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Indie goes big

Experimental filmmaker David Cronenberg talks about preserving artistic vision in Big Hollywood

A different point of view: Cronenberg at work on Violence.
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Published 9/21/2005

Thereís a scene in Spider-Man 2 where Doctor Octopus is rushed to the hospital to have the creepy mechanical arms grafted to his spine removed. The arms suddenly spring to life and, as captured in a series of frantically wild camera shots, kill everyone in the operating room. For long-time fans of Sam Raimiís work, the scene is a rare cameo appearance of the directorís former over-the-top style, homage to his earlier films.

Known for coupling the horror aesthetics of George Romero with the violent slapstick of the Three Stooges, Raimi parlayed his giddy genre efforts into a trio of handsome but mediocre studio films (A Simple Plan, For the Love of the Game and The Gift). Only with the Spider-Man franchise did the Detroit filmmaker finally find a place where his artistic and commercial sensibilities could harmoniously coexist.

If Raimi is any kind of example, there may be hope for the long list of independent filmmakers whose talents seem to have come undone by the demands of Hollywoodís studio system.

Look at such recent efforts by indie stalwarts like the Coen Brothers (The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty), Terry Gilliam (The Brothers Grimm, Tideland) and Jane Campion (In the Cut). Even Atom Egoyan (Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter), a boldly intellectual filmmaker, is rumored to have lost his way with Where The Truth Lies, a $25 million film about a dysfunctional comedy team starring Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth.

Do larger budgets and bigger name stars mean a director must abandon the very artistic qualities that got him or her noticed in the first place?

Consider Richard Linklater and Alexander Payne, two directors whoíve made the transition from art house cinema to the world of the multiplex. Payneís About Schmidt and Sideways, though showered with praise, show little of the caustic and subversive wit on display in his Election or Citizen Ruth. Linklaterís last two studio films, The Bad News Bears remake and School of Rock, are certainly entertaining, but bear little resemblance to the anarchic style of Slackers, Dazed and Confused or Waking Life. Only side projects like Before Sunset show evidence of his former artistic ambitions.

Conversely, Steven Soderbergh, in an odd reversal, seems to find greater artistic success in his big-budget studio films (Erin Brockovich, Out of Sight and Oceanís Eleven and Twelve) than his experimental efforts (Full Frontal, Solaris). Christopher Nolan, whose ingenious Memento made a huge splash, went on to salvage Batman from the tongue-in-cheek hell of Joel Schumacher. Clearly, thereís hope for artistic impulse and creative independence in even the biggest budget movies.

Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than David Cronenbergís latest film, A History of Violence. Cronenberg could never be accused of compromising his style or vision. Films like Crash, Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch demonstrate a defiantly iconoclastic approach to filmmaking.

With a History of Violence, Cronenberg is working with his biggest budget ever ($32 million) and an A-list movie star (Viggo Mortenson). Still, he manages to infuse a rather simple action-thriller with a savagely droll subtext about the myths of violence and identity. Metro Times spoke with Cronenberg about the film, and his take on maintaining an independent vision when working with the studios.

Metro Times: Youíve become known as a director with a distinct vision. With changes in the industry, especially in regard to financing and distribution, do you find it harder to maintain the integrity of your personal vision?

Cronenberg: Well, itís always been hard getting my films made. I suppose if I were working completely in the studio system it would be harder. But in the independent world, people are looking for movies you couldnít place at the studios, so thereís always someplace to go even if itís something very extreme or difficult. The downside, of course, is that you struggle with the financing; you have to put the film together piece by piece. The upside is creative freedom.

MT: You went through a tug-of-war with your last picture, Spider. Did that experience push you toward higher profile work like A History of Violence?

Cronenberg: Basically, I was broke. I spent two years doing Spider and not getting paid anything because we had to defer our salaries in order to get the movie made. And when I say "we," I mean Ralph Fiennes and Miranda Richardson and the writer and the producer. We all got paid nothing. I knew I couldnít do another one like that so quickly afterward, because you just canít survive. So I needed to find a project that was solvent, financially. That was really the only pressure.

MT: HoV seems a bit of a departure for you. First of all, there are no biological orifices on display.

Cronenberg: Well, there are mouthsÖ

MT: How does it fit within the Cronenberg canon?

Cronenberg: Frankly, I donít ever think about that, unless some critic asks me about it, because I canít look at my own movies objectively. I donít really see them as movies. As Iíve often said, theyíre more like documentaries about what I was doing and thinking on that particular day, rather than just movies.

MT: HoV has a pretty large budget and, letís be frank, Aragornís in it. Doesnít that put certain pressures and demands on you as a director?

Cronenberg: I donít like to think of him as Aragorn. That part of it was never an issue because, as an actor, Viggo was not interested in being Aragorn again.

In terms of the studio, once you agree on the budget and a script and the casting, thatís it, you go off and direct a movie. I felt as free on History of Violence as when I was making Spider. Of course, Spider is not the kind of movie a studio would ever do. Once you agree youíre all making the same movie, there shouldnít be a problem. There would be a problem if the director secretly wanted to make another movie. But Iím Canadian. I donít do those kinds of things.

MT: There are some filmmakers, known for their artistic vision, branching into higher profile studio projects with mixed results. What do you think about their ability to thrive under the studio system or, as you mentioned, differing agendas?

Cronenberg: Itís hard to say. Youíd have to take it case by case. I donít know if thereís a general rule of thumb. Itís interesting to see Soderbergh ó who began making relatively difficult and unusual films then sort of got lost a bit ó come back with a popular Hollywood career working with George Clooney, yet still yearns for or, at the very least, has roots in alternative cinema. He seems to be trying to alternate between the two.

MT: Yes, Soderbergh has his big budget studio projects and his quirky low budget experiments.

Cronenberg: I guess Iím trying to have it all, every time. Iím very greedy by trying to do both at once. I try to make my movies entertaining enough to appeal to audiences and artistic enough for me. I really want every movie to count, though Iím hardly big Hollywood.

MT: Are there filmmakers working today whose work you admire?

Cronenberg: I donít see a lot of movies, which is probably a bit abnormal. I read a lot. I do like the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke. I find him very uncompromising, and he too has a body of work that sustains a particular tone that heís pretty relentless in pursuing. I admire that. But there arenít too many, because there are a lot of filmmakers who make one interesting film but never seem to build a body of work from it.

If you look at Darren Aronofsky, who made Pi and Requiem for a Dream, which was a movie I didnít much admire, who then decides to pursue making a Batman movie for like three years, and it falls apart and heís only now coming out with another film. He spent three to five years lost in the wilderness, playing Hollywood footsie to make a big-budget sequel. And you have to conclude that, perhaps, that was a mistake. Hollywood can be very, very seductive.

MT: Youíve said that HoV is not a criticism of American culture with regard to violence. Is there anything wrong with criticizing the U.S.?

Cronenberg: I actually havenít said that. A lot of European journalists wanted to make it primarily about that, and I said, now wait a minute, thereís not a nation on Earth that wasnít founded on violence. You canít lay that completely at the feet of the U.S. On the other hand, there are definitely political undertones to the movie. It isnít overtly political, but there are undertones that have to do with Americaís mythology of itself, which sometimes translates into political action. Especially the whole ethos of the Western; the idea of the man standing alone with his gun in his hand, taking the law into his own hands because his home or his family has been attacked and that seems to justify any kind of retaliation. You wonder if thatís the foreign policy of the Bush administration. Has it been taken from Western movies with its simplistic answer to complex issues? Itís a question Iím trying ask, and I donít have all the answers but there is that resonance. So, no, thereís nothing wrong with criticizing the U.S., but this movie is not a political stance. Itís more subtle than that.

MT: You examine the idea that everyone gets a second chance at reinventing themselves, that an individual can decide to be whoever he wants, which seems to be a distinctly American mindset.

Cronenberg: Thatís exactly correct; the U.S. was founded on the idea of people coming here to find a new life, a new identity for themselves. But we know that can have sinister aspects as well, when true identities are hidden or misappropriated.

MT: With that in mind, how do you reconcile your role as a filmmaker with the subversive personality youíve become to some of your fans?

Cronenberg: I try to be as straightforward as possible and ignore the persona, who sort of walks around and does things without your knowledge - which is kind of spooky, actually.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to

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