David Cronenberg on Crimes of the Future Walkouts

David Cronenberg may have hinted at retirement in recent years, but his new film Crimes of the Future is proof the legendary 79-year-old director is not done with cinema. 

Cronenberg, a maverick who has always flown by his own artistic free will these last five decades, has given us classics such as Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers, and A History of Violence, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still make smart, urgent films about his deepest obsessions. 

One thing you can expect from his return, Crimes of the Future, is Cronenberg’s usual knack for avoiding conventionality. His parasite-filled, sexually taboo, and ultra-violent art is what dreams are made of. Or are they nightmares? 

This latest body-horror masterpiece from Cronenberg is based on a screenplay he wrote 20 years ago, titled Painkillers. It was set to star Nicolas Cage. In this 2022 version, Viggo Mortensen has taken over the lead role.

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Cronenberg is no stranger to Cannes, where Crimes of the Future just had its world premiere. The Canadian filmmaker has taken six of his films there over the years, most famously his 1996 polarizer Crash” which shook the festival to its core, with reports of walkouts, fainting and boos greeting its screening. It still managed to win a Special Jury Prize that year.

We spoke at length with Cronenberg about this new film, his career, and the Cannes walkouts that seem to occur every time he premieres a movie on the Croisette. 

Jordan Ruimy: I find Crimes of the Future is a very meditative work on your part and it’s very contemplative and it encompasses basically all the obsessions that you’ve had in your filmmaking career. Do you feel like your younger self would’ve been able to make this movie? 

David Cronenberg: Well, I wrote it 20 years ago, right? I’m old enough to absorb 20 years. Right. Um, I think I could have, yeah, I think I could have. It wouldn’t have been the same though. I’m assuming that I could have made it in a way that would be effective and that would work, but it would definitely look different. And maybe even my choice of actors would’ve been different. I mean, I didn’t know Viggo then for example, would I have come across him at the time? I don’t know. And that would’ve made a big difference. 

Jordan Ruimy: Was there a lot from the Painkillers script that that changed? 

David Cronenberg: Nothing changed, nothing changed, but what did change was the normal kind of things that change, which is the production. The production always brings surprises. I wrote it thinking of Toronto, my hometown And I ended up in Greece, you know, and that was just because the Greek government decided to give us huge rebates to film there, to, to attract production. So suddenly that became an attractive option, which normally would not have been an option. So, you know, if we had ended up shooting in Budapest, or, wherever we had to go to get financing, that would’ve changed the movie because once it was Athens, I was very excited about it. And I wanted to completely embrace Athens and Greece and whatever all of that gives you. 

Jordan Ruimy: I find the limited locations that you had, because there aren’t too many locations in the Greek setting, have made you build a world. It also feels like an old world. 

David Cronenberg: There is a sort of dystopian element and, and, and there’s a sense of time passing. It feels like an old world, which you wouldn’t have gotten in Toronto, obviously. I mean, there’s like 4,000 years of difference between the two cities, at least. So there is the decay, but also even the first image of the movie was not in the script, which is this ship on its side. And, that is immediately suggesting a world in which things used to work and don’t anymore — that there might have been an industry ship, trade freighter, dead in the water, literally. And, I wouldn’t have had that if it hadn’t been Greece. I mean, I really love the idea of that aspect of movie making that is found in art. You know, you can have a very precise script. I’ve never done storyboards. So I’m always leaving myself open to anything that comes up, whether it’s something that an actor comes up with or a location manager or a production designer or something like the ship, you know, when we were looking at locations and there it was, and I thought, what is this? You know, and people said, oh, that’s been there for 20 years. I was like, oh, okay. I want it, I want it in 

Jordan Ruimy: The setting makes the film almost biblical.

David Cronenberg: I like that. Yeah. I like that you combine that with Viggo and his outfit and you do get some strange vibe. 

Jordan Ruimy: Right. It’s sort of like a Jedi outfit. 

David Cronenberg: Or ninja. 

Jordan Ruimy: You obviously get asked so many times about your obsession with the body and, in this one, the interiors of the body as well. If you would’ve made this movie 20 years ago, the special effects would’ve probably not been as incredible as they are here. 

David Cronenberg: I think that’s correct. Yeah. And CG, the way I use it, is just another tool. And that’s the way it should be. I mean, it’s not like Stanley Kubrick discovering Steadicam for The Shining‘ and deciding to use it in every other shot, you know? It’s just like, when you need it, it’s there and it’s fabulous. And then you are making the movie knowing you have this additional new gray tool to do even subtle things — like the drool from the boy’s mouth is CG. 

Jordan Ruimy: Wow. I didn’t know that. 

David Cronenberg: Yeah, because the boy was not really an experienced actor. And, we had only a limited number of these, these waste paper baskets that were made out of sugar basically. And, so I had limited takes to do, and if you factor in trying to get the kid, you know, to put the stuff in his mouth just before the take and having him eat it, that would’ve been quite a major operation to get those shots. I can imagine. it was just telling him to eat the basket and get into a position and stuff. 

Jordan Ruimy: Have you ever heard of the performance artist Orlan? 

David Cronenberg: Yes. I’ve met her. 

Jordan Ruimy: Oh, you have met her. Okay. Because I felt her inspiration here.

David Cronenberg: Well, she has been an inspiration. Yeah, definitely. And, I measured to talk about her art, stuff like that. I only discovered it right before making this movie. I didn’t know her before I wrote this particular script. Yeah, and it’s a very specific thing that she does. I can’t really say that she inspired me, in a broader sense. But the idea of a woman who is not concerned with her beauty, but wants to change her shape definitely was a model let’s say, but so was Stella Ark, you know there are other performance artists of the time who were also more than influences 

Jordan Ruimy: What part of the filmmaking process do you put the most focus on? 

David Cronenberg: Everything. Let’s put it this way. If you don’t focus on it, it will be out of focus. So you have to focus on everything all at once. It’s a whole collage. You can’t let anything get by, that’s what drives you crazy. 

Jordan Ruimy: What are you most proud of? What do you want to be remembered for? 

David Cronenberg: I totally do not think about that. … It doesn’t help me make movies to think about that. It doesn’t motivate me. I mean, I really am an atheist and existentialist and, and when I die, none of that will be relevant as far as I’m concerned. So I don’t care. Basically. 

Kristen Stewart and Lea Seydoux in Crimes of the Future by David Cronenberg

Kristen Stewart and Lea Seydoux in Crimes of the Future, directed by David Cronenberg.

Jordan Ruimy: I think this movie is going to have a lasting impact though. 

David Cronenberg: Sure. Well, that would be interesting. Yeah. And you know, it’s a cliche, but it does feel there is some truth in it that the movies are like your children. You are taking care of them. You are shaping them, you are protecting them, but after they’re done, after they are mature, they’re out of your house. They’re on their own. And they’re real people in the real world and they have experiences that you don’t have and that you’re not controlling and that’s the way it should be. 

Jordan Ruimy: You took time off — seven years — between making more of these children. 

David Cronenberg: Well, I wouldn’t say I took time off, ‘cause I did write a novel and I wanted to keep acting. That was my way of keeping in touch with filmmaking when I wasn’t really ready to direct again. 

Jordan Ruimy: And I guess you loved filming this one so much that you’re already working on your next movie. 

David Cronenberg: Yes. It seems that I have accidentally gotten myself into a couple of possible projects in the future. So those will be my crimes of the future. 

Jordan Ruimy: Writing novels, acting, directing — you must have had a lot of influences in your life, from every art form. 

David Cronenberg: I mean, Fellini — so many filmmakers — Fellini was a big influence, even though he comes from such a different place and, and is such a different kind of filmmaker. But what he did in his early movies, like his sort of social realist movies… La Dolce Vita was a huge movie in Canada and around the world and it was an amazing achievement. A lot of young people have never heard of it. They actually don’t even know anything about it. But wow. That was a huge influence, in terms of style, fashion, movies, culture. Fantastic. So do I say it’s an influence? What does that mean? I mean, honestly, you have to question that. But a model for sure. It taught me that you can bring something to the art of cinema that is specific to you, that wouldn’t have existed without you. And that’s something to aspire to. 

Jordan Ruimy: La Dolce Vita’s impact also seems to come from an era when movies were movies, theatrical was thriving. Watching Crimes of the Future brought real joy to me, in knowing that it didn’t go to streaming. 

David Cronenberg: Well, thank you. I mean, that whole streaming thing is a long discussion to have, that would be a whole other article, but this was conceived before streaming, whereas with Shrouds, there was a moment when it was a streaming project. 

Jordan Ruimy: Right, I had read Netflix rejected it after reading the second episode. 

David Cronenberg: Yeah. And that’s a whole other story as well, but I’m still, honestly, I’m grateful to Netflix because I wouldn’t have written it if they hadn’t been excited about it. So, even though they decided not to do it, it still exists. 

Jordan Ruimy: I was telling myself, I don’t want to watch a David Cronenberg movie at home. I want to watch it in a cinema with, with, with people around me that are gonna react to it. Because your kind of cinema usually gets a reaction and you want to be part of that reaction with other people. 

David Cronenberg: Thank you for saying that. I agree, and I might be saying things that [Cannes director] Thierry Fremaux doesn’t like or agree with, but of course he will understand. Because I do think streaming is where things are going. 

Jordan Ruimy: You’re also not unfamiliar with that sort of mainstream project. You actually went through a short phase in the aughts where you did A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, and that was very slick. Then again, I don’t wanna call them mainstream entertainment, but these were masterful films that were a little more accessible than your usual fare. Would you want to go back to that? 

David Cronenberg: Yeah. I have no rules, you know? I’ve always loved spy movies and gangster movies when they were well done. They’re fantastic. And those movies, like horror, if you do them well, they can expand beyond the genre of restrictions. You know, like The Godfather is a gangster movie, but it’s obviously more than a gangster movie. So I just wanted to try it. It was great, of course, because that’s how I met Viggo. So, I have no rules at all. 

Jordan Ruimy: It’s been a pleasure talking to you here in France. You find your experience with Crimes of the Future at Cannes is the same as Crash in 1996, because that’s one for the history books. People keep referring to the massive love/hate reaction Crash garnered when it premiered here.

David Cronenberg: It’s been quite different. I thought all the stuff about me talking about people walking out has been a little misunderstood, but what I was basically saying is I’ve had the experience of people walking out of a movie at the festival. And if, if it happens again, I’m fine with it, but I wasn’t really anticipating that half the audience would leave. But in fact, it’s not the same reaction.

Crimes of the Future is now in select theaters and goes wider June 10.

Main image: (Lea Seydoux, Viggo Mortensen and Kristen Stewart in Crimes of the Future, directed by David Cronenberg.