At 69, Canadian director David Cronenberg is more prolific and respectable than ever. But from the venereal turd-creatures of 1975’s Shivers to Eric Packer, the dead-eyed capitalist played by Robert Pattinson in his adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis, Cronenberg’s intelligence, integrity and clinical insight into human psychology have never been in doubt. As the one-time Baron of Blood becomes a pillar of the filmmaking establishment, we find out that, although his subjects may have changed, Cronenberg’s passion remains undimmed.
Cosmopolis is the first screenplay you’ve written in over a decade. Why adapt this book?
It’s a matter of intuition. I needed to write the screenplay to know if this book would work as a movie. It hadn’t occurred to me at the time that nobody had managed to make a DeLillo book into a movie. Lots of them have been optioned, but nothing’s really happened. So that pleased me, to be the first to unleash Don’s dialogue on the world. That stylised dialogue established the template for everything, including the visuals.
You seem to be comfortable writing any kind of dialogue, from the romantic melodrama of The Fly to the dark comedy of Crash and the strange theatricality here.
Well, Cosmopolis is a funny movie too, even though it’s a very strange, dark humour. But although it’s different from film to film, the dialogue is always given a lot of care. Even in my early films like Shivers, the dialogue is pretty eccentric. It’s not normal low-budget horror film dialogue, which tends to be banal and realistic. There’s always been a stylised element to it. I enjoy that. To me, dialogue is cinema.
Does it frustrate you when critics accuse your recent films of being talky, as if your early work was somehow different?
It’s inevitably a little frustrating. You feel that they haven’t been paying attention. A casual filmgoer is forgiven, they’re allowed to be careless. You pay your money, you can pay as little attention as you want. But for a film journalist, it’s not very professional to drop that ball.
Many would say that the David Cronenberg of today is unrecognisable from the man who made Shivers and The Fly. Do you feel like the same filmmaker?
I do feel like the same director, though more mature and more confident in my filmmaking. But I’ve done certain things and I don’t feel the need to do them again. A lot of the things proposed to me are so influenced by my earlier work that it would feel like a remake. In fact, remakes of most of my movies have been suggested. That’s not gonna happen.
Is it fair to say that Cosmopolis is more interested in mood and tone than in logic or narrative?
I’m glad to hear you say that! People who are used to Hollywood movies where everything is explained may be frustrated. There’s no way anybody can follow some of the things Samantha Morton’s character says, for instance. At least not the first time. I think of it like a sci-fi movie where the intergalactic pilot is explaining the way his spaceship works. You don’t need to know what he’s talking about, you just need to believe that he knows what he’s talking about. Eric Packer understands when his Chief of Theory is explaining how the future connects with capitalism. It excites him, and that’s all you need to know.
What do you think about Eric Packer – and is it important to like your central character?
I think it’s important to feel empathy, not necessarily sympathy. You need to have some understanding of him, but it doesn’t mean you have to like him. You need to be fascinated enough to stay with him throughout the movie. Which is why you need a charismatic actor like Rob, who has a face you want to keep looking at.
Does casting a star like Robert Pattinson have any significance for you, beyond the fact that he’s right for the role?
No. It’s similar to when I cast Viggo [Mortensen, in Eastern Promises]. It’s important for the financing. If Rob hadn’t been famous from Twilight, I couldn’t have had him in the movie. But for me creatively that means nothing. Once you’re on the set, it’s just you guys. There’s no-one else there.
Do you like the idea that Twi-hards might have their horizons widened by Cosmopolis?
I do. A lot of girls who are fans of Rob’s have created Cosmopolis websites, and some of them are really elaborate and beautiful. And they’re reading the book and talking about it. They know it isn’t Twilight and they’re still excited. We had some girls standing outside at 3am while we were shooting. They’d made a T-shirt that said “Nancy Babich” and had a pistol on it [a reference to Pattinson’s bodyguard]. So I happily wore that for them! Undoubtedly there will be some Rob fans who’ve never heard of Don DeLillo, or me, who will see this movie. It’s not the cake, but it’s the icing on it.