Psychologically complex and visually grotesque, the work of David Cronenberg is both visceral and intellectually provocative. While certain motifs and stylistic choices characterise his oeuvre, to collectively label it anything other than “Cronenbergian” would be to overlook its distinctive nature. What sets his projects apart is the overwhelming sense you get of him as the director.
Undoubtedly a genius, the Canadian director (and now novelist) is philosophical and has a highly perceptive take on the world. His musings, much like his gutsy films (and I’m not just referring to that scene in Videodrome), leave a lasting impression. As I listen to him dissect the 21st-century mindset, contemplate our obsession with social media, and talk frankly about the inner workings of Hollywood, it’s clear that he’s an observant, quick-witted individual, unfazed by fame and fortune.
It is his noticeably nonchalant attitude towards celebrity culture and Los Angeles that permeates his latest feature film; penned by novelist Bruce Wagner, Maps to the Stars ruthlessly attacks the zeitgeist of today. An unnerving depiction of contemporary Hollywood, the film presents a sordid world; while not visually repulsive in the same vein as his 80s and 90s sci-fi body horror masterpieces (it’s free from exploding heads for one), its portrayal of a flawed humanity provokes a gut feeling of discomfort. Shattering the alluring, carefully publicised image of the entertainment industry, Maps to the Stars not only shames one’s tendency to lap up tales of the rich and famous, but explores that very Cronenbergian question of what really qualifies as existence.
The principal cast members channel complex characterisations that are worryingly recognisable. A head of studio said it gave him nightmares and the trades have responded begrudgingly. Cronenberg says the journalists who write about Hollywood feel threatened by this movie: “After all, it’s their turf.” When I spoke to the director just after the film debuted at Cannes, he was very much looking forward to his first Hollywood screening. “It’s going to be pretty entertaining,” he said.
The cast is diverse but impeccably put-together: Julianne Moore has already picked up the Best Actress Award at Cannes for her performance as the ageing, neurotic actress Havana Segrand; John Cusack’s questionable intentions as celebrity self-help guru Sanford Weiss will unnerve you; and Mia Wasikowska as his sociopathic disfigured daughter (and sister to a horrifyingly familiar child star) will depress you. On the cusp of releasing his debut novel, Consumed, there’s no doubting that Cronenberg continues to be a cult figure, committed to telling stories of unwavering psychological depth.
Hunger: How did you translate Bruce Wagner’s very particular tone of voice to the screen?
David Cronenberg: It’s a fusion of opposites. Bruce’s writing is passionate, high style, kind of exaggerated and certainly brilliant. Somebody could have directed the screenplay as a comical melodrama, but my style is almost clinical and realistic. I told my actors to not even think about the satire or humour. I told them to play it a hundred percent real, focusing on the genuine human interaction and emotion, and that the rest of it would take care of itself. Those other elements were built-in, and didn’t need to be addressed at all. I think that’s the reason the movie works. Rather than someone going in the same direction as Bruce’s script, mine was a moderating direction. It was the combination of opposite styles that really put the movie where it was.
Throughout the production you and Bruce constantly updated the script, eliminating references as they became obsolete. Was this film written specifically for a contemporary audience?
In order to be universal in art, you have to be very particular. Bruce’s use of the zeitgeist of the current moment is fearless; I really admire that. I avoid that myself. The movie is very current in terms of its references to pop culture and technology. When he first wrote the script 20 years ago, there were no mobile phones, and when I read it ten years ago, there was certainly no Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or anything like that. In order to be convincing and for it to not be a period piece, those particular references had to be updated. You hope that by being so ferociously detailed with the film’s contemporary specifics, it will continue to resonate even after those particular references have faded into the background. It’s kind of a double game you’re playing. I think every artist faces that particular conundrum.
Why do you think people today have this obsessive need for fame and validation?
There have been many theories. At Cannes, Bruce said something great: “Andy Warhol was famous for saying that one day everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, now everyone is famous all the time, because of Facebook, because of Twitter.” I think it’s a strange kind of entitlement. For me, it’s an existential question. If you’re not famous, you don’t exist, that’s really the equation. It’s not enough to actually physically exist or emotionally exist, you have to have some kind of celebrity to really feel that you exist. There’s a quasi-religious element to it, it’s a question of immortality. You can exist apart from yourself, just like a movie star. Movie stars float off the screen, seeming to exist as immortal ghosts or gods. Even after they’ve died they’re still around. Everyone is still haunted by Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. And now everybody lives on after death because of the internet. I think that has a lot to do with it. You can be the star of your own Facebook page. Now normal people have access to the same modes of celebrity. I think that’s really what it is.
This film marks the first time you have filmed not just in LA, but America. Do you have a slight aversion to Hollywood? LA permeates the film, yet it isn’t depicted in a positive light.
I’ve never been obsessed with Hollywood. My own response to some of the craziness that I’ve experienced there has been to be amused, because I have a distance. If I were living there and was totally dependent on Hollywood for my art, my life and my livelihood, I probably wouldn’t be so amused. However the cutting edge and the anger that you might sense in Maps really comes more from Bruce, who was born and raised in Hollywood and whose father was in the business. I was just there to serve the script. That said, Hollywood doesn’t owe me a thing, conversely, I don’t owe Hollywood anything. While I’ve always been outside it, I’ve floated with Hollywood and have had many meetings there. For that reason I can confirm that Bruce’s writing, as an incisive look at the negative aspects of Hollywood, is a pretty accurate depiction.
Would you consider doing a big-budget action film in the future?
I’ve seen a bunch of them and they don’t interest me. There’s a reason why often guys who have just done a few rock videos and one low-budget sci-fi
movie are suddenly doing a two hundred million dollar budget movie – the studios want directors who they can control, not a director who has a real vision of their own. It might sound like sour grapes, but I think it’s pretty evident that that’s the case. So it’s not really a seductive proposition for me.
Pick up a copy of Issue 7 of Hunger Magazine, The Fearless, to read the full interview.
Maps to the Stars will be released in cinemas across the UK and Ireland tomorrow.
David’s debut novel, Consumed, will be published by Fourth Estate on October 9.