David Cronenberg. © 1986 20th Century Fox.
David Cronenberg’s previous movies, They Came from Within, The Brood, Scanners, The Dead Zone, Videodrome, and The Fly are tales of psychological and physical transformation which are considered to be quintessential horror films. His biological approach to horror is centered on physical manifestations of emotional or psychological states: The Brood (where Samantha Eggar, induced by radical psychotherapy, gives birth to monsters), Videodrome(where James Woods’s altered state of mind conjures up hallucinatory episodes in which his abdomen opens to devour physical objects) and the infamous Scanners (in which human heads are telepathically willed to explode). With Dead Ringers, a film about twin gynecologists who commit suicide together, it has become clear that David Cronenberg has transformed his science fiction/fantasy into a psychological thriller. We talked, just before the film’s release here in New York, and subsequently by phone, from his home in Toronto, the site where all of his films are written, produced, and directed.
Bette Gordon Are your nightmares like your movies? Do you actually see your movie images in your dreams?
David Cronenberg Rarely. My images come out of the process of making film. I do really think that movies work on the level of dream logic. However realistic or narrative they might like to think they are, they are dreamlike.
BG You, as a director, have an incredible ability to tap into the unconscious.
DC I was once on a talk show with a psychiatrist who worked at the Clark Institute with criminals. He had seen my film, Videodrome and said to me, “I’m almost afraid to be sitting here next to you.” He was totally mystified as to how I could empathize with those states of mind and he obviously, could not. It is mostly intuitive with me. One of the reasons I make a movie is that I’m then in a position where I have to analyze and I enjoy that process.
BG In They Came from Within there was a line of dialogue—”Man thinks too much, he’s lost touch with the body, with instincts. Too much brain and not enough guts.” Do you think the mind is stronger than the body?
DC No. I think the quote is particular to that film. What interests me is the mind/body schism.
BG What do you mean by mind/body schism?
DC I think the mind grows out of the body. I don’t believe in an afterlife. I don’t see the mind or the spirit or the soul continuing after our body dies. The mind and body are completely dependent and interrelated. The mind is somehow organic and physical. It’s only our perception and our culture that keeps them separate.
BG What about the mind creating its own monsters in a sense, that the monster comes from within the mind. Like in Dead Ringers for example, or in Videodrome where it’s the mind that is completely in charge of the body.
DC In as much as the mind is ever in charge of anything. I don’t think it is always in control.
BG Or in Scanners where through mind control, you can …
DC Affect the body. But you see, I think everybody does that. I don’t think it’s just Western culture, other cultures even accentuate it more by saying the body’s nothing; it’s only temporary and the mind and the spirit are eternal. I think that’s very destructive. It’s not true. All philosophical, metaphysical and religious forces should be concentrating on trying to form a perception and reality for ourselves that integrates the two. And that would include coming to terms with death as a physical event rather than trying to evade it.
BG So how would you come to terms with death?
DC There’s a Japanese religion that thinks of all of life as a preparation for death, which to the Western mind seems like a very morbid approach to life. But if you think of death as a true end of something, of a process, it makes perfect sense. There we get into the old idea of Western culture being death denying, but I actually think Eastern culture is too. Because they try to trivialize death as being not important.
BG So it falls somewhere between the two as being very important and not important at all.
DC One of the main subjects of all of my films is exactly that. In Dead Ringers you get a body split into two (the twins) with basically, one mind. Just doing that is like an experiment in a lab—which all my movies really are. I set out to see how they work, to illuminate something for myself by doing these experiments.
James Woods in Videodrome. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art/ Film Stills Archive.
BG There is something about the medical profession in all of your films.
DC Scientists and doctors to me, are at the leading edge of what all human beings do all of the time; which is to change, everything. We’ve never been satisfied with what we’re given. We don’t accept the earth as a given. We change our body chemistry, our physiology, our biology, our biochemistry. We clear the forest, we build our own environment, we climate control it … And, the interface between that impulse and the human body often is doctors, biologists, and biochemists.
BG Were you a biochemist?
DC I did go into biochemistry at the University of Toronto. But when I came face to face with what science required, I realized that my temperament was much more suited to some form of art; writing or whatever. I didn’t think of film at the time. I found I would prefer to invent my own science rather than spend two years with rats in a lab getting results.
BG There’s an ambivalence for the medical/science profession in all of your films. You don’t really have villains in the film, nobody’s quite evil …
DC That’s right. It is ambivalence. Because I think that they’re heroic even when they’re crazed. I think that being crazed and obsessed is part of being heroic. You don’t get one without the other. Ambition is something else. It’s not ambition in the material sense. My characters are obsessed with discovery and that does excite me and I do identify with that. A good creative scientist is as good as a good creative artist. No question in my mind.
BG What is your notion of the hero? You said your characters are heroic even when they are crazed.
DC Yes, maybe even especially because they’re crazed. I’m obviously drawn to people as main characters who are not embedded so completely in their culture that they can’t see any … a visionary’s process … people who are jarred into being outside.
BG So your heroes are basically outsiders even though, as scientists and doctors, they are considered to be in the mainstream.
DC They’re realistic outsiders. My heroes are more subversive really because they’re also a part of society, they draw strength from it and resources from it.
BG They’re working from within to somehow get outside.
DC That’s right. Just like those little creatures in The Brood.
BG Transformation and metamorphosis are present in all your work. Could you describe for me one of your characters before and then after transformation?
DC Maybe as an exercise I’ll refuse to do that. By having the mind transform a little bit and then the body and then the mind and the body, I’m trying to see how much each affects the other. Once again, I’m just trying to juggle the balance between mind and body because each time you change one thing the other changes. You can’t change your mind without changing your body and vice versa. I mean this very thoroughly. Your state of mind instantly influences the entire biochemistry of your body, your neurology, everything. When you get nervous and excited and the adrenaline shoots in there—whatever. The two are completely integrated and interdependent. In order to look at that and see how far you can go one way or another—that’s one of the things I’m doing when I force my characters to transform.
BG For example, Jeff Goldblum in The Fly …
DC He starts to change first perhaps mentally. He starts to get very speedy and hyper and exuberant. So the first manifestation of what’s been happening to him is mental rather than physical. But then it’s also physical because of the sugar lust. I’m just trying to see what the two things do and how far it goes. My interest in insects is more than I deal with in The Fly, actually. It’s phenomenal that any insect transforms. They all do. That’s part of being an insect.
Jeff Goldblum in The Fly. Courtesy 20th Century Fox.
BG Part of nature. All nature transforms.
DC That’s right. And we do too. But because of our necessity to impose our own structure of perception on things we look on ourselves as being relatively stable. But, in fact, when I look at a person I see this maelstrom of organic, chemical and electron chaos; volatility and instability, shimmering; and the ability to change and transform and transmute.
BG In your previous films, the body transformation was visceral and visual, more associated with science fiction, whereas in Dead Ringers it’s psychological. Some people see it as a departure, but I see it as a culmination of all of your work.
DC Well, I think you’re right. It’s a genre problem, a categorization problem. I don’t want this to be called a horror film because of people’s expectations. Technically, if somebody walked into this movie off the street and had never seen another film of mine, when they came out they wouldn’t call it a horror film. They certainly wouldn’t call it science fiction. There would never be a question but that it’s a psychological drama, and maybe a thriller. People find it very intense and tense, some people find it scary.
BG Disturbing. How did you become involved with it? I know its a true story and I know there’s a book.
DC The real life twins were identical twin gynecologists who seem to have committed suicide together. There’s no question that this is the basic premise of the film as well. But beyond that I have no interest in doing a documentary. If the twins had never happened I still would have made this movie. The writers of the book, swear up and down their book is not based on the twins. I have to take them at their word. Technically, we are basing our movie on the book, but even there I wanted to have the total freedom to invent my own twins. If you read the book Twins, you’ll see there’s not a huge connection between the book and the movie.
Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers. © 1988 by The Mantle Clinic.
BG You said that even if there wasn’t a book about the subject of these twins, that you would have made a film about twins. What fascinated you?
DC I think it’s my interest in real monsters and that whole mind/body schism once again. Because we draw so much of what we think of being unique about ourselves as an individual from our physical appearance—the way we sound, the way we stand, the way we look, our body language. If you think about the possibility that you were followed around by someone who looked exactly like you and sounded exactly like you and even thought very much like you, smelled like you—someone who other people confused constantly as you—then where does your individuality come from? You have to look elsewhere for it. So in trying to separate out those elements out of mind and body and spirit …
BG And loss of identity.
DC If you’ve ever sat in a room with twins, immediately you’re forced to deal with this confusion. You’re afraid to call them by name because you’re afraid you’re going to get it wrong. At first being a twin is a source of power, you can switch, you can fool people—but then it becomes a vulnerability because people confuse you when you don’t want them to. The famous story of the twins who were both spanked when either one of them did something wrong because the parents wanted to make sure they got the right twin. So that would immediately make each twin totally responsible for the other one’s actions and therefore would make you want to control the other twin’s actions. It gets quite twisted and the confusion of identities becomes quite intense.
BG Of the twins in Dead Ringers, what was more interesting about them—the confusion of identities or their suicide?
DC Well, all of it. I might never have made a movie about twins if they weren’t first, identical, second, gynecologists and third, suicides.
BG Why gynecologists?
DC That whole question of identity connected with sexuality and sexual identity really gave it some potency and forced me to start examining questions of power and women and sexuality.
BG Which is in all of your movies. In most horror films, the body of the woman is the site of punishment and fascination. I don’t think that in your case, this is true.
DC No. I don’t think it’s true at all.
BG You blur the distinctions between male and female—a sort of transexuality. Your films are so much about sex, but they’re not erotic.
DC Yes. I think that’s true. Omnisexuality is the term that I use in Hysteria. There seems to be a strain of pure sexuality that can embody itself in any possible way, female, male, something else. This is the first time I’ve ever articulated this, but I think I’m most interested in that essence of sexuality that seems to be able to take many forms but has still a specific feel and tone to it that we all recognize. You can’t really define it as male or female. I’m very fascinated with the way in which maleness and femaleness is specifically physical. but not necessarily purely sexual. There is a difference amongst all those things. This takes you right back to the mind/body schism that I go crazy with all the time.
BG It’s this turning inside out—the inside of the body is the repressed. As kids, we’re not supposed to deal with our vomit, our shit. it’s taboo.
DC Which is odd because it is an essential part of us that we do repress. Of course, in a physical sense it’s hidden away, we don’t have access to it. Dolphins read each other’s emotions by sonar and it’s the inside of the body, the configuration of the viscera, that lets dolphins know whether the dolphin they are meeting is tense or happy. Their emotions are much more connected with the insides of each other’s bodies. We don’t have that. It’s like denying 90% of what we are physically, not knowing it.
BG What do you think is the place of humor in horror films? It’s definitely a part of your films, although not the major part.
DC Humor, to me, is a crucial part of life in general. It’s such an incredibly subtle and passionate way of relating to people. Your sense of humor communicates what you are, your approach to life. You’re very vulnerable when you make a joke. Not when you’re telling a joke so much, but when you’re joking around. To me, it’s just an instinctive, natural part of character development—showing what a character is. Also, you do it (I do it), when you’re under pressure, it’s a way of dealing with impossible situations. Untenable situations can only be dealt with through humor, if not despair and resignation. So, I prefer the humor. That’s how I like to use it in a horror film. But it’s not any different in how I would use it in any other film.
BG In Dead Ringers, the gynecological instruments were at the same time utterly disturbing and fear-producing, and funny.
DC People have found them really scary. In fact, one critic said this should he my epitaph film—”If he’s done nothing else, Cronenberg has shown that gynecological instruments are really instruments of torture.”
BG They were so exaggerated that they were both funny and terrifying.
DC They were actually quite beautiful, too. They do work as art objects. Certainly, people laughed when they were on the operating tray and he said, “We’ll use these.” They laugh but they’re scared, too. That comes from anybody’s fear when you see real surgical instruments and you start to feel them against your flesh.
BG The physical sensation that the image creates.
DC You can almost feel it. And you start to think about the pain. In Dead Ringers, it’s also because the guy’s nuts and this is almost an expressionist physical version of his mental state. It’s beautiful and twisted and funny and scary at the same time. I think people are responding to all of those things.
BG What do you especially like about the horror genre?
DC Its relationship to those primordial things that a lot of other forms deal with which is death and disease and separation and so on. Horror gets right into the nitty gritty, no fooling around. The other thing is, it feeds you and it protects you. It allows you to do things you might not be able to do outside the genre.
BG To deal with the repressed libido.
DC No. I’m thinking almost in an industry way. Think of the plot of The Fly. Two attractive people fall in love. The man suddenly contracts this incurable disease. He goes downhill in a horrible and hideous way as his mate watches and then he asks her to kill him and that’s the end of the movie. Now, people would not accept that. You could not deal with that in a normal, realistic fashion. It’s just too upfront and too hard and too despairing. If you gave Hollywood that plot, they wouldn’t make the movie. And yet, because it was sci-fi, fantasy, horror, no one ever questioned how dark it was. That’s another good thing about horror—it allows you to come to grips with the nitty gritty and at the same time gives you a little cushion, a little protection as well, because it is fantasy.
BG So would you say that the horror genre invents rather than reproduces reality?
DC Yes, but in so inventing, I think it comes more to grips with reality than some other so-called realistic forms. In a sense, a soap opera deals with day to day events—the abortion, the betrayal, the lover, the divorce, the trial—and yet, it somehow is totally escapist. Ironically enough, horror, which many people think is escapist, by inventing reality, comes much more to terms with it. That’s why I said The Brood was my version of Kramer vs. Kramer but more realistic.