Maps to the Stars, director David Cronenberg’s masterpiece about Tinseltown and its strange inhabitants, is a perfect reflection of the auteur’s entire body of work: odd, unpredictable, slyly funny, intensely dark.
Novelist Bruce Wagner, who started working on the screenplay two decades ago, takes no prisoners, creating a depraved, incestuous group of characters desperately seeking to survive in a place that defies survival. John Cusack plays a self-help guru who massages an aging starlet (Julianne Moore) throughout their therapy sessions. His estranged daughter (Mia Wasikowska) has returned to her hometown, threatening to reunite with the entire family, for whom she is an unwanted ghost. Her brother, a child actor played by Evan Bird, is damaged beyond repair, recovering from addiction while starring in a sequel to his hit blockbuster.
Like much of Cronenberg’s filmography, Maps to the Stars surfs over a variety of genres—it’s a coal-black comedy/soap opera/murder mystery/horror show exploring the extremities and psychoses of America’s film capital. Think David Lynch meets Sunset Boulevard. Still, the film marks a significant departure for the 71-year-old Canadian—his 21st feature, it’s the first he shot in the U.S.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Cronenberg has made a career out of continually shifting gears, churning out cult genre favorites like Rabid and Shivers, box-office successes like The Fly and A History of Violence, and art house fare like Spider and Cosmopolis. The ever forward-thinking director spoke to MovieMaker from his Toronto home about getting Maps to the Stars made over the course of a decade, and his love for (gasp!) digital over celluloid.
Matthew Hays, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I was blown away by Maps to the Stars. Do you have a new dealer? You’ve struck a new wavelength.
David Cronenberg (DC): Maybe. You certainly hope to be moving and morphing and not doing the same thing you’ve done before. So much of what that movie is is from Bruce Wagner and his terrific script. He wrote the script 20 years ago. I got involved about 10 years ago. Primarily, I did what for me is normal—I just made the script tighter. We had to update it, of course, because when he wrote it there weren’t any cell phones. His references are very cutting edge, so names had to keep getting updated. Those kinds of references are very ephemeral.
MM: You’re Toronto-based and you’ve never aspired to live in L.A. This is your take on Hollywood as an outsider.
DC: A lot of that comes from Bruce. He’s always lived in Hollywood. He wasn’t born there, but he was brought up there, and was always embedded in the scene. He knows everybody, basically. I was able to relate to it—because I’ve never lived in L.A., but I’ve had those meetings. When I did M. Butterfly , I was meeting with studio heads and getting their notes. And when I did The Fly , I was sitting with Barry Diller in a screening room talking about the film. I’ve had quite a few meetings and I can vouch for the validity of Bruce’s script. It’s not a satire, it’s a docudrama.
MM: I do recall a story about Ted Turner being horrified by your 1996 film Crash, and thus not embracing its distribution and promotion.
DC: Oh, it’s not a story. It happened. He and Jane [Fonda, his then wife] had a screening and were shocked-shocked-shocked, and tried to suppress it. He had just bought New Line, and he had said that he wouldn’t interfere. That’s always part of the deal, but it never works out that way.
MM: This is the first time you shot in L.A.
DC: This is the first time I’ve shot a foot of film in the U.S. at all. Shocking! The only reason was because of money. The Canadian dollar was always cheaper. When I did History of Violence they had a whole meeting with me, and they said, “We want you to shoot in Canada and not in the U.S.” And I said, “OK.” And they said, “OK. This meeting is over.” They had about 10 executives there, all there to convince me, thinking I would fight them. But of course I was happy to shoot here. There is a case to be made for the authenticity of a small town, but I knew there were small Ontarian towns that would stand in for small-town Indiana perfectly well.
MM: You’ve been attached to this project for a long time.
DC: One of the reasons I had trouble getting Maps made was because it was to be a co-production between Canada and Europe. That meant excluding places like America and Australia, for example. Most of the treaties meant excluding an American screenwriter or more than one American actor. It also limited the amount of filming you could do in a third country, which would mean not being able to spend money filming in L.A. This was one of the reasons it was so hard to get the film made—it wasn’t because people weren’t interested in the script, it had to do with the complexities of co-productions.
I couldn’t get the film made as an indie American production. There was a resistance there to the subject matter. We found a German treaty that allowed us to have an American screenwriter. One of the ways we could have fudged that was to have me take credit for the screenplay, but there was no way I was going to do that. Technically, there’s only one American actor in the film, and that’s John Cusack. Getting the right person is important, but the passport anyone’s holding is part of the equation of putting a deal together. Julie Moore, not too long before we shot, got a British passport, because her mother was Scottish.
MM: There is a pivotal Carrie Fisher cameo.
DC: We always had the idea that there would be an actress playing herself. Given that the script was first written 20 years ago, that actress kept changing.
MM: Can you tell me who some of them were?
DC: No. Some we approached and said no, others were never asked, but just faded. Bruce is very close to Carrie, and he said, “What about her?” I felt it was perfect. Of course, there’s lots of buzz about her being in the new Star Wars movies.
MM: She’s perfect because she’s so meta herself.
DC: Of course. And the line she says, about every woman should play her own mother at least once—it’s a funny movie. The reactions you get are always different. When it showed at Cannes, there weren’t nearly the laughs that there were at TIFF. That’s because of language. If you’re reading the subtitles, you can’t always look at the facial expressions. In a weird way, the fact that the Golden Globes has put it in their “Musical or Comedy” category is not so outrageous, really.
MM: It’s a genre-defiant film.
DC: It’s nice to do that, though it makes it trickier for marketing the film.
MM: This is a film, like Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, which is on some level about performance itself. How much time did you spend rehearsing with the actors?
DC: None. Zero. I don’t rehearse. Truthfully? One or two takes. More than half the battle is casting. We come on the set and block a scene. That’s the rehearsal that the actors get.
MM: Evan Bird was just astonishing. He was every bit as powerful on screen as Julianne Moore or John Cusack.
DC: That’s good to hear. That was the role that was scaring me the most. I was really worried about casting that. It turned out that Evan was a Canadian, which made it even easier. I had noticed him in the American version of the TV series The Killing, but had no idea he was Canadian. My casting director, Deirdre Bowen, who’s a genius, suggested him. He’s at the right point in his life. His voice is that of someone who’s not a child, but has not quite become an adult yet. Some gentle guidance with him, but no rehearsal. If you cast the wrong person, then you’re fighting with that decision every day. When you’ve got the right person, it’s like you’re in a Ferrari. You just put your foot down.
MM: Despite the coproduction hoops you had to jump through, surely being David Cronenberg makes it easier to get a film deal together now.
DC: Getting money has a lot to do with trust. I’m sure it’s easier for me than it used to be. It’s like casting—if you get someone you know, whom you’ve worked with, it’s easier to get financing together. The bottom line is, will this film emerge from all the other films being made and released? My name has some weight in terms of getting a certain number of people out to see the film, but they also know that I never go over budget, that I shoot efficiently, and that actors like to work with me. So it’s a feeling for all those things.
MM: You’ve followed two seriously crowd-pleasing films, A History of Violence  and Eastern Promises , with films far less crowd-pleasing, like Cosmopolis . Do you think about commercial viability and reaching broader audiences, or do you just think, “This is the film I want to make?”
DC: I want an audience, of course. I remember talking to Oliver Stone once, and he said, “Are you OK with being such a marginal filmmaker with such a small audience?” And I said, “How big of an audience do you need?” If I love a project, I know there will be an audience for it—even Cosmopolis. But you have to be realistic about who your audience will be. If your film costs $2 million, then you know you don’t have to bring in too many people to make your money back. Maps to the Stars is more of a commercial film, but it cost $13 million, which was less than the Cosmopolis budget. Spider  was another film I’m glad I made, but the $8 million it cost was hard to come by. It’s not that I don’t give a fuck about the audience, it’s that I don’t always know who they are, or who they will end up being. I assume not every film is going to have the same audience. With crime thrillers like History of Violence and Eastern Promises I clearly had an audience that I wouldn’t have had for Spider. It’s a flexible thing. I don’t want to make a movie that’s just for me, that’s for sure.
MM: It must help that, like Woody Allen, you attract actors who are probably willing to waive their usual fee.
DC: Sure. John Cusack can make a lot doing a film like 2012, but then will want to be in Maps to the Stars if he wants to actually stretch himself with a new, challenging role. Actors want that variety.
MM: The sound design in this film felt to me as though there was no ambient sound, just the actors’ voices, in many scenes.
DC: That’s not really true. What we did say was that the music should be almost like an ambient sound, like the sound of the city. We didn’t want it to be obtrusive. There’s background sound, but the dialogue is paramount in this movie, so I think it may stand out.
MM: Maps to the Stars was shot on the Sony F55. Do you prefer the digital age, or do you wax nostalgic for celluloid?
DC: No, I have no nostalgia for film. I couldn’t wait for it to be gone. Really. Mechanically, one has affection for it, but the only thing I miss about film is the smell in the editing room. And you can always use an air freshener if you need that. Get a Kodak air freshener.
I love the digital era. The frustrations involved in film were huge. The first time I saw a release print I couldn’t believe how bad it was compared with the answer print. What kids today don’t have to think about is degeneration from version to version. I was shocked by that, the blacks were all green, and so on. They improved the process, but the thing about digital is, you don’t lose any quality. The guys who love to shoot film, they talk about this mysterious mystical quality about film—I think it’s all bullshit. Ask them why they’re recording sound digitally and not on tape. No romance about that.
The other great thing about digital is that you can rework things later. My cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky, shot The Empire Strikes Back and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and so is no stranger to effects. He used to be leery about digital. But then he saw that you could re-light a movie in post-production. It’s like Photoshop but for each shot. With digital, if you see a window that’s way too bright, you can bring that down in post-production. Those are the things that are really exciting for a cinematographer or director. You couldn’t do that before.
MM: I’m actually interviewing you on tape right now. But I’m old-school.
DC: You certainly are. That’s very retro. MM
Maps to the Stars opened in theaters February 27, 2015. This article appeared in MovieMaker‘s Winter 2015 issue. All images courtesy of Focus World.