CANNES, France — Just two minutes into my interview with David Cronenberg, a spider scuttled onto the 79-year-old director’s shoulder. Though I jumped in my seat, Cronenberg simply looked amused.
“He’s a fan,” Cronenberg said as the spider paused on his suit jacket, trying to figure out which way to go next. The arachnid was luckier than it could have known: The man he was climbing over like a jungle gym was the unshockable auteur behind daring films like “The Fly,” “Scanners” and “Videodrome.” Cronenberg just peered at the eight-legged invader and smiled.
“That’s no problem,” he said. “I eat those for lunch.”
We were meeting on a terrace in Cannes the day after Cronenberg’s new drama, “Crimes of the Future,” had premiered to strong reviews at the festival. His first film in eight years, “Crimes of the Future” stars Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux as performance artists whose act involves live surgery, with Kristen Stewart as the bureaucrat who becomes fascinated by their work. The movie is set in an eerie near-future where human beings can no longer feel physical pain, but what Cronenberg does here is likely to evoke all sorts of feelings from the viewer: Some Cannes-goers found it provocative and romantic, while others simply walked out.
Cronenberg is used to that kind of response, especially at Cannes, where several of his films — including “Crash,” “A History of Violence” and “Cosmopolis” — have premiered to varying levels of controversy and fascination. In addition to contending for the Palme d’Or, “Crimes of the Future” will bow stateside on June 3, and Cronenberg was curious but unruffled about its potential reception, just as he shrugged off the spider that couldn’t help but crawl all over him: “It’s affection. It’s interspecies love. What can I say?”
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
How did you feel after the film’s premiere?
Fantastic. It is a strangely emotional film for me, and it’s been gratifying to see that it has been received that way, that people feel there’s a sadness and melancholy to it.
Is it more emotional than you expected when you wrote it?
Yes, absolutely. When you’re writing something like this, you are worrying about the creation of a fictional world. Do you have cars in the street or don’t you? If you do, what kind of cars are they and what do they indicate? Are they too specific in terms of time? And so on. When writing, you can think it’s more a technical, sci-fi thing than an emotional, relationship thing, but then later you see that the real strength of it is exactly that and not the sci-fi aspect. It’s the actors and the emotion they bring to the relationship, which is in between the lines.
Léa Seydoux, left, Viggo Mortensen and Kristen Stewart in “Crimes of the Future.”Credit…Nikos Nikolopoulos/Neon
Did you feel nervous before the premiere?
It’s an odd feeling, unique because it’s not exactly anxiety or nervousness, but it is emotional and it is intense. When people asked me what I was most afraid of when showing the movie, I said, “Mainly I’m worried about falling down the red-carpet stairs.” And there is some of that, because we’re not just screening the movie — you have to be there in your tux, you are performing, you are being photographed. As you know, the protocols at Cannes are very strict about what you wear and how you walk.
The protocols used to be even stricter until Kristen Stewart started flouting the high heels rule. Now, it’s a little more permissive because Cannes wouldn’t dare rebuke Kristen.
Well, she is a boundary-breaker, for sure.
Did you get the amount of walkouts you expected?
I wasn’t expecting it, I was thinking it could happen — it’s a little different. In the actual screening, as opposed to the press screening, I think only one person walked out. So that’s pretty good for me.
At the press screening, there were about 15 walkouts.
That’s what I heard. There are all kinds of reasons somebody might walk out of a press screening. It takes more daring and intensity to walk out of a formal premiere screening.
There were a surprising amount of tweets afterward that said, “Don’t worry, it’s not as gory as you think.” I found it fairly gory, though maybe there isn’t as much blood as people might expect.
In the surgeries that we show, there’s not much blood, and in the real surgery, there would be much more. Of course, they’d be sweeping it away so that they could see what they’re doing, so it’s a little bit of a fudge factor — I’m sort of pretending that’s what’s happening. Yes, it’s open-abdomen surgery, but I think the context in the film is so specific and artificial fantastic that the gross-out factor is really diminished.
And some people simply aren’t perturbed by surgery. When I had Lasik done on my eyes, my mother even asked for a DVD of the procedure.
You know, I’ve had two types of surgery on my eyes. The most recent was just six weeks ago — I had cataract surgery, where they destroy the lenses in your eyes with a laser and then they replace them with plastic lenses. My eyes are much more sensitive to light now, and I joked with my director of photography that we are going to have to redo the color time of the movie because everything is different since I got rid of the lenses that were my lenses for my movies for the last 50 years. Screening the film last night, it did look a little more cool in color, but I liked that. And those lenses plus my hearing aids means that I’m quite bionic, I think.
Has your relationship to your body changed much as you’ve gotten older?
I used to think that when old people got together, all they talked about was their hip surgeries or the meds that they have to take. But I realize that young people are now doing the same thing, and sometimes it’s self-inflicted surgery in the sense of cosmetic surgery. As a result, I can talk to young people with no problem, because we all talk about our surgeries together.
Cronenberg working with Mortensen on the set of their latest film.Credit…Nikos Nikolopoulos/Neon
You wrote “Crimes of the Future” 20 years ago. How different would the movie have been if you filmed it then?
It wouldn’t have changed at all in terms of dialogue or plot structure. Of course, I didn’t know Viggo then.
Who did you have in mind to star when you wrote it?
I never got to the point where I was casting it in my head, because the producer can say, “I can only raise X million dollars for this movie, since it’s a little bit edgy,” and then you say, “What if I get this particular A-level actor?” And they say, “Well, that would change the landscape. If you could really get X and if you could also pair him with Y, then maybe we could reach the budget that you think you need for this.” It’s never as simple as, “This guy would be the best guy for that role in the entire world, let’s go get him.” It’s never that, ever.
You’ve been fortunate working with great actors who’ve had major commercial success, like Viggo with “Lord of the Rings,” or Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart with “Twilight.”
But that’s actually the point. Rob would not have been able to support “Cosmopolis” before “Twilight,” even though that movie did not directly connect with the audience for “Twilight,” and I think the Rob fans were probably pretty disappointed to see him in “Cosmopolis.”
They still tried their best to support it. I remember writing about “Cosmopolis” at the time, and the Rob fans were retweeting their little hearts out.
He looked good, he was wearing good clothes, he had sex — how can that be bad? Overall, it wasn’t what they really wanted from Rob, but it helped us make the movie, and if he hadn’t had the “Twilight” success, he would just be another potentially interesting and good-looking young actor. Same with Viggo and “Lord of the Rings.” Why would “Lord of the Rings” help get “History of Violence” made? Well, the answer was obvious: “Lord of the Rings” was a huge success and he had a lot of fans as a result.
But the casting thing, it’s never rational. You might go to France looking for French money for your movie, and they say, “Well, sorry, Viggo might be a star in the U.S., but he’s not really a star in France.” This is a hypothetical, by the way. So you might go somewhere else looking for money where your preferred actor is considered a star and therefore viable. It’s very tricky. [The producer] Robert Lantos had to put together a kind of Frankenstein quilt of 19 different entities to finance “Crimes of the Future.”
I definitely saw a lot of logos before the film began.
Yes, and there were even more than that — ones you don’t know, private people who are putting in $500,000. But they all make demands, right up to the last minute. We were two weeks into prep in Athens and we still didn’t know if we were going to have to get on a plane and go back because all 19 entities had to sign at the same time, basically. And there would always be one that said, “We’re just about to sign, except we think we need more Covid insurance on Viggo.” Then you have to find the insurer who’s willing to do that, and it costs more money. Endless stuff.
Financing still has to be this piecemeal, even in an era where streaming services are desperate to pay for content?
Well, they’re not desperate enough. We went to Amazon and Netflix. They didn’t want to do it.
That surprises me, given how evidently buzzy the film has been.
Yeah, but it’s not evident before the fact. People have to have imagination and they often don’t. That was always the problem with Hollywood studios, which I dealt with from time to time: They have to be able to make an imaginative leap, and not too many studio executives can do that. I found that same problem at Netflix when I pitched them something. I thought maybe they’d be different, and this is not a criticism, but they really are a Hollywood studio.
In 1999, you served as the president of the Cannes jury. Did that give you any insight into how this year’s jury may be weighing your film?
I honestly have no idea, I really don’t. When I was jury president, the press were saying all kinds of things as though they had insider information — they knew nothing. Of course, part of the fun is to guess and anticipate, but the jury doesn’t know either until they start talking to each other, and they might be quite surprised at what they each think. So it’s not actually worth worrying your little head about. That’s my mantra.