The other day I was allowed a few minutes on the phone with David Cronenberg, whose masterful adaptation of Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis was one of the best movies of the year, in my estimation. The DVD and Blu-ray editions of the picture come out on January first from Entertainment One.
SCR: Watching the film, it kind of struck me as funny that it took you and Don DeLillo so long to come together because there seemed to be so many very distinct affinities, particularly with the way you both use language. I wondered if you could talk about coming to this text and deciding that you were right to adapt it.
CRONENBERG: Sure. Well, I had read quite a few things of Don's and I did know for example that his epic, Underworld, had been bought, I think, by Scott Rudin and then never made. And that doesn't surprise me, because it's—you know, you can make about 10 movies from that book. So I guess it's really a question of which project, you know. And I hadn't actually read Cosmopolis, or even heard of it for some reason, when Paulo Branco the Portuguese producer, very experienced, he's done about 300 movies I think, came to Toronto and said, I have the rights to this book, I'm in touch with Don DeLillo and I think you should direct this. And so really it was—when I read it, yeah, it was love at first sight. I thought, I really need to—what I'm going to do is I'm going to see if—I'm going to do a sort of preliminary kind of rough screenplay from this book to see if I think it really is a movie. Because there is a lot in the book and in all of Don's writing that is not directly, you know, translatable to cinema. And that's the case with most novels. People say to me, why do you end up doing these unfilmable novels? And I say, oh, really, all novels are unfilmable in essence, because the two art forms are really quite different. And there are so many things you can do in a novel that you simply can't do in movies and vice versa. And that was true of Cosmopolis. There's so much that's interior and metaphysical and metaphorical and all of that. So I wanted to see if there was a movie in there and I wrote—it was the dialogue, exactly, that was the key to me. And I transcribed all the dialogue, just on its own, and put it into script form. And said to myself, OK, is this a movie? And I thought, yeah, it is a movie and in fact it's a movie I really want to make. And it really literally took me only 6 days to write the screenplay.
SCR: I think people make a similar misapprehension about your work as they do with DeLillo’s; is they don't see the comic aspect of the language, this baroque deadpan.
CRONENBERG: Yeah. It's true. I mean a lot of the reviews of the movie even were very solemn. And I thought, well, there are a lot of laughs in the book and the movie, and why aren't they seeing that? Or responding to it at least. And of course, if you don't do that, then your perception of the movie is going to be quite distorted, I think.
SCR: And it gets even more heightened at the end too, where the combination of your visuals and the dialogue really catapult you into Burroughs territory. And I always thought in DeLillo's work such as Great Jones Street there's this streak of a Burroughs-type consciousness that is not his but that kind of enters from without and comments on what's going on.
CRONENBERG: Well, and of course Burroughs was incredibly accurate with his dialogue in a similar way to Don. That is to say, it is stylized but it's also real. It really nails some—the realities of American speech and the mentality that's behind that speech as well. So it can be quite devastatingly funny in a satirical say as well.
SCR: You've often spoken about how much you rely on the production design and other aspects of the people you collaborate with during the film making process because you don't storyboard and you don't have an idea of how to shoot until you're actually on the set. But there's something in Cosmopolis that makes some of the angles and some of the cuts—it's a really refined marriage of the verbal content and the visual content. And I wondered the extent, if at all, your working method has evolved over the years, whether, as you write or as you conceive, where you see the cuts, if at all. If that's changed at all.
CRONENBERG: It has changed. I'm just more confident basically. My director of photography, Peter Suschitzky, says that I shoot very differently now than I did in 1988 when we did our first movie together, Dead Ringers. It's just—I don't—I just don't shoot as much. I just know better what I want and what I need. And that's just experience. I don't think it's anything other than that. But it's always been the case—the reason that I don't want to really think about something like story boards, unless it's a very complex physical action scene, let's say or special effects scene, I only—I've done a couple of story boards for let's say The Fly but not really since then, and that's just a special effects question—is because I want the visual aspects to come directly organically out of the scene itself as it's being played, by those particular actors, as they speak that particular dialogue. To me, the dialogue in this movie really shapes the visuals. Of course I've done design things with the interior of the limo and all of that, and you do a lot of stuff in prep that is the equivalent in a way of story boarding because you're setting yourself up for certain angles and lenses and so on by the way you design the set. So there is that prep. But ultimately, I want to hear the actors saying the dialogue. I want to see what they look like and I want to see what there is about their face that pulls me to one side or the other or dead on or above and what lens I use. It's very intuitive but to me it has to spring from the reality of that moment. And so, in a strange way, despite the fact, you know, the control and as you call it, the refinement of the visuals in the movie, there's a documentary element involved, a kind of spontaneous documentary element. My cameraman and I are really responding to what's right in front of us at that moment.
SCR: The extent to which this movie—it's set before 2001 and it's set before 9/11 and that's everybody's reference point. But it's written in 2006 and it seems to very accurately predict 2008, among other things. And it almost—it seems to go hand in hand with, say, the theorist Slavoj Zizek’s formulation of capitalism being the thing that is eating itself.
CRONENBERG: Yeah. Yeah.
SCR: A lot of people didn't see the irony or the satirical posture behind you and Pattinson ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange.
CRONENBERG: Yeah, I know, some people thought that we were betraying the movie by doing that. I thought, no, no, you're really not getting it at all. That was so perfect. I couldn't believe when they were asking us. But that was the perfect expression of capitalism. They were lovely there. They were so excited, they love their Stock Exchange and, after all, we were selling a movie and selling is what they know. So it was all perfect. A capitalistic enterprise, and there we were. Yeah, it's interesting, because Don and I on panels, in a way, that's when I kind of learn some things about his attitudes to things that I didn't really know or need to know but I'm curious about. We both don't feel that being a prophet is part of our job description. But if your antennae are sensitive enough to what's in the ether, you will inevitably anticipate some things that are just sort of accumulating but are not all that visible. And I think that's really the case here. As Don took pains to say, no, the book didn't begin with some grand, grandiose concept of coming to terms with financial responsibility globally and all of that kind of thing. It had to do with limos. It had to do with who would want one of those in the streets of Manhattan and why would you be in it, and who is it—and where do they go at night, and all of that kind of stuff. It begins with details. And it's the same with a film maker even more. You cannot film an abstract concept. We're in the concrete world, film makers.
SCR: I imagine—if you proceed from a point of view where you think you're going to sum it all up, that way lies madness.
SCR: But maybe there's some retrospective satisfaction in looking at this and saying, well, whoa, we got it. Artists often don't even know that they're doing what they're doing; then it comes out and they've done something that is a summation.
CRONENBERG: Sure. Well, I mean, and then you do get the delicious moments on the set, for example, when I got a text from Paul Giamatti who said, I can't believe Rupert Murdoch just got a pie in the face. And we had not long before that shot the scene with the pie in the face in the movie. So the resonances were kind of satisfying, even though it didn't really change what we were doing at all. But it is satisfying, that aspect of it.
SCR: As much invention as you have in the production design, and I wanted to ask about how you recreate the New York City streets in shooting, unless you are nitpicking, and as a New Yorker I'd be in a position to nitpick, but unless you're are very specifically nitpicking, it is convincing journey from 47th Street and 1st Avenue to 47th Street and 11th Avenue.
CRONENBERG: Yeah, well I'm glad you say that because I read some reviews that said they obviously, you know, Toronto shot. And I thought, I don't think it's that obvious. Because 47th Street now in particular is not what it was when Don wrote his book. A lot of those places that he mentions aren't there. Even if I did shoot on 47th Street, I would have to invent some things because they're just not there anymore. And weirdly enough, the parking meters, the ones that deliver those little slips of paper, are exactly the same brand and color and shape and everything else in Toronto, as they are on 47th Street. We took pains to try to not go crazy, because obviously this isn't Mean Streets or something like that, but given that you're seeing New York primarily through the window, through the screens of the limo, I thought it was not bad. We took pains to try and make it as much like New York as we could.