David Cronenberg Talks To Kurt Loder About ‘Eastern Promises’ And His Disturbing Body Of Work

Director also talks about the films he could have made, like 'Return of the Jedi,' 'Top Gun,' 'Flashdance' ...

David Cronenberg is a director of many parts — body parts, quipster critics might say: the exploding heads in “Scanners” (1981), the mutant nippers in “The Brood” (1979), the gruesome interspecies mash-up of “The Fly” (1986). Despite his touching fondness for B-movie effects, though — like the chatty Mugwump in “Naked Lunch” (1991) or the vagina-like VHS slot in his classic “Videodrome” (1983) — there’s always been more to Cronenberg’s “biological horror” than simple grisliness. Some of his most unsettling films have not been especially gooey — it’s the haunting concepts that stay with us: the automotive sex in “Crash” (1996), the genital deception in “M. Butterfly” (1993) and, most disturbingly, the gynecological nightmare of “Dead Ringers” (1988).

Over the course of a 38-year career, Cronenberg has never shown any interest in directing big-budget, blockbuster-type movies. (Or in relocating to Hollywood to do so — he still operates out of his native Toronto.) Even the 2005 “A History of Violence,” which garnered two Oscar nominations and won a slew of awards both here and abroad, only cost about $30 million to make; and his latest, the admiringly reviewed “Eastern Promises” (once again starring Viggo Mortensen ) cost even less. That neither of these pictures is a horror movie (“Eastern Promises” is about the Russian mob in London) demonstrates that Cronenberg is still determined, at age 64, to go his own way. So what next?

Kurt Loder: You’re going to do an opera of “The Fly”? How will that work?

David Cronenberg: I hope it will work well. But I’ve never directed an opera before, so it’s all new territory. Really you want to scare yourself a little bit as a director, and that’s one way to do it — it’s all new terrain. Howard Shore has written the music already, and David Henry Hwang, who wrote “M. Butterfly,” has written the libretto.

Loder: Will there be cinema-style effects?

Cronenberg: I think they’re doing a lot of video and stuff with big screens [in opera now], but I don’t want to do that. I want to do it as theater because that’s what I haven’t done. If I were going to show you close-ups of the transformation of the Fly, that would be like remaking my own movie. That doesn’t interest me.

Loder: Someone else is doing a remake of “The Fly,” apparently.

Cronenberg: It’s been talked about. And there’s talk about doing a remake of “Scanners,” and even “The Brood.” A remake of my own movie is not something I’m ever going to be interested in [doing].

Loder: What do you think of remakes generally?

Cronenberg: My movie “The Fly” was a remake of a 1957 movie, so I’d be hypocritical to say they can never be good because I think I did a good job with it. But in a way it shows you the poverty of imagination [today], and the desire to play it safe. [They] want the brand name.

Loder: How did Steve Knight’s script for “Eastern Promises” come to you?

Cronenberg: My agents sent it to me. It had been languishing at BBC Films — they had commissioned him to write it. My agents sent it to me. I’m very picky. I say no to everything and it makes them crazy. So they go looking for stuff in musty old corners, and they found this script and I really loved it.

Loder: What did you love about it?

Cronenberg: It’s a multicultural study. London is a multicultural city, and so within it you have these Eastern European criminal groups who maintain their own culture within the English culture. And there’s a very uneasy alliance [among them] because they have enmities that go back a thousand years from their home country. You have Russians, Albanians, Turks — it’s like criminal globalization. They have to cooperate in order to do their illegal business, but they never trust each other. It’s very Shakespearean in a way.

Loder: Is the part of the movie about tattoos telling a gangster’s life story accurate?

Cronenberg: It is accurate, but ironically it wasn’t in the original script. [Knight] did allude to the fact that this character played by Viggo has tattoos but he didn’t go much further. Viggo himself, who is a demon for research, found a book called “Russian Criminal Tattoo [Encyclopedia],” which was fantastic. It’s a shockingly great book. It documents prisoners in Russian prisons showing their tattoos and talking about the subculture of prison tattooing that developed 150 years ago. It’s like a secret society wherein your life story is literally tattooed on your body — you really don’t have an identity unless you have those tattoos. People read you — they can tell what crimes you’ve committed, where you spent time in prison, what your sexual orientation is, how high up you are in the hierarchy of the mob. And woe to you if you have a false tattoo that you didn’t earn, because if it means ripping off your skin [to get rid of it], you have to do that.

Loder: Did Viggo learn Russian for this role?

Cronenberg: He went to Russia on his own. They said, “No, you can’t go to Russia without a guide or a translator!” But he just went. It’s great for an actor to be anonymous, to be able to observe people without them reacting to you. And he went to Moscow and St. Petersburg, but he also went to [a small town] in Siberia because that’s where we figured his character would come from. He wanted to know what it was like to walk in the streets of this town, and to see how people carried themselves there, their body language, their tone and attitude. Russians have a very old culture. We still think of them as Soviets, but their culture goes back a thousand years, and it’s never been European, it’s never been Asian. It’s a weird culture all its own. There’s a strange kind of melancholy and despair that’s always there.

Loder: Are you and Viggo going to be like Scorsese and De Niro — can you see doing a long series of movies together?

Cronenberg: Well, Marty and Bobby started a lot earlier in their careers together. But I do feel that we have a special relationship. We have a very similar sense of humor, similar politics, and we work in very similar ways. He feels like a brother to me.

Loder: He’s said that you like to keep things light on the set.

Cronenberg: That’s true.

Loder: Is that always easy?

Cronenberg: It’s always easy even with movies like “Crash” that are very, very dark. That was a laugh riot. I’m telling you that was the funniest set I ever had. And I hear that even Ingmar Bergman, the morose Swede, had a very light set. I think it’s a balancing act you do. I actually think all of my movies are funny too. They’re not comedies but there is always humor in them.

Loder: There is in this one.

Cronenberg: Yes, there is. It’s a wonderful way of relating to people and bringing people around because you can have a set that’s very tense and people are afraid of being humiliated or yelled at, and I just don’t like that myself and don’t want inflict that on anybody else.

Loder: Naturally the talk about this movie is going to be about the steam bath scene, which must have been a really difficult thing to edit. It also seems dangerous for Viggo.

Cronenberg: It’s true. He’s naked in the scene, which means he can’t wear any padding. I shot it very quickly. It really only took two days to shoot but there was a lot of preparation of course in the choreography and lighting. Surprisingly, in terms of editing, my editor just did it. I’ve worked with him for 30 years so we know each other very well. Normally I’m always messing around with it anyway. I could not improve on his cut. His first cut is what you see in the movie. He of course says it’s because I shot it so well and precisely. We complement each other. It was difficult to shoot but no more than a normal action scene, other than the fact that [not having] padding on one of the actors means that it’s a little dangerous. In fact, he got very bruised and swollen. My makeup man said to me, “I’m spending more time covering up Viggo’s bruises than I am putting on the tattoos.” I said, “Don’t tell me that. I don’t want to know.”

Loder: The editing is interesting in that it doesn’t try to conceal everything.

Cronenberg: We conceal nothing. The whole idea was it would be free and open. While we were working on the choreography Viggo said at one point, “Well, it’s obvious I’ll have to do this naked.” And I said, “Great.” That was that discussion. It didn’t go much further. There is a lot of trust that has to exist between a director and an actor to do a scene like that, for a major actor to do a naked fight scene. Normally nudity means sex, but in this case it means vulnerability.

Loder: There is a sex scene in the movie, in a bordello. It’s very sad, though.

Cronenberg: Yeah, it’s very perverse and sad on several levels. You wouldn’t call that a sex scene per se. It’s something else.

Loder: Is this one of the things the Russian mob is involved with, sex slavery?

Cronenberg: Yeah. I think it’s no secret that a huge amount of the sex-slave trade comes from Eastern Europe. The girls come from small towns, they have no money, they have no hope. And suddenly someone says, “Come to London. We’ll get you there and you will sing in a café and you will become famous.” And then they go there and they end up being prostitutes and beaten up and threatened, with no passport and no hope.

Loder: Using lead actors like Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Jerzy Skolimowski, you had a lot of different languages to negotiate. Was that hard to do?

Cronenberg: It was. There are good Russian actors, but very few of them can speak English well enough to act in English. This meant that I had to have an American, a Frenchman, a German and a Pole, all being Russian characters. When Vincent speaks English he speaks it very well, but of course he speaks it with a French accent. Now I’m asking him to speak it with a Russian accent instead, and to speak good Russian when they all speak Russian to each other. So they all had that challenge. For me as a director, it was like being an orchestra conductor. You’re trying to bring them all together to be in tune with each other so they feel like they came from the same place. Fortunately when you cast wonderful actors that makes it easier. We recently screened the movie for some Russian journalists, and they said the accents were perfect — that [the characters] sounded just like Russian street hoods. Which is what we wanted.

Loder: I wonder how that’ll be handled when the movie’s actually shown in Russia.

Cronenberg: That’s a problem in every country. I haven’t really solved it. When you show it in Finland, do they speak Finnish with a Russian accent? I don’t know.

Loder: “A History of Violence” was based on a graphic novel. Are you interested in them now?

Cronenberg: I can’t say I’m a graphic-novel freak. In fact, when I started to make “A History of Violence,” I didn’t even know it was based on a graphic novel. Nobody told me.

Loder: After that movie, did people start approaching you with them?

Cronenberg: Yeah. A lot of Hollywood people really like to do adaptations and sequels and remakes because then they have a property they can look at. You’d be surprised how many producers can’t read a script. I don’t mean literally; I mean they can’t imagine it. So if they have a graphic novel, they can see it better. If they’re remaking a Japanese film, they can see the film.

Loder: That’s sort of depressing, isn’t it?

Cronenberg: It is, a little bit. There are still wonderful producers around, but they are rare.

Loder: What kind of scripts do you get? Do people bring you strange material?

Cronenberg: I like it when people send me stuff that’s unlikely — a light comedy or a musical or something. I was actually asked to direct “Flashdance.” And “Top Gun,” as well.

Loder: You’d have made them very differently, I’d imagine …

Cronenberg: They would have been flops if I had directed them. I would have tried to subvert “Flashdance,” I can tell you that. So I said, “I wouldn’t be doing you a favor to direct this movie.”

Loder: Might you ever return to sci-fi?

Cronenberg: I like genre stuff. After all, “Eastern Promises” is a genre movie — it’s a film noir, a crime movie. I think you can use the conventions of a genre film for strength. I did that with “The Fly.” There were things we could deal with in “The Fly” that, if it had been a normal drama, people would have thought were too depressing. Really [the film's about] two people, they fall in love, one of them gets a hideous wasting disease, and then his lover helps him kill himself. But because it’s within the sci-fi horror genre, people don’t find it so depressing.

Loder: Are there other sci-fi books you’ve always thought about?

Cronenberg: I like Philip K. Dick. I think there are about a thousand movies you could make out of his work, and they keep making really bad versions of it. I was involved for a while in “Total Recall.” I was going to direct that. I had a disagreement with the producers.

Loder: What did they want?

Cronenberg: Put it this way: I wanted William Hurt to star in it and it ended up being Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Loder: One of the boldest things you’ve done was to adapt “Naked Lunch,” a book previously thought to be unfilmable. How’d you do it?

Cronenberg: Well, just my enthusiasm for [William S.] Burroughs and his work. I wasn’t sure until I started to write the screenplay that I could do it. Then suddenly it just started to flow, almost as though I was channeling Burroughs somehow. The key was that I incorporated a lot of Burroughs’ biography. I asked him, “William, I wanna talk to you about you shooting your wife. This is something that is not exactly in the book, but it is in your life, and you have written about it. Would you object to that?” And he said, “I don’t separate my life from my work at all, so it’s perfectly legitimate to do that.” That was the key for me. That allowed me to use not just the book of “Naked Lunch,” but also the writing of the book.

Loder: What did Burroughs think of the finished movie?

Cronenberg: He loved it because I invented a lot of things that weren’t in his works, like the insect typewriters. He loved that. He was very generous, really, in his own way. He wasn’t protective; he wasn’t territorial. He was actually delighted to see this stuff.

Loder: I wanted to ask you about “Dead Ringers,” a very disturbing movie.

Cronenberg: Disturbing, but real. The reason it’s disturbing is for real things: the vulnerability of a woman, the relationship between a woman and a gynecologist, [putting] yourself in the hands of a medical person in general. I mean, they’re putting you to sleep and what do they do after that?

Loder: “Videodrome” was obviously a meditation on media. What do you think when you look around at the media culture today?

Cronenberg: I think the Internet would have been a big surprise [back then]. Some people think “Videodrome” anticipates it because in the movie I invented an interactive TV and, in a way, that is a model for what the Internet has become. It’s chaos theory — you really can’t predict everything. There’s always some synergy that’s going to escape you. I think the Internet was one of those things, and it has changed everything.

Loder: Are you a big Internet person?

Cronenberg: Oh, yes. I’ve been doing computer stuff for over 20 years. My first computer was a Xerox 860, this big thing.

Loder: Are you in favor of digital moviemaking?

Cronenberg: Yes. I love the digital revolution. I’m totally into it. Digital still photography brought me back to photography. I had abandoned it a long time ago because of the [lack of] control: You take your film into a lab and you’re not there looking over the guy’s shoulder [as he's] adjusting the colors. As a filmmaker that frustrated me. With digital, you have wonderful control, [and you can] have it in the comfort of your home at 3 in the morning. I love that.

Loder: Do you think film is over?

Cronenberg: I think film is basically over. It’s just a matter of time. Even “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises,” [although they were] shot on film, immediately [went] into a computer for the digital intermediate, where you correct all the colors. And at that point, they became digital media. So it’s bound to happen. I mean, at the moment the only analog things left on a film set are the humans and the camera.

Loder: What do you think of the rise of torture-porn movies?

Cronenberg: I haven’t seen them, so it’s hard for me to comment. But we’re in a very strange place right now with the Internet and what I consider to be snuff pornography, courtesy of Muslim extremists. If you want to watch an actual beheading, you can see it at home if you want to. Are [torture-porn] movies a response to that? People often go to horror films to confront their worst fears in a controlled circumstance. Well, relatively controlled, depending on where your theater is.

Loder: Since no director has yet been picked for the final Harry Potter film, I wonder what you would do if you took over that world.

Cronenberg: I don’t think I would do it, because it’s a big machine, and [one of] the things that I like about directing [is] just starting from scratch. For example, casting — a lot of the casting has already been done [in that series]; the characters are established. So that cuts me out of the casting process.

I was asked to do the third “Star Wars” movie, “The Return of the Jedi” — then it was called “The Revenge of the Jedi.” I got a phone call from one of the producers, who said, “What would you think of doing ‘Star Wars III’?” I said, “I don’t really do other people’s material.” And then it was like, click. I wasn’t enthusiastic enough, so I didn’t get a chance to think about whether it would be a good idea or not. I blew it right away.

Loder: You seem to have avoided doing big Hollywood-style blockbuster productions over the years …

Cronenberg: The bigger the budget, the less freedom you have. “Eastern Promises” cost $27 million, which to me is very big-budget. But when you think of movies that cost $180 million to make, it’s very small. Once you’re doing a movie that can bring down an entire studio if it flops, you have a lot of people looking over your shoulder and telling you what to do. I really thrive best with total freedom.

Loder: What are your other interests in life?

Cronenberg: I love cycling. I have some carbon-fiber bicycles, and a place in the country outside Toronto with some lovely hills, where you can pretend you’re doing the Tour de France without killing yourself.

Loder: What are the main differences between Canada and the United States?

Cronenberg: There are serious, deep cultural differences between our two countries. It’s something that always annoys Canadians, that Americans don’t notice that. They think that we’re slightly more polite Americans. In fact we’re hugely different. We didn’t have a civil war. We didn’t have a revolution. We didn’t have slavery. And we didn’t encourage citizens to open up the West with their own guns. We sent the mounted police into a territory first, and then the citizens came in — with no guns. So the attitude to guns is a huge difference. We still have the Queen of England on our money; [our independence] was a negotiation, not a revolution. And there’s a slightly gentler, more caring version of success there — we like the idea that the government can take care of you to a certain extent. All of those things have made our societies quite different.

Loder: Is there a Canadian directors’ scene?

Cronenberg: Well, all of five of us. There are not a lot of Canadian feature-film directors.

Loder: Why is that?

Cronenberg: Smaller country. And Hollywood has always had immense gravity; so in Canada, someone with talent would naturally be drawn to Hollywood, or in some cases to London. Norman Jewison left Toronto very early on for Hollywood and made a big success there; Ivan Reitman as well. If I’ve contributed anything to Canadian filmmaking, it’s probably been to show younger filmmakers that they can actually stay in Canada and have an international career there.

Loder: Are there any young directors worth keeping an eye on?

Cronenberg: I think it’s my duty to crush all young directors. They want to supplant me. They want to be successful. I do everything I can to destroy them.

I’m only kidding.

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