A chat about death with director David Cronenberg

The Toronto horror filmmaker and Slasher star discusses acting, his next movie and what happens when you die – on camera and off


David Cronenberg in a suit dressed as Spencer Galloway, his character from Slasher: Flesh & Blood
Cole Burston

David Cronenberg’s recent projects cover similar emotional terrain via very different stylistic approaches.

Death is a constant in David Cronenberg’s movies. But lately, the Toronto-based horror director has been spending a lot of time in front of the camera acting in projects that involve children grappling with the mortality of their parents.

The fourth season of horror anthology series Slasher: Flesh & Blood is about a squabbling rich family who must compete in a series of deadly games to inherit their dying father’s wealth. Cronenberg stars as family patriarch Spencer Galloway, a sadistic corporate mogul who sets the plot in motion by announcing his planned doctor-assisted suicide and laying out the rules for inheriting his fortune.

The series, which premieres on October 4 on Hollywood Suite‘s 2000 Channel, is directly linked to Cronenberg’s recently released NFT short film, The Death Of David Cronenberg. Shot in collaboration with his daughter, the photographer Caitlin Cronenberg, the minute-long work sees the elder Cronenberg entering an attic-like room and crawling into bed alongside his down dead body. The cadaver is a life-like prop used in Slasher that the VFX department loaned to the filmmaker.

Cronenberg has called it a film about “love and the transient aspect of being human” that takes stock of where he’s at in his own life four years after the death of his wife Carolyn. The result is certainly a lot more minimalist than the gruesome Slasher, a commercial horror show packed with ridiculously exaggerated death scenes. The projects cover similar emotional terrain but via completely different stylistic and philosophical approaches.

Last year, he appeared on screen in Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut Falling, playing a proctologist in a scene that felt like a heavy insider wink at fans of his body horror oeuvre. Incidentally, it’s also a film about adult children dealing with a parent’s end-of-life deterioration. Meanwhile, he also turned up as a morally dubious scientist in season three of Star Trek: Discovery.

The 78-year-old director’s work often blends tragedy and comedy, so it’s fitting many of his recent acting gigs seem to pick up where his last feature film, 2014’s Map To The Stars, left off. That morbid Hollywood-set family melodrama felt like a kiss-off to filmmaking, complete with a character memorably getting bludgeoned to death with an award statuette.

But it turns out Cronenberg is not done with directing. He recently returned home to Toronto from shooting a movie called Crimes Of The Future in Athens with a cast that includes Mortensen, Lea Séydoux, Kristen Stewart and Scott Speedman. It’s the first film he’s made based on his own original screenplay since 1999’s Existenz.

In addition to a round of press interviews to promote Slasher, he’s busy doing post-production on the film, which he hopes to finish in time to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival next May. The movie shares its title with an underground sci-fi movie he made in 1970 but it’s not a remake or sequel, he says.

We caught up with Cronenberg to chat about Slasher, the inspiration for his new movie and what happens – or doesn’t happen – when you die.

You recently you quoted yourself as saying that each time you kill someone in a movie, it’s like you’re rehearsing your own death. What was it like to perform a death scene in Slasher and then watch it back?

It was a lot of fun. The first thing about acting is it’s a very childlike thing. It’s like kids in a sandbox putting on these moustaches and hats and pretending to be somebody else. There’s a huge element of fun and playfulness even when you’re doing something that is perhaps horrific or scary. The other thing is the acting challenge – getting the expression right, moving in the right direction at the right emotional tone. Doing a death scene is not really different from doing dialogue.

Your character believes he can control everything, including his own death. This is the opposite of your own philosophy. What aspects of this character resonated with you?

It only resonates in the sense that it’s different from me. One of the attractions of this role is that Spencer Galloway is completely unlikable and emotionally he is unlike me. In terms of his relationships with his children, which is a key theme in the series, he’s also completely unlike my relationship with my three children and four grandchildren. And yet you have to make the character emotionally real to the audience. He has to have a reality that you have to find somewhere, whether it’s from yourself or from things you’ve seen you from people you know. You’re not always conscious of where it comes from.

You recently made an NFT short film with your daughter in which you confront your own mortality. Slasher is similar – it’s about a father preparing his children for his death.

It’s definitely connected because, of course, both my parents have died long ago and my wife died four years ago. I’ve had the experience of being with someone who is dying. Certainly that was something that I could draw on for those scenes with this character. No question about it. If I hadn’t had those experiences, would it have been a different performance? I really don’t know because you can invent things. I really don’t know how much comes from my own life experience or not. It’s really impossible to say what you do, but my hope is that it feels real and that, even as you die, that you feel alive to the audience.

Do you feel that, as a society, we adequately prepare children for the death of their parents?

Well, it depends on the children and it depends on your relationship with them. When children are very young, they’re not asking you questions about life and death. I don’t think it’s a good idea to impose discussions about that on them unless there’s something coming up in their near future that they really need to be prepared for. My daughter Cait was my collaborator on that short film, and she did find it very disturbing to see my dead self and to be involved in that. Her mother died four years ago and so we’ve all had to deal with it. It really depends on the sensibility of the children and I think there’s no universal rule that you can impose on that situation. It is a very potent, volatile circumstance that everybody has to face one way or another.

Do you feel like you’ve gained any new perspective undertaking these projects in which you’re dying on camera or confronting your own mortality?

I think so. I really do think so. The process is all about acceptance. I consider myself an existentialist, so I think the body is what we are. I think we die. That’s it. There is no more – no afterlife. For a sentient creature like a human being to embrace and understand their nonexistence, that is very difficult to imagine. It’s not easy. How scary is it or is it not scary? The whole process throughout your life is to come to terms with your nonexistence. Not an easy thing.

David Cronenberg sips tea in a scene from Slasher: Flesh & Blood
Cole Burston

David Cronenberg plays as a controlling corporate mogul in Slasher: Flesh & Blood.

Is that something you’re interested in exploring more? You’re making a new movie and there is the cliché – or perhaps truth – that when filmmakers or artists get older, people start looking at their work through this lens of the swan song, the legacy and mortality.

I don’t think so. Probably every film I’ve made involves death in one way or another, just in the way life involves death one way or another. To the extent that movies mirror an aspect of life, I don’t think I have, certainly cinematically, more insights into it than I did when I made my first movies when you look at them. But, then again maybe I do? We’ll see.

The title of your new movie, Crimes Of The Future, shares a title with an early film of yours. Can you talk about whether there is a connection between the two or is this is a case of looking back to move forward?

We basically just like the title and stole it for this movie. I guess I wasn’t finished with the use of that title, which actually comes from another work called Hunger by the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun. He wrote a novel called Hunger, and there’s a movie version starring Per Oscarsson who plays a poet in the 1890s and at one point you see him on a bridge writing a poem called Crimes Of The Future. And that struck me. I thought, “I want to read that poem.” And then when I became a filmmaker later I thought, “I want to make that movie.” So it’s been stolen twice – I stole it from Knut Hamsun and now I’m stealing it again from myself.

It is not a sequel to the old underground film that I made. It’s not a remake of it at all. There is, though, the idea of crimes of the future. That is to say, crimes that could not exist now but exist in the future. It’s an intriguing concept. So there is that connection between the two. For example, there are all kinds of crimes now that involve the internet – harassment over the internet, stealing people’s emails. These crimes did not exist 30 years ago because there wasn’t the internet. There are new laws for new crimes. That intrigues me.

Last year, the movie Crash was re-released and is more widely available again. It’s famous for the scenes on the Gardiner Expressway, which is now being partially torn down. You shot this new movie in Athens, but do you have any feeling toward the look and feel of Toronto’s cityscape and the way it’s evolved with all the new condos?  Does it capture your imagination similarly to the way it did in that film?

Well, I think as the city evolves, filmmakers who work in the city will move with it. Certainly I wrote the script Crimes Of The Future thinking of Toronto, and then I ended up shooting it for various reasons in Athens. The only changes to the script that I made – not dialogue or characters – are the ones that involve shooting in a city that is very, very different from Toronto and taking advantage of what Athens is now. In a way, it’s found art. There is always that element in filmmaking for me where you find something. You find a location that provokes a certain kind of choreography of your actors and so on, some changes in the visual aspect of it. I have no doubt that if I shoot another movie in Toronto, I will embrace the new Toronto. I will not be trying to resurrect the old Toronto of Crash from 1996. I would shoot what’s here.

It’s an interesting thing that when you’re doing location scouting in a city. I had a Greek driver who took me around and he said that he had been living in Athens for 60 years and we – the production – were showing him places that he had never seen before and never knew existed. There is that element of you, the foreigner, coming to a foreign city, a strange city, and you discover things that the inhabitants of the city have never really known were there. You get excited about those places and that provokes you into shooting a movie in a certain way. It’s very exciting when that happens.

With the NFT project, was that a fun thing to do to make some money or is this a viable way to secure financing for future projects?

In each case when I’ve made a short film, it’s been induced by another consideration. For example, I’ve made a couple of films because they were commissioned by TIFF. Then I made a film that was commissioned by the Cannes Film Festival. In this case, it was just curiosity about the whole NFT structure, the whole idea of auctioning, and the whole idea of possessing a digital version of something that you bought and became your personal possession. That was the outside inducement for making a short film as an NFT. And then that becomes totally irrelevant. Now you go okay, what am I going to do? I don’t want to waste my time. I don’t want to do something silly and stupid. I want to do something that means something to me and that has power and that can stand alone as an actual little work of art that could be part of my filmography.

Recently you’ve popped up on Star Trek: Discovery. Can you talk about how that happened? Are you a big fan of the franchise?

I certainly was a fan of the original franchise. I watched it a lot and as a kid and I was interested to see over the years how it morphed into many things, including feature films. I watched a fair amount of that but I haven’t obsessively watched every spinoff or every movie, but enough to keep my hand in. I was very pleased when they approached me and asked me if I would be interested in playing a character in Star Trek: Discovery. It was interesting to see how they shoot it. It’s a very different kind of filmmaking from my version of feature filmmaking. Very different, but intriguing. And the technology involved is great.

You also played a proctologist who gives colorectal exam to Lance Henriksen in Viggo Mortensen’s movie Falling. What life experiences really prepared you to take on that role?

I have not done much proctology in private, I must confess, so I had to make it up basically. It was my friend Viggo asking me to act in his movie, which was very delicious because, of course, he and I have made several movies together – four now including Crimes. It was a role that was much more familiar to me than Spencer Galloway, but it was actually pretty fun as well.

To wrap up, can you talk about where you’re at with Crimes Of The Future and any other projects you have on the go?

I’ve finished shooting Crimes Of The Future. I’ve now gone into the editing room and have worked with my editor. I almost forgot how much fun editing can be because it’s been a while since I did it. We’re expecting the movie to be finished by May. There are a lot of visual effects that have to be developed and the sound, the music – all of that. We figure it’ll be ready to be premiered somewhere, maybe at the Cannes Film Festival, in May. And that’s pretty much it.

@KevinRitchie

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