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Exclusive: David Cronenberg on His MAPS TO THE STARS

With the same fervor that marked early explorations of the human body like The Brood, Videodrome, and The Fly (resulting in his own brand of horror and the adjective “Cronenbergesque”), director David Cronenberg has turned his attention in recent years to the human mind, in psychological studies like A Dangerous Method, in his Don DeLillo adaptation Cosmospolis, and in his latest work, Maps to the Stars, starring Julianne Moore (who won the 2014 Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival for her work here as fading celebrity Havana Segrand), John Cusack (as psychology guru Dr. Stafford Weiss), Olivia Williams (as Weiss’ ruthless wife — and sister), Robert Pattinson (as a limo driver and aspiring screenwriter), and the ever unpredictable Mia Wasikowska (as Segrand’s personal assistant and the Weiss’ daughter). Scripted by Bruce Wagner, the film showcases the novelist-screenwriter’s trademark preoccupation with Hollywood’s value system while furthering Cronenberg’s own examination of obsession and madness. I recently spoke with the Canadian indie film pioneer about Maps‘ genesis, his love of digital movie making, and his plans for a follow-up to his first novel Consumed (published last year by Scribner). Here’s what the iconoclast had to say…

NERDIST: Like Cosmopolis, the previous film you made, Maps to the Stars functions as a social satire. Is that a coincidence?

DAVID CRONENBERG: I think so. I think they’re relatable in a way. I guess you could say Cosmopolis is the east coast and Maps is the west coast. So I’ve got America covered there. But I think you’ll agree Cosmopolis is much more, let’s say, surreal or unrealistic — just in its style and its tone and its dialogue. Whereas Maps I think of not so much a satire but really as a kind of docudrama. I mean, Bruce Wagner swears that every line of dialogue in the movie, the script that he wrote, he’s actually heard spoken. Whereas I don’t think anybody would say that there’s a line of dialogue in Cosmopolis that anybody has actually heard spoken. [Laughs.] So the styles are pretty different, even though I would say in each case there are satirical elements, and there’s certainly a lot of humor in both. But I think overall the feeling is quite different in that sense.

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N: The film has an interesting genesis in that it began as both a film and a novel. How did you and Bruce Wagner collaborate?

DC: Bruce was trying to write a novel and then it wasn’t working out, and then he wrote the screenplay. So it’s not really based on a novel; it is an original screenplay. But he wrote it about twenty years ago, when he was not sure whether he was a novelist or a screenwriter, and he was a limo driver as well as an EMS paramedic. I didn’t see it until about ten years ago, and by that time we’d become good friends because I’d read his first novel when it was published, called Force Majeure, and I just thought it was fantastic. We connected over that, and I’ve continued to read the books that he’s written. I think there are eight or nine novels now, mostly dealing with Hollywood. Finally he had the courage… I think at one point he was [pitching] the script to Oliver Stone, who told him he was insane. [Laughs.] And I read it and I said, “Yes, insane, but in a good way.”

So I’ve been trying to get it made for ten years, which really means seeing if it could be mounted as an American production, financed in America. Or, failing that, as it did fail, making it a co-production between Canada and Europe, which most of my films have been. Just trying to find the right casting and the right financing and so on. There had been several attempts with various producers until finally we did get it made. In that time, the script really hasn’t changed other than to bring it up to date. There are many topical references to TV shows and TV personalities and so on. Also, the things like cell phones, which simply didn’t exist when Bruce first wrote the script. So he was constantly updating in that way. But the basics — the human relations, the characters — have really not changed.

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My contribution to it was really to cut things. Bruce, I think, could write write a thousand page script, that was like a miniseries or a movie series, based on these characters. I just tried to give it more shape than it had by trimming it, and by taking out things that I though were nonessential or which didn’t lead anywhere. That was really my contribution to the script. Obviously when you’re shooting, there’s a lot that goes into it. Bruce was actually on the set every day. I’d never had that before. Unless I was the writer, I’d never had a writer on the set every day. But he’s very aware of how a film set works, so it was great to have him. There are things that were added spontaneously, because I don’t do storyboards, and I don’t rehearse. I really like to be surprised, and to be spontaneous when I’m working on a film. So there were all kinds of little things that came up, that you could say were changing the script a bit. Bruce was always there, and so it was a lovely collaboration really.

N: Since both Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars are set in contemporary America, it’s tempting to wonder if America now frightens you as much as anything depicted in your Canadian work.

DC: [Laughs.] Well, I’m not really frightened. I think you just have to pick up a newspaper or go online to a website or something. You can scare yourself pretty easily. But for Canadians, America has always been more reckless, more extreme, and more aggressive than Canada, historically. But that hasn’t changed really. [Laughs.] I think that’s been the case since both countries were invented. So I wouldn’t say there’s more or less of that. Listen, Americans are capable of scaring themselves with America as well, as you know. We’re kind of all in the same boat together really that way. Quite a few of my movies have been set in the U.S., though it was actually pretty cathartic and exciting for me to actually shoot there. For this is the first time I’ve actually shot anything in America, Maps to the Stars. And it was a really congenial shoot. We had a mixed Canadian and American crew, and they were shooting all the iconic spots in LA. It was really kind of great finally to be able to shoot there, and to shoot in Hollywood. It was actually a terrific experience really, despite the darkness of what we were shooting.

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N: You have an especially impressive cast in Maps to the Stars, and, alongside the veteran heavy hitters, Mia Wasikowska is a standout. Like a lot of your films’ stars, she has a presence that fluctuates between grounded and ephemeral; one that’s attracted a number of top filmmakers in recent years.

DC: Yeah, well Mia, she’s a real chameleon. When you meet her, she is so low-key and so down-to-earth and very sweet. But tough too. She’s got a tough creative center, and had a very tricky role. A role in which you’re not sure what that character is, and where she’s come from literally and figuratively and where she’s gonna go and all of that. It’s a very deceptive character, and it’s kind of intriguing what she ends up being. Of course we don’t want to give away anything, but she ends up being the main source of violence in the movie, and a really destructive factor. Yet at the same time funny, and at the same time sad, ultimately. Mia’s just a very lovely, spontaneous, intelligent actress. She’s charismatic and fascinating to watch. It’s hard to define.

N: In the last ten years, your career has grown more diverse than ever. You’ve directed more short films than you had since the beginning of your career. You also delved into opera, and your first novel was published last year. It’s an inspiring array of work. What’s next for you? Are you considering a follow-up novel? Is there any other media you’re keen to explore?

DC: Well I love all the incredible flexibility now with digital media, along with the technology that allows you to do stuff. My last short I shot completely with a Go Pro camera strapped to my head. That was The Nest, it was commissioned by the Toronto Film Festival. Also, how those films are distributed and where they’re seen — whether they’re seen on cell phones, on iPads, and so on — I love all that. I don’t find that threatening at all. Because I don’t cling to the nostalgia of film and theaters and cinema. I have affection for it, but I certainly don’t miss film at all. It was always kind of a crude, agricultural, Victorian medium. And I wasn’t very happy [with it]. And I was very happy for word processing to happen and to get rid of typewriters. Even though, once again, I have affection for the form of them and the history of them, as I’ve demonstrated in movies like Naked Lunch. But I didn’t really want to use them. I had affection for it, but it’s a horrible machine to work on. So I was very happy when non-linear digital editing happened and when word processing happened.

The recording of sound and the mixing of sound on a film set has been digital for many, many years. Way before the visual part of it became digital. There’s very few people who really want to edit on magnetic strip film. It was just so clumsy, and it doesn’t really work the way your mind works. Digital stuff does work the way your mind works, that is you leap around. It’s not in a a linear fashion, which you are forced to do when you’re editing film. It jumps around the way your mind jumps around, and makes all kinds of strange, spontaneous, oblique connections. I love that, and I find that very stimulating artistically. But no matter where things might lead, and what different forms [they take], we’ll still call it filmmaking.

At the moment, I’m working on a second novel. I really enjoy the experience. I thought I’d be a novelist fifty years ago, so I’m a little bit late with that. [Laughs.] I don’t have another film project particularly in mind, although I do have a number of producers who feel that they could make a TV series that are considering my book. I don’t know where that will lead, but we’ll see. So it’s really those two things basically. I’ve never been someone who had twenty projects on the boil the way some producers and directors have.

N: Your approach has worked so far.

DC: Yeah, sure. Why stop now? [Laughs.]

N: Thank you so much for your time.

DC: Oh, well thank you too.

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