Cronenberg on A History of Violence, Viggo Mortensen and Studio Projects

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David Cronenberg joined screenwriter Josh Olson at the San Diego Comic Con in support of his upcoming dramatic thriller, A History of Violence, starring Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello, set for release on September 23, 2005.

Cronenberg and Olson were greeted by an enthusiastic round of applause as they took the stage following a screening of the film's trailer. This was Cronenberg's first visit to the annual event, and the reaction of the crowd appeared to have quite an impact on the critically acclaimed director.

Prior to taking the stage, I sat down with Cronenberg to discuss his film. A History of Violence, loosely based on a graphic novel, follows Tom Stall (Mortensen), a happily married man who lives an ordinary, quiet, small town life with his lawyer wife (Bello) and two children.

One evening while Tom's going about his business serving food to the customers at his diner, a pair of drifters come in looking for trouble. Tom fights the two off, killing both men and setting off a chain of events that threatens to rip his family apart.

INTERVIEW WITH DAVID CRONENBERG:

Was it a conscious decision of yours to not strictly follow the graphic novel?

"No, it never came to that because it was a very odd circumstance that, maybe Josh [Olson, screenwriter] has talked about it, but I never knew there was a graphic novel involved so it wasn't as though I approached this [as an adaptation]. It's not like when I made Naked Lunch where it was, in a way, an homage to William Burroughs and his work.

In this case I didn't know that there was a graphic novel so I had no attachment to it. No investment in it. And, really, my investment was in Josh's script. We had developed it to a certain point that it was going in a very interesting direction and we were both very comfortable with it, and that's when I heard that there was a graphic novel. And I said, 'Well, what graphic novel? And they said, 'Oh you didn't know?'

So then I looked at it and I saw that although the basic premise was obviously the same, it then took some turns and went in a very different direction from what we were doing. And with Josh, I guess it was conscience to go in a different direction. But for me it wasn't. I was just following him and then developing it with him. So it had no effect on me, reading it.

I mean, really all it was was I was looking at it thinking, 'Ok, maybe there's something interesting in it that isn't in the script that should be.' But then I saw it was almost basically irrelevant to the script by that time. So there was no need to sort of make that choice."

Why Viggo Mortensen? What made him right for this particular role?

"People propose lists and there were a lot of them because the project had been in development for some time, but without me. Everybody had an opinion about who should play what roles. And, in particular, there were some characters in Josh's original script that I got rid of. So there were even characters cast that I didn't even want in the movie. And Viggo was certainly on my short list.

He wasn't the only one. Don't forget we're developing this script so the character does change. And as the character changes and as the dynamics change, it becomes clearer who would be good and what the tone of the [character is]. You know Viggo's just, he's just the perfect guy. I mean, not only as an actor but just where he is in his career and everything.

I started to do research, which I always do when actors are named and you start to look at DVDs and stuff that you have. Movies that you know they have done. Because obviously what he did in Lord of the Rings, which is why he's famous, has very little to do with his role in this movie. But other movies that he's done, like one called A Walk on the Moon with Diane Lane, has a lot to do with it because in that movie, he's very gentle and sweet and tender. Usually he plays bad guys or scary guys, but I could see from that movie he could be very lovely as a gentle, sweet guy and very sexy as well. So it didn't take long for him to sort of go on the top of the list.

But you know there are always things going on that are more political than just acting stuff. You know, was Viggo happy with New Line after Lord of the Rings? You have to consider that. Is that an issue? Because it's a New Line movie and so on and so on. And you have to find these things out and you have to talk to agents, and so on so...

It's a weird [thing]. Casting is a real blind art. It's a really weird, strange process and it takes a while for you to figure how it works. Inevitably what you want is that the actor seems like the only choice. You know, when you see the movie, you should feel like nobody else could have played that role. The actor wants that, you want that as a director. But in fact, before that actor's cast, anybody could play that role. You know what I mean? Mentally you can plug in all kinds of people and see what you get."

Some people hear A History of Violence and think it's a documentary film.

"Yeah, I've heard that too. I said, 'That would be a really long documentary - really long, really long.' I'm a little surprised though, here. In France for example, they don't have that. They don't use the same expression that we do in North America, which is you say, 'The suspect had a long history of violence.'

For example, we say someone was arrested who has a long history of violence. They don't use that expression, so for them a history of violence, are we talking about the U.S.? Are we talking about human beings in general? What are we talking about? The human condition? I think all those levels are there. The personal one, the national one, and the universal are all sort of being discussed without it being too overt, but it's all there. You can take this movie very politically if you want or you can take it very philosophically and it works on all those levels."

It seems with this film as though you're returning to more a graphic, pulpy movie after doing Spider.

"But [Spider's] just one. That's one movie. eXistenZ was also an independent movie and it had a lot of creatures and things in it. I guess what I'm saying is I don't see that [distinction].

I mean each movie is a unique thing for me. And a project - it's like having a kid, really. If you feed the kid what it needs, like giving a project what it needs... I don't hold stuff out of it. It takes on a life of its own and I don't therefore put in something just to say, 'It's me,' because people expect that of me. Nor do I take out something because it's expected of me and I don't want to do what's expected. So, for example, the gore shots in History of Violence, which are not many, are there for a very specific reason and the reason has to do with the movie. It doesn't have to do with my other movies. It doesn't have to do with my career. It doesn't have to do with what people expect of me or not. It has to do with what the movie needs - the purpose of the movie. And in those particular cases I want the audience to be exhilarated and complicit in the violence, and then to be kind of compelled by the aftermath of what the consequences of that violence is. So that has only to do with the dynamics of the movie. It doesn't have to do with what anybody thinks of my other movies, and that's my approach, basically.

Obviously there are connections amongst the movies and you can make those connections and that's fine. That's perfectly legit but that's more like a critic's function. That's not my function to do that."

What's more challenging - a smaller independent film or a studio picture?

"I think on aintitcool somebody said, 'Oh my God, Cronenberg might become relevant again.' So I asked all my friends, 'Do you think I'm more relevant now?' You know, it was obvious that this had more commercial potential than Spider or Crash.

When you make movies like that, you can't fool yourself. You know that they have a very limited audience. This movie cost $32 million, which is the most expensive movie I've ever made and it's with a studio and they have expectations and their expectations were that at least it's going to make some money as a project. And therefore it has to be more commercial than Spider. But that's all up front - it's understood. It's not an issue.

It was a short discussion we had. I basically said, 'No, I'm not going to try and turn it into Spider,' and they really knew that. And when I talked to them about where I thought the script should go, they could see that I wasn't trying to make it less accessible; just stronger in what it was. As I say, I'm trying to make the movie as it is the best version of it. I'm not trying to force something into it that's not gonna go."

What's the attraction of directing a project for New Line?

"Well I was interested in New Line because of their reputation amongst directors, which is very good. And it's one of the few studios that you can say that about because you're working with people. I mean, I didn't have final cut on this movie. On an independent movie I do have final cut. That's one of the things they can offer you instead of money is that you have that. But I must say that I still haven't made a movie that's anybody else's cut but me. And that has a lot to do with choosing the right people to work with.

[New Line's] Bob Shaye and I go back a long way and many, many years ago [we worked together], so it was kind of coming full circle to work there again. And as I say, their reputation with a lot of directors was, you know, once you've agreed on the cast and the budget and the script they leave you alone. They let you make the movie that you want to make. And that, knowing who not to work with, is part of being a good director."

Was this a less stressful experience than directing an indie film?

"It was, it was. I didn't make any money on Spider and I spent two years doing it, so, you know, for me as for probably most people, except for maybe Bill Gates, if you go for two years without making any money you're in trouble. And I was. So I had to make a movie that was solid in terms of its financing. Independent movie financing is agony and I have to get very involved in the financing.

For example with Spider, every lunch I'm on the phone to the French distributor trying to sell the movie to him so that he'll invest in the movie, so the movie won't fall apart. And that's very hard when you're just trying to make the movie, which is hard enough. So I really had to be involved as a producer, basically, in those independent movies. This one, it's a studio, it's financed. I don't have to worry about the money, where it comes from. I mean, you have to worry about the budget; you have to agree on that - but that's quite a different thing. And yeah, I had to be paid - I had to know that I was actually gonna not have to defer my salary to get the movie made, which is what happened to all of us in Spider, including the actors - everybody. We had to defer - it was either that or don't make the movie."

Did the studio ever express any concerns over the film's sex and violence?

"No, no. I mean, it was always a discussion but not concern. You know, just discussions about normal kinds of things that are very legitimate. It was a nice collaboration with the studio people that I was working with. Never hostile, never suspicious...none of those things that we all have read about. It was really very good.

Their questions are the kind of questions that an actor would ask. You know, 'Will the scene on the stairs be perceived as a rape?' because it's not supposed to be a rape, it's supposed to be a very complex act on both their parts. And how can we make sure that people won't think it's that and still have it be violent on both their parts? And so on. I'm just picking that out of the hat because it's a specific thing. But that is just a discussion and really, I didn't feel that I was any more constrained on this movie than I was on Spider that I had total control over."
Last edited: 22 July 2009 08:14:20
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