The long-awaited publishing of Consumed gave Candice Carty-Williams a chance to talk to its writer, the director and king of venereal horror, David Cronenberg. In this wonderfully in-depth yet satisfyingly broad three-part interview, they speak about the book, Cronenberg’s processes, how similar writing prose is to directing, film, existentialism, the advancement of technology, and nausea.
Being behind the camera, or the pen in this instance, has it desensitised you to your subject matter, what you write about and the films that you make?
No, I think not. I do think though, that writing prose is completely different from writing a screenplay. You have to start with the writing rather than being behind the camera, I think. I’ve found that writing prose is much more intimate, and I feel much freer because screenwriting is a very strange, odd kind of hybrid writing. A lot of very famous professional screenwriters are barely literate I would say, but they can write good dialogue. They have a good ear for dialogue and they have a good idea of story structure. But their prose is really very … prosaic. It’s really mundane and it’s really simple. And it should be, because when you’re reading a screenplay, you’re not really interested in the prose, you’re interested in the imagery it conjures up in your head. And of course if you’re writing a screenplay, there’s no point, for example, in describing a character in great detail. If you say that the guy is thirty five and handsome you don’t get any further into it than that, because you’re going to cast some actor who doesn’t look like what you’re writing. It’s sort of offensive, actually, if you describe an actor or character in great detail, because it sort of puts all the actors who don’t look like that off. So when they’re reading it, they say “well I don’t look like that”. It’s a very strange kind of writing, and I found, to my surprise, that writing the novel was much closer to directing than to writing a screenplay. Because you are in fact casting it to the point that you’re actually creating your actors in detail; you’re doing the costumes, you’re doing the lighting, you’re doing the editing, and the shooting, the sound effects. That was kind of interesting to me because it suddenly made me feel a lot more comfortable in writing than I thought I would be, actually.
I think you are more able to have a directorial role in it, than a screenwriter, who is there to capture dialogue, and human nature, and maybe capture some choice settings, whereas a director is looking at the whole scape, and that is closer to novel writing than anything. I did wonder if you’d had any actors in mind when you were writing Consumed; if you’d characterised or cast any actors to play the main characters?
Well of course when there is somebody who is a template for my characters I tend to mention it in the novel. For example the French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who were a writer-philosopher couple, they were templates for two of my characters. I think it’s common to say that [when you write] you are, in a way, cannibalising your entire life, including everybody that you ever knew or lived with, or even read about; you take bits and pieces, and you make a kind of Frankenstein amalgam of characteristics, physical and psychological, and you create these characters who are not exactly the people in your life, or that you know, or knew, but you kind of mix and match. You literally might take the eyes from one, or the eyebrows from another one, and when those people use those features to communicate, you put them together with the hair of somebody else and the strange walking gait of somebody else, literally you’re putting them together and it’s pretty intriguing. I suppose it gives you a physical connection with your characters that you wouldn’t have if you really did just make them up, out of the air. You’re very dependent on your sensuous life, the life of your senses, when you are trying to give physical lives to your characters. And the other directorial part of it too which is interesting. It’s always occurred to me, and more now when I read prose, is the way you move your characters around in a room for example. You know, some writers are very good with that, giving you the physical sense of how the actors and characters are moving around the room in relation to each other, when they pick something up and walk to the door, then stop, and turn, and others are a lot more disembodied, they don’t really get into that physicality, and they don’t really manoeuvre their characters through space as much as other writers – it’s not really because I’m experienced in doing that as a director, but more that I really want the characters to occupy space and be physically alive that I do that.
It’s personal to you, the way that you see people yourself, but I think also, it’s interesting you said that you sort of borrow aspects of people or change bits around from real people. I find that we do that ourselves, we do that with people that we know in everyday life, and we can tend to make them, in our minds, the person that we want them to be.
I think there’s truth in that, sure, you have an agenda of some kind, when you relate to a person, and of course you often come away from a party and you’re discussing with your mate, or your wife or your husband or whoever, your reactions to people at the party, and you often find that you have completely different reactions to people, and it’s hard to tell how much of that is because of you, and how much of that is because of the specifics of that other person.
Absolutely. I’d been waiting to read Consumed for a really long time, and it was absolutely incredible in that it made me feel really quite nauseous, but in the best way possible – in that it was invoking a reaction, which I don’t get from many texts; books, film, anything. So I wondered, where did that come from, where did this idea to, not that you want to make people feel uneasy, but it does, and I wondered where that’s from inside of you?
Well, it’s my reaction to the reality of the human condition. When you think of it, it’s a bit of an existentialist approach, I’m speaking of the philosophical system which is loosely called existentialism which is pretty varied, but really the idea that we are born into the world, at birth, completely unprepared for what hits us, and the complexity of what the world is. But we then have a very limited amount of time to come to terms with it and then we die. I guess it was summarised in the late sixties: ‘Life’s a bitch and then you die’ which is very flippant. But in fact, when you think of it, you have to say to someone, “well, when was the first time you realised you will not live forever, and you realised that everyone dies, including your wonderful mother and father, or your sister or your brother; how do you deal with that?” Because, it’s like, you’re signed up for that deal before you knew what you were signing. Mortality is a very difficult thing to deal with, and it’s very difficult to imagine yourself completely not existing. It’s not like being asleep. So that’s the beginnings, I think, of anybody’s probing into the darker aspects of human existence; and for me, it all begins with the body. The first fact of human existence is the human body; that is what we are. If you’re not religious, if you don’t believe in an afterlife, which I don’t, then it seems to be normal to begin with the idea of the human body, because that’s what we are, and that’s what our life is, and it really is exploring the wonderfulness and the awfulness of that. So that’s really for me what it is, when I’m making a film, or writing a novel, it’s really a philosophical exploration of the human condition, both in a personal way, or in a more distanced, philosophical way. One of Sartre’s books, maybe his masterpiece, Nausea, is about that existential nausea – which I hope you’re feeling rather than a kind of rollercoaster ride nausea –
Of course! All of these things make you look into yourself; I watched eXistenZ [1999 Canadian science fiction body horror film written, produced, and directed by Cronenberg starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law] last night to get into the mind-set of interviewing you and I was really interested in the idea of the second life you explore, and I think that’s something that I’ve received in many of your films, and indeed in your book; the idea of two lives; alongside your life is one that either you strive for, or try to make for yourself. I think that you can do that, by taking yourself out of your body. It’s something that we all think about, as is mortality, whether we like it or not.
Of course, one of the attractions in the arts, and especially one that is narrative, is that we get to live other lives through it. You can transcend your own life, as you sit there in the cinema watching another life, or other lives, and the same with reading a novel. You sort of forget about your body, and you forget about your life, and you start to live another life. And sometimes it’s interesting if it’s another life that you would never really want to live, but here’s your chance to try it out safely, because you know you’ll come back to yourself. So that, I think, is definitely one of the attractions of narrative, dramatic art, and has always been, I think, since the beginning of human society.
Escapism from our own minds is the most powerful thing I think we have. I think it’s sometimes very hard to step out of yourself, but I do think that literature, and the arts, they do help to do that. Apart from narcotics and drink, that’s your guaranteed safe way of doing that.
With religion, most religions tend to do that too, that’s the attempt that you will, through ritual, through repetition, through smoke and light, and depending on what religion you’re talking about, there’s always the sort of a ritual, and at least incense if not more powerful drugs and so on, are all an attempt to transcend the life that you’re in, and the body that you’re in, so obviously we have an innate desire to experience that, and I think that art and religion are two of the primary ways that we do that. I have to add, maybe technology is the third new way.
Absolutely. I don’t know if you remember it, there was that computer game, a virtual world called Second Life, where you could create one for yourself? And even if you’re on the bus, and you don’t want to be, you don’t have to be, you can be tweeting, or posting what you id at the weekend on Facebook- you can remove yourself from where you are. I think that technology is one of the most powerful things that we have, now, to step out of everything.
Sometimes, you just don’t want to be on that bus.
Part I of this interview can be found here.
Consumed by David Cronenberg is out now.
Article used with kind permission from 4th Estate Books.