David Cronenberg, 71, has made exploitation shockers about crazed sex zombies (Shivers), exploding heads (Scanners) and gory man-mutations (The Fly), but he now directs stylish, Oscar-nominated meditations on the primal urges that lie beneath social veneers (see A History of Violence, A Dangerous Method).
His latest movie, Maps to the Stars, a savage portrait of contemporary Hollywood at its most toxic, is one of his most entertaining and certainly his most unforgiving.
Everyone in Maps to the Stars is fundamentally awful and driven by a repellent amount of egomania. Is Hollywood really that bad?
In short, yes. I live in Toronto. I dip my toe into the Hollywood tar pit every once in a while, and I can say that my experience of it would very much confirm the insights in the movie. It’s exaggerated and compressed, of course, but I think it’s pretty accurate.
So, everyone just floats around on a sea of fake emotion?
Absolutely. There’s always an agenda and strange personal manoeuvring. I flirted with a studio for a while back there [in 2008], when I was going to adapt the Robert Ludlum novel The Matarese Circle. I met with Denzel Washington, and spent some time with Tom Cruise. So I had the meetings, I had the experiences, but didn’t get to make the movie [the studio, MGM, declared bankruptcy; the film was abandoned]. I’ve had enough experiences over the years to know that all the resonances in Maps to the Stars ring true.
Didn’t you also flirt with another famous studio project, Return of the Jedi?
Well, I got the phone call at least. It was somebody legitimate from Lucas. And they said, “We’re thinking of you for this movie, Revenge of the Jedi.” It was called “Revenge” then, until they realised that you couldn’t be vengeful and a Jedi at the same time. Being the honest person I am, I said, “Well, I don’t usually do other people’s material.” And then it was, “Click!” They hung up. Because what was required was unbridled enthusiasm, and I was supposed to express the feeling that God had chosen me for this special project. And since I didn’t do that, that was it.
One of the most shocking scenes in Maps to the Stars, a film that also contains a gory skull-bludgeoning and child strangulation, is the sight of Julianne Moore sitting on the toilet and farting. Why do you think this is?
Quite frankly, I think that’s a UK thing. I don’t think that scene will be a big deal in France or Italy. But the Anglo-Saxon nations tend to be a little more modest. It’s something that’s incredibly normal, but you don’t see it much in movies. And it does seem to shock a lot of people.
Your movies are often incredibly trippy experiences, and yet you say that you don’t do drugs. True?
I don’t even drink much. I’m constantly looking for clarity, and weirdly enough I find that drugs blunt that sense of clarity. I think that drugs are anti-creative rather than pro-creative. Even William Faulkner said, “I never wrote anything drunk that I couldn’t have done better sober.” And that’s how I feel.
Although you do have a weakness for fast cars and motorbikes?
Yeah, I was a big Ducati rider when I was younger. And I still ride a Ducati Monster. I tried motocross racing for a while, but I went over the handlebars and separated my shoulder. I still have the scar from that. I raced cars, too, all the way through to the Eighties and Nineties. I think it’s always about the freedom for me. The sense that you’re transcending the limitations of your own body.
How do you feel about ageing?
The number 71, as an age, is ridiculous to me. It somehow doesn’t relate to my actual physical self. There is an interesting kind of schizophrenia there. What you think 71 will be for you and what it actually is like when you get there are two completely different things. But there’s also an excitement about it. It’s nice to have lived this long, because I never took it for granted that I would. And the endless struggle is coming to terms with your own mortality. That has created great religions and great civilisations and great art. That struggle.
Do you think that modern cinema is currently in a healthy state?
It has always been difficult to get movies made, and now it’s a struggle even within the studio system. Hollywood is even less attractive now than it ever was. To make the fourth or fifth sequel to Iron Man? How can you get excited about that?
Looking back now, were you never tempted by the allure of Tinseltown? When The Fly hit big, for instance, was your head turned?
God no. I was in LA when it came out [in 1986]. I remember everyone congratulating me and being very impressed because it was Number One at the North American box office for three weeks in a row. But then, by the fourth and fifth weeks it dropped, and people stopped congratulating me. So the reality of things became very apparent to me. It wasn’t like, “Now you’ve made The Fly you can make any movie you want!” That was never true. Instead, they just wanted me to make another version of The Fly. So, you’d have to be really young and foolish to have your head turned by a moment of success. And even back then, I wasn’t that young, and I certainly wasn’t foolish.
Maps To The Stars opens across the UK on 26 September