David Cronenberg: Why Frustrated Novelists Hate the Screenplay

Filmmaker David Cronenberg on the origins of his first novel ‘Consumed,’ his distaste for the screenplay, and why he’s looking forward to somebody destroying his book in the future.

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“I couldn’t have written this novel without the Internet,” the film director David Cronenberg says about Consumed, sounding like one of the obsessed characters lifted from its pages.

Published late last month by Scribner, the book details the bifurcated narratives of a romantically and technologically linked journalist couple, one chasing the story of the grisly and cannibalistic murder involving a famous French philosophy couple and their acolytes, the other a relationship between the doctor behind a mysterious sexually transmitted disease and his strange daughter. In between, the novel features many detours: the Cannes Film Festival, 3-D printing, hooked penises, and transmissions from the “insect kingdom” through fake hearing aids. It’s the most Cronenbergian thing you’ll ever experience, and a little awkward to read on the subway.

The novel is also a completely different experience from Maps to the Stars, a punch-in-the-gut Hollywood satire starring Julianne Moore, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Where the film focuses on the egotistical mores on the fringes of Tinseltown, the book is globe hopping, discursive, and epic in scope.

Maps was just one of the projects he worked on during the writing of Consumed, and its co-writer, the novelist Bruce Wagner, proved to be a major influence of Cronenberg’s first book, the one that in many forms, he says, had been swimming around in his head since he was a child.

The Daily Beast spoke at length with Cronenberg about the origins of the novel, his distaste for the screenplay, and why he’s looking forward to somebody destroying his book in the future.

Did you study literature?

Yes, at the University of Toronto. Then I somehow got derailed by, or seduced by, perhaps kidnapped by, cinema, almost accidentally. It was the underground filmmaking movement in the ‘60s that gave you access to film. Basically you didn’t have to go to film schools, you just grabbed a camera. So I was surprised to find myself a filmmaker, but my familiarity with writing, the fact that I wasn’t intimidated by writing—my father was a journalist, I used to fall asleep to the sound of his IBM Selectric hammering away—meant I was able to write my own scripts. That’s how I got to be a director. Good scripts were much rarer than directors. If they wanted my scripts they had to take me. Before I knew it that was my profession.

While studying literature, was it always the novel you were interested in writing?

Yes, it was the novel in particular. I wasn’t interested in writing biography, or poetry — for me, the novel was the form. I particularly aspired to be an obscure novelist, which sounds strange I suppose. I was reading Evergreen Review, Paris Review, I would discover writers like Djuna Barnes, and her novel Nightwood, and I would be excited about that. It was something not too many people knew about and you were kind of part of a secret society, and I really liked that. I thought it would be great if my writing perhaps was like that, occasionally someone digging would discover what I had written and would be impressed by it, touched by it, whatever. I wasn’t thinking at the time of course, if you were an obscure novelist you weren’t making much of a living. [Laughs] Even a successful novelist doesn’t make a hell of a lot of money, certainly these days.

Was Consumed always going to be a novel?

I had actually started to write a screenplay, we called it an erotic thriller, and eventually I called it Consumed, but I couldn’t finish the script, I couldn’t make it work. Now, I romanticize it by thinking that it knew it needed to be a novel and that’s why it resisted being a screenplay.

Were there specific things you wanted to do with a novel that you didn’t think you could do with film?

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Basically the purpose of the exercise was to see what kind of literary voice I had. I knew what kind of voice I had as a director, more or less, although A Dangerous Method is pretty different from a movie like Cosmopolis. I just wanted to let it be free and not restrict it. I didn’t want too much pressure. In fact, when I talked to Don DeLillo about it, he said he never makes a deal. He writes the novel first and then makes the deal with the publisher, just so he won’t have that pressure of expectation. I said, “Don, the thing is, I need the validation.” Maybe for my next novel I won’t worry about it, but for my first one I really need to know that it’s a viable entity for serious, real publishers, just to give me the confidence and the pressure. I wanted that pressure.

Did you seek that validation from other writers?

I know a lot of writers—Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, I’m friends with quite a few writers not just because of the movies but often because of the movies. I would pester them. I would call Bruce Wagner while writing and say, “Hey Bruce, is this normal thing or is it just me?” He’d go, “No, no, that’s normal, it will go away, don’t worry about it.” That was helpful because I had a network of novelists who I could talk to about the process that I was going through.

Does the process of writing a novel differ wildly from writing a screenplay?

They’re almost not like the same act at all. A screenplay is a very bizarre hybrid kind of writing where the quality of your prose is completely irrelevant. In fact, it’s better if it’s very plain and simple. Whenever you read a screenplay by somebody who’s a frustrated novelist you hate the screenplay because it goes on and on with stuff that is irrelevant.

So the minimalism of a screenplay is essential?

You want a quick read that is accurate and will give you an idea in your head of what your crew can do to make it all happen. It’s a very restrictive, compressed kind of writing. A novel’s completely different. I found, much to my surprise, that writing a novel was much more like directing. You’re casting it, you’re doing the lighting, you’re doing the costumes, the locations, the sound effects, the special effects, music. You’re doing all of it. You don’t do that as a screenwriter.

The other aspect of it novel writing, though, was that it was much more intimate. There’s a distance between the audience and the movie that is not as intimate as when somebody is reading a book—I mean, even the distance of the book for your face and the screen from your face. So, when the first person said, “I read your novel,” I was shocked. It’s a very intimate relationship I have with this person I don’t know, which is much different than when somebody says, “I saw your movie.”

Are you still thinking visually when writing a novel?

I don’t know that it would have been different if I had not been a filmmaker; I have no way of knowing. I do work with my characters in the way I work with my actors—I move them around the room, I need to know where they are in physical space when they speak, what are they doing with their cigarette. I just know in the novel I want my characters to physically exist, I want the reader to feel them in three-dimensional space, in a sculptural way. I’ve always felt that filmmaking is sculptural as well, so maybe there is that connection. On the other hand, there are writers, Tolstoy’s petty good at doing all of that and he never directed a movie. So I don’t know if there’s a necessary connection.

Will the freedom you mentioned writing the novel bleed into your work writing your next screenplay? Will it be difficult to jump back into that restrictive form of writing?

I doubt it. I don’t really think it’s transmissible. One journalist asked me the question, “Was your novel influenced by your early movies?” I think he had that backwards, you know? You’re not influenced by your own work—you are your own work! But honestly, I don’t think it translates either way, they’re pretty separate acts, other than that in each case you’re being a dramatist, dealing with characters and narrative. If I were to write another screenplay I wouldn’t be thinking about novelistic techniques.

The use of language in Consumed is fascinating. The main characters, both journalists, speak in a stylized way that is informed by the products they obsess over and fetishize.

It arises naturally because I’m responding to the zeitgeist. I think of it as realism. I mean, there you are [points down to my iPhone recording the conversation]. And these days I’m often doing interviews with guys that I’ve known for years who are print journalists and now they’re trying to do video for their newspapers website with their iPhone. They’re desperate; they’re required to start doing photojournalism, video journalism as well. For me, if I’m going to have two young journalists as my main characters they’re going to be plugged into the Internet, they’re going to be plugged into technology, in self-defense, or passion in this case. I don’t think they even think of it as anything unusual.

Do you think of it as something unusual?

No. I’ve been a techno-geek forever. I couldn’t wait for word processors to get rid of typewriters and I couldn’t wait for digital to get rid of film. I have no nostalgia for it whatsoever. I love the technology and I love the compression of time that it makes possible, and I love the fact that a word processor works much more like your mind works. Your mind doesn’t work in a linear way and neither does the digital world.

Your new film Maps to the Stars, though very different, could have easily shared a title with your book. The characters are consumed less by technology and more by their own narcissism and the virus of fame.

I think Bruce and I are living out of the same zeitgeist, so we’re both responding to the same signals. One of the things that I learned from Bruce was to not be afraid of the moment. In my early films, I didn’t want to make too many references to too many specific things culturally because I was worried that it would date the films, although it’s inevitable. A young critic, I had to laugh, who just discovered Shivers” He said, “Cronenberg really nails the ‘70s.” I didn’t nail the ‘70s; I was the ‘70s. [Laughs] He thought it was some retro-recreation or something. Only a young critic could do that.

So, in Maps we were constantly updating because we’ve been working on the script together for ten years. Likewise in the novel, things have changed constantly—new Nikons are coming out, new lenses. I could see from Bruce that there was no point in worrying about that, any more than Tolstoy had to worry about his current references in War and Peace. You have to accept the time that you’re writing and the moment and not be afraid to absorb all of it and not filter it too much.

Do you read contemporary fiction?

Yeah, I’m constantly reading. I’m also catching up. I’m just reading, for example, William Gaddis’s J R, which I hadn’t before. That’s always exciting. I’m currently reading the Patrick Melrose novel, which I hadn’t even known about. I’m reading about six or seven things at once, always.

Is the idea of adaptation different after writing a novel, now that you’ve taken part of the intimate experience you described?

I don’t think it would be. I’m anticipating writing another novel and I’d really like to do that in a way that was more compact because I wrote Consumed over eight years while I was also making four movies. That’s very difficult and strange. I don’t even know how long it actually took me to write the novel. It would take a very seductive film project to get me off writing my next novel, but that could certainly happen. I don’t think it will have any effect on the moviemaking process at all. It’s a process I know very well, and that won’t change. It can’t change.

Would you adapt Consumed?

At first I thought I would. I thought, “Hey, how many directors, or novelists, have a chance to do that?” And I have five producers, all people I’ve worked with before, who said they would love to make a movie out of my novel with me. Then I realized it’s the last thing in the world I’d want to do. I’d be bored. I’ve done it already.

What about somebody else making the novel into a movie?

I’d be interested in that. That would be much more interesting, some other director making a movie out of the novel, and destroying it, to betray the novel, as they’d be forced to do.