Interviews 2016

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The Secret of Cronenberg

By Viggo Mortensen - translated by Ollie and Zoe

17 April 2016

Source: El Pais Semanal

One of the most disturbing filmmakers of recent decades makes the leap to the novel. At 73, he's made his debut in literature with Consumed, in which he recreates the uneasy universe that has distinguished him, full of violence and sexual debauchery. Fascinated with the book, Viggo Mortensen, his indispensable actor, talks with him to delve into the obsessions that fuel his work.

Viggo interviews David Cronenberg - El Pais Semanal, 17 April 2016
Viggo interviews David Cronenberg - El Pais ….
© El Pais.
When it comes to David Cronenberg (Toronto, 1943,) the originality, wit, concern about technology and uncompromising carnality of his first novel should not be a surprise to anyone. It's a bold and provocative work of art that has the scope and poetic precision of the best novels by Nabokov, the capacity to disarm and unsettle the reader and ultimately make them complicit. However, in some media, it will probably be accused of any of those sins they invent to compensate for the fear many people feel about the complex functioning and the inevitable decline of their body and mind.

Consumed is as efficient in its content and style as the author's films - and equally as provocative in the terrain that it explores, although with richness added to the detailed descriptions and subplots that narrative prose permits. The first pages produced the same effect on me as the first 10 minutes of his films: at first they left me disoriented with their special language, their colloquial tone and the apparent absence of a clear through line that would clearly indicate to me what form the plot was going to take. By the time I came to that realization, however, I was already totally immersed in the double and detailed reality that was unfolding, wanting to follow its twists and turns and determined to know what was going to happen to those initially enigmatic characters.

When I finished it, I had the impression of having devoured the equivalent of several Cronenberg films. However, the novel does much more than evoke one of his cinematic canvases. It's hard to explain in words the ambition with which he set out and the magnificent result that he has achieved in creating a story that is brutally unique. I've never written so many and such varied notes in the page margins of a book. Consumed contains many remarkable passages. One that I particularly liked was: "You see a cadaver, a dead body, mutilated, anonymous and yes, sick. But I don't. I lived in the landscape of that body for many years. When that landscape changed, it changed my life along with it." Some pages even made me think of expressionist music in that emotionally turbulent and progressively dissonant piece that is the second "Quartet for Strings" by Arnold Schoenberg or in the work of painters like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Consumed will surely provoke very subjective reactions in every reader and it's unlikely that it will leave anyone indifferent.

It's noteworthy that Cronenberg has never been nominated for the Oscar as a director. And that in spite of an exceptionally coherent trajectory as an auteur of audacious films acclaimed by the critics for four long decades and having been recognized as one of the greatest filmmakers alive. If he hasn't been nominated for any of the three films in which I've been fortunate to work with him (A History of Violence, 2005; Eastern Promises, 2007, and A Dangerous Method, 2011,) which very likely have been his most "accessible" contributions to the world of cinematography, it's unlikely he will ever be. And I suspect that he'll have the same fate as a novelist. To put it simply, he is too much ahead of his time, and his work as a writer disturbs critics and the public as much as his films do, no matter how much they feel attracted to his unique approach to narrative. Consumed has just been published in Spain by the Anagrama publishing house.

Congratulations, David. Consumed is an extraordinary feat. I've come to know you a little, you and your literary sensibility, after having worked in three of your films and through our correspondence during the last 12 years, and it was no surprise at all to confirm that the book is original and very well-written. Nabokov said, "Some thoughts are like a malignant tumor: you manifest them, you remove them surgically and they appear again more dangerous than before." What motivated you to write this novel? Did it grow from some sentence, from some paragraph that turned into a tumor?

Although I like Nabokov very much and also the metaphoric use of illnesses, I don't think about the origins of this book as the development of a tumor, with all the negativity and pathological implications of that image. The truth is that I find it difficult to pinpoint the germ of the novel. Just over ten years ago, I started writing a script very loosely based on the figures of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. It has always seemed to me that their relationship was very interesting, very mysterious and powerful, and I wanted to connect with it, play with it, albeit in a very indirect and altered way for plot requirements, for artistic reasons. Obviously, the characters soon came alive and demanded a story of their own, thereby completely detaching themselves from the real life of Sartre and Beauvoir. I placed another couple opposite them, two relatively naive North American photojournalists, who find the philosopher couple as fascinating as I did the real life couple, so they set about investigating their life accordingly. In that, I feel influenced by Henry James, who often opposed the spontaneity and naive idealism of the American characters to the decadent worldliness of the Europeans. At one point I felt incapable of continuing to write the script, and in retrospect - a romantic impression and probably imaginary - I've come to believe that I stumbled into the limitations of film structure and that I needed to move into the novel structure if I wanted explore in depth all the complexities I was discovering with my initial premises. While it's undeniable that there was an emotional beginning and uncontrolled growth during the early stages of writing (in other words, that the tumor factor existed), it soon calmed down, as it should do, running for about eight years through more controlled and rhythmic channels (in that time I made four movies,) a process that resembled more the healthy development of a child than the development of an illness. I hope.

The protagonists of your book, Nathan and Naomi, are "online" journalists, addicted to the media, who write about unusual crimes and sexual scandals. Little by little they become implicated in the life of the prominent individuals they are investigating to the extent that they become willing accomplices to their crimes and sexual peculiarities. Nothing seems to be prohibited while they prepare their photojournalism exposés. In your opinion, is there any forbidden ground when you seek eclectic knowledge and the satisfaction of your desires or personal fetishisms?

Naomi and Nathan have been educated in the vacuum of the Internet, which is more or less like Freud's unconscious, the Id, a place where neither morals or ethics exist and where the symbolic satisfaction of the lust for power is common currency. If you like films and want to be a film critic, you start a blog or create a web page, you say you are a critic and you instantly become one. No one has told you that you don't know how to spell, that your syntax is a disaster and that you don't have the slightest idea about film history. That´s why I think that my young couple is neither perverse nor evil, or that they knowingly violate professional ethics. They have not come to journalism thanks to films like All the President's Men and know nothing of the imperatives of professional journalism. They have been formed by the sly image of journalists as the media stars of the Web and, like many of their generation, they feel fascinated by power and real fame. They are attracted by its gravitational force and, consequently, distorted by it. And in a time in which "embedded" journalism (i.e., infiltrated) seems to be the norm, to literally infiltrate the bed of the subject you are investigating looks like an innocent move whose only obstacles are the emotional consequences, not the ethical consequences.

After reading Consumed, I asked you if you intended to make it into a movie. You answered that it was feasible but complicated. Have you considered the possibility again?

At first I thought it would be unique and wonderful. How many directors get to make movies based on their own novels? But very quickly I realized that was the last thing that would occur to me. The book was finished, completed. It didn't need a movie to validate it. It would be like making a remake of my last long feature, a tedious and thankless process. Conversely, I started thinking that it would be more interesting if another director was in charge of it. There have been conversations about the possibility of making it into a TV series. In that case several directors would probably get involved, as well as a showrunner, who is a general coordinator, a kind of scriptwriter-producer. I wouldn't be interested in even directing one episode of that series, although I think that in the right hands, the result could be interesting.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus says that "there is only one truly serious philosophical question and it is suicide." Do you agree in all respects? Is it a subject that might interest you to explore in literature or film?

I think that every time you create something you consider this philosophical approach. I mean you have stated your desire to live and create despite the existentialist idea that human life is basically absurd and meaningless. An underlying subject in all my films is that my characters are looking for meaning, sometimes through crime and violence, others through scientific adventure, others through philosophy. I think that the meaning of life is life itself, and that is reason enough to keep on living in a productive way. There's no need to commit suicide.

To present the novel, you've travelled to several countries, where journalists and other people who have read it have asked you questions. Have you seen some nexus in them? How did they relate their observations, if they did, to your film work?

The truth is that the questions regarding the book have not ceased to amaze me, and I've liked that very much. When it's about a movie, the questions from journalists end up being very predictable. I don't know if it's because literary critics interpret things in a more varied way or only because I'm not yet used to being asked questions as a novelist. Actually, my movies always come up and comparisons are made. I told a journalist that I was waiting for the day when I would be approached by a critic who hadn´t seen any of my movies so we could concentrate exclusively on the book. "I wish you luck," he answered. But I have yet to meet that critic.

How do you see yourself in the creative field in the immediate future? If the opportunity presented itself, what would you prefer at this moment, making another movie or writing another novel?

I've made a score of movies, but when the moment arrives, I'm incapable of saying how they come to be. It seems to me as incredible as it was when I was simply fantasizing about being a filmmaker. I don't know if it's because I've made so many, or because making them has become unbearably difficult now, or because I've become again the novelist I thought I would be when I was young and now I can think of nothing else. The truth is that I'm working on another novel and I don't have any film project.

Has Consumed come to be a consolidation of your thinking after years of investigation as a person, filmmaker and scriptwriter? When you review your career, what subjects have worried you the most and which ones do you think you have analyzed better? What has been most important on a personal level, apart from the reactions of critics and audience, and what creative direction inspires you now?

Not to avoid the question, but I still don't feel able to look back and review my career. Maybe I never will. But, in very broad strokes, I still can't separate my judgments from the opinions that many critics have issued over nearly 50 years, especially with regards to my themes and alleged obsessions. (I have always maintained that I'm not obsessive, merely curious.) I'm still not sure of what a human being means basically and I dedicate myself to trying to figure it out.
Last edited: 15 June 2016 09:05:18