Walter, the character played by David Cronenberg in Albert Shin’s new horror-thriller Disappearance at Clifton Hill, gets an introduction befitting the film-maker’s legendary stature. He emerges from a small-town river where he’s been trawling for sunken treasures in scuba gear, lumbering out of the water like a less intimidating cousin of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. As a local-lore podcaster and avid conspiracy theorist, Walter feels perfectly comfortable with such an air of the weird about him, and audiences familiar with Cronenberg’s extensive work in the stranger corners of cult cinema probably presume that he does, too. But in the moment, as per usual, he was just thinking about his body.
“You’re carrying a 50-pound tank on your back, and you need to be in shape just to stand there and deliver your dialogue, take after take,” Cronenberg tells the Hlcarpenter.com over the phone from his home in Canada. “This isn’t something an audience might consider, but for the actor, that’s the main challenge.”
He learned to scuba dive back in 1983, for a sequence in his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone which required him to direct star Christopher Walken under the waves. He remembers that, like just about everything else, it wasn’t so physically arduous back then.
While the Cronenberg oeuvre has evolved from B-movie cheapies par excellence (Rabid, The Brood, Scanners) to dense, reality-stretching literary adaptations (Crash, Cosmopolis, Naked Lunch), the frailty of the human form has been the uniting constant. Hitchcock made suspense pictures, Nancy Meyers made romcoms and Cronenberg made disquieting examinations of the many ways in which our own flesh can turn on us. A career’s worth of mutations, distensions and unnatural orifices have left the polymath writer-director-novelist-actor with a lifelong preoccupation. Even when he’s doing for-hire work on the other side of the camera, he’s always thinking in terms like this.
Cronenberg enjoys acting, particularly when it allows him to support a fellow Canadian doing work the whole country can be proud of. He jumps at the occasional chance to let go of the reins and fit himself into someone else’s process. “It helped that they wanted me, that’s an important thing,” he deadpans. “As I say, my main attraction as an actor is that I’m cheap and available.” All the while, his worldview is still filtered through a creative vision so fully formed and singular that it can only be described as Cronenbergian.
As Walter, he was required to record a goodly amount of podcast-quality audio, filling his ears with the oft-unnerving sound of his own voice. Naturally, this provided a jumping-off point to a casually profound inquest on the nature of being: “You get used to your voice. You might never like it, though. I can hear right now, talking on the phone, that I’ve got some phlegm caught in my throat, so my voice doesn’t sound like it’s at its best. That’s a concern with actors, awareness of yourself. Some don’t want to see themselves, which sounds strange, and there are others who closely analyze their performances on screen.
“I’m interested in seeing myself, even if my posture’s poor or something like that. I thought a lot about one shot in Clifton Hill where I should’ve been standing up straighter. Mother should’ve been there to tell me to stop slouching.”
Though there’s no off switch on his philosophy of the corpus, Cronenberg has downshifted his personal output in recent years. He hasn’t completed a feature since 2014’s Maps to the Stars, and Netflix passed on scripts for two episodes of a proposed miniseries. He’s now shopping those around, while waiting on a possible adaptation of his novel Consumed and a “very personal” movie script he’s been fine-tuning. “Whichever one happens first, I’ll do,” he says. “No matter whether you’re in Canada or not, with independent film” – he pauses for a dry, hacking cough – “it’s difficult to get anything made. The more unusual a film is, the more resistance you’ll face.
“It’s been a long, difficult process,” he continues, “even in the era of streaming or whatever. You’re accumulating possible investors, people lose interest, more investors. You talk to maybe Canal+ or a broadcaster, and you wait, and you hope.”
Hope is one thing he doesn’t seem be especially short on, however. For all the existential despair of his oeuvre, he’s got a surprisingly sunny outlook on the future, both for himself and at large. Though he’s not too fond of the “completely asexual” superhero movies coming from the American mainstream, he believes the boundary-pushing strain of eroticism he once called his own is alive and well in modern releases like Julia Ducournau’s Raw and April Mullen’s Below Her Mouth. “To me, movies are sex,” he muses. “Movies were made for sex, there’s no question about it.”
He names Mullen alongside the “terrific” Québécois lightning rod Xavier Dolan and the box-office conqueror Denis Villeneuve as worthy stewards of Canada’s national cinema. That being said, Villeneuve’s ascent to the global stage gives him pause. “You see a uniquely Québécois film-maker coming out with really quite lovely and singular films, and then immediately getting absorbed by Hollywood,” Cronenberg says. “I wonder if that’ll be a marker for the future. You wonder if they’ll go back and make a distinctly Québécois film again.”
He’s happy to see the torch passed to the next generation in part because their ranks include his son, Brandon. He’s now completed his second feature after eight years of behind-the-scenes development struggles all too familiar to his father. (By dad’s metric, a film this long in the making would have to be highly unusual.) Cronenberg the elder counts himself as a fan of his upcoming sci-fi horror Possessor, his total lack of competition just another facet of his apparent inner peace. “We’re very close, Brandon and I, we exchange all kind of notes all the time. If he’s thinking about an actor who I’ve worked with, we’ll discuss that. I read his scripts as soon as he’s willing to let someone read them … I’m always happy to see his first cut. It’s all congenial.”
A certain anxiety seems integral to the Cronenberg gestalt and its key themes; inevitable deterioration of the body, the invasive influence of technology, how these both prevent or enable connection to the people around us. One would assume that he’d approach the all-natural body horror of his own ageing process with howling terror, but it’s on that front that he’s perhaps the most circumspect and calm of all.
“Do I think about my body?” he asks. “All the time. Given that I’m 76, I’m not in too-bad shape. My weight’s never been better. I’ve been working out consistently for the last couple of years, and I’ve learned that in fact you can gain muscle when you’re older. I’m quite happy with my body these days, despite the fact that it’s getting more wrinkly. I am constantly body-conscious, that’s the thing you photograph most as a film-maker, human figures. It’s just that that consciousness sits well with me.”
There are the veteran directors who work and work and work, their talents declining until the industry gives them the boot. There are the directors who obsessively maintain their standard of excellence, who would rather die than stop making movies, and push themselves to the verge just to do so. Cronenberg has found a more agreeable third path into his future, one that allows him to take it easier on himself without lapsing into full retirement. He might make another movie, he might not, and he’s fine with either outcome. He’s unintimidated by the prospect of the next decade; the man with a trademark on the unholy cybernetic fusion of organs with machinery recently had a wonderful time using Google Glass to capture the Grand Prix in Monaco. “You just keep shooting, you never have to stop!”
It’s generally depressing to see a master soften as they get long in the tooth, but with Cronenberg, there’s something comforting about that particular affect. If someone as steeped in panic and unease can attain holistic wellness like this, what’s stopping the rest of us? It’s all so very Canadian – the imminence of death is no reason to get a negative attitude.
“I’m feeling discouragement now in that I’m just too old,” he says without the expected sigh. “But it’s actually a nice place to be. As I said in Venice when we were showing the restoration of Crash, if I never make another movie, that’s perfectly OK. People were upset by that, but it’s true. If one of these projects gets greenlit, I’ll become obsessed again, throw myself into it completely as I always have. But I don’t feel the desperation to create that I used to when I was a young man trying to make a name for myself. I wanted to get all my ideas on screen, and now, I have. I don’t know if this is a Buddhist or Zen way of thinking. All I know is that it’s a nice place to be.”
Disappearance at Clifton Hill is released in the US on 28 February and in the UK later this year
The director Albert Shin was originally mistakenly referred to as Aaron Shin. This was amended on 27 February