In David Cronenberg's new movie, "Spider," the title character is a paranoid schizophrenic who moves into a halfway house in his childhood suburb after being released from a mental institution. In a nuanced portrait of a mentally ill man struggling to understand his past, Cronenberg blurs the lines between reality and illusion, memory and fantasy. For a man who made a name for himself directing noisy shockers like "Videodrome" and "The Fly," "Spider" is surprisingly quiet. But fear not, Cronenberg fans, it's just as twisted.
The film follows Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), nicknamed Spider by his mother for his fondness of webs, as he shuffles around his old stomping grounds, taking notes. While he struggles to reconstruct the details of a chilling murder that he may or may not have witnessed as a kid, memories of his mum become confused with those of a neighborhood harlot--both of whom are played by Miranda Richardson.
The grim, psychological thriller, which opened in New York and Los Angeles on Feb 28, has garnered the director and his stars impressive reviews. NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker spoke with Cronenberg about the new movie, interpreting Freud and loving insects.
NEWSWEEK: The critics have been calling this your most subtle psychological movie to date, and the least dependent on effects. Does this reflect a new direction for you?
David Cronenberg: It's cyclical. The same thing happened when I did "The Dead Zone." Then "Dead Ringers," then "M. Butterfly" as well. For me creatively it all feels like the same because I personally am not obsessed with special effects at all. I mean, it's all artifice anyway, whether it's the lighting or the costuming or the makeup. We are after all dressing up in funny clothes, pretending we're someone else. There's an element of play involved and even us hardened pros are very aware of that.
Ralph Fiennes actually approached you with the idea of adapting Patrick McGrath's novel for the screen.
He was involved in the project about four years before I was. So, unusually for me, I was reading a script with an actor in mind. Normally I don't even want to do that because I'd rather let the character kind of evolve in my head and then match the actor to that after the fact. But by page two, I just knew Ralph had cast himself brilliantly. Ralph is a throwback to actors like Peter Finch or James Mason, English actors who were very handsome, had wonderful voices and could play leading men. But there was something else going on too, something eccentric and edgy and dark that ended up being more like a character actor's characteristics than a leading man.
Gustave Flaubert famously said of his heroine, Madame Bovary, "c'est moi." Did you ever come to identify with Spider?
When I was in France, I said to some French journalist "I am Spider," I actually did say "c'est moi" in French. But I said "I'm Spider" and he said, "So who isn't?" It seemed to me that Spider was a character with none of the normal accoutrements of life that we have: the network of friends, the work comrades, the work structure. He doesn't seem to have religion or politics or art or anything else. But he's still human. And if you take all of that stuff away from everybody else, you're going to get something close to Spider, I think.
But his identifying trait is that he's a paranoid schizophrenic. Did you study the clinical effects of schizophrenia at all for this?
No, not really at all, although I've done lots of reading about the brain and about neurology in general. This is a longtime interest of mine. Just the understanding of what consciousness is. But there did come a time when Ralph said that he would like to meet schizophrenics and meet psychiatrists. I said, "Ralph, I am sure you'll find some interesting things there, but I am not going to go because I am really not interested in doing a clinical study in schizophrenia."
Did he end up doing that?
Oh, yeah, he did. And he brought back some very interesting insights. Most of them were not really usable. You'd be accused of condescending to schizophrenics if you showed that stuff. Although, as he said, he met some who had families and could sit there and talk to you while they were hallucinating and you would never know it unless they told it to you.
In movies like "A Beautiful Mind" or "Shine," mental illness is romanticized and sensationalized.
Yeah, well it's my instinct of course to not sentimentalize for one thing. And there are many ways to truth. I've had many journalists--you'd be surprised by how many--tell me about the schizophrenics in their lives. One woman said that her mother was schizophrenic and the very next journalist that I spoke to said that his brother is a schizophrenic, and they find the movie extremely accurate and truthful.
Spider has a very complex relationship with women, and especially his mother. Did you bone up on your Freud for this?
One of the best books I read last year was called "Why Freud Was Wrong." [Laughs] It actually is a brilliant scholarly work. It might not sound like it. I have a Freud doll right here. He has a cigar in his hand. A little plastic Freud action figure.
I didn't want [the movie] to be a schematic Freudian scenario either, just as I didn't want it to be a clinical schizophrenic scenario. At a certain point in the movie you might think it's an Oedipus complex story. But then it starts to go off the rails. It doesn't hold as a Freudian paradigm, but I do play with the core of it, the idea of child sexuality and misunderstanding of adult sexuality. All of that is definitely there, there's no question about it.
You have studied moths as a hobby. "Naked Lunch" features freakish cockroaches. You've done films titled "The Fly," "Spider" and "M. Butterfly." That's a lot of bugs.
I love bugs. They are a life form, but they're so alien. People seem to be obsessed with finding alien life forms on other planets but I am saying we've got the most alien life forms you'll ever find right here on earth, and people don't even want to look at them or talk about them or know about them. But I find it incredibly illuminating to connect in some ways with insects to try to imagine being a life form like that and to understand the differences. They're not little machines, but on the other hand they're not conscious either, so what are they? So I find them endlessly fascinating.
In the 1980s, you were actually asked to direct "Flashdance" and "Top Gun."
That is true.
How different would those movies have looked if you had done them?
They would have been total failures. I'm sure I would have done terrible things to subvert them. [Laughs] And I probably did everybody a favor by turning them down.
I have to tell you, when "The Fly" came out I was in the sixth grade and it really messed me up.
Good, I'm so glad. [Laughs] Thank you.