David Cronenberg sits at the head of a long table in the lovely L'Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills. His silver hair is strangely out of place in the warmly lit room that seems to want to resist its brightness, like most rooms in southern California. He smiles, he jokes and he's not creepy at all.
This is, of course, the complete antithesis of everything you'd expect from a director who, for the past 30 years, has helmed some of the most bizarre, violent, and even terrifying movies of his time, including Shivers, The Fly, and the car-crash-as-aphrodisiac romp Crash (1996).
In 2005 his A History of Violence, starring Viggo Mortensen, earned Cronenberg his first mainstream hit in years. It helped lift him out of the box-office-toxic existential fare he'd moved into in the '90s after years in horror. His History follow-up, the upcoming Eastern Promises, stars Mortensen again, along with Naomi Watts, and tackles the violent Russian-mob-run sex trade threatening London's immigrant population. Metro Times talks with him about the movie, a bathhouse fight scene that's sure to become infamous for involving a very naked Mortensen rolling around with two men, and, considering Cronenberg's filmography, the nature of violence in his work and in life. Keep in mind that no matter the subject of his answers, he's never more frightening than, say, a gentle parent.
Metro Times: What first attracted you to Eastern Promises?
David Cronenberg: Really, it's hard to know. It seems like a strange thing to say but I've always maintained this that you actually make the movie to find out what drew you to the movie. You don't really know. I would say, though and this would be accurate I was attracted by the multicultural aspect of it ... these subcultures living in London. It's very intriguing, because London is a very multicultural city and my hometown of Toronto is also a very multicultural city. This is opposed to the kind of melting-pot idea of America where everybody who comes to America kind of gives up their past to become an American.
Multiculturalism is a different approach to immigration, in which people very strongly maintain their cultural identities. There are good and bad points to both of these approaches, but I do find it fascinating.
MT: Were you shooting in London when Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko was assassinated by, of all things, polonium-210 radiation poisoning?
Cronenberg: During. When we started shooting this movie, the Russian mob in London was kind of an obscure subject. By the end of the shoot, it was front-page news every single day. That's because Litvinenko was poisoned, basically halfway through the shoot. Half a block from my front door and half a block from Viggo's, because we were living in the same apartment building was a building [owned by this Russian] oligarch and there were guards in Hazmat suits with forensic vans finding traces of polonium radiation there. We walked by it every day, so it came home to roost in a big way. Obviously, our movie isn't quite about that, but it does overlap it.
MT: It takes a certain amount of audaciousness to shoot a three-way bathhouse brawl between two large men and a completely naked, well-known actor.
Cronenberg: It has a dramatic importance, because most people associate nudity with eroticism and sex. When you think of, let's say, the shower scene in Psycho, it's really about vulnerability. The idea that you're wet, naked and defenseless, and suddenly someone wants to kill you with a knife that's quite scary, and I think most people can relate to it.
MT: You're infamous for gore, for showing acts of unspeakable violence even in your more dramatic work.
Cronenberg: Violence is violence. Violence is body. When we talk about violence, we're talking about human bodies. Sometimes you can forget that, or you can think about statistics. When you talk about 100,000 people dying in some disaster or massacre, it gets kind of abstract. But it's not abstract. It's really about the destruction of human bodies. It doesn't really matter how you get to that place, or why the violence is generated. At that moment, it's really bodies against bodies or machinery against bodies and that's what it's all about. It doesn't matter how you get to that point of violence. Violence is about that.
MT: More than just showing it, you seem to revel in it. Your violence is graphic and, whereas other directors cut away to let the imagination do the dirty work, you're more than willing to leave a slit throat on screen as blood gurgles out of it.
Cronenberg: I don't think violence should ever be comfortable. It doesn't make me comfortable. I'm an extremely nonviolent person. I've never actually punched somebody, ever, in my whole life. I think people are fascinated by the details of violence, and horrified at the same time. So I'm delivering on the screen what I think would interest me in that regard. If it's attractive in a sick way, I think, "Well, if it is, let's admit it. Let's have that response." Some people have said to me and I completely understand it that the bathhouse sequence is bizarrely erotic and that disturbed them immensely. I said, "Great," because I think there is that erotic component to murder. Look at some beheadings on the Internet. There are lots of snuff films now, thanks to Muslim extremists. When you see them, they call up a lot of strange feelings, I must say. A lot of anger, but a lot of other strange things. Those people who are committing the beheadings sometimes it looks like a homosexual gang rape. That is very strange, and I'm sure they'd never admit that to themselves, those people who are committing it. But I, as a sort of documenter of the dark parts of the human soul, I can see it very clearly. If some of that understanding is delivered to my audience, I think so much the better because you might as well know what you are doing. You should know what you're capable of.
Eastern Promises opens Friday, Sept. 21.
Cole Haddon writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]