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)

Picture of the Week #51: Jack Arnold

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This blog has seen more than its fair share of monstery movie posters, but it’s Jack Arnold’s (1916 – 1992) birthday today, or at least it was when I wrote this, and still is (just!) in some places far West of here. Anyway, it’s a flimsy excuse to liven up my blog with a batch of posters and images from some of Arnold’s best known films like Tarantula, Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man. The sensational imagery and hyperbole of the marketing campaigns is matched in the films themselves not by a similarly one-note gigantism, but with a considered delivery of that premise. Well, maybe not Tarantula, which is about a massive spider, but The Incredible Shrinking Man is quite a mournful, agonising account of the effects on its protagonist of an ongoing process of ensmallening (it’s a perfectly cromulent word). Plus, it has one of the most extraordinary, unforgettable endings in all science fiction cinema, which I won’t reveal here.

Initially an actor, Arnold’s career path was diverted when he enlisted in the Air Corps after Pearl Harbor:

As luck would have it they sent me to join a unit that was making a film produced and directed by Robert Flaherty. Now Flaherty was a kind of idol of mine so I decided to tell him the truth. I went up to this giant of an Irishman and said, look, I’ve got something to tell you–I’m an actor, not a cameraman. But I told him that I thought I would be able to handle the job. And I guessed he liked the fact that I had told him the truth instead of trying to fake my way through it and he kept me on.

After I got out of the Air Force a buddy of mine who had been in my squadron said, let’s go into business together. So we started a documentary film company. We made a number of documentaries over the years – for the State Department, the Ford Motor Company and so on, and we won some prizes. Then I made a film for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union called These Hands. It was a feature spanning fifty years of the union which was good enough to be released theatrically, and it got very good reviews. I was even nominated for an Academy Award which brought me to the attention of Hollywood. Universal gave me a contract with them as a director and I started working for them in 1950.