Sight and Sound, March 1992, p. 11-13

Interview by Mark Kermode

David Cronenberg


"I think that the body of a person living now is substantially different from one which was alive even ten years ago," says David Cronenberg, master of mutation and champion of viral change. "We´ve altered the earth, the magnetic waves in the air, and we´ve altered ourselves. I think that change itself is fairly neutral, but it contains the potential to be either positive or negative. I´m not a Victorian or a Romantic who believes that we are evolving in an inevitably positive way. Nor am I a Marxist who sees the March of History leading us to something grand and glorious. I really believe that we create our own reality, and it´s only in the human mind that any kind of moral judgment exists. We are the source of all judgment and thus it really will depend on us. It´s up to us to say "Yes I like this better", and if enough of us say that, then by God it is better. To me there is no outside judgment."

Although the writer/director David Cronenberg is renowned for presenting in his films startingly visceral portrayals of physical aberration, it is his staunch refusal to characterise this mutation as necessarily negative which has gives his work its radical, shocking edge. From the cancerous rebellion of the body depicted in The Brood (1979) to the genetic transmutation of The Fly (1986), Cronenberg´s films have all gazed sympathetically at the myriad diseases which beset his lonely heroes. "I seem to have contracted a disease with a purpose," observes scientist Seth Brundle in The Fly as his fragile flesh falls away to reveal the exeskeleton of a tough, insect. The 'purpose', although far from pleasant, is also far from fatal.

This unshakeable belief in the unavoidable nature of change (it is neither good nor bad, it simply is) lies at the centre of Cronenberg´s cinema. Together, his films constitute a perversely polemical body of work which has grown in strange and wondrous ways while retaining an immutable thematic heart. The rebellion of the body; the unconscious redefinition of the self; the shock of the flesh - each of these themes has been employed by Cronenberg to address his recurrent central thesis: the acceptance and celebration of mutation.

Although Cronenberg has often used the work of other writers as a starting point for his films (neither Dead Ringers nor The Fly were his own original conceptions), only The Dead Zone (1983) smacks of outside influences, alien strains which interrupt the flow of his recurrent personal preoccupations. Working as a hired gun for Dino De Laurentiis on this big budget Stephen King adaptation, Cronenberg seemed for once uncharacteristically unable (or unwilling) to twist the material to his own designs. The end result is a Cronenberg movie for those people who don´t like Cronenberg, riddled not with cancerous charm but more with Kingly camp.

Now, with Naked Lunch, Cronenberg has once again allowed the stream of his work to be infected by an external agent. As before, that agent is a powerful writer with a mythology all his own. Unlike his earlier dalliance with King, however, Cronenberg´s mating with William Burroughs has revealed a striking similiarity of artistic purpose. Both Cronenberg and Burroughs are obsessed by transition, by characters becoming other characters, and each has developed a personal motif with which to explore this theme. For the director, viruses or cancers are the agent of change; for the writer, drugs hold the key.

"It was understood by me (because I had no choice) and by Burroughs (because he´s smart) that this movie was going to be a creature on its own", Cronenberg asserts forcefully. "It would be a kind of fusion of Burroughs and me, as if we´d gotten into the telepod from The Fly together and come out of the other telepod as some creature which would not have existed separately. The movie of Naked Lunch is not something that Burroughs would have done, and it´s also something that I would never have done - we did it together. That is should be different from my other films and from what Burroughs writes is only appropriate.

"Burroughs was one of the major influences on me when I thought I was going to become a novelist. There was an incredible recognition when I started to read Burroughs, like 'My God, this is in me too!' I think both Burroughs and I are very interested in metamorphosis or transformation, and that naturally leads us to attempt to have some understanding of the nature of disease and the relationship of the human condition and disease.

"I agree that you could see the drugs in Burroughs´ writing and the viruses in my films being used by us metaphorically in the same way. They are both something that is potentially dangerous but also attractive, a very powerful agent of transformation. In a way, you give up your soul to either one of them, but in return you get another soul that may or not may be the soul that you´re looking for...we´re not sure."

Cronenberg first entered the body of mainstream cinema throught the taboo orifices of the horror and the soft-core porn genres. Having failed an audition as a porno director for Canadian skin-flicks company Cinepix, Cronenberg interested producer John Dunning in a script for a "serious horror film" entitled Orgy of the Blood Parasites. Seen by Dunning as a chance to break into the US mainstream market, Cronenberg´s feature debut was shot using financing raised by Cinepix from the Canadian Film Development Corporation, under the new title The Parasite Murders. This less lurid moniker was subsequently changed to Shivers for worldwide release, except in the US, where the film was dubbed They Came From Within.

Decried by Canadian critic Marshall Delaney as "the most perverse disgusting film" he had ever seen, Shivers incurred the wrath of the US censors and set new cinematic standards of shocking visual imagery. Audiences reeled at scenes of bloodied, phallic parasites emerging from the gaping mouths of their aroused human hosts and worming their intimate way into the bodies of new victims. To horror fans, Cronenberg was a major new voice; a talented renegade who blended the explicit sexuality of porn with the taboo-breaking shocks of traditional horror. To others, he was an outlandish visual pervert.

A stumbling block to Cronenberg´s mainstream acceptance was surely his experimentations with 'plastic realities'; using latex moulds and special effects technology pioneered in the horror genre, Cronenberg developed powerful visual metaphors which were misinterpreted by many as simply the trademarks of gore cinema. For those receptive to such startling stimulation, however, Cronenberg became the master of the visual metaphor, using the plasticity of special effects to lend fleshy form to his conceptual scripts. In The Brood, bloated foetus-bags hanging from the body of Samantha Eggar spew forth murderous dwarfs, representing her uncontrollable rage and desire to destroy her stifling surroundings. Similarly in Videodrome (1982), as Max Renn (James Woods) becomes the slave of televisual imagery, so his stomach develops a suppurating vaginal VCR slot-wound and his television set french-kisses him into a netherworld of sado-masochistic delirium.

"It´s appropriate that the movie of Naked Lunch, which is very much about writing and new realities that are made through the creative process, should present me again with this problem of metaphor," Cronenberg reflects. "This is something I struggle with all the time. The use of metaphor in literature crucial, and there is no direct screen equivalent. Eisenstein tried a direct equivalent; when the script says "The crowd roars like a lion', you cut to a lion roaring. Does that work? No, it´s silly, everybody laughs, it takes you out of the movie, and I´m glad that Eisenstein did it so I don´t have to! But what do you do when you want to deliver a concept that requires some kind of metaphor and you can´t do it the way it´s done on paper?

"Often I end up using special effects for just this purpose. There´s a very specific example of this in Naked Lunch where we have a creature which evolves out of a typewriter that is all-sexual, a polymorphously perverse thing which leaps on the two people who have created it and participates in sex with them. That creature is really an allegorical being that you would probably call lust if you were writing in the fourteenth century. It would be the embodiment of the lust of these two people. So I´m doing something very literary there, but in a very cinematic way.

"However, I have to say that I´m not obsessed with special effects, and I believe that if I had conceived a film like this of like Videodrome in the 50s, there would have been another way to do it that would have worked. I think that there would have been a way to deliver the metaphorical imagery that I´ve got in Videodrome without modern technology: it´s the conceptual stuff which is hard, not the techno stuff. As far as Naked Lunch is concerned, I think the effects are pretty old fashioned - it´s really just advanced puppetry. There are no computer-generated morphs the way there are in T2, for example. It´s just foam-latex creatures operated with little springs and levers. Naked Lunch is set in 1953 and I think there´s something very 50s about the effects. They have a very physical, right-there-on-the-set feel, which is exactly what they were. There was no post-production optical work, unlike Dead Ringers, which had much more sophisticated optical post-production".

The physicalisation of metaphor which Cronenberg describes is indeed the most powerful recurrent motif in his films. When writer Piers Handling stole the title of Dr Raglan´s fictional text book, The Shape of Rage for his 1983 collection of essays on Cronenberg, he rightly pin-pointed the director´s greatest achievement - to give physical form to shapeless anxieties. Yet his depiction of physical aberration and change is always metaphorical, never realistic. So how does this metaphorical use of viruses marry with Burroughs´ very real and practical use of drugs to encourage psychic (and perhaps even physical) transformation?

"I don´t think that Burroughs´ drug-taking produces his creativity or indeed allows him to create", Cronenberg states assuredly. "I know that he could do it without drugs and indeed he often does do it without drugs or alcohol or anything else. Also, Burroughs´ fascination with drug-taking precedes his writing by many years. I think really his drug-taking had to do with a dissatisfaction with the reality in which he found himself living, including what he himself was. He wanted to transform himself. He wanted to become something else. Drug-taking was one way to do that, and it also put him in touch with outsiders in society whom he found more interesting than the middle classes from which he came.

"The state that I prefer is stone cold sober. When I get drunk, or on the rare occasions that I´ve been stoned, I just sit around waiting for it to go away. It´s like a fever I want to get over. I don´t have trouble when I´m sober or straight tapping into the dream/fantasy part of myself. I don´t need anything to liberate me. Even when dealing with hallucinatory states, as I do in Naked Lunch, I am always striving for a kind of clarity. Anything that muddies the clarity and makes it more difficult to synthesise things is something I´d rather not have.

"Burroughs is not like that; he enjoys smoking dope and he likes the connections he makes when he´s stoned, and he uses them in his work. I don´t make any connections I think are valuable. I just get very paranoid and wait for it to go away. At that point you´re really dealing with your own personal metabolism and nervous system.

"When I´m writing I do go into a trance-like state which I can be in and out of in an instant. However, one thing about this altered state is that it´s not physical. It´s a kind of out-of-body thing which everybody experiences. People think of it as mysterious, but I´ve often got to the point where I have to check the toothbrush to see if it´s wet because I can´t remember whether I´ve brushed my teeth or not. My body has been functioning on its own, while my mind is somewhere else.

"So I guess I don´t think of that creative process at the moment as needing or involving bodily change. But having said that, I think it would be interesting to attach electrodes to your head and find out what´s actually going on when you´re writing. Because you are experiencing these things as a kind of reality...albeit at a distance".