David Cronenberg - biography
David Paul Cronenberg, OC, FRSC (born March 15, 1943) is a Canadian filmmaker, screenwriter, and occasional actor. He is one of the principal originators of what is commonly known as the body horror or venereal horror genre. This style of filmmaking explores people's fears of bodily transformation and infection. In his films, the psychological is typically intertwined with the physical. In the first half of his career, he explored these themes mostly through horror and science fiction, although his work has since expanded beyond these genres. He has been called "the most audacious and challenging narrative director in the English-speaking world."
Cronenberg was born in Toronto, Ontario, where he currently lives. He is the son of Esther (née Sumberg), a musician, and Milton Cronenberg, a writer and editor. He was raised in a middle-class progressive Jewish family. Cronenberg attended Harbord Collegiate Institute, later graduating from University College, University of Toronto with a degree in literature, having switched from science. He has cited William S. Burroughs and Vladimir Nabokov as influences. He remains an atheist and does not believe in an afterlife.
After two short sketch films and two short art-house features (the black and white Stereo and the colour Crimes of the Future) Cronenberg went into partnership with Ivan Reitman. The Canadian government provided financing for his films through the 1970s. He alternated his signature "body horror" films such as Shivers with projects reflecting his interest in car racing and bike gangs. Rabid exploited the unexpected acting talents of pornographic actress Marilyn Chambers (Cronenberg's first choice was a young, then-unknown Sissy Spacek). Rabid was a breakthrough with international distributors and his next two horror features gained stronger support.
Over the arc of his career, Cronenberg's films follow a definite progression, a movement from the social world to the inner life. In his early films, scientists modify human bodies, which results in the breakdown of social order (e.g. Shivers, Rabid). In his middle period, the chaos wrought by the scientist is more personal, (e.g. The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome). In the later period, the scientist himself is altered by his experiment (e.g. his remake of The Fly). This trajectory culminates in Dead Ringers in which a twin pair of gynecologists spiral into codependency and drug addiction. His later films tend more to the psychological, often contrasting subjective and objective realities (eXistenZ, M. Butterfly, Spider).
Perhaps the best example of a film that straddles the line between his works of personal chaos and psychological confusion is Cronenberg's "adaptation" of his literary hero William S. Burroughs' most controversial book, Naked Lunch. The book was considered "unfilmable" and Cronenberg acknowledged that a straight translation into film would "cost 100 million dollars and be banned in every country in the world". Instead—much like in his earlier film, Videodrome—he consistently blurred the lines between what appeared to be reality and what appeared to be hallucinations brought on by the main character's drug addiction. Some of the book's "moments" (as well as incidents loosely based upon Burroughs' life) are presented in this manner within the film. Cronenberg stated that while writing the screenplay for Naked Lunch, he felt a moment of synergy with the writing style of Burroughs. He felt the connection between his screenwriting style and Burroughs' prose style was so strong, that he jokingly remarked that should Burroughs pass on, "I'll just write his next book."
Cronenberg has said that his films should be seen "from the point of view of the disease", and that, for example, he identifies with the characters in Shivers after they become infected with the anarchic parasites. Disease and disaster, in Cronenberg's work, are less problems to be overcome than agents of personal transformation. Similarly, in Crash (1996), people who have been injured in car crashes attempt to view their ordeal as "a fertilizing rather than a destructive event". In 2005, Cronenberg would say that he was upset that Paul Haggis had chosen the same name for his Academy Award winning film Crash, feeling it was "stupid" and "very disrespectful."
Aside from The Dead Zone (1983) and The Fly, Cronenberg has not generally worked within the world of big-budget, mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, although he has had occasional near misses. At one stage he was considered by George Lucas as a possible director for Return of the Jedi but was passed. Cronenberg also worked for nearly a year on a version of Total Recall but experienced "creative differences" with producers Dino De Laurentiis and Ronald Shusett. A different version of the film was eventually made by Paul Verhoeven. A fan of Philip K. Dick, author of "We Can Remember it For You Wholesale," the short story upon which the film was based, Cronenberg related (in the biography/overview of his work, Cronenberg on Cronenberg) that his dissatisfaction with what he envisioned the film to be and what it ended up being pained him so greatly that for a time, he suffered a migraine just thinking about it, akin to a needle piercing his eye.
In the late 1990s, Cronenberg was announced as director of a sequel to another Verhoeven film, Basic Instinct, but this also fell through. His recent work, the thriller A History of Violence (2005), is one of his highest budgeted and most accessible to date. He has said that the decision to direct it was influenced by his having had to defer some of his salary on the low-budgeted Spider, but it is one of his most critically acclaimed films to date, along with Eastern Promises (2007) a film about the struggle of one man to gain power in the Russian Mafia.
Cronenberg has collaborated with composer Howard Shore on all of his films since The Brood (1979), (see List of noted film director and composer collaborations) with the exception of The Dead Zone (1983), which was scored by Michael Kamen. Other regular collaborators include actor Robert Silverman, art director Carol Spier, sound editor Bryan Day, film editor Ronald Sanders, his sister, costume designer Denise Cronenberg, and, from 1979 until 1988, cinematographer Mark Irwin. In 2008, Cronenberg directed Howard Shore's first opera, The Fly.
Since 1988's Dead Ringers, Cronenberg has worked with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky on each of his films (see List of noted film director and cinematographer collaborations). Suschitzky was the director of photography for The Empire Strikes Back, and Cronenberg remarked that Suschitzky's work in that film "was the only one of those movies that actually looked good", which was a motivating factor to work with him on Dead Ringers.
Having worked with an impressive list of Hollywood stars, Cronenberg says that he didn't get to make a film with an actor he wanted to work with for a long time, Burt Reynolds. Coupled with the loyalty he shows to his key personnel, Cronenberg remains a staunchly Canadian filmmaker, with nearly all of his films (including major studio vehicles The Dead Zone and The Fly) having been filmed in his home province Ontario. Notable exceptions include M. Butterfly and Spider, most of which were shot in China and England, respectively. Rabid and Shivers were shot in and around Montreal. Most of his films have been at least partially financed by Telefilm Canada, and Cronenberg is a vocal supporter of government-backed film projects, saying "Every country needs [a system of government grants] in order to have a national cinema in the face of Hollywood".
Cronenberg has also appeared as an actor in other directors' films. Most of his roles are cameo appearances, as in Into The Night, Jason X, To Die For, and Alias, but on occasion he has played major roles, as in Nightbreed or Last Night. He has not played major roles in any of his own films, but he did put in a brief appearance as a gynecologist in The Fly; he can also be glimpsed among the sex-crazed hordes in Shivers; he can be heard as an unseen car-pound attendant in Crash; his hands can be glimpsed in eXistenZ; and he appeared as a stand-in for James Woods in Videodrome for shots in which Woods' character wore a helmet that covered his head. In 2008 Cronenberg realized two extra-cinematographic projects: the exhibition Chromosomes at the Rome Film Fest and the opera The Fly at the LaOpera in Los Angeles and Theatre Châtelet in Paris.
In July 2010, Cronenberg completed production on A Dangerous Method, an adaptation of Christopher Hampton's play The Talking Cure, starring Keira Knightley, Michael Fassbender, and frequent collaborator Viggo Mortensen. The film was produced by independent British producer Jeremy Thomas.
He also plans to write and direct an adaptation of Don Delillo's Cosmopolis. There have been reports of Cronenberg's interest in adaptating the Jonathan Lethem's novel As She Climbed Across the Table, which would indicate for many fans the director's return to the fantasy science fiction genre. Steven Zaillian would be producing, along with his production company Film Rites.
The status of Cronenberg's spy thriller The Matarese Circle, based on Robert Ludlum's novel and starring Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise, remains rife with intrigue. In April 2009, it was announced that the project is on hold, due to MGM's financial problems.
Awards and recognition
- He received the Special Jury Prize at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival for Crash.
- In 1999, Cronenberg was inducted onto Canada's Walk of Fame. In 2002, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, and in 2006 he was awarded the Cannes Film Festival's lifetime achievement award, the Carrosse d'Or.
- Cronenberg has appeared on various "Greatest Director" lists. In 2004, Science Fiction magazine Strange Horizons named him the 2nd greatest director in the history of the genre, ahead of better known directors such as Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Jean-Luc Godard and Ridley Scott.In the same year, The Guardian listed him 9th on their list of "The world's 40 best directors". In addition, in 2007, Total Film named him as the 17th greatest director of all-time.
- In 2006, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the senior national body of distinguished Canadian scientists and scholars.
- In 2009 Cronenberg received the Légion d'honneur from the government of France.
- In 2010 Cronenberg was named an honorary patron of the University Philosophical Society, Trinity College, Dublin.