Now the Canadian director has adapted and filmed Patrick McGrath’s disturbing novel Spider, about a schizophrenic young man, Dennis Spider Cleg (played by Ralph Fiennes), and his distorted and painful memories of a traumatic childhood at the hands of his parents (Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson).
"For me, deciding what film to make is a very intuitive process," said Cronenberg. "There’s no rule book or list of things that make it a project I want to do. It’s subliminal and an accumulative process rather than a specific decision."
It’s also a process that, by its very nature, usually keeps the director firmly in the world of indie financing and filmmaking. "I have worked for the big Hollywood studio on occasion," he noted. " The Dead Zone was released by Paramount and I did The Fly for Twentieth Century Fox, but more often than not I’m struggling to find financing for a pet project I want to make. In the case of Spider, producer Catherine Bailey, who had developed the project for several years before I came on board, made a deal with Sony Pictures Classics to release it."
"People do send me scripts, but usually none of them interest me," he added. "Something has to spark my imagination or interest, even if it’s not immediate. For instance, when I first read Crash years and years ago I found it a very difficult read and I never ever thought of making it into a film, although someone had suggested it and that thought was planted. With Spider, it was a mix of the script and Ralph who was already attached, and as soon as I began to read it I just identified with Spider, in every way."
That sense of identification was "the key" to making a film out of Spider, stressed Cronenberg. "For me, it’s basically about the fragility of identity. The slightest turn of fortune can wreck anyone’s life and you’d end up on the street, mumbling to yourself. Then I also realized, but not until I’d finished making the film, which goes back to the instinct thing, that Spider is in a way the nightmare archetype of an artist. He’s a guy who writes with great passion and inspiration, but in a language that no one can understand. So I guess I was drawn to him as this crypto-artist figure as well."
With a story set in the East End of London, the Toronto – based director decided to shoot in London, "but only for three weeks. We then moved to Toronto and shot the rest over a five week period in a studio," he reported. "The whole look of the film was very carefully worked out with production designer Andrew Sanders."
Cronenberg and Sanders scouted locations and then began designing the Toronto interiors "that look like they belong to the exteriors," he explained. "Then you get into the wallpaper and the palette of browns and yellows and ochres, and all that was very important to me. I wanted that damp, peeling, English-period wallpaper that we all know and love." The director even had wallpaper sent from England to Toronto for the interior sets.
Working with longtime DP Peter Suschitzky, who has shot six of Cronenberg’s films, including Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch, the director decided to use a low contrast Fuji film stock. "That’s something we’d never done before, as we’re usually looking for more contrast," he noted. "But here, we both intuitively felt that with Spider’s confusion about light and dark, and memories and imaginings, a very low-contrast, diffuse look was right for the character and story."
In order to maximize his small budget, Cronenberg as usual placed special emphasis on pre-production and planning. "I do my editing first on the script so I have as much time on the set as possible to work on scenes that are going to be in the film," he explained. "That means you have to know how to work a budget and schedule, and how many pages a day you want to shoot."
The actual shooting set-ups on the streets of London underwent a lot of changes as the team began to work. "We began by having a lot of extras in costume and period cars, but whenever we put them out there I felt it was completely wrong, and so did Peter," admitted Cronenberg. "We felt it looked real, but wrong for the story, and we ended up just taking everything away until it was just Spider and the empty streets. And so it gradually became apparent that we were making an expressionistic film. Spider alone on the street is not documentary reality, but it is the reality of his isolation and loneliness. And once we’d realized that, we wanted to keep it very minimalist, so the streets of London you see in the film are not realistic at all. It’s a very subjective point of view."
As the film’s visual look and style cohered, so did the team’s technical approach. "It naturally lent itself to shooting everything with very wide lenses, even the extreme close ups of Spider," noted Cronenberg. "Of course you could make a case that, if you really want to show the character’s isolation, then just use long lenses where everything is out of focus except him. But I felt strongly that Spider actually really fuses with his background and surroundings, and everything is in sharp focus, which means there’s also a lot of confusion going on. And that approach works very well with low contrast film stock. It’s almost as if Spider is the wallpaper- he’s part of it."
Unlike many of his peers, the director never uses storyboards. "The way I work is very hands-on and tactile, almost sculptural," he explained. "I need everyone there. I can’t understand how you can storyboard a dialogue scene without the real actors or real room or location. I have to be physically there with them and work it out because the details mean so much. I’m not interested in improvisation of dialogue but the actors are always very involved. I work in completely the opposite way to the mythological Hitchcockian model where you work it all out first and then manipulate everyone, including actors and audience, to get exactly the response you’d planned- not that I believe he really worked that way. For me filmmaking is an exploration for everyone involved."
And part of that exploration involves surprise. "I’d never seen Ralph walk down the street as Spider," he recalled. "And the first shot we did in the whole movie was this long crane shot of him coming down the street, and seeing him walk was a real revelation for me."
The Process of Discovery
Spider was edited by another longtime collaborator, Ron Sanders. "We began using Avid for the first time on Crash, and I’d never go back now," Cronenberg noted. "After so many films we have this great shorthand, and basically he edits as we shoot. I’ll suggest how I feel a scene should go, but I don’t restrict him at all, and I don’t like to see what he’s edited while I’m shooting unless there’s a problem. I want to be surprised. Then at the end, we look at his assembly, and then I’m there every day."
"I never have a vision of exactly how the film I want to make will turn out, so it’s always that process of discovery for me too," added Cronenberg. "And I wouldn’t want to have it any other way. Fellini used to say, when asked if his films turned out the way he’d imagined them,Ã¢Â€Â˜Why would I want to know ahead of time? It’d be so boring then.’ And that’s exactly how I feel. It’s an adventure."
The director is well aware that most audiences will find Spider very disturbing. "But disturbing people has always been a major function of any artistic expression," he summed up. "To me, the central fact of human existence is the human body, and much of what we do is a flight from that fact, because it also includes death and a finite consciousness- things that are very difficult to accept. I think most art and technology, religion, civilization and society are all attempts to evade and transcend or transform that basic fact."
"I never have a vision of exactly how the film I want to make will turn out, so it’s always that process of discovery for me too."