It’s mid-May at the Cannes Film Festival and David Cronenberg is relaxing on the roof of the J.W. Marriot Hotel. Two days earlier, his latest film enjoyed a raucous premier at the festival’s Lumière Theater: “The screening was fantastic,” he notes in his casual way, “I’ve had screenings that were not as good. This one was terrific.” The film is called Crimes of the Future and it marks the Canadian filmmaker’s return to a specific realm of shock cinema that he once made his own, and one that he will forever be synonymous with. The hype in the days leading up had been palpable, and even Cronenberg got in on the action, revealing in an interview with Deadline that he expected walkouts in the first five minutes. It didn’t quite come to pass.
“As it turned out, the only walkout was me,” Cronenberg explained, “because I had to go have a pee.” “I’ve experienced that before, of course, with Crash. It was very controversial—I was booed and cheered at the same time when I accepted the award that the film got. So I’ve been through that. And now I’m saying, who knows? I have no idea how this film will be received. I still don’t, because as we all know the festival audience is not normal.”
The director will turn 80 next year, but you’d never know it. Sat on the blinding terrace in a dark grey shirt and even darker sunglasses, his signature shock of white hair showed no signs of fading. We’d moved into the shade to avoid the unseasonable midday heat while, out on the glistening Riviera below, billionaire yachts dotted the horizon. It seemed a far shot from the dark, erotic underworld of Crimes, a film about a dystopian future in which surgery is “the new sex,” humans have begun digesting plastics, and physical pain has all but disappeared.
The Film Stage: There are so many interesting ideas in Crimes of the Future. Did you have ecology or climate change on your mind when you sat down to write it?
David Cronenberg: Having characters who are passionate about something to an extreme is what interests me. It almost doesn’t matter what I think. It’s not necessarily my ideology; it’s my character’s ideology. It’s a matter of creating narrative. As George Bernard Shaw said, “conflict is the essence of drama.” Of course I have an attitude towards all these things, but it’s almost not interesting. You don’t need to know what I think about climate change for the movie to work. I hope.
What about this idea of humans digesting plastic. You wrote the screenplay in the late ’90s. What kind of research were you looking into?
Micro-plastics were not a thing 20 years ago, and now they are a big thing: in our bloodstream, in our flesh, in our fish, in our animals. So it was strangely prescient, but only by accident.
I’m a big Darwin fan, you know. I’m fascinated by the idea of evolution and how it has evolved, because our understanding of evolution has now gone far beyond Darwin. And I love that. We are animals and I’m fascinated by animals, including humans. To me it’s an understanding of another species, which gives you an understanding of our own species. I don’t find it unusual; it’s just organic.
The film has been described as your return to body horror. I’m curious if you see it this way? Your films have always been about bodies in one way or another.
Yes, and not always from the perspective of horror, either. As I’m sure you know, that’s not my expression. I’ve never used it. I never imagined it. Somebody came up with it and it stuck because it’s catchy and it makes it easy to compare things. But, for me, it doesn’t describe my movies at all.
Does it feel like a return in a different sense?
Of course I’m aware of that. This is technically a sci-fi movie and I haven’t made one of those since eXistenZ. That’s legitimate, but genre doesn’t give me anything. It’s a marketing tool as far as I’m concerned. If you’re a distributor and you know that you’re selling a body horror movie you don’t need as much imagination as you maybe should. Whereas something like Dead Ringers is a really tough sell because you don’t know how to sell it as. Is it just a drama? Is it a sort of horror film? Is it a melodrama? Is it suspense? There’s murders. What is it?
It’s one of the best ones...
Well. [Laughs] But when I’m making the movie, I’m not thinking about it. I’m really just thinking: how do I make this movie come to life? How do we clothe the actors? How do I use Athens, which was a new thing—it wasn’t in the script. What gifts can Athens give me? It gave me the ships, yeah. I embraced it completely. But that’s all I’m focused on. Is this beyond the bounds of body horror? Is it within the bounds of science fiction? That doesn’t guide me; it doesn’t help me.
Saul’s furniture, especially his chair The Orchid, have a touch of Giger. How did you design the world of this film?
I imagine things while I’m writing the script, but it’s still just potential, it’s just a guide. The Orchid, in the script it was called “The Spider Web.” I had thought of it more like a spider web, but then when we tried to design it, it just didn’t work. It wasn’t practical and it didn’t look good. It read well, but it wasn’t that interesting. So I had to come up with something else. With Carol Spear, we had graphic guys do different designs. I said, I think we need to use the chair and the SARC and make more models for the bed. So we gradually came up with what I called the Orchid bed, where it’s like you’re lying in some huge flower. So it evolves as you make the movie.
I always think of it as found art, you know. You have to be open to found art. Sometimes your actors come up with strange things that might make shooting seem a little more difficult, but then it’s suddenly unusual and great. That’s why I still can’t really understand storyboards. I’m not sure if it is still a big fashion among young filmmakers, but it was for a while.
You’ve never worked with storyboards?
So the one time I worked with storyboards was on The Fly, and it was only because the special effects people were very nervous that I would expect something on the set that they had not designed and were not prepared for. They said, we can only show you the fly from the waist down; we can show you the fly from the waist up, but we can’t show you the whole fly.
But that was storyboards at the request of the special effects people, because they were worried. But other than that I never had the impulse to do it. I love going on the set and not knowing.
Kristen Stewart’s performance is especially interesting. What direction did you give her for the role?
For Kristen? Not much. In the script I describe her mostly as a bureaucrat: seemingly very timid, very shy. And then gradually you realize that she is in fact very ambitious, very Machiavellian, very passive-aggressive, and ultimately very devious and will go really far to get what she wants. And it is a strange thing that she wants. Kristen just understood this. The way she played with her voice, that was totally her.
The way I work with actors, I don’t tell them anything at first. I want them to show me what they think. I trust their intuition. I’m hiring them because I think they will be able to bring these characters to life. For me to then control them like a puppet, like Hitchcock used to say he did, is counterproductive. Like, why would you do that? You’ve got a brilliant actor. Why stifle them by telling them how to deliver their lines or whatever? It doesn’t make sense to me.
You just announced The Shroud a few days ago. How did this project come about?
I originally wrote it for Netflix to be a series and they decided they didn’t want to go ahead with it. But I’d written two episodes and I liked what I had written so much, I turned it into a screenplay. We approached Vincent Cassel to play the lead, and he immediately loved the script and said yes. It was very fast. So the timing was good because then this is a great place to sell a movie. And we know each other well. I think we’ll have a lot of fun.
Do you often notice influences from your work in other things you watch? Are you ever like, “that one’s mine”?
I mean, I don’t point my finger when I see it but I see it. I mean, I’d have to do some research to give you a list of movies, and other people talk about it, like with Julia Ducournau with Titane, but that’s very sweet for me.
You know, it’s not a matter of theft. It’s like the old mantra [Laughs]—“steal only from the best.” So I take it as a compliment. It doesn’t diminish my movie. It’s not like it’s a threat or anything. It’s actually quite delicious.
You leave this one quite open-ended.
I think most of my movies are open-ended. I mean, even when a major character dies there’s always another character or survivor. It’s open because, until you die, your life is open. That’s how I feel and it replicates that.
Crimes of the Future premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is now in wide release.