As a kid growing up in Toronto in the '40s and '50s, Cronenberg used to attend a theater called the Pylon (now known as the Royal Cinema) in what was becoming Little Italy. "The area was Jewish, but it was rapidly becoming Italian," he recalled. "And there were enough Italians to support a cinema across the road from mine called the Studio, which showed movies in Italian for Italians."
One Saturday, coming out of his theater from attending a "Hopalong Cassidy" movie, Cronenberg noticed that all the adults coming out of the theater across the street were "weeping and sobbing." "I was shocked," he said. "What could have happened? And then I realized for the first time that a movie had made them do this, that a movie could have that kind of power over grown-ups." The movie they had just attended? Federico Fellini's "La Strada." "So of course, as soon as I was old enough, I saw Fellini films too," he said. "And I was crying, too."
Cronenberg cautioned against the difference between emotion and sentimentality, however. "People have thought my films are cold or distant, but that's my attempt to avoid sentimentality, which is not the same as emotion," he said. "Oscar Wilde said that sentiment is the death of true emotion, and you can feel the desperation in filmmakers to generate emotion via sentimentality. If there's emotion in my movies, I want it to be real -- hard won, and deserved by the plot -- not the easy stuff."
When making his 1981 classic "Scanners," Cronenberg and crew had a little trouble executing the now-iconic head-exploding scene that is symbolic of the movie. At first, the special effects team built fake heads, and put explosives inside the heads with extra material, such as macaroni and liver, "but every time they exploded it," the director said, "it all vaporized, and you saw was a huge puddle of smoke."
Then special effects coordinator Gary Zeller came up with a solution, and told Cronenberg, "Let's do it how we do it in New York." "That meant he would lie down on the floor behind the puppet and he took a shotgun and blew its head off," the director laughed. "And so that's how we did that. Is that New York? I don't know!" Ever since, exploding heads have become a horror film trope, but Cronenberg said he was hoping for more "resonance." "It's about unbearable mental pressure," he said. "You don't have to live very long before you meet someone who makes your head explode."
This is a conversation Cronenberg wishes Paul Haggis had with him when he was prepping "Crash": When Ivan Reitman was planning a movie called "Twins," he called up his longtime friend and former compatriot. The conversation went something like this, according to Cronenberg:
Ivan: "I hear you're making a movie called 'Twins.'"
David: "Yeah, it's about these twin gynecologists."
Ivan: "I want to make a movie called 'Twins' as well."
David: "Oh, really?"
Ivan: "Yeah, and I need the title more than you do. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Danny DeVito, twins. That's the sell."
David: "I can see that."
Ivan: "So we can't both have movies called 'Twins.'"
David: "OK. How much?"
Reitman ended up paying Cronenberg for the use of the title, and Cronenberg changed the title of his 1988 film to "Dead Ringers," which was now financed by "Twins" money. "And they both did OK, on their own levels," Cronenberg chuckled.
The extra cash didn't help Cronenberg with his casting problem, however. "I went to 30 of the finest North American actors trying to get them to do 'Dead Ringers,' and they all said no," he said. "One of them said, 'It would drive me to the edge of madness.' Another person who knew that actor said, 'It's not a very long drive.' Just say the word gynecologist, and it was over. They would not play a gynecologist. So the first actor who remotely said maybe was Jeremy Irons."
The director said that whenever he has a broader appeal film, either in the past with, say, 1983's "The Dead Zone" or this year with "A Dangerous Method," he is either "accused or lauded for being mainstream."
"I've tried hard to be an obscure filmmaker," Cronenberg said. "The problem is you can't raise money if you're too obscure, so there's some tension there."
Cronenberg said he's often asked why he didn't "Cronenberg-ize" "A Dangerous Method," as if the film is a departure from his style -- and to those critics, he responded, "The first film I ever made was called 'Transfer,' a seven-minute short, and it was about a psychiatrist and his patients. So obviously the idea of psychoanalysis and the relationship that never existed before Freud was a fascination to me right from the beginning. It's really coming full circle."
He does allow, however, that "A Dangerous Method" is more intellectual and less violent than, say, "A History of Violence," "where one character just says, 'Shut up, bitch,' and stuff like that. Whereas Freud and Jung never said that, as far as I know."
"People thought I'd cut to the dreams and do weird stuff," Cronenberg continued, "but it's based on the play 'The Talking Cure,' and talking was the crucial thing. Each movie tells you what it wants, what it needs, and this style came from the era, which was a formal, restrained, repressed era. In some ways, psychoanalysis back then was like 'Crash': it was considered a dangerous, destructive subculture, experimenting with things that should not be discussed."
Before Cronenberg became a director, he actually envisioned his career path as a writer of novels. His father was a writer -- a journalist. And so he majored in literature at the University of Toronto. "I thought I would be a novelist long before I would have access to filmmaking," he said. "And I particularly aspired to be an obscure novelist."
But then a few years ago, an editor at a division of Penguin Canada, Nicole Winstanley, wrote to him, suggesting he consider trying his hands at a novel. "I said, 'I know!' and she said, 'Let's talk about it,'" Cronenberg recalled. "And before I knew it, I had sold this novel everywhere in the world, Russia even."
Despite the preemptive sales deals, he's far from completing a draft of the story, which will partially take place in Toronto and will share some of his film's surgery themes. "They're still waiting," he laughed nervously. "I hear novelists are often very late, so I'm banking on that."
His excuse? Movies got in the way. "It's unusual for me to do two films back to back like this," he said, referring to his next project, "Cosmopolis." "I feel like Woody Allen, except he's been doing it for 30 years, and I've only done it for two."