Fragment #26: David Cronenberg on Commercial Filmmaking

[In these interview extracts, David Cronenberg discusses how the Cannes Film Festival prompted his transition from underground filmmaker to commercially-minded director.]

“I had to decide whether or not I was going to cross the line and become a commercial filmmaker. That is, I would use other people’s money to make my movies, and then I would actually be paid and could make a living. It wasn’t an obvious transition for me, because I wasn’t sure that that’s really what I wanted to do. I spent a year in the south of France, very close to the town of Cannes, where the Cannes Film Festival is held each May. After spending time in this small town with friends, writing and sculpting and feel- ing that I would write my novel there, I was attracted by the magnet of the Cannes Film Festival. I thought I should go down there and check out what that was. I knew that not only was it a very famous film festival but also was a very famous film marketplace. So, if you’re interested in film commerce, that’s the place to get massive exposure. I went to Cannes, and I was ab- solutely horrified. It was such hype and such an erotic and intense activity with Rolls-Royces and Ferraris and yachts, the Carlton Hotel with a three- story cutout of James Bond on the front. I was so intimidated that I fled back to my little town, thinking, I just can’t deal with that.

After a few days, the festival was still going, and I thought maybe I should go back. Maybe I should lighten up. So I went back down to Cannes and actually was allowed to use the office of the Canadian Film De- velopment Corporation, which is now Telefilm Canada. They let me sleep there. Suddenly I got a completely different attitude. Cannes was kind of exhilarating. It was funny. There were, like, drug deals being done on the corners of each street, except that they weren’t drug deals—they were movie deals. Deals being done by Bulgarians  and French and Greeks, all selling films to each other. And it was very fascinating and the community feeling there, there was a communal feeling. This was totally separate from the actual festival itself, where everybody was in tuxedos. I had no connection with that. But I was very excited by the film community itself, because amongst them were very-low-budget filmmakers, sort of soft-core sex filmmakers, action filmmakers—all kinds of stuff. I felt a real sense of community with them. I think that was really the beginning of my possibly being a commercial professional moviemaker as opposed to an underground filmmaker. […]

The increases in the budgets of the movies that I made weren’t a concern to me up to a point. It wasn’t a question of macho posturing that you now have made your first million-dollar movie, and now you’ve made your first two million-dollar  movies. I was never very pragmatic about it. What I was con- cerned with was did the budget allow me to do what I had to do in a reasonable way? Can the movie at least pay for itself given that this is the budget? Those are the aspects I considered when I was thinking about budget, and I was always forced to think about the budget.

The Canadian film industry always was a little hothouse environment that was quite different from the American film industry or the English, specifically because of the tax shelter era in the 1970s. Our circumstances in Canada were different. For example, one of the most difficult parts of mak- ing the movie Scanners was that the money was there before the movie was there. It was tax-shelter time. Around October, all the dentists, doctors, and lawyers would realize that they desperately needed a tax write-off. Most of the year, crews were not working because no one could get a movie financed. Suddenly, in November and December you could make a movie because the money was there, but it had to be spent before the end of December in order to qualify for a write-off for that year.”

From Robert J. Emery, The Directors – Take Four (Allworth Press, 2003)

Naomi Watts Watch: Eastern Promises

[See here for more Naomi Watts posts.]

In David Cronenberg’s most recent films, there is an eerie deliberation over dialogue. It might well be that this is just stilted direction, cutting by rote between speakers and holding the camera on a face for the duration of a line reading. But it creates an undeniable tension that the careful placement of shot next to shot, action followed by action will be interrupted by something terrible. It’s the montage equivalent of a game of Jenga – it’s intriguing to watch the build-up, but it can’t go on indefinitely. This is most obvious in the languid, quiet opening of A History of Violence, where the aftermath of a massacre is played out like a lazy Sunday afternoon. The same eggshell-treading editing characterises Eastern Promises, Cronenberg’s nasty leer inside the Russian mafia in London. Continue reading