David Cronenberg is a master of repulsion. The 71-year-old Canadian director helped create the “body horror” genre in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s with a slew of outstanding genre films, like Shivers (1975), The Brood (1979), and The Fly (1986), which explored the terror of bodily transformation, from mind-controlling parasites and the development of strange orifices and appendages, to genetic fusion with an insect. In Cronenberg’s latest film, Maps to the Stars, the repellant subject is Hollywood, and though the physical grotesqueries are limited to burn scars, it seems the entertainment industry transforms people into things that are just as sad and disgusting as Brundlefly, if not more.
Written by Bruce Wagner, Maps follows the twisted, interconnected lives of people chasing elusive happiness in the land of make-believe. Robert Pattinson plays a wannabe actor and writer who drives a limo for more successful characters, including Julianne Moore’s Havana Segrand, a fading star clinging to her desirability and haunted by the eternally youthful specter of her mother (Sarah Gadon), a film legend who died in a fire. Segrand receives treatment for perceived maternal abuse from a TV psychologist (John Cusack) who has a pompous but fragile, drug-addicted, child star son (Evan Bird) as well as secrets that certainly make him unfit to dole out advice to others. Wandering through everyone’s lives is Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a seemingly pleasant burn victim who arrives to L.A. and takes a personal assistant job with Segrand to gain access to the celebrity world.
With his nauseating vision of self-obsession and self-destruction out now, Complex spoke with Cronenberg about what he finds most repulsive in Hollywood, the value of awards season, and why he’s excited about the future of cinema.
What personally disgusts you most about Hollywood?
Well, I’m not disgusted by Hollywood, technically. It’s just too strong a word. In the French newspaper Le Monde, they quoted me saying, “Je ne deteste pas Hollywood.” I don’t detest Hollywood. The French critics were assuming because of the movie that I had been burning and simmering with hatred for years and that it finally came out in Maps to the Stars. But I’ve never been obsessed with Hollywood. Hollywood doesn’t owe me anything.
[oscar voters] vote for their friends, people vote for the movies that they have a vested interest in monetarily or some other way. That is kind of repulsive, honestly.
Most of my movies have been co-productions with Europe. I have had some flirtations with Hollywood and with studios and so I’ve had experiences with studio meetings that were even more surreal than anything in Maps, so I know that what Bruce [Wagner] has written is accurate, is not satire. It’s actually more like a docudrama than a satire. But it’s not a personal thing with me. For it to be disgust, you have to be living within it and having been in some way deformed by it or hurt by it—which I think is true in some ways of Bruce. That element that you feel in the film really comes from Bruce, not from me.
The thing about Hollywood that I would complain about is the obvious thing: the lack of real vision. They talk about vision all the time but what they’re really talking about are sequels and obvious things. But again, disgust is too strong a word, because there are other places to make a movie and other ways to make a movie, so you’re not forced to play with Hollywood.
In those moments when I have been tempted to do a studio movie—the last one, I was maybe going to work on a movie based on The Matarese Circle, the Robert Ludlum novel, and I met Tom Cruise and I met Denzel Washington—I knew what the game would be. I knew that I wouldn’t have the freedom that I would have as an indie filmmaker. I knew that there would be a lot of masters to serve and a lot of compromise in exchange for bigger budget and access to big stars. At that point, I thought, I’ll do it and if it’s horrible I just won’t do it again.
What was your experience filming in the U.S. for the first time?
It was cathartic to finally be shooting in the U.S., and not only in the U.S. but in the heart of Hollywood. We had a mixed crew of Canadian and American workers and we got along great. [The Americans] were quite welcoming, and excited actually to be working on a feature film, because so few movies are shot in L.A.—it’s all TV and stuff.
There’s a memorable scene in which an award is used to bludgeon someone. Do you think there’s anything of value in the awards season? In what ways does that structure of recognition help or hurt individuals and the industry generally?
I’m not exactly an insider to talk about the industry in general, living in Toronto and making most of my movies with Europe as a co-production, but personally, the awards season drives me crazy, in several different ways. If you’re a member of the Academy, which I am, you get a flood of DVDs and Blu-rays to watch and you get to see a lot of good films, including foreign films, shorts, and animated films, and that’s exciting to have access to that just coming in through your mail slot. You’re stimulated and excited by the creativity that there is, but then it is a turn-off, the selling of the movies.
Honestly, I don’t know how to judge between two performances that are different and both good. How do you say one is better than the other? At that point, you’re tempted to be guided by the wrong things. People vote for their friends, people vote for the movies that they have a vested interest in monetarily or some other way. That is kind of repulsive, honestly.
And yet, to make things more complex, the Academy itself is a terrific organization that makes great exhibitions and exhibits and that does film restoration and takes care of its members in an interesting way. It’s concerned with the history of film and has been open to filmmakers of every nationality, including me, being a Canadian. So I have great affection for the Academy itself. So it’s a mixed bag of things and it’s hard to make a general pronouncement, either positively or negatively. And, of course, it’s not just Hollywood that has an awards season. We have it in Canada, they have it in England, in France. You want to, at one point, pull the covers over your head—but still be watching the movies under those covers.
film is dead. The digital revolution has won and its implications are still reverberating. We haven’t seen the end of it yet. You’ll be able to make a million-dollar movie and have it seen by a million people.
How does awards season in Canada compare?
It’s a much more low-key affair and, of course, when you’re talking about just Canadian films it’s a much smaller gene pool. It doesn’t have quite the hysteria of the Oscars. It doesn’t have the power of the Oscars, either. I don’t think anybody’s career has been truly enhanced by winning a Genie or Canadian Screen Award. At that point we’re maybe a little bit closer to the essence of what the Oscars were first, which was recognition by your peers, not a huge television spectacle. Recognition by your colleagues in the industry is always valuable, to feel that your work has been acknowledged by people who do the same work and therefore have a greater understanding than the general public about what goes into making a movie. We might be a little closer to that; it’s not something you brag about. It’s inevitable because nobody spends money promoting a Canadian film to get a Canadian Screen Award, let’s say.
You mentioned the difficulty assigning value to performances as a member of the Academy. How do you deal with that?
There have been years when I wouldn’t vote, or I wouldn’t vote in every category. So sometimes you restrict yourself to those categories where you feel there’s really a front-runner, a film that struck you as so superior that it was a no-brainer to vote for. There are two rounds of voting and the first round, for me, is you vote for Best Picture and Best Director, because I’m in the directors section. And there, there’s always one film at least that you think, “Wow, this one really knocked me out. This was something really special.” But very often that film isn’t nominated, so when the final vote comes up it’s like, well, now you’re gonna be voting for a film that you didn’t think was the best film of the year. You can only vote amongst the nominees. You have to decide. I try to be honorable and not vote against films because a film is popular and everyone thinks it should win best picture, and you hated that film. So, are you voting deliberately against that film? It can get quite pathological. You have to keep a level head. Sometimes it’s like voting for politicians.
Do you think in the future there will be a middle ground of film? Much has been made of the gulf that now exists. It’s either a huge budget blockbuster or a thrifty indie.
Maps cost $13 million. That’s a lot of money. As long as you can make movies like that, and you can make $2 million movies as well. What’s happened is the landscape of distribution has really changed, with video on-demand and the advent of electronic downloads, watching movies on your iPhone if you want to. To me, that’s fantastic. I actually like that idea, because a movie that you make for a big screen becomes quite a different film on an iPhone. David Lynch hates that idea but I am amused by it. I wouldn’t mind somebody watching Maps to the Stars on their iPhone. It wouldn’t be the best version of the movie but it would be a version of the movie, and if it’s the only way they were going to watch the movie, I say, “Go ahead.”
There are many strange things happening, the implications of which have not been seen. Basically, film is dead. It’s really dead. However many people still cling to it and have all kinds of reasons for it, it’s dead. The digital revolution has won and its implications are still reverberating. We haven’t seen the end of it yet. That’ll change a lot of things. You’ll be able to make a million-dollar movie and have it seen by a million people. That’s already possible. You see that on YouTube. It’s an exciting time.
Does that digital development change the way that you think about filmmaking and the stories that you’re interested in telling?
The parameters, the understanding of what film is, what cinema is, and how it should be experienced, are hugely changing right now. I was commissioned to make a short film for the Toronto Film Festival and I made a film called The Nest. I shot it myself with a GoPro strapped to my head and an actress in my garage. We all felt that this was the purest kind of cinema that you could have. [Laughs.] That is fantastic. That is something unprecedented. When I was a kid, I started to make films, there was nothing equivalent to that that you could do. Nothing. And then, of course, making that film, you can edit it on your laptop. You could even edit it on your phone. That’s stupendous. You might say, “I don’t want to go through the agony of making a full-fledged feature film for $10 million-plus, but it doesn’t mean I’m finished with cinema.” I could make the kind of short that I made for TIFF.
When I’m on the set with Rob [PATTINSON], it’s just the two of us making a movie and there’s nothing else around. You can’t direct an icon. You have to direct a human being.
In Maps, celebrity seems like a drug or a weight at times. In your decades making films, how have you seen celebrity culture change?
It’s the access. When I was a kid—and I’m talking about the 1940s—you would read articles…. I remember watching Edward R. Murrow interviewing Marilyn Monroe at her home, wherever that was, and that was stunning because you wouldn’t have felt that you would have access to Marilyn Monroe, other than as a character in a movie. That was rare. Mostly the actors were protected by the [Hollywood] studios. You didn’t have access to them in any way. And now you have access to them on Twitter and Facebook and you can see any actor you want. You can watch endless hours of them on YouTube doing interviews or clips from their films. People start to feel that these actors are even more inside their lives, inside their heads, than could ever be the case in the old days. In the old days, actors were distant giants on mountaintops and now they’re not. They’re much more real. But they’re also pervasive and in your head, and I think that’s what’s changed celebrity culture that way. People feel they own these actors. They feel they have a vested interest in every little detail of their lives that they’re reading about on Twitter. That really has changed. Maps doesn’t deal with that aspect. Some people say it deals with celebrity culture but it doesn’t really. There are no paparazzi and so on.
Does the lack of mystery surrounding actors now change the way that you view them? Does it make it difficult to remove the celebrity from the role?
I don’t think so. Anybody who works on a film set wouldn’t have a problem with that at all. People say, “Well, you had Rob Pattinson on set. What about that Twilight baggage?” They talk about baggage. When I’m on the set with Rob, it’s just the two of us making a movie and there’s nothing else around. That’s just your professionalism. You can divest yourself of all that other stuff and then it’s two people working on the movie. It’s blue-collar at that point. When you meet an actor to talk about the movie, you get insight into their personal lives, maybe you meet them at their house or they go to yours, so you’re already demystifying. You can’t direct an icon. You have to direct a human being.