The director talks about his latest film, A History of Violence, staring Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello.
The name David Cronenberg is synonymous with mystery, thrilling, intense! Well, he's done it again with his newest movie A History of Violence. A brilliant piece of filmmaking, amazing actors, graphic violence, graphic sex, and twists and turns that will have you begging for more.
We talked about all those spins he puts in his movies, especially this one. Unfortunately or futurnately for you, my readers, I have taken out those spoilers. Sorry guys.
But don't worry, I did leave in some teasers in for you to keep guessing. David did finally answer the question about a possible Oscar win. And who knows, he is an Acadamy voter:
Why did you choose to do this film?
David Cronenberg: There were a lot of things interesting to me about it. I think the main thing was the iconic Americana, which is to say it has elements of an American Western, elements of a gangster movie. But I'm not just thinking of movies. This isn't really a movie about movies. It has to do with America's mythology of itself - the small perfect town where everybody's friendly and happy and what that really entails. So that was really the primary thing.
How did you approach Viggo?
David Cronenberg: It gets very practical; he character has to be a certain age, he has to feel like he could live in a small American town and feel like a member of the town. So there are a lot of very straightforward, practical things first. So you can rule out a lot of actors because they're too young, too old, you know. But Viggo, I've been watching his career for a long time, he's the kind of actor I like the most, which is to say he has that charisma and the presence on-screen of a leading man but he's not afraid to disappear into the role, and to be eccentric and to be subtle like a character actor. So it's a wonderful combination, that and also he has that iconic American kind of, not quite Gary Cooper, but something like that feel to him.
Did he say ‘yes' right away?
David Cronenberg: He was interested right away, but I came to Los Angeles from Toronto to seduce him. I think it was a mutual seduction because we liked each other's work, but wanted to see if we were talking about the same movie. So we talked a lot about the politics of the script, the characters, the way that I work, the way that he works. After that conversation, I knew he would do it.
After getting Viggo, did you cast William Hurt to look like his brother or do you cast them separate, without relation to Viggo?
David Cronenberg: It's never separate, casting, I've often said, is a black art, subtle, intuitive. There's no rule book to tell you who to cast so it all starts with the main character. You cast the main character to give you a certain tone, just the thing I was talking about, the iconic American thing. Then I'm like a marriage counselor; I have to find him a wife. I meet Viggo, he's going to do the movie. Now, who's his wife? In Toronto I met Maria, because she was shooting some other movie there (Assault on Precinct 13). I was thinking of her for this movie, but I didn't tell her because I wasn't sure. Basically I have to say, like a marriage counselor, ‘Yes, I think these two people would make a wonderful married couple,' but you never know if they'd work together, but at least you know that the energy is right. The look is right, they look like they could be together; of course the age has to be right. And then it's interesting, because you want everybody to be in the same movie. We've all seen movies where everybody seems to be in a different movie. Somehow they don't feel like they belong together, even though they might be good actors so that's where the black art comes in, the magic part. It's just my sense that Ed Harris and William - yes, they look like they could be related, but that's not the crucial thing. It's really the feel of them, the tone of them and the level of acting has to be the same, a good, high level in this case.
So when you were casting Ed Harris, was there one particular movie role you saw that made him perfect for this?
David Cronenberg: Well I had seen him in a lot of things; he did do a movie called State of Grace, in which he played kind of a gangster. That's one of the few times he played a character like that. I was only curious about that because it had to do with the Irish mob; it's with Gary Oldman, and it's a pretty good picture. I think Sean Penn's in it too; it's actually a great cast. It's not a movie I even had heard about, but I looked it up. But it wasn't something I had to look at for Ed. I just know his stuff a lot and I know what a good actor he is. So I just thought he could have a lot of fun with this. He said that it's not a role he normally plays, he's a character that thinks he's got everybody's number, he really thinks he's on top of it. He's really confident of what he's doing and he's intimidating people with that confidence; it was interesting for him to do that.
Were the sex scenes discussed or was it more improv, specifically the second sex scene?
David Cronenberg: First of all, in the original script that I read, there were no sex scenes; I asked the writer to write those scenes in, it's always a collaboration. The script described those scenes, but it's never enough description to really go and shoot based on that because all the details are there. One of the things we wanted, we discussed what the scene was. First they read the script of course, then we talk about everything. I'm completely collaborative with them. We'd talk about everything, when I shoot, after every take. We'd do it many times because there's different angles. We talk about what's there, what's missing. We look at the monitors to see the takes that we'd done. I let my actors look at those whenever they want. A lot of directors don't like to do that, to let the actors look at the monitors on the set and show playbacks and stuff. I really want them to be involved and want them to feel completely comfortable with what they're doing so they can see what they're doing; there's no secrets.
What does it reveal?
David Cronenberg: In sex, you're very vulnerable psychologically and physically and emotionally. That's why I wanted those sex scenes because I wanted to know those characters that way. So then, the question is ‘what is being revealed?' There's anger, both ways because of what he brought, the disaster he brought on the family and the deception. And then, the fact that she finds that attractive repulses her about herself. So there's a complex series of things going on. It starts off violently, and yes, it could be a rape to begin with, but then it's not because it shifts in tone and becomes something else, which leaves them very confused and angry with each other. They're longing for the old version of themselves when they could be sweet and tender and gentle together.
Was that scene so rough that Maria got bruises?
David Cronenberg: Yes, she did, they both did. They were both beaten up because the stairs were really wood. There were a couple of sets, we actually shot on two sets - one where you could look up the stairs, and one where you could look down and take the walls out. There was no way to hide stunt pads. At one point I did talk to the stunt coordinator and he laughed and said, ‘No one's ever asked him for stunt pads for a sex scene.' But then we saw that there was no way that they could hide them so we went without them. So that was what inspired me to do that scene where she's sitting on the bed and there are bruises on her back, but those weren't the bruises exactly.
Was there any hesitation from Maria or Viggo to do those scenes?
David Cronenberg: No, they were scared, because it's scary. But actors like to be scared, so do I. You don't want to just play it safe all the time. You get bored so there was a scene that was scary - both of the sex scenes because they're people. When you do a sex scene, you bring your own sexuality to the scene, and that's very revealing. That's hard to hide who you are when you're doing a sex scene, and that's why people are sometimes reluctant to do it. It's a difficult thing to do, but when you're an actor, a good actor, that's a challenge you want.
Does the graphic novel continue with the character?
David Cronenberg: It's so different; the graphic novel does not pay much attention to the family at all, it's all about the mob. There's a whole lot of stuff about the mob. It's completely different; it has sort of an ending. But, for example, in the graphic novel, there are no sex scenes, there are no brothers, there's no subplot of the son with the bully. When the wife discovers that he has this past, she discovers it right at the beginning, and she's upset for about two pages. After that she's just a supporting wife – ‘Oh okay, you were this mobster, but I still love you.' That's it, not very realistic. When Josh [Olson] wrote his screenplay before I was involved, he already took it to a different level; he was much more interested in dynamics and stuff. But there's a new edition of this novel for the movie, so you could get it, it's around somewhere, you might find it.
How did you first come across the screenplay?
David Cronenberg: My agent sent it to me, I didn't know anything about the source material. For ages, as I said, I worked with Josh rewriting the script for quite a long time before someone actually mentioned this graphic novel to me. Weird, because normally it would say on the front page of the script – ‘Screenplay by' and ‘Based on' so I ended up really treating this like it was an original screenplay, so I can't really say that I've done an adaptation of a graphic novel.
The violence is very abrupt; was that your decision to depict it this way?
David Cronenberg: I was basically saying, ‘Where does the violence come from?' It comes from these characters. Then I say, ‘What is the violence to them? Where do they learn their violence?' They learned it in the street, and it's business, so that means that it's fast and it's efficient. You get it over with and you go to the next.
With the son Jack, when he attacks bully, was that decision deliberate? Did he snap or did he allow himself to lash out?
David Cronenberg: Yes, it was a decision. You might say, ‘Did he inherit these violent genes?' And certainly there's a lot of discussion constantly of whether there's a violence gene or not. But I think it's obvious that every human is capable of violence. Really, it's probably a question of who's psychotic or not. That's a whole other question. We see that the kid is a pretty good politician at first, he can talk his way out of a jam, he can talk his way out of a violent confrontation, he's witty and he's smart and he's more psychologically astute than the bully is so he can embarrass him in front of his own guy. And even in the second instance he's trying to walk away but at the same time, we know that he likes the celebrity that his father has gained by his violent act. It might be that just at that moment that he decides maybe he too could be a bit of a celebrity on his own level by committing some violence on this guy and it's a choice he makes.
Where did you find the kids?
David Cronenberg: You have a casting director [Deirdre Bowen], and the casting director; she's somebody I've worked with for many years. She knows my taste in actors, she knows what I like and don't like, so she can filter out a lot of people that I don't have to see and then she has contacts here. She's in Toronto, but she has contacts here (LA) and in New York and Europe. So they sent me a lot of tapes of actors who they would filter out the ones that I wouldn't like. Ashton was on one of those tapes and so was Heidi, she's Canadian. So then we flew him to Toronto to audition because somebody can do a good audition on tape, but you can't necessarily tell certain things about how many variations there are. They might just be perfect for that little scene that you have asked them to read, but they might not be good at anything else; you never know so you have to meet them and audition them.
So what was it about Ashton that had him flown up?
David Cronenberg: His emotional accessibility, his emotions are right there. A lot of actors these days, it's all attitude, it's not real acting, it's all attitude. I don't know where they pick that up from, rock videos or TV acting or something, but they're not real actors. All they can do is attitude, and that's not the same as acting so you can scratch those guys off.
What are your thoughts about an Academy Award nominations for this movie?
David Cronenberg: Will I? I'm the last person - well I do have a vote, I am a member of the Academy, so I could vote for myself I guess. But that will not be necessarily. It's sweet when people talk about Oscars for this movie and they have been, because what they really mean is they liked the movie a lot. And so I appreciate that, but the membership - I remember when I did Dead Ringers; people said that Jeremy Irons will definitely win an Oscar nomination for playing these twins in this movie. He should've, but he didn't, so, we'll see.
This is a film that should be watched without knowing all the twists, without knowing what this movie is really about. And it's definitely not for the kids - please leave them at home!
A History of Violence is rated 'R' for violence, adult situations, nudity, and sex. It opens in select theaters September 23rd; it opens nationwide September 30th.