Interviews 2005

Masterclass A History of Violence


Source: Écran Large

Image Alexandre Papaïs.
© Écran Large.

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David Cronenberg's new film, A History of Violence, which opens on 2 November, is a strange commentary on justifiable violence and troubled outcomes in present-day American society. David Cronenberg, accompanied by his leading man of the film, Viggo Mortensen, and his usual chief cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, was passing through Paris in the setting of a masterclass FNAC to speak to us about his latest film.

How did the script for A History of Violence come to you? How did you come to know about the screenplay? How was it a suitable choice for a David Cronenberg film?

David Cronenberg: When I received the screenplay, it was my agent in LA who brought it to me. I have to admit I was ignorant that it was based on a graphic novel. I know that a lot of you like that, but I was totally ignorant that the screenplay was not an original screenplay. What interested me about this story was that it represents a little bit of America and all the iconic American elements. It seemed to have elements of westerns, gangster films, but above all what interested me in this screenplay was the exploration of the American myth. At the same time I never thought to do a David Cronenberg film. I try to forget when I start a new film, all of my previous films. In fact, I wanted to listen to the film, to listen to what it needed. It is never my intention to put my precise mark on it, but inevitably, I realized that it was very much a David Cronenberg film.

Paris Masterclass FNAC
Paris Masterclass FNAC
Image Alexandre Papaïs
Are the elements of the mythologies of America, the western genre, of the thriller or of the gangster film the things that are personally important to you as a filmmaker? Your development in filmmaking has become more experimental. Is classic American cinema something that stimulates your imagination?

DC: As a director, I am exactly between Hollywood and Europe. Both influence me. Since childhood I was exposed to American films first then to European artistic films and writing: to the films of Bergman, to the films of Fellini, amongst others. And Toronto is literally, physically and geographically between Hollywood and Europe, much like my films. In fact my film making central nervous system is between Hollywood and Europe.

In the film, one could say there is a type of diversion from certain codes of the contemporary American thriller. There are things that you never see in a Hollywood thriller. Did you make the film with this idea that it was a critical comment or irony of the today's American action film or thriller?

DC: I don't believe that my film is ironic. It is not post-modernist and, in a way, I could qualify it as modernist. But, along with the actors, we made the decision to shoot the film in the most realistic way possible, the most emotionally honest as possible and, therefore, without any irony and I think that my film has the advantage of being more subversive than ironic.

How did you come to think of Viggo Mortensen for this character? And you Viggo, what was your meeting with David Cronenberg like and what was it like approaching the character?

DC: I never thought of Viggo for this role but he was available (laughs). It's a joke, because if you saw him in this film you know that it is a quotation from the film.

Paris Masterclass FNAC
Paris Masterclass FNAC.
© Alexandre Papaïs.
Viggo Mortensen: When I read the script I immediately thought it was good. But it was because of David, because he was the director of the film. That's why I said yes. I am a fan of David's. When you see his films, you see he is intelligent, maybe a bit strange.

DC: Handsome too (laughs)

VM: A real master. I loved working with him. All of the doubts and the questions I was having about the script, he had the same ones. We were in agreement from the start.

Which film particularly touched you among those of David Cronenberg's?

VM: I haven't seen all his films, so there is not one in particular. During the filming I thought a lot about the Dead Zone for example, the problems connecting the family and the characters. We spoke about that during filming.

How was it day-to-day working with David Cronenberg? Does he joke around? Is he really precise in his direction and placement? Or did he leave you fairly free to bring what you wanted to your interpretation of the character?

VM: It felt good, free and well prepared. He communicates very well with the actors and his team. When we started filming the first day, we knew what he wanted to do, more or less. But each day, we had the freedom to do, to show things because there was an atmosphere of co-operation, and of teamwork. We wanted to do good work not only for ourselves or for the film, but for him, we wanted to give him what he wanted to see. You don't always have a director who gives you that. Who gives confidence.

For Peter Suschitzky: Did you work from the graphic novel, which inspired the film, or did you try to forget about it to when defining the film's visual style with DC?

Peter Suschitsky: I think that David and I like to discover during the process of filming. We hardly spoke about the film before we shot it. Me, for my part, I try to go into a film blind. I never do any filming before we start. Because, for me, it stifles the artistic creativity, that's formulaic, so I try not follow a formula and I become like a blind person.

Do you feel, after 15 years working together that you redefine an entirely different visual style each time? Do you know if David is expecting a totally original experience each time?

PS: I don't know that David is expecting anything from me. I remember very well that he telephoned me before making this film to ask my opinion. Like every director, he hesitates before jumping in. And, I do too. But I always agree to do a film with him because it is always a great pleasure. And, in order to convince him, I told him that there was an element in the script that reminded me of the films of Freitzland: the theme of the man who cannot escape to his destination, from his past. We spoke about both things.

VM: They are good actors, both of them, because you get the impression that you are working with very organized and very professional people (laughs)

At the time of its release in the States, some Americans criticized the underlying ideology of the film - that it was making excuses for legitimate defence?

DC: American critics are very precise. The majority of critics have, on the contrary, a very fair perception of my film and maybe the extreme right will like my film and I hope that is the case, of course. I was very pleased to note, on the contrary, that far from having misunderstood my film they had perceived it correctly. Some critics even found that the film was very useful because not everybody has same rights as in the United States. They used this film, on the contrary, to show, in a way, the American situation, which is unfortunate at the moment and so the film expresses that: no, it is not a justification for self defence but, on the contrary, our critique of the contemporary American situation.

Paris Masterclass FNAC
Paris Masterclass FNAC.
© Alexandre Papaïs.
The film is a success in the States. Tell us about your relationship with the Hollywood film industry?

DC: I have a relationship with Hollywood, which is often nonexistent. It depends on the year you are talking about. But, I think that after this film my value in Hollywood has climbed considerably from the period when I was filming Crash or Spider when few people were interested in even speaking with me. But, I must say that my experiences with Hollywood have never been bad. Certainly M. Butterfly was particularly a disappointment and I can't blame Hollywood for that. The period in which the film was released wasn't very favourable. But my experience with A History of Violence has been extraordinary, because I had at once the backing of the studio and creative independence. So, at once, I had the creativity and I didn't have to worry myself with the financing. For me that was something wonderful.

Is the title of the film A History of Violence the same as the graphic novel which inspired it? And do you think there were different meanings to the word 'history'?

DC It's different in French. It signifies a tale, a story. In America there is an expression, when you stop a man who has 'a history of violence' - that's someone who has a criminal past, a violent past. So that's a perfect suspect. I wanted to talk about it in this sense. In a more academic sense. We speak about history, and even if you think firstly about the history of the US, lots of nations have founded their territory from wars, others colonialism, and others on the extermination of natives. In this sense it's really all the same. And then, in a third meaning, it's as much about our history as a people. It is the history of the human condition. One day someone asked me if I wanted to make a documentary from this film and I replied that it would be a very very long documentary if I made one on the long history of the human species.

The film even crossed into very dark, sarcastic humour. Is that something you totally disagree with?

DC Yes. Absolutely I disagree with that. But on the other hand, it is true that the film is situated within a certain reality. It's not the real life of a real small American town that I show. But in a sense, I explore the American mythology and ideal. So, there are echoes of how America was explored within its own mythology. And there is humour in my film and not irony. I think it comes from my characters and not from me imposing it as much as it coming from the characters themselves. And yes, there is discomfort, yes, there is subversion, but not in the way that you described.

Paris Masterclass FNAC
Paris Masterclass FNAC
Image Alexandre Papaïs
For Viggo Mortensen: From reports of your acting, the character doesn't seem to show remorse. Is this an issue which you discussed with David?

VM : Mostly it is a practical thing. It is almost normal and necessary, this person vis-à-vis violence. You no longer see joy within him. I think that David and Peter filmed the violent scenes in a simple and realistic manner. And that makes them more destructive and dangerous. I'm not sure if it is instinctive but, he has a knack for depicting violence.

DC: One day they asked me if violence was a virus or a contagious illness. Unfortunately violence is a part of what it is to be human, in the end healthy in body and spirit and that's what's interesting. The capacity we all have to be violent. When I was trying to think about this film and how to film the violence, I asked myself several questions. First of all, where does violence come from? My response is that it comes from certain personalities. Where have we learned this violence and what is its meaning? My response is that it comes from the streets of Philadelphia and it has nothing to do with martial arts or a type of sadistic response. It is in fact the business of the mafia. It must be efficient, as fast as possible. This is the reason why the violence is not stylized. In fact, it is almost an 'anti -stylization' of violence.

VM: It's also true that when I returned to the character of Joey, we had also considered that he wasn't necessarily a very violent person, but that it was his environment in Philadelphia, with his brother who was from the mafia. He used this period of violence to survive like someone who knew what to do in the midst of a cultural pressure that existed. That's what moulded him. So, from the outset we don't necessarily see him as a violent person, pathologically violent, but like a normal person shaped by social conditions. That's not to say he is more innocent than Ritchie for example, because he feels remorse. We can see the physical consequences, but also the psychological consequences of violence: on his family and on him. I think you learn during the film that my character suffers a lot because of violence and that he tried to escape from the violence in his life, from his brother, and from the violent environment. It's one of the interesting things in this film and especially because it was David Cronenberg who analyzed it and not someone else. We see that humans are capable of saying no to violence, even a guy like Joey. He wants to say no, he wants to find another way.

For David: You did a lot of television in the seventies. Today, with the success of shows like Alias and Lost, do you ever have the desire to direct a television series? And, why not a series on the issue of a history of violence?

DC: I played myself in an episode of Alias as an actor and that can be a fun experience. It's true that it has been suggested to me that I adapt A History of Violence for television. But that would mean once a week the baddies would arrive in the town of Millbrook and Tom would be obliged to beat them up (laughs). You never know, maybe I'll return to television. Today it's very difficult to work in television because a director is always on the look out for great quality and for a producer, even if it seems a bit cliché, television is all about the space of the producer. The director has less control in that case. I wouldn't say that I will never do it, but there is little chance that I will.

In one of your interviews you were saying that sex and violence went together. Could you explain?

DC: At my house it's like that (laughs). I always think that there is a sexual element in violence and there is a violent element in sexuality, to varying degrees, but more or less. I think that is a result of our evolution to human animal from primate. In general, this type of question launches me into a much too long discussion on baboons. If you are a baboon, a chimpanzee, a primate, the act of violence is a requirement before a sexual act because it is necessary to kill to become the dominant male and therefore conquer the female. And females fight amongst themselves for that. I think this is because of Darwinism and his famous evolution of the species theory on the survival of man. Even if today it is somewhat hidden, the violent side of sex is still there, always just below the surface.

Concerning the choice of actors, can you have trust in agents?

DC: It's difficult because you can't always have trust agents. Myself, I left my own agent in Los Angeles because one day I asked him to submit my project to an actor and my own agent told me he had refused it. The reason was that 'he thought that it wasn't going to be good for his career'. So, sometime later when I met up with the actor I realized that he had never even read the project. However, there is a strong structural power between managers and agents and it is very difficult to directly approach actors and directors. But there is a good reason for that, because if it were possible, certain actors or directors would be buried under a mass of projects which would hardly have a chance to succeed. It's also true that the personal relationship is important. For example, today I can call Viggo directly and ask him if I can send him my script directly or if it is necessary to run it by his agent. It's true that it is difficult, but there are reasons for that. The personal relationship effectively becomes the key, often.

VM: I don't know the situation in France. But, for example, in Denmark actors don't have agents. In Spain they exist, but they don't have the same power as in the US with directors and producers. In the States, they are dangerous for the reason he said, but they can also create connections, assist, get projects going. It's like in life, when you don't know someone you don't know if you can trust them. Personally, I've had bad experiences with agents and I prefer to speak directly to a director and read the script myself. In the case of A History of Violence, when I read the script I thought it was good, but if it hadn't been for David and I hadn't met him, I wouldn't have done it.

Paris Masterclass FNAC
Paris Masterclass FNAC.
© Alexandre Papaïs.
The consequences of violence in the film are short and gory. Have you had problems with the censors?

DC: No, there is only one version of the film. Maybe in certain countries there will be cuts because of local censorship. But you know when you release a film in more than 150 countries, you can't always know in which countries there will be cuts and which there won't. I must say that in France, in most European countries, in Canada, in the US, in England, there has been no problem with cuts or censorship. Even the American censor who often worries more about the depiction of sex than of violence did not find fault with it and didn't require me to cut anything from the film. For television there will be cuts, and for airplanes. There will also be cuts to the language: they change certain words for others in the end the watered-down versions are very funny.

Did you think that your film could itself belong to a history of violence on our screens?

DC: Yes, in fact. I'm happy to belong to this history that you speak of because it is a question of cinematic violence, artistic violence and, in each case, of real violence.

How does Bergman influence your filmmaking, in particular A History of Violence?

DC: It's true that sometimes one believes, wrongly, that influence means imitation. You want to make the same thing that you see on screen. But, the question of influence is more subtle. Certainly there is Bergman, but also Fellini, Kurosawa, Truffaut....and I would like to show what a director could be. That's to say a unique voice. A unique sensibility that furthermore goes beyond that which you see on the screen until it becomes an adjective. One speaks of a Felliniene experience or a Bergmanienne experience...My films are influenced by these great modern and classical directors.

VM: I finally understand why he spoke some type of Swedish throughout almost the entire shoot that nobody understood (laughs)!

We would like to thank Écran Large for graciously allowing Viggo-Works to include this translation in our Articles pages. You can read the original article in French and see additional photos on this page at
Last edited: 18 January 2006 21:27:53
© Écran Large. Images © Alexandre Papaïs.