David Cronenberg: East of Eden

Following the world premiere of his brilliant Eastern Promises at the Toronto International Film Festival, filmmaker David Cronenberg took the time to swing by Montreal to talk with local journalists. Here’s a transcript of our brief but fascinating exchange:

So you’re back in Montreal —
“Oh yeah! Driving in, I got a very warm feeling because I remember when I was doing “Shivers” in 1974, I would ride my motorcycle between Toronto and Montreal every weekend. I’d end up on the Décarie, and dodging all the trucks… So it brought back a lot of old memories, you know? I mean, I’ve been here since, but my strongest memories were because my first movies were made here.”

Do you think you might shoot a film here again?
“Absolutely, sure. I love Montreal and I have the most fond memories of working here as I was just starting out as a filmmaker. Everybody was very kind to me, the French Canadian filmmakers were very supportive and it was really quite lively and lovely.”

I actually wrote something in Voir last week about how we should embrace you as one of our own —
“Well, I feel like I’m a Montreal filmmaker, I mean, I certainly started that way. And you know, in those movies, those early horror films, I always made sure it was Quebec: you saw the word, you had people speaking québécois or speaking with québécois accents when they spoke English. I never hid, I never tried to pretend it was America, for example. I always said, this is Montreal we’re shooting.”

About “Eastern Promises”, which I loved, it’s kind of your Christmas movie, right?
“(laughs) If I were ever gonna make one, this is about as far as I could get. Well, in “Rabid”, also, it’s Christmas time. Because remember, in the mall, there’s a chase and we shoot Santa Claus!”

After “A History of Violence”, which was one of your biggest hits–
“Second I think, still, to “The Fly.”

— was there a sense of trying to remain in the same vein?
“No. I know it sounds unbelievable, but it’s a complete coincidence. It’s not a coincidence that I wanted to work with Viggo again, because I loved him and we got along very well. There were many other projects that I almost did, but it didn’t work out, the financing fell through… So it was really by accident that the timing was like that. It wasn’t as though I said, that was a good success, I must do another. Because, really, creatively, this movie is very different. It takes place in England, there are no Americans. People who loved “A History of Violence”, part of the reason is that they felt it really was saying something about America, the characters were American and in the heartland of America. And the violence was very American, with a lot of guns. This movie, there are no guns, it’s all Eastern Europeans in London. Almost all the characters have accents when they speak English. So creatively, it’s really very different, even though, of course, you could say they’re the same genre, they’re both sort of gangster movies in a very general way.”

The thing I thought was interesting when taking the two movies together is that “History” is kind of about this ordinary guy who turns out to be a killer, whereas “Eastern Promises” is about a killer who’s, well, not ordinary, but reveals shades of humanity.
“It’s true, but the thing is, when you’re making a movie, you can’t photograph an abstract concept and, when you’re an actor, you can’t play the role of an abstract concept. You have to play the role of a real person with a name, who comes from someplace, who learned his language someplace… You do your research, like, what kind of shoes would he wear? What kind of car would he drive, what kind of gloves would he wear, what would his tattoos say? And how strong would his accent be, where did he learn English, did he learn it from Russia, did he learn if from English people? For each character, you ask the same questions. So you’re working with these very practical, physical details. You can’t really work with the abstract things, even though you know, when you make the movie, that if it really works, if it comes alive, that it will provoke these kinds of abstract connections and thoughts.”

About the tattoos, it feels very essential to the story.
“Yes. And yet, it wasn’t in the original script. It mentioned that the character had tattoos, that he probably got in prison, but that was all. But then Viggo sent me a book called “Russian Criminal Tattoos”. I read it and I went whoa, this is incredible material, all about this subculture of tattooing in Russian prisons that goes back to tsarist days, you know, before the Soviet Union. I never knew anything about it and it’s not in the script. I said to the writer, when we do the rewrite, we must incorporate this because it’s a fantastic metaphor. It’s as though the script was waiting for this.”

Another thing I thought was really intriguing, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it depicted it so vividly as in your film, is the link between sexuality and the gangster world. Usually, it’s always men in suits, you don’t think of them as sexual, but in your film it comes out really–
“Yeah, that’s right. I think that even though people deny it or aren’t aware of it, there’s always a sexual component in violence… Sometimes very perverse and strange, but… These people, as you can see… Vincent Cassel’s character is gay, he’s in love with his driver, but there’s no way he could admit that to himself. It would be like a death sentence, because it’s such a macho, control culture that, if you’re gay, you’re considered totally weak and should be destroyed. You’re right, I too cannot quite remember ever seeing anything like that in a movie.”

It’s almost as if, to prove that they’re real men, they have to treat women like, like meat.
“That’s exactly true.”

So it goes into the human traffic in a way I’d never really thought about.
“And it’s interesting that the Armin character is destroyed because of his attitude towards women, really, which he would never even think was an important or dangerous thing.”

At this point, a studio rep warns me that my time up, so I can’t help but ask about the brutal bathhouse brawl which has Viggo Mortensen kicking ass in the buff:

“That’s the combination of me and Viggo. When we were doing the choreography for the scene, at one point he said, it’s obvious that I have to do this naked. I said, great, good, and that was it, there’s no more conversation. We knew that the level of reality in the film was such that if we suddenly did this thing that was kind of coy or cute, it would betray the reality level that we had established in the rest of the movie.”

And it makes him so much more vulnerable–
“That’s right, because this is like the shower scene in “Psycho”: you’re wet, you’re hot and you’re naked, and there are people with knives who want to kill you. So it’s a very vulnerable moment. It makes this a completely different kind of scene.”

And going back to the tattoos, it shows them in all their glory…
“Especially when there’s blood on them!”