The Art of Bodily Horror

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


Ever since its world premiere at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, critics have heaped praise on A History of Violence, director David Cronenberg and screenwriter Josh Olsen's tale of Indiana diner owner Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), and the act of heroism that catapults Tom into the spotlight while causing his long-buried alter ego—a Philadelphia gangster named Joey Cusack—to be unearthed. And in recent months, the gravy train has only accelerated: there have been acting prizes from the critics' groups in New York and Los Angeles, two Golden Globe nominations (including best dramatic motion picture) and scores of "10 best" lists (including the two published in these pages last week). The movie is also, in box-office terms, Cronenberg's most popular since his 1986 remake of The Fly, having grossed some $30 million in North America and an additional $20 million internationally since opening in September. But the news is not all good: factor in two decades of inflation—plus the fact that the film was widely promoted as the most "mainstream" of the Canadian director's career—and it becomes clear that A History of Violencehasn't been embraced by the general public in quite the same way it has been by the press. In a reversal of the usual movie-publicity routine, by which filmmakers are available for interviews only during the short window of time before a film's release, I sat down with Cronenberg over lunch in New York early last month to discuss his movie, its reception and the art of bodily horror.

OC Weekly: Given the almost unanimous critical acclaim for A History of Violence, I was surprised, once the film opened in general release, to hear from friends who saw it with public audiences that the reaction was much more divided, with some audience members applauding at the conclusion and others booing loudly. And this schism continues in what has been written about the film in the user forums on movie websites like the IMDB and Metacritic, where one of my favorite postings reads, "My friend Tanya and I just caught a 2:05 p.m. showing at the Grove in Hollywood. And let me tell you folks, this baby made Predator 2 look likeOn the Waterfront."

David Cronenberg: Well, I try not to read too much of what goes on on IMDB or a lot of those other places, because I think, not to be evasive, but the Internet community is pretty nuts. I mean, if you go on to the Nikkon D70 forum, you'll find people saying the most outrageous things. They get extremely passionate and even murderously angry—and this is just a camera, a camera that you don't even have to buy! So, I take all of that with a huge grain of salt. These are people sitting home alone at night and all their energy is going into these discussions. And I think if you just met these people, talked to them face to face, they wouldn't be like that. But also, some critics, like Amy Taubin, have said they don't think the movie is mainstream at all, and I guess that they're right. It weirdly reminds me of Crash in that at first it has the feel of a standard kind of movie—you look at the cast, you look at what the plot might be and the style and the professionalism of the production and everything, and it feels like sort of a Hollywood-type movie. But then it doesn't follow all the rules. It subverts them.

Indeed, even in Cannes, there was the much-discussed incident in which, during the first press screening for the film, the Austrian critic Alexander Horwath loudly berated some other journalists for laughing at scenes that they thought were supposed to be funny and he clearly didn't.

That's because the movie mixes tones in a way that they're not normally mixed. It suddenly makes the audience wonder: Did the filmmaker know this was funny? And if he didn't know it was funny, then it's a mistake. But if he did know it's funny, then it's brilliant! So, yes, I've been assuring people that those are actual jokes, even though I don't personally see how some people can't realize that some of the jokes are just plain jokes. I think the standard template for Hollywood movies is that you set the tone and then you do the tone, and if it's supposed to be a sad scene, then everything's sad—the music is sad, the lighting is sad, the acting is sad. You don't put other stuff in there, because it's perceived to weaken the film. Something I've been doing with [composer] Howard Shore for a long time, for example, is making music that doesn't just support what's there; it's capable of delivering a whole other layer of discourse. But that too is not a normal thing to do. The normal Hollywood use of music is that you accentuate what's already there or you compensate for what you'd hoped would be there and isn't, so if a scene isn't as emotionally powerful as you'd hoped, you put lots of emotionally powerful music under it.

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.

That begs the question: Do you intend for the film to be read literally, or does it function more like a dream? For example, the establishing shots of Milbrook don't really look like any part of America that I've ever seen. They're more like the way we think of the Heartland in our collective consciousness—as if a Norman Rockwell painting had come to life on the screen.

Many years ago, I got a phone call out of the blue from a producer in Los Angeles and all he wanted to talk about was how strange my movies were for an American. He said, "You know, it's really spooky—the streets look like America, but they're not; the people seem to be Americans, but they're not." He went on and on. And I said, "I'm sure you're right." Part of that feeling, of course, is Canada, which is like America, but it's not. I've really only set three films in the States—this one, The Dead Zone and Fast Companybut of course Canada is so close to America that people will look at something like Dead Ringersand probably ignore the fact that it's obviously set in Toronto, so it's going to feel like a weird parallel universe. Those differentiations are not so apparent in Europe, obviously, because there the landscape that you're talking about probably feels authentically American to them, although I do think that America's whole mythology of itself is apparent even there.

I've mentioned that the look of the film reminded me of Norman Rockwell, while Howard Shore's original music strongly recalls the stirring fanfares of Aaron Copland. Did you have certain references like that in mind?

It was all in the air. It wasn't very specific. Certainly, with Howard, we talked about the American landscape and therefore the Western, and he was listening to a lot of scores from John Ford movies and things like that. I even found his score reminded me of East of Eden a bit, which is not obviously a Western, but there's something about the classic American landscape in it. With Peter, I reverted to the gold standard, which is Edward Hopper. Hopper's lighting was very soft, not contrasty, not hard-edged. And we went for that.

The colors are also very intense, almost like one of the old three-strip Technicolor pictures.

We didn't want to go as far as Marty did in The Aviator. We didn't want to play it like it was a movie about movies, even though if you have never seen another movie, your response is obviously going to be very different than if you've seen many movies, especially older ones. But for the actors, there was no irony. The characters don't know they're in a movie. It's not a post-postmodernist movie at all.

Do you consider your movies to be horror movies?

I don't. Even when I'm doing something like The Fly, I don't think of it as a horror film in particular. I'm willing to admit that The Fly is a horror film, but the genre part of it sort of takes care of itself. It's not a creative question. It's a marketing question, a critical question, an analytical question, but not a creative one. You just let the movie talk to you about what it needs and wants. I get very focused on the movie itself, the inner workings of it, and I don't worry about the categorization part. I mean, I can imagine someone saying, "I want to make a classical horror film that builds on all the mandates of the genre," but that would be a different project from anything that I've done. Even The Fly is also a sci-fi film. And Dead Ringers—what is that? And Naked Lunch? Burroughs used elements of many genres—sci-fi, horror, detective novels—and mixed them together in a way that wasn't any one of them.

But time and again your films do deal with the idea of transmutation or the manifestation of a previously repressed consciousness—what many have called your examination of "the hidden self" or the cinema of bodily horror.

It's nothing that I would say is autobiographical. People want to try to figure that out, but I was never traumatized as a child or any of those other things you get in the Freudian version of literary biography. I think what it comes from is my growing awareness as a kid, a philosophical understanding, of what the human condition is. The first fact of human existence is the human body. I'm an atheist—when we die, that's it. But I don't find that depressing. I find it fascinating, and I'm sure that is why I have this sort-of body-centric moviemaking, because to me the further you move away from the human body, the further away you are moving from a sort of primal reality.

So whose "history" is it, anyway?

It's got three levels. There's the way that you see it in the newspapers, that a suspect had "a history of violence," so in that sense it's Tom's. But it's also America's. And then it's also the human species'. J.G. Ballard wrote about it in The Guardian and he said that it's a history of family violence in which the family is the human family. That's why you can't say that the movie is anti-violence. It's sort of saying how ambivalent we are about violence. Violence can be exhilarating; even in this movie it's exhilarating. Which I think might also be a disturbing thing for some audiences, because they don't know where exactly to put that either.

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