He's responsible for the likes of 1983's Videodrome, 1986's The Fly remake, 1988's Dead Ringers, and 2005's A History of Violence, but David Cronenberg may have delivered his most disturbing movie with Maps to the Stars. It's a tale of celebrity aspiration and Hollywood misery that weaves together incest, mental illness, a dead kid or two, a burn victim (played by Mia Wasikowska), a washed-up actress gunning for another hit who resembles what Lindsay Lohan might be like in 15 years (Julianne Moore as Havana Segrand), and a Bieber-esque child star who's already been to rehab (Evan Bird as Benjie Weiss). It's full of desperation, violence, and excruciatingly grim humor. There are images in this movie that are as indelible as they are hard to look at.
I recently spoke to Cronenberg by phone about Maps, which has taken decades to make (Bruce Wagner wrote the script about 20 years ago, and figuring that the project was dead, repurposed it for the 2012 novel Dead Stars). Maybe it's his Canadian politeness, but I found him to be warmer and decidedly less terse than his veteran director peers that I've spoken to in the past like Brian De Palma, John Carpenter, and Spike Lee. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
Gawker: It seems like every step of the way until its U.S. release (which is behind several other countries), it's been a fight to get this movie out.
David Cronenberg: I don't know if it's been a fight, but there have been different rhythms than what we're used to. Focus World, which is distributing in the U.S., really felt that they wanted to release it this year, as opposed to the end of last year because their primary platform is video on demand and it's just a new game, especially for any sort of independent film, any art film, any film that's not a huge blockbuster going out to 3,000 theaters. It's a slightly different ballgame.
Has the subject matter caused any specific complications in terms of getting this movie released?
I don't really think so. It's gotten a pretty good reception at the screenings we've had in the U.S. and even in Hollywood. I don't think that's been a factor. What is a factor is the tone of the movie, that it's dark although it's funny, and that it's difficult in some ways. Not difficult to understand, but not normal, middle-of-the-road sort of fare. That's really what's been the problem, not really that it's been about Hollywood and can be seen as a critique of Hollywood.
I think in some ways this is your most horrifying movie.
I can certainly understand that. Part of it is, of course, there's not much fantasy in it. [Screenwriter] Bruce Wagner and I like to say it's not even really a satire because it's too accurate, too real. Although condensed, perhaps, in terms of narrative, it's almost like a docudrama.
I have a feeling that Maps isn't something that you could have made at the beginning of your career.
I certainly wouldn't have been able to verify the truth of what Bruce had been writing, because in my early career I didn't have a lot to do with Hollywood. It was only later that I gradually ended up with more meetings in Hollywood and with studio heads, and so on. I can now say I've had the actual personal experience to be confident in the veracity of what Bruce was writing. That's aside from hopefully having mastered the medium a bit more than in my early days, of course. Those two things gave me the confidence to make this movie and it was only a 29-day shoot, which required real economy and efficiency, which is something you have to learn.
Have you seen with your own eyes or experienced secondhand the horrors of this movie—the amount of trauma that some people live with and come into the industry carrying?
Yes, I have. In fact, sometimes it's brought onto your set by actors who have come from Hollywood. I don't want to mention any names. I've had pretty good relationships with all of my actors, but some of them have been more neurotic and more needy and more damaged than others. You can see it. You don't have to live in Hollywood and be part of the Hollywood filmmaking process there to have been touched by it. Plus, even on Maps itself, John Cusack said, "I was Benjie." He was a child star. He knows. That's why he lives in Chicago.
Do you think there's something about the industry that attracts or perpetuates that sort of damaged psyche?
Oh sure. It's hugely seductive, Hollywood, and filmmaking and all that goes with it. Even if you're someone who just wants to be famous, or on the other end of the spectrum, someone who's quite creative and wants to have the tools to do that kind of creation, Hollywood, I've often said, is this incredibly dense planet with a huge gravitational pull that draws people all over the world to it. But then that pull is so intense that it's hard to get out of there and not be deformed by it, not be twisted and pressured out of shape. And so I have seen that. I also have heard many tales of it told to me by people who were refugees from Hollywood. I still have great affection for Hollywood, really, for its past and for what it has done, the kind of movies it has created. All this movie magic kind of stuff is real, and has affected many people mostly in a positive way. It's not all black and white there. There's a lot to be said positively about Hollywood. Obviously in this movie, we're not focusing too much on those positive aspects, but it doesn't mean they don't exist.
Would you say the good outweighs the bad?
I can't say Hollywood has had a huge effect on my career-wise. Hollywood certainly doesn't owe me anything, and conversely, I don't owe Hollywood anything. I've had some moments of seduction where I've tried to get a big Hollywood movie made and it hasn't worked out, but I don't have any bitterness about it. One of the times, for example, was trying to get The Matarese Circle made, which was a project based on a Robert Ludlum spy novel. I had written several drafts. This was for MGM. I had met Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise, both of whom we were hoping would be together in the movie. They were very interested. But then MGM went bankrupt. It wasn't as though they screwed up my script or promised me stuff that they didn't come up with. It was nothing like that. They were in trouble, and that's what killed the project. I have nothing to complain about. I have had some bizarre meetings, though, as I've said. If I were a different kind of person, I might have been insulted by them, or offended or shocked, but actually I was just completely amused by them. I thought, "I'm watching an absurdist play by Samuel Beckett here. This is quite interesting." In other words, there's no taste of bitterness or anything. If there is some of that in the movie, which I guess there is, I would say it comes from Bruce, not from me.
One of the things I appreciated about the movie, in terms of critique, is its discussion of child stars. We have so much evidence of the havoc that fame can wreak on a young soul, and it's not something that people talk about. I wonder sometimes if children should be allowed to act at all.
Yeah. I mean, when I cast the role of Benjie with Evan Bird, he was 12. He gives an amazing performance, but he lives in Vancouver. He's done some TV, he did the American version of The Killing, which is where I first saw him. I don't think the experience of being an actor is bad for him. But it depends on your context. If I had to move to Hollywood to get my movies made, which I thought in the early '70s that I might have to do because there really was no film industry in Canada at the time, I'm sure my filmmaking would have been totally different. I wouldn't have been able to make the same kind of films and I probably wouldn't have wanted to make the same kind of films. So powerful is the zeitgeist in Hollywood. But to ban kids from being actors? No, I wouldn't do that. But obviously the potential for damaging a kid is huge. And you see it in spades in the movie, but it doesn't take much to find cognates in real life.
Speaking of that, what's the official word on the similarity of Julianne Moore's character to Lindsay Lohan? I know that Julianne has said that her character is a composite, but there are times when I just see Lindsay in Maps to the Stars.
Bruce wrote this before there was a Lindsay Lohan. He wrote the script 20 years ago. In a way, maybe he invented Lindsay. But there's so many examples of that, and women that Julianne Moore grew up with and colleagues of hers who didn't make it past the age of 40. They were hot for a minute and then suddenly weren't getting phone calls and were discarded by the industry. It's notoriously tougher on women than men in terms of aging. I'm sure she had lots of examples. She didn't have to look very far to find a template for her character.
I think that your career is really fascinating because a lot of directors peak and drop off, especially directors who were so stylistically distinct in the '80s. You see it happening a lot—take De Palma for example. You have evolved with the times and are just as relevant as ever.
Well, bless you for saying that. I have never dwelled on the past. I'm really looking forward, even technically. I love the digital era. I couldn't wait for typewriters to go away and I couldn't wait for editing on a Moviola to go away. I think perhaps that has kept me young: my enthusiasm for the moment of now. Maybe that's the kind of '60s person that I am, you know? "Be here now" used to be the mantra. I do feel that way. I remember some young critic asked me if I was influenced by my old movies. I said, "You've got it really backwards. I'm not influenced by my movies. I made those movies. I influenced them." It's not only the medium of cinema, but I also published my first novel last September, called Consumed. I'm currently writing another one. It's the creative act that's exciting to me, and engaging with the present version of what it is to be human. What is the human condition right now? That's always been my inspiration and what excites me to be creative. Therefore, it disconnects me from what I've done in the past. That's history to me.
Was there a moment, I guess, after eXistenZ where you sort chopped it and said, "New phase"? I think there is a palpable Old Cronenberg and New Cronenberg.
Except you have to remember that The Dead Zone was very early on. Dead Ringers was 1988. I was never only a horror genre filmmaker or a sci-fi filmmaker. There was always other stuff. In fact, I had wanted to make Dead Ringers ten years before I was able to. It's not as cut and dry. Yes, even somebody like Guillermo del Toro can tell me that he loves the old movies the best, but on the other hand, he was very enthusiastic about my recent movies, so maybe he shifted himself.
Are you happy, looking back at your career and where you are now?
Sure, yeah. I'm very realistic. It's just like, "Well, it's done." That's what I did. I've always made the movies I wanted to make. I've totally been able to say, "If you don't like this movie, it's my fault." And that's what you want to be able to say. It wasn't because some producer took it away or some studio took it away or someone betrayed you. I wanted to make those movies as I did and if there's something wrong with them, you can definitely blame me.
Maps to the Stars will be released in theaters and on demand Friday, February 27.
[Image via AP]