David Cronenberg Crimes of the Future interview

David Cronenberg on pain, birth and his favourite Montreal memory 

We interviewed the cinema legend about his latest film Crimes of the Future and much more.

Despite what I wrote in my review for Crimes of the Future (read it here), it may be a mistake to refer to David Cronenberg’s cinema as staging interactions between bodies and technology. For Cronenberg, there is no between the two. Fused together through futuristic fantasies of transhumanism, Cronenberg’s subjects are often like cyborgs, although they may never be explicitly described as such. 

The characters in Cronenberg’s latest creation are no different. It is set in a bleak and desolate world in which the eventual eradication of pain does not suggest an increase of pleasure. Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) grows vestigial organs that his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) tattoos and extracts in a performance art piece. These nonfunctional organs are not art materials for everyone, however. Wippet (Don McKellar) and his assistant Timlin (Kristen Stewart) at the National Organ Registry fear that these organs may compromise the future of the human species if they were to be passed down from one generation to the next. Meanwhile, shadowy figures emerge from the margins to declare their allegiance to this vision of the future. 

David Cronenberg Crimes of the Future Montreal June 2022 cult mtl issue magazine print
David Cronenberg on the cover of Cult MTL, June 2022. Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg

Crimes of the Future is thick with ideas, the elements of gore always at the service of Cronenberg’s prescient imagination of the future. But Cronenberg has never seen himself as a prophet of digital futures — his eyes are instead trained on his present surroundings.

I reached him in Paris.

Sarah Foulkes: First off, I loved the film.

David Cronenberg: I’m glad. That makes it easier for us both to talk.

SF: (laughs) And it’s so funny.

DC: Yes. It is funny. I think all my movies are comedies, actually.

SF: You shot the film in Greece. I noticed that there are a lot of Greek producers in the credits. Was the choice of location motivated by funding?

DC: It was motivated by money. But as usual, it’s money first and then it’s the creative aspects. The fact that the Greek government decided to institute a 40% rebate has made it a very attractive place to shoot. But I was excited that I could have both money and Greece. It was great. I did fully embrace Athens and what it had to offer: the Mediterranean, the light, the textures, the graffiti, everything. In other words, I didn’t try to make it look like a North American city. 

Viggo Mortensen in Crimes of Future
Viggo Mortensen in Crimes of Future

SF: I really appreciate the extent to which you foreground the architecture in this film, and in all your films. What was it about the somewhat rundown landscape that appealed to you? There are a number of capsized ships. It almost feels like the end of global trade and the end of capitalism.

DC: That’s no joke. That actually is the idea. For example, the ship in the opening shot was something we discovered when we were looking at locations: this boat that was on its side. And when I asked, they said, “It’s been there for like 20 years.” And Greece had a financial meltdown in 2008, and they haven’t completely recovered. So yes, this sort of decay and — to be metaphorical — the capsizing of the economy, has lent the city a modern kind of dystopian decay aspect to it. And that was perfect for the world that I was trying to create. 

SF: The film was originally called Painkillers. What made you switch to the same name of one of your earliest films? 

DC: It’s pretty straightforward. Since I wrote the script, the title “Painkillers” has been used for quite a few movies and TV series. So my producer Robert Lantos suggested, “Why don’t we steal the title from your earlier film, since this movie is legitimately about crimes of the future?” And I said, “Well, that feels pretty cosy.” Of course, the complication is that I thought that nobody would really know about or remember that early film. I was wrong about that. Almost everybody is saying this is a sequel or a remake. And it’s neither of those things. We just stole the title.

SF: What was the biggest change in the script from when you first wrote it to when you shot it? 

DC: There were none. I did one draft of the script and I didn’t change a word of dialogue. The only changes were the found-art elements. Athens was one of them. And I think of that ship at the beginning as found-art. Something you never expected to see and there it is. And you say, “Well I really need to have that in my movie.” But aside from that, there were a couple of scenes that I cut out just because they were a little redundant. In a way, in the editing room you’re doing the next draft of the script. 

SF: Wow. And it’s one draft?

DC: One draft. 

Kristen Stewart and Léa Seydoux in Crimes of the Future
Kristen Stewart and Léa Seydoux in Crimes of the Future

SF: I’ve been thinking of other films in which organs play a vital, rather than vestigial role. Films such as Dirty, Pretty Things and Never Let Me Go. Did you have any films or texts that were useful in the preparation for this film?

DC: No, none. You mentioned Never Let Me Go. I really like that book. At one point, I was talking to the producers about directing it, but it didn’t work out for various reasons. I don’t really think of it as an organ movie, but of course you’re right that it is an issue. 

Early in my career, I thought that you want to look at other movies with your cinematographer and talk about approaches to the visual style. But I have found that that actually never works with me. As soon as we start working on the film, it takes on its own life and you forget about all those other things that you thought you were going to use as references.

Journalists that I have talked to here have talked about me being self-referential and point out the connections between this movie and some things in Existenz or Naked Lunch, and so on. And I say, “Of course those connections are there,” but when I’m making a movie, I’m really not referring to myself. I am myself. It just comes out of the same sensibility. 

Mortensen and Seydoux in Crimes of the Future
Mortensen and Seydoux in Crimes of the Future

SF: This is your first depiction of performance art. What interests you about performance art, specifically the performance of self-harm and pain? It’s especially interesting considering that pain no longer really exists in this reality, except in your dreams.

DC: I think it’s a very brave thing to be a performance artist. I am an artist, but I have not yet altered my body specifically for my art. I think that’s an expression of an incredible commitment to your understanding of art that you will make changes to your body. Especially the ones that are not reversible. 

It’s my mantra that is expressed in the movie, which is that “body is reality” — that what we understand about reality is really a function of our bodies, of our senses, of our eyes, our ears, our nose. That’s reality. And by altering our bodies, we are altering our reality. 

I thought one of the impediments to body performance art would be your fear of pain, but what if there wasn’t that fear? What if you didn’t need to have anaesthetic, and if there wasn’t pain during recovery? Then you would be free to do even more dangerous and outrageous performances. That really was the key.

SF: Pain is such a subjective experience. It really puts you inside your body and affords you certainty. There’s this Elaine Scarry quote from The Body in Pain: “To have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt.” 

DC: Well that’s a good quote, I haven’t heard that before.

SF: If you change the pain threshold, you also change the world. 

DC: Yes, you do. And there are people who are born without being able to experience pain and it’s a disaster. Children eat their tongues and they’re not even aware of it. But I was not dealing with that very realistic aspect of zero pain in the film. But it is an issue that I was aware of, for sure.

David Cronenberg at Cannes with the cast of Crimes of the Future
David Cronenberg at Cannes 2022 with the cast of Crimes of the Future

SF: Birth plays a big role in your films. In this film, birthing the organs and delivering them seems to be a kind necessary humanising act. It’s as if Saul has to give birth in order to preserve his place within the category of human, as Wippet says, “in the classical sense.” Does birth always feel like a life-saving necessity to you, or is it more of a biological fact?

DC: As the father of two children and the grandfather of four children, I am still in awe of the phenomena of birth. It is absolutely incredible. Beyond science fiction, actually. As a creative act, giving birth…there is nothing that matches it. But I hadn’t really thought of the surgeries as birth. I like the idea and I’m going to steal it and use it in the next interview. 

SF: Please do! Finally, because I’m writing for Cult MTL, what is your fondest memory of shooting in Montreal? 

DC: I guess it must be the Decarie expressway. 

SF: (laughs) What in the hell?

DC: Yeah I know, I know. It’s shocking isn’t it? I spent a lot of time going up and down that expressway. I really loved my time there. I particularly enjoyed Cinepix. It was a small company that was at that point the only company that was making what we would call independent films in Canada. So I had to take the Decarie expressway to get to their offices. ■

This article was originally published in the June 2022 issue of Cult MTL. 

Crimes of the Future is screening in Montreal theatres now.

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