Eight years after “Maps to the Stars,” David Cronenberg is coming back to the Cannes Film Festival with what looks to be a big bang. Weaving together equal parts body horror and dystopian panache, “Crimes of the Future” instantly became one of the most buzzed-about competition films after Neon dropped the trailer on April 14, the day of Cannes’ press conference. The lushly-lensed film, which reunites Cronenberg with his muse Viggo Mortensen (“A History of Violence,” “Eastern Promises”) along with Kristen Stewart and Lea Seydoux, could prove as divisive as the Canadian master’s 1996 cult film “Crash” which went on to scoop Cannes’ very first Special Jury Prize for “its audacity, daring and originality.”
Ahead of the start of the festival, Cronenberg sat down with Variety in Paris to talk about the long-gestating “Crimes of the Future,” the making of the picture, its underlying themes, while speaking candidly about the difficulty of financing challenging films, as well as his stance on streamers and U.S. politics.
You shot “Crimes of the Future” in Athens, Greece, in the middle of summer during a heat wave. How was that?
Shooting was very delightful and it really worked very well, but yes, it was very hot there. At one point, there were fires… I remember the fires and the smoke. You couldn’t breathe.
Didn’t it feel like the end of the world?
Yes it did! It was perfect for the movie, but not for making it easy to shoot. But we kept shooting anyway and finally it worked out. It was a mixture of a Greek crew and a Canadian crew, and that mixture worked really well. We really ended up having great affection for each other.
Weren’t you initially planning to shoot the film in Toronto?
Yes, I had written it 20 years ago thinking of Toronto, my hometown, but as it turned out, it was never going to be possible to shoot in Toronto because of money, which is the usual thing. So we looked around the world to see what cities were offering rebates or government assistance or investment and to our surprise, Athens, which had never done this before, both the city and Greece, the country, were very aggressively pursuing productions, wanting productions to come to Greece, and they offered a 40% investment.
How did this change of location impact the film?
It brought the texture, the sea, the light, the graffiti, all of that is in the film. And I love that. I embraced Greece and Athens totally. I completely embraced being there, and so did the actors and the crew. We weren’t trying to make it look like a North American city because from the way the script is, there’s a great possibility for strange, interesting changes being this kind of alternate universe of some place. So it could be Toronto 200 years from now or something.
In the opening scene a child is murdered by his mother. That sounds like a Greek tragedy.
Yes, and that is crucial scene. It’s not a shock scene. It’s a crucial event that is the motor of the whole movie but it’s done with, I think, some beauty and emotion. And yes, there’s a lot in the movie that is like a Greek tragedy, actually. And it’s not just because we’re shooting in Greece, the birthplace of tragedy but because it’s in the script, basically.
The movie sounds like it has some existential themes that seem timely.
I’m not really saying anything in the sense of a message or a warning or a prophecy. That’s not what happens. What happens is that I say I’ve had these images in my head, these characters. There are some things that I find disturbing, some things that I find very beautiful and strange. And so I say to you, the audience, I’m going to show these things to you and see what you think and see how you react, because I don’t have answers to questions and I don’t have an agenda that I’m trying to place with an audience. This is not a political film in the sense of there is the element, for example, of climate change. It’s technically a big part of the movie, but this is not a climate change movie. It’s not like a Leo DiCaprio movie warning people about climate change that is in the film. But if you’re not interested in that, it doesn’t mean that the film is of no interest because it’s only a small part of what the film is about. It’s a love story as well, but it’s a very strange love story.
Is it true that you wrote the script more than 20 years ago?
It’s amazing to me. But the funny thing is and I’ve said this before, of course, but when you’re directing, it doesn’t matter who wrote the script. You are trying to make the script work. And even if it’s your own script, it’s as though it’s somebody else’s script. I often say ‘who wrote this? how did he or she manage to write this stupid thing that I can’t actually make happen? We have to change it!’ And if it’s me, if it’s my script, I say the same thing I tell the actors, ‘ignore the stupid, crazy screenwriter! Just pay attention to me, the director!’
Now, did you change the script when you decided to make the film or was it only one draft?
The script did get transformed by the fact that we were shooting in Athens. It did get transformed by the fact that I had actors that I didn’t know I would have. For example, I hadn’t worked with Viggo when I wrote the script, so I never had him in my mind for a role. So the script gets transformed when you’re making the movie. But that always happens, though. So it didn’t really matter that it was written 20 years ago and it didn’t really matter that it was written by me.
Do you allow for any improvisation on set?
No, nobody improvises in the sense of dialogue. I don’t ask my actors to be screenwriters. That’s a really special talent. Very few actors have that talent of improvisation. John Cassavetes used to do that, but the whole movie has to be set up for improvisation. But what we do is I work with the actors on the choreography of the scene. I ask, for instance, ‘How do you move around the set? Where do you say the dialogue?’ And so there’s a big collaboration with the actors that way in the choreography and the way the lines are delivered. And that’s why I never do storyboards, because there’s a lot of young directors who do it, who love storyboards.
How is it to work with Viggo Mortensen whom you’ve directed in two movies before?
When you get Viggo, you don’t just get an actor, he’s a director now. He’s actually directed me as an actor. He made a film called “Falling,” which he shot in Toronto and I am acting in it in one scene. It’s fun to reverse roles. But Viggo is also a poet, a musician, a publisher, photographer. And so we really collaborate in many ways, but mostly still because he is an actor in the film.
The movie also stars Lea Seydoux and Kristen Stewart. Are you already thinking of working with them again?
Well, if you work with an actor and you find that they’re really quite brilliant and I think that both Lea and Kristen actually are, then you feel that they can do many different things and you therefore might immediately consider them for other roles, because if you work together well and you enjoy working with each other, then why not work with them again? I don’t feel that I have to always have new people.
Your movies often have A-list casts, and yet you’ve had issues financing them. Why?
Oh, I mean, I talked about this long ago with Martin Scorsese, who is a friend, everybody who thinks that Martin Scorsese could have anybody or any budget. It’s not true. It’s a fight. It’s a struggle, and it changes. Right now, if you’re doing a film with Netflix, then you don’t have to worry about money because Netflix has a lot of money. But if you’re doing an independent film and you don’t have Netflix, then it’s a struggle. It took three years to put together the financing for “Crimes of the Future” even if we had this cast. Money is hard to find. People are afraid of investing with the way the world goes. Well, now there’s a war…
So why not go straight to streaming service like that?
I’m pretty sure we did talk to Amazon and Netflix for this, and it was not a project they wanted to do. And I think my feeling is I really was very interested in the whole Netflix streaming phenomenon, definitely. But I think that they’re still very conservative. I mean, I think they’re still like a Hollywood studio. I thought maybe they would be different. The difference is that Netflix can show very interesting streaming series from Korea, from Finland, and they say it’s a Netflix original, but it isn’t really — it’s something they have acquired. But I think when it comes to their actual production that they do themselves, they’re very conservative. I think they think in mainstream terms, that’s my experience with them anyway.
I read that you were working on a series with Netflix at some point.
I tried and we got to two episodes, and then they decided not to do it. And I was disappointed because I was interested in streaming in cinematic terms. I thought that would be a very interesting experience for me as a writer, as a creator, and then also as a director. And maybe I’ll have that experience one day, but at the moment, it’s still on movie making, not filmmaking. So the project that I was talking to Netflix about, it will be feature film instead.
Your producer Robert Lantos mentioned you were developing a feature project expanding on your book “Consumed.” Is that the project?
That’s correct. I don’t have a screenplay yet for that but I will be writing that. But at the moment, the other project, which is called “The Shrouds,” would come first. And so, yeah, we’ll have an interesting announcement to make about it.
Why do you think Netflix passed on it?
It turns out that it’s not so easy to get a series with Netflix. In fact, it seems that it might be easier to get an independent film made if it’s of a certain type. I’d say maybe a film that isn’t the conservative kind of movie as Netflix would like.
In a way, it makes me feel optimistic about the future of independent cinema if you’re saying that independent distributors or financiers are willing to give you more creative freedom and be more experimental.
Well, I think they are because they have to offer you something that Netflix can’t offer you. And that is what freedom is what they’re offering. In a way that was true with the Hollywood studios. Mostly, they were very conservative mainstream. I think things haven’t changed as much as people thought they would. Netflix has certainly affected the movie industry and the exhibition industry with cinemas. I think cinemas are dying, frankly. I think there will be cinemas, but there won’t be so many of them, and they will be showing niche films because otherwise they’ll just be showing Marvel superhero movies.
You were recently quoted saying that your film might spark a lot of walkouts at Cannes.
I said some people in town will walkout and Twitter went crazy and people said “we don’t want to see a movie where the director thinks we’ll walkout.” And I wasn’t saying that everybody will walkout. The audience in Cannes is a very strange audience. It’s not a normal audience. A lot of people are there just for the prestige or for the red carpet. And they’re not cinephiles. They don’t know my films. So they might be walkouts, whereas a normal audience would have no problem with the movie. So who knows? But certainly a lot of people walked out when we showed “Crash.”
But I can see this little smile on your face which suggests that it makes you happy.
It doesn’t make me sad. I mean, the worst thing is if your movie is boring and I’ve been some screenings in Cannes where nobody walked out, but nobody cared about the movie either. And that would be very depressing.
But unlike “Crash,” this film doesn’t have any sex, right?
That’s right. It does have sex because surgery is the new sex. So I say it’s very sexual, but it’s not sexual in the way most people think of sex. And that’s true, though. Some people like to watch the surgery channel on television. If you go on YouTube, you can see endless surgeries.
But how is that sexual?
That in itself isn’t, but I’m talking about a different kind of human beings in my movie, which you’ll see where because of certain changes to the human body as it evolves, old things that we take for granted, like food, the way you absorb food, the way you digest food, the way you eat, the way you have sex. And it’s sort of a meditation on what those changes might be and how those things might change. So it’s slightly satirical in the movie, but not completely, because the actors play it very straight. They play it like it’s really happening to them. And the emotion is real, even though what’s happening is very strange.
It’s amazing that you wrote this script two decades ago, because we live in a society where sexuality has become so complicated.
It’s complicated, political, difficult, anguish-ridden.
Do you feel that we live in some kind of a dystopia?
Well, in many ways, yes. Not exactly as featured in some movies. Not that landscape, although if you’re living in Ukraine, that’s a dystopia for sure. But, yes, there are some very strong dystopian elements in the sense that people are dissatisfied and depressed and unhappy and searching for things that they can’t find and searching for relationships that they can’t create and just the things that were relatively simple in the past.
And even what’s happening in the U.S. with the Supreme Court wanting to overturn abortion rights.
That’s unbelievable. But I have to say the U.S. is insane right now. In Canada, we live on the border with them and we are not the same. We see the U.S. and we think these people are crazy bringing religion into their politics. You expect that with ISIS or with the Talibans. You don’t expect it in a democracy. And the whole Trump thing was a disaster. He was a joke. and all of the senators, most of them are lunatics. They’re mentally defective. This is unbelievable stuff. And the fact that Trump might come back and has supporters. I’m sure he’ll try to run again for President. And yet we prefer U.S. to Russia, which is a different kind of disaster. So, yes, dystopian times on many levels, actually.
Is it inspiring you?
In some ways, no. And yet I am fascinated by spies and politics and so on. And there have been many great novels and movies made about those things. And I’ve done a little of that with “Eastern Promises” and “A History of Violence” and the whole phenomenon of creative paranoia. People are so desperate for truth that they invent their own. They want to know what’s really happening.
You’ve been described as a body horror pioneer. What did you think of Julia Ducournau’s “Titane,” which won last year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes?
Well, that’s not my description, but now everyone is talking about it and saying that I’m the father of body horror. But I think it has actually a very long history of maybe 5,000 years. I did see “Titane” but don’t think of myself as a genre filmmaker. I think of genre as a marketing tool. But it doesn’t help me as a filmmaker to know that. Is “Crimes of the Future” a body horror movie or is it a science fiction movie or is it just a horror movie? None of that helps me make the movie so I don’t have to think about it.
Are there any young filmmakers that you find promising?
Julia Ducournau for sure. But I don’t necessarily see all the films by the young and hot filmmakers so I’m sure they’re a lot. During the pandemic I actually watched a lot of TV series. I really liked “The Bureau des Legendes,” I thought it was a beautiful series but there’s been many. You can see series displacing cinema even on Netflix.
Since you’re a fan of science-fiction and graphic novels, how come you passed on the opportunity to direct “The Return of the Jedi”?
I do love science fiction and graphic novels. But as a director it’s different. The Star Wars story. This is a long time, long ago. I’m in my house in Toronto. The phone rings. I’m in my kitchen. The guy says, “I’m from Lucasfilm. Are you David Cronenberg?” I say, “yes.” He says, “George Lucas is wondering if you would be interested in directing the next episode of Star Wars, which is ‘The Revenge of the Jedi’”(It was originally called “Revenge of the Jedi,” but since Jedi warriors do not do revenge they called it “Return of the Jedi”). And I said, well, I don’t usually do other people’s material at that point. I only did movies that I wrote. So immediately he hung up on me. I was also asked to direct “Top Gun” and also “Flashdance.”
When you look back at these films, do you have any regrets?
“Top Gun” was about American military stuff. It’s true that I like machines, I like cars, I like airplanes. But it just wasn’t something I was interested in to direct. Directing takes at least two years of your life. If you watch it, it takes two hours. So that’s the difference.
So I’ll see you soon in Cannes! I hope it will be as successful as “Crash” was.
I do too but you can never tell. I know from being the President of the jury that you cannot anticipate anything. “Rosetta” was the film we chose for the Palme d’Or and it was a big scandal. I won’t get into it. That’s a whole other story.
What’s your best Cannes memory?
With “A History of Violence,” we got a 20 minutes standing ovation. It was very exciting. We didn’t win anything, though.
It was the Serbian director Emir Kusturica presiding over the jury.
Yes, and they had a press conference afterwards and someone said, “From the reaction of the audience, this was a very popular film. How come it didn’t win any prizes?” And he said, “Well, if it had been a genre film festival, it would have. Yes.” And if it had been true, there would be no point in having genre films in competition, because if you’re ruling them out automatically. Of course, later “Titane” won the Palme d’Or and films like “Shape of Water” won prizes .so obviously genre films have won prizes at big festivals.
Well, I hope I won’t faint watching your film. I have to say that you look like such a gentle person, it’s amazing what’s coming out of your head.
I am a gentle person. But I just look at the world and this is what I see!