Indie goes big 

There’s a scene in Spider-Man 2 where Doctor Octopus is rushed to the hospital to have the creepy mechanical arms grafted to his spine removed. The arms suddenly spring to life and, as captured in a series of frantically wild camera shots, kill everyone in the operating room. For long-time fans of Sam Raimi’s work, the scene is a rare cameo appearance of the director’s former over-the-top style, homage to his earlier films.

Known for coupling the horror aesthetics of George Romero with the violent slapstick of the Three Stooges, Raimi parlayed his giddy genre efforts into a trio of handsome but mediocre studio films (A Simple Plan, For the Love of the Game and The Gift). Only with the Spider-Man franchise did the Detroit filmmaker finally find a place where his artistic and commercial sensibilities could harmoniously coexist.

If Raimi is any kind of example, there may be hope for the long list of independent filmmakers whose talents seem to have come undone by the demands of Hollywood’s studio system.

Look at such recent efforts by indie stalwarts like the Coen Brothers (The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty), Terry Gilliam (The Brothers Grimm, Tideland) and Jane Campion (In the Cut). Even Atom Egoyan (Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter), a boldly intellectual filmmaker, is rumored to have lost his way with Where The Truth Lies, a $25 million film about a dysfunctional comedy team starring Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth.

Do larger budgets and bigger name stars mean a director must abandon the very artistic qualities that got him or her noticed in the first place?

Consider Richard Linklater and Alexander Payne, two directors who’ve made the transition from art house cinema to the world of the multiplex. Payne’s About Schmidt and Sideways, though showered with praise, show little of the caustic and subversive wit on display in his Election or Citizen Ruth. Linklater’s last two studio films, The Bad News Bears remake and School of Rock, are certainly entertaining, but bear little resemblance to the anarchic style of Slackers, Dazed and Confused or Waking Life. Only side projects like Before Sunset show evidence of his former artistic ambitions.

Conversely, Steven Soderbergh, in an odd reversal, seems to find greater artistic success in his big-budget studio films (Erin Brockovich, Out of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven and Twelve) than his experimental efforts (Full Frontal, Solaris). Christopher Nolan, whose ingenious Memento made a huge splash, went on to salvage Batman from the tongue-in-cheek hell of Joel Schumacher. Clearly, there’s hope for artistic impulse and creative independence in even the biggest budget movies.

Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than David Cronenberg’s latest film, A History of Violence. Cronenberg could never be accused of compromising his style or vision. Films like Crash, Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch demonstrate a defiantly iconoclastic approach to filmmaking.

With a History of Violence, Cronenberg is working with his biggest budget ever ($32 million) and an A-list movie star (Viggo Mortenson). Still, he manages to infuse a rather simple action-thriller with a savagely droll subtext about the myths of violence and identity. Metro Times spoke with Cronenberg about the film, and his take on maintaining an independent vision when working with the studios.

Metro Times: You’ve become known as a director with a distinct vision. With changes in the industry, especially in regard to financing and distribution, do you find it harder to maintain the integrity of your personal vision?

Cronenberg: Well, it’s always been hard getting my films made. I suppose if I were working completely in the studio system it would be harder. But in the independent world, people are looking for movies you couldn’t place at the studios, so there’s always someplace to go even if it’s something very extreme or difficult. The downside, of course, is that you struggle with the financing; you have to put the film together piece by piece. The upside is creative freedom.

MT: You went through a tug-of-war with your last picture, Spider. Did that experience push you toward higher profile work like A History of Violence?

Cronenberg: Basically, I was broke. I spent two years doing Spider and not getting paid anything because we had to defer our salaries in order to get the movie made. And when I say "we," I mean Ralph Fiennes and Miranda Richardson and the writer and the producer. We all got paid nothing. I knew I couldn’t do another one like that so quickly afterward, because you just can’t survive. So I needed to find a project that was solvent, financially. That was really the only pressure.

MT: HoV seems a bit of a departure for you. First of all, there are no biological orifices on display.

Cronenberg: Well, there are mouths…

MT: How does it fit within the Cronenberg canon?

Cronenberg: Frankly, I don’t ever think about that, unless some critic asks me about it, because I can’t look at my own movies objectively. I don’t really see them as movies. As I’ve often said, they’re more like documentaries about what I was doing and thinking on that particular day, rather than just movies.

MT: HoV has a pretty large budget and, let’s be frank, Aragorn’s in it. Doesn’t that put certain pressures and demands on you as a director?

Cronenberg: I don’t like to think of him as Aragorn. That part of it was never an issue because, as an actor, Viggo was not interested in being Aragorn again.

In terms of the studio, once you agree on the budget and a script and the casting, that’s it, you go off and direct a movie. I felt as free on History of Violence as when I was making Spider. Of course, Spider is not the kind of movie a studio would ever do. Once you agree you’re all making the same movie, there shouldn’t be a problem. There would be a problem if the director secretly wanted to make another movie. But I’m Canadian. I don’t do those kinds of things.

MT: There are some filmmakers, known for their artistic vision, branching into higher profile studio projects with mixed results. What do you think about their ability to thrive under the studio system or, as you mentioned, differing agendas?

Cronenberg: It’s hard to say. You’d have to take it case by case. I don’t know if there’s a general rule of thumb. It’s interesting to see Soderbergh — who began making relatively difficult and unusual films then sort of got lost a bit — come back with a popular Hollywood career working with George Clooney, yet still yearns for or, at the very least, has roots in alternative cinema. He seems to be trying to alternate between the two.

MT: Yes, Soderbergh has his big budget studio projects and his quirky low budget experiments.

Cronenberg: I guess I’m trying to have it all, every time. I’m very greedy by trying to do both at once. I try to make my movies entertaining enough to appeal to audiences and artistic enough for me. I really want every movie to count, though I’m hardly big Hollywood.

MT: Are there filmmakers working today whose work you admire?

Cronenberg: I don’t see a lot of movies, which is probably a bit abnormal. I read a lot. I do like the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke. I find him very uncompromising, and he too has a body of work that sustains a particular tone that he’s pretty relentless in pursuing. I admire that. But there aren’t too many, because there are a lot of filmmakers who make one interesting film but never seem to build a body of work from it.

If you look at Darren Aronofsky, who made Pi and Requiem for a Dream, which was a movie I didn’t much admire, who then decides to pursue making a Batman movie for like three years, and it falls apart and he’s only now coming out with another film. He spent three to five years lost in the wilderness, playing Hollywood footsie to make a big-budget sequel. And you have to conclude that, perhaps, that was a mistake. Hollywood can be very, very seductive.

MT: You’ve said that HoV is not a criticism of American culture with regard to violence. Is there anything wrong with criticizing the U.S.?

Cronenberg: I actually haven’t said that. A lot of European journalists wanted to make it primarily about that, and I said, now wait a minute, there’s not a nation on Earth that wasn’t founded on violence. You can’t lay that completely at the feet of the U.S. On the other hand, there are definitely political undertones to the movie. It isn’t overtly political, but there are undertones that have to do with America’s mythology of itself, which sometimes translates into political action. Especially the whole ethos of the Western; the idea of the man standing alone with his gun in his hand, taking the law into his own hands because his home or his family has been attacked and that seems to justify any kind of retaliation. You wonder if that’s the foreign policy of the Bush administration. Has it been taken from Western movies with its simplistic answer to complex issues? It’s a question I’m trying ask, and I don’t have all the answers but there is that resonance. So, no, there’s nothing wrong with criticizing the U.S., but this movie is not a political stance. It’s more subtle than that.

MT: You examine the idea that everyone gets a second chance at reinventing themselves, that an individual can decide to be whoever he wants, which seems to be a distinctly American mindset.

Cronenberg: That’s exactly correct; the U.S. was founded on the idea of people coming here to find a new life, a new identity for themselves. But we know that can have sinister aspects as well, when true identities are hidden or misappropriated.

MT: With that in mind, how do you reconcile your role as a filmmaker with the subversive personality you’ve become to some of your fans?

Cronenberg: I try to be as straightforward as possible and ignore the persona, who sort of walks around and does things without your knowledge - which is kind of spooky, actually.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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