The Art of Bodily Horror

A History of Violence director David Cronenberg talks about history and violence

In general, Hollywood movies seem to tell you how to feel at every moment, rather than letting you make up your own mind.

I'm looking for collaboration from the audience. For example, with the sex scenes—how you respond to those really has a lot to do with your sex life. Do they disturb you? Do they seem far-fetched? Or do you look at them and say, "Oh yeah, that's just marriage."

This movie is steeped in the iconography of the American Dream: rolling green fields, well-adjusted nuclear families, small-town diners where everybody knows your name. You then peel all of that back to reveal something more sinister. Do you feel that being Canadian gives you a different insight into this kind of Americana that maybe those of us who grow up mired in it don't have?

I think it gives me a completely different perspective. My cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky, and I talked about Fritz Lang a lot—another guy from a very different culture coming to America and making very American movies, but with a very different perspective and a very oblique angle on everything American. Of course, Canada is very close to America in many ways, but also very different. It's like what Marshall McLuhan used to talk about when he said that being out of the mainstream of America was what allowed him to have those perceptions that he had. He liked to call Canada a kind of backwater of the American flood. But he felt that people in it could not see it. It's like the old saying: Is a fish the best creature to tell you what water is? The answer is, probably not.

As I understand it, what's there on the screen now is pretty far removed from the source material, a graphic novel co-written by John Wagner and Vince Locke.

The studio [New Line Cinema] said, "We want you to elevate the material." I said, "I will, don't worry." It was basically a first draft. I went in to talk to the executives at New Line and told them what I wanted to do with it—what characters I thought should be cut from the script, including some characters they had already cast in their mind. I said, "I'm sorry, but Robert Duvall doesn't get to play this role because I don't think that character should be in the movie." Then I sat with Josh for a week at a hotel in L.A. We went over everything, all the changes. He would go away and come back. We got very detailed about what we were doing, how the script was being restructured, the tone of it, details about dialogue, all sorts of things. We did this a couple of times and it went through a couple of more drafts, and then finally I did a draft completely on my own, but still constantly keeping in touch with Josh so that he would know everything. Before I showed it to New Line, I wanted him to be onboard with it, and he was very happy. It was really a very organic fusion of him and me in the script, to the extent that it's hard to pick out who did what. Two of the major changes that I brought to it were that there were no sex scenes in the original script and the two men were not brothers.

The sex scenes feel essential in that they chart Edie's own changing perceptions of Tom. After he kills those two men in the diner, it's like she's seen a side of him she's never seen before, and she's turned on by it.

And she's repulsed by the fact that she's turned on, but nonetheless she's turned on.

The decision to make the two men brothers gives the movie a kind of Biblical dimension.

It does. Cain and Abel were mentioned. But it also had a very pragmatic function, which was that the script did not have flashbacks, and I liked that. In the original script, there were a lot of long monologues about the past—in the scene in the shopping mall, I think Ed Harris' character had a three-page monologue—and I said, "This isn't going to work." But I did want to give a feel for what Joey's past was, so making Richie his brother accomplishes some of that. It's just a taste, but enough to know that Joey was being raised with this overbearing, egomaniacal, very sinister, brutal brother and the mob was therefore in his life whether he wanted it to be or not.

On the other hand, Tom Stall seems to become Joey Cusack the minute he pulls the trigger in that diner, whether or not he ever was before. And the movie suggests that we might all have a little Joey Cusack lurking inside of us, waiting to be unleashed.

I completely do think that. Something people have frequently asked Viggo is, "How did you keep these two guys separate in your mind?" And he says, "No, it's just one guy. Joey's there all the time." And that was something Viggo and I discussed. It's not a compartmentalization. It's just different aspects of one personality. So I said we were really making two movies at once: The first time you see the movie, and the second time you see the movie. The second time you see it, you see Joey. You see lots of Joey right from the beginning.

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