David Cronenberg has made more than twenty films since the late 1960s without really ever infiltrating Hollywood. The Canadian director has been based in Toronto since the inception of his prolific career, which gives him something of a detached perspective on the inner workings of the Los Angeles movie industry. His new film, Maps To the Stars, is set firmly in the Hollywood Hills, paying witness to characters who grapple with what it means to lose the public identity that defines you.
Julianne Moore’s Havana Segrand is the story’s center, a washed up, aging actress still searching for self-defining fame. The story, written by novelist Bruce Wagner, drifts in and out of characters, from Havana to a drug-addled child star to the struggling actor/limousine driver embodied by recent Cronenberg favorite Robert Pattinson. It takes several dark, visceral turns and ultimately becomes a film about identity and loss thereof. In some ways, Maps To the Stars is a left turn for Cronenberg, a director who made his bones in the so-called “body horror” genre — Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly — and in recent years has taken unapologetic approach to human violence in films like Eastern Promises and Cosmopolis.
Cronenberg, who released his debut novel Consumed last fall, has been slowly addressing the more horrific aspects of life throughout his work, searching to understand what he frequently refers to as “the human condition.” We spoke with the filmmaker about Maps To the Stars, his own identity and whether he’s actually ever been a horror director at all.
What interested you in a film about Hollywood and the entertainment industry?
I’ve been a fan of [screenwriter] Bruce Wagner’s writing for about 20 years. I discovered him through his first novel Force Majeure and in that he writes in the voice of a limo driver in Hollywood. We’ve been friends ever since then. I’ve been very intrigued by his writing as a novelist — he’s written about eight or nine novels, most of them about Hollywood. It was really my interest in Bruce’s work and his insights into Hollywood rather than my own obsession with Hollywood. I actually was never obsessed with Hollywood at all, particularly, and nor did I have anger or hatred or whatever of it. In Le Monde, the French newspaper, they had an interview with me and they put big quotes that said, “Je ne deteste pas Hollywood.” And it’s because the French assumed that this movie was the eruption of years of simmering hatred and anger and resentment towards Hollywood. And I said, “No, it’s not like that.” In fact, I have rather a lot of affection for Hollywood and its history and so on. Really, Hollywood doesn’t owe me anything. It was a fantastic script and it felt truthful to my own ongoing analysis of the human condition and the strangeness of that.
Have you lived in Los Angeles at any point in your career?
I never have. The longest I ever spent there was six weeks when I was doing the sound mix for The Dead Zone. That’s when I realized I would rather live in Toronto. Although, once again, I didn’t hate LA and I still enjoy trips to LA whenever I have to go. But I don’t think I could live there. That’s not really a criticism but the business is so much everywhere there that you can’t get away from it. That’s why a lot of actors like Julianne Moore like to live in New York instead of LA. But I have been going back and forth since 1971 and I’ve had many meetings with studio executives over various projects that did or didn’t happen, and so I know, from my own experience, that what Bruce writes is very true. It’s very accurate. It’s not really satire. I think Bruce and I both say the film is not a satire – it’s more a docudrama. Bruce has actually said every line of dialogue in the movie he’s heard spoken by someone.
Yeah. I know, it’s terrifying. But there it is.
That’s its own kind of horror.
Yes. And that’s it – he obviously has very mixed feelings about Hollywood. It’s complex for him. I’m, of course, 2,500 miles away and I’ve always felt that Toronto was kind of halfway between Hollywood and Europe in terms of movies. Physically it is, and in terms of movies it is. I was influenced by European films and by Hollywood films so I think my movies reflect that.
Do you think this film says something specific about celebrity and fame?
It’s an interesting subject. I don’t think it’s the main subject of the movie – to me, the main subject is existential desperation. What is it that makes you alive? What is it that makes you a human being and gives you an identity? I explored that in my movie Spider, which of course had nothing to do with Hollywood and had to do with a schizophrenic. In Maps it’s more obvious. You have to exist onscreen. You have to be on the red carpet. You have to be televised. You have to be on Facebook and Instagram. You have to tweet. Otherwise you cease to exist. And, of course, in the character of Havana Segrand you see an actress who has gotten to an age where she’s started to feel that her existence is in peril. She’s not getting those roles and she’s not getting those phone calls. Julianne Moore had many colleagues her age who disappeared at about the age of 40. They were hot for a while and suddenly they couldn’t get work anymore. For anybody, in any field, not being able to work is a bad thing, but in Hollywood it’s a very visible thing. Suddenly you disappear from that screen that gives you life and you’re not there anywhere. It’s a weird pre-death. That was what made this particular interesting as opposed to a movie that was set in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street or in Detroit in the car business. You would still have the greed, the ambition, the desperation for identity and for notoriety and celebrity, but it’s not as visible in those businesses as it is in Hollywood because of what movies are.
Do you personally have a fear of falling away from the public consciousness?
I often long to just disappear. I have very strong reclusive tendencies. I don’t mean that I would want to no longer be able to practice my art, but I just recently published a novel and I kind of liked that. You’re out of the public eye completely until it comes out and even then it’s nothing like what happens when a movie comes out. I wouldn’t like to not be able to be creative, but I could live without the red carpet. I remember talking about this with Viggo Mortensen and we both agreed we’ve had enough attention to last a lifetime.
In your films, your characters often go off the edge. Is there something you like about watching someone veer away from sanity or normalcy?
It’s in the extreme that you reveal something about what the normal is. It’s like the 1950s under Eisenhower. There was a normal sort of life that you had and you wondered where was the sex and the rock ‘n’ roll. And eventually both appeared. You knew something was going on under the surface. The normalcy suppressed it or hid it. So I think it’s in extreme situations with extreme characters or ordinary characters who are put in extreme situations that you begin to reveal what the human condition really is. It’s very easy to be numbed and paralyzed by the situation of ordinary, normal days and I think it’s always important to look at the extremes to illuminate what the normality is. That’s the way I think of it, anyway.
Have you discovered something new about the human condition in the process of making films?
Mostly it was confirming my suspicions. It doesn’t take long for a child living in a family — even in a relatively stable society never mind a horrible war-torn society like you see all over the world — long to realize that there’s some pretty difficult and horrible aspects to being a human being. In a way, it’s looking at that from angles. I often think of it as a kind of crystal with many facets. Each time I do a movie I’m looking at a different facet, in a different window. But I’m looking in the same crystal. That’s how it feels to me. Of course you come up with surprising things, but after a point it’s confirmation of what you’ve always suspected.
At this point in your career, do you consider your work to be part of the horror genre?
No. Body horror, although I seem to be credited with inventing it, I don’t actually know what it is. I’m actually quite on good terms with my own body and the bodies of people around me so I don’t find them particularly horrific. I do find them incredibly fascinating. For me it’s not horror — I’m like a junior scientist or biologist. I’m really intrigued by the complexity of the human body. It has been suggested, and by very serious scientists, that the human brain is the most complex object in the entire universe. I’ve always been fascinated by the human body and for me the first fact of human existence is the body. I don’t believe in an afterlife or anything like that. We are our bodies and therefore the body deserves a lot of respect and a lot of examination and a lot of discussion. That’s where it comes from. It really doesn’t have to do with horror at all. Even in the days when I was making films that you could legitimately call horror films and put them in the genre, like Scanners or Videodrome, I was also making movies like Dead Ringers or The Dead Zone, which you can’t really call horror films. I’ve never considered myself to be only a genre director. I think that genre is more like a marketing question than a creative question. Is Dead Ringers more horrific than Videodrome? I don’t know. It’s a matter of categorization and it’s not really a discussion that interests me.
You do often have uncomfortable scenes in your movies. Are those ever uncomfortable to shoot?
Never. It’s like you’re a craftsman. You’re trying to put that table together and get the legs right and make sure it doesn’t collapse. You’re working with a crew and you’re all professionals. Sometimes people say to me “How did you talk that actor into doing that?” and I say “I didn’t.” If you have to talk the actor into doing anything you’ve got the wrong actor. You’ve got to get actors who love what they’re doing, understand it and want to do it. As a director, I really am lazy in the sense that I’d rather not have to create the actor. I don’t even know if that’s possible. You cast somebody who really understands the role and you’ve done more than half your work. But we do have a lot of laughs. Every film set I’ve ever created, in the sense of assembling a team, has been full of humor. It’s a lot of fun, even the darkest set.
Do you plan to write more novels?
I am working on another one right now. I really enjoyed the process. I did think that I would have my first novel published about 50 years ago. I’m serious – I always thought I’d be a novelist. I never thought I’d be a filmmaker.
Is that true?
Yeah, my father was a writer and I always used to fall asleep to the sound of his typewriter typing away. I always felt that writing was accessible to me because of that. Whereas filmmaking was totally inaccessible in Toronto in the ’60s. It didn’t seem like even a possibility. I really felt that I got kidnapped by cinema and I only recently got released and I can now be a novelist.
So do you have a next film project yet?
I don’t. I have about seven producers who think that my novel, Consumed, would make a good movie or a good TV series. And I don’t know about that. We’ll see. I feel like I’ve done it by writing the book, but maybe I wouldn’t mind seeing another director have a go at it. That would be interesting.
When you consider all the work you’ve ever done, do you think there’s a thread that connects it?
Only my nervous system. That is the thread. I don’t really look at all my films. I don’t do that analysis. I know that a lot of people do it. There actually have been books written about my work and so on. But I don’t have to think about that. When I’m making a movie I treat it like it’s the first movie I ever made. I just don’t think about what came before. I know there will be connections because it’s still me, with the same nervous system, making the movie. But I’ll be older, I’ll be different, I’ll be at a different place in my life so I know there will also be differences. Those connections will take care of themselves. I don’t think about that. I’ll leave that to everyone else.
Emily Zemler is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has written for Esquire, ELLE, The Hollywood Reporter and Nylon, and is currently working on her first book. Tweet to her at @emilyzemler.