David Cronenberg On Pushing The Body To Its Limits In Crimes Of The Future, His First Film In 8 Years [Interview]

The body isn't just a vessel for the soul; it's a vessel for performance, for experimentation, for breathing life into something new. We are vehicles for evolution by default, and thus it stands to reason that some time in the future, we may bear witness to ourselves evolving in real time, becoming that something new. It's a mind-blowing concept, but David Cronenberg's latest film, "Crimes of the Future," dares to show us that reality in all its gory, painfully painless glory.

"Crimes of the Future" follows Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), a performance artist who isn't exactly in full control of his body living sometime in a dystopian future where pain has become nearly nonexistent for humans. The character — played with beautiful restraint by Mortensen — is known for producing new, unidentifiable organs, which his performance partner Caprice (the enigmatic and fierce Léa Seydoux) tattoos inside his body and then removes during their shows. Their perverse yet artistic profession attracts the attention of two bookish employees at the National Organ Registry, Whippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (a punchy and pitch-perfect Kristen Stewart), whose interest in Saul and Caprice's proclivities transition from clinical to near-erotic fascination. Meanwhile, a troubled father whose strange and unusual son is murdered by his mother searches for a way to join the performance fray by way of his dead child.

The bizarre and incisive film had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where I sat down with writer-director David Cronenberg himself to analyze why he wanted to bring a 20-year-old script into the world, how humans push their bodies to the limit, and the prevalent theme of voyeurism in his first film in eight years.

'There is a will in our nervous system to play with the body.'

What is fascinating to you about the ways humans are compelled to push their bodies to the limit? Because that's obviously a through-line in your filmography, and I feel like you really double down on that in this film, especially with the "body is reality" tagline.

We're used to athletes pushing their bodies for a very specific purpose: to excel at their particular art, sport. And so body transformation because of willpower and effort is not uncommon with human beings. It's always been. There have always been athletes who compete and stuff, but now I think, and, in fact, it turns out that surgery — including cosmetic surgery — has existed for thousands of years as well, before anesthetics, before antibiotics. So it's obvious that there is a will in our nervous system to play with the body, to play with what happens to the body, to play with the way you mature, grow up, the way you grow old. It's part of control. You can think of it in philosophical terms.

It's the desire to perhaps to feel that you are controlling death, that you are controlling the inevitability of death, but of course we do that whenever we're trying to cure someone of cancer or something else. So I think it's really, it's part of that. Everything we do as humans is complex, it's never simple, like medical. It's never simple; it's cultural, it's political, it's historical, phenomenological, philosophical, all of that. It's always mixed in and makes things either difficult or simple. But at base, it's always a complex operation, even when it's your body, but there can't be anything more intimate or more personal than messing with your body.

Voyeurism is a real theme in this film, as it relates especially to the way we're recording things everyday nowadays. What made you want to highlight that element within the story? It's really interesting to me, since you [wrote] this film a long time ago, when this was not necessarily the norm. We've grown into that.

Yes. As you can see now, people [walk] down a beautiful street and they're not looking at the street, they're looking at the phone, looking at the street. And they're going to record a memory and then they'll only really sort of experience the street later when they go over their photos and say, "Oh, I didn't notice that great tree." So is it, once again, an attempt to control. I mean, it gives you some control. It's replacing your own memory with a computer memory, but a computer memory that's relatively stable compared with human memory, which is always very creative. We don't have anything like a one to one memory where we accurately video something. It's always a creative act to remember something. And as you grow older, you realize how extreme that is. It really is. You have to ask your friends or your spouse or whoever, whether that really happened, or did I imagine, is it a real memory?

So I've always been interested in that. Of course, it's partly of the essence of being a filmmaker, but I was interested in that long ago. I got the first VHS camera that you could afford — there was a home camera — just because it seems so phenomenal to be able to do that. And now, of course, what phones do is extraordinary, but the desire to do that, I think, has always been there, even when people were carving memories in stone.

'It still took them three years because it's so difficult to [find] financing.'

Since "Maps to the Stars," you've been doing everything but making films, exploring different avenues of creativity. What made you feel like now was the time to unleash "Crimes" on the world?

I blame [producer] Robert Lantos. He really nudged me and harassed me about making another movie together. And it's true, we had great experiences together making movies and [we've] known each other a long, long time. As he said in the [Cannes] press conference, we're even neighbors. He lives just around the corner from me.

So it was him sort of saying, "Have you read your old screenplay? Maybe you should consider doing that." And I thought that was ridiculous because I said, "[It's] 20 years old, I literally have not read it in 15 years. And it must be irrelevant now because it was science fiction. It was positing certain things that would devolve in the future. And now we've gone [to] a different place," and blah, blah. Then he said, "No, no, it's more relevant than ever." I thought, "That's a pretty good line. So I'm going to buy that line and I'm going to reread the script." And I did. And I thought, "He's right. Not only that, it's actually a pretty good script also," just in terms of the dialogue and the complexity. And I said, "OK, well, if you can raise the budget to do this and we can get casting, then I would do it."

And it still took them three years because it's so difficult to [find] financing. Netflix was certainly a force even three years ago, and that has had a huge impact on filmmaking and budgets and everything else. And then there was a pandemic, which did the same. Basically, two different things that did the same thing. But he did put it together and we did get casting.

'I trust my actors and I cast them because I trust who they will be.'

I have to ask about Kristen Stewart's character because she was such a highlight in this film. How much of that quirky character that she has was you and how much was her? What was the process there between you two?

It was really all her. The dialogue is the dialogue, and certainly she was described as a mousy, timid, bureaucrat girl, hiding behind her desk, not wanting to offend anybody, being very solicitous. Gradually, you realize that she's actually quite ambitious, quite aggressive in a passive aggressive way — and, in fact, quite subversive as it turns out. Her character does evolve. But how to play that was all her. She just did it. I didn't really have to tell her how to do it. She immediately knew how to play this character. And for me, a very lazy director, this is a gift. Honestly, if actors know what they're doing, I don't mess with them. It's just a matter of tweaking and shaping and stuff. And the choreography of scenes, of course, we work that out together. But I trust my actors and I cast them because I trust who they will be if I haven't worked with them before.

I read that you feel like you make films to just be an artist, [to] express that impulse and connect with other human beings. That mantra really is prevalent in this film, that idea of connection, especially in a perverse way, which is your specialty. With that in mind, what do you hope that the audience takes away from the ending of this film?

I honestly don't have any hopes. I really don't. I'm happy to have them take away whatever they take away. I'm sometimes entertained by the strange interpretations people have of things, like the ending of a film. And I've already had a few of those with this film. I haven't had [a] huge number of responses. Some people say that he's committing suicide. Others are saying, no, he's realizing that he's adapted to this toxic bar and actually can safely digest it now, and his chair is telling him that and he's accepting that he's evolving and he's becoming the new Brecken basically. That would be my interpretation. I wouldn't have thought, "No, he knows he's going to die." But if somebody really loves that and it makes the movie work for them, that's okay. I don't mind.

That's sort of the beauty of filmmaking, I think. Right?

It's the beauty of art in general.

"Crimes of the Future" premiered as part of the Cannes Film Festival. It hits U.S. theaters June 3, 2022.