For twenty years, David Cronenberg has been one of the most acclaimed and despised filmmakers working in the commercial arena. Ever since 1975, when he made his first feature, SHIVERS (a.k.a., THEY CAME FROM WITHIN), he has pioneered a style that melds science fiction and horror with themes centered on the human body and the psyche—a far cry from the basic ghost and space stories of most genre directors.

SHIVERS is the story of a man-made parasite that gets loose in a high-rise apartment building. Once infected, its victims are overwhelmed by a kind of predatory sexuality; their often-violent couplings are the means through which the parasite moves from host to host. And no one is spared. One of the most disturbing moments in the film is a slow-motion shot of a prepubescent girl planting a dangerously carnal kiss on the lips of a hapless elevator passenger. This vision disturbs us by simultaneously invoking the taboos associated with the image of a thug Lolita and underscoring our knowledge that this kiss is the means through which the parasite will get passed on to its next victim...

These kinds of images are why Cronenberg has been saddled with the charming moniker, "The king of venereal horror." The name isn't entirely accurate, but it isn't all wrong, either. Although his obsessions aren't always venereal, they're almost consistently focused on transformed and transforming flesh. Later films, such as THE BROOD, feature dwarfish monstrosities literally bursting from the swollen skin of patients undergoing medical experiments. SCANNERS, a tale of warring telepaths, includes the occasional murder by telepathic head explosion. And much of the imagery in VIDEODROME—perhaps his most visually arresting and challenging film—centers on actor James Woods' constantly mutating body. The vaginal slit that unexpectedly opens in Woods' torso is the scene of more than one ersatz rape as, on various occasions, he gets a hand, a gun and a videotape shoved inside him.

Rosanna Arquette

Cronenberg, however, is also capable of creating truly beautiful and elegant images as well as all these visions of the grotesque. DEAD RINGERS is his study of twin brothers, who are both unstable, each obsessed with his counterpart—the mirror image and the completion of the other. The film chronicles their descent into drug addiction and madness, and for all its frightening medical footage—the brothers are both gynecologists—the movie is gorgeous to look at. It's this kind of psychologically horrifying (rather than physically horrifying) filmmaking that Cronenberg has used to such great effect in his most dangerous work to date—the movie version of J.G. Ballard's novel CRASH .

Both the film and the novel are scalpel-sharp examinations of our cultural fascination with auto crashes—the crash as a fetish object, a site of speed, power, loss of control, and instant death. This line between control and chaos can arouse powerful feelings, including those of erotic fascination. Starring James Spader, Holly Hunter, Rosanna Arquette, Elias Koteas and Canadian actress Deborah Unger, CRASH shows us—without judgment—a spiral into sexual obsession, as its characters move from unwilling victims to full participants in the elaborate, carnal games they play involving car crashes.

The following interview took place in San Francisco a few weeks after CRASH premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Instantly controversial, CRASH was both loved and hated, earning Cronenberg a Special Jury Prize for audacity.

STIM I was told that CRASH was booed at the press screening in Cannes.
DC The press being what it is, it reported back as though that was the screening. But in fact there were three press screenings, and then there was the gala screening, the big screening in the big theater. And I think different things happened at all of those. In fact, at the main screening, there were 2,300 people, and they gave me a standing ovation at the end.

I didn't hear any booing. I heard Bernardo Bertolucci tell me CRASH was a religious masterpiece. And Paul Schrader came up to me and told me it was great filmmaking, the kind that you don't see anymore, and that he was going to go back to his editing room and steal all my ideas. So the response I got was all positive.

Of course, I had heard about this controversy, and I do know that some of the Germans actually hated the movie. At our press conference, we expected a fight. We were all there, all five main actors, me, (producer) Jeremy Thomas, and Ballard, ready for a fight. But they moved us into the big conference room because there were about 300 journalists—about twice as many as at a regular press conference. We were completely ready to be attacked and God knows what else.

I think we just intimidated them. A Finnish journalist got up and said that he loved the movie—which was a good start—and that he thought the book was "hot" and the movie was "cold." He didn't think that I went as far as the book went. So Ballard said, "I completely disagree with that. I think, in fact, that the movie goes much further than the book. I think the movie takes off where the book ends." So that was the end of that discussion! After that nobody wanted to say anything negative! They were just asking really dumb, uninteresting questions. And in a way it was too bad, because we were ready for the fight. But I think they just preferred to attack us behind our backs.
STIM And yet you still walked away with an award.
DC That was also controversial, because it was kind of unprecedented. The president of the jury (director Francis Ford Coppola) came out and said, "A couple members of the jury chose to abstain from giving this award." It was a clear controversy, and there was a lot of heated discussion. And some members of the jury were mad at Coppola for saying that stuff; they felt that once the jury had decided by majority it was going to give me this prize, they didn't need to diminish it or make it feel like they weren't serious about it. But I thought it was okay myself. I thought that it was honest, and that it did reflect the nature of the response to the film. They felt they had to acknowledge publicly that this movie was the movie that they had talked about the most. More than the "Palm D'Or" winner, more than any of the other movies, "CRASH " was the movie that got talked about. So I was pretty happy with that.
STIM What was the actual award they gave you?
DC It's called the Special Jury Prize. It was for "audacity and innovation." That's what it said on this piece of paper. It's just a piece of paper, it's not like the Oscar or anything.
STIM I was hoping you'd say it was gold viscera on a plaque or something.
DC (Laughs) Ah, no. No they couldn't whoop it up. Mind you the "Palm D'Or" looks a little like gold viscera. But it's the only award that's a [three-dimensional] physical thing. The others are just scrolls. The way it works is that the jury can, at its discretion, award a special jury prize for a particular film that doesn't fit into any category. And they can decide to award it or not. So in one sense, there have been many special jury prizes, but this was the first one given for "audacity." I felt that was accurate.
STIM CRASH follows up on ideas of polymorphous perversity that you've used in films like SHIVERS and even in shorts, such as STEREO. Thematically, what's interesting about your use of these ideas is that they short-circuit all the ordinary notions of morality—you create characters who are behaving by a wholly different set of social codes. What's been the reaction to that?
DC I'm certainly aware that when people first see CRASH they're thinking, "OK, an upwardly mobile couple. They're not worrying about money, and they're having slightly tacky, slightly classy sorts of affairs." But then what happens? The expected story form is there, but what's underneath is not familiar at all. And that's what confuses people. They think that they should be able to understand exactly what's going on with this couple, and they very quickly realize that they don't understand at all what's going on. That's deliberate.

You could have them be a very marginal couple. You could have them be transients living in a cardboard box on a bridge. You could make sure that the audience knows it's not looking at a standard couple of the era. But I need that cross-over. I need that filtering back and forth of those associations. And I think it works. I mean, at the end, it's like GONE WITH THE WIND or something. (Editor's note: the last shot of the film is James Spader tenderly embracing Deborah Unger, who plays his wife; they're lying beneath her car, which Spader has just forced off the road.) But it isn't, because they're fucking under a car that's crashed.
STIM I thought there was something weirdly sweet about that moment.
DC I completely agree. It's a very passionate, sweet moment. And it makes sense. That's were they've been going all along. Somebody was talking about some of the stuff in the movie as being so innocent and naive. Like when you're watching Vaughn's (Elias Koteas) crash —almost child-like. And I said, "Of course, they are innocent. They're totally innocent in this movie. What they're trying to do is somehow recapture that innocence that's been lost." They're trying to find that sweetness and that connection and that passion and that love and sexuality which seem not to work anymore. The old forms are not working: they therefore have to create new forms.
STIM What they're doing is almost a spiritual journey, a search for something to fill up their empty lives. Vaughn is something like a guru in this sense.
DC Spader, Hunter, and Unger's characters are vulnerable to someone like Vaughn because of their disconnection and their dissatisfaction, and because of the strange sexuality, which seems to have no form, unleashed by this car crash. So when you meet somebody who seems to offer them a form, they seem willing to be taken in by that.

There's a sense that there are always gurus. Jim Jones and Manson had adherents—and this continues forever, because there is a basic sadness and difficulty in human existence that doesn't go away—it's always there, and it has been since the beginning of human consciousness. To my mind, all religions and philosophy, at heart, are there to deal with that. So in a sense, everybody's waiting for a guru. And these people no less.

Vaughn, too, is waiting for a guru. It's like, "I'm waiting for a guru, but there isn't one, so I'm going to have to be the guru myself." I happen to think that's the situation we're already in. We end up having to be our own gurus. It's a scary and difficult—maybe an impossible—thing. When somebody said to me, "You're kind of like the Vaughn of the movie, relative to the audience," I liked that. And probably I am. But I am just as likely to self-destruct as Vaughn. You don't have the answers. You have possibilities.
STIM The seductive cult is the easier, softer, more Hollywood version of the story. The version you and Ballard chose, that of pure obsession and not some evil cult, is the more interesting road.
DC To make a movie is to be obsessed. But I wanted very much to be as neutral about the characters as I believe Ballard is in the book. That's what scared people too. We're not making any moral judgments, and part of the nature of my project, as the Vaughn of this movie, is to accept that morality is not absolute, it is relative and we create it, it does not come from somewhere else. Or maybe, just maybe, the decision not to make a judgment at all comes from the people themselves.
STIM The clinical, almost scientific, eye you bring to the images in many of your films places both bodies and objects on the same level. It doesn't lower the importance of the bodies, but it imbues all these innocent objects with a genuine, sometimes sinister importance.
DC But there are no innocent objects. They're all guilty by definition. Most of the objects we're talking about are created by people anyway. They're not natural objects. Part of what I'm talking about is the way in which reality is created by us. We are the only reality we have. It's a scary thought, but it's also my version of existentialism; that all the technology that's so invisible—this room, for instance, the air conditioning, the light—is just not natural and is, therefore, an expression of our will and our sexuality and everything else. All those objects have these things latent in them.

High-heeled shoes are obviously a great fetish object. Think of what they're for. They're a thing that deforms the way a woman's body stands, and the way her pelvis moves, and they're meant to be sexual, and why not focus on that? So much has gone into making this table, your tape recorder—all of our will and our creative ability for thousands of years has gone into making them. And so they are not innocent objects, they're full of powerful meanings of all kinds.
STIM A lot of the camera work in CRASH—starting from the opening shot—is very subjective, almost voyeuristic. Was this kind of subjective realism something you mapped out before you began shooting?
DC I'm really happy with that whole aspect of this film. What I'm trying to do is literally get so micro... right from the beginning, with the script being very distilled and very dense and very simple, but complex. It's the kind of filmmaking I keep striving for, rather than being theatrical or operatic. I'm going inside and down and microscopic, hoping to get so close that I go right through it and come out the other side.

And I certainly wanted to create another world. It's sort of like saying okay, now we look at this cup (he picks up his empty coffee cup). And now we look at this cup and now we really look at this cup. We look at this cup for three hours, until it's our entire world. So that's what I was trying to do in the movie.

It's different from what I was trying to do in NAKED LUNCH, where I wanted the reality to be hallucinatory rather than to show the hallucinations as separate from the reality. I've found that people say they go into a trance-like state when they watch CRASH, which to me is great. I'm giving you a reality, but then I'm saying, "It's not really the reality. It looks like it, and then you go beyond it and beyond it and then closer and closer." And the music is a huge part of that as well. What I'm trying to do is disconnect the audience from their seats and take them into this world, rather than to have them accept it as a reflection of what they've come to accept as their world. It can get strange.

Even where I place the camera and how I compose the frame of someone sitting behind the wheel is quite off. It's not normal. I don't think you'll see that very often—the way I framed these things. It's not huge. It's small. In fact, I've got the person off to one side of the frame, and the body of the car dividing the film frame in half, and the other frame is showing you down the edge of the car to the road beyond. It's not a normal frame. And I did that consistently, to find the perfect frame for that. But it's not obvious. It's not flashy. I want you to be sucked right in, closer and closer.
STIM Sex and cars, the two subjects of the film, remind me of an idea that goes back to the seventies. When filmed hard-core porn was suddenly legal, there was this idea that these films were going to become real mainstream movies. The studios and directors were going to get a hold of this form, and they were going to produce genuine sexual art.
DC Did you ever read that Terry Southern book, Blue Movie? It's a really funny book, a brilliant book. Sid Crassman, producer, decides he will produce Hollywood's' first porno movie with stars. You know, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, but they'll really be fucking, and you'll see it all, and it will be right out there. It's a very funny book about how everybody's doing it.
STIM That's almost what you guys did, getting these Hollywood actors into these provocative and dangerous sexual scenarios.
DC One of the cards that somebody filled out at one of the screenings said, You know, a series of sex scenes is not a plot. And my answer to that is "Why not?" Just because it hasn't been doesn't mean it couldn't be. And that is one of the things that confuses people about this movie of course—the forms seem familiar to them but they're used in very different ways, including the middle-class couple and all that.

There was some Italian journalist at Cannes who apparently wrote that this was a porno film. And I thought, It's not really a porno film, because in my room at Cannes there was porno on the TV that you could get 24 hours a day, and it was not like my movie. And then I thought, well it's a structural problem. The only movies these guys have seen that begin with three sex scenes in a row are porno films. They have no other way of relating to it. In my movie, all of the traditional things that you normally get in a movie are in there—character development and plot development and thematic evolution—but they're in the sex scenes. And the juxtapositions of the sex scenes really mean something.

For example, Spader and Holly almost get into a crash, and that, once again, unleashes all that sexual energy that they've been feeling as a result of their own crashes. They find themselves at the airport garage and they suddenly fuck and have instant, strange orgasms. Then, the next scene is another sex scene, and it's Spader with his wife, and she's sitting on him in the same position as Holly was. He's trying to reproduce the thing that just happened with this other woman, but it's not happening because his wife has not experienced the crash. There's not that connection, so they don't have an orgasm. You've got to pay attention to that. If you're just looking and going, "Oh, here's another sex scene," you don't see the movie. You're always working with or against peoples' expectations in any art form.
STIM When you interviewed Salman Rushdie last year, you talked about race-car driving and how you had to learn counter-intuitive moves, like accelerating into curves at 200 miles per hour, to keep from crashing. Did those counter-intuitive moves end up playing a role in CRASH, or in your filmmaking in general?
DC First of all you only have intuition. But the intuition—and this is a sort interesting double double back-flip—it is counter-intuitive in the sense that if you're trying to do something new, there are no rules. People can come out of this film and say, "I don't know what to think," and that's because the rules aren't there. Or there are new rules. Or I and the audience are making up the rules together as we go along. In that sense it is counter-intuitive because of the intuition that's been built into you from seeing lots of movies and being exposed to a lot of that narrative structure, and now you're inventing something yourself.

Did I complete the sentence? I'm not sure.   </end>

Photos by Jonathan Wenk
© 1996, Fine Line Features.