It’s easy to see why prolific Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg and his longtime collaborator Viggo Mortensen often work together: they have a shared sense of humour, a calm demeanour and a fatalistic view of life.
Ahead of the North American premiere of his film “Crimes of the Future” in Toronto earlier this week, the duo sat down for with the Star to talk about the film and their long-standing collaboration. Within minutes, it was clear they have a strong camaraderie that’s led to a familiar shorthand with each other. When asked what draws them toward this partnership project after project, Toronto-born Cronenberg quipped with a grin, “Over the years he’s gotten cheaper.”
One might assume that the Canadian icon is edgy and dark given the films he makes, but his demeanour was quite the opposite. He was calm, cool and collected, polite with a dry sense of humour that can catch one off guard.
Cronenberg and Mortensen have a friendship and partnership that spans almost two decades, evident in their witty comebacks and easy rapport. New York-born Mortensen has starred in three of Cronenberg’s films: “A History of Violence,” “Eastern Promises” and “A Dangerous Method.”
The pair last worked together on Mortensen’s directorial debut “Falling,” where the roles were reversed and Cronenberg had an acting part.
“I was well prepared,” Mortensen, 63, said of their time filming his debut. “The Toronto crew was very nervous when he walked in. But then he tells them some jokes in very poor taste and then they realize, ‘Oh, he’s actually an idiot,’” he joked.
Cronenberg, 79, spoke about the understanding that they have as filmmakers and friends, “We are professionals, unbelievable as it seems, so it means that we can say no to each other. If I offered Viggo a role, and he really feels he’s not right for or doesn’t connect with it, he has to be able to say no, and I am not going to be shattered and think he’s not my friend anymore. And the reverse is true. If Viggo had a project or a script that he wanted me to direct, I would have to say no if I really didn’t want to do it. So there’s that respect and that professionalism despite the tomfoolery that we enjoy.”
When Mortensen, a three-time Oscar-nominated actor, first read the script for “Crimes of the Future,” which Cronenberg wrote and directed, he told him, “this is essentially a classic film noir story and I really like it.”
Cronenberg’s return to his body horror roots
Cronenberg is arguably the master of the body horror genre (some would say he owns the genre), which was evident in his cult classics like “Shivers,” “Scanners” and “Videodrome.”
“Crimes of the Future” is a return to the maestro’s early days as a body horror filmmaker. The film made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where it earned a six-minute standing ovation from the audience.
Also starring Kristen Stewart and Léa Seydoux, the movie is set in a future when people’s bodies have begun producing new organs, pain is non-existent and plastic is consumed in place of food. Mortensen plays Saul, a performance artist, who develops new organs inside him, which his partner Caprice (Seydoux) tattoos while still in his body and then removes in front of an audience.
The human body has always been a through line in Cronenberg’s work and he believes that as a filmmaker you have to be obsessed with the human body.
“I’m an atheist; I don’t believe in an after life so I accept that this physical presence is what you are. To me, the body is where it all starts. As a filmmaker, what do you photograph most? You’re photographing the human body. That’s your subject and through that you explore the human condition. So to me, a director who’s not obsessed with the human body is not really a director. That is my point of view. Really, that’s your subject,” he said candidly.
Mortensen shares the same sentiments about the body, connecting it to mortality, adding, “There are different ways of looking at your life and your body, and there’s different ways of getting older or dealing with illness. Some people become extremely depressed, irritated, angry, resentful, and they don’t really come out of that. Then other people can be irritated about it but have a sense of humour and make the most of it.
“If you can’t make fun of yourself and your journey to the end, and all the things you go through, then it’s going to be less enjoyable of a ride.”
Cronenberg thinks of himself as a “classic existentialist and that there’s an absurdity to human life, but that doesn’t depress you, it actually should make you laugh. It’s something that you could use as a source of strength actually.”
Cronenberg isn’t out to shock audiences
While there are some uncomfortable and disturbing scenes in the movie — the opening scene involves the death of a child — the film is a social commentary on humanity, creativity, technology and climate change. Like most of his films, “Crimes” is equal parts ambitious and thought-provoking, a dark satire meant to entertain and start a dialogue. Cronenberg had predicted that his film would make viewers walk out of screenings at Cannes and a few attendees did. But shocking views has never been his intention.
“I don’t ever think I’m shocking anybody. I know that seems naive or even hypocritical but honestly, with the death of the kid at the beginning, I’m a father and I have four grandchildren, but the murder of a child by his mother … is that a shock? Or is it just a dramatic possibility? I read about it every other day. Some mother has drowned her kids. It’s strange and disturbing stuff.
“So I’m really saying to the audience, I have had these ideas, these visions, these narrative possibilities, and some of them I find disturbing to me, some I find troubling, some amusing and provocative. So I’m inviting you to come along with me and share my reactions or maybe you’ll have a different reaction to these. So it’s really more of collaboration with the audience,” he explained.
Mortensen liked the film’s commentary on censorship and repression. “There was one aspect of the story that I really liked when I first read it, apart from the film noir aspect, which was the idea of censorship and how people are afraid of what’s new, whether it’s movies or technology. There seems to be a tension between people being hungry for new things and then, on the other side, people being afraid of it and defending themselves against it. That tension inevitably leads to repression from the authorities.”
British-Canadian actor Scott Speedman, who stars in the film as a mysterious, radical leader, said in a separate interview, “It’s a very classic David Cronenberg movie, a body horror movie that isn’t just a gore fest. It’s very much a character-based movie about two people trying to figure it out. Really, it’s a love story between Saul and Caprice.”
Fear isn’t part of the equation
The film is a deep, dark dive into the themes of creativity and performance art. Asked what their fear is when they put their work out there as filmmakers and artists, Cronenberg joked, “It was falling down the red carpet at Cannes” while Mortensen quipped it was that nobody would show up for their film.
Cronenberg said he doesn’t have any fear. “If people don’t respond or they reject it, that’s just part of the deal. That’s part of the contract you have with your audience that you will offer them something and they will react, and they could have a negative reaction. But that doesn’t induce fear, though.”
Mortensen said he’s confident about the film. “I would only be worried if in my heart I felt it wasn’t a very good movie, then I’m worried that other people might feel that way too. But I don’t feel that way. I liked the movie. I think it’s really well-made and thought-provoking. I think that David ended up doing what he wanted to do and more.”
The Cronenberg effect
Mortensen once said that Cronenberg is one of the most uniquely gifted filmmakers today. “I take that back,” he said when asked to elaborate. “He wrote that for me and I regretted saying that.” Cronenberg laughed and adds, “I forced him to say that.”
Mortensen feels the added layers in Cronenberg’s movies are what draws fans. “I think because audiences — whether they love the movie or are somewhere in between — recognize that there is original thinking going on, that he’s not showing images or writing dialogue purely for effect, that there is something underneath and they know they’re going to go on a ride. They know that if they see the movie again, they’re going to see even more layers to it.”
Cronenberg wrote the script for “Crimes of the Future” in 1998 and didn’t change it at all when it came time to finally directing it in Athens during the pandemic. “It’s as valid as ever now and it leaves the audience with room to think for themselves,” Mortensen said. “There are not many filmmakers like that; there’s certainly not many movies, even ones that I like, or when I see them a second or third time, that I find more to be interested in, more to think about in terms of what’s going on in society or even my own life.”
Speedman, who grew up in Toronto, described Cronenberg as “the most quietly confident director I’ve worked with. He’s very gentle, sweet, hilarious. He’s a rascal too, which I love. He creates that atmosphere on set, no matter how dark or weird of a movie it is. He’s not an edgy dark guy.”
Canadian actor and filmmaker Don McKellar, who also stars in “Crimes of the Future,” said he wouldn’t have pursued his career if it wasn’t for the famed filmmaker; he is “the example of a career in Canada.”
Cronenberg said he is happy to be an influence but doesn’t think about his legacy.
“It really pleases me when young filmmakers come and say that I’m the reason that they’re in film. It’s very satisfying when somebody like Julia Ducournau says that I really influenced her filmmaking and she won the Palme d’Or last year. It’s very sweet. But honestly, as a card-carrying existentialist, when I’m dead I don’t care. It’s irrelevant,” he said.
A long time ago, one of his goals as a director might have been to become an adjective, like Felliniesque — at which point I reminded him of the term Cronenbergian. He smiled and said he prefers “Cronenburgundian,” adding, “I can’t deny that it’s pleasing, but I don’t have a goal in terms of legacy.”
Both Cronenberg and Mortensen share views on being present and not thinking about the future. Cronenberg’s mantra is a simple one: “Be here now. It’s not an easy thing to do to be living in the moment and not worrying about the past or the future. It’s a lot of work, but be here now.”
Mortensen added, “I think the fact that we can die tomorrow is a stimulus. It gets me out of bed and it gets me going.”
The pair’s potential next move
It’s clear that there will be more to come from this duo. “I’m hoping Viggo offers me a role,” Cronenberg said with a twinkle in his eye. “It’s a Western and I need to learn how to ride a horse.
“As a kid, all I ever saw was Westerns,” he added. “I mean, from ‘Hopalong Cassidy’ to ‘The Durango Kid.’ When I was a kid in the ’40s and ’50s, every other movie, every other TV series was a Western. It’s hard to believe that now because it’s such a discredited genre, sort of like it’s racist, but to be in a Western that would be fabulous.” He turned to Mortensen: “We’ve never talked about it before, but I’m going on the record.”
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