Interview: David Cronenberg on Cosmopolis

The director on how he came to convince Robert Pattinson to star in his latest film, a surreal adaptation of Don DeLillo's infamous satire on modern capitalism.

by | August 17, 2012 | Comments

Just when you thought David Cronenberg couldn’t surprise you, here comes Cosmopolis, a hallucinatory express ride into modern oblivion that’s unlike anything in the director’s already distinct body of work. Adapted from Don DeLillo’s 2003 novella, the movie follows the surreal odyssey of Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), a 28-year-old billionaire fund manager cocooned in his stretch limousine as it crawls through a nightmare landscape of New York City on the verge of financial and social apocalypse. Ostensibly en route to get a haircut — personal grooming being paramount as the world implodes — Packer soon finds himself in a spiral of self-destruction, as Cronenberg orchestrates a rhythmic trance in which money, information and technology acquire a meaninglessness and only derailed acts of sex and violence appear real.

Perhaps the most fascinating element to Cosmopolis is the performance of its star, Robert Pattinson. Having previously stepped sideways from his teen-idol status to mixed effect, Pattinson here throws himself fearlessly into Cronenberg’s world, delivering an unforgettable, almost alien-like portrait of a young man disconnected from reality and willfully engineering his own spectacular demise.

We had a chance to speak with Cronenberg earlier this week, during which he shared his thoughts about the film and how he came to cast Pattinson in particular.

Congratulations on Cosmopolis, David. It is a wonderfully strange film, even by your standards — and I mean that in the most complimentary way.

David Cronenberg: [Laughs] Thanks.

I’m sure you’re quite weary of answering this question, but we do need to get it out of the way…

Cronenberg: Sure.

Robert Pattinson. There were plenty of people who were a little surprised when you picked him for the role, but I have to say he gives a really sublime performance. You knew what you were doing, clearly — so what was it that drew you to Robert?

Cronenberg: Well, casting always starts in a very pragmatic way. It’s, “Is this guy the right age for the character?” “Does he have the right sort of physique, the right screen presence?” “Is he available, and if so, can you afford him? Does he want to do it?” You know, all of those things. But then you do your homework as a director, more specifically, and you watch stuff. I watched Little Ashes, in which Rob plays a young Salvador Dali; I watched Remember Me; I watched the first Twilight movie. And I watched — interestingly enough, I suppose, because people wouldn’t expect it — but you watch interviews with the guy on YouTube, you know. I want to get an idea of his sense of humor, his sense of himself, the way he handles himself, his intelligence — all of those things you can’t really tell from watching an actor play a role in a movie. I suppose in the old days you meet the guy and hang out, and go to a bar or whatever — [laughs] — but these days nobody has time for that, or the money, and so you do it some other way. And once I’d done all that stuff, I thought, This is the guy I want. I thought, He’d be terrific and I actually think he’s a very underrated actor — and it would be my pleasure to prove that by casting him.

I think a lot of people will share that opinion after seeing the film. Was he difficult to get? I mean, he’s clearly up for it, based on his performance, but how do you go about getting Robert Pattinson?

Cronenberg: Basically, I wrote the script before I went into production on A Dangerous Method, so Rob got the script about a year before we were really shooting. He’s a very down to earth guy, and he was surprised that anybody would want him. [Laughs] It sounds odd, I know. Of course, he knows that his name adds value because of his star power, but he knew my movies, and he knew I was a serious director, and I think he was nervous, you know — I think he was afraid, because he knew it was good. He immediately loved the script, especially because he thought it was very funny — and the movie is funny; a lot of people maybe don’t see that the first time around — and the script was funny as well. But also he had seen enough of the now conventional stuff that he gets offered to see how different this was, and how it stood out — and the quality of Don’s writing, because the dialogue is really 100 per cent from the novel.

So I really had to convince him that I knew he was the right guy and that he could do it. And you’d be very surprised that a lot of actors, and very experienced ones, too — not just young ones — they worry that they don’t want to wreck your movie. They don’t want to be the bad thing in your movie that brings it down. They need to be convinced that they’re good enough, especially if they know it’s good. He said — and I know this ’cause of interviews that we’ve done together, and I hear him saying these things — that usually the dialogue is so bad that you, the actor, figure that you are responsible for trying to make it interesting, just by the way you spin it. But in this case the dialogue was great, and it’s a completely reversed worry: “Am I good enough to get the best out of this?” So it took me about 10 days, and Rob said he was afraid to call me back because he’s used to bullshitting directors, like all actors do — but because I’d written the script he couldn’t do that with me. [Laughs] You know, actors can really tie themselves in knots, when really he just should’ve said, “Yes, I’ll do it.”

Was there a point during shooting where he realized, “Hey, I am good enough for this,” or did you have to encourage him constantly?

Cronenberg: No, it’s not like he’s so insecure or anything like that. I never saw any of that on the set. I know he was constantly checking himself out and wondering if it was good, but I didn’t feel that he needed an inordinate amount of that kind of encouragement, really. We just did it. He could tell. The best way for an actor to tell, ultimately, is that it wasn’t long before we were just doing one or two takes of everything — and that means the actor knows it’s working.

Well it appears that you’ve started something of a trend now David, because Werner Herzog has just cast him in his next film.

Cronenberg: Well that pleases me no end, and I think that obviously this is what Rob needs. They just need to see that he’s really, really good and really, really subtle; and that he can do a lot of different stuff. Once you break through that barrier then I think there’ll be no turning back.

Speaking of the dialogue in the film, this is the first screenplay that you’ve written yourself since eXistenZ [1999]. What was it that made you want to write this one? Was it that you felt an affinity with DeLillo’s writing?

Cronenberg: I actually didn’t think that I was writing the screenplay. What I was doing was, I thought: This dialogue is fantastic. I wonder what it’s like when it’s extracted from the other stuff in the novel, which is very literary and is sort of internal monologues and philosophical meditations inside Eric’s head, stuff that you knew would not be on screen in a movie, because it’s literary and it cannot be directly translated. So I thought, Let me just transcribe this dialogue, word for word, as it is, in sequence, and put it into a screenplay format with characters’ names and so on — and then I’ll read it and see if it feels like a movie to me. And by the end of it — and it was only six days later — I read it, I had it done, and I said, “Yeah, actually, not only is it a movie, it’s a good movie that I really want to do — and here’s the screenplay.” Much to my surprise. So it was six days to write the screenplay, which I give all that credit to Don DeLillo, not to me. Every time you write a screenplay it’s different. I’d never done that before.

So you were channeling DeLillo, so to speak?

Cronenberg: Sure, yes. Well it wasn’t exactly channeling because it was a very direct relationship with the specifics of the book. Unlike Naked Lunch [1991], where I was sort of channeling Burroughs because what I was writing wasn’t exactly Naked Lunch the novel but Naked Lunch: The Story of William Burroughs Writing the Novel, you know. That was different. That felt more like channeling. And I was inventing a lot dialogue for the movie Naked Lunch, although it feels very Burroughsian, because of the channeling. Here, it was not like that. This was very direct.

There’s been a lot commentary on how heavy the dialogue is in the movie, but what I found fascinating is that the dialogue becomes this kind of noise, and very cinematic in a way. Were you concerned about the amount of dialogue when you were making the film?

Cronenberg: Well for me this was a hardcore art film — there were to be no compromises. [Laughs] I really wanted Don’s dialogue to be on screen, even when it’s kind of meditative, philosophical monologue. There was no question, ever, in my mind that I would compromise that to make it “more accessible,” because I thought that would just destroy the reason for doing the movie in the first place. But I agree with you completely, and I think that’s very well-observed — at a certain point the audience shouldn’t worry about catching every word and understanding every twist and turn, because at a certain point that’s pretty much impossible. I think if you see the movie a couple of time it does all make sense, and it’s all actually really interesting, the meditations on the future of capitalism and how that all reflects back on to the present, and so on, and the future of money — quotes like, “Money has lost its narrative value,” things like that, which are hard to absorb on the fly. But if the audience lets that stuff wash over them, you know — almost like music, rather than dialogue — and doesn’t fight it, then I think they’ll have a much easier time rather than being sort of frustrated and confused otherwise. But if you get in the right state of mind it really does work quite well, I think.

Yeah, I completely agree. I look forward to seeing it again, but the first time I felt like I was being whipped into a kind of blank frenzy. I loved how the Samantha Morton character would give all this exposition and then issue the line, I think it was, “But I do not understand it.” That was very funny.

Cronenberg: [Laughs] Yes.

What’s also interesting in the film is that everybody seems to be talking at each other, yet never connecting on any level.

Cronenberg: Yes. That’s correct. And that’s in the nature of what Don was doing. None of these people really relate on a normal human level. They’ve sort of created a weird abstraction, a bubble, a vacuum, and that’s sort of represented by the limo — it’s a strange, disconnected space. It has every sort of luxury and amenity and technological gadget and it’s really disconnected from the sight and the sound of the city that it’s traveling through, and that represents the way that they construct their lives. It’s sort of interesting that one of the investors in this movie is a genuine French billionaire who deals with billions of dollars or trading and so on; he really wanted to be connected with this movie because he said it was absolutely accurate — he deals all the time with people who are exactly like Eric Packer. They live in a bubble, a strange virtual reality that they’ve created, and they really don’t know how to relate to people on a normal level, you know. [Laughs] So here you have a guy who doesn’t really know how to talk to his wife when they’re having dinner. He says, “So this is how people talk to their wives, isn’t it?’ That kind of thing. And a guy who deals with billions of dollars worth of trading but never actually touches real money, and barely knows how people actually spend real money out on the street. And so of course the dialogue does reflect that.

He only seems to connect with people on a very primal, and often violent, level — be it sex, murder… or getting a haircut. That seems to be the only way in which he can cut through all the other stuff. Is that him devolving, his desire for self-destruction?

Cronenberg: Yeah, well I think that during the course of this day… and he does say, at the end, to the Paul Giamatti character [Benno Levin], “I think my life has changed during the course of this day” — and it really has. He’s going to get a haircut, but he’s really also going to get a haircut from the barber who first cut his hair when he was a little kid, and used to cut his father’s hair, and I think the suggestion is that he is trying to deconstruct his present life so that he can go back to his origins and perhaps reassemble it in a different way. But that doesn’t quite work. It doesn’t quite gel. I think when he’s sitting in the barber’s chair, certainly at the beginning, he is like a child. That’s the lovely thing about Rob’s performance, you really see the vulnerability; underneath it all there’s this kind of childlike sweetness there for a moment or two. It’s a very beautifully layered performance. But that’s not working — and the current Eric Packer takes over. He has to do extreme things to be able to feel anything and to be able to feel excitement and to feel alive. So that’s what leads him to the end scene with Paul Giamatti.

There’s a really magic shot in the film — perhaps my favorite moment in his performance, also — when he’s stumbling down the alley with the gun, and he’s looking for Paul Giamatti, and there’s this particular look that comes over his face in that one moment and you can see his derangement. It was really wonderfully played.

Cronenberg: Yeah, it was beautiful. It was the only take that Rob did exactly that on, and I thought, Well that’s the take. It was unexpected. I mean, Rob was constantly surprising me, I have to tell you, with things like that. Lovely, lovely things that were spontaneous but dead-on.

[Warning: Spoilers.]

I know you shy away from analyzing your body of work as a whole, but one thing I did notice was that the end of the film seemed to be a very eerie echo of that final shot in Videodrome [1983].

Cronenberg: Yes.

Was that something conscious, or did it just seep through? It seemed like the Paul Giamatti character was almost like Robert Pattinson’s equivalent of the “gun hand” that James Woods has in Videodrome.

Cronenberg: Yeah, I was aware of it. And yet, the difference in Videodrome is that you hear the shot. [Laughs] There’s no question who could have done that. With Cosmopolis it was different in that I really loved the idea that they were sort of frozen together in this eternal moment of suspended animation, where you don’t really know quite what’s gonna happen. Obviously in the book, from Benno’s journal, you know that Eric is dead — at least if you believe Benno, and maybe he is too unreliable a narrator to believe. But in the book you certainly get the feeling that Eric dies at the end. In a way, I couldn’t bear to do that. [Laughs] And I like that sort of suspended moment. So that is the opposite, in a way, of Videodrome, and yet the structure of it is the same — and I was aware of it. I wasn’t trying to replicate it, though it happened really very naturally, and really pretty much as it’s described in the book, I have to say.

You’ve found a new kind of ambiguity there, I guess.

Cronenberg: I know, and for students of Cronenbergalia — [laughs] — it is an interesting thing to notice.

[Laughs] I’m sure many pages will be written about it.

Cronenberg: [Laughs] Thank you.

Cosmopolis opens in select theaters this week.

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