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"WILD YEARS-THE MUSIC & MYTH OF TOM WAITS" BY JAY S. JACOBS

AVAILABLE IN BOOK STORES EVERYWHERE!

 

DAVID CRONENBERG

A DIRECTOR LOOKS AT VIOLENT AMERICA

by Brad Balfour

Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: November 3, 2005.

Now transformed from a horror genre master (Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome) to a full-blown, critically acclaimed and analyzed auteur, Toronto-based director David Cronenberg finally has made A History of Violence Ė the film that may be the Oscar-garnering capper of his career. With Cronenberg having done films with exploding heads, weird parasites entering various body parts, and babies growing in sacs on their mother's stomach, this story of a simple small town cafe owner confronted with a criminal act that makes him a hero and changes his life, is downright restrained beyond belief. Yet the 62 year-old Cronenberg has crafted a timely meditation on the nature and effect of violence on a man and his family.

What did you really want this film to address?

The iconic American mythology was very interesting to me. I haven't set a movie in America since The Dead Zone. It's not like I have a message to the world. When it came to the depiction of violence, it was where did the characters learn their violence?  And what was violence to those characters, but my idea of what I think violence should be. Violence is innate in humans; we are that strange creature that can form abstract concepts, so we can conceive of non-violence. There are people who think that a world full of peace would be boring and would lead to a loss of creativity. That's an interesting, perverse argument that might some truth in it.

It's in this film.

The fact that the audience finds the violence exhilarating and that the children find it attractive, even though they are repelled by the consequences, shows the conundrum we have with violence. So many people fear it, there's so much money, energy, and government that are trying to avoid it at the same time that we outfit armies to go and commit it on other people Ė itís very paradoxical and endlessly fascinating, yet it's also very attractive which brings out the animal part of ourselves. Even the human, intellectual part of ourselves is also attracted to it. It's not easy to lament that we are violent creatures because that is just too simplistic.

Even in the sex between Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello?

That's right. People experienced in sex and honesty will admit that there's a component of violence in sexuality Ė whether it's subliminal or not. Radical feminists have said that any form of sex is rape. I know that they are extreme, but I know what they're saying and there's some truth in it. Even that which can be considered tender and intimate is, in a sense, a spatial violation. That's what makes human sexuality so complex and reflective of every aspect of the human condition. That's why I tend to have sex scenes in my movie; I am failing to really deliver the goods to myself and my audience in terms of looking everywhere for what's really going on unless sexuality is in some way being examined. Especially in this movie, where there's a couple who have been married for 20 years and has two children and the only sex scenes are between the couple. How could you really say you've done your scenes-from-a-marriage routine if you haven't acknowledged their sexuality in a very specific way.

Yet there's an optimism to this film.

The feeling is that, perhaps, for Edie (Bello), the Tom/Joey (Mortenson) hybrid is the full guy. Perhaps the marriage could even be a better marriage with the acknowledgment of that. Whether she can live with that or not is a whole other thing. With the sex scene on the stairs, there's an attraction-repulsion thing happening. That's another reason why I felt I had to have that scene. Despite the difficulty that people have with that scene, it is necessary to set up the possibility of hope in the ending.

How did you make your casting choices?

I gradually narrowed it down. After all, the movie cost $32 million, which means I had to have an actor of a certain stature for the studio to feel that they can sell the movie. It's very straightforward. I didn't need a big star like Tom Cruise, but I did need somebody who is recognizable and has fans already. Very few movies can be successful with unknown actors. Even for a two million dollar movie, the producers will want a recognizable name. That automatically limits you to a certain number of people. Then there's the age that the characters must be, within a certain range. And he has to be somebody who can carry a movie as the leading man, but, for me, he has to be more of a character actor. He has to disappear into his role as well as be subtle, eccentric, charismatic, and real all at the same time. It's a difficult thing to find. There's the subtle other thing that is beyond articulation which is my sensibility in terms of actors. There are some actors who I can admire in terms of their acting ability and stardom, but no compulsion to work with them. I go for certain actors that are my kind of actors.

What about an actress like Maria Bello?

The same goes for actresses. Maria is a beautiful woman, but still not what somebody says is the "ice princess" model of Hollywood these days; she's real. That means that she bring subtlety, complexity, and possibly the difficulty of her character. I want a real woman, but not an icon.

You've never been afraid to show the ugliness of violence.

I don't know, I must be fearless, it seems. For me the first fact of human existence is the human body. I'm not an atheist, but for me to turn away from any aspect of the human body to me is a philosophical betrayal. And there's a lot of art and religion whose whole purpose is to turn away from the human body. I feel in my art that my mandate is to not do that. So whether itís beautiful things Ė the sexuality part, or the violent part or the gooey part Ė itís just body fluids. It's when Elliott in Dead Ringer says, "Why are there no beauty contests for the insides of bodies?" It's a thought that disturbs me. How can we be disgusted by our own bodies? That really doesn't make any human sense. It makes some animal sense but it doesn't make human sense so I'm always discussing that in my movies and in this movie in particular. I don't ever feel that I've been exploitive in a crude, vulgar way, or just doing it to get attention. It's always got a purpose which I can be very articulate about. In this movie, we've got an audience that's definitely going to applaud these acts of violence and they do because it's set up that these acts are justifiable and almost heroic at times. But I'm saying, "Okay, if you can applaud that, can you applaud this?" because this is the result of that gunshot in the head. It's not nice. And even if the violence is justifiable, the consequences of the violence are exactly the same. The body does not know what was the morality of that act. So I'm asking the audience to see if they can contain the whole experience of this violent act instead of just the heroic/dramatic one. I'm saying "Here's the really nasty effects on these nasty guys but still, the effects are very nasty." And that's the paradox and conundrum.

You're a Canadian who's made this essay about violence in America and you choose not to adorn it with special effects and visual dramatics; that makes this story so profound and so "Cronenberg..."

Yeah, it's a tendency I have and I relate it somewhat weirdly to Samuel Beckett, and modernism. Somehow I feel that to me, one of the ultimate challenges is to not adorn, not to hide behind stuff. There are very easy things that you can do in films, especially now, to disguise yourself and make things easy and protect yourself. I'm as vulnerable as my actors, maybe more so when I direct a movie. Maybe not in the same physical way, but very vulnerable and itís very tempting to do stuff, to hide behind it. I try not to do it, or get overly technique-y. If you can do it right, there's a raw simplicity that's incredibly powerful because there's a certain truth right there. If you blow it, there's nothing to hide behind. Itís obvious when you've blown it. So that's why you get guys that do jittery camera stuff when it's just a guy sitting in a room talking; they do stuff up here and they've got cranes and whatever. I just sit there and say "Ok, I've cast this guy for his face, for his voice, for his acting. I just want you to see that. Let's just trust all that you've done and look at this guy talking." I don't need to do fancy, silly stuff that has no meaning or artistic purpose.

When Tom/Joey leaves small town life, is he really changed?

That's certainly the way we played it. Imagine, he's suddenly forced out of the identity he had and you have to decide how much of this you want to reveal to your viewers obviously, or you could spoil the movie for them.

Don't worry.

[When he originally left the East Coast], he could have chosen to be anything Ė to be a Joey in Florida, or a Joey in the west coast. He could have gone to some other country and been a small time gangster. But he chooses to be part of this American mythology of itself, this kind of ideal guy in this ideal small town with a family. Non-violent. Very sweet. Very gentle with his children. And he genuinely is. He's been that for twenty years. So he's been very successful at that. And that's not hiding. At that point he really wanted to become somebody else. If he got hit by a bus before the bad guys came to town, he would have been buried as Tom Stall, everybody would have thought that's who he was and that's who he would have been.

So when the violence breaks out, was he reverting?

No.  The way we were playing it was that Joey was not actually a violent person. He didn't have that incredible anger and rage. Because you would feel that if he had that incredibly violent temper and anger and rage for example that it would come out in those twenty years that he tried to be Tom. You know it would have come out sooner. But in this case, Joey learned violence because Ė being physically kind of athletic Ė he could be good at it, because he grew up in the streets of Philly. His brother was a mobster, the union was mobsters and to be successful and have some kind of life there, he had to become part of that. He could do violence, so he did violence, but he wasn't particularly innately a violent person. So it was just as he says, when his brother says, "We're brothers, what did you think would happen?" He replies, "I thought that business would come first." For him it was business. And that was the approach to violence in the movie that I took, which is rather an imposing concept of what violence should or shouldn't be. I wasn't thinking about that... I'm thinking, "Okay in this movie where does the violence come from?" It comes from these guys who learned it on the streets and from the business. Its not sadistic pleasure, an aesthetic thing, or a martial art with a philosophy in fighting, it's just business. You do it. You get it over and get on to the next thing and make as little fuss about it as possible. That's what it is to Joey, and therefore itís very possible for it to disappear. Now it comes back only because it's a tool he needs, that he has. It is like the gunslinger that was the fastest gun in the west that put his guns away, you know? It has American iconic reverberations and we were very conscious of that. [Joey's] the guy who's reluctant to kill although he has a talent for killing, but itís not something that gives him pleasure. That's really the approach we took and itís realistic in the sense that it would make it possible for him to become Tom and live that life for so long without revealing something else.

When you show the sex scene after the shootings, the intoxicating effect of the violence affects how they have sex with each other Ė as opposed to before it was revealed.

If you see the movie a second time, it becomes a different movie and only then can you really appreciate Viggo's performance fully because we were conscious of making two movies at once and it had to work both ways Ė for both viewings. But once the violence cat is out of the bag itís up for grabs. For me the most violent moment of the movie is when he slaps his son. That's a shocking moment and you definitely get the feeling that it's the first time he ever laid a hand on either of his kids violently. It depresses and shocks him as well as shocking his son because the violence cat is out of the bag and itís hard to put it back in. Once again it's a tool, but it's a tool that has to be ready, the adrenaline has to be there, so and it comes out in the sexuality as well.

Your films have a weird air to them because they're like American but not.

Many years ago, a producer who just started talking to me about that said, "You know, for Americans, your movies are really weird." Now this was a long time ago, because the streets are like America, but they're not. The people are like Americans but they're not. It's like the pod people kind of thing. And he said that gave [my films] that spooky edge for an American. I'm thinking, "Well that's us Canadians, you know, we're the American pod people. We're like American people but we're not, we're quite different." I've only really set a couple of movies, maybe three in America. One was The Dead Zone; another one, Fast Company had scenes that were set in America.

You've shot in America?

I have never shot a foot of film in America.

You didn't shoot the exteriors of the town in America?

That was Millbrook, Ontario.

You can't compare Toronto to any American city, but itís all American cities in a sense.

Sure, it is, and there are certain essences of American cities that are totally not there. It's because our histories are interlinked but they're quite different. You know, we didn't have a Civil War, we didn't have a revolution, etc. We sent the mounted police into the western territories first with guns. Then the citizens came without guns. So there was never that sense of intense individualism that you have in America. Where a man with a gun, he's the law, we always have had in Canada, more intense understanding of the social fabric where you have to negotiate and discuss and stuff like that.

Is the virus in History of Violence the past or is it violence itself the virus?

Well, you see, I don't think that way, you know, in the sense that you're bringing a concept, a sort of critical and analytical concept to bear on this movie. I absolutely don't mind that, some very interesting and enlightening things can come out of that process. But that's not a creative process, that's an analytical and critical process; I don't think of that, for instance when I was making the movie that thought would never have been in my mind. There were many thoughts in my mind but I don't think about my other movies. I don't think about the place of this movie in the pantheon and blah, blah. I really take each movie on its own and try to give it what it needs individually without imposing something from the outside, including what people have thought about my other movies. So you're going to have to answer that question I'm sure.

Reflecting on your own life and on your own work, do you find that your movies are like different chapters from the same book?

Yes, I don't deny obviously that there is a connection. The thing is that I don't have to force the connection, because you literally make one or two thousand decisions a day as a director. There are decisions about everything from clothes to colors, to walls, to locations to actors and what wins in lighting and you'll know that nobody else would make those same decisions. And so the movie will be enough of you, you don't have to force it. I don't have to say I have to put this thumbprint on it so the people will know itís my movie. Did I answer the question?

Well, how does this chapter in the book relate to your work?

But see, I don't have a perspective on it because I've just made the movie. Itís my most recent movie so I'm most involved with it and my other movies are the past and I'm just not thinking of them. It's a legitimate metaphor that you're using, that each movie is a kind of a chapter. I wouldn't have made this movie the same way 10 years ago. I wouldn't have been the same person, so it is revealing of something but I am the last person to be able to say what that something is.

After the heaviness of Spider is it nice to kick some people in the face?

No, not at all. Although I won't say that didn't have a reaction on Spider. But the reaction was that I didn't make any money on Spider and I needed to do a movie that I could make some money on. In the sense that I couldn't afford to do a low budget independent film whose financing was constantly falling apart and therefore we would all have to defer our salaries and not get paid. I literally did not make any money for two years and I could not afford to do that. So that was the reaction. On the other hand, Spider was still a wonderful experience and frankly I think it's the other half of this movie. I mean, it also is about identity and the construction of it, and the possibility of it, and the consequences of it. In Spider you have a man who does not have the will, the creative will for whatever reason, to hold his identity together. He keeps disintegrating and falls apart. But each movie has a family in it. Has a past that has a huge impact on the present and its also, both movies are about identity. So I think they would be pretty interesting on a double bill for a certain very special audience.

Do you find it easier to work with an adapted screenplay?

It comes from laziness and momentum, basically. Even Brian DePalma, who wrote his original screenplays, took a while to finish writing them. You have to sit down for maybe two years to write it. Maybe it's no good or maybe its okay but you can't get it made. So, the pressure is on you to go with a project that a producer has already been excited about so that you don't have to take those two years off only to find that you haven't managed to produce something that's worth making. When I did The Dead Zone, my first adaptation, I found it exciting to get out of myself. You can bore yourself with you. The idea that you will fuse with some other interesting, different personality and then create some third thing that neither one of you would have produced on your own is really interesting. I did that with interesting people like Stephen King, William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and now Josh Olson.

With A History of Violence, has your filmmaking style changed?

I don't know if it changed. I'm always experimenting, which comes from the nature of the particular project. Each movie demands its own things, like a child. It starts to become something else. As the doting parents, I feed it what it needs so that it evolves into its own individuality. The movie tells me what it wants, which could be different from what cinema should be or from what my movies used to be; I can't think about all that stuff---I can only think about feeding this demanding child.

Do you think Spider and A History of Violence share some thematic elements?

I only see that after the fact. It's not like I thought of that when I started to make this movie. It's only when I'm doing interviews and people are asking me to be analytical about my films. The creative impulses are different from the critical and analytical ones.

Why do people who make comedies tend to be angry and depressed and people who make very violent movies tend to be nice and funny?

It seems to be true, isn't it? I mean there's nothing scarier than a comedian. They're angry, depressed, terrible people. Let's face it. It must be. I mean I guess itís easy to say, but it seems to be inevitably true that there's a kind of balance that's struck. If you're kind of perky and funny in your life then you feel that you have to deal with the other stuff in your art and vice versa, you know.

Are you excited about the buzz about this film Ė given that you're a Canadian making such an American film?

I've been through this before [laughs]. With Dead Ringers, I was told endlessly that Jeremy Irons was a shoe-in for best actor at the very least, but, of course, that didn't happen. So, I realized the game-playing that goes on. Although, The Fly did win an Oscar for best special-effects and makeup, so I have done the Oscar thing. But it's not a goal and it's not a necessity.

What are you working on for the future?

There are a few projects that are possible. One is an adaptation of London Fields Ė Martin Amis' novel; I'm a huge Martin Amis fan. Another is called Maps to the Stars, which is written by Bruce Wagner who is also an LA novelist and a close friend. Robert Lantos will be producing that if that happens. There are all things that are possible, but they are not at all for sure. They would be in the independent film range of budget and financing.

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Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: November 3, 2005.

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Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: November 3, 2005.