Interview: David Cronenberg on Cosmopolis
The director on how he came to convince Robert Pattinson to star in his latest film, a surreal adaptation of Don DeLillo's infamous satire on modern capitalism.
There's been a lot commentary on how heavy the dialogue is in the movie, but what I found fascinating is that the dialogue becomes this kind of noise, and very cinematic in a way. Were you concerned about the amount of dialogue when you were making the film?
Cronenberg: Well for me this was a hardcore art film -- there were to be no compromises. [Laughs] I really wanted Don's dialogue to be on screen, even when it's kind of meditative, philosophical monologue. There was no question, ever, in my mind that I would compromise that to make it "more accessible," because I thought that would just destroy the reason for doing the movie in the first place. But I agree with you completely, and I think that's very well-observed -- at a certain point the audience shouldn't worry about catching every word and understanding every twist and turn, because at a certain point that's pretty much impossible. I think if you see the movie a couple of time it does all make sense, and it's all actually really interesting, the meditations on the future of capitalism and how that all reflects back on to the present, and so on, and the future of money -- quotes like, "Money has lost its narrative value," things like that, which are hard to absorb on the fly. But if the audience lets that stuff wash over them, you know -- almost like music, rather than dialogue -- and doesn't fight it, then I think they'll have a much easier time rather than being sort of frustrated and confused otherwise. But if you get in the right state of mind it really does work quite well, I think.
Yeah, I completely agree. I look forward to seeing it again, but the first time I felt like I was being whipped into a kind of blank frenzy. I loved how the Samantha Morton character would give all this exposition and then issue the line, I think it was, "But I do not understand it." That was very funny.
Cronenberg: [Laughs] Yes.
What's also interesting in the film is that everybody seems to be talking at each other, yet never connecting on any level.
Cronenberg: Yes. That's correct. And that's in the nature of what Don was doing. None of these people really relate on a normal human level. They've sort of created a weird abstraction, a bubble, a vacuum, and that's sort of represented by the limo -- it's a strange, disconnected space. It has every sort of luxury and amenity and technological gadget and it's really disconnected from the sight and the sound of the city that it's traveling through, and that represents the way that they construct their lives. It's sort of interesting that one of the investors in this movie is a genuine French billionaire who deals with billions of dollars or trading and so on; he really wanted to be connected with this movie because he said it was absolutely accurate -- he deals all the time with people who are exactly like Eric Packer. They live in a bubble, a strange virtual reality that they've created, and they really don't know how to relate to people on a normal level, you know. [Laughs] So here you have a guy who doesn't really know how to talk to his wife when they're having dinner. He says, "So this is how people talk to their wives, isn't it?' That kind of thing. And a guy who deals with billions of dollars worth of trading but never actually touches real money, and barely knows how people actually spend real money out on the street. And so of course the dialogue does reflect that.
He only seems to connect with people on a very primal, and often violent, level -- be it sex, murder... or getting a haircut. That seems to be the only way in which he can cut through all the other stuff. Is that him devolving, his desire for self-destruction?
Cronenberg: Yeah, well I think that during the course of this day... and he does say, at the end, to the Paul Giamatti character [Benno Levin], "I think my life has changed during the course of this day" -- and it really has. He's going to get a haircut, but he's really also going to get a haircut from the barber who first cut his hair when he was a little kid, and used to cut his father's hair, and I think the suggestion is that he is trying to deconstruct his present life so that he can go back to his origins and perhaps reassemble it in a different way. But that doesn't quite work. It doesn't quite gel. I think when he's sitting in the barber's chair, certainly at the beginning, he is like a child. That's the lovely thing about Rob's performance, you really see the vulnerability; underneath it all there's this kind of childlike sweetness there for a moment or two. It's a very beautifully layered performance. But that's not working -- and the current Eric Packer takes over. He has to do extreme things to be able to feel anything and to be able to feel excitement and to feel alive. So that's what leads him to the end scene with Paul Giamatti.
There's a really magic shot in the film -- perhaps my favorite moment in his performance, also -- when he's stumbling down the alley with the gun, and he's looking for Paul Giamatti, and there's this particular look that comes over his face in that one moment and you can see his derangement. It was really wonderfully played.
Cronenberg: Yeah, it was beautiful. It was the only take that Rob did exactly that on, and I thought, Well that's the take. It was unexpected. I mean, Rob was constantly surprising me, I have to tell you, with things like that. Lovely, lovely things that were spontaneous but dead-on.
I know you shy away from analyzing your body of work as a whole, but one thing I did notice was that the end of the film seemed to be a very eerie echo of that final shot in Videodrome .
Was that something conscious, or did it just seep through? It seemed like the Paul Giamatti character was almost like Robert Pattinson's equivalent of the "gun hand" that James Woods has in Videodrome.
Cronenberg: Yeah, I was aware of it. And yet, the difference in Videodrome is that you hear the shot. [Laughs] There's no question who could have done that. With Cosmopolis it was different in that I really loved the idea that they were sort of frozen together in this eternal moment of suspended animation, where you don't really know quite what's gonna happen. Obviously in the book, from Benno's journal, you know that Eric is dead -- at least if you believe Benno, and maybe he is too unreliable a narrator to believe. But in the book you certainly get the feeling that Eric dies at the end. In a way, I couldn't bear to do that. [Laughs] And I like that sort of suspended moment. So that is the opposite, in a way, of Videodrome, and yet the structure of it is the same -- and I was aware of it. I wasn't trying to replicate it, though it happened really very naturally, and really pretty much as it's described in the book, I have to say.
You've found a new kind of ambiguity there, I guess.
Cronenberg: I know, and for students of Cronenbergalia -- [laughs] -- it is an interesting thing to notice.
[Laughs] I'm sure many pages will be written about it.
Cronenberg: [Laughs] Thank you.
Cosmopolis opens in select theaters this week.