some time. Itīs good.
'Crash' premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.