THE MASTER

David Cronenberg On Soul-Crushing Hollywood, BDSM, and Limo Sex with Robert Pattinson

The body horror director of cult classics like Dead Ringers and The Fly is back with Maps to the Stars—a truly bizarre and beguiling Hollywood horror film.

03.08.15 10:00 AM ET

“Every movie has limo sex, doesn’t it?” says David Cronenberg.

We’re discussing a mesmerizing sequence in the Canadian filmmaker’s latest effort, Maps to the Stars, wherein Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a famous actress/Freudian nightmare, is thoroughly banged in the back of a limo by Jerome Fontana, a limo driver and struggling actor played by Robert Pattinson. It’s just one of many bizarrely compelling scenes in Cronenberg’s latest.

Written by Bruce Wagner, it’s a thorough evisceration of Hollywood gluttony involving a crazy cast of characters, including a washed-up actress with mommy issues (Moore); her pyromaniac personal assistant (Mia Wasikowska); her father, a famous Dr. Phil-like TV psychologist (John Cusack); a limo driver and aspiring screenwriter (Pattinson); a very troubled child star (Evan Bird); and many more. The film is a companion piece of sorts to his other Pattinson collaboration Cosmopolis, another scathing critique of capitalist excess.

“You could see both movies as some kind of critique of capitalism. It’s like East Coast and West Coast,” says a chuckling Cronenberg. “If you throw in A History of Violence for the Midwest, then I’ve got all of America covered.”

Cronenberg is, of course, a legendary filmmaker known for his boundary-pushing “body horror” movies examining people’s fear of amputation and infection, and lust for sex and violence. Scanners. Videodrome. The Fly. Dead Ringers. Crash. It’s a long, impressive list. In recent years, he’s moved inward, focusing on psychological scarring.

In a candid conversation, Cronenberg opened up about the surrealness of Hollywood, his new muse Robert Pattinson, sex on film, and much more.

You and Robert Pattinson have developed an interesting creative partnership. You’re a bit of an odd couple.

We are. Well, first of all, I think he’s a really good actor, and I think he was an underrated actor because of the stiffness and silliness of Twilight and those characters in it. But seeing other work that he had done and seeing that he was a serious actor and looking for challenges, and wasn’t trying to “manage his image” as a star, was attractive to me. And, of course, being such a big celebrity is helpful because it will help your film get financed, but the charisma that made him work so well as Edward Cullen is something you want in a movie like Cosmopolis where he’s in every scene in the movie. You need someone who’s infinitely watchable. But once you’re on the set, he’s just a sweetheart. Totally professional, really accessible, and funny. And a terrific actor.

So I take it you’re not a fan of the Twilight movies.

Well, no, of course not. Look, the series is a huge hit, of course, but it’s young adult fiction and I’m not a young adult. If people are mesmerized by it you can’t argue with it. Not a lot of movies and series have that kind of following. I don’t fault it for that.

Right. Twilight also had a strange chastity/sex is evil message.

Yeah. And you can be sure that Rob was aware of all those things. He’s very well-read, and very well-versed in cinema—which I’m not sure his fans know. He was very hyper-aware of all those things surrounding those movies.

Your film does have a fun sex scene between Julianne Moore and Robert Pattinson in a limo.

That was fun to shoot! It requires some athleticism to have sex in a limo for all concerned—including the cameraman—but obviously this isn’t the first time I’ve done a sex scene in a limo, since we did a bit of it in Cosmopolis. In this case it was a real limo, but in Cosmopolis it was a limo-set. 

Well Robert seems to have the limo sex thing down, now.

[Laughs] I’ve never asked him how many times he’s had sex in a limo for real. It’s not really my place to ask such a thing. It really just requires the characters to be good actors. Obviously, the sex had a very different tone in this movie because he’s not the star—she’s the star in this movie. He’s just servicing her, and he knows that he’s doing it for his career—he thinks. Whereas in Cosmopolis, he’s the emperor of his limo.

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That was the great thing about this sex scene—it’s a young stud servicing a woman. There aren’t many sex scenes in cinema that feature a woman running the show.

It’s a lovely part of Bruce’s script—that he’s constantly keeping you guessing.

Have you seen Fifty Shades of Gray?

No, I haven’t.

Bailey's Quest-445.cr2

Dan McFadden/Maps of The Stars

"Maps to the Stars."

I was debating favorite BDSM scenes on film with a coworker, and that brilliant scene in Dead Ringers came up.

Dead Ringers is pretty good! There’s some strange stuff along those lines in Videodrome as well.

BDSM is having a bit of a mainstream moment now, and it’s a style of sex that’s long fascinated you—Dead Ringers, Videodrome, Crash, A Dangerous Method.

It’s a modality of human sexuality. If you’re going to explore the human condition, and if your focus is particularly on the human body—and I have to admit, my focus generally is for all sorts of philosophical and political reasons—you’re going to have to deal with the variations of sexuality that humans manifest. That sounds academic, but it really means that you can’t deny yourself the exploration of those aspects of human experience, because that’s what art is. It doesn’t mean you’re doing it in every movie, but at certain points you’re going to have to deal with what human intimacy is, and what the variations of human sexuality can be. And if it’s sci-fi, you’re dealing with how technology is involved in our understanding of sex.

Where does your fascination with the human body come from? What are those philosophical and political reasons?

It has to do with my understanding of human existence, which is that the body is the primary fact of human existence. That’s what we are. It has to do with my denial of an afterlife or any spirit that is aside from the body. We are our bodies. When you couple that with the thing filmmakers photograph the most is the human body, to me, my version of an artist is that it’s essential and inevitable that you be focused on the human body somehow.

And in Hollywood—and American culture in general—there does seem to be quite a bit of shame associated with the human body.

It’s a huge topic. America was founded by Puritans, first of all, and there was a lot of shame and guilt about having a human body at all, so I think there’s still a lot of that in American culture. Couple that with the visibility of the body—the fact that what an actor has to work with is his or her body, since it’s their instrument. When I did some acting, I realized that when you’re in front of the camera, it’s your body; that’s what you’ve got to work with. You realize why actors are obsessed with the clothes they put on their body, or their makeup, or the way their hair is. It’s not vanity; they’re tuning their instrument because that’s the instrument they have to play. 

There really isn’t much sex in Hollywood films these days. It’s disappointing.

Well, I think it’s a commercial thing—you want the rating, and everybody is so worried about offending somebody that it’s very hard to let it all hang out, literally and figuratively. There’s a lot of caution, and everything is so politically correct. There’s a challenge from TV right now because there’s a lot of raucous sex going on on TV that you never would have seen before, so it’s a strange positioning between TV and movies over who’s going to go further with the boundaries of sex. It’s an interesting moment.

Why do you think television’s become the medium where you can have interesting and more honest explorations of sex?

It might be the intimacy. The very thing that people have loved for so long about movies, having a big audience all together, is perhaps a limiting factor when you’re worried about “offending” people. Whereas if you’re at home, you’ve got a million channels and if you don’t like it you don’t watch it, and you’re watching it by yourself, or with people you know intimately, and you know they are interested in this and won’t be offended. I think that’s it. TV has the advantage of that intimacy and privacy. You aren’t sitting there in a theater with a bunch of people who are being sexually aroused. It’s like being in one of those old porno houses where everyone is on the verge of masturbating—and to a lesser extent, a lot of ladies of various ages are getting aroused during Fifty Shades of Grey. And how aroused are you? And does that make you uncomfortable? It’s OK to be aroused if you’re at home watching with your husband because you’re used to being aroused around each other anyway.

I think there’s something to that, too. But your films have always explored sex in an interesting way. I was trying to think of the last time I saw two film stars engaged in a sexy sex scene, and the last one I could think of was A History of Violence.

Yeah. It needs a structure around it, a director who’s not particularly inhibited—because that will trickle down to everybody and will be felt on the set, which makes for a theatrical and unconvincing sex scene. If you have the right tone on the film set and the project is well understood by everybody, then it’s not that difficult to do. But getting to that point is difficult.

You seem to be preoccupied with capitalism and the ever-increasing wealth gap in this country with both Cosmopolis and now Maps to the Stars serving as pretty damning critiques.

Bruce wrote this 20 years ago, and then I got involved 10 years ago and we were developing it together. It goes further back then just a momentary efflorescence of anti-Wall Street sentiment that comes with the recent financial crises we’ve seen. But the reverberations were probably there under the surface, ready to become an earthquake sooner or later. But it goes further back. In a way, Maps is like a Greek tragedy. It has a lot to do with human values, or non-values—greed, ambition, and desperation. But when you get into the specifics, yes, this story could have happened in Wall Street, or Silicon Valley, or in Detroit with the auto industry.

I’m sure you’ve had plenty of bizarre experiences in Hollywood that helped feed this thorough evisceration.

I’ve taken meetings in Hollywood with studio execs that are beyond anything that’s in the movie as far as absurdity or surreal black comedy, so I know that it’s all true. We don’t think of it as a satire; with think of it as a docudrama.

What were some of the craziest meetings you’ve had with studio executives?

Oh, I can’t say. Well, many absurd discussions about actors, and who could “carry” a particular movie, and suddenly finding myself hearing over a speakerphone a guy spouting statistics about how certain actors can carry certain movies. I can’t get into it. I’d love to, really, but then I’d have to get into naming names. But some of the machinery that’s created to support what should just be intuition and understanding is frustrating. You deal with people who can’t really evaluate a script and who can’t really evaluate a performance, so they cling to statistics gurus who will give you the “key” to what will make the movie work. And as a director, you know that’s not how you cast a film.

What have just been your most surreal Hollywood experiences? Have you had moments where you almost left your body and thought, “Wow, this is completely isnane?” 

I’ve had meetings where people have said things to me that, under normal circumstances, it would have cause me to say, “FUCK YOU!” and leave. But I was so amused by it—the insensitivity, the lack of menschness, and the crudity of people who have enormous power, are making huge amounts of money, and are allegedly good at people-managing, which is what they’re supposed to be doing at the studios.

One of the things that was interesting about the recent Sony hack was that it granted us an interesting lens into the way studio executives operate, and how they view directors and actors as these chess pieces that they’re moving around. You realize how much power the execs wield.

There’s a story that I love to tell, and I don’t tell it too often. It has to do with Marty Scorsese trying to get Last Temptation of Christ made. He wanted to cast Christopher Walken as Christ, and the studio he was working with, who were up to that point OK with the idea, were really horrified by the idea of Christopher Walken as Christ. So they said to Marty, “We would never question your casting acumen, and so we’ve decided to kill the film and we’re not doing it.” That was their version of respect for the director! They couldn’t accept his casting, so they’re version of “respect” was to kill the movie. It of course ended up being taken somewhere else, and starred Willem Dafoe as Christ.

You and Marty should just collaborate on a Last Temptation sequel with Christopher Walken as Christ, just as a big “FUCK YOU” to the studio.

[Laughs] Yeah! We could have Willem in it as well. But they really thought that that was a version of respect.

You’ve had your studio flirtations over the years with Return of the Jedi and Total Recall. Those were pretty massive projects.

Yeah. The biggest one would have been The Matarese Circle. I was working with Mary Parent at MGM, and we were getting along very well. I’d written a couple of drafts of a script based on the Robert Ludlum book, and had met Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise, and they were both interested in starring in it together. That would have been huge. I was having a good time, but you know when you’re playing that game, you’re playing a different game. When I’m on the set of an indie film, I know I have complete control—and also budget control, to control where the money is spent. But when you’re working on a movie with a $200 million budget, you surrender control. But I was willing to try it out. But it fell through.

When I was doing Cosmopolis, Robert Pattinson said to me, “I’ve never seen this before.” And I seen, “Seen what?” And he said, “Well, you’re just making all these decisions right now, right here on the set and don’t have to make any phone calls or take any meetings.” The movies he’d been making weren’t made like that, and the director is just another chess piece. The studios deliberately hire people who don’t have a lot of experience so they can control them. Why else do you see huge, huge movies with tremendous pressure and responsibility being directed by someone who’s just done music videos? It’s not because they’re geniuses with strong visions. I think on the contrary, they don’t want people with a hugely strong vision.

This is neither here nor there, but I have always been curious what David Cronenberg’s Return of the Jedi would have looked like.

Oh, I have no idea. It was a 45-second conversation. It was called Revenge of the Jedi, since it was before they realized that the title was wrong because Jedis don’t take revenge. It was a phone call from Lucas’s production office asking me if I was interested in directing that sequel. And I said, “Well, I don’t usually do other people’s material.” And that was it. Click. I think what they wanted was unbridled enthusiasm. They didn’t want a measured response. I was serious about it. On the one hand, I can see the excitement with involving yourself in a hugely successful franchise at some point in your career, but I don’t think I’ve ever been there—to do the 2nd, 3rd film in a series. The casting has been established, the tone has been established, and the look has been established, so it’s like doing a TV series without helming the pilot.